Tag Archives: Israel

September 23rd, 2014

Even though I’ve already been home for two weeks, I feel the need to go back and cap off the Palestine portion of this blog, and especially to outline the unnecessarily stressful process of leaving the country. It’s taken a while for me to write about it because a. my laptop’s been out for repairs, b. my headphones broke and I pushed everything else aside to try and fix them, even packing for Santa Cruz, and c. I’ve been packing for Santa Cruz. Not to mention jet lag, which knocked me out for a good week, and was only furthered by the terrible caffeine habits I quickly picked up in hopes of countering it. It was a vicious cycle, but I’m back to living diurnally.

My absolute last day in Palestine was actually spent in Israel with Tessa. Stationed at Old Jaffa Hostel in Tel Aviv, we seized the day to be total tourists. For the first time since July, I wore shorts and sunglasses and fully switched over into Californian mode. Actually, Tel Aviv reminded me a lot of Southern California: white sand beaches, green grass, volleyball, modern skyscrapers, thrift stores, niche cafes. Even surfers, with kippah swim caps and the star of David painted on their boards. Picture San Diego in the Middle East and you’d get pretty close. It was such a different world from the one we’d been living in that it was a shock to remember that that by night, you can see Tel Aviv from the mountaintops in Nablus.

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(Tourist mode activated)

Then again, the more we toured the city, the more we realized the similarities between Palestinian and Israeli culture. Both eat hummus; both are steeped in religion but vary regionally in how strictly they adhere to their doctrines (Tel Aviv and Ramallah, for example, are quite liberal and secular); even the languages, Arabic and Hebrew, sound similar and often share the same words.

Even so, I never reached the same level of comfort in Israel that I felt in the West Bank. This is mostly my fault, because in general, the people I met during my short time in Tel Aviv were extremely friendly and helpful, even though I didn’t speak their language. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I avoided telling anyone I had visited the West Bank at all, because I assumed they would react negatively. But Tessa felt more comfortable with this and mentioned our trip to the hostel manager, who just nodded and seemed to find it normal. “Don’t worry – you’ll be fine at the airport,” she assured us, when we were discussing how to get there. “You’re young women, they won’t bother you at all.” I hoped so, but I had my doubts; from what I’d heard from the other volunteers, leaving the country was harder than entering it. One English teacher had undergone a pretty violating search when she arrived in Israel, but the one she received on her way out was much worse (I’ll spare everyone the gory details). And several of my friends sent West Bank-affiliated items in the mail before getting on the plane, in the hopes of avoiding any extra attention from airport security.

You might be wondering why the Israeli government would put so much effort into regulating people who are trying to leave their country. There’s a shroud of secrecy over Israel’s security procedures, but from what information I’ve gathered from my fellow volunteers (and, of course, the other bloggers out there), the main intent behind them is to decide who should be allowed to freely return to Israel, and who should be labeled for requiring extra control, or, worse, blacklisted and ultimately denied reentry. By comparing experiences, other travelers have figured out that the customs officers slap a barcode sticker on the back of your passport to classify your threat level, the first digit above the barcode being the significant one. Apparently, that number ranges from one to six, with six being the worst possible assignment. Now, there’s a lot of speculation over what each number actually means. According to one blogger, the “one” ranking is reserved for “white Jewish Israelis,” while a “six” means you’re “Palestinian, Muslim, or hostile.” Another just thinks a six means that you’re “super duper suspicious.” Marijke Peters from BBC Watch notes that “every foreigner living in the West Bank’s got a scare story about Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport,” and goes so far as to call the codes and intimidation “Kafkaesque.” I had read all these accounts before heading to the airport, and (as some of you may recall from my very first post) I had already been thoroughly searched and detained on the way into the country. Needless to say, I was a little anxious.

At least my taxi driver was cool. He and I rocked out to The Beatles the whole way to Ben Gurion Airport (I’ve never been in a city that doesn’t regularly play Beatles songs on at least one of its radio stations, Nablus included). He dropped me off in front of the airport and wished me luck. I had the oud over one shoulder, the trumpet over the other, a suitcase in tow, and a purse hanging from an arm. A tiny part of me hoped that any officer scanning me would think I’m too burdened down with luggage to actually be much of a threat.

I approached the security gate and tried not to look as apprehensive as I felt. In an effort to appear relaxed and friendly, I started making small-talk with the guy in front of me, a Floridian with a white mustache and a thick Southern accent. Almost everyone on the flight was American, because the final destination was New Jersey. After a few minutes his turn came up and he whizzed through questioning, and then the officer was calling me over. She started out smiling, but, just like the first time, her smile drooped a little with every question, until she was scowling and calling over another officer. Together they verified that I was American, with Arab heritage and an Arab last name; that I had visited the West Bank; that I didn’t receive any mysterious objects from anybody I had met during my stay. Then they took my passport and had me sit off to the side. Awesome, now everyone’s going to stare at me. And they did, at first. But then, a few of the Americans came over and took a seat as well. “Wow, you got the right idea, sitting while we wait for the counter to open!” the man from Florida exclaimed. His wife came too, and suddenly a small crowd of us were lounging in the area designated for suspicious people like me. The officers returned and seemed a little bemused by all the Southerners and East Coasters discussing politics and the weather. But they handed me back my passport, and brusquely told me to enjoy my flight. I quickly flipped the passport over, and saw: a six! What did I do to deserve a six?!

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Okay, listen: Tessa got a four. Giulia got a three. I had spent almost every waking hour of the past six weeks with them. And I get a six, which is rumored to be enough to bar its recipient from returning to the country? (It’s okay, my passport expires this year). “Okay, maybe I don’t understand the system correctly,” I thought. Maybe the ranking system is outdated, or all those bloggers were really just paranoid and over dramatic. After all, I wasn’t pulled into a dingy room for further questioning, right?

But as I continued through Ben Gurion Airport, I realized that both my ethnicity and the number on my passport carried more meaning here than they should have. Every time a new security officer examined my passport, they would nonchalantly turn it over to check the barcode, and suddenly hiss, “shesh”, meaning “six” in Hebrew, at their coworkers. I was taken to a special line, separate from the rest, where I was x-rayed and my carry-on items were extensively searched. In a way, this was great, because I was ushered through security faster than I’d ever been in my entire life. At the same time, I was conscious that this was because for the first time in my life I was being truly, negatively, racially profiled. Even when I was going through security on my way into Israel I had my doubts, but this time my background was indisputably the only significant difference between me and the other volunteers. 19 hours later, when I had safely arrived home in California, I opened up my suitcase and laptop and realized that both had been thoroughly searched without my knowledge, which is actually and definitely illegal.

But, hey, I got home safe and sound, and I’ll have a new passport soon. If I want to reach Palestine again (which I do), I can always go through Jordan.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep using this blog as a space to write about what I’m doing musically. I’m hoping to make it to New Orleans later this year for some jazz…

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August 29th, 2014

Somehow, I slept through the entire two-hour taxi ride back to Nablus. I think some part of me figured it was better to be unconscious rather than freak out every time the driver almost hit an oncoming car, or took a sharp curve at 120 kph. I get that the police have bigger things to worry about than traffic violations, but seriously, it’s worse than LA over here.

Then again, I was grateful for the haste. Giulia had received a text from Nidal a few hours ago telling us that we needed to make it back to Nablus before dark. The city was shutting down, and the IDF would be manning the checkpoints. We weren’t given a reason, but we did know that soldiers had burst into classrooms earlier that day to arrest children, some of which may have been our students. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence here.

That’s the eerie thing about living in Palestine: the occupation seeps into every aspect of everyday life so that it becomes perfectly unavoidable in the minds of the occupied. Had I only come to Palestine for a short visit, I might have missed all but the most blatant symptoms of occupation, and mistaken the day-to-day business of Nablus as an indicator of a healthy society that just happens to be under foreign political control. Now, after a month in Palestine, I find that I am constantly thinking about “politics” for one reason or another:

Should I go outside on Friday, or will there be protests?

Can I buy this product, or was it made in Israel and therefore detracting from the local economy?

Is it okay to travel to Ramallah today, or has the army blockaded the roads?

Can I mention my Arabic teacher’s name online, or is there a chance I’ll get him in trouble by associating him with this blog, because of his politically active past?

Why didn’t Mohammed come to class today? Does it have anything to do with the soldiers who were here last night?

If I’m feeling the pressures of the occupation as a foreigner, then the locals are being absolutely crushed by it. Ahmad, our neighbor, recently graduated university with a degree in IT, but he can’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage. Most people leave the country for 10, 20, or even 30 years to work, before finally returning to their families. One in four Palestinian citizens have been arrested by the Israeli government, making Palestinians “the most imprisoned people in the world.” I found out yesterday that one of our translators, who grew up in Nablus, applied and was accepted to Harvard for computer engineering. But apparently Israel is more selective with their visas than Harvard is with its applicant pool, because when he applied for permission to leave the country, he received an unexplained rejection letter. No wonder the youth are so politically active, and no wonder the Palestinian people as a whole are so relentless in their protest against Israeli control: they never have the chance to forget about it. In America, being politically informed is a choice (sadly, one that too many people choose to ignore). In Palestine, you couldn’t avoid politics even if you wanted to. The occupation is ubiquitous, and to avoid it would mean escaping the country itself.

 

August 28th, 2014 (Hebron)

*** I really struggled to write this post, and I apologize for the length ahead of time. But if you want to understand what the occupation looks like from the inside, this is the entry to read.

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As part of our short vacation from working in Nablus, we decided to take a day-trip to Hebron. I was told that this was where I’d come face to face with the occupation. I was ready, but I wasn’t ready.

But before I tell this story, I need to give a little background info: Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world, and with a population of around 600,000, it’s easily the largest governorate in the West Bank. According to the bible, it’s the town where Abraham settled, making it an important religious site for all three major monotheistic religions (Abraham’s the guy who almost sacrificed his own son because God asked him to). Because of this, control of the town has been sought after by many groups of people dating back to the second millennium B.C., and most recently by the Zionist Labor Party of the Israeli government. Their mission was to occupy this city, and after the Six-Day War in 1967, they had their opportunity. The Labor Party seized much of the West Bank, including Hebron, and remained in control for decades. Then, with the Oslo Agreement in 1995 and subsequent Hebron Agreement in 1997, most of these cities were returned to Palestinian control (at least nominally) with one exception: Hebron. The city would be split into two sectors: H1, which is Palestinian controlled, and H2, which is retained by Israel. H2 occupies the middle of the city, and contains around 500 Israeli settlers and 2,000 IDF soldiers in four downtown settlements (that adds up to about four IDF soldiers per settler). These settlements are funded and protected by the Israeli government, and their primary objective is to secure a Jewish majority in strategic regions of the West Bank, despite their explicit prohibition in the Geneva Convention (read more about the legality and purpose of the settlements here). All movement in and around the area is restricted to Palestinians, and especially Shuhada street, where 1,829 Palestinian-owned shops have been permanently shutdown. This means that the heart of one of the largest cities in Palestine is closed-off to most of its residents. In their place, it houses one of the most hostile settler populations in the West Bank. This is the place where settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994. Today, we would meet a Palestinian who calls these settlers neighbors.

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At first glance, Hebron looked the same as ever other town we’ve visited in Palestine. Bustling market place, falafel carts, traffic, etc. But then we entered the souk, and after a few intersections came up against a fenced-off, barbed and blockaded street. “H2 is past there,” a shopkeeper told us. Unfortunately, “past there” was where we needed to go.

Drew and Julia had given us the number of a contact in Hebron a few days before, when they learned we might be visiting. Hashem Azzeh couldn’t come meet us; he’s been under detention for two years now, meaning he can’t leave the H2 sector without being rearrested. So he told a taxi where to take us. We drove all around Hebron, taking long detours and suspicious alleyways. We were beginning to wonder if this guy was really taking us to Hashem when he turned around and asked us in Arabic how many days we were spending in Hebron. “Just today,” I responded. He laughed. “Pay attention, then.”

We were dropped off in front of an abandoned guard tower and a traffic gate. Hashem stood waiting on the other side, so we crossed over into H2 territory.

As we walked with Hashem, he told us more about himself. He’s lived in Hebron his whole life, and is one of the few families who has remained following the settlement installments 20 yeas ago. After studying medicine in Jordan, he returned to Hebron to work as a physician, but can no longer do so due to his detainment within the H2 sector. Why exactly was he detained? For leading tours like this one, where he shows foreigners what’s going on inside the settlements. “They called it ‘Anti-Semitic behavior.'” He looked at us, perplexed. “For showing people the truth! What do they even mean, ‘Anti-Semitic?’ Arabs are technically Semites!” (it’s true; not to belabor the point, but here’s the dictionary definition of a Semite).

A bunch of children were sitting outside a school. They were a little wary at first, but at the sight of Hashem, they warmed to us and started practicing their English: “How are you! Where are you from!” Some even got up and showed off their dabke skills. They kicked, stepped, twirled, and then broke away and ran off, giggling. Hashem followed them inside; he volunteers here as a director of student activities. “I taught the women basic healthcare and sexual education, so they can teach their students. I trained them, so they know how to check for breast cancer. We have psychology classes, too, to help the kids cope with the settler attacks. They have a lot of fear; many can’t sleep in their own room, or even alone at all. ” We asked Hashem what exactly these settlers would do to terrorize the kids. “I’ll show you,” he said.

We walked away from the school and towards Hashem’s house. Along the way we passed an IDF soldier on the way, who eyed us suspiciously but let us by all the same. We stopped just before an orange house. “This is the settlement. These are my neighbors. They tried to buy my house from me twenty years ago, the way Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs, to make me leave Hebron, but I refused. So after that, they turned to violence. The entrance to my house used to be this way, but they won’t let me cross, so now I have to take another way.” Then he turned down a dirt side path. It ran parallel to the orange house above us, and as we walked, kids ran out on the porch. They started yelling at us in Arabic and Hebrew. I couldn’t catch most of it, but I did understand “sharmouta.” It means “whore” in Arabic.

Hashem stopped under a grape vine. There were a few green ones, but most looked more like rotten raisins than grapes. “The settlers poisoned these, and the fig trees, and the olives. Here, look at this one.” He pointed to a huge olive tree, the largest I’ve ever seen. “We call them Roman olives. It’s 2,000 years old. The settlers cut off it’s largest branch, but we stopped them from doing more.” As we wandered the garden, we saw more signs of sabotage: shriveled fruit, dying shrubs, trees that were cut down to stumps. There was broken furniture in the yard, and a bullet lodged in the wall above his door.

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(Hashem leading us around H2; an IDF soldier in his outpost above Hashem’s house; grapes poisoned by the settlers)

I was already disgusted, but he went on. “My wife was pregnant in 2009. One day, she came home, and the settlers walked up to her, and they beat her. The fetus died. She became pregnant again. They beat her again, and tried to make it so she couldn’t get pregnant anymore. But, somehow, she became pregnant again. This time, I told her to stay in the house, that I would bring her everything she needs. Thank God, she gave birth in the night. But when we returned home with the baby, there were 50 settlers waiting for us. They beat me, and they beat her, and they even beat the infant My wife was permanently damaged, but we made it inside the house, and my daughter is four years old. You’ll see her now.” And with that, we entered his house.

The first thing I noticed about Hashem’s home were the beautiful oil pastel paintings hanging on every wall. The second was a little head poking out of the room on the left. Then it disappeared. “She’ll come later, don’t worry,” Hashem laughed. We sat down in his living room and watched videos while drinking mango juice. The videos were of the settlers: settlers explaining their tactics, settlers throwing rocks at Palestinians coming home from school, settlers screaming at Hashem and his family. In one of the videos, the perpetrators where children: girls in sundresses, shouting curses and kicking their Palestinian counterparts, and young boys waiting further on, clutching stones (here’s a video of one of the settlers, Mirar, training children to attack her Palestinian neighbors. The white building in the video is the settlement right next to Hashem’s house).

The video finished, and the child who had been peeking at us finally came in to say hello, followed by her mother and her brother Yunis. This is the girl who survived the beatings from the settlers, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at her. She’s absolutely gorgeous, with smooth, undisturbed skin. The mother was beautiful as well,her face was marked by evidence of the attacks. She’s the one who painted all the oil pastels in the house:

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We left the house to visit what used to be the busiest marketplace in Hebron. Shuhada street was like a ghost town. The windows were broken, and the doors had been welded shut years ago. There were no signs of life anywhere, except the occasional child donning a kippuh. Hashem pointed at each shop: this one was a bakery, a pharmacy, a dentist’s office. On the side of a school, we found some faded graffiti that read “Gas the Arabs!”:

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 (Shuhada Street)

No more than twelve years old, Yunis walked a little ahead of us, hanging back only when he saw the settler’s children ahead. “They beat him, when he comes to and from school,” Hashem explained. I looked at Yunis again, startled. He didn’t look scared, but he never smiled either, not once during the whole tour. His face was just grim the entire time.

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(Yunis, waiting for us to catch up)

By then the sun was descending in the sky, and we needed to get back to Nablus before it got too late. As we walked back the way we came, I asked Hashem if he’d ever tried to escape his detention area. “Yesterday,” he responded immediately.

I laughed, surprised. “Why?”

“Because I needed a haircut.” Well, when you need a haircut, you need a haircut.

Just then, a group of Palestinian kids appeared from around the corner and ran up to us, tripping over each other to shake our hands and ask us questions. I turned to Hashem. “How come they’re not afraid of us? We’re total strangers; based on what they live with, they should have every right to fear us.”

He shook his head. “We have workshops on nonviolent resistance, and as a part of these workshops we teach the children that the settlers are not like most Jews. Whenever I have visitors — and especially Jewish visitors — I bring them into the classrooms to meet the children, you know, to show them that not all people are like the ones giving them problems. My only exception is Zionists. If a Zionist comes here, I show him the door.”

We stopped just before the ledge of a crumbling wall six meters high. “The taxi station isn’t far from here. Just climb down this and you’ll be out of H2.” I banged my elbow on the way down but otherwise escaped unscathed.

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(Hashem’s 2,000 year-old Roman Olive tree, and Giulia)

 

 

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(H2 kids waving bye from the six meter wall)

What Hashem had touched on right before we left is something I find central to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not a war over religion, nor has it ever been. Religion in this context has only ever been a pretext for a crusade for resources and political control in Palestine (literally since the Crusades in the 11th century AD). Before the Israeli invasion in 1948, there was a large Palestinian Jewish demographic that lived in peace among the Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Samaritans. Today, “Jewish” can mean many things: there are secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Jews living in Eastern Europe and New York and California, and even people who identify as Christian Jews (seriously)*. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only 75% of Israelis living in the self-proclaimed Jewish state are actually ethnically Jewish or practice Judaism. Many of the settlers themselves are religious zealots from Brooklyn who were hired to wage Israel’s war in a house in the West Bank. So, contrary to popular belief, these communities have little to do with the average Jew. In reality they are an implementation of the Israeli government that serve a political end. The settlers are to the Jews as the KKK are to the Christians, and the ISIS to Islam. Each of these groups claim a religion to justify their terrorizing actions while displaying a blatant disregard for the principles and practices that constitute their chosen theologies.

I don’t scare easily. But what I saw today scared me. It scared me first to be near people who were so zealous and cruel that they would beat a pregnant woman into miscarriage in the name of their religion. It scared me to see settlers’ kids, around the age of those I’ve been teaching during my time in Palestine, look at me with hatred that shouldn’t belong to someone so young. It scared me to look at Yunis and realize that he has to see live with these people. And, most of all, I was horrified by the slow realization that this is what Israel is funding and protecting, meaning it’s what Americans are supporting with their tax dollars. Had I not seen it for myself, I doubt I would have believed it.

*For more information about demographics and recent history in Palestine/Israel, check out this post by David Sanchez, complete with sources and statistics. We met David in Hebron, which for him is just one stop on a year-long voyage to fifteen countries important to his Peace-Conflict studies. He keeps an excellent blog that’s definitely worth a long look.

The War is Over (maybe)!

Tessa posted this on Facebook yesterday, summing up our experience of the last few days: “Last night the city was hushed and I watched army jeeps take over the streets as arrests occurred throughout the West Bank. Tonight there are celebrations and fireworks in honour of the Gaza ceasefire. What a difference a day makes.” After 50 days of warfare in the Gaza Strip, Cairo has finally brokered terms that both Hamas and Israel can agree upon. We’re (tentatively) celebrating the headway made for the Palestinians, because for the first time in seven years, Egypt and Israel will open a few of their border-crossings with Gaza, easing the blockade and allowing in humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials.

But both sides are claiming victory, with varying reactions from their people. Hamas has been holding victory rallies and celebrating the fact that they were able to force real negotiation efforts with Israel. And I think here it’s worth mentioning again that Hamas is a legitimate political party, democratically elected by its people to represent the Gaza Strip, and that they attempted peaceful negotiations, with little or response from Israel (Jimmy Carter wrote an op-ed on the dangers of demonizing Hamas that explains the situation better than I ever could). Before this last bout of fighting, 1.8 million Gazans have been suffocating under a seven-year blockade, leaving them isolated and in utter economic crisis. I will never condone violence as a means of negotiation, but I do understand the desperation of the Gazans and why they believed that fighting back was their only option.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also called the outcome victorious for his people, but rather than organizing victory rallies, many Israelis are criticizing his leadership. “‘After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organisation killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine [and] placed the country in a state of economic distress … we could have expected much more than an announcement of a ceasefire,’ Reuters reported analyst Shimon Shiffer as writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper.”

So it’s unclear who “won” the war. Even though the ceasefire terms sound progressive at first, The Guardian makes the important observation that “the terms of the deal – brokered by the Egyptian government, and reached on the 50th day of the conflict – appeared to be almost identical to those agreed at the end of the previous war 21 months ago.” And Al Jazeera follows, reporting that “The war today is an echo of the war of 2012, and that is a reminder of the war of 2009 and before that the war of 2008 and still before the war of 1967, 1956 and 1948. The war of today, therefore, is an echo of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa and Sabra and Shatila in 1983.”

But I’m a little more optimistic about the outcome, and particularly the effects this war has had on public opinion of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Despite the fact that you can still be fired for simply criticizing the Israeli government (and each of those highlighted words links to a different case), the issue is finally beginning to be discussed by celebrities and politicians, as well as on social media sites, in a more open and critical manner than ever before (looking at you, Jon Stewart). And this excerpt best explains the general feeling of optimism from the ground: “From the perspective of a straight score-sheet, the number of deaths and the amount of destruction during the war was incomparably greater in Gaza than in Israel, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar university. ‘But in Gaza we measure things in a different way. The Palestinian resistance with modest military capabilities was able to fight one of the strongest armies in the region for 50 days. The resistance and the people were not broken. The Palestinians showed resilience and steadfastness. You don’t look at victory and defeat only from a military perspective.'”

As I type, I can hear car horns and fireworks outside, celebrating for Gaza. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of the conflict, but for now everyone’s taking the time to acknowledge that the fighting’s over and some progress has been made. More importantly, we’re happy that the civilians in Gaza will have some tenuous peace and the chance to rebuild.

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***My last few posts have been more politically charged than usual, and I want to get back to writing about music and Nablus. If you want to keep up with what’s going on Palestine and Israel, please please please make sure to check several different news sources for each story; this issue tends to garner more bias than others, especially in Western media. I usually check in with Al Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, BBC, and Haaretz before posting about something happening here. And after that I check The Onion, because by then, I just really need to laugh about something.

August 25th, 2014

The kids are going back to school, so for this week we volunteers get a little break in our schedules as the students adjust to theirs. We’ll be back to normal in a few days. For now, we’re enjoying a much needed rest, which has given me time to reflect on the complex layering of cultures in Nablus. That, and also a few days to party at our friend’s pool house in the Jordan Valley.

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The pool house had a high fence surrounding it, so for the first time in three weeks, I was able to wear a bikini and walk around in shorts and a tank top. Note: I’m from California, where the second the weather breaks 16 °C, everyone’s in shorts. I consider it a major accomplishment that I’ve grown comfortable with long sleeves and pants in a country where people drink hot tea to cool down. I’m used to it now, but during my first week here, I was amazed that so many of the women were wearing head scarves (hijabs) in this heat, along with leggings and even jackets. To be honest, I was criticizing (in my head) the idea that this society’s religion oppressed its women in terms of freedom of movement and expression. As usual, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Abu, a friend of Nidal’s, took it upon himself to enlighten us.

As we walked through the souk, looking for some knefah, Abu picked up a conversation we had started earlier about religion. “You know Muslim women don’t have to wear the hijab,” he began. I will admit, I was surprised. My mother is technically a Muslim and forgoes the hijab, but she also forgoes the rest of the religion, so I didn’t exactly view her as the paradigm of cultural Islam. “Yes, in the 1980’s, before the First Intifada, Palestine was like Europe. Tee-shirts, dresses — seriously! You should see my aunt’s pictures.”  And it’s true: if you look at photos from that era, not nearly as many women wear the scarf as they do today. Abu was getting excited now; you could tell he’s explained all this before. “It’s traditional, not religious. The tradition comes from religion, yes, but people only take the tradition so seriously because of he occupation. When the IDF locked down Nablus in the early 2000s, times were hard, and we didn’t have international influence because nobody could enter the city. All we had was religion and tradition, and the people clung to it.” We’ve definitely noticed the aftereffects of the six-year blockade on Nablus; it’s one of the most conservative cities in the West Bank (not including villages), meaning long-sleeved clothes, no alcohol, and a major emphasis on religion. Pop culture and social media is huge here, but whenever Israel begins bombing the Gaza Strip, the only songs accepted on the radio are dedicated to Gaza, and Facebook becomes a channel for otherwise censored news and critique. But it’s important to acknowledge that this cultural lean towards conservatism was caused by the occupation and is a way of resisting it, rather than the reverse: that religious intolerance caused the occupation. In fact, Nablus has always been, and still is, a hub of religious diversity and tolerance. Though predominantly Muslim, Nablus houses a large Christian demographic that has peacefully existed here for centuries. Overlooking Nablus from one of the valley mountains is the Samaritan community, which has been there for nearly 2,000 years and is viewed as a sort of neutral zone (alcohol is routinely sold there, and Good Samaritan Arak is the best I’ve ever tasted). There used to be a Jewish community within Nablus as well, before the invasion. But now in their place, over on another mountaintop, sits Yitzhar, the Orthodox Jewish settlement that keeps itself separate from Nablus, but occasionally causes conflict in this otherwise peaceful city.

We leaned against the wall of the cafe, eating our knefah as Abu finished his speech on culture. He wants us to understand, but he also understands us; he’s traveled around Europe with Nidal, so they have international experience and know quite a bit about our own cultures. We’re pretty comfortable with him, and he doesn’t care that we don’t wear a hijab. Actually, most people here don’t; we’re Westerners, with our own beliefs, and as long as we respect the culture of Nablus (see: not downing shots naked in the street; also: not starting a city-wide blockade that literally restricts all movement into and out of the city for six years), they will respect us. Moreover, they’ll probably invite us in for some tea and ma’amoul.

August 1st, 2014

From the third story of Jaffa Gate Hostel, I can see two churches, a mosque, and a synagogue poking through the blanket of rooftops and souks that is Old Jerusalem. Noor, the innkeeper, insisted that I come up here to catch the view. His hostel looks like it’s been hollowed out of some huge stone house, with each room resembling a brick cave, stuffed with beds. Even so, I’m one of the only guests here; most have cancelled due to what they’ve read in the news.

But the sky is perfectly clear – not only of clouds, but of rockets. The city is quiet, and the police, though intimidating and thick in the streets, are bent on keeping it that way. Far from the conflict in Gaza, I actually feel safe here.

Not like in the airport. I was “randomly selected” for a strip search, probably due to having multiple Arab stamps in my passport. That, and the fact that my final destination was the West Bank. I felt bad for Sophie and her mom, who, along with the rest of their family, had been taking care of me all week in Germany; they had to watch from behind a rope as I was grilled by airport security for twenty minutes. “Why did you visit Lebanon? Jordan? The UAE? What’s your father’s name? And his father’s name? Why are you going to the West Bank? Don’t you know it’s dangerous? What’s in that case?” And so on.
Then, they had to wait as I was led off to the side, where I would undergo a full-body physical search. Honestly, I had expected this, and thought it was a little funny that a 19 year-old girl toting around a trumpet was threatening enough to bother spending an extra hour and a half on. At the same time, I was a little red, a little nervous, and actually feeling guilty. Even though I had told nothing but the truth up until that point, the intense, repetitive questioning made me feel like I was trying to cover up some terrible plot. It wasn’t until later that I realized I shouldn’t be made to feel like a criminal just because I’m an Arab wanting to reach the West Bank.

The physical itself was fine. In fact, it was very calm. One of the security guards tried to make small talk while checking my socks; imagine hearing “So what’s the weather like in California?” while someone’s searching between your toes for weapons of mass destruction.

I’m being honest when I say that the worst part, the most nerve-wracking thing, was when they asked me to fully take apart my trumpet. I gently disassembled it and placed each piece of brass in a red plastic bin. Then the security guard grabbed the bin and rushed out, jostling the pieces as he went. It got through okay in the end, though. The same guard who asked me about California struck up a conversation about the trumpet (she plays guitar herself). I liked her. Clearly the good cop, as opposed to the woman from Haifa who thought I was an idiot for wanting to teach music in the West Bank. The thing is, though, I think my instrument was possibly the reason the search didn’t stretch on for longer, or that I wasn’t flat-out turned back to America (as is typical of many Arabs and Arab-Americans wanting to reach Israel nowadays). After talking to me about music and why I chose Palestine to teach it, the good-cop security guard sped up the searching process, explained my situation to her colleagues, and quickly led me straight to the airplane, cutting ahead of a line of people checking in and stamping passports. Then again, that’s exactly what the good cop is supposed to do. That, and give you free snack vouchers as recompense for time and dignity lost during a strip search.

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