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In honor of Ramadan — a month that means so many things to so many people, but to me will always mean nightly feasts in Jayyous — I’m posting the last excerpt from my book that I plan to post on this blog: the conclusion of Chapter 3: Behind the Fence.
To read all posted excerpts (including all of Chapters 1, 2, and 3), go to the online Table of Contents on my website.
Ramadan blessings to all!
CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE — Part 3
When Ramadan was almost over, I called Dan to see if we could hang out one last time before I headed back to Jordan. He said he could pick me up at the Gates of Azzun and drive me to the bus station in Jerusalem whenever I was ready. I said I couldn’t thank him enough.
“By the way,” he said, “did I ever tell you what happened when I was leaving the West Bank last time?”
“Yeah, well… The checkpoint near the Green Line had been moved, and I didn’t notice. I drove straight through. Army Jeeps started chasing me with their lights flashing. Somehow I didn’t notice that, either. I was listening to music, you know, kind of distracted. Finally they put their sirens on and ordered me to pull over and get out. When I got out of the car, they were all aiming their guns at me.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face. “What happened?”
I could tell he was still shaken up, but he just laughed and said, “I told them in Hebrew that I was Israeli. They looked very relieved I didn’t look like a terrorist.”
My head dropped into my hands. My God, if that had gone badly…
* * *
Near the end of November, a silver sliver of moon signaled the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid al Fitr, the three-day Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. At first I could hardly bear to eat in the middle of the day because my stomach was so shriveled from fasting, but soon my natural appetite began to come back. Two neighborhood boys sang jubilant calls to prayer from the mosque’s minaret, and by the end of three days, I had eaten my weight in the signature dessert of the holiday, a syrupy pancake folded over sweet cheese called qatayef.
Packs of kids occasionally set off fireworks to celebrate the holiday, which set my teeth on edge, and some of the boys got toy guns for their Eid presents. I’d played with plenty of guns as a kid in Oklahoma, both fake and real, and the guns of the Israeli soldiers literally ruled these kids’ lives. It must have been empowering to get behind one now and then, even a fake one. Still, every time I saw a munchkin emerge from a side street carrying what looked like a rifle, my heart jumped into my throat.
If the hospitality gauntlet of Jayyous was bad during Ramadan, it was positively oppressive during the Eid. I couldn’t walk ten feet without being invited into someone’s doorway with a cry of “Tfadaleh!” (‘Come on in!’). The five-minute walk across town could easily take two hours. It was like walking through wet tar. I was torn between feeling exhausted by Jayyous and knowing how terribly I would miss it as soon as I left.
At the end of the first Eid day I joined the men on Amjad’s porch. Qais was there, back from Jenin, and Yusif, and all the usual suspects, talking and joking and being outraged and delighted, sometimes both at the same time.
Before I left, he asked when I would uyezhaesh (leave) from Palestine. I told him I planned on leaving after the Eid was over. He asked if I would ever vernioshsya (return).
“Konechno,” I said. (Of course.)
As I said it, it occurred to me that it might even be true.
The Last Picnic
On the last day of the Eid, I made my rounds saying good-bye to everyone I knew in Jayyous. It was impossible to see everyone I wanted because each family insisted I stay for lunch, or a snack, or dinner, or dessert, or coffee, or fruit, or all six. I saved Amjad, Yusif, and Qais for last because I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
I was ridiculously behind schedule by the time I got to Rania’s house. After Rania and I said tearful good-byes, Rania’s mother waved and said, “Ashufik, ah?” (We’ll see you, yes?)
I put my hand over my heart. “Always.”
She looked startled. Rania turned to me and asked, “What you say?”
“I said ‘always.’”
She laughed her girlish laugh. “Ah, Bamila, she does not know this word. For us it is a kind of… how you say… sanitary napkin.”
“Ah.” My face flushed. “Well, for us it is, too, but it’s also a word. How do you say ‘always’ in Arabic?”
“Ah, daiman!” Rania’s mother said. “Yes. Always. See you always.” She laughed.
When I got to Amjad’s place, my second-to-last stop, I was overjoyed to see that Qais was already there watching TV in the living room. He stood up when he saw me.
“Where have you been?” he asked. “I came here specially to see you.”
As I fumbled for words in Russian to explain, I finally realized. Until this moment, I had merely noted that Qais was tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, funny, and kind. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was Jayyous, after all, and I was just passing through. But such thoughts had only masked feelings that were suddenly undeniable.
Amjad and Amir soon showed up and sat with us for a last evening chatting together and watching the world go by. When it was time to go, I wasn’t sure how to say good-bye to the brothers or express what my times on their porch had meant to me.
As I opened my mouth to try, Amir suddenly asked, “How many brothers you have?”
“Um, just one,” I answered, taken aback by the apparent non sequitur.
“No.” His eyes smiled. “You have three.” He looked at Amjad, and Amjad’s eyes smiled, too.
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Maa al salaama, ya akhuy.”
Qais and I slowly walked toward his house for a last nargila together. Along the way we ran into the mayor and his son Mohammad the Charmer, who shook my hand and said all the warm, poetic good-byes I had learned in Arabic and some I didn’t know. I smiled gratefully through stinging tears. It was impossible to imagine I might never see these people again.
Yusif and Shadi were hanging out on the porch when we got to Qais’s place. They were talking about a barbecue planned for the next day near a cave on Jayyous’s land. The more they talked about it the better it sounded until I was practically fidgeting in my chair I wanted to go so badly.
“It’s really a shame you won’t be there,” Yusif said kindly.
“I know,” I said miserably. “It’s just that Dan is picking me up tomorrow to take me to Jerusalem so I can catch a bus to Jordan.”
Qais, never one to be perturbed, said, “Invite him to come, too.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? I called Dan, and he agreed to join us the next day.
Yusif slept over at Qais and Shadi’s house that night and arranged for me to stay with them. We slept on foam mattresses in the living room floor with Qais positioned as far from me as possible. (Yusif and Shadi took it upon themselves to be the haraam police.) The electricity went off at midnight, and we stayed up talking by the light of an oil lamp for another hour. Qais reached over once to trim the wick and brushed his hand against mine. We met eyes and smiled. It was a maddening taste of what might be possible if only it weren’t impossible.
In the morning Qais and Shadi, wearing white cotton undershirts, wet and combed their hair in the sink on the front porch with its little broken mirror, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Shadi and Yusif seasoned pieces of chicken and put them in a bucket. Other folks brought tea and veggies, a small grill and a nargila.
Dan drove in and joined us, and we all caravanned out to a spot whose view was unsullied by the Fence or any settlements—one of the few such places left. We made our way to a clearing with a soft, pretty view down into a valley, and Shadi showed me a little cave where they’d stored provisions. Someone dragged an old mattress out, and one of Qais’s cousins did amateur gymnastics on it. Qais told me he’d studied kickboxing in Russia, and he showed off some impressive spin kicks. The big boys threw one of Qais’s nephews around like a football, and he laughed and laughed.
After we thoroughly tired ourselves out, we sat down for a rest. Qais told me his classes would start again in Jenin the next day, and he’d be leaving early the next morning. “I was going to leave last night,” he said, “but I couldn’t miss this.”
“When will you come back to Jayyous next?” I asked.
“It will be a long time, probably.”
He half-smiled. “Because you won’t be here.”
Dinner was called soon. We feasted on grilled chicken and onions and tomatoes, hummus and olives and fresh yogurt and pickles and tea. We used bread to scoop the food and threw chicken bones and olive pits behind our heads with a careless feeling of infinite space and plenty. Qais and Dan, a Palestinian and an Israeli, chatted in perfect Russian — Qais with his dark, intelligent, slightly mischievous black eyes and Dan who’d been brave enough not only to venture into enemy territory but to find friends there.
After dinner we walked around and talked and picked wildflowers. I took a picture of Yusif, Qais, and Shadi with their arms slung around each other, smiling as freely as children against a backdrop of olive tree hills, feathery clouds, and a powder-blue sky.
I tried to capture the larger image of the day in my mind, a fleeting feeling of being flooded by good fortune, of stumbling into a place so exotic yet strangely homelike, witnessing for myself that even in the middle of one of the most protracted and ugly conflicts on earth, moments like this were still possible.
My three weeks in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey were a lovely blur infused with missing the Holy Land so badly it was an almost physical pain.
As soon as I got back to California, I felt desperate to share what I had learned and find out what it meant. Whenever Dan was hanging out with us in Jayyous, it seemed like the whole conflict should evaporate any second, shriveled and shamed by its own depraved pointlessness. Yet thousands of highly-qualified people had been working on the problem for decades with no end in sight. I wanted to understand why.
I got my first clue when I began talking with friends about what I had seen. Some were skeptical, which was understandable. Others refused to believe things I had seen with my own eyes. Several, who had never been anywhere near the Middle East, informed me that I was naïve and I must have been brainwashed. More than one made vicious generalizations about Arabs and Muslims that they’d never dare make about any other race or religion. It was so bizarre to see friends turn into different people around this issue, I almost began to question my own sanity.
Then I talked with Michel, my Lebanese ex-boyfriend, who had grown up in Beirut during the wars. I poured out my stories to him, and he smiled knowingly. When we’d been dating, he’d never talked about the conflicts he’d lived through, and now I understood why. Trying to explain that kind of situation to someone who had never been in it was virtually impossible. I also joined Arab student groups on the Stanford campus, and they welcomed me as one of their own. It was such a relief to find people who understood the feelings and experiences I had been through, with no explanations necessary.
But I also wanted to understand the mentality that lived on the other side of this strange psychological wall. I audited a class on the history of Zionism, attended Israeli film festivals, spoke with Jewish professors, attended every lecture and discussion and read every book I could find, and joined an Israel/Palestine dialogue group. I had to research furiously to keep up, and soon it was impossible to see things in black and white. The deeper I dug, the deeper I saw there was to dig, right down to foundational questions of human nature itself. I’d never studied half as hard for anything when I was a student.
By spring there was no question in my mind that I would go back to the Middle East as soon as I could. The longer I was away the more I missed the place, with its olive trees and ancient seas, sweet herb teas and night-blooming jasmine, cute Israeli filmmakers and crazy British Muslims, dark jokes and devastating lessons. Things were happening in Palestine while folks in America sat around arguing and intellectualizing about it.
By summer I’d have enough money saved up to live in the West Bank for about six months. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. Yusif had left Jayyous and the English teaching program had been discontinued, so that was out. I was ready for something new anyway, probably in a city rather than a village. I just needed an excuse, a contact, something to lash my raft to while I figured out the lay of the land.
It arrived in the form of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian medical doctor and politician who gave a talk on the Stanford campus in March. His presentation laid out the facts clearly and brilliantly, and when hostile audience members asked insulting or absurd questions, he kept his cool and handled them with reason and confidence — exactly the way I hoped I could some day.
Dr. Barghouthi had co-founded a new political party, the Palestinian National Initiative (Al Mubadara), in 2002 as an alternative to the corruption of Fatah and the Islamism of Hamas. About half of Palestinians, he said, identified with neither Fatah nor Hamas, and Al Mubadara was an attempt to build a reformist, inclusive party to fill that vacuum. They were committed to non-violent resistance, providing public services, building international support for Palestinian human rights, developing democracy, and negotiating peace with Israel based on international law.
I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, if anything. But if his methods worked, it would be thrilling to see them in action. If they didn’t, I wanted to understand why, even though I also feared that understanding. It was terrifying to think my cozy view of the world — my beliefs in things like human rights, fair trials, and respect for other cultures — might break down out in the real world of politics, violence, and implacable ideologies, or the wrenching emotions of the place might destroy my ability to reason altogether.
I hoped I’d be able to swallow my heart and stare down my assumptions and adjust without going crazy or sinking into cynicism and despair. Either way, I wanted to know. The Holy Land was the most intriguing combination of colorful and friendly and devastating and insane. I couldn’t imagine a better university of human nature.
Dr. Barghouthi did a meet-and-greet at the end. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said, “I’m thinking of moving to Palestine, and I might like to volunteer with Al Mubadara.”
He smiled kindly. “Take one of my business cards. It has the number of my office in Ramallah on it.”
I took one and held onto it like a first-class ticket.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: You can reach the third and final part of Chapter 3 here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’)
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.
Note: You can reach Chapter 3 Part 2 here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
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.
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.
Below is Chapter One of Fast Times in Palestine. The purpose of the book is to ramp average Americans up to a sophisticated understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict in a way that is enjoyable and accessible to all.
It starts out as an easy-to-read travel/adventure narrative to get people acclimated to the Middle East before we start throwing in the heavier stuff. Each chapter builds on the knowledge gained in the previous chapters so that you end up with exponentially growing knowledge, like this:
- Yes, I used to be a physics major
By the last page, you’ll have greater knowledge and understanding than many so-called experts in Washington.
From the Midwest to the Middle East
“Why are you coming to Israel?”
The wide, suspicious eyes of the young Israeli border guard were a rude shock after all the laid-back hospitality in Jordan.
“I’m just a tourist,” I said, probably too nonchalantly.
“What kind of tourist?”
“Well, I’m a Christian,” I said, starting to sweat and wishing I’d worn a cross like I’d been advised, “and I want to see the holy sites.”
“What holy sites?”
His tone suggested he’d never heard of any ‘holy sites’ in Israel.
“You know,” I said carefully, as if one of us might be slightly insane, “like Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth—”
“Why Nazareth? What’s in Nazareth?” he cut me off sharply.
It was just a random Biblical name as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know it was an Arab town in Israel, or what that meant. I certainly didn’t know that the outcome of this, the first of what would be many Israeli interrogations, would change the course of my life forever.
But I had clearly picked the wrong answer.
“Because, I mean, that’s where Jesus was born and grew up and—”
“What? He was what?”
“He was… Oh, right! Sorry, obviously he wasn’t born there—”
“Where was he born?!”
“He was born in… uh…”
Christ. I’d sung about where Jesus was born every Sunday morning growing up in small-town Oklahoma. But I’d just finished reading a Middle East guidebook, so all my associations were shifted, everything was a jumble in my head, a border guard with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder was breathing down my neck, and I couldn’t think.
Just start at the beginning, I told my fevered mind. There was a woman on a donkey, and they went to an inn, and everybody sings O Little Town of—
“Bethlehem!” I smiled and shrugged expansively as if it were the most basic knowledge in the universe, trying desperately to look relaxed rather than relieved.
The guard finally calmed down. I just hoped he wouldn’t figure out the connection between me and the two men behind me. If he did, we could all be in trouble.
Degree of Freedom
This wasn’t where I expected to end up at age twenty-three — jobless, planless, and lying through my teeth to Israeli border security. I’d graduated a year earlier, in 2002, with a physics degree from Stanford only to realize I had no interest in spending any more young years in a basement lab doing problem sets. Several friends were heading to Wall Street, but I had even less interest in finance than in physics. The things I enjoyed most during college — travel, writing, languages, politics, sports — didn’t sound like serious career options for a math-and-science type like me.
Beyond that was only a massive mental block, an abyss of vague fear and paralysis. And I had no idea why.
Feeling lost and ashamed, I took a job at a local pub near the Stanford campus because it had the best dollars-to-stress ratio of any job I could think of, and the popular image of bartenders was almost sexy enough to make up for the savage beating my ego was taking.
Once I was settled in with the job, I joined a Jujitsu club — one of those things I had always wanted to do but never had time. I noticed a purple belt named Michel who had powerful shoulders, light olive skin, and slate blue eyes. He asked me out after practice one evening. He didn’t have to ask twice.
He mentioned over dinner that he was from Lebanon, a country I knew so little about, I couldn’t think of any intelligent questions to ask. I decided to start small. When he dropped me off at the end of the night, I asked him how to say ‘Thank you’ in Arabic.
“Shukran,” he said.
I repeated the strange word, tasting it in my mouth.
He bowed his head slightly in an utterly charming way and said, “No problem. Any time.”
We only had three months together before he moved out of state for graduate school, but they were three very good months. He talked incessantly about his native Beirut and its picturesque beaches, forested mountains, world-class food, and gorgeous women, which surprised me. I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic, bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it.
But Michel made Lebanon sound fabulous, and when he talked with his Lebanese friends and I couldn’t understand, it drove me crazy. So I borrowed a friend’s primer and started studying Arabic.
As the weeks passed, I began to notice a curious thing: I was pretty happy most of the time. I spent forty hours a week at a fantastic pub, and the rest of my time was wide open to enjoy friends and books, sandwiches and sunsets. I knew I’d been vaguely unhappy most of my life, but I never realized the extent of it until the fog gradually lifted and left me in an unfamiliar landscape so bright it almost hurt my eyes.
My ears burned, though, whenever I asked my patrons at the pub, in all seriousness, if they wanted fries with that. All this happiness and free time flew in the face of my deeply-ingrained rural middle-class upbringing. Whenever I started hyperventilating about it, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that God and society could take care of themselves for a year or two whether or not I was staring at Excel spreadsheets all day. After that, if nothing better came along, I could always dust myself off, buy an Ann Taylor suit on credit, and put together a quasi-fictitious résumé like everyone else.
* * *
One afternoon in March of 2003, I found a copy of The Wave, a San Francisco magazine, left behind at the pub. The Iraq War had just begun, so it was full of articles about the Arab world. I flipped it open to a satirical piece about spending Spring Break in the Middle East. It listed the major countries of the region (including Lebanon), their most impressive tourist attractions, and why the people of each country wanted to kill us.
I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but it bothered me. Curious, I biked to the Stanford Bookstore and picked up a guidebook called Lonely Planet: From Istanbul to Cairo on a Shoestring, expecting to see nothing but dire travel warnings. To my astonishment, it recommended the route as one of the most romantic, historically rich, and friendly in the world, and no more dangerous than Brazil or Thailand.
A month later, a friend in France named Olivier wrote to me and said he had three weeks of vacation coming up in September, and why didn’t we meet up somewhere? I had some money saved by now and was planning on using it to travel. So I said sure, sent him an off-hand list of half a dozen Mediterranean countries, and told him to pick one, imagining a lush late summer of Greek and Italian islands.
A week later he wrote back: “What do you think about Egypt?”
My heart sank into my toes. I didn’t even remember putting Egypt on the list. But I had given him his choice, and the Middle East was cheaper than Greece, which meant I could travel longer. Plus it bothered me that I didn’t know enough to have an informed opinion on the Iraq War. My political science classes had been full of disconnected anecdotes and competing theories that left me unsure what to believe. The post-9/11 newspapers and magazines hadn’t been much help, either. Here was a chance to bypass all that and have a look for myself.
It was nice, anyway, to think my Arabic studying suddenly had a purpose.
As my plane landed in Cairo in early September, it was clear that reading a guidebook hadn’t remotely prepared me for the Middle East. My knowledge of the culture was almost nil, my Arabic skills were pitiful, and I felt ridiculous in my cargo shorts, ponytail, and bare, sunburned face. All the other women wore stylish, diaphanous headscarves and subtle, lovely make-up, and if the aim of that get-up was to make them less attractive, it had failed miserably. When one of the more exquisite women — all luminous skin, full rose lips, and steady eyes — caught me looking at her and smiled kindly at me, I ducked my head like a frightened child.
Just then two boisterous college-age Egyptian guys came up to me and asked, “Where you from?”
“Uh, America,” I said, too taken aback to wonder whether it was wise to reveal my nationality on my first day in the Arab world when my country was at war with an Arab state.
“Ah, America!” They seemed delighted by the revelation. “First time in Egypt?”
“Welcome to Egypt!” They smiled and bounced away toward passport control.
As Olivier and I traveled from the Pyramids in the north to Luxor in the south, no one mentioned the Iraq war. All thought of politics was lost in the dusty, sweaty shuffle of catching buses, finding restaurants, haggling over prices, and visiting tombs and museums.
When our cultural duty was finally done, we headed to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a remote triangle of mountainous desert wedged between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, for some rest and relaxation. Our first stop was Dahab, a backpacker’s resort on the gulf coast whose main pedestrian drag ran along the water. Past the flat, shallow reef tables was a drop-off populated by living corals and psychedelic tropical fish, then the sapphire sea filling a mile-deep crack in the earth. The jagged gold-brown Sinai Mountains rose behind Dahab to the west, and twenty miles east across the gulf sat the hazy, sandy mountains of Saudi Arabia.
We settled in at a $3-a-night camp and stretched out on brightly-colored cushions in a Bedouin-style sitting area next to the sea. I put a Dire Straits tape on the camp’s sound system, ordered a strawberry milkshake, watched the little aquamarine waves breaking against the reefs, and finally felt like I was on vacation.
After three days, Olivier had to leave and catch his plane to Paris. I was planning on following my guidebook’s itinerary through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey over the next two or three months. But I was in no mood to pick up and be a tourist again any time soon.
I bade Olivier adieu and ordered another hookah.
A few days later, I gathered enough steam to walk two hours north to a tiny Bedouin village, a loose collection of grass huts and a few dozen camels tethered to a flat spit of desert between the mountains and the sea. There was no electricity in the village; the only illumination came from the sun, the moon, the stars, and candles. I hadn’t made any plans or reservations, but I was soon invited to have dinner and sleep on a foam mattress in one of the grass huts, for a nominal fee.
The next morning I hiked further north to a turquoise lagoon, where I met an Estonian free-diver named Dan. His hair was salty and sun-bleached and he wore a silver hoop earring, a wooden bead necklace, and a wry, dimpled smile. I snorkeled in the coral gardens near the surface while he, with his weight belt, wetsuit, and carefully-trained breath-holding ability, dove deep into the blue depths.
When the shadows of the Sinai mountains were getting long, Dan and I moseyed back to the Bedouin village and found a spacious octagonal thatched shelter with a gas stove that served as a hotel and restaurant. We sat on cushions in the candlelight and talked for hours while our host prepared a dinner of fish and rice and vegetables and Bedouin flatbread.
I felt more at ease than I had in months, and I soon felt like I’d known Dan for years. Our host, who called himself Abraham, wore the traditional white Egyptian tunic and a thin white scarf fashioned into a loose turban around his head. He served us food by candlelight and told us tales about Egypt and Israel dropping bombs on the Sinai, about treasures hidden in caves by fleeing Bedouins, and about smuggling hash on boats and camels. His manner of speech was bemused and ponderous, and he always had a clever, ironic expression on his face. He told us the names of the seasonal winds and said he liked octopus season best because “it’s no bones, just good, white meat.”
The next morning I walked back to Abraham’s place for some tea before I departed. Then I completely failed to depart. Dan and I floated lazily among the bright yellow butterfly fish, iridescent parrotfish, and flashy lionfish, waited three hours for breakfast while the sun climbed, snorkeled again, waited three hours for dinner while the sun descended, and passed out contentedly on our cushions. The next day we did the same.
At night we went swimming at the camp’s sandy beach under a new moon and got a surprise when we found that our moving hands and feet stirred up trails of bright pinpoints of light in the water. We laughed in wonder, and Dan said, “It’s like a fairy tale.” Abraham later told us they were billions and billions of bioluminescent plankton, but we felt like we were swimming in swirling fields of sparkling water stars.
The beauty of the world filled our senses completely. Every day the sun hurtled across a flawless sky, then the galaxy floated by like a majestically slow comet. The sea always shone deep blue against the Mars-like Saudi landscape. The coral gardens were incomprehensible miracles, hovering explosions of form and color below the water’s surface. There was no sense of time, just an endlessly marvelous present. For the first time I understood the meaning of the phrase, “My cup runneth over.”
Sadly, Dan was due to leave the Sinai after four days. As we were parting, he took me aside and said, “There’s something I haven’t told you. I’m not really Estonian. I grew up in Siberia, and a few years ago I moved to Israel. I’m an Israeli citizen now.” He fiddled with a strap on his backpack. “Sorry for not telling you earlier. It’s just easier not to say you’re Israeli around here. But if you plan on visiting Israel, my house is your house any time.”
“Well, don’t worry,” I said. “Your nationality makes no difference to me. And I’d really love to visit you in Israel. The problem is, if I get an Israeli visa stamp in my passport, they won’t let me in to Syria or Lebanon. And I have to go through Syria to get to Turkey.”
“I understand,” he said. “But let me know if you change your mind.”
Eye of the Storm
I caught the next ferry to Jordan and spent a week hiking the southern Jordanian deserts. Along the way, through some process of cultural osmosis, I began to learn how to greet people in the local ways, how to spot a petty scam artist, what the local prices ought to be, and how to cut down on mild harassment from unmarried young men — namely by covering my knees and shoulders and wearing a fake wedding ring.
When I made my way up north to the capital, Amman, I liked it immediately. The best view of the city was from the hilltop ruins of the Roman Citadel at sunset when the sky glowed pink and purple, the boxy white houses on the city’s seventeen hills glowed sand-colored, and the minarets glowed with green neon amid wheeling flocks of pigeons while the call to prayer echoed in stereo.
I took the advice of an Irish backpacker I’d met in southern Jordan and stayed at the Al Sarayya Hotel despite its astronomical price of 14 Jordanian Dinars ($20) per night. It was in the old downtown area where hospitality was still a way of life. I almost felt bad talking with shopkeepers and waiters there, because some refused to charge me for food and services after we’d chatted long enough to feel like friends.
The manager of my hotel was a droll and charming man named Fayez who’d been trained as an electrical engineer. He was an intelligent, clean-cut chain-smoker, tall and thin and distinguished-looking, the kind of guy you’d expect to see patiently explaining something obscure but important on CNN. I sat in his office with other guests, and he offered everyone sweet Arabic coffees, on the house.
Someone asked about the stuffed white wolf on one of his filing cabinets. Fayez explained that a reporter had nicked it from one of Saddam’s palaces. He left it in Fayez’s office and made him promise not to sell it.
“But I don’t know,” Fayez mused sardonically. “Probably I could get a few thousands for him on eBay. What do you think?”
My scalp began to prickle in an odd and unnerving way. This was war loot. And it wasn’t from a historical event that could safely be categorized as something done in other times by other people. This was here and now, and it was my country that had done the invading.
Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, is a jumping-off point for journalists on their way to Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the Al Sarayya was a favorite among independent journalists, filmmakers, and foreign aid workers. Every evening they congregated in Fayez’s office to share their stories over bottomless cups of sweet, strong tea and Arabic coffee. I joined them and listened, slack-jawed and silent.
A Swedish woman told us that an Iraqi waiter in Baghdad had once started talking excitedly to an Iraqi-born Swede she was traveling with. The rest of the Swedes were impatient and wanted service, but the Iraqi-born Swede told them to wait. The waiter was telling him that his sister and her family had been on a minibus a few days earlier, and the bus had stopped for an American soldier at a checkpoint. The soldier waved them through, but then a woman reached for a baby bottle. The soldier emptied his ammunition clip into the bus, killing six people. Apparently he had thought she was reaching for a grenade.
As their stories went on and on like this, my palms began sweating and my heart beat faster, I was almost shaking. Strangely, it wasn’t the stories themselves that upset me the most. It was the prickling realization of how thoroughly I had been misled by my own press and government. They’d made the war sound so clean and under control, abstract and far away. Here, it sounded like nothing short of a blood-soaked catastrophe.
Then again, maybe these ‘independent journalists’ were lying or exaggerating, trying to impress each other and tourists like me with their big talk. There was only one way to find out.
My head began buzzing as I realized what was possible. It was nice enough drinking tea with Bedouins and gazing at the stone monuments of bygone eras. But here was a chance to witness history as it was being made.
I asked about expeditions to Baghdad the next day and was offered a ride in a shared taxi for $200. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. I figured I could meet people like I had in Cairo, Dahab, and Amman, and things would work out somehow.
In the evening, I told two journalists about my plan and asked if it sounded wise.
“Are you a reporter?” one asked.
“Foreign aid worker?”
They narrowed their eyes. “Then why do you want to go?”
I shrugged. “Just to see.”
They looked at me like they couldn’t tell whether I was a maniac or an idiot. Then they made it vividly clear that the violence in Baghdad was far too random and gruesome for tourists.
I chafed at their patronizing tones. But I wasn’t suicidal. I grudgingly took their advice.
The next evening Fayez invited me to dinner along with two men, Yusif and Sebastian, who were on vacation from their work in the West Bank of the Palestinian territories.
Sebastian was a young, slim Canadian paramedic with close-cropped brown hair. Yusif was a skinny, white, blond British Muslim who had the aristocratic aura of a wandering ascetic. His face was drawn tight with laugh lines, his teeth were crooked, and his age was impossible to guess. There was something childlike, almost impish about him, yet he irresistibly commanded respect and attention. His words seemed to come from a deep well of spiritual confidence that was either brilliant or insane, yet he was humble and friendly. I’d never met anyone remotely like him.
They were on their way to Petra, the ancient Nabatean city carved into the living rock of a spectacular canyon in southern Jordan. Its most famous landmark was a matchless monument called Al Khazneh, which serves as the final resting place of the Holy Grail in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The massive, shimmering, rose-hued tomb, exquisitely ornamented and symmetrical, is accessible only through a mile-long crack in a mountain.
Sebastian found me the next day and invited me to join them. I hesitated. I’d already gone to Petra a week earlier. Going again would cut into my dwindling time and funds. But I had just been invited to one of the most magical places on earth in the company of one of the most intriguing people I had ever met. I didn’t hesitate long.
Along the way, Yusif mentioned that he had trained in survival in the Sudan from age 14 to 22. He claimed to have met Osama bin Laden there many years ago. He’d also lived in a cave in southern Spain for several years. Now he was on the town council of a Palestinian village called Jayyous. He spoke fluent Arabic, and Sebastian and I once watched him silence an entire busload of Jordanians with a sing-song recitation of the Quran.
Both men talked compulsively about their experiences in Palestine. Yusif was sometimes off-hand, almost clinical as he told his stories. Other times he was wide-eyed, like a kid describing a crime so outrageous, he feared no one would believe him.
Their stories, like the stories of the journalists earlier, were impossible to take at face value. But I had learned in Fayez’s office that the American government gave Israel more than $3 billion every year, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. If their stories were true, it seemed like something I should know. If I called their bluff and things weren’t really so bad, I could hang out with Dan in Israel and then move on and forget about it.
I hated the thought of missing out on Syria and Lebanon if my passport got stamped by Israel. But here was a chance to learn things for myself, experientially, that there was no other way to learn. The West Bank didn’t sound nearly as dangerous as the free-for-all in Baghdad, and I had just made friends with two ready-made tour-guides. I knew I’d never forgive myself if I passed all that up for the sake of being a tourist.
As we were heading back to Amman, I asked Yusif and Sebastian if I could go with them when they went back to the West Bank.
“You’re welcome to join us,” Sebastian said. “But you might get turned back at the Israeli border if the guards suspect you plan on visiting the West Bank. It’s better not to mention anything about that.”
“And it’s probably best if we pretend we don’t know each other,” Yusif said in his clipped patrician accent. “The interrogations will be much simpler that way.”
So, green and wide-eyed, I wandered into the Holy Land, an empty vessel.
The book’s Table of Contents has links to many more excerpts, including all of Chapters 2 and 3.
An Israeli friend recently told me he’d like to see a blog about my take, and the Palestinians’ take, on Palestinian terror. I told him my take was pretty simple: I support international law as an instrument of peace, and I oppose all deliberate and/or disproportionate attacks against civilians. As for the Palestinians, I can’t speak for them. But I hope this excerpt from my book, and the article that follows, will prove illuminating.
The excerpt below is different from any I’ve posted before. Rather than just being a story, it’s infused with historical and political analysis. The analysis becomes more frequent and more sophisticated as the book goes on, the reader learns more, and the big questions become more urgent.
EXCERPT from Chapter Six: Suicide Bomb
I was chatting with some coworkers in my office [in Ramallah] on August 31, 2004, when Muzna received a text message on her phone. Her face changed as she read it.
She looked up and said tonelessly, “There’s been a bombing.”
It was the first suicide bombing in six months. We were all apprehensive as we waited to find out how many had been killed, where, and by whom. And what Israel’s response might be.
I called Dan [a friend in Israel] to make sure he was all right. He said tiredly, “We’ve been waiting for something like this ever since Yassin was assassinated.”
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was a paraplegic, white-bearded old man who wore flowing white robes. Like most Gazans, he was a refugee, driven out of his home in 1948. In 1987, when the first Intifada broke out, Yassin and other members of the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood co-founded Hamas, which called for the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine.
Islamists were initially tolerated and even encouraged by the Israeli authorities as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO. They were allowed to set up a wide network of schools, clinics, and charitable organizations that increased their power base and popularity. They carried out their first violent attack in 1989, targeting Israeli soldiers and settlements.
Then in 1994, an American-Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein gunned down twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque / Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron [believed to be the burial place of Abraham and his wife Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah, of primary importance to both Jews and Muslims] and wounded a hundred more. The PLO called on Israel to evacuate the increasingly extremist settlers from the heart of Hebron or at least bring in international peacekeepers to protect the Palestinians. Instead, the Israeli army enforced a closure on the Palestinian areas of the West Bank in order to prevent reprisal attacks—in effect punishing the Palestinians rather than the settlers.
After that, Hamas began targeting civilians inside Israel, Yassin said, to “show the Israelis they could not get away without a price for killing our people.” The attacks also had the effect of escalating the conflict, enlisting new supporters for Hamas, and exposing the PA’s helplessness in the face of settlement expansion, closures, and the killings of Palestinian civilians.
Aside from being morally indefensible, Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians was disastrous for the image of the Palestinian struggle for justice and a godsend for Israeli hardliners who opposed any compromise. Every bombing drove the Israeli public further to the right—toward believing no peace was possible because there was “no partner for peace.”
Yassin had rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 and was initially marginalized by the hopes surrounding the peace process. He gained popularity only as talks broke down, settlements went up, and Palestinian civilians continued to be killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers with few or no repercussions. Israel’s devastation of Palestinian Authority institutions during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 left Palestinians further dependent on Hamas’ social services.
In March—six months prior to this latest bombing—a Hamas suicide bomber from Gaza had killed ten Israelis in the port city of Ashdod. It was a retaliation for two weeks of Israeli incursions that had killed twenty-six Palestinians in Gaza. Eight days later, in the small hours of the morning after pre-dawn prayers, an Israeli helicopter fired three Hellfire missiles at Sheikh Yassin as he was being wheeled out of a Gaza City mosque in his wheelchair. He and two bodyguards were killed along with five bystanders. Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, was assassinated a few days later.
The assassinations were condemned around the world and by some in Israel because it was clear they would only lead to further radicalization and violence. Even Palestinians who didn’t support Hamas were appalled. Hamas had vowed revenge, as they always did when their leaders were targeted.
The attacks today appeared to be it. Hamas in Hebron claimed responsibility for the attacks—two bombings within minutes of each other on two city buses in Beersheba in southern Israel that killed sixteen Israelis and wounded dozens.
I said grimly to Dan, “I guess now it’s the Palestinians’ turn to wait for the retaliation for this retaliation.”
An American friend sent me an article with profiles of the Israeli victims. Part of me didn’t want to read it. I was having enough trouble absorbing the psychological impact of the constant Palestinian casualties. But I knew that the moment I declined to mourn for the innocents killed on the other side, I would effectively become a part of the problem. With a heavy heart I clicked the link, read the article, saw the pictures, and was physically sickened.
Most of the victims were immigrants like [my Russian-Israeli friend] Dan who’d come to Israel looking for a better life. They probably didn’t even know much about the political situation. A three-year-old boy was killed. A woman who’d immigrated from Tbilisi, Georgia, to be with her family. A young man from Azerbaijan who’d just finished his degree in biotech. A Ukrainian biology teacher. A woman from the Black Sea region of Russia whose son was a cellist. Several of them had done charity work with children and the elderly. Sixteen unique, striving lives, all in one minute, gone.
The international news was blanketed with headlines about how this savage attack had shattered a six month ‘lull’ in the violence. It was true that since the last suicide bombing, only three Israeli civilians, eight settlers, and eighteen soldiers had been killed by Palestinians. Those were very low numbers compared to similar periods over the previous two years.
But in the same six-month period, more than 350 Palestinians, including 90 children, had been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. The press was conspicuously silent about that.
* * *
The prisoners’ hunger strike was broken two days later, on September 2, after eighteen days of protests and suffering. [The prisoners’ demands included more frequent contact with their families, improved sanitary conditions, more access to public telephones, adequate medical care, allowing prisoners to pursue their education by registering at universities, reducing prison crowding, and ending the practice of beating detainees en route to courts.] Some Palestinian prisoners had reportedly lost half their body weight. One mother fasting in solidarity with her imprisoned son died.
A spokesman for the Israeli prisons authority claimed, “Israel has not caved in to any demand of the prisoners and nothing is being discussed.” Other sources close to the Palestinian prisoners said some demands had been met. It was hard to know who was telling the truth.
Later, when I was reading Haaretz’s account of the end of the hunger strike, one of the advertisements on the page read, “Make your point: Why haven’t the Palestinians turned to non-violence? Click to send your response.”
I could only shake my head at the unintended irony. Last I checked, hunger striking was one of many textbook forms of non-violent resistance the Palestinians employed constantly. I thought to myself, A better question might be: “Why does the world demand non-violent activism from Palestinians and then totally ignore them unless they do something violent?”
 The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt, is an Islamist organization and the largest political opposition movement in many Arab countries, especially Egypt.
 Extrajudicial assassinations, known as ‘targeted killings’ in Israel, have been a common tactic of the Israeli army during the Second Intifada. Such assassinations violate international law as they bypass due process and amount to execution without trial. They also frequently involve the killing of innocent bystanders. As of the end of 2008, 233 Palestinians were assassinated and 153 bystanders were killed in the course of Israeli assassinations. See B’Tselem’s statistics. For an example of the widespread condemnation of the Yassin assassination, see “Israel Plays with Fire” from The Nation.
Pasted below is an article about another suicide bombing. This one happened six months after the bombing talked about in the excerpt above — and after Arafat died, Abbas took his place, and a ceasefire was brokered between Israel and the PA in the run-up to the Gaza Disengagement. Hamas respected the ceasefire, but a more radical (and far less popular) militant group called Islamic Jihad did not. Here was the result.
(As for what happened during and after the Gaza Disengagement to lead to the sorry state we’re in now, you’ll have to read the book.)
March 1, 2005
Scores of chairs lined the rooms and corridors, and jugs of coffee and water and trays of figs were ready to welcome men paying their respects.
But the family of Abdullah Badran, the 21-year-old who blew himself up at the entrance to a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday, killing five Israelis, were left alone in their grief.
For seven days after a burial a Palestinian family receives mourners, normally a big social event involving colourful banners and patriotic music.
But yesterday seven members of the family occupied the otherwise empty chairs and when asked if Abdullah’s death had achieved anything they all shook their heads, and one said no in English.
Abdullah’s brother Ibrahim said they were mystified and angered by his death.
“I really do not know what was on his mind. Maybe he was thinking about the killing of Palestinians in recent weeks, the building of the wall, the lack of goodwill from the Israelis in the political process. He wanted to be a teacher, to get married and get a home. He seemed optimistic in spite of everything. It never occurred to any of us that he would blow himself up.”
Deir al Ghusun is a hill town of 8,000 inhabitants. The flags of Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the leftwing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fly from many buildings, but there are none near the house of mourning.
Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for the bombing, was keeping a low profile. [Fatah and its armed offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, openly condemned the bombing.]
Sami Qadan said the whole town was shocked and angered by the bombing and in protest no one was paying respects to the family.
“Things were getting better and then no sooner do we have money coming in again then it is stopped by this suicide bombing. This intifada has killed us and the wall has destroyed us. We cannot even leave our homes and we want it to stop,” he said.
Six of his sons were working as builders in Israel but when they tried to cross the checkpoint on Sunday they were told: “No one from Deir al Ghusun is coming into Israel.”
Abdullah, a student of Arabic literature at a branch of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) University in Tulkarem, was last seen at breakfast on Friday. “We didn’t ask where he was going because it wasn’t our normal practice. There was nothing in him to suggest that he had no plans to return,” his brother said.
The family realised that something was wrong only when Israeli soldiers arrived at 5am on Saturday morning and told them that he had killed himself and four Israelis — a fifth died of injuries yesterday.
Abdullah’s father, Said Badran, refused to believe them, insisting that his son was still in bed. The army arrested the two brothers in the house and later the local imam and five of Abdullah’s friends.
The family had not suffered any particular grievance at the hands of the Israelis, Ibrahim said, although he was detained in 1989 and held for 18 months without trial.
The town has lost a large part of its livelihood because the separation barrier has cut it off from its 825 acres (334 hectares) of farmland. In theory they can reach it through a gate, but it is rarely open, and the Israelis have begun chopping down some of the trees.
Ibrahim said that the family was extremely angry with the people who had chosen and prepared Abdullah for his suicide mission.
“I don’t know who they are but we want them to stop this and reach out their hands for peace. That is the only way the situation will improve.”
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7, “Arafat’s Funeral.” It was the fall olive harvest season in 2004 and Yasser Arafat had just died. I was on holiday in Jayyous picking olives, happy for a brief escape from my journalistic duties, when a dear friend found me and told me some bad news.
I was harvesting with Qais’s family the next day when Ali found me.
“Ya Bam,” he said with a grave, apologetic look. “I would not ask you for this, but I think there is no other way.”
This didn’t sound good at all. “What’s up?”
He sighed. “There is a farmer’s son from here in Jayyous named Omar. A few days ago, when Arafat died, some of the shebab [youth] were burning tires at the south gate of the Wall as a demonstration. Omar’s father was on the land, and Omar went to the gate to wait for him. When the soldiers came, the shebab started throwing stones at them. I don’t know if Omar was throwing stones or just waiting. Anyway, the soldiers came through the gate with their guns, and Omar ran away with the others. A soldier shot him twice in the back.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “My God.”
“Yes, and then they took him away to a hospital in Israel. We called and found the hospital he is in. It is in Kfar Saba. He is OK, he is alive, but he has had many surgeries. When we call the hospital, they are very rude and won’t tell us anything more. His parents are going crazy. They want to visit him, but the hospital says they cannot get a permit to visit him unless they come to the hospital and take a paper that tells about his condition. So you see…”
“Yeah, there’s only one catch,” I said disgustedly. “Well, look, I can go to the hospital and get the paper.”
He sighed again. “Really, Bamila, I know this is a holiday for you, and we wouldn’t ask…”
I called Dan [an Israeli friend who lived in Kfar Saba] to see if he could pick me up in Jayyous and take me to Kfar Saba. I’d forgotten he had recently sold his car. He apologized and said he didn’t have time to borrow one, either.
So I got up early the next morning and made my way through Ramallah down to the Qalandia checkpoint, crossed on foot, took a minibus to East Jerusalem, caught a cab to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and caught another bus back up north to Kfar Saba. It was a journey of more than a hundred miles and six hours to get to a place less than five miles from Jayyous. It would have taken ten minutes if Dan had been able to pick me up on the settler road.
Finding the hospital in Kfar Saba took a bit of hunting, but once I found it, the task didn’t seem so daunting anymore. All I had to do was ask for a paper, say hello to the injured young man, and be on my way back to Jayyous in no time. It might even be one of those bridging-the-divide moments with the Israeli doctors, because what human being could fail to sympathize with a young man who’d been shot in the back, or a young American woman trying to help him? It was easy to be rude over the phone. In person, I was confident they would see us as human beings and treat us as such.
I found a receptionist and said, “I have a friend from the West Bank who’s been injured and is being treated here. I need to get a paper that explains about his condition so his parents can come and visit.”
She looked uncomfortable, as if she feared I might be mildly crazy or criminal. “You’ll have to talk to someone in administration,” she said. “I don’t handle these things.” She directed me to a small back office, where I found a dark-haired man in his forties and asked if he spoke English.
“Of course!” he said, widening his eyes as if the likes of me asking if he spoke English were the most preposterous indignity he’d suffered that day. I told him what I was here for.
He waved his hand dismissively and looked away. “We don’t give papers about West Bank people here. We’re not allowed. It’s like a secret that he’s here.”
I checked his voice for irony or humor and found none. “I’m sorry, what do you mean you don’t give papers about people being here? That’s why they sent me. I just need a paper that says he is here to give to the DCO [District Coordination Office] so we can get a permit for his parents to visit.”
He shook his head. “We don’t give out information like that. You have to call Dalia in Beit El. She’s in charge of these things, not me.”
Beit El was a settlement north of Ramallah. Palestinians had to go there sometimes to take care of administrative matters related to the occupation. I said, “If we could have done this from Beit El, I’m sure it would have been done already. But they sent me here physically to get a paper. All I need is a paper that says—”
He smiled mock-patiently, as if I were simple or slow, and interrupted me. “Listen very carefully. You aren’t the first person who has come here looking for information about these people, and you won’t be the last. We don’t give out papers. That’s it. Don’t ask anymore.”
I had a distinct feeling he was lying through his teeth. But what could I do?
“Can I visit him?” I asked weakly.
“What do I care?”
I left his office with my face flushed and my fists clenched. The way he said “these people” had sent hot chills down my spine. If I had eaten anything that day, I feel fairly confident I would have thrown it up.
At least I could visit Omar, so maybe the day wasn’t a total wash. I walked up to his floor, and the nurses pointed me down to the basement, where he was having a CT scan. I asked the receptionist at CT if she knew where I could find the boy I was looking for.
She looked at me blankly. “Maybe that’s him?” she said, pointing behind me.
I looked back. There was a good-looking blue-eyed young man with pale skin and curly brown hair in a gurney in the middle of the waiting room. He had an IV drip in his arm and seemed alert but tired. His eyes looked naturally sharp but dulled now, resigned to a casual bit of violence that would drastically affect the rest of his life — something simultaneously offhand and unthinkable. “Omar?” I asked.
He nodded, his expression alternating between wariness and polite confusion.
Suddenly I felt shy. He wasn’t expecting anyone, least of all a foreign girl he didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what to say. I told him I was a friend of Ali’s in Jayyous. He nodded.
“Keef halek?” I asked. [How are you?]
He gave the traditional pleasantly noncommittal answer: “Hamdulillah.” [Thanks to God.]
My eyes widened. “W’Allah?” [Really?] How could he even say it?
He looked down at himself. “Zai shufik.” (As you see.)
I reported on this kind of thing daily at my job. This was actually mild compared to the things that made the news. Omar had survived, had no brain damage, was not in critical condition, and had not lost several limbs and/or family members. He was just in a hospital having surgeries and CT scans done far away from his family, not knowing how bad his prognosis was. This was nothing.
And yet it was overwhelming. So where did that leave all the other things I reported on, all the bloody and senseless things I didn’t have to see for myself?
I swallowed hard and asked who else he knew in Jayyous. He named some names. I asked how old he was, and he said twenty. I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t know the Arabic for words like ‘prognosis’ or ‘paralysis.’ He made the Middle Eastern hand gesture, palm up and fingers pinched together, that meant, “Wait a moment.” He indicated that the doctor would be out soon and could translate for us.
When the doctor emerged, I introduced myself and asked if he spoke Arabic. He said yes.
“Would you mind translating a few things Omar might want me to tell his family?” I asked. “And can you explain to me about Omar’s condition?”
He looked at his watch. “I need to eat soon,” he said.
I smiled. “Yeah, me too.” It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day. I was trying to highlight our shared humanity and gently suggest that this injured, helpless, isolated boy’s terrible predicament was slightly more important than lunch. He didn’t smile back.
“Wait fifteen minutes,” he said and wheeled Omar into the CT scan room. Fifteen minutes later, two orderlies wheeled him back out. The doctor had escaped out another door.
My ears burning from the latest rebuff, I followed Omar and the orderlies up to his room, where I found a pretty young nurse named Sofya from Netanya. I asked her about his condition.
She said brightly, “Well, his kidney is damaged and his spine is broken, and he can move one leg a little, but the other not at all.”
I steeled myself. “Will he ever walk again?”
She shrugged nonchalantly and said, “Mmm, I don’t think so, probably not.”
The room turned grey and looked sharper and further away as tears stung my eyes. For nothing he was in this state, no reason at all. Not just injured but paralyzed, handicapped, probably for life. And nobody cared. It was like a bad parody of man’s inhumanity to man.
I tried to keep my voice steady as I told the nurse what I was here for. She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. I asked if I could use the phone to call Ali in Jayyous. She allowed it.
When I heard Ali’s baritone voice, clear and reasonable and familiar and friendly in this sea of obtuse hostility, thick hot tears fell. I explained everything to him and gave the phone to Sofya so he could tell her exactly what we needed.
Ali was one of the most kind, diplomatic, and cool-headed people I had ever met, and I could tell he was getting further with Sofya than I had. She said she would try her best, but she didn’t sound very hopeful. She tried to call Dalia in Beit El, but there was no answer.
Sofya shrugged. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?”
It wasn’t clear how anything would be different tomorrow, and my desire to get back to Jayyous as soon as possible, among friends and olives and kindness, was so visceral it was painful. So I went on the trail of the paper again. After another hour of hunting and asking and negotiating, Sofya finally conceded that the paper could be issued here after all.
“But the doctor who does these things is busy today,” Sofya said apologetically. “Maybe she can do it tomorrow.”
“She can’t possibly do it today?”
“No, I’m sorry, she is receiving many children today, and she is the only one who can receive them. She is very busy.”
“How long does it take to make the paper?”
“I don’t know, about fifteen minutes.”
“She can’t spare fifteen minutes? It would help a lot of people so much.”
I’d learned an important lesson in Russia: If something important is at stake and hostile bureaucracy is standing in your way, you have to make it harder for them to ignore you than to fulfill your simple request. Otherwise they’ll blow you off every time.
“Look, can I just talk to her real quick?”
Sofya narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Then she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Come with me.”
I followed her into a darkened office. The doctor was a tasteful-looking Russian blonde woman who sneered slightly when she saw me. She was alone in the room and looked rather bored. She wasn’t receiving any children. I tried to explain what I needed, but before I could finish my sentence she was tearing a piece of paper off a pad and writing a few words in Hebrew about his condition. She affixed an official label and stamped it and handed it to me.
“Thank you so much. Is this is all I need?”
I breathed a sigh of deep relief. A kind orderly helped me fax the paper to Dalia in Beit El, then Sofya gave me the phone to call Dalia and see if she got the fax. Dalia finally answered. She grudgingly admitted that she got the fax and everything was in order.
“So that’s it?” I asked. “Is that what you need to give his parents a permit?”
She paused, then said challengingly, “We don’t know how long he will be there.”
I couldn’t believe it. She was acting like this was some kind of game and she was still trying to win. “His spine is broken,” I said evenly. “He is not going anywhere.”
Another pause, then testily, “I can give you three days. OK?”
“Perfect. Thank you very much.”
Back in Omar’s room, Sofya gave me the phone again and allowed me to dial Omar’s parents in Jayyous. Omar was so weak he could barely handle the phone, but he talked to his family for the first time and told them about his condition.
I’d been on the other end of the phone several times, in the family’s home when they were talking to a relative in an Israeli jail or in some faraway hospital. People always tried to act as cheerful as possible so as not to upset each other. The mother didn’t want her son to think about how she’d been sick with crying. The son didn’t want his mother to know he’d been lonely, injured, ill, humiliated, terrified, starving.
After Omar hung up, he touched my arm and pulled his shirt up. The surgery scar was immense, from his heart down past his waistband. He put his shirt down and pointed to a spot on one of his swollen legs, and I touched it. He shook his head, and tears welled slightly in his otherwise impassive young face. He couldn’t feel it.
It was time for me to go soon. Dan had agreed to pick me up and take me back to Jayyous in a borrowed van. I shook Omar’s hand and held it for a while as I met his pale blue eyes with mine. There was nothing to say. We were fundamentally no different from each other, yet he knew as well as I did that I would never have to come to terms with a misfortune anywhere near as incomprehensible as his. Something horrific might happen to me, but I probably wouldn’t be shot for no reason, and I certainly wouldn’t then be transferred to a foreign country and held captive by people whose indifference was somehow worse, more degrading, than cruelty.
I left the hospital in a daze. After walking a few steps in the fresh air, I ducked behind a column and sank to the ground and wept.
When Dan arrived, I mostly stayed quiet and felt terrible that I couldn’t bring myself to act happy to see him, or to express how grateful I was that he was taking me back to Jayyous. All I wanted, desperately, was to get back to the olive groves and to my friends in Jayyous who understood how I felt without words.
Dan and I had kept in touch over the phone, but I hadn’t seen him since he sold his car. Getting from Ramallah to Kfar Saba on public transportation was such an ordeal, and we were both so busy with work and life. Whenever I did see or talk to him, something horrible had usually just happened and I was depressed about it. I hated for him to always see me like this. Even though Dan was sitting right next to me, I missed him.
As we entered the West Bank on a settler road, I caught sight of the thirty-foot concrete Wall that encircled Qalqilia. Forty thousand people in a cage at the dawn of the twenty-first century. “Look at that!” I exploded stupidly, rising out of my seat and banging my head on the roof of the van.
“I know,” Dan said numbly. “I can’t believe it. It’s like some movie about South Africa or something. And it’s happening right here.”
My Boss Decides to Run for President
Dr. Barghouthi called an emergency meeting a few days after the Eid holidays were over. I was annoyed because I already had my evening planned. I was going to Beit Sini (China House) on Main Street to get some Kung Pao chicken, then I was going to go home and curl up around some hot cocoa and watch a mindless Angelina Jolie action movie on MBC2 in my pajamas. For two restful, thoughtless, soft, warm hours, I could forget about everything else.
Except now I had to sit through this meeting that probably had nothing to do with me. I desperately hoped it wouldn’t go on too long.
We gathered around the big wooden table in the conference room. As soon as we were seated and quiet, Dr. Barghouthi dropped the bombshell:
“So, I have decided to run for President against Mahmoud Abbas.”
That perked me up, but I still didn’t see what it had to do with me. I was sure he could run for President even if I was at home eating Chinese take-out.
As I surreptitiously glanced at the clock on my cell phone (it was already after six, and the movie started at seven), I heard him say he’d need someone to volunteer to be his foreign press coordinator. Whoever that unlucky person was would have to stay in the office tonight and compile, organize, and prioritize the contact information for all the foreign correspondents in Israel/Palestine. He or she would then represent Dr. Barghouthi to all the world’s press for the next two months, traveling, taking calls, helping organize press conferences, and writing press releases in addition to all the responsibilities of their usual job.
He said, “The election will be in early January, so we have less than two months to consult with our constituencies, prepare offices, organize supporters, design and distribute campaign materials, and many other things. Time is of the essence.”
Suddenly I had a sinking feeling. No one was looking at me, but everyone knew the other foreigners in the office would be jetting off to England or Spain or Australia for the Christmas holidays. I would be the only native English speaker left.
Slowly, through my hazy, unhappy sense of duty, something else began to filter through my thick head: My boss was running for President. And I was being offered a front-row seat. Was I simple?
I took a deep breath and braced myself. “I can do it.”
For more information about my book, Fast Times in Palestine, see my website.
Chapter Four is entitled Ramallah — Palestine has its own beer? The beer was one of the many surprises that greeted me when I moved to Ramallah, sight unseen, in the summer of 2004.
In this chapter, the book is still in ‘travelogue’ mode. Most books on the Middle East either start shallow and stay shallow, or start so deep most Americans get lost before they begin. Mine starts at zero and ramps the reader up to a wide-angle and sophisticated understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Once the reader has a good sense of the local flavor and the situation on the ground, I begin to transition into narrative journalism. Extensive footnotes from respected sources generalize the specific stories told.
Here’s a section from Chapter Four called “Sangria’s.” It was one of my first nights in Ramallah. Muzna was one of my coworkers. She’s still a good friend today.
Here’s the excerpt:
One day after work, Muzna invited me and a couple of other coworkers to join her for drinks at a place called Sangria’s. We walked to Al Manara and turned right toward another traffic circle called Duwar al Saa’a, the Clock Circle. There had apparently been a clock in the circle at some point in time, but now there was only a white stone column rising from a fenced-in circle of shrubbery. A massive candy shop, shawerma stands, office buildings, and trees surrounded the unmarked monument. One of the buildings had a cartoonishly large pair of glasses on the side that advertised an eye clinic.
We turned right again and walked downhill on a street I’d never been down before. The view opened up to the hills, valleys, trees, and white stone houses on that end of town. We soon arrived at a row of elegant old buildings made of tawny hand-cut stone. The one we turned into was unmarked except for a small wooden sign that had ‘Sangria’s’ carved into it.
Inside, an empty foyer led to an outdoor corridor that opened onto the most enchanting beer garden I had ever seen, built on a grassy hillside and enclosed by stone walls overhung with flowering vines. The tables on the upper terraces were shaded by large canvas umbrellas, and the lower tables sat under leafy trees hung with strings of lights. A grass hut in the center served as a bar. Waiters were busy distributing olive oil candles to each table under a clear, darkening sky. The crowd was young and stylish, the women dressed in club clothes, with almost no headscarves in sight. It was the last thing I expected to see in Ramallah.
We found a table and I asked our waiter for Turkish coffee and a nargila [hookah]. Everyone else ordered a beer called Taybeh.
“Where’s the beer from?” I asked once the beers had arrived.
“From here,” Muzna said. “Taybeh is a Christian village not far from Ramallah. They have a brewery there.”
“Really?” I was surprised again. I had assumed it was foreign, or possibly Israeli. “Can I try yours?” She handed over her frosty longneck, and I took a sip. It was medium-bodied, refreshing, with just the right amount of hops.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a good beer.” Muzna smiled.
Just then a goofy Happy Birthday song came on over the loudspeakers at ear-splitting volume in Egyptian-accented Arabic. Two waiters emerged carrying cakes with giant sparklers spewing fire out the top. The birthday party had ordered enough cake for everyone on the patio, and after the birthday girl made her wish and the sparklers burned themselves out, the waiters handed out pieces of it.
I happily accepted a plate, but when Muzna was offered one, she shook her head and said, “La, shukran.” (No, thanks.)
The waiter raised his eyebrows and asked chidingly, “Leish?” (Why?)
I laughed out loud. It was good to be back in the Arab world.
You can get Carlsberg or Heineken, too. Or Sex on the Beach or a Black Russian.
As promised, in honor of the fall olive harvest, I’m posting an excerpt from Chapter 2, when I harvested olives for the first time in October 2003.
Before you read, you might want to take a look at the book’s website to see what the book is about and how this section fits into the general scheme. You might also want to see my previous post, which offers maps, pictures, and comics that serve as a geographic primer on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In Chapter One I graduated from college, bartended and traveled for a while, and landed rather randomly in a village in the West Bank called Jayyous in the company of two men, a British Muslim named Yusif and a Canadian paramedic named Sebastian. During my first night in Jayyous, I was nervous to be in a place where I had no idea what was going on, but my fears were quickly dispelled by the kindness, hospitality, and sense of humor of the people I met. I was invited to stay the night with the mayor’s son’s family, and the next morning I joined them for the olive harvest.
Now for the excerpt:
The next morning we all got up early and headed out to the land. It was late October and the olive harvest was in full swing. I tagged along to help out, hoping to earn my keep for once. My karmic balance sheet was getting embarrassingly overdrawn.
Jayyous is built on a hilltop, and the land below it undulates and gradually flattens out until it meets the coastal plains of central Israel and the Mediterranean Sea fifteen miles to the west. We caravanned down the hill in donkey carts and tractors and on foot, excited for a long, fun day in the groves.
But our procession was stopped short at the bottom of the hill by a 20-foot-high chain-link Fence topped with razor wire. Two smoothly-paved access roads flanked the Fence. The land on either side of the roads was blasted bare. The whole 200-foot-wide structure was bounded by trenches and six-foot pyramid-shaped piles of razor wire. This massive ribbon of metal, concrete, and emptiness snaked through the Biblical hills in jarring contrast to the ancient aesthetic. A bright red sign said in Hebrew, English, and Arabic: “MORTAL DANGER – MILITARY ZONE. Anyone who passes or damages the Fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”
I was shocked to be confronted by such an aggressive-looking structure on a peaceful olive harvest morning. Everyone else gathered patiently around the locked gate and found places to sit in the warm, dusty morning. I swallowed my fear and followed suit.
I noticed that one of the donkey carts had ‘AGAINST TERRORISM’ scrawled in white paint across the back. I heard a boy point to the donkey cart and say something about simsim.
“Simsim?” I asked, and pointed toward the donkey cart. The boy hesitated, then nodded. “So simsim means ‘donkey’?” I envisioned myself learning Arabic one word at a time and slowly developing a native command, like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.
The boy looked at me blankly. One of his friends whispered something, and all the other boys burst into laughter. Seeing my bewildered look, Yusif whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “I think Simsim is the nickname of the boy in the cart.”
I looked at Simsim and winced apologetically. He smiled and shook his head.
I passed time with another group of kids by drawing on the back of an old envelope. They wrote a little English for me, and I wrote a little Arabic. I spelled my name ‘Bamila’ since there was no ‘P’ in Arabic, and ‘Bam’ sounded too much like ‘bomb.’
After nearly an hour of waiting, I caught Yusif’s eye. “How much of Jayyous’s land is on the other side of that Fence?”
“Most of it,” he said. “About seventy-five percent. More than ten square kilometers.”
“Yeah, you can see. The Fence goes right up next to the village. There are places where it’s just a few meters from people’s houses.”
“Where’s the border between the West Bank and Israel?”
“About four kilometers that way.”
I squinted through the Fence in confusion. “Why would Israel build a Fence here instead of on the border?”
“They say they’re building it to stop suicide bombers. But hundreds of Palestinians cross the Green Line every day to work illegally in Israel. If a bomber wants to get through, he can. If he doesn’t, the next one will. If there’s a decrease in bombers, it’s not because of the Wall.”
“So why the Wall, and why this route?”
He sighed as if he had been through this many times. “Jayyous has some of the most fertile land in the West Bank. They’ve got something like fifteen thousand olive trees, 50,000 fruit and citrus trees, mangoes, avocadoes, almonds, apricots, more than a hundred greenhouses, and six good water wells. Also, Jayyous sits near Israel’s narrowest point. There’s only about twenty kilometers between the Green Line and the sea right here.”
My eyes narrowed. “So what, you’re saying Israel is trying to take Jayyous’s land?”
He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, look, once we get through the Fence, there’s nothing stopping us from marching directly to Tel Aviv. You tell me what sense that makes.”
I couldn’t think of any. “How much land was destroyed to build the Wall? The scar looks enormous.”
“Yeah, it was a lot. About 2,500 olive trees were destroyed.”
“Did anybody get compensation?”
“No. Even when Israel offers compensation, no one takes it. It’s never anywhere near the value of what was lost, and it makes it look like a transaction instead of what it is. It would be an insult to accept that, and it’s considered treason if you do.”
“Has anyone tried to climb over the Wall or tear it down?”
“Electronic sensors can call an army Jeep to investigate any possible breach in minutes. And they’ve been known to shoot people on sight.”
A chill went down my spine. I looked at the Fence, at the villagers gathered around it, and then back at Yusif. It all sounded so insane. There had to be more to this than he was telling me. I had called Dan, the Russian-Israeli I’d met in the Sinai, as soon as I knew I’d be visiting Israel. We were due to meet at the end of the week. I was glad of that.
“Are they going to let us through today?” I asked.
“What happens if they don’t?”
“As you see. We wait.”
View of Jayyous’ land from Jayyous. You can see the Wall along the bottom right and snaking toward the center. Nearly everything in the frame is Jayyous land isolated from its owners.
Two hours later, around 10:30am, when the day was getting good and hot, an armored Jeep turned on its engine and kicked up dust as it powered up to the army access road next to the Fence. It had apparently been sitting two hundred yards from us the entire time, hidden by a rise in the land. Two young Israeli soldiers with flak jackets and helmets and M-16 assault rifles got out and opened the gates. We passed single file as our documents were examined. Most of us seemed to get through.
The party that had been postponed at the gate resumed as we forgot all about the Fence and set about the day’s business. Rows of olive trees were evenly spaced on gently rolling hills, hemmed in beautifully by white stone retainer walls that curved in harmony with the natural topography. Their leaves were green on one side, silvery on the other, and the olives faded from bright green to dark purple. A fine chalky dust saturated the trees, muting the colors to sea foam green and deep lavender. When the wind rustled the leaves, the trees seemed to shimmer.
People began whacking at the trees with wooden sticks to knock the olives onto tarps spread out below. I watched until I thought I had an idea of what to do. After a while, I noticed Yusif looking at me funny. I asked if I was doing something wrong.
“Well, you’re not supposed to whack it quite so… randomly. It takes some amount of finesse to be gentle to the trees and still get the olives.”
I paid closer attention and soon developed a halfway-decent olive whack.
I noticed a guy around twenty years old with a t-shirt over his head to keep the sun off his face. Yusif said he was the mayor’s youngest son Mohammad. He was the most energetic and charismatic of the cheerful harvesters. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we could only say “Marhaba!” (Hi!) whenever we ran into each other. But his enormous brown eyes exuded such intense and benevolent interest in everything and everyone around him, I started calling him Mohammad the Charmer in my mind.
The fact that his lack of English skills was an exception drove home how many people in this tiny town spoke English as a second language. Jayyous was the same size as my home town, about 3,000 people. But in Stigler, Oklahoma, even the high school Spanish teacher didn’t really speak Spanish.
Welcome jugs of ice-cold water under the trees
I got thirsty after a while and went looking for water. Along the way I ran into Azhar, the mayor’s dark-eyed youngest daughter, an ethereally beautiful and unnervingly self-possessed eleven-year-old whose name means ‘flower’ in Arabic. She was peeling a clementine (kalamentina in Arabic). When she finished peeling it, she offered half to me.
“Shukran,” I thanked her in Arabic. She smiled.
Azhar’s half of the clementine was halfway to her mouth when Sebastian wandered by also looking for water. Instead of eating it, she offered it to him.
“Shukran,” he said.
I blinked in disbelief. Sebastian and I weren’t just strangers—we were foreigners who hadn’t even bothered to learn much of her language before visiting her country. She had every right in the world to be suspicious of us. Instead she was giving us her food without a second thought. I couldn’t help but think I’d been an ogre as a child compared to her. I wouldn’t even give my little sister half of anything unless someone forced me to.
When I got tired of whacking, I climbed the trees and combed olives from their shaded inner branches using a hand-held plastic rake. The tallest trees didn’t stand much more than fifteen feet high, but within each compact canopy was a vast and unique treasury of olives and leaves and sunlight and space.
Olive branches have long been symbols for power, beauty, prestige, peace, and plenty, and it was easy to see why. Olives can be used for oil, pickling, lotion, soap, even fuel. Some of these trees were older than the Renaissance, and combing their willow-like branches felt like a sacrament. Wild herbs and brambles flourished at their feet, and the leaves shimmering softly over acres and acres seemed too diffusely beautiful for this world.
At one point I noticed a lizard high in a tree looking at me curiously. I picked it up and held it in my hand, and it shifted to a slightly paler hue—a chameleon! I jumped out of the tree to show it to Azhar. I moved a black olive toward the frightened animal’s open mouth to see if it would flick its long tongue out or turn black or something. Before I could find out, Azhar stilled my arm. She clucked her tongue, shook her head, and said gently, “Haraam.”
Yusif had told me haraam meant something forbidden by the laws of Islam, or any basically sinful or indecent thing. Harassing a helpless creature apparently qualified in Azhar’s mind. I nodded, tossed the olive away, and let the chameleon go on a white stone wall.
Once a tree was done, people would gather up the tarps, consolidate the fallen olives, twigs, and leaves into a pile, and remove the twigs by hand. The prettiest green olives were put in buckets for pickling and the rest would be bagged up, sorted from the leaves in town, and turned into olive oil in Jayyous’s Italian olive press. It was nice to sit after standing for so long, and often we would get so deep into a conversation, we’d have the pile clean as a whistle and still be picking at specks and talking away. Eventually someone would come over with an empty grain sack, and we’d scoop them in and break it up and move on.
Always there was the soft, heavy patter of olives landing on tarps all around, a rich olive rain. It was a pregnant sound that promised good things, not the least of which was this day, chatting and whacking and picking under a clear blue sky.
It was a welcome relief when breakfast was called. Hot and hungry, we gathered around a tarp loaded down with bread and jam, hummus and pickled olives from past harvests, home-made falafel and crumbly white cheese, tomatoes and fresh yogurt and halaweh (a confection made from sesame paste). Some of the younger kids, packs of nieces and nephews and cousins, ran around shrieking and laughing and throwing olives at each other. It reminded me of the golden days in Stigler when my cousins and I used to climb trees and pick mulberries, gather eggs and shell peas, chase cows and play by the creek on my grandfather’s land.
As I was drinking my tea after the meal, I glanced up at Jayyous perched on its hilltop. Its white houses contrasted beautifully with the dark pine trees in the village, the shimmering olive groves surrounding it, and the powder-blue sky. I remembered seeing similar scenes in Renaissance paintings when I was a kid and wondering if places like that still existed.
It struck me all of a sudden that this wasn’t merely an interesting conflict zone. In many ways, Jayyous was an enviable place to call home.
After several more hours of picking, a delightful late lunch, and a last batch of olives loaded into sacks and hauled onto a waiting truck, we headed toward home.
After the day’s gaiety, I wasn’t prepared for what awaited us. The Fence was closed and locked. No soldier was manning it. Once again we had no choice but to put down our supplies, gather around the gate, and wait. An old woman in a white headscarf glanced up at the most devastated of Jayyous’s once-productive hillsides. Her eyes followed the Fence and its clear-cut and bulldozed perimeter, a huge area that used to be home and now meant a threat of death to any Palestinian who dared approach. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the piles of razor wire surrounding the structure, which were designed to corral not goats or sheep but human beings.
“Haraam!” she exploded suddenly and shook her fist at it. “Haraam!”
Another old woman patted her on the shoulder. She looked down feebly and shook her head.
The entire hillside on the right — which used to be someone’s olive grove — was dynamited, bulldozed, and stripped of trees for the Wall and its army access road
An hour later it was time for the evening prayer. There was still no sign of anyone to let us back home. The men laid a tarp down on a rocky ledge. One man led the prayer while the others prayed in their jeans and dusty work shoes, silhouetted against a lovely setting sun. Another man went off by himself to pray next to a pile of razor wire. As I watched him pray solemnly, imprisoned and humiliated on his own land, I felt something I’d never felt before, as if I’d been kicked in the stomach by my best friend.
It was nearly dark when the soldiers finally arrived. As the once-merry villagers lined up somberly, making sure to behave while the young Israeli soldiers questioned them, checked their documents, and waved them uncaringly through, my shoulders bowed and my head ducked. A horrified weight of sorrow settled on my heart. I felt like I couldn’t bear to watch this awful scene, to quietly accept it. But there was nothing I could do.
After a few moments, it dawned on me that I was wrong. There was something I could do, even if it was a very small thing. I leveled my head. I straightened my shoulders. If nothing else, I could at least try to face this situation with as much honesty and dignity as I could muster.
With that I realized something else. I had always assumed, watching scenes like this on the news, that the people who bore such things must either not quite care about life as much as I did, or they must have some kind of supernatural coping mechanism I couldn’t begin to imagine. Because if anything like this happened to me, I assumed I would utterly fall apart.
Now I felt ridiculous for ever imagining such a thing. Here I was, and unendurable things were happening right in front of me to people who were no different from me at all. And they were bearing the situation with dignity not because they didn’t care or because they were saints. They simply had no other options except being miserable, which wouldn’t help anything, or resisting. And this was a point in time when resistance was probably futile.
Instead of feeling destroyed, I felt energized by a clarity of purpose I’d never felt before. This particular aspect of the global situation was no longer a blank horror. It was merely an extremely difficult series of challenges whose basic units were human beings. Surely enough people of good will could find a way to resolve them, and maybe after I learned a great deal more I could find a way to help. Either way, if the people of Jayyous could go through this every day and still go home and joke around on the porch—and apparently I could, too, because what else was I going to do, sit around and mope?—I wondered what else I might be able to bear that I never imagined I could.
Of course, I had no idea then how bad things could get. Still, it was strange and paradoxical that after witnessing something so awful, the world seemed less blindly terrifying. It was empowering to realize I could go into the world and learn things for myself that no professor could teach — that most probably didn’t even know.
NOTE: You can read the fourth and final part of Chapter 2 here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.