Tag Archives: occupation

In Memory of a Friend: October 21, 2015

*** Support Hashem’s family and donate by visiting the gofundme page here ***

Last summer, when I visited and worked in Palestine, I had the pleasure of meeting Hashem Azzeh, who showed us his home in Hebron and the atrocities of the settlers and the IDF there (you can read about the visit here). Of all the people I met while in Palestine, Hashem inspired me the most. It saddens me to learn that after spending years of nonviolently resisting Israeli occupation of his home, he was killed today by tear gas thrown by IDF soldiers.

First, he was Palestinian. Second, he was educated, a medical doctor. Third, he was a leader in his community. Which brings us to his next offense, he was a peace activist. Finally, and perhaps most aggravating for the Israeli state, he adamantly refused to be forced from his home in Hebron’s Old City – though the IDF and Israeli settlers, who lived in houses perched right above his, never tired of using intimidation and violence to try and push Hashem and his young family from their home.”

Hashem, his wife, and four children have endured beatings, shootings, crop poisonings, arrests, and more while living next to Zionist settlers in an Israeli government occupied zone, yet Hashem never turned to anger, violence, or hopelessness. Instead, he fought for his beliefs: his belief in education, by working at a local school and by giving free tours of the occupied zone in Hebron to outsiders. His belief in peace, by teaching the children at his school not to hate, that the Jewish people and the Israeli government are not the same thing and that violence is never okay. His belief in resistance activism, first by refusing to sell his home to the government for millions of dollars, and then by refusing to leave when they turned to more intrusive and violent methods.On top of all this, he was a fully-educated medical cardiologist.

And on top of that, he was an incredibly warm, kind, and hospitable person. When Tessa, Giulia, and I dropped in on him on short notice in 2014, he went out to meet us and gave us a tour of the occupied zone: his neighborhood, school, and Shuhada street. Then he invited us into his home for drinks and pastries, where he introduced us to his family. After we left he kept in contact with us, and in his messages he always referred to me as first as “friend.”

My heart goes out to his family, who has bravely stood with him in resistance against a violent and oppressive regime.

May his story continue to inspire,

Thank you, Friend in al-Khalil.

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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 2nd, 2014

Having just come from Brandenburg in Germany, images of the Berlin Wall are fresh in my mind. More than 100 km long and 3.5 m high, it stood as a functioning symbol of oppression for nearly 30 years, before finally being brought down in the reunification of West and East Berlin. I was amazed as I looked at this wall that divided an entire city, with every square inch of it covered in expressive graffiti that protested the segregation.

The Berlin Wall was nothing compared to what I passed on my way to Nablus today.

After meeting for the first time over coffee, the other volunteers and I climbed into a bus that runs from Jerusalem to Ramallah, crossing the Green Line which supposedly divides Israel and Palestine (I say “supposedly” because Israel tends to view this internationally-sanctified line as a general guide, erring on the side of Palestinian land). Along this line runs the Israeli West Bank Barrier. That’s the formal name for this huge slab of concrete, barbed wire, and sniper turrets that stretches for at least 650 km from North to South. At 8 km high, it is twice the size of the Berlin Wall, it symbolizes the systematic oppression and segregation of Palestinians that was begun 66 years ago, in 1948. And like the Berlin Wall, Palestinians have been painting it over with artwork decrying the occupation.

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Luckily, it didn’t take us too long to pass into Occupied Palestine. We reached Ramallah soon after that, and then it was only a forty-minute taxi ride to Nablus.

The first thing we did was check in with Project Hope, which is Music Harvest’s partner organization in Nablus. While Music Harvest sends volunteers to teach music in Palestine, Project Hope organizes a broad range of volunteers, from English and French teachers to translators and administration. We signed the documents we needed to sign, and then Hassan, our new Arabic teacher, showed us where we will be living for the next month and a half.

The flat consists of three large bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom, which I would share with Tessa and Giulia, the other two Music Harvest volunteers, whom I met in Jerusalem that morning. With our own rooms and free Wi-Fi, we figured we’d settle in pretty quickly. But it wasn’t long before we were up again, following our translator, Anas, around for a quick tour of Nablus.

The second largest city in Palestine after Jerusalem, Nablus consists of one large city and three refugee camps, with a total population of around 192,000. It’s nestled in a valley, and as Anas led us down into the Old City center, the city grew dense with chocolate and nut shops, cafes, boutiques, fruit stands, taxis, and people going about their daily business. Most were Muslim, and as you look around you see a sea of colorful headscarves, as much a fashion statement as any other item of clothing. Right in the middle of Nablus sits a modern mall opposite the entrance to a souk, which is probably as old as Nablus itself. It’s into this souk that Anas led us, to show us the heart of Nablus.

Without him, we would have gotten lost. The souk is a maze of shops selling everything from olives to ceramics to clothes and towels. From all sides, butchers and fruit vendors yell or even sing their offers at you, and customers are constantly squeezing around you as they make their way to one store or another. After a several turns, we came to a cafe, where Anas had us buy falafel. One sandwich was only two and a half shekels, about 80 cents in US dollars… and it was some of the best falafel I’d ever had. On the way back up to our flat, I was seriously considering the logistics of eating falafel three times a day for six weeks.

My flatmates and I finished that long day by chilling out and making pasta. Giulia’s Italian, so she directed the cooking, “the real Italian way.” While waiting for it to boil, I practiced trumpet for the first time in weeks. I sounded like shit, but it felt good to know I would be falling back into the old practice routine.

Right before bed, I went outside and managed to catch the Adhan from the mosques and my first sunset in Nablus. It looked like this:
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