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.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Protest as performance

Every Friday, a motley collection of several dozen Europeans, who call themselves “political tourists,” Palestinians and Israeli leftists gather to protest near bulldozers that are working to construct the barrier that Palestinians fear will become the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The barrier cuts inside the 1948-cease fire line that delineated Israel from the West Bank. It separates thousands of acres of Palestinian agricultural land, as well as some Palestinian villages, from the rest of the West Bank.

The protest yesterday passed mostly peacefully, which may have been a disappointment to both sides. Since I have arrived in Ramallah, Palestinian newspapers have run front-page photos from the weekly protest showing demonstrators being beaten and kicked by Israeli soldiers and border police. On Friday, about 50 protestors chanted “the wall must fall,” in Arabic and Hebrew. About as many soldiers and border police stood by uneasily, some twitching their index fingers next to the triggers on their M-16s. At first the demonstrators sat and chanted, but when that didn’t elicit much response from the soldiers, they stood and tried to march toward the barrier – which in this spot, was already completed.

The most excitement came when soldiers engaged in a shoving match with protesters, pushing them down a rocky slope. One Israeli man with long curly hair was detained briefly and then released. Then, Palestinian boys threw stones toward the soldiers. They were more than 100 yards away, but the soldiers pursued them anyway, launching tear gas, playing a game-and-cat and mouse in a nearby olive grove. This continued for hours, long after the protest ended. It all seemed well-rehearsed. Some older Palestinians sat on a farmer’s stone wall under a shade tree, watching the spectacle unfold from a distance, cheering on the boys, as if watching some reenactment of a Civil War battle.

The weekly protest takes place in Bilaeen, which stands to lose half of its agricultural land to the Israeli side of the barrier. The protestors argue that the barrier here has less to do with security concerns than with the planned expansion of three nearby Jewish settlements, considered illegal by the United Nations because they are built on occupied land. The barrier itself was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague. None of that has stopped construction of the wall. And so, the protests likely will continue.

Double yoke

In America, people favor the white to the yoke. But, I have always preferred the yoke. So, too, do Palestinians. My grocer, Fayaq, sells double-yoke eggs for just a fraction more than the price of regular eggs. It seems like a good deal to me. I’ve never seen double-yoke eggs before, but Fayaq speaks of them as if they are quite normal. “They’re twins,” he tells me. I’m not sure how he knows which eggs are double-yokes, but he does. I buy a half-carton of double-yoke eggs – or 15 eggs – for 12 shekels. That’s 30 yokes for less than $3.

Independence Day

Palestinians celebrated Independence Day last Tuesday. On November 15, 1988, the Palestinian National Council met in exile in Algiers and declared independence. Every year, on Nov. 15, Palestinian ministries close, along with schools, banks and universities. But, of course, despite the declaration, there is no independent Palestine, so there is no official celebration, and for most Palestinians, it is a day to rest at home or go shopping.

At Birzeit University, on the day after Independence Day, students wore traditional black-and-white checkered headdresses in honor of Yasser Arafat, the founder and leader of the Palestinian national cause until his death last year, a few days before Independence Day.

On the poster above, it is written, “Farewell, Abu Amar.” Abu Amar was Arafat’s nom de guerre.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Palestinians often invoke the former South African system of Apartheid when describing Israeli policies in the West Bank. Palestinians refer to the concrete wall and metal fence that Israel is constructing through the Palestinian territory as “the Apartheid Wall.” Most Israelis, of course, reject such a parallel, and call the barrier a “security fence.”

I took this picture at the northern entrance to Bethlehem. The wall encloses the city and its refugee camps on two sides. Palestinians residing in Bethlehem are forbidden to cross to the other side.

Olive harvest

The stone villages of the Palestinian highlands sprawl across hillsides and mountain tops, surrounded by terraced olive groves planted too far ago for anyone to say exactly which came first: the Palestinians or their olives. Some trees are so old – their knobby trunks meters in diameter – that that they are called “Romaneeyeh,” or Roman because the people believe they date to Roman or Byzantine times.

Until a generation ago, the olive harvest was the lifeblood of the rural Palestinian economy. Olives are still harvested by the people who live amongst them, even if they collect them on weekends and days off from their city jobs. Most of the olives are pressed into oil and sold locally. The olive harvest began in many areas after the end of Ramadan, earlier this month, and will continue for another week or so.

A family I have come to know through my research invited me to join them last Friday harvesting olives on their land near the village of Mazara al-Nobani, about an hour’s drive north of Ramallah. I climbed into a pickup truck with three men, three women and six children – all from the same family – and we headed out to the olive trees. On ladders and with small rakes, we picked about 15 trees clean, filling most of three large sacks, each one worth $100 in olive oil.

Mazara al-Nobani is luckier than some. All of its olive trees have been spared Israeli demolition. Since 2000, half a million Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli bulldozers, according to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry. Israel sites security concerns; Palestinians say it’s an effort to drive them from their land.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Cold nights

The temperature now dips into the 40s at night, but fortunately my landlord has provided me with a big gas heater with wheels. I'm still on my first gas tank, which costs 40 shekels, or about $9, to fill. Unfortunately, it's not recommended to keep it on while sleeping. The other morning, I could see my breath in the bathroom.

Muddy shoes

Dress shoes do not wear well in the West Bank, especially during the rainy season. Tuesday morning, I was headed to Ramallah from Jerusalem and traffic came to a standstill, so we set off on foot through a trash-strewn patch of mud. Just as I had stomped out clods of mud, I negotiated the Qalandia crossing, which is an obstacle course of mud puddles, sidewalk vendors and beggars. Israel does not allow busses and service taxis to pass through Qalandia, so every day thousands of Palestinians cross on foot. Women’s heels and men’s dress shoes often emerge daubed in mud, sometimes pant legs are splattered.

But where the crossing lacks in comfort, it makes up for in security: a long passageway is encased in high wire fencing and coils of razor wire, monitored by Israeli soldiers wearing bullet proof vests, Kevlar helmets and carrying standard-issue M16s, sometimes aiming them at the travelers as they hand over their passports to be checked.

Waiting for Christ

Earlier this year, the Haram Al-Shareef, or the Noble Sanctuary, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, was opened to tourists for the first time in nearly five years. It is Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. It includes Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven. They date to the 7th and 8th centuries. It is open to tourists five mornings a week for about three hours. I visited for the first time last Sunday.

During one Friday prayer this Ramadan, 150,000 Palestinians attended services. Some who live in the West Bank received special permission to do so. The mosques have been the target of Christian and Jewish extremists since Israel occupied the site in 1967. In 1969, an Australian messianic tourist set fire to Al-Aqsa mosque; in 1980, Israeli police accused the radical Jewish group, Meir Kahane, of planting explosives near the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Some Jewish extremists want to replace the Muslim shrines with a temple. According to Jewish tradition, the area was the site of two Israelite temples (archeologists have found evidence of the second one, but not the first).

In Jewish belief, the messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, which stands along the eastern wall of the Noble Sanctuary. According to Christian tradition, Jesus enterred Jerusalem through the Golden Gate on the Sunday before his crucifixon. The Ottoman ruler Souleyman sealed the gate in stone in the 16th century to prevent Christ from enterring the city.

When I climbed atop the Golden Gate, which is made of stone, not gold, I was met with a group of a dozen or so middle-aged Americans praying for the return of Christ. One women with bleached blond hair (not a common sight in Jerusalem) prayed aloud in an American southern accent. A man was videotaping her. Another man offered short rejoinders: “Oh, Lord, we are ready for you.” Two others stood with their backs to the wall, closed their eyes and held their palms to the stone.

An American in Nablus

Ahmad Yaish says he used to boast to his family and friends in the West Bank about American values of freedom and democracy after he moved back to Nablus, where he was born and raised. Those who remember his words then tell him that he was brainwashed. America is very unpopular here for its support of Israel and, like in most of the rest of the world, for its war in Iraq. Now, Ahmad says he hides the fact that he holds an American passport. He disagrees with American politics but he hopes to return. He is secretly planning to move his family there so that his two boys, ages 14 and 11, can have more opportunities and come of age far from the violence that has plagued this city.

My friend, Emily, and I met Ahmad by chance last Friday in Nablus. He invited us to his home for lunch and to meet his family. His wife prepared kabob stuffed in fresh pita pockets. There was ground lamb meat, chunks of steak and chicken, liver, roasted tomatoes and onions, and lamb testicles. (The latter is Ahmad’s favorite; it tasted like tofu to me.) We were also served homemade french fries, the traditional chopped cucumber and tomato salad, hummous, tahina and baqdoonsiyeh. After lunch, we drank tea and ate mamool, a sugar cookie stuffed with date jam (ajweeyeh) or crushed pistachios (fustu’ halabi), a tradition at the Eid al-Fitr, the three-day end-of-Ramadan holiday, which began on Thursday.

During his last year of high school, Ahmad said he asked his English teacher where he could go in America for college. It had to be inexpensive or his father wouldn’t approve. So his teacher drew a big circle in the middle of a map of the United States and said that here, inside the circle, was the cheapest. Ahmad started at Oklahoma State University and graduated from the University of Nebraska. He wants to move his family to the Midwest, which he calls the real America. He moved back to Palestine in the early 1990s because he says he was tricked into believing that peace was in the works. (Thousands of Palestinian-Americans returned to their homeland during the 1990s; many have moved back to the United States.)

Ahmad manufactures and sells gold jewelry. He is the rare Palestinian who has business partners in Tel Aviv and travels frequently to the Gulf and to Europe. He has read the Old Testament and books on Jewish history in an effort to understand the Israelis. “I want to know what it is they want,” he told us. “I still don’t know.” Despite his American passport, he is unable to travel to Israeli cities and cannot fly in or out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv simply because he is Palestinian. Italy, he says, used to be three hours away. Now, the journey requires a series of taxi rides to the Jordanian border, crossing through Israeli customs and immigration checks, which can take hours, and then a taxi to Amman and a flight from there. It took him one year, he says, to obtain permission from Israeli authorities to travel to the American consulate in East Jerusalem, part of the occupied West Bank which is now off-limits to most Palestinians.

Next summer, Ahmad plans to take his family on a one-month vacation of America, which he says will include a visit to his old haunts in Omaha, as well as Florida and a drive from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe. If they like it, he will move them there and leave Palestine behind, perhaps for good.