Monday, September 26, 2005

The army is here

As I was stepping into the shower this morning, I heard the crackle of heavy machine gun fire. It was louder than the gunfire that I often hear at night, which usually comes from Palestinian AK-47s, fired off to celebrate weddings, or just for the hell of it, I imagine. This was louder, and closer. After living here for a while, they say, you learn to distinguish between Israeli and Palestinian gunfire. Israeli gunfire is usually louder and faster. This was loud and fast.

But, the water was hot and I decided to step in the shower anyway. By the time I was out, I heard loud whistles and boys yelling in Arabic outside my windows. The Israeli army was in the neighborhood.

Two olive green-colored trucks were parked about four blocks away, clearly visible across a small valley from my house. A group of about 20 school boys, maybe in the fifth or sixth grade, had gathered in the street outside my house. They were wearing their uniforms, dark blue pants and light blue collared shirts, many of them carrying stones in their hands.

Throwing rocks at Israeli tanks is a rite of passage for Palestinian schoolboys. The practice began in the late 1980s, during the first intifada, which was a popular uprising which won Palestinians international sympathy for images of stone throwers confronting heavily armed soldiers and tanks.

The latest intifada, which began in 2000 and by most accounts has ended, was fought by Palestinian militants and suicide bombers, who accomplished the reverse for Palestinians’ image. Boys too young to carry guns, however, still throw rocks.

There’s a UN-adminstered elementary school up the street. These boys apparently had run out of class at the sound of gunfire.

I asked an older boy what happened. He said he didn’t know. Only that “al-jaysh” – or the army – had arrived. There is only one army here.

An Israeli military jeep and an armored vehicle were parked outside an apartment building. I had read that Israel had arrested a few hundred suspected militants two days ago in the West Bank, and imagined they were doing the same.

There was no more gunfire, the army trucks drove away – I couldn’t tell if they had carried away anyone or not – and the boys dropped their stones and walked back to school.

Messages on the wall

On Sunday, I visited Qalqilya, a Palestinian town of 42,000, which abuts the so-called green line, the historic boundary between the West Bank and Israel. It is a half-hour drive from downtown Tel Aviv. Qalqilya has become one of the rallying points for those who oppose the Israeli-built separation wall. The anti-wall protestors, Palestinians and international activists, have since moved on. The wall is finished there. It encloses the city on three sides, leaving just two ways in and out.

The Israelis built the wall to stop suicide bombers from entering Israel. The wall, however, snakes its way along the West Bank, annexing thousands of acres of Palestinian land. Qaliqilya lost farm land. But most of its economy depended on Palestinian laborers working in Israel, and Israelis visiting to shop and eat. Both have ceased since the wall was constructed two years ago. So accustomed are locals to Israeli visitors that a boy riding a bike called out to us, “Shalom, Shalom,” mistakening us for Israelis. That would never happen in Ramallah. Most children there have never heard shalom uttered before.

Now, the wall in Qalqilya, which rises roughly 20 feet, has become a tableau for pro-Palestinian graffiti artists visiting from Europe and the Americas.

Please note: the web site is not currently allowing me to post photos. I will do so later.

The crossing

I traveled to Jerusalem on Saturday for lunch with a friend who was visiting from Iraq. Just 15 miles separates downtown Ramallah from Jerusalem’s Old City. The trip took one hour. The crossing resembles an international border. Someday it may be.

Starting in 2002, the Israelis began building a permanent checkpoint in Kalandia, a West Bank town just south of Ramallah. Then, they build the wall, which recently was linked to the crossing. The Palestinian area to the south of the checkpoint is now considered greater Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel has been building a ring of Jewish settlements in Arab areas to the north, east and south of the city in the hopes of bolstering a Jewish majority.

My journey included two service taxi vans and a walk along a fenced gravel walkway, through a metal detector and passport check, controlled by Israeli soldiers. Only Palestinians who carry a Jerusalem ID card, identifying them as residents of Jerusalem, may cross. All other Palestinians must obtain special permission from Israel, which is rarely granted.

Jerusalem, of course, holds special significance to Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, as the spiritual center of Palestine. It also is envisioned, perhaps quixotically given recent facts on the ground, as the future capital of a Palestinian state.

For five years, Israel has barred Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza from traveling to Jerusalem. Merely visiting is a dream, much less staking a Palestinian flag there. This absence pushes Jerusalem of the mundane and everyday to the recesses of Palestinian memory and infuses Jerusalem the symbol with yet more power. On the service taxi from Birzeit the other day a Palestinian university student asked me if I had been to Jerusalem. "Yes," I said, without much thought. "Oh," he said, "it is so beautiful, isn’t it?" It’s just another city, I thought, and I much rather prefer Ramallah. But, that wasn’t the correct answer. "Oh, yes," I said. "It is. Very beautiful."

Monday, September 19, 2005

The view from Ramallah

I bought a digital camera the other day in Ramallah. The camera store looked like any you'd find in the States: lots of digital cameras behind display cases, big photo processing machines behind the counter, that plastic camera store smell. The main difference is that even in a camera store, with prices marked on each item for sale, one bargains for the final price.

A Palestinian guy named Ibrahim, who I know from the university, accompanied me on my buying excursion and helped me bargain. We knocked off 200 sheqels from the sticker price -- that's about $44 -- plus got a 128 MB memory card for free. I bought last year's little shiny Canon 3.2 mega pixel camera that's shaped like a pack of cigarettes. I wanted something I could fit in my pocket. All together, it came to $265, which is more than I would have paid in the States, but I had to have a camera, and my other one is broken, sitting in a friend's apartment in Amman.

Here are some photos, then. The first, Ramallah at sunset. Second, my home. Following, the view looking west, near my house. Then, my street, looking from my house. Finally, the central square of Ramallah, Al-Manara, which means lighthouse, although, if there was ever a lighthouse (I was told it was actually an early street-lighting tower), it's since been replaced by a rather unattractive metalic sculpture.

Abu Nidal and the wall

I met a stubborn Palestinian yesterday. His name is Abu Nidal and he is a farmer. Stubbornness is a trait that Palestinians celebrate in poetry and song. Abu Nidal is the embodiment of the Palestinian who will not, no matter the hardship, be pushed from his land.

He lives in a virtual prison. His house, which once stood on the edge of fertile West Bank farm land, is now hemmed in by a Jewish settlement on one side and a 20-foot high concrete wall on the other side. In order to enter or exit his roughly half-acre of lot, which includes a chicken coop, he must pass through two gates.

After some outcry from international groups and from within Israel, the Israeli army furnished Abu Nidal and his wife a key to one of the gates. The other gate is opened and closed at the whim of Israeli soldiers. A sign on that gate warns “mortal danger” in three languages to all who pass.

The Israelis call it a security barrier and the Palestinians call it the Apartheid wall. The wall, which started construction in 2002, does not follow the historic boundary of the West Bank; instead it carves out wide swaths of Palestinian farm land, homes, even entire villages, isolating Palestinians, such as Abu Nidal, from the rest of the Palestinian territory.

The wall arrived to Abu Nidal’s doorstep two years ago. Since then, he has been something of a cause celebre of international and Israeli peace groups. He credits the attention with saving his home from demolition. The government offered him a blank check to leave, but he says no amount of money – or the rocks his next door neighbors, Jewish settlers, hurl at his home – will convince him to leave his land. He lives there with his wife and four children, all of whom must pass through the gates to get to and from school. On some days, the children must wait as long as an hour to pass, he said.

He and his wife make sure that one of them is always at home, out of fear that the Israelis would take advantage of their absence and demolish it. Abu Nidal’s grandfather was killed in the 1948 war by Jewish forces while he was defending his village, nearby Qufr Qassem, which is now in Israel, and Abu Nidal’s father fled to the West Bank and became a refugee. Abu Nidal was born in the West Bank. He built his house 34 years ago.

I was traveling on a tour arranged by the Palestine and Arabic Studies Program at Birzeit. We tried to get a glimpse of the wall construction in the nearby village of Beir Ballout, but were stopped by three Israeli security contractors -- Arabs of Bedouin origin with Israeli citizenship -- carrying automatic weapons. We only saw the bulldozers moving on a ridgeline. In the wall's path was a Palestinian goat herder who refused to leave his home. His house, made of tin and wooden pallets, was not as sturdy as Abu Nidal's. He was out with his goats when we came calling.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The burger's return

I learned the verb for “to vomit” in Arabic today. “Istafaragh,” which comes from the root, to void or to empty. A more colloquial way of saying it is “raj’a,” which means to return. That’s what I was doing after the Mac Chain burger – or maybe its special sauce? – didn’t agree with me. I’m only now eating again. I haven’t been that sick since 1998, when I ate a bad BLT at my grandmother’s retirement community. Then, I ended up in the hospital. This time, a stash of Cipro has saved me.

My appetite returned this afternoon when I shared with a friend one of my favorite Levantine dishes: a large plate of fettah b’il lehmeh in a tiny restaurant in Ramallah’s Old City. Fettah is hummous and bits of bread soaked in warm water, covered with chick peas, and parsley. The lehmeh is fried bits of lamb meat, which is generously sprinkled on top. Sliced tomato, onion and pickles on the side.

Our cook and waiter was Mazen, whose brother lives in Houston. Mazen said Houston is home to thousands of Palestinians originally from Ramallah. He would like go too, once he finishes his undergraduate degree at Birzeit – provided he obtains a visa.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The mall

Curiosity, and a bare pantry, finally got the best of me. I decided to go to Palestine’s only shopping mall. The Plaza Shopping Center is known among locals as “blaza mol.” I took a shared taxi to the mall from downtown for 35 cents. My first stop was the food court. Among the three options, Mac Chain Burgers seemed the most promising. I ordered a double cheese burger meal, which came without cheese, but the burger patties were surprisingly good. The restaurant’s slogan is “Best Burgers in Palestine.” I haven’t found burgers anywhere else, so that could be true. There were a few clothing stores near the food court; the only multi-national store was Benetton, which is French? I haven’t seen any U.S. companies here.

The anchor store of the mall is the Bravo Supermarket. I was hopeful that I might find pesto there, but did not. Instead, I bought two jars of American-made tomato-based pasta sauce. They sold Kroger-brand “pizza sauce” and “pasta sauce” there, as they do all over Palestine. It is not repackaged with Hebrew labeling, as most American brands are here; instead it’s imported directly by a Palestinian company, which slaps on a small white label in Arabic next to the Kroger label.

The store was large by Palestinian standards, but still smaller than an American supermarket. It included a deli with plenty of meats and cheeses and an assortment of local olives. I bought green olives and black olives. The cereal aisle was almost as extensive as an American store. My medium-sized box of Cheerios was $4. You pay more here than in Israel for most food imported from the United States or Europe, or for products such as milk made in Israel because Israel charges additional taxes to Palestinian importers.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Return to Ramallah

I arrived in Ramallah on Aug. 30. My first stop was the office of Abu Amjad, or Abed Hajj al-Kiswani, who manages and rents houses and apartments. A friend stayed in a basement apartment attached to his house last summer. Abed, as he asks me to call him, took me to his home and showed me the basement apartment as well as a small house, both for $500 a month, including utilities. He showed me a couple others that were more expensive, and simply too big. Rents in Ramallah are very high, compared to Cairo, Amman or Damascus. I chose the little house for $500 a month, which is above a French engineering office. Outside the house is a large rooftop deck, with extraordinary views to the west. Everyday, I see a spectacular sunset. On clear mornings and nights, I can Tel Aviv. Abed says in more peaceful times, he could drive to Tel Aviv in 50 minutes from Ramallah. Now, he’s not allowed to enter Israel or Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, even with his American passport.

The home is well-furnished and I’ve got about everything I’ll need, except heat. I’m going to need a heater once it gets colder in a month or so. The weather is still dry and hot during the day, but is already cooling off at night. I’ve got a satellite dish, which receives lots of channels in languages I can’t understand, including Russian and Chinese. I mostly switch between BBC World, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabeeya. I’m lucky to understand half of what I hear on the latter two, but they have excellent programming and it’s good practice.

I’m here to study Arabic at Birzeit University, which is the most prestigious four-year university in the Palestinian territories. It’s situated outside the village of Birzeit, a 15-minute drive north of Ramallah. The campus buildings are all made of native stone, arranged on a rocky hill top, with views of Palestinian villages in valleys and on hillsides, and one Jewish settlement, distinctive for its red-tile roofs. The building where I have classes was recently constructed and, aside from Arabic classes for non-native speakers, it is dedicated to women’s studies. It was donated by the Kingdom of Bahrain.

There are 7,000 students at Birzeit and no dormitories. Almost all commute from elsewhere, mostly from surrounding villages, or Ramallah, which is the defacto administrative capital of the Palestinian territories. My commute to school takes a half hour, but doesn’t seem that long. It takes me through the center of Ramallah, where I walk a couple blocks between service taxis. It costs a total of $1.25. The service taxis are yellow-painted Ford vans which hold between 7 and 10 people and run so frequently I rarely wait more than a minute for one to leave. I enjoy taking public transportation in foreign countries as a glimpse into the daily life of ordinary people. In the past several years, the Israeli military has frequently set up a temporary checkpoint on the road from Ramallah to Birzeit, which can make the commute hours long. They’ve only done so once since I’ve been here, and it wasn’t when I was on the route.

My first class, Third-year Modern Standard Arabic, was Thursday and I’m pleased with the structure of the course and the professor. His name is Moussa Khoury and he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. We’ll be reading authentic texts, including contemporary Palestinian poetry, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also taking second-year Palestinian Colloquial Arabic. My first colloquial class was today. Dr. Khoury introduced the class structure and spoke with each of us to gauge our conversation levels, but a different professor will teach the course. I'm at a higher level than the other students, since I took a course this past year at Texas on the Levantine dialect, which includes Palestine, and I spent the summer in Jordan, where spoken Arabic is very similar to the West Bank. There are only four students in the class, which is great. It's the smallest Arabic class I've ever taken.

Since I’ve been in Ramallah, I haven’t seen the Israeli military at all. They are not currently occupying the center of the city, but control the flow of people and goods to and from Jerusalem, as well as between cities in the West Bank. Ramallah, like most places in the West Bank, isn’t far from Jewish settlements, built on confiscated Palestinian land and considered illegal by international law. They continue to be expanded, despite longstanding, repeated objections from the U.S. government, the United Nations and the European Union. They are considered a provocation by Palestinians. The Jewish settler who killed four Palestinian laborers last month lives in a settlement between Ramallah and Nablus, about 30 miles to the north.

The last time I was in Ramallah was in the spring of 2002, during the Israeli military siege of West Bank cities, in response to a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Buildings were destroyed, cultural centers ransacked and cars flattened by tanks. The city was under a strict curfew. Today, it appears to be thriving. Several upscale restaurants have since opened, the center of the city bustles with people shopping for clothes and electronics. It is the economic capital of the Palestinian territories and is burgeoning with Palestinian migrants looking for work. Some of the prosperity comes from wealth accumulated in the West, particularly America. Almost everyday, I hear a conversation on the street between Palestinians in American English. Many people here have American passports and travel frequently between the two.

Abed, my landlord, told me five of his seven children live in America. His sister lives there. His parents live in Chicago, after spending 13 years in Sweden. I met a grocer yesterday who used to live in Houston, then the U.S. Virgin Islands, but returned so that his children would spend their adolescence in Arab society, away from temptations of drugs. My dry cleaner’s brother has been living in Chicago for 30 years. His son’s name is Bob.

Maybe partially because of the connection between Palestine and America, Palestinians here have been extremely friendly and helpful to me. I have encountered very gracious Arab hospitality elsewhere – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt – but Palestinians have struck me as overly helpful at times. Abed purchased a very nice table and four chairs for my house, and tells me that I can call him at any time of the day or night if I need him for anything. Every time I come to his house, I am given coffee or tea, and often food. I still haven’t paid my first month’s rent because I’m waiting for my first fellowship check at the University of Texas to be deposited into my account, and he won’t let me apologize – as if he’s embarrassed that I feel the need to apologize. You will pay when you can pay, he says. I was with an American friend the other night in Ramallah and we were asking for directions to a coffee shop. A man gave directions, and five minutes after we set off, he was running after us to tell us he had made a mistake and corrected himself. As I walk down the street, I receive waves and hellos, in English and Arabic, as a white visitor might receive in small town America. This good will comes despite the fact that my government provides Israel the attack helicopters, bulldozers and other military hardware that are used against Palestinian people.

I’m about a 10-minute walk to the Old City of Ramallah – a several block area of fruit and vegetable stalls, groceries, churches and a mosque – where the buildings are made of large stone blocks and date mostly to the Ottoman era. It’s another 10 minutes to the modern downtown. The city and surrounding area is home to maybe a couple hundred thousand people, almost all of whom are originally from somewhere else in the West Bank or what is now Israel. There are a couple refugee camps in Ramallah, but almost everyone here are refugees, the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of refugees from 1948, when Israel was founded, or from 1967, when Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The city today is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it was originally a Christian village and it retains a certain Christian identity. The peal of church bells is never far from ear shot, and many groceries and restaurants sell beer, wine and liquor. There are also Christian-affiliated private schools. Many of the old stone homes have crosses carved in the keystone above the door.

Ramallah is also the least socially conservative place in the Palestinian territories, and, aside from Beirut, the least socially conservative place I’ve visited in the Arab world. Probably less than half of women wear the hijab, or head scarf. I’ve only seen one woman wearing the niqab, the face veil. It’s a far cry from Gaza, the stronghold of Hamas, the Islamist social movement and militant group. Christians here are concerned that if Gazans are allowed to travel to the West Bank, Hamas will shut down the drinking establishments in Ramallah.

I met yesterday with a Palestinian human rights lawyer, as I start my thesis research, who is not hopeful that the current lull in violence will lead to a peace process. Since dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza and three settlements in the northern West Bank, the Israeli government has approved expansion plans for at least one West Bank settlement, and continues to expand the largest settlement, near Jerusalem. It also continues to build the separation wall, which is constructed inside the West Bank and isolates Palestinian villages and hinders the agricultural economy. Israel also continues to build permanent checkpoints that slow, or at worst, restrict Palestinian travel within the West Bank. I will be traveling through some of these checkpoints during my stay here.