Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Abu Soufian

Last night, Abu Soufian invited me to iftar. I see him most evenings, when I am visiting with Abu Imad in his small grocery. At the end of the daily Ramadan fast, Abu Soufian arrives beleaguered at Abu Imad’s store, his white apron and blue jumpsuit smudged with pancake batter, and orders three pita sandwiches and five bottles of grape juice. He and his sons eat them to break the fast, as they are closing their shop. They spend the day churning out pancakes, which are called qatief, a traditional Ramadan desert.

Abu Soufian, whose family came to Ramallah from Hebron during the British mandate, lives in an old house across from Abu Imad’s grocery in the predominantly Christian Old City. His extended family gathers each night for Ramadan. I sat in one room with Abu Soufian and two of his sons, and the women sat in another room. One of his daughters served us. We ate maqlouba (rice, cauliflower, eggplant) with tender chunks of lamb – Abu Soufian instructed me to eat with my hands – with yogurt and vegetable noodle soup. We drank carob juice, a traditional Ramadan drink in Palestine, sold in recycled plastic two-liter plastic Pepsi bottles at stands all over town. Then, the women joined us and we drank Arabic coffee without sugar, then Arabic coffee with sugar. Then, the qatief. For 40 years, Abu Soufian has been making qatief in the same small shop, open only during the month of Ramadan. (During the rest of the year, he operates a restaurant in nearby Beitouniya.) He calls himself the king of qatief. I was anxious to try it.

His daughter prepared three varieties of qatief. The pancakes were folded in half, some filled with sweet cheese, some with walnuts (from California) and some with cream. The outside was sticky and sweet. I ate two of each. We talked politics – every conversation here turns to politics – and languages and American culture: Americans’ love for big cars that consume a lot of gasoline and the completely foreign concept of Americans leaving home when they are 18 to live on their own. When I told Abu Soufian that American women also leave home when they are 18, he responded: “haram!” which means forbidden by Islam. His son invited me to his engagement party, next month, and gave me a ride home.

Monday, October 24, 2005


When a Palestinian is killed in this conflict – an innocent bystander, a gunman or a suicide bomber – Palestinians automatically refer to the deceased as a martyr. In Arabic, a martyr is called “shaheed,” or witness. The verb, “to be martyred,” is “istashahed,” which means to call upon as a witness. Martyrs are immediately memorialized on posters, produced by one of the political factions. If the deceased is a fighter, he is often pictured with an automatic rifle in one hand and sometimes a Quran in the other. His image is often superimposed in front of the Dome of the Rock, which represents both religious and nationalist claims to Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. The posters are plastered on walls and metal shutters of shops in the business district of the town where the martyr resided.

The second Palestinian uprising, which began five years ago, has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis. The daily death toll has decreased dramatically in the past two years or so, although people continue to be killed on both sides. (Yesterday, for example, two Palestinians were killed and three Israeli soldiers injured.) One sign that the uprising, or intifada, may be over, or at least waning, are the faded and torn martyr posters in cities and villages across the West Bank. In Salfit, a town of 14,000 between Nablus and Ramallah, about 25 residents were killed by Israeli troops since the beginning of the uprising, most in the first three years. The remains of their paper cenotaphs are everywhere, but they are tattered and washed out by the sun, or peeled off and gone altogether.


As a non-Muslim living in the Muslim world, I never really felt left out until Ramadan this year. I figure it’s kind of like being Jewish or Muslim in the United States during Christmas. I certainly don’t envy the fasting part of the holy month – from sunrise to sundown, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking – but I am jealous of the big dinners that everyone hurries home to eat at sunset. I’m reminded of this everyday, as shops close and the streets empty in the late afternoon. Luckily, I’ve been invited to two iftar dinners in Muslim homes, and another at a restaurant.

On Saturday, I went with three colleagues to our Arabic professor’s home in Salfit, an hour north of Ramallah. It’s situated in a valley surrounded by terraced olive groves (and one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Ariel). Sameer gave us a tour of the city and then we listened to his 78-year-old mother recount, in her distinctive peasant dialect, memories of the British occupation in the 1930s and 40s. He lives with his wife and four children in a house that is built above the house of one of his brothers. Other family members live in adjacent houses, which is a typical arrangement in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab World.

At 5 p.m., we sat around the dining table and listened for the call to prayer, as steam rose from the food, heaped in two large serving trays in the center of the table, and from chicken noodle soup, sitting in bowls before us. Through the open door, we heard, “Allah Akbar!” from the nearest mosque, which was permission to eat. First, following a tradition attributed to the prophet Mohammad, we each ate a dried date. Then, the soup. Then, a traditional Palestinian dish called maqloubah, which means “upside down.” The name has something to do with the way the dish is prepared, which I’ve never quite understood, but I’ve had it before and it’s one of my favorites: Sticky rice with chicken, cauliflower and eggplant, all cooked together. We also ate kofta, which is similar to meat balls, with baked tomatoes. And a salad of diced cucumber, tomato and lettuce. And yogurt on the side. The nice thing about Ramadan is that it’s completely acceptable to eat obscene amounts of food. (Some Muslims actually gain weight during Ramadan.) So, I helped myself to three servings of maqlouba and two servings of kofta.

Just as we were finishing, Sameer’s oldest son, Mohammad, returned from university classes at Al-Najah University in Nablus. Luckily, there was some food left for him. The 15-mile trip took three hours, which has been typical the past week, Mohammad told us. Israeli soldiers stopped all traffic on the only road leading south from Nablus. They took all the identification cards of the passengers in the van in which he was riding and held them for more than two hours. After sundown, they returned the ID cards and reopened the road to traffic. Palestinians say Israelis set up blockades late in the day during the month of Ramadan merely to delay Palestinians’ return home to their families. Israelis say Palestinians take advantage of Ramadan to smuggle weapons through the West Bank. (I encountered one such checkpoint returning to Ramallah from Birzeit late one afternoon last week.)

After dinner, we moved to the living room and ate more dried dates, drank Arabic coffee and finished with kanafeh, the sweet goat cheese desert. (I told myself that I really need to fit kanafeh into my daily routine. It is too good not to eat on a regular basis.) Then, we toured the town again, visited various friends and relatives of Sameer, and despite more rounds of coffee, we all became very sleepy, not unlike the effects of a Thanksgiving dinner in America.

Right of way

If there were a prize for drivers' etiquette in the Arab World, Palestinians would run away with first place. In Iraq, drivers almost never stop at intersections (to be fair, when I was there the traffic lights didn’t work). In Egypt, drivers do not slow down for pedestrians; they will only honk as they are about to run you over. In Jordan, they might slow down slightly, but they certainly won’t stop.

In Palestine, cars will brake or even stop in a busy street to yield for pedestrians. Even so, they rarely honk. I asked Sameer, my colloquial Arabic professor, why.

“I’ll tell you why,” he said, “because of the Israeli occupation.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Israelis taught us how to drive.”

During the Israeli military and civil occupation of all Palestinian areas, between 1967 and 1994 (the Oslo peace accords established Palestinian civil authority over most Palestinian towns and cities, which began in the mid-1990s) Israel imposed stiff fines for traffic violations. This retrained Palestinians how to drive, Sameer said, and now politeness on the road has become something of a tradition.

Wearing seatbelts, however, hasn’t yet caught on. About the only time Palestinians seem to wear seatbelts is when they drive on roads built for Jewish settlers, but often shared with Palestinians. They are patrolled by Israeli police.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Ana ismee Bob

In the Arab World, my name is hard to pronounce. I say Bob and Arabs hear something else.

“Ana ismee Bob.” (My name is Bob.)



No not baba. (Baba means daddy and al-baba means the Pope.) Bob.


No, Bob.

Arabic doesn’t have the “p” sound, so the “p” and the “b” often sound the same to Arabs. When I say Bob, the response is often, “Pop? Pop music?” No, not pop music. Bob.

I used to say it’s short for Robert, which usually only adds to the confusion. “How can Bob be short for Robert? Robert starts with an R,” they tell me. I never have a good answer other than it just is.

Sometimes I spell it in Arabic, if they ask, and they sometimes do, but if you pronounce it as it is spelled in Arabic, you get “boob” (which often elicits a few chuckles from my English-speaking friends). I could spell it Bab, which might be closer to Bob than Boob, but Bab means door in Arabic and it might be strange to be named Door.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Keeping warm

The elevation of Ramallah is nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, and in the winter, it does get cold. Its piney hills are often dusted with snow by December or January. The weather is already starting to turn.

The heating system in my house, like in most Palestinian homes, is a small space heater. Last night, it was cold. I fired it up for the first time and it works surprisingly well. I will just have to carry it from room to room to keep warm. Or maybe wear heavier clothes. Why didn't I pack reading gloves?

Palestine or Israel?

Every Monday afternoon, I teach a class at the al-Am’ari Refugee Camp, one of three camps in Ramallah. The official camp population is 7,500 people, living on 23 acres. The camp residents trace their family lineage to one of 40 Palestinian villages, partly or completely destroyed by Israel following the 1948 war.

My class is for 10th graders and it’s purely voluntary, although I suspect that some of the students’ parents force them to attend to keep them out of the house. There are about 12 girls and two boys. Similar to 10th graders the world over, some are quiet and raise their hands and wait to speak until called upon, and others do not. One girl, who has difficulty sitting in the same chair for more than a few minutes, would probably be labeled with attention deficit disorder in America; however, I don’t think there is a term for it in Arabic yet.

Yesterday, we read a passage from their school textbook, which is called English for Palestine, published last year and part of a new curriculum devised by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, one of the quasi-governmental institutions created in the Palestinian territories according to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The reading told the life story of Mahmoud Darwish, who is by far the most recognized Palestinian literary figure. Darwish lived for 21 years in Israel – from 1949 to 1970 – but the passage did not include the word Israel. (Darwish now lives in Ramallah, after spending much of his adult life in Europe.) It twice mentioned “Israelis,” but never called the land Israel. Curious, I flipped through the book and found a world map on the inside front cover. According to the map, the country that is bordered by Lebanon and Syria to the north, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the south is called Palestine. Most of the world, of course, calls it Israel.

Sunday night sunset

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

eating kanafeh

During the Palestinian revolt against British colonial rule in the 1930s, Nablus earned the name, “Mountain of Fire,” for its fierce resistance. It retained that moniker through Jordanian rule and Israeli occupation. In this decade, Israel dubbed the city “capital of terrorism.” Today, despite a cooling of the conflict – most Palestinians and Israelis consider the second Palestinian uprising to have ended – Nablus is surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints. Men in their 20s and 30s who reside in Nablus and its three refugee camps are not allowed to leave.

Last Saturday, my friend, Jon, visiting from Amman, and I set off for the Mountain of Fire. Our taxi stopped at the Hawar checkpoint outside Nablus because taxis and service vans are not allowed to enter the city from the outside. We crossed the kilometer or so on foot, as most all Palestinians must do to pick up another taxi on the other side.

The three soldiers manning the point asked us why we wanted to go to Nablus. To eat kanafeh, I told them. They looked confused and so Jon repeated the answer. What do you mean, kanafeh, one of them asked. We explained.

Kanafeh is a pastry made of sweeted goat cheese and filo dough, drizzled with syrup, a desert delicacy in the Arab countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nablus is widely considered among Arabs as home of the best kanafeh. In Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, kanafeh is often referred to as kanafeh Nabulsi (meaning, of Nablus). Israeli cuisine has adopted many Arab staples such as hummous and shwarma. Falafel is considered Israel’s national food. But, kanafeh hasn’t made it onto the Israeli desert menu.

The soldiers checked our passports and waved us through. We picked up another taxi and headed for the city center. Nablus was founded by the Roman emperor Titus in 72 AD, making it modern compared with surrounding villages. It was one of the most prosperous cities in the region during the Ottoman period, which earned it the nickname, “little Damascus.” We explored the city’s sprawling old city, a stone maze of archways and alleys. It reminded us of Aleppo’s old city, in Syria. Some of the centuries-old buildings were still in ruins from Israel’s 2002 siege of the city and numerous plaques commemorated “martyrs” who were killed in the fighting.

We found “al-Aqsa” sweets, behind the Great Mosque and bought a half-kilo – an assortment of the four types of kanafeh made there. We returned to a restaurant where we had eaten lunch upstairs – away from the gaze of passersby fasting during Ramadan – and consumed the kanafeh. It was the best that I’ve tasted, and among the best deserts I can remember eating.

“Finest in the Middle East”

In the Christian village of Taybeh, reached by a narrow, crumbling strip of pavement through some of the highest hills in the West Bank, Nadim Khoury has been brewing beer since 1995. Appropriately named, Taybeh, it’s a favorite of ex-pats in Ramallah and East Jerusalem.

Jon and I stopped into the brewery unannounced last weekend and Nadim gave us a tour and tall glasses of free beer. Taybeh comes in dark, light and regular. Its slogan, “Finest in the Middle East” is not an exaggeration: it’s far better than the local beers of Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. (I haven’t tried Syrian beer.) The Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000, drastically cut production because Israelis, who had accounted for over half of sales, stopped drinking Taybeh. But, Taybeh is now brewed under license in Germany and Britain, and Nadim plans to export the first bottles to the United States next year. He said he was forced to make new labels before it could sold in the U.S., changing the location of the brewery from "Taybeh, Palestine" to "Taybeh, West Bank". He will start in Boston, a beer-friendly town, where his two daughters attend college.

Last month, Nadim’s brewery was narrowly spared by an angry mob from a neighboring Muslim village, he told us. A Christian man from Taybeh was accused of having an affair with a Muslim woman from the neighboring village. The woman’s family poisoned her to death, following the Arab custom, “honor killing,” and then, along with others from the village, descended on Taybeh and burned about a dozen houses before arriving at the front door of Nadim’s brewery. (The incident was covered in Israeli media.) He and his wife stood between the mob and the brewery, and called the police, who dispersed the crowd. On our way out of town, we saw several of the torched houses, their roofs charred and stone around the broken windows blackened by soot.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Are you fasting?

Monday night, the Islamic authorities declared that Ramadan was to begin on Tuesday. I knew by the gunfire. It started about sundown and continued sporadically through the evening. Some of it near, some far. A boy was also running through the street, singing, “Allah-u-Akbar!” For further confirmation, I saw on Abu Dhabi television the greeting “Ramadan Kareem” in Arabic before the commercial breaks.

I noticed as I left the Internet café in Ramallah at 5 p.m. on Tuesday that I was the only customer left. The street outside was nearly empty. Shopkeepers were closing the metal shutters on the outside of their stores. Palestinians were in their homes, preparing to break their fast. On my way home, following my usual route through the Old City, I came across what appeared to be a frenzied pancake-making operation. It was Abu Soufian churning out hundreds of pancakes, called qataaeef, which is pronounced “ataaeef,” “kataaeef,” “chataaeef” or “gataaeef,” depending on where you’re from in the West Bank. You would hear all four in Ramallah, since it’s a sort of Palestinian melting pot. People were buying bundles of them by the kilo. I learned that it’s a traditional desert for the iftar, the meal which ends the daily Ramadan fast. Iftar means, literally, breaking the fast.

A block away, I stopped by Fayeq Zabaneh’s very small grocery and deli, where I occasionally stop and have tea with Fayeq, who is about 60 years old, never seems to have many customers and enjoys the company. (I met him when I stopped in his store the first week I was here to have a look around. He sold very little that I was interested in buying, but he was exceedingly nice and complimentary of my Arabic, so I had to buy something and settled on some Palestinian pasta for two shekels.)

Just a moment after I said “marhaba” to Fayeq, Abu Soufian, who is probably about Fayeq’s age, stepped into the store and grabbed five colas from the fridge. The call to prayer had just started. He screwed off the top of one, opened his mouth and poured the sugary goodness down his throat until it was gone. He wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. I couldn’t remember the word for fasting – I won’t forget it now – and so I asked Abu Soufian if he was Muslim. (Many of the shopkeepers in the Old City are Christian.) He said yes. “Since 7 this morning I haven’t eaten or drunk anything. I’m tired,” he said in Arabic. “Now you may eat, thanks be to God,” I responded. He ordered a sandwich from Fayeq’s little deli and left.

Fayeq then told me in a firm voice as he was slicing Abu Soufian’s deli meat to never ask someone if they are Muslim. “We are all the same,” he told me. “We are all Palestinians.” Fayeq is Greek Orthodox Christian. I’m still trying to understand the dynamic between Christians and Muslims here. Christians are a small minority and try to get along with Muslims partly by not emphasizing their religious differences, which are especially apparent during Ramadan. Fayeq instructed me to ask, instead, “Are you fasting?” “Inta saayam?”

Monday, October 03, 2005


In some parts of the West Bank, it is can be difficult to grasp the effects of Israeli occupation. In Ramallah, for example, city services run efficiently, children play in the streets and the downtown sidewalks are choked with shoppers every day but Friday, the Muslim day of rest. Hebron is different. Very different.

I had visited Hebron twice in 2001 and 2002 during my time as a correspondent in Jerusalem. But, I never visited the Old City. On Sunday, I visited Hebron with eight other students in the Birzeit Palestine and Arabic Studies Program – two Americans, two Germans, a Peruvian, a Brazilian, a Canadian and a Brit.

Hebron is situated about 30 miles to the south of Jerusalem. It was first settled by Canaanites about 3000 BC, making it, along with Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. According to Islamic tradition, it is where Adam and Eve lived after being driven from the Garden of Eden. It is also the burial site of four biblical couples, including Abraham, the father of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and his wife, Sarah. These burial tombs make it a holy city to all three religions. In Arabic, Hebron is called “Ibrahim al-Khalil al-Rahman,” which means, “Abraham, the Friend of the Merciful.” “The Merciful” is one of the 99 names of God in the Quran.

Today, Hebron has a population of 150,000 Palestinians, making it the largest city in the West Bank after East Jerusalem. It is also home to 500 Jewish settlers, who are protected by 4,000 Israeli troops. Israel controls 20 percent of the city, where the settlers, considered among the most ultra-nationalist and militant of the more than 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, live amid roughly 40,000 Palestinians. Many Palestinians in this part of the city have been driven away; most of the settlers live on the upper floors of former Palestinian homes. The settlers so frequently throw rocks and garbage from their upper windows upon the city’s market in the Old City that Palestinians erected a metal screen over the market to protect shoppers. During our visit, we saw the rocks, along with all sorts of household trash resting on the screen, as well as Israeli flags flying from the upper windows of the homes. Most Palestinian shops have closed in the area controlled by the Israelis. We saw some settlers carrying automatic weapons which were larger than the standard issue M-16 rifles the Israeli soldiers carry.
In 1994, an American-born physician and Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshippers as they were prostrated in prayer in the Haram al-Ibrahim, or Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 men and boys and wounding nearly 200. As a result, the Israeli government divided the sanctuary into two sections, one for Muslims and one for Jews. Jews have access to the tomb of Abraham and Muslims do not. As Christians – in truth three of us were Muslim, but lied to the Israeli soldiers – we were able to visit both sides. It is a massive structure, whose outer walls were constructed by Herod, and includes several minarets, domes, mosques and a synagogue. During out visit, there were about 30 Muslims preparing for the noon prayer and about equally as many Jews praying and studying the Torah on the other side. They could see each other, if they wanted to, through two windows covered by heavy metal grills.

English lessons

I taught my first English class to Arabic students last Wednesday. I think it went well, although I suppose I’ll find out how well by how many students show up next week.

I met a man at the Goethe Institute – a German cultural center – in Ramallah a few weeks ago who said he was looking for a native English speaker to volunteer to teach classes in a village a half hour outside of Ramallah. Sure, I told him. I’ve got a bit of free time in the afternoons, and I figured it would be a good chance to see a part of Palestinian culture that is not apparent in cosmopolitan Ramallah.

My class is a group of 15 high school senior girls. Kharbatha Beni Hareth is a conservative Muslim village, like most in Palestine, and so the boys and girls attend separate schools. There is to be no mixing after school, either. The girls all wore head scarves and long, black gowns. The only visible skin are their hands and faces. They pray five times a day. Otherwise, they giggled, all talked at once, competed for attention and acted pretty much like high school girls anywhere.

We started at 1:30 reviewing their English lesson from school to help prepare for their test the next day. We continued until almost 4 p.m. They were concerned about finishing before the next call to prayer. One suggested that we could all pray together. Are you Muslim, she asked me. No, I’m Christian. The Muslims like the Christians, but the Christians don’t like the Muslims, she said. That’s not true, I told her. Well, in Bethlehem, the Christians don’t like the Muslims, another said. Well, I don’t know about Bethlehem and besides I’m not Palestinian, I’m American. Is it true that Americans hate the Arabs, another asked. That’s not true, either, I said, and then steered us back to the English lesson.

Once we were done, and as the girls were heading out, one of them asked me if I could call her brother, Mohammad, to tell him that the girls had all been in an English class, as a sort of excused absence from being out after school. My cell phone didn’t have reception in the village, so it wasn’t possible. One girl explained that they normally go home directly after school, and that they are expected to help harvest their families’ olive trees. The harvest began last week in Kharbatha Beni Hareth.


The first cool front came through last week. Here’s what it looked like from my porch, at sunset.