CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE

Part 1

On the third day of Ramadan, I tagged along with Yusif and Sebastian to Nablus, the largest city in the northern West Bank. Idyllically situated in a long valley between two rolling mountains, it’s historically known as the Uncrowned Queen of Palestine. Its casbah or Old City is one of the most spectacular and intact in the Middle East. The town’s specialties include olive oil soap made in ancient factories and kunafa, a warm, cheesy dessert covered in spiced shredded wheat, smothered in vanilla-citrus syrup, and topped with crushed pistachios. But I was most excited about the Turkish baths. My guidebook said Nablus had some of the oldest functioning public baths in the world.

Kunafa from Nablus

The city was only about twenty miles from Jayyous, but we had to take a dizzying series of winding back roads to get there. Each time we hit a checkpoint or roadblock, we had to get out of our cab, climb over the roadblock or walk through the checkpoint, and find another cab.

After we’d gone through several of these barriers, I said to Sebastian, “I thought the checkpoints were mostly along the Green Line, or at least along the Fence.”

He shook his head. “Nope. They’re everywhere.”

Yusif said, “One of our Palestinian teachers lives ten kilometers away from our headquarters in Nablus, but it takes him two to three hours to get through the checkpoint. If he can’t get through, he has to walk five kilometers over the mountains carrying all his materials.”

“But what’s the point?”

Sebastian grinned. “Protecting the settlers, of course.” He seemed to enjoy the constant look of shock on my face.

Along the way we passed several Israeli settlements, mostly on hilltops. Their identical white houses with red-tiled roofs were plunked down in perfect rows like Monopoly pieces, in stark contrast to the variegated and organic Palestinian villages. Occasionally I saw groups of settlers walking among picturesque Palestinian olive groves with sleek automatic weapons slung over their shoulders like fashion accessories.

We were near the geographical center of the northern West Bank, just south of Nablus, when we came across a massive checkpoint near a village called Huwara. It was known as the Huwara Checkpoint; apparently most checkpoints were named after the village they were closest to. We joined a line of pedestrians that snaked on for a quarter-mile or more. Everyone was funneled toward a fenced-in pathway that looked like a cattle chute. Soldiers with assault rifles checked people’s documents and rummaged through their bags and decided whether or not to let them through. A sniper tower draped sloppily in camouflage netting hovered above.

I saw a soldier standing by the line watching the proceedings contentedly. I walked over and said to him, “What are you doing? What is the point of this?”

He looked me up and down. “What’s in your backpack?”

“Clothes and books. Want to see?”

He said dismissively, “Well, you never know, some crazy Muslim might come and try to blow us all up. Where are you from?”

“I’m from America. And I’m hungry.”

“You could have screamed you were American. We would have waved you through.”

My face colored at his presumption and his casual assumption that I shared it. “We’re all hungry,” I said evenly. “We’re fasting for Ramadan.”

The soldier’s demeanor changed instantly. “What, are you a Muslim?” he asked distastefully. “Are your parents Muslim?”

I hadn’t expected that reaction at all. I was acting like a child, talking back to the grown-ups to test how much I could get away with. I decided to keep my mouth shut until I had a better idea what was going on. I ignored the soldier’s question and melted back into the crowd.

Inch by inch, two hours later I presented my passport to the soldiers on duty, trying to ignore the M-16 assault rifles casually pointed toward the crowd, and made it through the checkpoint along with my two companions. On the other side we caught a bus to Nablus. We had only gone a few blocks when we were stopped at a ‘flying checkpoint’ — an armored Hummer parked in the road and pulling people over. Israeli soldiers ordered us off our bus, sorted out half the passengers, mostly young and middle-aged Palestinian men, and made them stand by the side of the road. The rest of us were allowed to get back on the bus.

As the bus pulled away, I looked back at the men left behind. One of the Israeli soldiers said something to them over the Hummer’s loudspeaker as we drove away. Then he broke into a short song in Hebrew that ended, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Our bus soon topped a ridge and the full view of Nablus opened up in front of us, nestled in its valley and built of indigenous white stone, but I was too distracted and depressed to notice much. We got off the bus in the center of town and walked toward the famed Old City.

View from a Nablus Old City roof

I asked Sebastian if we could visit a Turkish bath or soap factory. I thought that might cheer me up. He shook his head. “Some of them have been destroyed by the Israeli army. I’m not sure which ones are working anymore.”

It hadn’t even occurred to me that ancient tourist sites might have been affected by the violence. I nodded and kept my shocked disappointment to myself.

As we neared the Old City, I began to see tattered posters of young Palestinian men carrying assault rifles. Yusif said they were resistance fighters who had been killed by the Israeli army. He took us into a house in the Old City whose windows and doors were crowned by arches of cut stone. The living room walls were lined with hand-painted tiles. Yusif spoke to the adults in Arabic while Sebastian and I were entertained by seven or eight children in the family room. Yusif said the family had recently been kicked out of their house by Israeli soldiers, and their home had been used as an army base for two days. This was apparently a common practice.

After we left, Yusif pointed up and down the narrow Old City street lined with shops and tawny stone housing units and said, “They have gun battles in here almost every night. The fighters take up positions, and everyone blocks the roads and takes up defensive positions in their houses to wait for the Israelis to come in. You can hear the bullets flying all the way down these old passageways. There’s nothing in the world quite like it.” He sounded almost nostalgic.

We caught a cab to a house where several internationals lived, mostly Italians. They were busy preparing the Iftar, the sunset meal that broke the day’s fast. I introduced myself and started slicing tomatoes and mashing chickpeas, trying not to think about what I’d seen that day.

The call to prayer sounded five times a day in the Muslim world — at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. It was sung by a muezzin and broadcast electronically from the mosques’ minarets, reminding everyone that God was the greatest (Allahu akbar), there was no god but God (La ilaha ila Allah), and Mohammad was His Messenger (Mohammad rasul Allah). Each day’s Ramadan fast began at the dawn call and ended after the sunset call.

After the sunset call sounded that day, we gathered around our feast. I’d cheated a little and at least drunk tea on my first days of fasting. Today nothing at all had passed my lips, and my body was starting to adjust and expect food around this time. As I ate, slowly and thankfully, at peace and among new friends, I felt like every cell in my body had just had a two-week vacation in the Caribbean and was coming home lean, tanned, and relaxed to a hot meal and a massage. Every little neighborhood in my body tingled, wriggled, laughed, and broke into spontaneous applause. Whatever it was, it felt good.

Dan in Israel

I was due to meet Dan the Russian-Israeli at the Jerusalem central bus station the next evening. The Nablus-to-Jerusalem route, a little over forty miles as the crow flies, took most of the next day. I had to change cabs six times. At one ‘flying checkpoint’ on a random stretch of road, an Israeli soldier pulled us over and forced everyone out of the cab. We had to walk in the dark and cold for forty minutes carrying all our luggage until we found another ride.

It was a happy relief to see Dan again after so much craziness. We caught up over dinner, then he drove us north to his apartment in Kfar Saba, an Israeli town coincidentally just a few miles from Jayyous. Before I nodded off on his couch, he asked if I wanted to go to the canyon the next morning. I happily agreed. I didn’t care which canyon, as long as we got away from soldiers and Walls and politics for a while.

He drove us toward the city center the next morning. I said jokingly, “There’s a canyon in the middle of Kfar Saba?”

“Yeah, a big one. It’s really nice.” I looked at him strangely. My guidebook hadn’t said anything about Israeli cities with canyons in the middle of them.

We soon pulled into a desultory parking lot. After a security guard checked our trunk, we parked and headed toward what looked like a large shopping mall.

I stopped short. “There’s a canyon in that mall?”

“A what?” He furrowed his brow for a moment. Then he burst out laughing. “Sorry,” he said, “kanyon is Hebrew for ‘mall.’ It’s kind of the main attraction around here.”

“Ah.” I was laughing, too. “Finally it all makes sense. But honestly, I was hoping for something a little more outdoorsy.”

“Hm… Maybe we can visit Haifa?”

Haifa was a lovely seaside city north of Tel Aviv with a mixed Jewish and Arab population. After touring the town, we went swimming in the Mediterranean, camped on the beach, and shared Israeli wine and Russian cheese. It was a perfect day, carefree and fun.

The next morning we drove up to the Sea of Galilee and had breakfast at a café near the water. The ‘sea’ was technically a lake, ten miles wide and still as a mill pond. The yellow-green hills of the Golan Heights towered solidly above it. I said to Dan, “This was seriously where all the disciples thought they were going to drown in a giant storm?”

He laughed. “I know. I always thought it was like the Black Sea or something, but it’s just this little lake.” He shook his head. Nothing was what it seemed around here.

The Lake of the Galilee

While we ate, I told him a little about what I had seen in the West Bank—the Fences, the martyr posters in Nablus, the checkpoints and roadblocks. He listened with his usual openness, but at times he looked doubtful. I said, “Why don’t you come visit me in Jayyous? It’s only about five miles from where you live. I’ll ask Yusif if it’ll be a problem, but I don’t think so.”

“Is it even possible with all the roadblocks?”

“We might have to wait until the Gates of Azzun are open. That’s what they call the pile of rubble that blocks the road to Jayyous. But I think there’s a way to go around it.”

He looked confused. “If there’s a way to go around, what’s the point?”

“Look, don’t ask me. None of this makes any sense to me. I’m going to have to do a lot of research when I get home.”

“Yeah…” He paused for a long moment, then sighed. “But you have to put it in context. Last year, there was a suicide bombing practically every week, it was… unbelievable. The mall we were in yesterday was bombed last year. Three weeks ago a suicide bomber killed twenty people in a restaurant in Haifa. Just innocent people having a meal.”

I sighed and looked out over the water. What I had seen in the West Bank was terrible, but there was another side to the story, after all. I tried to imagine the horror of a suicide bombing, of people sitting around in a café having a meal, and then all of a sudden—

I started and glanced around at the patrons in our little café. I was relieved not to see anyone with a suspiciously bulky midsection and an eerily calm expression. But nothing could prepare me for what I’d feel nearly a year later when two busloads of people were not so lucky.

Ramadan Daze

Rania was overjoyed when I got back to Jayyous and asked if I could teach English with her during the month of Ramadan. Our students were mostly fifteen-year-old girls with laughing eyes and perfectly-sculpted eyebrows, sweet and funny and eager to learn. We had classes three times a week, two hours each. I spent most of the rest of the long, hungry days sitting on the cushions in Rania’s living room watching Arabic music videos. Rania’s mother was constantly trying to feed me, but for the most part I fended her off and maintained a respectable fast.

Rania was thin but strong, her voice soft and girlish, and her gestures and inflections tended toward the melodramatic. Her English was adorably non-standard, like a slightly faulty textbook that had picked up odd bits of slang. She often said things in Arabic first, then in English, which helped me tremendously to pick up the language. Her family had built their house and bought the lovely parlor furniture in better times, “before the Wall.” Her father was in Jordan running a small shop. Two of her brothers were policemen in the nearby city of Qalqilia, and another was in the Jordanian military.

Rania had tried studying to be a midwife, but she’d fainted at the sight of blood and had to drop out. Until the English teaching job came along, she said she’d felt like Cinderella, cooking and cleaning while her sisters studied and had fun. Rania’s two oldest sisters were married, and her next-youngest sister was studying to be a midwife now. The youngest, Rasha, was only ten. Rania hoped to make enough money teaching English to put herself through college in psychology, but her mother, who seemed jealous of her smart and sweet-natured middle daughter, was making it difficult. Sometimes she forced Rania to clean the house instead of teaching English, and at the ripe age of twenty-three, she was under pressure to get married.

While we watched TV, Rania’s sisters and I played a game called Helou mish helou, which meant ‘Sweet not sweet’ and referred to how attractive the singers on the music videos were. The women were generally quite helweh (feminine of helou) except the ones who wore so much eyeliner they looked like raccoons, but the men were far below average compared to what I had seen on the streets in the Middle East. Our favorites were Nancy Ajram, a flirty, dark-haired Lebanese girl, and an Egyptian hunk with a honey silk voice named Amr Diab.

Some of the videos were oddly explicit for this conservative Muslim town. In one of them, a raven-haired Egyptian named Ruby, wearing tight track pants and a sports bra, slowly pedaled a stationary bike in a highly suggestive manner while she sang. It was always incongruous to be watching those scantily-clad women gyrating away while we waited, starved and dehydrated, for our small-town muezzin to remind us that God was the greatest.

Rania’s house was on the opposite end of town from my rooftop apartment, so I had to walk up and down Main Street a lot. Every time I did, aside from the fifty kids waving and shouting “Hallo!” from all directions, I would run into a dozen people I knew or who knew about me or who just thought I looked like I could use a cup of tea. Half of them invited me into their parlors and insisted I join their family for Iftar. Getting anywhere on time and making sure not to double-book myself for dinner became a serious problem. My saving grace was the cheerfully equivocal phrase, Insha’Allah (‘God willing’), which could mean anything from, “I will be there unless I get run over by a car,” to “I have absolutely no interest, thanks, but who knows? Maybe the five other invitations I have tonight will fall through.” (We have a similar saying in Oklahoma, though it’s used far less often: “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”)

Each evening before sunset, everyone gathered at their dinner tables looking like broken puppets. As the call to prayer sounded and the food arrived, we slowly re-animated into chatting, good-natured human beings again. It was best to start with soup, a date or two, and fruit juice to get a little blood sugar spike and let it spread over your body before starting on the main course. In practice, huge mounds of food were almost always placed on my plate immediately. My favorite was maqlouba, a dish with baked chicken, fried cauliflower, and eggplant embedded in a mound of rice plumped with broth and spices. After the casserole was removed from the oven, it was flipped over onto a serving platter (hence the name, which meant ‘upside down’ in Arabic), sprinkled with toasted slivered almonds and pine nuts, and served with fresh yogurt, vegetable soup infused with cardamom, and farmer’s salad.

After a few hours of digestion and conversation, the hostess would present us with tea, coffee, and fresh fruit, homemade kunafa, harisa (syrupy semolina cakes), or date cookies. It took me several days to wise up enough to ask Yusif to teach me a phrase that would prove critical to my digestive health: Ana shabana. (‘I’m full.’)

A Ramadan greeting card showing families enjoying the after-dark festivities. The Arabic script at the top right says Ramadan Karim, 'May you have a bountiful Ramadan'

Rania’s family invited me to Iftar almost every night, but I managed to spend a few with the mayor’s family, and Yusif invited me to Qais’s house sometimes as well. Qais was usually away at school in Jenin, but his older brother Shadi was one of Yusif’s best friends, and I could immediately see why. Even taller than Qais, he had an otherworldly aura of calm about him, and he always seemed to be concealing a cosmic joke behind his eyes. Qais’s family had the best porch in town under a thick grapevine canopy with a panoramic view all the way down to the Mediterranean where the lights of Tel Aviv shone against the darkening sea. We often ate out there in the cool night air.

One evening after Iftar, I joined a nargila circle on Amjad’s porch and noticed a man sitting among the crowd who looked European. He was introduced to me as an Israeli named Ilan who was developing a plan to project videos from Palestine into public spaces in Israel. He explained that most people in Israel had no clear idea of what was happening to the Palestinians, and many had stopped watching the news altogether because it was too depressing.

“And the news doesn’t even tell half the story,” he said, and everyone nodded knowingly. He had apparently visited Jayyous several times, and everyone seemed to enjoy his luminous smile, lovely Hebrew accent, and calm personality. Another time we were joined by a Japanese photographer who was marketing Palestinian olive oil in Japan and a Canadian who said he used to teach English in Saudi Arabia. I asked what he thought of Saudi Arabia.

He smiled ruefully. “Twenty-three is the wrong age to be there hormonally.”

Palestine was, of course, much more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Women could drive, vote, and wear pants, and in the bigger cities, many women chose not to wear the head scarf. But here in the village, every woman wore a head scarf, and they rarely joined us in groups that included men they didn’t know well. The system of scarves and situational segregation seemed designed to protect women from men and men from their desires, and it seemed excessive and unfair to me. But Palestinians could have judged and dismissed me, an American and a non-Muslim, for any number of reasons. Instead, they chose to suspend judgment and see the good. Until I knew a great deal more, I decided to return the favor.

I loved how people would sweep in, bring their richness to the moment, and then go on their way. The usual accoutrements of identity—job, education, family, nationality—hardly seemed to matter. I appreciated how people treated me like an equal, or at least like a promising student, and patiently explained things to me when I got confused. Amjad, the barrel-chested engineer, was like a big brother, gruff and humorous, always poking fun at me. His brother Amir was shy and quiet and barely spoke English, but when he did speak, what he said was usually worth listening to. Of all the things I thought Palestine might be, I never would have imagined this colorful collection of characters with their open eyes and open faces, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. I felt like I was being let in on an important secret, something I wasn’t supposed to know.

As the days passed, I learned more Palestinian Arabic, like that Keef halek? meant ‘How are you?’ and the proper response was Al hamdulillah, or ‘Thanks and praise to God.’ Yusif said you were supposed to say it even if your dog had just died and your house had been bulldozed, because even in the worst situation you were supposed to remember that everything was a gift from God. I loved how it rolled off my tongue like a provincial greeting in Robin Hood’s Nottingham, and it was nice to be in a place where I could express my gratitude for life so openly. It reminded me of how I’d felt in the Sinai.

I learned that Baarafish meant ‘I don’t know’ and Maa al salaama meant ‘Good-bye.’ Al yom meant ‘today’ and bukra meant ‘tomorrow.’ Tisbah ala khair meant ‘Good night’ and Sabah al khair meant ‘Good morning.’ If someone bade you good morning, the proper response was Sabah al noor, or ‘Morning of light.’ Every day I learned a new poetic call-and-response.

Little by little, Arabic was beginning to sound more like a colorful, rocky waterfall and less like an alien, cacophonous jumble.

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Note: You can reach Chapter 3 Part 2 here.

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You can view the book’s website here and Amazon page here.

You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.

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