Sunday, February 28, 2010

One day from start to finish

Life in Palestine is best described on a daily basis. Here is my Wednesday February 24, 2010:
The sun was warm and strong as it woke me from my couch pillow bed on the floor of the Al-Kurd tent. Normally, the children from the house next door are up and about, screaming and playing beginning around 7am but today I either slept through it or they were inside sick. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, found my shoes (hidden from the settlers under a couch in the tent), checked my watch and walked out into the Al-Kurd/Settler shared walkway. Trip and Bridget were already circled around the remaining warmth of the fire on the sidewalk Gawi camp. Nasser was off to the side chatting with another neighborhood guy. It was almost 11am and the previous night I had made plans for Trip and I to smoke hookah and drink tea with my friend, Hiba, who lives in Sheikh Jarrah.
I gathered my toothbrush, change of clothe, cell phone chargers and Trip for our morning tea party. We walked down the block, past the ever-present police vehicle, took a left at the home that was recently defaced with a tag translating to “Death to Arabs,” continued up the hill, turned right at the now settler-occupied Hanoun house and made our way to Hiba’s home.
Hiba was just getting her morning started so we waited on the deck, picking lemons from the tree, carving off the sweet smelling peel, and dipping the sour flesh into a bowl of sugar. When Hiba emerged from her home, she surprised us by presenting us with chocolate cake with sprinkles! “College! Cake for breakfast!!!” Trip and I laughed aloud in tandem. This was the running joke at the Lorax, where we often had housemates working at local sweet shops and would frequently wake up to day-old delights. Hiba had saved us some cake from last night’s dinner and we were oh-so-happy. We ate cake, sipped tea and smoked hookah. Either the shesha is stronger here or I am so out of practice because while Trip was off practicing smoke rings, I was getting super light headed.
We were soon joined by Hiba’s aunt who fed us nuts and seeds. I impressed everyone (or at least myself) with my ability to crack sunflower and watermelon seeds open with my front teeth, Palestinian style. She told us about her life as a teacher in Ramallah and then about her fear of receiving “the papers.”
In Shiekh Jarrah, “the papers” is an ominous reference to an eviction notice. Unless court battle outcomes change, or international law is adhered to, “the papers” mean imminent loss. I learn that a few weeks ago two more homes in Sheikh Jarrah received “the papers.” A sad silence fell over us all that went unbroken for some minutes.
When the shesha was spent, we went inside to charge our electronics and freshen up a bit. The previous day, Hiba had given me a bag full of her old clothe (the woman in Sheikh Jarrah seem to disapprove of my traveler free-pile-style). So now I am wearing super tight light washed jeans, a blue stripped linen shirt and a pink cartagin with a hood. Later in the evening, Ayman, the 19 year old oldest son in the Gawi family would walk up to me and say “You look beautiful….what’s wrong with you?” hahaha
After the relaxing morning, Hiba and I set off for the market to buy food for the weekly Wednesday night dinner I started back in January. This week, we are making kosahart or summer squash. We buy the squash from one of the old woman who sell produce on the sidewalks. I’ve always wanted to buy from them but have never really needed anything that they sell; squash, grape leaves, zatar spice, leafy greens. Hiba negotiated a good price for the squash, 8 shekels for 2 kilos. We also bought the seasonal delicacy, green almonds, for 5 shekels.
For the past month, almond trees across Palestine have been in full bloom. Filled with small white blossoms, the trees speckle the terraced Palestinian country side and beautifully contrast with the grey-green olive trees. Until now, I have only heard of green almonds and was always a little bewildered by the idea. The whole thing is green, the outer shell and inner baby almond. They have a texture that is not quite as strong as a carrot. The flavor is accentuated by copious amounts of salt and is fresh, slightly bitter and crisp.
We arrive back in Sheikh Jarrah to meet the municipality as they attempt to destroy the Gawi sidewalk camp. They manage to grab a table (I am sad because now we need to find a new table for the dinner that evening) but we act quickly enough to move most of the plastic chairs and benches into a neighbor’s yard.
After the municipality leaves, we are disturbed by the settlers occupying the Gawi home. They have caught on to the idea of having cameras on hand and were standing across the street filming us. Nasser sets the tone by standing up, placing one foot onto the plastic chair, bending forward with his hand under his chin and smiling for the camera. Next, he turns around, lifts up his long jacket and gives them a nice butt shot. The children are rolling on the ground with laughter and Hiba and I decide to join in. We do a few Madonna poses and set up a catwalk. I end my catwalk with a handstand that I was able to hold for what I think is an impressive amount of time.
By this point, the settlers have gotten the point that, in their attempt to mock us, we have turned the tables. They leave but the fun continues. I put a mattress on the ground and show the kids how to do headstands, backbends and other fun flips. Soon, roller blade and bikes are produced. This scene is sadly missing hula hoops because the previous day they were confiscated by the municipality, AGAIN!
Around 4pm we go back to Hiba’s house to cook kosahart. I chopped, she directed. In a few hours we had a delicious squash, tomato and rice dish to serve. I am not one to brag, but I am becoming quite a good Palestinian wife…at least in the kitchen. Hiba also makes popcorn on the stove-my favorite food in the world.
At 6pm we bring the food down to the Gawi camp. By 6:15 everything is ready to eat, including super super delicious malfoof, a rice stuffed steamed cabbage roll made by Nasser’s wife. I am really excited about the malfoof because it takes for-fucking-ever to roll and stuff each one so it is a special occasion food for sure. I’m glad that she thinks of these dinners as special occasions. It makes me feel like we are doing good things here. In about 20 minutes the crowd of neighbors and internationals have finished all the food. In 20 more minutes, the Israelis show up with their dishes.
The atmosphere is really wonderful. We meet Israeli activists working for Sheikh Jarrah, a doctor from the UK that just got back from a weeklong intensive training session in Gaza, internationals who have come to just check things out and more neighbors who are slowing being drawn out of their homes by the community activities.
When dinner ends, Maisoon, Nasser’s wife, schools us all in jump rope. Adam, their second youngest son, who I recognize as the canary for stress levels at Sheikh Jarrah, is jumping up and down screaming with laughter.
In a few confusing moments later, everything has changed. Adam isn’t laughing. He is crying. A line of 20 settlers, teenage boys and young men, file into the occupied Al-Kurd house. They are preparing for Purim, a big, multiday religious holiday that involves a lot of alcohol consumption. Their egos are high and after a great community dinner, so are those of the neighborhood residents.
Insult slinging rapidly escalates into yelling matches, which escalates into something more physical. Roughly 30 settlers, 30 Palestinians and 60 military and police descend into the 40x40 foot front yard of the Al-Kurds. What happened for the next few hours can only be describe as a riot. A full on riot.
Media, internationals, Israeli activists join the crowd to document and deescalate. Neighborhood kids find empty containers and sticks and drum out what seems like war beats. Chaos can be found in every corner.
Each child in the Gawi family is reacting differently. 19 month old Sara is silently watching everything from her mother’s arms. 4 year old Adam is screaming with tears running down his cheeks. 6 year old Abudullah is drumming. 10 year old Muhammad is wandering around and 19 year old Ayman has so much rage in his eyes that he must get out of Sheikh Jarrah as soon as possible to avoid what could easily be a very bad situation.
I’m taking video and photos of the events. I take a short break to explain what is happening to a Swedish couple who came by to learn more about the situation (nice timing, eh?) and again later to a few Israelis who are on their way home from the gym and saw the police vehicles clogging the streets. I ask the gym-goers if live in Jerusalem. They tell me yes. I ask if they have ever heard of Sheikh Jarrah. They tell me no. I start from the beginning, repeatedly encouraging them to read more about it online. I am unable to finish my discussion because police interrupt us and tell us to disperse.
The other thing distracting me throughout the events is this idea that something must be done for the kids. After this thought nags me for a few minutes, I rush to the corner market and fill a bag with candy bars and juice boxes. When I get back to the Al-Kurd lawn everything is more or less the same. Fight here-fight there-people rushing from one to the other. I seek out the children in the mess of it all and pass them the treats. The first girl I see is peeking over the 2 meter tall wall that divides her home from the Al-Kurds. She seems confused by the offer, but after a few words in Arabic, accepts the candy. Next, I find Adam. He is still crying. I make eye contact with him and hold out a candy bar and juice box. He continues to cry. I place it in the kangaroo pouch of his sweater.
The riot more or less ends when police spray pepper spray into the face of a Palestinian mother holding her one year old girl. Neighbors produce bags of milk (yep-milk in bags, not cartons here) to counteract the sting. We are all coughing. I see the police chief and yell at him “who sprayed pepper spray? why did you spray her???” He flips me off and tells me he doesn’t speak English…in perfect English.
After the riots stop, the Israeli activists gather in a semi-circle around the entrance to the Al-Kurd house and lead pro-Palestinian, pro-Sheikh Jarrah chants. This lifts everyone’s spirits and calms the mood significantly. I make up my own words based on the Hebrew that I hear: Sheikh Jarrah la ki lu-la la leeta sha she shuuuu!!!
After this, I make my way over to the fire where we have been instructed by the police to go if we do not want to be arrested. I take a seat next to Abdullah who was hit in the knee by a settler and now has a bandage going from his mid-calf to mid-thigh. I offer him a juice box and candy bar. He accepts but shows me with a frustrated and exhausted look that he can’t open either because his knuckles have also been bandaged, preventing him from bending his hand. I open the juice and candy and pass it back to him. Soon, his brother Adam emerges and pulls out his candy and juice from where I stashed it earlier in his kangaroo pouch. They sit together, sad, exhausted, hurt. Sipping juice and munching on treats. Maisoon, their mother walks up and asked where they got the snacks. In unison, they look up at me. She and I make eye contact and she gives me a sly wink and a grateful smile. By 11pm, Adam and Abdullah are asleep in the plastic chairs by the fire. A neighbor drives up shortly after and we load them into the car so they can go back to their rented home.
By 1am all is calm in Sheikh Jarrah. The solitary police vehicle is in its spot, the moon is bright, the shebab are smoking cigarettes around the fire and absolutely no sign of the evening’s chaos remains.
This is Palestine.

1 comment:

  1. Terrifying.

    Good work with the food both in the dinners and in the treats for the little ones. Food is such a good unite-r of people.