Thursday, December 15, 2005


I'm leaving Palestine on Saturday to return to America. The other day, I met for the last time with a group of high school senior girls from the village of Kharbatha Beni Hareth.

Once a week, I taught them a little English and they taught me a lot about Palestinian culture and village life. During the period of the class, one of my students announced proudly that she had just become engaged to her cousin, Mohammad, who was the brother of another student. I congratulated her. She said she would marry in the summer and still hoped to attend college. They all, in fact, would like to attend college, but to do so they must score well on the end-of-high school exam administered in the summer. The English portion of the exam counts for one-quarter of the overall grade, so their voluntary attendance at my class was important to them.

The last class, they surprised me with a "lunch," which was more like a feast. They each brought a dish: maqlouba, mousakhen, pizza, salad ... Will you remember us in five years, one of them asked me. Yes, I promised. I will.

Arafat's grave

I've been living in Ramallah for more than three months and I didn't visit the city's most popular -- perhaps only -- tourist attraction until last week: Arafat's grave. Two American friends were visiting, which was reason enough for us all to go to the gravesite, which is something of a pilgrimage destination for Palestinians from the West Bank and abroad. It is open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and attracts 2,000 visitors a day, according to the guards outside.

The founder of the Palestinian nationalist movement and its standard bearer for nearly a half-century is still referred to as "the leader" by the Palestinian guards outside the compound where he lived, worked and is buried. The moqata, as it is known, has been mostly patched and rebuilt since Israeli tanks and soldiers famously kept Arafat under seige on and off for the last four years of his life. His tombstone is draped with a Palestinian flag and encased in a large glass box. Four men from one of the many branches of the national police that Arafat created stand watch over the site.

Nearby is a hole, freshly dug, which is the beginnings of a mausoleum and memorial to the former president of the Palestinian National Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. One of the guards told us that he will remain in Ramallah only temporarily, until the political situation will permit him to be buried in Jerusalem, according to his wishes. Insha'allah, I replied. If God wills it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Orange season

Every fruit has its season, but in Palestine, where virtually no fruit or vegetable is imported, the seasons are more noticable. You'll be hard-pressed to find citrus in the market in the summer. And you won't find cantelope or figs in the winter. Right now, the oranges and clementines from Jericho are for sale all over Ramallah. If you just want one or two or three, this vendor will give them to you for free.

Weather maps

Weather maps in newspapers in America and in most of the world are just that: weather maps. In the Middle East, they are political maps. “The Jerusalem Post,” a right-wing English-language Israeli paper, publishes a daily map on the back page of the front section titled, “Weather in Israel,” which shows no political boundaries for the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights, all considered occupied territories according to the United Nations. Most maps published outside of Israel clearly show such boundaries. The map in the Jerusalem Post shows the temperature highs and lows for 12 Israeli cities, including the largest Israeli settlement, called Ariel, which is located in the West Bank. It does not print the name or location of any Palestinian cities within “Israel.”

“Haaretz,” a left-leaning Israeli paper, which prints an English-language edition, shows a wider map of the region, with temperatures in Israeli cities, including Ariel, as well as two Palestinian cities, Gaza and Nablus, and two Jordanian cities, Amman and Aqaba. It avoids defining political boundaries within Israel by not showing any political boundaries at all.

The mainstream Jordanian newspaper, “Al-Ghad,” shows the weather in Jordan and the West Bank. It draws political boundaries more than 37 years old, showing the West Bank as part of Jordan. It indicates the names of the countries surrounding Jordan, with the exception of Israel. The Jordanian government has officially recognized the state of Israel, but the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam, which is located in Jerusalem and for 19 years was under Jordanian control, is still printed on Jordanian currency. More than half of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, and many object to the government’s relations with Israel.

Palestinian newspapers, for their part, include no weather maps at all. Al-Quds, the oldest Palestinian newspaper, whose name, Al Quds, means The Holy,” which is what Arabs call Jerusalem. It lists the weather in cities like New York, Tokyo and Amsterdam, far from Israel and Palestine and the Middle East all together.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Sheperds and their flock

Two boys lead their sheep down my street the other day. The photo was taken from my porch.


I met another 105-year-old. Abu Khalil has lived in the Christian-Muslim village of Aboud his whole life. He comes from the Christian side.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Have you heard the latest news?

I climbed aboard a yellow Ford van in the parking lot outside Birzeit University to head back to Ramallah and struck up a conversation with the driver. He spoke English quite well – he had lived in Chicago, Las Vegas and San Diego – but I insisted on speaking Arabic. The conversation turned, as it almost always does, to what am I doing here learning Arabic.

I’m a journalist, I told him.

Oh, have you heard the latest news?

No, I said.

There was a bomb in Netanya. Half an hour ago.

Five Israelis were killed yesterday in a suicide bombing outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya. Word of such incidents spreads as quickly in Palestine as it does in Israel. People in both societies tune in to hourly radio news updates as if their religion prescribed it. The official reaction from both Palestinians and Israelis has become cliché. The Palestinian leadership condemned the bombing and the Israelis said it was proof the Palestinians have done nothing to “dismantle the infrastructure of terror.”

The everyday Palestinian reaction is more complicated and wide-ranging, but few will condemn the bombing as their leadership does, and fewer still would agree with the Israelis: that Palestinians are responsible for stopping Palestinians from blowing themselves up in Israel. This weekend, I discussed the very subject with two Palestinian professors who hold Ph.D.s from American universities.

Give me a country with recognized international borders, a constitution, an army and police, and I will be responsible for the actions of my people, one told me. Without this, Palestinian leadership, the argument goes, lacks a popular mandate to crack down on a movement to resist an occupation that is universally loathed.

As far as Palestinians are concerned, the occupation and all that it entails – restriction of movement, “administrative detention,” a euphemism for imprisonment without official charges, jailhouse torture, house demolitions, land confiscation and the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians, antiseptically referred to as “collateral damage” in the language of the occupier – is cause enough to lead someone to blow themselves up in Israel.

Reasonable Palestinians do not support the killing of innocent civilians inside Israel, but they also offer no apologies. I sat down with Abu Imad in his little grocery yesterday evening and we drank tea and talked about the day's events after watching the news bulletin on Al-Jazeera. There was much to discuss: the Saddam Hussein trial in Iraq and the suicide bombing in Netanya. The Israeli defense minister promised retaliation, the news report said.

One side hits the other, Abu Imad said, and the other feels he must hit back. And it continues like this.

He concluded, however, by blaming the other, invoking a familiar Palestinian refrain: You see, Sharon doesn’t want peace. I imagined the idle talk in the groceries on the other side returned the blame: You see, they might say, the bombing is proof the Palestinians don't want peace.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Fall sunset over Ramallah

The sun sets now at 4:40. I know, even if I don't step outside to see the last of it slip beyond the horizon because I hear the mosques, in a sort of fugue, calling the faithful to the maghreb prayer. My house is on the side of a hill, and so I hear the call to prayer from Beitouniya, across the valley, as well as up the hill, from the old city of Ramallah.

Of oil and olives and soap

Most families in Salfit not only pickle their own olives and cook with home-grown olive oil, but they make soap from oil left over from the previous season, a process which takes two days. They pour the soap into large molds and then slice it into squares as it cools. The oil in the soap is considered good for the skin. I visited Salfit and came home with a jar of home-pickled green olives, and a block of soap.

Olive oil is sold in Palestine by the tanakeh, on the right, which holds between 15 and 17 kilograms of oil. This year, because the season was light, a tanakeh fetches 70 Jordanian dinars, or about $100 -- twice to three times the normal price. Folks not only eat olive oil with bread and thyme for breakfast, and use it with salads and a variety of other dishes, some drink half a coffee cup of extra virgin every morning. According to tradition, oil strengthens the body and keeps the heart healthy.


After olives are pressed, olive growers share in the waste byproduct, the crushed pits, called jifit, which is used for fertilizer in the olive groves, as well as for fuel to cook bread or heat the home during the winter.

Khamees al-Hamad, 72, stands next to a pile of jifit at an olive press which he partially owns in the village of Salfit, south of Nablus.


It was the first time, and it may have been the last: a Palestinian asked me for directions. The other day, as I was walking home in the dark and a van pulled up beside me. The driver rolled down the window and started as most conversations start here: “As-salam alaykum,” reaching his hand through the open window to shake mine. He was either desperately lost, or actually thought I was a Palestinian. In either case, he continued. I caught enough to realize he was asking for directions, but wasn’t sure where he wanted to go. I answered that I was a foreigner – “Ana ajnabee” – but that I would try to help. I pointed to the next thoroughfare and explained that it led to Beitouniya, a neighboring village to the west. That seemed to make them happy, and they thanked me and bid me farewell. I was stunned, but pleased. It was perhaps some small benchmark of my knowledge of Arabic, and of Ramallah.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I left the West Bank for Jordan this weekend in order to renew my Israeli visa. The trip from Ramallah across the Allenby Bridge (in Jordan it is called the King Hussein Bridge) took four and a half hours on two taxis, one bus and a private car. (I made the return trip in five hours on two shared taxis and two buses.) The route from Ramallah used to pass more directly through Jersusalem; now, because Palestinian vehicles -- and most Palestinians -- are barred from enterring Jersualem, the route winds along narrow lanes of crumbling pavement through a dozen West Bank villages before dropping into the folds of the desert mountains that rise above the Jordan River. I was all the happier to trade the traffic of Jerusalem for bumpy roads and spectacular scenery.

I stayed two nights in Amman with my friend, Jon. We drove past the three hotels that were bombed earlier this month; all have been repaired and are reopened. But, while traces of the bombings have been neatly erased, life in Amman is changed.

At every restaurant, bar and hotel we visited, we were greeted outside by a guard or two or three, who checked us with a hand-held wand of the sort that is ubiquitous at airport security checks in the United States. Big hotels have installed walk-through metal detectors far from the actual entrances. On Saturday, we drove to the eastern desert to visit Byzantine and Ummayid ruins, and we were questioned twice at police road blocks. We may have been stopped because we were driving a rental car, but other cars were stopped as well.

All of this is new, Jon told me, since the bombings. To me, the heightened security made Jordan feel like Israel.

Thanksgiving in Palestine

The leaves weren’t turning and there was no football on tv, but it was Thanksgiving nonetheless, and so we celebrated. Some American friends of mine organized a Thanksgiving potluck last Thursday night. The hosts provided two turkeys, heads included – freshly slaughtered by a butcher in the downtown Ramallah market, and cooked in a wood-fired brick oven at a bakery. (Apparently, folks here bring large birds, sheep and goats to bakeries for baking.) It was delicious.

I brought garlic mashed potatoes, made from a four-kilo sack of potatoes; others contributed canned cranberries (the can was the last on the grocery store shelf and appeared as if it had been there for years), Middle Eastern stuffing, green beans, couscous salad, green salad, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and apple pie. Beverages included Palestinian beer, Israeli wine and Ramallah Araq, the anise-derived liquor common throughout the Arab World. About 35 people took part – mostly Europeans and Palestinians assisting in their first Thanksgiving – and ate almost everything.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A lifetime

I met a woman the other day who said she was 104 years old. She lives alone in a one-room stone house in a village called Khirbet Abu Falah, in the Palestinian highlands north of Ramallah. The house, with its distinctive Ottoman-style vaulted ceiling, is older than she is.

She is hard of hearing and spoke in a peasant dialect so distinctive that even my Palestinian friends had trouble understanding her. She didn’t say much anyway.

I imagined all that she has seen in her lifetime. When she was born, at the turn of the last century, there were no political borders from Jerusalem to Damascus to Baghdad to Istanbul. The population of the region that was to become Palestine, and later Israel and the Palestinian territories, was 600,000, of which 87 percent were Arab Muslims, 10 percent were Arab Christians and 3 percent were Jews, both immigrants from Europe and indigenous Sephardic Jews.

Nearly a decade after her birth, in 1909, Tel Aviv was founded as the first Jewish city in the Middle East. She was approaching adulthood, when in 1917, British forces occupied Jerusalem and began a 31-year occupation.

In middle age, in 1948, British troops left Palestine, Jewish residents declared independence as Israel and war erupted. Seventy-eight percent of Palestine was conquered by the new state of Israel. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians, or 90 percent of those living in the Jewish state, became refugees. Israeli bulldozers destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, after their occupants fled or were forced from their homes.

Her village, however, was spared. It became part of a new political region known as the West Bank, annexed by Jordan.

Nineteen years later, she was in her late 60s when Israel invaded Jordan (as well as Syria and Egypt) and occupied the rest of historic Palestine, including her village. She later survived one Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, in the late 1980s, and so far has survived the second, which began in 2000.