Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Who Do I Represent? What Does That Mean?? Don't I At Least Get To Choose!?

A little more than two weeks ago. Jericho. The cool, below-sea-level city at the east side of the West Bank -- the Muslim majority town with a large refugee population -- where Palestinians go on vacation because it's quiet there and it can be challenging/impossible to get the permits or money to go anywhere else.

Ancient city of barely post-glacial-period hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic agricultural settlements, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Arab Caliphates, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, modern Israelis, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Jesus, and one thus-far uncorroborated but still provocative anecdote about trumpets and falling walls.


Me and the other volunteers had just come back from a cable car trip up to the mountain where tradition says Jesus was tempted by the devil (but which is now topped by an Israeli listening post). Thus we'd just come back down the mountain, and were working our way toward the exit and the parking lot, planning to move on next to Hisham's Palace, which was some sort of mansion for Islamic higher-ups in the Umayyad Dynasty in the 700s A.D.

Unfortunately, those dastardly cable car operators had made the clever strategic decision of rerouting the only way out of the building through the gift shop.

Forewarned and forearmed, we readied ourselves to dash for the exit. No overpriced souvenirs or gaudy but reasonably high-quality jewelry for us -- or so we whispered to ourselves, urging our willpowers to stay strong.


The adrenaline wasn't really actively pumping through me yet, but my nervous system had been formally notified and was already circulating some pretty fierce intra-office memos. It was on alert, you might say -- just for the thrill of dashing through a tourist trap.


All of a sudden, I am on the defensive. I stop mid-dash to field a question. My interest in people forwards some angry notes and overpowers the previous order to "rush through the inconveniently-placed souvenir shop like a bull desperately trying to avoid buying any china."

"Me? I'm from America." (I can introduce myself in Arabic like a rock star.) I stay on alert to resume the dash the second he tries to sell me something.

"But where in America?" (A common enough question, but not common enough for me to change my stock answer to the "Where are you from?" question.) I can't tell if the man works there or if he just happens to be chilling in the watches section to stay out of the hot Jericho sun.

"The state of North Carolina," I say. "In the South," I add, trying to be helpful.

"I know North Carolina," he says. *Awkward pause* "That's where it happened."

Someone in my nervous system was already weirdly panicky about souvenirs. Now they pull the office fire alarm. Adrenaline sprints out of the bathroom and jumps in the pilot seat. 


Perhaps he even clarified. He might've added, "Yeah, North Carolina -- that's where the shooting happened." Or, "That's where the Muslims were killed." It wasn't accusatory at all -- he was just stating a fact. He might as well have said, "I know that state! That's where three innocent American Muslim students were shot to death in their apartment two and a half days ago." (But at this point he was responding to my broken Arabic with broken English, so I doubt he was quite that articulate.)

And even if he did clarify, which he might have -- it wasn't necessary. I knew from the way he said it, the unreadable but obviously still slightly readable look on his face, and the abrupt pressure change (in the normally quite breezy city of Jericho), that there was no other "it" he might've been talking about.

I really can't tell you exactly what he said -- the whole thing is a whirlwind-y adrenaline-filled blur. I started talking so fast I'm not sure exactly what I said either.

All I can do is tell you what I tried to say.


I started in Arabic, but I switched to English somewhere along the line when a woman in hijab who'd joined the conversation told me in a soothing "don't strain yourself" kind of way to "just speak English."

I tried to tell them that I'd lived there -- not (just) in North Carolina but in Chapel Hill -- for the past four years, and that the community there meant a lot to me.

I tried to tell them that this is not what that community is about.

I tried to tell them that I know many people there, and all of them are in shock. Are angry. Are shocked that this happened and angry that it was allowed to happen. Shocked that people can do this and angry that things have come to this.

I tried to tell them about the rallies, the vigils, the celebrations of the lives that were taken, the cries of solidarity, the tears of sympathy and the many of all different backgrounds and faiths trying to stand up against violence and hate and xenophobia, refusing to let one act of random aggression and mad hate tear down anything built firmly out of human love and kindness.

Somewhere along the line I think I told them I was sorry. Sorry for what -- I have no clue. Sorry for the random acts of one unstable individual, sorry for being a part of the community, the culture, the country that -- one way or another -- allowed it to happen, sorry for America and its history of what many would call hypocritical meddling and brutal intervention in this region and in the Muslim world? I have no idea.


Equally cryptic as my apology, the lady in hijab responded to my inarticulate word-spilling with a simple but sincere, "Thank you." Whatever she meant, it's the only thing that satisfies me enough to stop me from filling this fuzzy, mostly blank memory with doubt and regret. Perhaps I said what I was supposed to say.

It all happened so fast in such an adrenaline-filled, shockingly short, rushed period of time, that I have no clue what the man said, or how the conversation ended except that I'm sure I rattled through my list of conventional Arabic goodbyes. "God give you safety; God keep you; go in health; Peace; God be with you." Somewhat redundant or repetitive, but somehow satisfying.


Two lessons.  Or, thoughts, or something.

1) Perhaps this is why I'm here. To give America a human face and to speak for my communities stateside in saying "That is not us. That is not who we are."

And at the same time to add my voice to the many voices already trying to do the same thing for the dehumanized Arab/Muslim/Arab-Muslim communities.

2) People here are listening. They're often less ignorant of what goes on in America than we are of what goes on over there. But at the same time, they only hear the bad -- just like us! If all we hear is that "they" "are violent and they hate us" -- well oddly enough the primary, overwhelming message they get about "us" is that "we're violent and we hate them."

100% honestly there is a not insignificant amount of people here who are super afraid to send their kids to schools or anywhere in America. Not even because of anti-Arab sentiment or Islamophobia, but because of shootings and crime.


And if anyone's caught up in the shooting and the nitty-gritty he-said she-said speculation and motivation and whatnot about why those murders actually happened: Even if the Chapel Hill shooting was 15% "parking dispute," 15% insufficient gun regulations, 40% untreated mental illness and stigma/general struggle with life and coping and being unable or unwilling to get help, 20% generalized hatred of all religion and only 10% motivated by specific anti-Islamic or anti-Arab hate -- it's kind of irrelevant.

That's like an Arab Muslim saying, "I shouldn't have to apologize for my religion -- it's only being used as a recruiting tool and justification when the real causes of terrorism are political and socioeconomic!"

It might be 100% true, and it might be quite reasonable -- but at a certain point it doesn't matter anymore.

(Of course it should matter, and I believe it does matter, but yeah. At a certain point it's irrelevant.)

(I'm putting some of "the nuance" down here at the bottom so it hopefully doesn't dilute or weigh down the punchiness.)

(Hopefully that ending came off more pragmatic and even-handed than just straight-up depressing or callous.)

(Sorry if that got unpleasantly political. Let me know if you want to argue.)

(Or just talk. You know. As you like.)


(Originally posted March 1st, 2015) 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race and Religion in the Holy Land

Something to add to the long list of shared characteristics that makes Israeli and Palestinian society weirdly similar. (Along with generally conservative social norms and mores, gender-segregated social circles, and an inability to form lines.) (To be fair I'm sure they can form lines just fine, I guess it's more of an apathetic *shrug,* "That seems like a lot of work, let's just all try to go at once and see what happens.")

(Spoiler: Often dealing without lines ends up going just fine, with perhaps an occasional setback and delay. Maybe it encourages people to be assertive? Plus it makes people rely more on social courtesy and respect instead of being able to rely on people simply "following the rules."?)

That thing to be added to the list that I haven't gotten to quite yet: The centrality of religion! As an idea! As a category that you are defined by.

"Religion" appears nowhere on the U.S. Census (our primary category for "people-sorting," it turns out, is race.) Which perhaps makes sense too, because it seems like the majority of Americans are in that vaguely secularish gray area where you don't go to church but still have a medley of religious beliefs floating idly and uninspected around your house.

In Israel and Palestine, however, that is simply not the case.

In Israel you essentially exist first and foremost in the eyes of the state *as a member of a specific religion.* You can be a secular Jew, or a secular Christian, or a secular Muslim, or a secular *other,* but you can't just be a secular because that's not a thing. 

And maybe that's because religion is seen almost as an ethnic category (especially in the case of the Jewish identity). It's something you simply are by merit of being born into a specific family.

My family is Christian, and thus I am Christian. This individual is Muslim or Jewish because their family is Muslim or Jewish.

Two things that are sort of results of that or perhaps partly columns in that system that help make it continue to make sense:

1) The American cliche of the child, probably born to a lax Christian or Jewish or secular background, who grows up and gets interested in one of those cool-sounding Eastern religions that they really have no authentic experience with -- is almost nonsensical and confusing to think about in this context. Conversions in general "don't happen," which might just mean it's something totally not cool to talk about or acknowledge.

Just like
2) intermarriage! By which I mean interfaith marriage. Something else that totally just "doesn't exist" over here, by which I mean is taboo and kind of frowned upon.

So yeah, that's interesting.

But at the same time it sort of makes sense. Even if many secular Americans wouldn't want to identify with any of these specific faiths, their cultures and upbringings in all likelihood have been thoroughly shaped and influenced by these religions.

And I can't say for sure if it's better or worse than "race" as a divider of people, but frankly neither are looking great right now.

(Also I'm not saying there isn't racism here. Cause oh my gosh.)

Friday, June 12, 2015

BBQs, Pop Music, and Long Travel Times

So I have a little less than a month left before heading back stateside -- thus I've been trying to at least blog a little every day. But I didn't blog yesterday, so this is an extra-special make-up blog.

Yesterday evening I didn't manage to blog because I was at a graduation party in Beit Jala, the western neighbor of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Distance-wise, Beit Jala is fairly close. (Google says it's about 13km as the crow flies.) But it can take an awfully long time to get there, mostly because of having to find the specific checkpoints to go through the 30-foot tall security wall.

I managed to cross back from Beit Jala to Jerusalem at the end of the evening (because my program coordinators happened to be at the party, and they have a car with the right color license plate -- meaning they can drive back and forth through the wall.), but Palestinian buses in southern East Jerusalem are unreliable and poorly scheduled, and the Israeli buses weren't running because the Jewish shabat/sabbath starts Friday at sun-down. THEREFORE I spent the night at coordinator's house in the Palestinian Jerusalemite neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

Transportation here is challenging and confusing sometimes.

But yeah! Barbecue! Fun and games and dancing! Parties are fun.

Here's a taste of Arab pop -- the kind of stuff you often hear at parties here.

Fares Karam -- IlHamdilla

Khaled -- C'est La Vie (this one might sound familiar)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Street View, Toaster Cookies, and More Goats

Thought #1: I baked more than 70 cookies in a toaster oven this Tuesday. It was a long, vaguely pain-staking process, but fairly successful and delicious.

Actual "ovens" are somewhat rare here.

As are "actual measuring utensils," so I got to do a lot of guesstimating.

Then I put in a lot of light-brown sugar before I realized that that's just sugar that's a little brown and not actually brown sugar. So long story short, I put a lot of extra sugar of many various colors in these cookies.

Thought #2:

Here's some pictures of main street of Beit Hanina, mostly taken from the bus one day as I was on my way to work.

 My lovely local coffee roaster shop, hidden behind a bus stop.

 My normal grocery store, which is only that by merit of it being conveniently located.
 I often by hummus and falafel from the store on the end on the left there. There's another place out of the frame to the right that I usually get dinner pastry type-things from. (Little mini vaguely-calzone like things with just cheese and sauce.) (And little small pizza like things except usually with just egg and sausage and maybe creamy cheese.

There'll be thick rows of stores and stuff and then randomly a side of a whole block will be undeveloped. (Hard to get permits to build in Arab neighborhoods here.) (Also Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem are notoriously economically depressed.) (Did I mention there's usually at least one dumpster full of burning trash?)


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Coffee, a Wonderful Snack, and a Cozy Bookshop

So I live in Beit Hanina, an Arab Palestinian neighborhood 15ish minutes outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the actual place that the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, Roman historians, the Ottomans, the Mamelukes, the Ayyubids, the Sassanids, Flavius Josephus, etc. etc. were talking about whenever they said "Jerusalem." (It has walls and everything!) Than the Mount of Olives is basically a big hill to the east of the Old City.

Most of my life this year has orbited around this odd and exciting triangle. I live in Beit Hanina, work on the Mount of Olives, and do everything else around the Old City. That's where the Arab Palestinian Lutheran Church of the Redeemer is, and thus where I attend service and coffeehour and whatnot, but around the Old City is also "downtown," so it's a natural place to hang out in general.

One place I end up at a lot is a cafe/public-culture-meeting-place-type-thing/bookstore called the Educational Bookshop. And it's on Saladin Street, which is named for the famous Arab Muslim leader-hero who drove the foreign Crusaders out of the Levant. (He's kind of a big deal historically speaking.) (Almost like El Cid or Charlemagne or something? National hero from a 1,000 years ago type thing?)

But yeah, Saladin Street is the main street of East Jerusalem (whereas Jaffa Street is the main street of West Jerusalem).

And because I like books, and I like random lectures and meeting authors and hearing people talk about politics and culture and stuff, and most of all because I like coffeeshops -- I spend quite a bit of time there.


Also I brought my family there so here's some pictures of us on the upper floor cafe area!!!

 Here's my mom drinking/eating sahlab, which is a traditional Middle Eastern-ish drink. (I say "ish" because apparently it gets around. There are many ways to spell/say it.) It's made with hot milk, orchid flour, sugar, and rose water. (I think sometimes hot water is subbed in for milk or artificial flavoring takes the orchid flour's place.) (And then regardless it's normal to pile coconut, cinnamon and pistachio pieces on top as well.)

When you're actually drinking/eating it though, it comes off more like a delicious, hot rice pudding -- thickness and sweetness wise -- although of course there is clearly no rice in it.

It's especially fantastic when it's cold outside. Although if it's hot outside you can just chill it after you make it and that's fantastic too.

Here's dad with a friend of mine named Mahmoud, who's part of the family that runs the bookstore

They're looking at a silly book I believe my dad now owns that translates and explains Arab folk-sayings. 

The other thing I do a lot of at the Bookshop is drink coffee. (of all kinds!)

But most often I'm drinking Arabic coffee, which is super strong, served boiling, and in which you can usually find a thick pile of very fine grains of murky coffee ground at the bottom. (Also not in *huge* quantities) Flavored with cardomom (which is ground in with the coffee beans) and with varying amounts of sugar too. (It's pretty great.)

And another informative link or two that I didn't find a good place to fit in.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Side Effects, Goats, and Everyday Life (not in that order)

Thought #1: Over-The-Counter Medicine in Israel/Palestine! All of the fun of unintended side effects without having to give up those fun, original symptoms you've gotten so attached to!

Not quite sure why that is, and it's probably all in my head, but yeah, that.

Thought #2: Here's a little glimpse of what my neighborhood is like. (It's about a 5-10 minute walk from my apartment to a bus stop on the main road.)

First my street! It's called Abu Madi, which in Arabic as far as I know could mean either "father of the past," "father of the signatory," or "father of the last." The last one is my personal favorite, (Father of the last) because fathers in this region are traditionally known by the name of their eldest son, so "last" would be a cool reversal.

 And that's what my apartment complex looks like in the snow.

And here's the streets (and cool views from those streets) between my flat and the main road -- at various times of day and sometimes with snow.

 And I'll share more about stuff on the main road of Beit Hanina tomorrow probably, but here's a little taste:

A car dealership. The owner was probably really proud of their English title. I guess it's one of those things that's supposed to be really clever. (And by "supposed" I mean "suppozed," not "suppost,") (Say them out loud repeatedly if you don't catch the difference.)

Thought #3

Here's the first episode of a short series about our experience climbing a random rock/mountain/hill/cliff face thing in Jordan in the desert. I'm thinking of pitching it to HBO, maybe throw some historical drama in there, probably featuring Tom Hanks. WWI is fashionable right now, right?

(Enlarge video to maybe catch a glimpse of the actual goats!)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Playtime in Palestine: Police Brutality and a Child's Imagination

I've had the wonderful opportunity to watch a lot of kids at play this year in Jerusalem/East Jerusalem/Palestine/Israel, and often the even more wonderful opportunity of getting to play with them.

It warms your heart, entertains, creates a fulfilling sense of human connection far quicker than any "adult conversation" usually does, etc. etc., reasonably good workout, laughter, childish sense of wonder and imagination -- unburdened by the real world or any of the concrete knowledge of aforementioned world that you usually soak up as you spend your life floating around in it.

(Which eventually deadens you and leaves you a useless, gross, dried-up but otherwise quite worldly kitchen sponge.)

But on top of those things and that one unfortunately cynical tongue-in-cheek tangent, watching kids at play is also interesting and insightful in its own right -- partly because you get to see what "knowledge" the kids have already soaked up.

A lot of play, especially anything that involves some element of make-believe, can be pretty revealing of values, ideas, experiences -- whether they be based in wider culture, the kids' personal lives, or a wacky dream they had once. 

Which makes sense! As little human beings, they've only been here so long, and there's a lot to figure out about this world, from physics to biology. (i.e., learning to live with gravity, and figuring out what in the lord's name all that stuff that keeps falling off of trees is.)

And at a certain point everyone around them just assumes they should be able to name animals and identify colors and apply their abstract "counting exercises" to actual objects at a 3-year-old level, which is a lot of pressure and probably kind of stressful actually.

But as it turns out, one helpful study tactic is to take ideas/roles/identities you've seen or otherwise picked up on in the world around you and act them out -- literally playing with them.


One thing I've seen this year is a lot of animals. (There was one month-long period where pretty much every day this boy would proclaim himself a lion/tiger/fox/dragon (depending on how he was feeling), and proceed to eat my fingers, often narrating for me while doing so.) Eventually that progressed a bit, and so after maiming me he would switch characters and be a doctor for a little bit. 

That all seems normal, and potentially more or less universal. Animals, ouchies of various severities, and people that fix the ouchies.

Then there's food! Thus every day of playtime in the sandbox ends up being an hour of "Let's pretend to cook things for Michael!" 

Child: CAKE! (nearly shouted, as they proffer some dish or shovel-full of well-groomed sand at me)  

Me: Ooh, nice, thanks! (*pretend munch*) (Turn to child #2) And what are you making? 

Child #2: CAKE! (Puts shovel up to my mouth, dumping half the sand in my lap in the process)

Me: Oh wow! What type of cake? 

Child #2: .... cake.

(The road to more creative interactions seems to be closed that way (occasionally an older child will sprinkle dirt on their sand and call it chocolate cake, but that's the only specificity we get.), so I usually satisfy myself by making really weird eating noises.)

(And I've gotten weirder through the year. I started in the fall as a very polite teatime snacker, and now I'm more like that grind-y garbage disposal thing some people have in their sinks.) 

So yeah, Palestinian children apparently see/eat a lot of cake. And they know what animals and doctors are.


But here's an example of something a little more unusual (in relation to my experience) that I've come across. 

First of all, there's the interesting way the stories go when one of the boys rambles out long, vividly imagined but clearly fabricated tales of the events of the latest weekend. Usually something about his mom (or other family member) getting shot (or otherwise hurt or killed) by police and him then hitting someone with his sword (ostensibly the police officer responsible for the attack). 

Then there's this friend of mine and this not-horribly-irregular game:

(Here is link to the video elsewhere if you're having trouble)

This seems like a fairly innocent random playground scene at first, right? Complete with a baby eating grass. Well it is that, but what else is it?

A not-quite-3-ish girl pretending to be a police officer and shooting me in the face.

Oof. (My baby friend was, however, indeed trying to eat grass.)

Fun, right? The playground setting and the "playtime" feel of this sort of thing makes everything feel like inconsequential fun and games -- but then occasionally I think back moments to hours after the fact and it's weirdly horrifying. 

"ANA SHURTA!" --> "I AM A POLICE OFFICER!!!" She says, in a voice usually reserved for Godzilla or cheesy cartoon villains. (For the record, this altercation was entirely unprompted, the police officer identity just sort of gets put on sometimes -- BUT it is a somewhat regular "make-believe character" that I see. 

And yes. More often than not with that same voice and that same level of unprompted violence. 

"fee ayndak dam!" --> "You're bleeding!" She says afterward, in the same announcement/FYI voice she used one time to inform me that she'd noticed there was blood on my lip. In this make-believe scenario I can't tell if she's actually trying to be helpful or if I'm supposed to read that more as a "clean yourself up scum" type thing. Or maybe she stepped out of the make-believe for a moment so she could narrate and catch me up a bit.

Later that day she shot me a couple more times (this time with a "hand"-gun instead of the big orange-y thing.) (WATCH VIDEO HERE) I asked her why -- she seemed to think about it a little bit, then told me something along the lines of, "because you didn't understand." Which is sort of cryptic and sort of horrible. (But also funny because I didn't totally understand it as an explanation and I'm still not certain I'm hearing her right...)

(If I just managed to get video of these two specific pieces of a larger episode, imagine how many times I've played this game before without filming it. After many episodes of it, eventually started thinking about it and realizing I should try to videotape it.) 


But why is this a thing? Why are these Palestinian Jerusalemite children's perceptions of police officers so starkly different -- and far more violent and manifestly unjust -- than the happy image of police officers much more common in my home environment of comfortably-well-to-do majority-white American suburbs?

Well let's see. 

For one thing there's the fact that the police officers in Jerusalem are Israeli. They speak Hebrew, and they have Israeli citizenships, and they have Israeli rights. Whereas more often than not, Palestinians in Jerusalem don't speak Hebrew, don't have Israeli citizenship, and most decidedly do not have Israeli rights. 

East Jerusalem is controlled by Israel, and its Palestinian residents are forcibly separated from the arms of their own government, the West Bank's Palestinian Authority. They're a marginalized community with crowded neighborhoods, horribly neglected by the municipality and all its services and funds. Also they're essentially under martial law. They can be shot and killed with only the slightest extremely subjective cause for suspicion by police or military officers, and there will be no questions asked. Even children of as young as 8-12 can be detained for long periods without justification and without real oversight of their treatment while in custody. 

Then there's the fact that the Israeli security and military sectors have a firm, unwavering institutional record for responding to non-violent protest with brutal force and violent suppression. This often succeeds at turning non-violent protest into violent protest, but even when it doesn't, it's not what you'd call pleasant. 


So the thought process that led to this violent make-believe --> it's perhaps justified, but tragically unfortunate. Especially because I know confidently that there are countless military and security personnel in Israel that are wonderful people only trying to do their job and support their families and their nation. 

And without positive interaction with many Israelis, a horrifying image of "the Israeli police officer" can easily become the violent, terrifying stand-in for Jewish Israelis in general. Which is misleading and untrue, and also incredibly unhelpful for breaking down the massive separation walls of fear and hate and concrete that cut up this beautiful land into ugly broken inefficient pieces.

But we can't condemn this seemingly common image of the "horrifying, brutal and unfeeling Israeli with a gun and a uniform" without simultaneously recognizing the frequent individual, family, and community experiences that create this concept and give it a prominent and clearly-defined place in a child's imagination. 


And it might be important for us to take this opportunity to reflect on my comfortably-well-to-do majority-white American suburban community as well. I grew up in a home where -- I might not have been especially excited or happy about police officers -- but I felt I could trust them. I understood they were there for people's safety, or, um, speeding tickets? Never quite figured that part out.

But I never felt any reason to fear them or to question the assumption that they were there to do good, that they were there to help. And most Jewish Israeli children probably feel the same way!

But that's not the case for many Palestinians, and that's not the case for many marginalized communities in the United States, especially in African-American communities, but also throughout many minority communities and probably in many lower-income communities regardless of race. 

And just like here, in Jerusalem with the Palestinians, our job is to open our ears, open our hearts, and seek out the stories of those around us. To understand, to bridge those divides, to join the slow work of healing those walls of separation -- wherever we are.

These two children are valuable and fascinating and loving individuals that mean a lot to me and whom I will miss dearly. (Even if SeƱor GrassEater below hasn't had enough time to fully develop into an "individual," per se.)

I will be going back to America in a month, but these kids won't. This is their home, this is their future, and this is their reality.