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Yusif took me to the house of a man named Thaher that night to show me a small apartment on his roof. He said I was welcome to stay there as long as I liked. Azhar tagged along with us. She was young enough that she didn’t wear the hijab (headscarf) yet, but she carried a little purse and flipped her hair back like I used to do as a pre-teen, trying to look more mature than her years.
She was the sister of both Thaher and Mohammad the Charmer, and they were all children of the mayor, Abu Nael, whom I had met while harvesting olives. Abu Nael was a stout, spry patriarch with a thick grey mustache who wore a baseball cap, jeans, and a corduroy work shirt while he harvested. Yusif said he was heavily in debt from trying to keep Jayyous’s farmers afloat while the Fence was decimating their economy. Most of his 800 olive trees had been destroyed to build the Wall.
The apartment, built on one corner of the roof, had a gas stove, a sink, a foam mattress on the floor, and a shower in one corner. It was basic but livable, and I enjoyed watching the geckos that climbed around on its walls. The views were spectacular, too. To the west, four kilometers beyond the Fence, was the Green Line, the boundary between the dark farmland of the West Bank and the endless lights of an Israeli suburb. Far in the distant haze we could see the art deco skyscrapers of Tel Aviv lit up against the dark span of the Mediterranean. Clusters of lights also surrounded us within the West Bank.
“Towns with white lights are Palestinian villages,” Yusif explained, “and yellow ones are Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.”
My mouth went dry as I realized what I was seeing. Jayyous was literally surrounded by settlements. I could see at least four from where we were standing, all deep inside West Bank territory. The nearest one, Zufin, had been built on Jayyous land that was isolated by the Wall.
“They try to take the hilltops so they can keep track of what everyone is doing,” Yusif said. “The most populated parts of Israel—the Galilee to the north and the coastal plains to the west—are fairly flat while the West Bank is hilly. Aside from its rich Biblical history and important water resources, the West Bank is a valuable strategic asset.”
“But why would Israeli civilians want to move here?”
“Some settlers are ideological. They think the land has to be ‘redeemed’ by Jewish settlement so the Messiah will come. Others are ‘economic settlers,’ which means they live here because it’s heavily subsidized by the Israeli government. They can live in a much nicer home in a settlement than in Israel for the same money.”
[This is illegal on Israel’s part. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory.]
“How many Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza?”
“How many Palestinians?”
“Two and a half million in the West Bank, a million and a half in Gaza.”
I whistled softly as I took in the surreal vista, with the Wall in the foreground blasting and isolating land from the village and settlements blinking yellow from every compass direction. I felt a sudden, irrational urge to cover Azhar’s eyes.
* * *
I awoke the next morning with a thrill of trepidation in my heart. The Wall in the Jayyous area had been completed that summer, and Israel had recently declared the area between the Wall and the Green Line to be a closed military area called the ‘seam zone.’ Jayyous residents had been ordered to apply for permits to access the land that fell behind the Wall.
At first they refused to apply for permits of any kind. The idea of asking Israel’s permission to access their own land was too ludicrous to contemplate. On October 19, in order to stave off expected resistance, the Israeli army had waived the application process and delivered several hundred permits. The permits were valid for three months, at which point the recipients would be required to reapply. The people of Jayyous reluctantly accepted the permits, afraid that otherwise they might be barred from their land entirely. It was a bitter decision, but at the time it seemed the lesser of two great evils.
Unfortunately, the permits were insufficient in number and distributed seemingly at random. A large percentage were made out to children, the elderly, people who were living abroad, and even some dead people. Many farmers, landowners, and workers were denied. Today, even though there weren’t nearly enough permits to go around, the new permit system might go into effect. If too many people were denied entry, Yusif said it might result in a minor revolt: stone throwing, tear gas, rubber bullets, and a possibility of escalation. He said I should be there to see it, but I should stay well back.
The scene at the gate was tense as the soldiers spoke to the anxious Palestinians. Azhar held my hand, alert and serene as usual. A cameraman who looked European was filming. The incident wouldn’t have been out of place on the evening news, and it was bizarre to see it for myself on the other side of the camera, and to see the characters around me as three-dimensional human beings instead of two-dimensional news objects. It felt like falling through the looking glass.
In the end, only a few people were denied passage that day. Some were furious, and a few wept quietly on their way home. But the outrage wasn’t enough to risk a confrontation that might turn violent. Jayyous relented. We picked olives another day.
But a pall was cast — a deep and terrible foreboding that things might never be the same.
In the evening, back in Jayyous, Yusif and I walked across town to visit Rania, a young Palestinian woman who taught English with Yusif’s organization. Her mother had doubts about Rania’s new job, and Yusif wanted to talk with her and ease her fears.
Yusif was wearing a white tunic and elegant white turban, which made him look more stereotypically Muslim than most Jayyousis. As we walked down Jayyous’s narrow main street, everyone greeted Yusif with a hearty, “Salaam alaykum!” to which he invariably replied, “Wa alaykum al salaam!” People always seemed happy and honored to see each other even if they had seen each other several times that day. Most of the men wore slacks and work shirts while teachers and college students wore pressed shirts and ties. Some of the older men sported black and white keffiya headscarves, which Yusif said were symbols of the fellahin, the traditional farmers. It seemed similar to the way American men wore cowboy hats. Some, like my grandfather, actually worked cattle. Others, like President Bush, wore them symbolically.
Younger women usually wore a hijab (headscarf) and jilbab (long, flowing dress-coat). They were master artisans with eye shadow and eyeliner, and some looked like maiden princesses. Older women wore the old-fashioned loose white headscarves and traditional black robes embroidered down the front with intricate patterns in bright red and green.
Whenever I passed children, they almost always shouted an excited “Hallo!” in my direction. Dozens of greetings bombarded me from side streets, windows, and rooftops. Once I glanced up and saw three adorable girls with big black eyes sitting on a windowsill with their legs dangling through protective metal bars, smiling and waving as if they’d spotted a celebrity, or maybe a talking polar bear.
The cool night air was redolent with Jayyous’s characteristic scent of night-blooming jasmine commingled with burnt garbage. The jasmine’s fragrance was like wedding-cake-scented perfume, thick and sweet and overpowering. Donkeys brayed and cocks crowed, adding to the idyllic effect. The houses along the street were built in a similar style, usually white with flat roofs crowned by black water tanks, TV antennae, and colorful clothes lines. Most had front stoops or porches, a balcony or two, and painted metal doors and shutters. Some were accented with decorative arches or columns, iron filigree, a Quran verse engraved over the front door or a flowering vine spilling over a privacy wall.
In the center of town, the mosque’s ornate minaret rose proud and white over its aquamarine dome. Next to it was a humble courtyard with concrete benches under small leafy trees. Crumbling Ottoman-era ruins came into view after that, then a few stores selling dry goods, soft drinks, candy, and school supplies. Graffiti was scrawled in Arabic across most of the walls. The houses in the center of town were noticeably more splendid than the newer homes on the outskirts, which were often built of bare cinderblocks.
When we reached Rania’s house, Yusif introduced everyone and then withdrew to the parlor with Rania’s mother. The interior was the same immaculate white as Thaher and Amjad’s houses. The parlor had big upholstered couches in dusty rose and gold with wood trim, but the rest of the house was furnished more simply. The bright, spacious living room with its big curtained windows had only a TV on a stand and foam cushions on the floor.
Rania invited me into her bedroom, where a Canadian girl named Amy was sitting on the bed. She introduced herself and said she was teaching English with Rania at the Jayyous community center. “But I’m hoping to go to the Gaza Strip soon,” she said. “Someone offered to put me on a list to get permission to go there. The situation there is so much worse than it is here, and it’s hard to get in.”
“She is leaving us!” Rania wailed. “And when she leaves, there will be no one to teach English with me. The girls, all of our students…” She sighed theatrically. “Amy, please stay!”
Amy shrugged. I said nothing. But something clicked in the back of my mind.
Dinner was called soon. We sat on molded plastic chairs around their white plastic dinner table for a feast of chicken and rice with fresh yogurt and farmer’s salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers, lemon juice, and olive oil. I ate until I was stuffed. As soon as my plate was empty, before I could protest, Rania’s mother heaped another generous serving onto my plate and smiled suggestively, urging me to finish it off.
“Oh God,” I whispered to Yusif. “How do you say ‘I’m about to explode’ in Arabic?”
Before he could open his mouth, I said, “Actually, on second thought, never mind. It’s probably better if I don’t know how to say those words in Arabic.”
After we left Rania’s house, we walked back down Main Street, found Sebastian, and started a nargila circle on Amjad’s porch. I’d begun to look forward to the evening ritual. The rhythm of passing the pipe, changing the coals, and replacing the tobacco was its own little time-space universe. All else fell away while we chatted and watched the night. Yusif had brought rose-flavored tobacco from Jordan, and the smell was heavenly.
I said to Yusif, “That guy Suleiman mentioned that Muslims revere King Solomon. I don’t understand. This is probably a dumb question, but I thought the Bible and the Quran were completely separate.”
“There’s a lot of overlap,” he said. “Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all started with the patriarch Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic. The Quran respects Christians and Jews as ‘People of the Book,’ meaning the Bible, which Muslims also respect. But we believe Mohammad was God’s last prophet and the Quran is the final revelation.”
“Do Muslims believe in Jesus?”
“Of course. He was one of the greatest prophets of Allah. But he wasn’t His son.”
“What about jihad?” If I was going to embarrass myself, I might as well get it all out in one go. Yusif’s views might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, but it was a start.
Yusif shook his head. “The word jihad is used wrong all the time. It just means the struggle to be righteous, to be a good person. The extremists use it wrong, and then the Western press repeats what they say. In the Quran, it says, ‘If anyone killed a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew all mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of all people.’ There are certain times when violence can be justified, but it should be a last resort. But Pamela, you see the situation here. Most Palestinians would accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel isn’t even willing to offer that.”
I didn’t know if this was true or not. I decided to leave it until I could do more research on my own. “Does the Quran say women have to wear the hijab?” No one had bothered me about not wearing one, but I wondered if they didn’t secretly think of me the way Americans would think about a French woman walking around topless.
“The Quran just says people should dress modestly, both men and women, mainly so they won’t attract unwanted attention,” he said. “The headscarf is more of a traditional custom. Actually the tight, colorful scarves most young women wear these days, I think it’s a Turkish style.” He smiled. “But personally, I like the hijab. It’s like the girl is a gift. It drives you crazy to wait, but then on your wedding night, you alone get to unwrap her.”
“But doesn’t that just hyper-sexualize the hidden parts? Anyway look what Palestinian women do to their eyes! And have you seen the women in Cairo?”
“I hear erotic underwear is a huge industry in Saudi Arabia,” Sebastian mused.
“Saudi Arabia,” Yusif said with disgust. “It’s always the worst Muslims who make a big show of repressing their women. The Saudi royals make such a big deal about having control of the holy places, and then on weekends they go to Dubai and Aqaba and get whores and gamble and drink.”
“That reminds me of a joke in my home town,” I said. “What’s the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist?”
They looked at me blankly.
“Oh, right. So the Baptists are supposedly the more uptight denomination in my home town while the Methodists are more laid-back. Anyway, the answer is: A Methodist will talk to you if he runs into you at the liquor store.”
Sebastian laughed and Yusif shook his head. “It’s the same everywhere.”
Amjad the barrel-chested engineer lived with his brother Amir, a clean-shaven, soft-spoken shepherd, and their father Abu Amjad. Abu Amjad didn’t say much. He was just a constant, kindly, watery-eyed presence who could never quite manage to flick his ash off his cigarette before it tumbled onto his flannel shirt.
One day, sitting around another nargila circle on Amjad’s porch, I was deemed to have been around long enough to be considered a regular instead of a guest. So I started taking my turn on tea and coffee duty. Amir taught me the proper method of making tea: First boil a teapot full of water along with a small teacup full of sugar. Pack another teacup full of loose black tea leaves. Once the water boils, pour the hot water over the tea leaves in the cup and let it steep for a few minutes, then pour it back into the teapot along with whatever herbs you have on hand, usually fresh mint or maramiya (wild sage). The result is a strong, sweet, aromatic brew.
When I brought my first masterpiece of tea out to the group, I found that my chair had been taken by a young man in a leather jacket whose subtly-gelled hair spilled rakishly into his dark eyes. I poured a cup for him.
“Spacibo,” he said with a smile.
“Pozhaluista,” I answered politely.
We met eyes as he raised his glass to his lips. Then we froze.
It suddenly occurred to both of us that we were speaking Russian.
“Ti Russkaya?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“Zachem ti govorish po-Russky?” (Why do you speak Russian?)
“Zachem ti govorish po-Russky?” I asked with a laugh. Hearing a perfect Russian accent on Amjad’s porch was like meeting an old friend in the most unexpected place.
“I studied in Russia for a year and a half,” he said in Russian as someone moved over and gave me a chair next to his. “And you?”
“I studied abroad in Moscow for a semester during college. I loved the language, so I continued studying and practicing on my own. Ti Russky ili… Palestinsky?” His skin was pale enough that he could have passed for a Russian, or at least a Chechen.
“I am Palestinian, of course. I am from here, from Jayyous. My name is Qais.”
“Ochen priyatno.” (Nice to meet you.) I was surprised how fluidly I was speaking Russian. My brain had apparently a chance to stir and settle since I’d last studied the language, or maybe it only seemed easier after struggling with Arabic for so long.
“Did you like Russia?” I asked.
“Yes, very much. It was… very free. Not like this place, where they say, ‘You can’t do this, and you can’t do that,’ and everything is forbidden.” I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about the culture or the occupation. Maybe both. “But I realized the subject I was studying, reklama, was not good for me.” I had to rack my brain to remember what reklama meant. I recalled an image of posters plastered on walls in Moscow. Ah yes—‘advertising.’ “So I came back to Palestine. Now I study physiotherapy at the American University in Jenin. I am happy to be back, but I miss Russia very much.”
“I miss it, too. And I miss speaking Russian, so it’s nice to practice with you. You speak very well.” His vocabulary was much bigger than mine, and his grammar and accent were flawless. He was far more advanced than he should have been for only having lived there a year and a half. With his good looks and debonair confidence, I expected him to be cocky about it, but I was pleasantly surprised. When I made mistakes, he either ignored them or corrected me gently. If he suspected something was out of my vocabulary range, he would patiently ask, “Ti znaesh shto takoe…?” (Do you know what exactly is…?) If I didn’t, he would explain, switching to English if necessary. Memories of Russia flooded our minds as we compared notes on the food, people, jokes, and slang.
After a while I remembered something that had been bothering me. “You know how everyone here says ya khuy all the time? What does it mean?”
In Russian, ya khuy means ‘I am a penis.’ I had no idea what it meant in Arabic, but I heard it all the time: “Ya khuy, please pass the tea.” “Ya khuy, where are you going?” “Welcome, ya khuy!”
Qais laughed, probably imagining what a startling thing it was for me to hear respectable Muslims soberly announce at the beginning of nearly every utterance.
“In Arabic, ya means…” He thought a moment. “It means you are speaking to someone. So if I say, Ya Pamela, it means I am speaking to you.”
“I see. Like the English word ‘hey.’”
“Da, maybe. But more polite, I think. And akhuy…” He glanced sideways at me, and I suppressed a giggle. “In Arabic, it means ‘my brother.’ Everyone calls each other ‘my brother’ here, so that’s why you hear it a lot.”
“Ah, OK, spacibo. I was just wondering, because…”
Someone in the circle said it just then, and we looked at each other and laughed.
Jayyous was a conservative town, and Qais and I were unmarried young people, which meant we’d probably never have a chance to be alone together. But our shared language created its own island of intimacy. All night as we talked, we felt like kids getting away with breaking the rules.
The next evening, a razor-thin crescent moon hovering in the rosy glow of the setting sun signaled the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Fasting in this context meant no food or drink or smoking or sex from sunrise to sunset for the next twenty-eight days. I decided to try to observe the fast, both out of respect for the people around me and to see what it was like.
Back in my rooftop apartment that night, I also had to decide what my trip to Palestine was going to be. I had expected to skip through the Holy Land for a week or ten days and then bounce on to the bazaars and castles of Syria, the nightclubs of Beirut, the fantastic carved cave houses of Cappadocia, and finally Istanbul, the Gateway to Europe on the Bosporus Strait. My passport hadn’t been stamped by Israel, so unless I got unlucky on the way out, I had six weeks to see all that and much more.
It had occurred to me, though, when Rania was so distraught about Amy leaving, that I could stay in Jayyous and help Rania teach English during Ramadan. It would be the perfect excuse to stay on without feeling like a freeloader or a tourist. I’d only been in the Holy Land a week so far, and already I’d had such a variety of shocking experiences, I’d be sorting them out for years. There was much more to learn, several people I wanted to know better, and something in the atmosphere that I deeply enjoyed—a preternatural friendliness and curiosity, artless and disarming, mixed with a healthy, humorous cynicism that I never expected.
I wasn’t ready to leave.
But coming here for a week wasn’t much of a sacrifice. Staying for another month would mean cramming Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey—by many accounts the biggest prizes of the trip—into three short weeks in the cold of December. I’d have to skip so many things I’d planned on seeing. Ancient things. Carved stone things. Crusader castles, mighty rivers, hot Lebanese guys… and all for one Stigler-sized farm town in the occupied West Bank?
My scalp prickled with a vague sense that whatever decision I made tonight might resonate for the rest of my life. It made me feel tired and irritable. I thumbed through the Syria and Lebanon sections of my guidebook one last time, sighed, and went to sleep.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
Men in leather jackets were waiting on the other side of the barrier next to battered yellow taxis. Each offered a friendly smile and a hearty “Salaam alaykum!” (Peace be upon you.) All of them seemed to know Yusif. One offered us a free ride into Jayyous and chatted cheerfully with Yusif along the way.
As we rolled deeper into Palestinian territory, my stomach calmed wonderfully and my whole frame relaxed. If there was danger here, I hadn’t found it yet.
The driver dropped us off in front of a house where half a dozen men were sitting in a circle of white plastic lawn chairs on the porch sharing an ornate nargila. Yusif greeted everyone and introduced us as we joined them. The house belonged to Amjad, a barrel-chested mechanical engineer with a neatly-clipped black mustache. One of the other men asked me in English where I was from.
“Oklahoma,” I said.
“Ah.” He looked confused. “You are Japanese?”
I smiled and shook my head. Another man in Egypt had made the same mistake. “No, not Yokohama. Oklahoma.”
“So you are from America?” Amjad asked. He had a booming voice, and his question might have sounded like an accusation if not for the amused expression on his face.
I paused. “Yes.”
He laughed. “You are ashamed?” I wasn’t ashamed, but I said nothing. It seemed wise to keep a low profile until I had a better idea of what was going on. “Do not worry,” he said reassuringly. “It is a good country. Good people. Just your government is bad. Arab people, we understand bad governments. Our governments are very bad.”
Yusif shook his head. “It seems like the nicest people have the worst governments.”
“Ah, Oklahoma!” the other man said, finally putting the pieces together. “Yes, Oklahoma City. It is a dangerous place?”
I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Cowboys? Indians?
“Wasn’t there a bombing?”
“A—? Oh, right. Yeah, well, there was one bombing.”
“But it was a very big bombing, yes? Many people killed.”
“Sure, it was very big. But it was one bombing almost ten years ago.” We were in occupied Palestine, and this guy was worried about Oklahoma being dangerous? I supposed that was what happened if you knew nothing about a place except its bombings.
Just then a goat came limping up the stairs and shyly peeked around at us. A man shooed it away, and it looked so startled and goofy, I laughed out loud. No one else did.
Yusif whispered to me, “The goats are living under the house because Amjad’s brother and father have been kicked off of their land by the Israelis. They have nowhere else to put them.”
I nodded, chastened, and made a mental note not to laugh at any more goats.
A man with a large black beard and kind eyes soon walked by on the street and said in a sonorous voice, “Salaam alaykum.” (Peace be upon you.) Everyone answered, “Wa alaykum al salaam,” (And upon you be peace) as he joined us in the circle. He was wearing a long white robe and a keffiya, the black-and-white checkered head scarf made famous by Yasser Arafat.
Yusif said something to him in Arabic. He turned to me. “Ah, you are new here.” He bowed his head politely. “Ahlan wa sahlan. You are very welcome. My name is Suleiman. Yusif wants me to sing for you. Is this OK?”
He took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts. “Do you know about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba?”
“Of course. They’re in the Bible, right?” I wondered why he was bringing up a Bible story.
“Yes, they are in the Bible. They are also in the Quran.”
“Oh.” I felt chastened again. After two months in the Middle East, I still knew almost nothing about Islam.
Suleiman smiled. “Yes, in Islam, we believe Solomon and his father David were wise rulers favored by God. But in Arabic, we call them Suleiman and Daoud. And Yusif” — he leaned back and indicated our blond British friend — “is Arabic for Joseph. Same same.” I nodded. Suleiman seemed pleased. “Listen, I will tell you the story.”
He cleared his throat and began to intone in that not-quite-singing, not-quite-speaking way people recite the Quran. Everyone else stopped their conversations to listen in. His voice was deep and clear and mesmerizing in its expressiveness as he swept us away to the wisdom and poetry of ages long past under desert moons and painted tiles. In my mind, Bible stories had always been associated with long, itchy Sundays in hard wooden pews. But his song and the setting transformed the old stories into something startlingly human-scale, rich, and real.
When he finished, everyone enjoyed a moment of reflective, appreciative silence. I smiled and thanked him, and he nodded graciously. Someone got up to make another pot of tea, and conversation resumed.
It was baffling to see everyone so full of energy and good humor, with smile lines around their eyes and warm welcomes for wandering foreigners, when wars and occupations were going on all around. They seemed to be enjoying a nice, carefree time on the porch with friends and neighbors drinking sweet tea in the clean night air, not unlike we did in Oklahoma, as the last lights faded from the coastal plains far below.
I could only shake my head and laugh at myself. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew this world.
You can read Part 3 of Chapter Two here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
Here’s a shiningly hopeful article about the Berkeley campaign to divest from Israeli occupation, and the turning point it represents in this country’s understanding of Israel/Palestine and our role in the conflict. The dam is bursting, make no mistake.
Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace reports that pro-justice groups on other campuses are contacting her requesting assistance finding speakers for other campus divestment campaigns, and I would like to offer myself as one of those speakers. I’ve developed a presentation that I’ve given on the Stanford campus, at the University of Oklahoma, at Google Tech Talks, and at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, DC.
It begins with pictures and stories of the good life in Palestine — students going to the Prom, people joking around at the olive harvest or drinking wine in secret lofts in Hebron, pictures of Osama’s Pizza parlor, Sangria’s beautiful beer garden, Muslims playing soccer on a field owned by a church, and the hilariously-named Stars & Bucks Cafe in central Ramallah, etc. I think this kind of thing is vital to humanize the Palestinians, who are mostly known in this country only as fanatical terrorists due to the one-sided nature of our media.
This is followed by facts, photos, and statistics of what the occupation does to these good people, from checkpoints, the Wall, and home demolitions to the shocking number of Palestinian children shot by Israeli soldiers, and the fact that almost no one is ever indicted for the wrongful killing of Palestinian civilians.
Finally I talk briefly about America’s support for Israel, why this support is going on, and what we can do about it.
A video of an early version of the talk was posted on Youtube and can be viewed here.
It makes an excellent “Palestine for Beginners” talk that puts things in a perspective rarely seen by mainstream Americans. It’s a sober, calm, non-inflammatory talk — just the facts — that offers both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of what the occupation means and why it is our responsibility to help end it. It was enjoyed and appreciated even by the Defense Department insiders who saw it at the Institute for Defense Analyses. They asked intelligent questions and seemed satisfied by my answers.
Please feel free to keep me in mind as a possible speaker for campus divestment initiatives. I’m very happy to travel and speak on this issue. You can reach me on pamolson (at) gmail.
It’s been a whirlwind in New York so far, after two years where all I had to worry about was learning to write a book, and writing one. A thousand thanks to the friends who’ve helped me with my transition to the big city. You know who you are, and you are the best.
Most of my energy so far has been consumed by networking with people who might be able to help with publishing and publicizing the book, looking for housing, and looking for a job. As for housing, I’m in a place in the East Village for a month with an NYU student and a guy who works at a comic book store (we’re always trying to out-nerd each other), and still looking for longer-term housing.
On the job front, it’s been harder than I anticipated to find a decent job in the city. When anyone gets a good bartending gig, they tend to sit on it forever, which means finding one for yourself is a matter of luck and connections. It was only through a connection with a friend from college who’s a regular at a Noho restaurant that I landed a position at possibly the best place to work in the city. It’s a high-end dim sum and Chinese BBQ place with fantastic ambience, amazing and creative drinks, and a staff that’s like one big family—Chinese cooks and Tibetan runners, an Israeli, a Swede, Aussies, Americans, people from every corner of Latin America, it’s a United Nations of food service.
Believe it or not, I actually enjoy working in the food service industry. You get to interact with so many people, and your whole day is spent in an atmosphere geared toward people having a good time. In general, like with traveling, it’s a shot in the arm to my faith in humanity. I find that if you treat people with kindness and respect, they almost always respond in kind. And if they don’t, it’s an indication of some kind of pathology or unhappiness or blindness in their life that hopefully they’ll be able to work through in the fullness of time, but it’s fundamentally not your problem.
Of course, everyone knows there’s a special place in hell for bad tippers. 😛
We share tips in a fair and egalitarian way (bartenders make about the same as waitresses, bussers and runners get a fair cut), everyone helps everyone else out, people are always playing little practical jokes and breaking meaningless rules while the managers roll their eyes, yet things go professionally and smoothly. I think the camaraderie among the staff is what gives it its vibe and makes the place what it is.
And we all understand that the job doesn’t define us, it’s just a reasonably pleasant way to make money. We all have creative interests outside of the restaurant, whether it’s painting, filmmaking, music, or writing, though admittedly the job takes a huge amount of time and energy away from those pursuits. Them’s the breaks until we make it big or find a patron like artists used to do in the old days.
I love New York because of the question you get when you meet someone new here: “So, what brings you to New York?” In that way it’s a lot like Ramallah and not at all like DC, where the first question is, “What do you do here?” followed by “What’s your security clearance?” People come to New York with a mission. The energy of the city at its best is of ambition that goes beyond money and status.
On the networking front, I’ve made tons of contacts and have endless more I want to follow up with, but I’ve barely had time to follow up with any of them because of all the time and energy taken up with finding a job and house. And then there’s trying to have a life—I have so man friends in the city I haven’t caught up yet with even though I’ve been here a month, and I have a standing invitation to a pick-up soccer game Tuesdays and Thursdays that I’ve still not managed to take up. I’m making the ultimate sacrifice of writing this email instead of watching the Real Madrid / Barcelona game because I just don’t know when else I’ll have time.
Then I was flattened with hay fever last week when spring decided to bust out all over (never had it nearly this bad before — still battling the congestion, coughing, sneezing, sore lungs, and losing half my body fluids through my nose each day, which is not a good thing when you’re starting work at a high-end restaurant), and now it’s time to do laundry and the one washer and dryer in my building is occupied.
Anyway, the point is, if I haven’t been in touch in person or over email in the past month, please forgive me, and please feel free to call or email me any time. Hopefully things will settle into a kind of equilibrium relatively soon. The weather is gorgeous, yellow flowers popping out of the sidewalk and trees blossoming pink and white and green, and once it all stops attacking my lungs with righteous fury, life should be pretty good. Definitely give me a buzz if you’re passing through the East Village in April, or NY any time.
There’s a huge amount to write about regarding Israel/Palestine/Washington, and precious little time to write about them, but I’ll give it a small go. So many things are shifting, so many little cracks are widening, it’s really exciting. The neocons are starting to slide out of favor and be replaced by Realists (who have their own problems, but at least they aren’t bat shit insane) like Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Colin Powell.
Netanyahu seems to have overplayed his hand when he spit in Joe Biden’s face by announcing new settlement expansion when the Vice President came to Israel to try to lay the groundwork for restarting peace talks. Etc. Obama is reportedly threatening to impose a two-state solution based on the Clinton parameters if Netanyahu doesn’t get serious fairly soon, which could have very interesting repercussions even if it might be too late to save a workable two-state solution, and now that he finally managed to push through health care reform(-ish), he’s got a little more political capital and space to work with.
And Palestinian non-violent resistance is getting front-page coverage in the New York Times, even if the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner (whose son recently joined the Israeli army) seems able to tell only half-truths, to misrepresent history (Palestinian non-violence is nothing new, it’s been going on for decades), and to give credit only where it’s not due (the Palestinian Authority is not leading non-violent resistance—at best they’re belatedly jumping on the bandwagon). He never mentions that the route of the Wall is illegal, for example, and almost never mentions how many Palestinians, including many children, have been killed by Israeli soldiers during non-violent protests.
Israel has started cracking down in even more devastating ways, including this news that made the blood drain from my face: A new Israeli army order that could be a prelude to mass deportations from the West Bank. Now there will be much tighter control of the Israeli army over Palestinian life, and foreigners’ lives in Palestine, and possible massive loss of careers, friends, plans, real estate, university, especially for Gazans living, working, studying, or even born in the West Bank, for no justified reason. Another mechanism to try to demoralize and destroy the Palestinians. This decision takes everything out of the civil courts, which seem to have some kind of human conscience, and into the army’s hands. The army is known for brutally deporting first and asking questions never.
But it’s another sign they’re getting scared. They know their days of dominance are numbered, and the Palestinians’ renewed sense of solidarity and confidence is driving them insane. These sea changes are just the tip of the iceberg. The Zionist stranglehold on American discourse, while still extremely powerful, seems to be in inevitable decline. See this piece by no less than Netanyahu’s nephew comparing Israel ’s occupation to Jim Crow and Apartheid.
Cynics say it’s all political theater, all words and no actions, nothing has changed and nothing ever will. I don’t blame them, because in the past, the cynics have always been right. But cynics were always right about slavery never ending until it ended, about women never getting the vote until they did, about Apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union never collapsing, until they collapsed. Cynicism may be emotionally satisfying (the world will never disappoint my hopes again, because I don’t have any!), but it’s not very constructive.
Mistaking cynicism for wisdom is exactly what the people who support the status quo want you to do. Don’t fall for it. Anyone with any familiarity with history knows there are many reasons for hope. The brave people of Palestine, and the brave Americans and Israelis who are bucking and changing the mainstream discourse to support their quest for their legitimate rights, have many reasons to hope, not the least of which are each other.
Which brings me to the main point of this email. The good news is, my friend Rania’s husband will be out of jail in about four months. (If you’re not familiar with the story of my good friend’s husband’s brutal and unjustified arrest by Israeli soldiers, you can read the story here.)
The bad news is, so far I’ve only raised enough money to support the family until the end of April. Rania’s been trying all she can to find a job, still unsuccessfully—the economy in her area is devastated, and she’s a small-town girl and doesn’t have connections to help her out. Her extended family is struggling to survive as well, and his extended family is mostly poor, dead, or in jail. So I’m doing one last drive to raise $1,000 to get them through these last three months with enough left over to give them a little cushion after he gets out, in case he has trouble finding work, too.
If 100 people can give $10 each, we’ll have successfully helped a family through their darkest year and can finally put this issue to rest!
My Paypal account is firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you’d rather mail a check, email me for details. I have friends in the West Bank who can receive the money from me and transfer it to her account.
A thousand barrels of love spilled into the blue oceans,
Note: You might want to read Chapter One first if you haven’t already.
After I finally remembered where Jesus was born, the guards only asked a few more questions and did a perfunctory baggage search before releasing me into northern Israel. The girl at passport control was even kind enough not to stamp my passport.
I emerged onto a twilit courtyard. My heart rate was still unsteady with the stress of the bizarre interrogation, and I knew that if my new friends were turned back, I’d be stranded here. But for now I was just glad to be off the tourist trail, lying to foreign authority figures about things I didn’t understand and heading to places about which my guidebook had nothing to say. I was unaccountably pleased by the simple fact that I had no idea what would happen next.
Half an hour later, to my immense relief, Yusif and Sebastian emerged together and discreetly indicated that I should follow them to an ink-blue sedan with a Palestinian driver and his young son. We squeezed in and motored off.
“We’re going to Cana first,” Sebastian said once we were underway. “It’s an Arab town in northern Israel near Nazareth. It’s famous for being the place where Jesus turned water into wine.”
“My friend Rami lives there,” Yusif said. “I met him when he was studying at Cambridge. We used to smoke nargila together in one of the courtyards.” Nargila was the local word for hookah.
“Rami’s father is an Arab Member of the Knesset,” Sebastian added impressively.
I nodded knowingly. I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what that meant.
Rami, a fresh-faced man with dark hair, olive skin, and an easy confidence, greeted his old friend Yusif. The living room had gleaming white walls and was decorated with an air of casual sophistication. Rami’s mother welcomed us in with tea and snacks.
Sebastian and Yusif had been invited to stay the night, which I hadn’t realized. Before I could ask if there was a hostel in town, I was invited to stay as well and given a place of honor in the oldest daughter’s room. Then we were treated to a lush dinner on the family’s rooftop veranda. Everyone spoke flawless English, and the food—grilled lamb, homemade tabouleh, baba ghannouj (a garlicky, smoky eggplant and tahini salad), and fluffy pita bread—was divine.
I’d become used to a certain level of hospitality in the Middle East. Ahlan wa sahlan, heard incessantly in the Arab world, is usually translated as “Welcome,” but a more literal translation is, “Be at ease, like one of the family.” I’d begun to take for granted that I would have a soft landing whenever I wandered off the beaten track. But this was bordering on outrageous. I kept rubbing my eyes and wondering what the catch was.
When I walked through the living room to wash up after dinner, I noticed an embroidered map of Israel plus the Palestinian territories — the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since 1967 — hanging on one wall. The word ‘Palestine’ and the names of several cities were stitched onto the map in Arabic along with an upraised fist.
In Jordan I had learned a little about the fallout from the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. Palestinians call it Al Nakba — ‘The Catastrophe.’ For Israelis, it’s their War of Independence.
By now I had learned that Rami’s family were among the Palestinians who had remained inside Israel after 1948 and that the Knesset was Israel’s parliament. I was surprised to see this map and symbol in the home of a man who worked in Israel’s government.
Into the West Bank
“You know what my last girlfriend said she liked about me?” asked Rami.
“Your nose?” said Yusif.
“Girls like my nose. They say it turns them on.”
“No, not my nose.”
“What, your eyes?”
“No, it’s not what you’d expect.”
“Your hair?” I offered. He had nice hair.
“Nope. Give up? My neck.”
“Yeah, isn’t that strange? My neck. Of all things. She said my neck was sexy.” He shook his head atop that irresistible neck.
It was the next morning, and Rami was treating us to breakfast at a hilltop restaurant owned by a friend of his. Afterwards he toured us around Cana’s two rival churches, both of which claimed to be built on the site of the First Miracle. At noon we settled into another café and ordered a nargila. Rami told us that after he’d graduated from Cambridge, he’d opened a club in Germany, and it had been a great success.
“But I sold it and left. I didn’t sell it because it was a failure. I sold it because it was a success. It made me afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” I asked.
“Afraid it would tempt me to leave here. Sometimes I think I would like to live somewhere else. But I don’t feel like I can leave here now.”
I wanted to ask him why. But I suspected it would be a long time before I was ready to understand his answer, and the day was too nice to try to tease a lecture out of him.
In the evening, Rami drove us south for an hour or so, then he turned east. The border between Israel and the West Bank is known as the Green Line, and we soon crossed it. Yusif said we were driving on a ‘settler road,’ which meant it was built on Palestinian land, but only cars with yellow Israeli license plates were allowed to drive on it. Palestinian cars with green license plates were forbidden.
Suddenly I began to feel nervous. Everything had been smooth up to this point. But now I was entering a bona fide conflict zone, not as a neutral observer but as a citizen of the country that bankrolled one side against the other. For all I knew it was full of broken, angry, unreasonable people who might look upon me as an enemy. An odd queasiness in my stomach reached a fever pitch as we drove deeper into Palestinian land on an Israeli road in an Israeli-plated car driven by a Palestinian-Israeli.
In the twilight, Rami pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. Yusif pointed to a massive pile of debris blocking a side street and told us to grab our things and climb over it quickly. “We don’t want any Israeli soldiers to see Rami and ask why he’s transporting people into a Palestinian area,” he explained.
Jesus, I thought dizzily. What’s left of Palestine doesn’t even have the dignity of a proper gateway into it. Just this ridiculous pile of garbage.
We thanked Rami and said good-bye, and then Yusif and Sebastian and I were climbing over the dusty pile of rubbish, and then…
We were in Palestine.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.