Dan in Palestine

Dan finally visited Jayyous the following weekend. The Gates of Azzun were closed, so Yusif and I had to meet him on a settler road and guide him through miles of rocky agricultural back roads. After a painstaking half-hour journey (which would have taken three minutes if the Gates of Azzun were open), we pulled onto Jayyous’s Main Street.

Dan felt uneasy driving in with his yellow-plated Israeli car. Yusif assured him it wouldn’t be a problem unless Israeli soldiers happened to invade that night, since it was illegal under Israeli law for Israeli civilians to enter certain Palestinian areas. Amjad’s neighbor, a kindly older woman, hid his car in her yard behind a privacy wall.

Yusif took us to a nargila circle on Qais’s family’s porch and introduced Dan to everyone. Dan was welcomed and offered a chair. One of the Palestinian men, who didn’t speak English or Russian, spoke with Dan in Hebrew. His tone and posture weren’t accusatory or angry, just very earnest, trying to get information across. Dan listened, blinking and nodding, taking it in. I saw the strain in his eyes and felt a deep admiration for him, following his openness into this vast unknown. After a while the Palestinian man smiled and said something politely. Dan answered in kind, and the man left.

Dan looked stunned. Sebastian had clearly enjoyed the shock on my face when I first got here. I had to admit, part of me enjoyed seeing Dan’s. It made me feel less alone.

After a while we all moved to Amjad’s porch, where Amjad and Dan chatted about their jobs. Amjad went in and grabbed one of his engineering textbooks, which was in English. Dan was surprised. Amjad explained, “Yes, we have to study many things in English because we don’t always have textbooks in Arabic for them.”

My mind began to drift as they chatted. I was absently watching Abu Amjad’s cigarette, waiting for his ashes to break off like a calving glacier, when I recalled something disturbing I had seen on Abu Nael’s porch while watching Mohammad the Charmer sort olives from leaves. Mohammad had put a plastic tub under a large fan and was slowly pouring grain sacks full of olives into the tub. The leaves blew out into a cone-shaped pile and the olives thudded into the tub, clean as a whistle, ready to be taken to the press, washed, and turned into oil. Some of the sacks had UN World Food Programme—Palestine printed on them.

“You know what I saw today?” I broke in. “Some of the sacks they were using to store olives in were from UN food donations. And I’ve seen people using donated vegetable oil to cook with. That’s like… I don’t know, like Russia donating wine to France.”

“I know,” Yusif said sadly. “There’s a bounty here. It’s just stolen.”

“Why doesn’t the UN do something instead of just giving handouts?”

Yusif chuckled softly. “That’s a very good question, Pamela.”

It was, in fact, a very naïve question, as I would find out in the months and years ahead.

Dan spent the night at Amjad’s place. In the morning I showed him the Fence and how much land it isolated. He was speechless.

As we were driving out of the West Bank, I said, “So, what did you think?”

He just looked at me, eyebrows raised.

“Come on, what did you expect?” I asked teasingly. “A bunch of bearded masked maniacs with a Kalashnikov in each hand just waiting for you to cross the Green Line so they could shoot you?”

He laughed. “Yeah, pretty much.” I laughed, too, because we both knew I’d halfway thought the same thing not long before. We felt almost giddy. How little we knew!

Minutes later we were in Kfar Saba, another world. We watched The Matrix Revolutions in an air-conditioned theater and drank flavored lattes in a marble mall full of $200 sunglasses and low-slung jeans. The cognitive dissonance was wrenching.

Mall at Kfar Saba

On the way back to the West Bank, I noticed a bumper sticker on a yellow-plated Israeli car in front of us. My eyes widened. I pointed it out to Dan, and he laughed incredulously.

The bumper sticker said: FREE TIBET.

Thunderstorm

I wandered over to Amjad’s porch a few nights later and found Yusif there alone. We lit up a nargila and watched a thunderstorm blow in from the Mediterranean, across the coastal plains, and up through the olive groves until rain began falling in heavy sheets around our porch sanctuary. The nightfall call to prayer sounded amid deafening thunder cracks.

“I love Jayyous’s muezzin,” Yusif said dreamily. “He was one of the reasons I decided to stay here. I heard his voice coming from the minaret and said, ‘This is it.’”

The muezzin’s voice was high and clear and had a sweet, broken longing to it. The fact that this tremulous disembodied voice was just a guy down the street, and we could go find him and talk to him if we wanted, gave it an even more intense feeling of being a bridge between heaven and earth, between the unspoken and the day-to-day. I thought about asking Yusif more about his past, but he was vague when confronted with direct questions. The only things I knew for sure was that his parents had converted to Islam before he was born and he was still a British citizen. He seemed to prefer being a kind of cipher, playing up the romance of life and living in the here and now. I had a feeling he ended up in Jayyous about as randomly as I did.

After the muezzin finished, Yusif drew on the nargila again. “What about you?” he asked as he exhaled a cloud of rose-scented smoke. “How come you followed us in here?”

“I don’t know. It was just kind of an impulse.”

He nodded. “I sensed you were on a quest when we first met you in Amman.”

I laughed. Quest, indeed. My views on the world had been in flux ever since I picked up a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was fifteen. The book had colored my small-town universe in with planets and galaxies, explorers and philosophers, until one day, mid-chapter, my Bible-centric view of the world collapsed. The floor dropped out from under me, and I was transported from a safe and comfortable but stuffy little room into a dizzyingly infinite void with nothing above or below, no sense of up or down. It was a feeling of thrilling liberation but also of sheer, nauseating terror. Since then, I had prided myself on being the most skeptical of skeptics, the most left-brained of left-brainers. I studied physics in large part because it seemed like the least dogmatic subject, the furthest possible thing from faith.

But one thing I learned while studying physics was that there were limits to scientific inquiry. Life, after all, wasn’t a controlled experiment. It was just one long chaotic iteration of infinite potential, utterly unique in all of creation. Learning how best to spend it would take more than the methods of science employed over the span of a lifetime. It fundamentally required a leap of faith in one direction or another, whether you realized you were taking it or not. My first post-religious ‘faith’ had been to organize my life around the images and expectations of my culture. That had collapsed shortly after I graduated from college.

My new version of faith, which I was slowly piecing together, seemed to be based on a more careful awareness of myself, the world around me, and the vague impulses that quietly directed my actions. You could call the source of these impulses God, the Tao, the muse, Allah, the collective unconscious, or a by-product of evolution as it blindly followed the laws of subatomic interactions. But labeling it wouldn’t get me any closer to understanding its nature or intentions, blind or otherwise.

Whatever it was, I was pleased with the results so far. Sitting under a thunderstorm on a porch in the West Bank with a seeker like Yusif was better than anything I could have thought up on my own, much less bought and paid for. I supposed I could only be grateful and hope the universe knew what it was doing. For now I had no better ideas.

“I’ve just been following my nose,” I said, “waiting for inspiration to strike.”

“I think you’re looking for light,” he said matter-of-factly. “And you shouldn’t worry. When you’re following your destiny, the whole world conspires to help you.”

I smiled. People had certainly been more helpful lately than I had any right or reason to expect. Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for this level of kindness from strangers.

“But it’s hard sometimes, letting go of the stories you think you know.”

“It’s true,” he said. “Some say the battle with your ego is the toughest jihad.”

I nodded and watched the rain, soaking up the luck of being where I was. Still, something tickled uneasily at the back of my mind. After a while I sighed. “But following your heart can be a pretty irresponsible business. All those people with all those expectations…”

He just looked at me and grinned.

Then I smiled, too, because I knew he was right.

Helicopters and Hellfire

We were walking around on Jayyous’s land a few days later when a helicopter flew by low over the village. Yusif pointed out the two Hellfire missiles it was carrying and guessed it was heading to Jenin or Nablus to assassinate someone.

I froze. Sebastian had told me about the havoc wreaked in Nablus when Israeli helicopters and jets attacked in broad daylight, blowing up cars in the middle of busy roads, targeting suspected militants and often killing innocent bystanders. A Japanese nurse had told me about treating kids in the Gaza Strip who’d been torn apart by shrapnel from Israeli missile strikes while on their way to school. But until now, I had never actually seen an armed aircraft on its way to incinerate human flesh.

My own flesh crawled and my mind raced. I wanted to say to Yusif, “Can’t we call someone in Jenin or Nablus and warn them?” If it was that easy, someone would have done it already. We couldn’t do anything but watch it fly over.

On Amjad’s porch that night, I sat silent and pensive. Sebastian and Yusif were talking about Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital since Israel had annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claimed for their capital, and isolated it from the rest of the West Bank.

“How can they look out for the people?” Yusif was saying in disgust, referring to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). “The PA leaders don’t have to live under the same occupation we’re living under. They collaborate with the Israelis because it’s the only way they can keep their positions of power. Some of them spend their weekends dancing and drinking with Israelis in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—sometimes literally sleeping with the enemy. You know, Pamela, some people think Fatah is worse than the Israelis.” Fatah was Yasser Arafat’s party, which dominated the PA. “Some people call them the second occupation. At least with Hamas, if you give them money to give to the poor, the poor people actually get it. If you give it to Fatah, you’ll be lucky if they get half.”

I nodded numbly.

“You remember those guys we talked to in Qalqilia?” he went on.

Sure, I remembered. Several days earlier we’d gone to Qalqilia to try to register Yusif’s charity organization with a Palestinian Authority ministry. The city was five miles from Jayyous, but we had to wind around and change taxis three times to get there. The city and its 40,000 inhabitants were completely surrounded by the Wall, a twenty-five-foot concrete structure punctuated by sniper towers. The only gate was controlled by an Israeli checkpoint. The town had been turned into one giant prison. It was the most insane and dispiriting thing I had ever seen. Yusif and I had walked down the shop-lined main street with its colorful racks of scarves fluttering in the breeze until we reached the Ministry office, where two shifty-looking men in ill-fitting suits offered us cups of bitter, lukewarm coffee.

“They tried to sell me out,” Yusif said.

“What does that mean?”

“The collaborators get bonuses from Israel if they name names and tell them what people are up to. They were only stopped by some higher-ups in the PA who knew me.”

He shook his head in disgust. “At least with Israeli soldiers, I can understand it. I used to be part of a militia in the Sudan, and we did some things I wasn’t proud of. We were part of what caused the famines in ’84. I finally realized how brainwashed I was, and I rejected Islam for a few years until I went on a quest to find out what it was really about. But at least I can empathize with that mentality. Palestinian collaborators? I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

I felt too tired and sad to listen any more. I went back to my little apartment on Thaher’s roof and went to sleep, wired and troubled.

When I woke up, I was alone on a small hilltop pasture. I noticed a helicopter flying low and carrying two missiles. When I blinked, it disappeared. My heart pounded in my ears as I strained to see or hear where it had gone.

Suddenly it powered its engines and kicked up dust as it emerged from where it had been hiding under a rise in the land about two hundred yards away from me. It focused in on my position and started toward me menacingly.

Armed Apache helicopter

I turned and ran, delirious with fear, and ducked into a small whitewashed goat shed. I huddled in a corner, hoping desperately that there wouldn’t be a deafening noise, a blinding light, a burning pain, and oblivion from which there was no appeal. The world spun crazily. Death from the sky—the depersonalized destruction of someone’s entire universe. Now maybe it had found me…

I awoke with a gasp, sweating and nauseous but overwhelmed by relief. I wanted to get some fresh air, but I was terrified a settler or soldier might see me on the roof and think I was a sniper. I imagined a little piece of metal slicing through my head, off-handedly consigning me to oblivion like so many in this region had already been, and decided to stay under my blankets.

* * *

The next morning I felt psychologically exhausted, as if the constant, machine-gun-like barrage of emotions and impressions had finally overloaded my circuits. But I felt ridiculous talking about my problems when everyone else had learned these terrible lessons a long time ago and was dealing with far worse now. Since I couldn’t deal with what was bothering me, little things started to get to me, like the kids shouting “Hallo!” a thousand times a day. And the toilets never had paper, just a little plastic jug of water or a hose next to the toilet, which I didn’t know how to use. How could I practice aiming without soaking my pants? Even if I learned to aim properly, how would I dry myself? I didn’t dare ask because I was terrified someone might be solicitous enough to offer a demonstration.

Israel had also reduced shipments of diesel to the West Bank, so there was a shortage of electricity in Jayyous. The village had refused to connect to the Israeli power grid because they didn’t want the Israeli government to coerce them by threatening to cut the electricity off. The villagers had pooled their money and bought a diesel generator instead. Unfortunately, Israel also controlled the West Bank’s imports and exports, so Israel could stop or slow diesel shipments whenever they liked. Because of the current shortage, Jayyous had to shut its electricity off every evening at midnight. It wasn’t so bad doing things by candlelight, but it was another depressing manifestation of Israel’s total control over every facet of life.

I was also getting bored sitting around watching Arabic music videos all day. I had finished all the books I brought with me, including All Quiet on the Western Front, which did absolutely nothing to improve my mood. And people wouldn’t just say “Hi” when I passed them on the street. They’d ask, “Ahlan, keef halek?” (Hi, how are you?) “Ila weyn?” (To where?) “Maa meen?” (With whom?) And my favorite: “Leish?” (Why?) I knew they were only being polite, but I was starting to resent people constantly being all up in my business, especially when it was impossible to answer truthfully.

“How am I doing? I’m shattered, thanks. I’m dealing with emotional and intellectual shocks that everyone around me takes for granted, which makes the trauma I’m feeling seem absurd, naïve, and trivial. When I get home, no one will understand what I’ve gone through, so my feeling of isolation will only get worse. It’d be great if I could at least get a hug now and then, but we’re in Haraam-town, where pre-marital necklines are forbidden. Everyone acts so relentlessly cheerful in the face of all this horror it’s starting to drive me nuts. I feel like an ass because I can’t deal with any of this except by feeling irritated, my blood sugar’s low from fasting, the insomnia I finally got rid of last year is coming back, and when I finally do get to sleep, half the time I’m woken up by nightmares. How about you? How was your day?”

Al hamdulillah. That was all I could say.

Settlement

Near the end of Ramadan, Dan visited Jayyous again and joined us on Amjad’s porch. Amjad was in the middle of a diatribe about his beloved aunt who lived in a nearby village.

“She is like a mother to me,” he was saying. “She practically raised me and Amir. Then they built the settlement Ariel and closed all the roads, and I didn’t see her for three years. Three years! I have to use a settler road to get there, but I don’t have Israeli license plates.”

He shook his head disgustedly. Then a look of revelation crossed his face. He looked at Amir, and Amir’s eyes lit up, too. They both looked at Dan.

Dan understood. He said, “I can drive you there, it’s no problem.”

While Dan was driving us along the settler road, an intense wave of guilt washed over me. I had dragged Dan into the West Bank without warning him how upsetting it might be. And here he was, helping my Palestinian friends, which could get him into trouble with his own government if he got caught, and if he did, I would feel personally responsible, and terrible.

Amjad might have noticed my troubled expression, because he asked in a concerned voice, “Ya Bamila, keef halek?”

I said exasperatedly, “Mish mabsoota!” (Not happy!)

Taken aback, the brothers simultaneously asked, “Leish?” (Why?)

I couldn’t help but laugh. “That! Exactly that!”

“Shu, yani?” Ajmad asked politely (What do you mean?), and Amir said, “Keef?”

My frustration dissolved into giggles. “Mish mohem,” I said. (It’s not important.) How could I seriously be annoyed by such overwhelming concern for my well-being?

We dropped the brothers off near the roadblock at the entrance to their aunt’s village, and they walked across. We couldn’t park Dan’s car there because Israeli soldiers might find it and ask questions. I suggested we check out Ariel, the huge settlement built almost in the geographic center of the northern West Bank, just to see what it was like. Dan had never been there, either.

We drove up the massive hill Ariel was built on, passed a security gate and dozens of white houses with red tiled roofs, and found a pedestrian mall with open-air shops and restaurants and a few outdoor TVs. It was an eerie feeling, being there. Ariel’s expansion had been the reason Amjad’s aunt’s village was closed off and Amjad was forced to rely on the charity of a Russian immigrant to visit her. Settlements in general were the reason for most of the checkpoints, road blocks, and license plate rules and the devastating route of the Fence.

And here were the settlers’ lily-white kids, smack in the middle of the West Bank, wearing trendy clothes, watching Israeli news in Hebrew, eating kosher pizza, and arm wrestling with cute girls, as if everything was perfectly normal.

We sat on a picnic table and looked around in a kind of daze until it was time to drive back to the settler road and pick up the Palestinian brothers.

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Note: You can reach the third and final part of Chapter 3 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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