Friday, November 23, 2012

A Thanksgving Cornucopia of Cultures

The nature, meaning and importance of Thanksgiving have begun to change for me over the years. It began as a few days off from school where I got to pretend I was Pocahontas or Sacajawea (two of my childhood aspirations for when I grew up), eat lots of food and be doted on by my grandparents. As I got older, I began to understand the reality of the “pilgrims and Indians” and tried to erase that aspect of the holiday from my mind, focusing on the food and my new-found ability to drive to my cousin’s house and have two dinners.

It has further evolved now that I have spent three consecutive Thanksgivings abroad. Here are my reflections on my Thanksgivings and Christmases since, including this latest Thanksgiving, and how meanings have changed for me. I have to say, the best part of the story and my inspiration for writing is in the last paragraph or so, so definitely read that if you're short on time or perhaps attention span (as I often am). 

I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home in Rabat, Morocco in 2010, celebrating with the four other students in my program plus one student’s Moroccan girlfriend at a Syrian restaurant, freezing but delighting in my first courtship of hummus and falafel and the company of my friends. I still have a video of all of us sharing in a circle what we're thankful for, despite all of us wishing we were home. It was exceptionally hard at the time, as I was experiencing a new form of loneliness that came from my first time fully immersing myself in a totally different culture for an extended period of time. But I had the hope and excitement of knowing I would be home for Christmas to see all my friends and family, soak up pumpkin spice lattes, jingle bells, lights and the intoxicating smell of pine. I learned a lot from that immersion experience, and the strength I gleaned from it was worth every moment of discomfort—but my plane ticket home in December, that thought, that assurance is what got me through the next few weeks ending the semester. I remember sitting in the Paris airport for a layover, and watching the screen lighting up with delays and cancellations, hoping, praying that I would make my flight before the impending blizzard imprisoned me in Charles de Gaulle for who knows how long. I was on the last flight to JFK before they stopped the planes. The fact that they had lost my luggage paled in comparison to my extreme joy that I had made it home. My mom and cousin Jesse had driven and waited hours to be able to meet me and take me directly home, and I couldn't have been more overjoyed to see them. My mom had packed a hot thermos full of chocolate and French vanilla flavored coffee, with creamer and sugar all ready to go. I treasured every sip of the luscious joe, a taste I had been deprived of for an entire three months! I remember the culture shock of walking into Target for the first time after being away from such a concentrated amount of consumerism for what seemed at that time in my life to be such a long time.

 I remember going to church that Sunday (I believe a day or two after I got back) and looking around anxiously for my best friend, my Abby. Her family had come a few moments late, after the songs had begun, but we spotted each other and made eye contact. Moments later the pastor announced the time to greet one another and we both immediately speed walked down the aisles to the back of the room and then collided into one of those laugh-cry hugs you see in the movies, my one ever . I felt like Lassie or Shadow from Homeward Bound in that moment, and I cannot imagine feeling a stronger level of joy than I felt in that embrace. I never appreciated my family, friends or the few days of Christmas season I had left before Christmas so intensely before, and my memories from that winter vacation will have a home in my mind forever.

Last Thanksgiving marked my second Thanksgiving away from home. I started thinking about “pilgrims and Indians” again, but only in relation to settlers and Palestinians—the nuanced similarities of the situation of my new home—the first home away from home I had ever truly had. My friends and coworkers gathered together potluck style, with a big Turkey and all the fixings, quite like the spread I would have had at home, with oddly shaped pots and pans and missing the nice china and silverware my mom always broke out. And it was a lovely evening, shared with friends. There was still a small ache of wishing I could be home to see friends and family, but I was also with friends and family in a way, so the ache transformed more into a fondness of memories for the past and appreciation for the incredible relationships I had developed in my new home. I look back and smile at the sisterhood I formed with my flatmates Lindsey and Amy in Palestine, and am so happy I got to spend such an important holiday with them.

The only pang that never left was knowing I wouldn't be home for Christmas thattime. Unlike the year before, I knew I would be spending my Christmas in my new home as well. I tried not to think about how hard that would be—to miss Christmas at home for the first time in my life—as my flatmates, or sisters rather, and I got a small evergreen tree for our flat and decorated it with bulbs and tinsel we had acquired from the arts and crafts store downtown. We sang Christmas carols and prepared for the challenges of being away from home on that day by making plans to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Christmas day in Ramallah. We had a wonderful time, walking through Bethlehem, bundled up from the chill. We crashed an Indian/ Korean Christmas Eve service in Shepherd’s field and then drove back to a friend’s house in Ramallah in the rain to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (at Lindsey and my insistence) and eat chocolate chip cookies, freshly baked from a package. Everyone went to bed before it finished, except for Lindsey and I who were struggling to stay awake to finish our shared tradition. The next morning we exchanged stockings which Lindsey had made, filled with candies and little gifts, followed by an entire day preparing for a huge Christmas dinner potluck with a mix of religions, faiths and nationalities from all over the world. It was a touching moment of connecting our past experiences with family to our present family there in Palestine and sharing it with many who had never experienced it before. Despite the excitement and revelry of a new form of celebration, I missed my family, friends from home and quiet little house on Loch Hill Road with our eclectically decorated Christmas tree towering over an impressive home-made train garden. I missed Central’s tradition Christmas Eve service, Maryland crab soup for dinner and going to bed knowing my Dad had prepared some elaborate way of presenting my brother's and my gifts (despite the fact that I was now an adult). However, I also reflected on the previous few months and knew I was in the right place, growing up and experiencing the challenges of adulthood which required letting go of certain aspects of my youth so heavily tied to my heart. And it was good.

This past Thanksgiving marked another treasured moment of sharing  traditions with people from other countries. I realized that Thanksgiving for me really has become meeting with friends, sharing food, and outwardly expressing what we’re all thankful for. This year one of my fellow legal adviser interns invited everyone in the office, including our interpreters over for a very traditional dinner with a big Turkey, candied yams, mashed potatoes, homemade sourdough bread, green beans, pumpkin pie and much more. We had people from the States, Canada, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Germany, France and Holland--a cornucopia of cultures. It was a wonderful night of sharing our holiday with everyone and experiencing the true reasons for being thankful. Before eating, we stood in a circle and went around saying what we were thankful for. Most were thankful for being there, for each other, for family and friends, etc. The quote of the night, however, came from the Darfuri interpreter who said he was thankful for all those working for peace in the world, so that we may all have peace someday. Thank you, brother, for that beautiful reminder of our calling to always pursue peace. May we never give up our pursuit of the idealist’s impossible dream, the beauty queen’s pledge, the small child’s prayer, the seemingly unattainable—for despite knowing the futility of our quest we know also the unrivaled worth of what we pursue, and that not persevering in our pursuance is accepting defeat which is and always will be unacceptable.

 “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."  Oscar Wilde. How true this statement is. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mental Meanderings on a Train: Peace and Justice

I wrote this a little while ago on the train back from a wonderful weekend in Alexandria with two amazing friends, but I never posted it and since there's not much new news currently, voila.

As the train moved smoothly out of Alexandria, I stared in awe and wonder at the lush green grass and trees that lined the sides of the train tracks. I hadn't seen that thriving fertility of earth in months. Alexandria itself is more biologically alive than Cairo, but the few miles outside the city took me to a place in time where I used to run through forests and roll around in the rich grass and clean soil of the earth. I miss natural beauty.  It’s been a long time since I last took myself hiking up mountains or biking down rocky forest trails, basking in the solitude and glory of this world we live in; the small pockets of this world that our race hasn't yet destroyed with high rises, piles of trash and chemical concoctions which pollute our earth, our bodies and our minds.  Why it’s so hard for us to step outside ourselves briefly and re-evaluate how we have damaged the magnificence that has not only been an inspiration, the muse of all muses, for art of all forms, but the provider of life and sustenance since the beginning of time, I will never know. I am guilty of it too. I ride in cars, buses, subways; I feed into the poisons of this world and buy processed and packaged food. There are few innocent of crimes against nature, a crime not punishable in a court of law.

And then I look at what we’ve done to each other, and I cry from the inside. Tears gleam in my eyes but roar like high waves in my heart; loud, crushing and infinite. I once felt glimmers of this sentiment when I lived in the States, reading about suffering in stories and viewing it through pictures. Now I witness it walking and commuting and wondering what I’m supposed to do. What am I supposed to do? And what I witness is not the extent. The stories I hear stain the mind with images of rape, murder, torture and gore that we see in movies, but rarely connect the dots in our heads to the people that not only experience anguish on a daily basis, but have accepted it as a reality; as their reality. I have only heard tell. The empathetic emotions that feed the fiery flames of passion and anger and frustration and “why, why why?” in my soul fade and fizzle when stories are all that stain. What will happen if I enter into those stories; if I stop listening and imagining and start seeing and hearing with my own eyes, my own ears.   
“Life’s not fair.” Every parent dispels this wisdom on their child from a young age when not every lollipop can be bought, not every whim indulged. We say this when we don’t get the job we want or the person we want or the lifestyle we want. And sometimes we say this and shake our heads when we hear tell of the suffering overseas, even in our own backyards.

Justice is elusive. So is Peace. Both I've found are just as important to seek and pursue, as they are elusive. Some would say Peace and Justice are often at odds: that sometimes Peace is evaded in pursuit of Justice; or Peace won at the cost of Justice. I wouldn't think to argue this, as both are relative: what they are in nature varies in definition and connotation from society to society and individual to individual. For me, personally, I see peace as being not just the absence of fighting or conflict, but the presence of harmony between the self and everything else. When the music of your soul synchronizes with the music of the earth and the music of the people around you, there is nothing more joyful or blissful, except the additional synchronization with the music of the spiritual. And where this harmony exists wholly and in pure form, conflict is hard pressed to penetrate. The way I see justice is not just the conventional triumph of good over evil and right over wrong, but the recognition and restoration of the humanity and equality of every human born on this earth. We all have souls, hearts, millions of thoughts, emotions and feelings. We all have needs and desires that vary immensely but all stem from our common humanity. For me upholding principles and morals are far less important to living justly than perceiving every person around you with the dignity of their humanity--the equality of our existence.

 So for me, when their definitions are extended beyond absences and triumphs (although these definitions I conjured are no more finite or complete), Peace and Justice fuse and together orchestrate melodies of true ecstasy. In order to achieve harmony with other people, Justice must be present in full force. How can one synchronize the sounds of the soul between two people that refuse to see each other as equally human?
The world we live in today, in the macrocosmic sense, seems highly opposed to this theory, or at the very least, highly opposed to pursuing the postulations of this theory. Who will convince the entirety of majority clans in Somalia that the minority clans are just as human and important to this earth as they are? Who will convince multi-national corporations of the so-called “civilized and progressive world” that the people who lose their homes and lives because of their dams and mines are more important than the billions of dollars the CEOs get to put in their pockets? Who will convince governments to stop sending drones that kill innocent villagers and children when power and empire are at stake? Some people don’t want to harmonize with others. Music is of little importance to them when money and power are at play.

 War and suffering are the spawn of a flawed relationship between the self and all else: that the self’s wants and needs are of more value than the life and humanity of another; and therefore to convince everyone on this planet to seek and pursue Justice and Peace (in the sense I mentioned earlier) is an impossible task in this lifetime.

Therefore the start must be microcosmic, the individual relationships and interactions one person has with the small percentage of the world he or she comes into contact with. And even then, it is easier said than done. Sure, I have achieved harmony with many of my friends, here and at home—those that are tuned to the same pitch; but I cannot count the number of times I have intentionally and unintentionally ignored Justice’s loud calling and Peace’s sweet song. Because to not only recognize, but restore humanity and equality is an emotionally and often physically and mentally draining task. And in witnessing so much suffering (and knowing I'm not even in the worst or even near worst setting of suffering) the music I hear in my head is that of an out of tune orchestra playing different songs at different tempos. And I cannot seem to conduct them into a clear melody or song. At this particular stage in my life, I am left with the option of trying something new and perhaps dangerous, or tuning them out entirely: putting in earplugs and living in quiet indifference.

I believe that harmony with others and harmony with the earth go hand in hand. While I would place harmony with others as more important in terms of Peace and Justice; I believe that once you begin to break down the barriers between people and start caring more about people than personal comfort or convenience, you being to care more about the environment that you share.

I don’t have delusions of all people living in a communal state of equality with the same standards of living and same quality of life. There is a difference between recognizing the equality of someone’s humanity and living a uniform lifestyle.  I don’t think there will ever come a time when we all live completely equally and in total harmony with each other and this earth. But that doesn't mean we should abandon the pursuit of Peace and Justice in our own lives, in our own interactions with others. That’s how restoration begins; and besides, a little extra musical harmony is always appreciated.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Watching the Sun Set on 21 and the Moon Rise on 22

I haven’t written a personal update in a really long time, and as I am just about halfway through my expected stay in Egypt, I figured now would be a good time to post something personal--and personal it is.

First of all, I am safe. Cairo has not gone up in flames. I don't want to detract from the severity of the clashes, as many protesters were injured and I believe there were some deaths, but the action is confined to a very small radius in a gigantic city. I easily avoid that area and feel as safe as ever. 

I just had my 22nd birthday, and I am blessed enough to have amazing friends who made it special-- from those abroad through messages and facebook, to my Egyptian friends that got me a cake and sang to me in the streets, to my American and Canadian friends who took me out two nights in a row for a lovely time. Thank you all! I had a great weekend!

I have had a wonderful time travelling around here in Egypt on regular and long weekends, in between long crazy weeks with two 12+ hour workdays during which I had to run around to opposite ends of this gigantic city. I’ve gotten to experience the black and white desert with an amazing group of coworkers, explore Alexandria with two incredible friends and together meet a random man who took us to a private beach and pool on the North Coast, endure the hassles of Luxor and climb a mountain in the dark to watch the most incredible sunrise over the Nile with a lifelong friend and sage and relax on the red sea with the same friend, reflecting on all the lessons learnt over the past year.

Amongst all this adventure, I continue to see and listen to stories of suffering and horror, whilst simultaneously having fun with co-workers and friends and enjoying some mostly simple, but still indulgent pleasures of life. This tense dichotomy in combination with further reflection regarding my previous life and country of origin has definitely had a profound effect on me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
This past year has been a whirlwind; but at the same time I feel like I’ve been 21 for ages and that these past 11 months have spanned five years. I guess this doesn’t come as a surprise considering that life in the Middle East often rolls over you in crashing waves as you attempt to keep the sand out of your…well everything.  This past weekend marked the end of a year, but really the end of an era for me. My first year, graduated from university, out in the world and completely on my own. I feel truly lucky to be having this experience and am so grateful to my family and all my friends for supporting me. It’s been a year of conquered fears, tears, laughter, confusion, enlightenment and further confusion stemming from said enlightenment.

Everything here seems more intense than it might otherwise be: joy, pain, romance, friendship. I’ve had moments of pure ecstasy from plunging into new adventures and experiencing true friendship; and I’ve had moments of pure emotional numbness often experienced in situations of so-called “romance.” I chuckle now at my sigh of relief whenever those “romances” came to speedy conclusions –when it was realized that which I was constantly aware of—that I don’t fit into the puzzle of ex-pat romances: intense and short-lived or frequent but devoid of emotion. Being aware of that made me never fully let my guard down—although I once did partially: a lesson well learnt—and kept me from getting emotionally involved in something which would only lead to emotional destruction. It has also, however, kept me from taking a chance on certain people and relations that could have proved to be fun and perchance even special—but I can’t say I regret my policy either.

I have felt more alive this year than ever before. Moments when I was sitting on the Cairo metro or in a shared taxi in Palestine thinking: “I used to always wish I was somewhere else. I don’t anymore. Breakthrough.” That’s not to say it has been a year of bliss and magic. In addition to moments of ecstasy I have experienced moments of deep depression. An hour passed sitting on my couch and staring into abyss, not wanting to be here, not wanting to be there, not wanting to live, not wanting to die—just wanting to erase existence. But even when I wished I didn’t exist, I felt so deeply alive. I was feeling nothing, but yet feeling something, something strong but invisible—like a burst of wind on an empty highway. You feel the toppling power of the wind, but see nothing because you’re the only thing transient on that stretch of pavement. The current knocks you off your feet and holds you down. It streams so quickly over your face you can barely inhale to stay breathing. Then everything goes dark and you fall asleep. It’s when you wake up that you see you weren’t on a highway after all, but standing in a beautiful meadow. The ugly black pavement has transformed into soft green grass, towering trees and flowers of every color and design. You haven’t been moved; you just see more clearly now—you see the world as it’s meant to be seen, and each blade, root and petal is more beautiful to you than you imagined anything living ever could be.

The peace you find isn’t lasting, and the more suffering you see and listen to, the harder it becomes to see beauty in anything. I’ve realized you can’t hold on to peace here. There is not enough comfort or stability to capture and enslave it. But peace enslaved isn’t peace at all. It’s an illusion. Peace is meant to be sought and pursued—lost and found, then lost again. The following is a small part of a spontaneous and lengthy stream of consciousness inscribed onto a paper place mat at an Indian restaurant ironically named Nirvana overlooking the red sea:
“Yes peace is temporal. I hold to the truth: “Seek peace and pursue it,” because every time you find it, it morphs and moves and swims away, darting into dark caves or the deep blue unknown. It is something you cannot ever attain in full—only at times and in parts. It slips away into the night unnoticed and I wake up feeling heavy because when peace abandons ship it doesn’t not leave empty space in its place, but rather anchors that hold me where there is no air. The more I see of this world—the more I learn—the less I understand humanity. The American dream is an illusion—an aquarium: creatures of the sea in a replica of reality—but were they to enter the sea…”
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a full week on the red sea and again see beauty in the world. I will always remember the white beaches, coral reefs, stony banks, pink and purple mountains and golden rising moons with love and gratefulness, for reminding me that we come not from ugly but stunning origins, and there are still places you can see beauty un-mangled by human destruction.  

I find myself very much on edge, longing only to go back to life as it was created to be, instead of the way we have degraded it to be. Part of me would like to just break away and spend my life working only to travel and backpack—through Nepal, India, China, South America, anywhere and everywhere, ignoring the cries that haunt my thoughts and drive me to destructive vices. Part of me wants to go back to the illusions I once lived in, always wishing I was somewhere else, yet calmed my the comforts of capitalistic cushions. And then there’s part of me, a strong ever burning part that is pushing me to challenge myself further and experience the source of the stories I sift through here. See with my own eyes what I have ever only pictured in my head as I take notes and nod, pretending I have a clue what they’re talking about. I empathize because I’m talking with them face to face, but I will never achieve a higher level of understanding until I actually go to Somalia or Sudan and see the setting of their stories. Even then, I will never fully understand the plight of a refugee.   I guess in a way I am the antithesis of a refugee: I have chosen to leave my home—a good one at that—because of a desire to stay moving and transient, whereas they have been forced to leave their homes and only desire safety and stability.

So that’s where I’m at. I’m looking for opportunities in Somalia and Sudan primarily, but may have to spend some time elsewhere before being considered for a position there.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I Love You

I Love You 

You are alone, far from the place you know and without anyone who cares about you or shows you love. The memories haunt you like a incurable rash—itches you can’t scratch, and when you scratch them anyway, they just get worse.  You can’t sleep, and even when you can that’s when the nightmares come, and they’re not that much better than the insomnia. 

You miss your family. They were all you ever had. You had always been marginalized because of your clan, but at least your family was with you. You had each other. Amidst the violence, the killing, looting, raping—they were there. Until the militiamen came to your home and threw off your door. You ran if you could and if you couldn’t: rape, torture, murder. They took all your possessions too, but that didn’t really matter much in the end because life was draining from your loved ones into puddles of blood on the floor. That’s if you had the torturous comfort of knowing what happened to your family.

At some point you ran. It may have been before the blood, during or many years after-- living as a slave--but you ran. Crossing borders, registering and finding yourself somewhere new with the chance of living a better life. But that chance is an illusion, and you quickly learn that the scale of "better and worse" doesn’t apply to you—you need a ticket to step on that scale and you don’t have the money to buy one.  Sometimes you say it’s worse here, but really it’s more that the disillusionment burns you in a way you haven’t felt before. It’s different than the fire you were thrown into or the hand around your neck—it’s a slow, steady burn that breeds bitterness in its coals.

You are young. Too young, and you beg for help. Sometimes you find a place to sleep, but everything for you is temporal. Cleaning houses sometimes pays for rent, but you’re always on edge for the day you’re done and you have to find a new house to clean—because if you can’t it’s the streets again. Sometimes the employers leave and you part ways wearily but unscathed; but sometimes you flee because the husband wants your body or the teenager burns your arm for the pure savagery of it.

Your body hurts. It may have been the beatings, the time you fell, the disease never cured—but your flesh and bones ache like your soul and it’s overwhelming.  The people that pay for medicine tell you that you have an illness or injury and give you a paper, but you don’t know what any of it means because a diagnosis is too much for them to give—just take this to the pharmacy and you’ll feel better. And sometimes you do, for a little while.

Sometimes you push through. You work if there’s a part of you still alive. But when its all set in—and you see that there is no improvement coming, no redemption on its way—not that you’ve ever even dared dream of a magic lamp or white steed—you give in to the callings of your body. Why work and rot your body if it will all end anyway and there is no hope for change, no ladder to climb?

You are a black woman. The beauty of your dark skin and defined features is lost in racism and hatred of the unfamiliar. They know you’re foreign and therefore vulnerable—so the harassment is worse and more intense. You wear the naqab and cover everything except your eyes, in the hopes of obtaining some amount of security--in the hopes that they won’t see your ethnicity so clearly or your youthful but broken figure and call you names or try and take you to unknown places.

You are a refugee. You have the card you once thought brought life—the yellow or blue card with your name and picture that proves to the world you are legitimately unable to go home. 

You tell your story. You desperately kneel at the feet of those who gave you your status only to be given a number that gets lost in “there’s nothing we can do.”

I need to go somewhere else—anything will be better than here. Maybe go home—back to Somalia where at least there’s no illusion of a better life—I'll just die. Maybe that will be better. My fate there is set, but here I am swimming with no land in sight and just enough left to keep my head above water—but I know the ending to that story, so why keep swimming?

Somali “women at risk” (as they are categorized by UNHCR) have a special place in my heart. Most of my clients have been Somali W@R, and their stories have significantly changed the way I see the world and humanity. I have the utmost respect, admiration and love for these women—weak as they may seem sitting across the table from me, I know that what they have endured is beyond my comprehension, and they have strength I probably will never know. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts from Tahrir

The energy of Tahrir last night was so tangible it became contagious. Whether you were happy with Morsi’s election as president or not, you fell under the spell of the excitement of change brought about by revolution, despite knowing that Morsi is not the desired conduit of change of most revolutionaries who fought with their lives for freedom from dictatorship, nor is he anywhere close to having the power currently held by the SCAF (military).

My friends (left to right) Saad, Hamada, Bizra, Basbousa
After some prompting from a dear friend and ex-roommate now wanderlusting around Turkey, I decided to go to Tahrir. A few of my friends had mentioned they were going so I made a plan to meet them there. I took the metro and waited inside Hardees', on the corner of the square, for them to arrive. After my friends arrived at Hardees’ I was able to move about freely and without worry.  No one bothered me for the rest of the night, as I expected [I'll explain as a post script what I mean by this].The air was celebratory and remnant of the 25 January anniversary celebrations, but in many ways very different. Whereas the 25 of January celebrations were very much similar to a festival or 4th of July event in America, the celebrations last night reached a euphoria I did not expect given the remaining political predicaments facing the new administration.  Regardless,  the fireworks, chanting and sea of smiles amounted to a level of liveliness I had never before witnessed.

A fair amount of chanting and singing was directed directly at Morsi, yet the broader energy seemed to be from the election of a president not connected with the old regime; the old regime that had ruled with an iron fist for 30 years. For the first time, Egyptians have, it would seem, a democratically elected president. This is the song many were singing, the chant that for me seemed to rise above the others. I can’t say for sure this is true, but that is how it felt to me. I am, however, no expert.

I can’t help but then wonder when the vigor will fade and turn to disillusionment at the power retained by the SCAF (military). Those supporting Morsi, I predict, will come to resent the restrictions on movement of their new leader and those supporting a change from the old regime, I predict, will resent the remaining legacy of authoritarian rule. This does not even include what will happen if and when Morsi begins making changes seen as too conservative by many. But last night, those who ventured to Tahrir were set on celebrating what they saw as a first step in self-rule; whether or not you view the situation through the same lens is up to you.

My friends and I left Tahrir together via metro after an hour or two of walking around, listening to familiar ULTRAS chants from the Zamalek and Ahly fans (popular Egyptian football teams), taking pictures and videos of an eager-to-be-documented crowd and of course being gifted with an Egyptian flag balloon in the shape of a heart, perhaps poetically serving as a symbol of my feelings towards this country and its people.

I know many of you will have a reflex reaction to reprimand me for going to Tahrir last night. I would like to explain my decision before you rush to judgment. Firstly, I did not go in the afternoon when the president was announced. Had Shafiq won, the backlash could have been catastrophic as I think most people there that afternoon were praying for Morsi’s victory.  I waited until the night, when it was clearly celebratory and highly unlikely to have any violent or protest-like undertones. Secondly, I carefully crafted a conservative outfit that covered everything, yet was fashionable enough to blend in and not look like a foreigner trying to cover as much as possible. And yes, I wore a veil to cover my hair. Thirdly, I went to meet up with some of my male Egyptian friends before entering the square. Now, my calculations there were slightly flawed, as I insisted to my friends that I could meet them just outside the metro station at a Hardees’ restaurant on the corner of Tahrir without any problems. They reluctantly accepted my persistence as it seemed at the time that I knew the metro situation better since they were all on buses.

I was off by about 2 minutes worth of walking. That night, Tahrir began at the stairs going up from the Metro and the clamor up the stairs was slightly unpleasant. Luckily, there was a sizeable group of men helping the unmanned women get up the stairs and out of the bottleneck of hands. I was guided up the stairs and then behind a fence of men leading to Hardees’.

 Regarding the male-female tensions of the night, my observations are as follows: the men in Tahrir were divided into three main groups. Firstly, there were the men (and of course women too) celebrating, singing, chanting, bouncing with excitement and waving flags. Then there were the barbarians that seem to creep out  in large crowds and high-tension situations like repulsive creatures only a science fiction novelist could invent. The only ones I saw were in that bottleneck getting out of the metro, but I’m sure there was a handful more that I was fortunate enough to have my friends to keep me from. Women with Egyptian men, or wearing the Naqab seemed unbothered by these "men."

 Then there were the men who had voluntarily put on hold their celebrations to form human fences, barriers and bodyguards to protect women and store fronts. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for those men, especially the ones that assisted me in getting out of the subway. Whereas one group ignorantly and selfishly gives Egyptian men a negative reputation, the other attempts to redeem that tarnish through their commitment to ensuring all genders are able to join in public gatherings.

Regardless, I am completely fine and have absolutely no regrets about going.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back in Cairo, the City that Never Sleeps

The suns hot rays hit the humid air in what seemed to be an attempt to cook me alive as I ran back and forth from the Egyptian Consulate to my hostel in Eilat. I had arrived just in time for a wave of humidity. Back in the hostel, the thermometer read 90 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade and relative comfort of the upstairs lobby. Walking back into the sun was like stepping into a microwave and putting the power level on high. Despite the heat I felt surprisingly comfortable in my tank top and shorts, baring my limbs for the first time in a while. It could have been 10 degree hotter and I would have been more comfortable than I had been walking around in 80 degree heat fully clothed. After I treated myself to a western omelette sandwich, salad and filtered coffee, I made my way to the border, splurging a little on a taxi, as my boss had given me additional money for travelling that I had not been expecting., much of which I still managed to save for Cairo anyway. As soon as I had gotten my exit stamp from Israel, after only a few awkward glances as they looked, I assume, at the notes next to my name, I threw on my Handala (symbol of Palestinian liberation) shirt  and got ready to cross through the final barrier between Israel and Egypt.

After wrestling my bags through the endless bureaucracies on both sides of the border between Israel and Egypt, I finally made it into the hot Egyptian sun—for some reason it felt hotter there than it had in Israel, but that was perhaps due to the additional clothing I had donned crossing the border. I knew the bus station was just a few kilometers down the road so I refused offers for a taxi, restarting my budget traveler mode. However, after about 200 meters, the hot sun and weight of my bags started to wear on me, and I had begun to wonder why I so quickly refused a 2 dollar ride to the station. Pride goeth before a fall. I did manage to make it there, and the extra time it took me was to my benefit in the end since I had a 2 hour wait before the bus to Cairo would come. I turned into the bus station--or outpost rather, as it was not much of a station—scarlet red, sweaty and probably panting. As I got closer to the waiting area and ticket stand, I noticed my audience and attempted to pull myself together. With what little energy I had I dragged my bags through the sand and one at a time and with as much dignity as is possible when a handful of men are staring at the spectacle I must have been, I lifted my bags onto the platform and bought my ticket. As I sat there in the shade waiting for the bus, my head pounded from the rays the sun had stung me with earlier, and although I had been drinking water, I was most likely dehydrated. I sipped my now hot water and waited for the pounding to subside. I heard the trees rustle and waited eagerly for a cool breeze, only to be smacked instead by a wave of heat, hotter than the air in the shade. I winced slightly each time the waves rolled in, and began planning my funeral for sometime this summer in Cairo, as I know it will only get hotter. There were a few moments where I wondered what had possessed me to move further south in the summer, but quickly concluded that the experience would be good for me and hopefully thin my blood a little.
When the bus finally pulled up I got on and prepared myself for the 7 hour ride, and ascended into the cool, air-conditioned bus. I have a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a while, a lot of best friends I haven’t seen in 8 months, so the prospect of getting to talk to and see one of them gave me an extra burst of positivity as I stared out the window at the shadows of the Sinai mountains. When the bus rolled up I got out and sat down with my bags, politely refusing help with my bags as I was in “I’m a strong woman, I can do it myself thank-you-very-much mode.” That mode quickly disappeared as soon as I was greeted by Bata and Hoss who quickly scooped up my bags and put them in the car. Driving through Cairo again filled me with a strange concoction of feelings and thoughts which swam around in my head circling like sharks about to feed. It’s been two weeks almost, and those feelings have much subsided.

I am currently living with Bata’s mom, Eman, who is an incredibly sweet and wonderful woman. She likes the company, and I have quickly felt right at home with her. The commute to work is tiresome: 45 minutes to an hour on crowded public transportation, but the area I live in is quiet and safe. The only real downside, besides the commute is that I can’t host events at my house, and getting back late at night can be tricky if I don’t have a friend with a car around. So far I’ve been lucky to always have a friend with a car to take me back at least part of the way. On the other hand, new friends from work have already generously offered up their places as crash pads, should I ever not be able to get home. We’ll see how it all pans out.
As previously stated I’ve been here nearly two weeks now. On the one hand, time has flown by and I haven’t been bored for a second; on the other hand it feels like I have been here for ages because I’ve so quickly adjusted to life here. No doubt I miss my friends and family in both Palestine and America, but at the same time, I feel very much at home here in Cairo for now. You know me though—I can’t seem to stay in the same place for all that long. I never fully unpacked in Palestine. I haven’t fully unpacked here. I think for me fully unpacking is a sign of commitment; commitment to a flat, a city, a country. Apparently that kind of marginal commitment is something I’m just not ready for. I’m interested to see if Cairo transcends the pattern or ends up another notch on my suitcase.

My internship is incredibly interesting and intense. Last week was training for 4 hours a day in the morning. It was by far the most I had sat still consecutively in about a year; since I graduated university. I have since conducted two solo intake interviews and my first follow up interview. I am currently handling three resettlement cases, and despite my previous knowledge that survivors of such unsettling circumstances would have shocking stories, nothing could have prepared me for the distress and desperation flowing through their words. Having to ask the hard questions and coax clients into revealing gruesome details of their past and current sufferings to the point where they break down into tears is something no amount of preparation can account for. A now single mother breaks down and tells me she has nothing, no way to care for her children, is one step away from camping out on the UNHCR steps because of imminent eviction, and all I can do is tell her that I will do my best in submitting her claim to UNHCR but ultimately it’s in their hands and the process takes months to years. Remind me to never complain about my life again. And I’ve only conducted three interviews thus far.

I’ll start teaching English classes at a center in a week or two to earn a little pocket money. The woman who organizes the classes is incredibly nice. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching again so soon, but with curriculum, materials and a potentially conversational-based class, I’m not so opposed.

On the other hand I’m having a blast here in Cairo. There are great evening venues, like the Jazz club where my friend Ahmad’s band played the other night. A bunch of my coworkers and I went and had a great time. When I’m not out experiencing live music or the like, I’m hanging out with new and old friends at cafes, on the street or in Cairo traffic. I miss Palestine, but I’m not going to lie; right now I’m really happy to be in Cairo. I just wish a certain group of ex-pats were here with me too (shout out to ol’ Nablus crew). 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Palestine, My First Home Away from Home

Tonight is my last night in Nablus. I know saying “I can’t believe it,” and “It hasn’t sunk in yet” are the trite phrases people use to fill in conversations about their impending departure, but in all earnest, that is exactly how I feel. This has been, by far, the most amazing experience I could have possibly imagined. I have been challenged in so many ways—to the point where multiple times  I wanted to quit and give up—and have made some incredible friends and acquaintances whom I will never forget and am determined to see again someday.

Even though I wrote not all that long ago, a lot has happened. I had seen the wall of separation that divides Israel and Palestine many times before, but knew there was a segment outside Bethlehem with incredible graffiti protesting the existence of tangible hatred from the occupier. Just south of Bethlehem lies Hebron, the city I had been wanting to visit the most as I knew it to be the most visual representation of the effects of occupation due to its unique situation, so me and some friends set off to see them both and make a weekend of it. It was incredible trip starting out with a night on the town in Ramallah Thursday night for the opening of Snowbar—an outdoor bar in Ramallah open only during the summer. After dancing the night away and a large collaborative breakfast the next morning, I set out with Ella, John, Emma, and a couchsurfer I had run across named David (who is the current president of the Salsa club at Boston University) for Bethlehem. With a great group dynamic on all accounts, we walked around Bethlehem and up to the wall, taking pictures, talking to people and admiring the art and creativity crying out against oppression. As the afternoon sun began to wane we hopped in a service (shared taxi) and headed off for Hebron.

Hebron has two sections of the city: H1 and H2. H1 is under Palestinian control, whereas H2 is an occupied military zone home to the Palestinians that have always lived there, and Israeli settlers which had occupied that part of the city. We spent the night at a Palestinian couchsurfer’s house in H1. He was incredibly generous to let us all crash in his living room. The next morning we set off to tour H2. Hebron was a Palestinian city. The settlements there (and in general) are documented as illegal by the United Nations, and are therefore in violation of international law. This is a fact, not an opinion.  We went on a tour with a known activist who is constantly persecuted for standing up (non-violently) to the horrible conditions under which he and his fellow Palestinians in H2 live. They are not protected by Palestinian law as the PA has no authority there—and they are not citizens like other Arabs in actual Israel—so they are not even marginally protected under Israeli law. The Israeli settlers walk around with large machine guns, while Palestinians have nothing. I could go on for hours with stories he and his family told: his pregnant wife getting beaten to the point of miscarriage and her filed complaint ignored, children getting beaten (the Palestinian school has had to continue to build more fences, walls, bars on windows, etc. to keep settlers from attacking, settlers cutting down Palestinian fruit trees and plants and throwing garbage (including a broken washing machine) into their yard. I could literally talk for hours about the things I saw, heard, and saw video footage of. This isn’t science fiction about the evils of the enemy—no! What I was told was supported by facts, video, evidence. I dare anyone who challenges me to spend some time in H2. You can feel the hatred, see it written in graffiti, see it in the gleam of an M16 on a settler’s back, see it in the damaged foliage and rotting trash courtesy of their occupying neighbors. If you want to see oppression on multiple fronts, go to Hebron. If you don’t want to see it—go anyway, for the challenege.

After H2, we walked through the old city and bought some things at a women’s co-op and then headed off for the last Keffiyah factory in Palestine (Keffiyah= Arab scarf, distinct between the different countries). Now most are made in China—go figure. They have a plethora of colors and styles to choose from at the factory, and we got to see how they’re made. I think the thing that made the trip was that each of us there was easy-going, down for anything and everything, and good at making interesting and open-minded conversations.

Since then, I’ve had my end of the year celebration at Balata with my refugee kids who showered me with gifts and love letters I will treasure forever, visited a few of their houses (Taima the scholarship girl for next year and Zainab who started her scholarship to PBS this year) to say goodbye on a more personal level, been in a water/hummus fight with my private school kids during which I was covered in a disgusting blue hummus and other unknown edible substance mix, and now said goodbye to nearly all my wonderful friends and students. I will visit my Palestinian family for the last time in the morning at which time I will also say goodbye to my dear dear Aussie: Ella and my partner in Askar camp crime Rita.

I went to Taima's house (girl on my right) and almost never left. Zainab (the one on Taima's right) is the girl on scholarship now and perhaps the girl I am closest to. Salem (directly in front of me) is so smart and fun--she came out of her way to deliver an incredibly sweet handwritten goodbye letter. 

Leaving Askar camp for the last time in the foreseeable future, although I do intend to visit, is going to leave me with a strange sensation I am sure. This was my first home away from home, postgraduate, on my own. I have laughed harder here than ever before, cried harder here than I can remember, and made sisters here I will always love and never forget. The isolate nature of this house, being outside the city and holding the only ajanab (foreigners) in Askar has been the source of joy and frustration, but most memorably, of some incredible people who have welcomed me with open arms and free food, whether they’re selling it on the street or serving it to me from their home ovens. I can’t describe how blessed I feel to have lived here with these people.

What will I miss most? I will miss my co-workers and friends, the rolling mounts surrounding me, the variety of flora and fauna everywhere, the ancient ruins left unguarded, the street kids that now refer to me as Cristiano Ronaldo, my favorite students whom I love and who love me back, being referred to as Ms. Casey (just kidding, not a fan), being mocked by my seemingly cynical but really big-hearted fellow teacher, free fruits and veges from Khalid in the Askar market, amazing hummus and other foods, the other cities and friends I have in Palestine, and really just living in Palestine in general. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing first (mostly likely of many) homes away from home. 

Next time I post I will probably be in Egypt, starting a new life there. Or perhaps if I am bored tomorrow waiting around in Eilat to get my visa for Cairo I will ramble on about something in more detail. Regardless, last post from here. I'm excited to start my new internship with refugees from Iraq and Sudan in Egypt, and hoping to soon gain more insight into if Sudan is the next step after Cairo. We shall see. I tried to find a good ending line that wasn't incredibly lame or trite, but couldn't, so I'm going to end with a quote that I am trying to live by: 
"Seek peace and pursue it" Psalm 34:14

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hitchhiking from Jericho--> Egypt--> Jerusalem

So I know it has been FOREVER since I last wrote, and for that I apologize. I apologize to myself 20-30 years down the line when the details of my life here have started to fade, and I apologize to those of you who have followed me thus far on my journey. I’ll start off with a political bit that I’ve been itching to write for a while and then go into my visa run trip to Egypt two weekends ago and other such interesting tidbits from my two months of silence.

Caught up in work and personal decisions, I have largely ignored my political motivations, thoughts and frustrations lately. However, the news has been buzzing lately with contradictions and controversies that I can no longer put off writing about.

Firstly, a bit about Land Day: March 30 marked the anniversary of the 1976 strikes and protests in Palestine and Israel that resulted in the death of 6 unarmed Palestinians/Arabs and the injury of many others. The protests were a response to the appropriation of a large amount of Palestinian-owned land for settlements and other purposes. This included land owned by Palestinian refugees that had fled, AS WELL AS Palestinians who had become actual citizens of Israel. Previous to this event, protests from Arab citizens of Israeli had been sporadic and limited due to the poverty, isolation and discrimination that they found in their new situation after the 1948 take-over. Additionally, they were under strict military rule and did not have the right to assemble. These are people that stayed in Israel, did not flee to the Palestinian territory, and were given citizenship in Israel (Sound familiar US?).

Every year Palestinians in Palestine and around the world—along with others that see injustice in the blatant theft of land by a country with a stronger military and powerful set of allies—gather to commemorate the lives lost that day, as well as to protest the injustice still rampant in the ongoing conflict over land and the right for a people to call their nation their own. This happened this past year, and people from all over the world protested. I’m happy to say I have a friend Patrick in Australia who took a passionate lead in organizing a demonstration there. And of course there were protests here, at the immense wall that Israel has built to separate the two worlds. Peaceful demonstrations were met with violence as usual, nothing surprising to report.

In addition to this taking of land from its own citizens, Israeli continues to steal (this is not an exaggeration) land from Palestinians’ territory in the West Bank. Settlements are indeed illegal according to International law, and Israel has been informed of this.  Yet, settlements continue to be ordered and built. I read just yesterday of an order to remove well over 1,000 olive trees in the territories. It was not clear what the motivation of this order was—settlements or pure cruelty, as these trees signify a livelihood and way of life for their Palestinian owners. Its actions such as these that cannot be ignored.
The Netanyahu administration’s blatant disregard for human rights is actually appalling. Case and point : " Israel has cut working relations with the UN Human Rights Council, officials say, after it decided to investigate Jewish settlements in the West Bank.” This was the headline of an article I posted on my facebook about a month ago. I suggest reading the article, as it shows just how blatant a disregard for human rights law Israel has (
Ok enough politics. The weekend before last I set off for my second visa run to Egypt. I left Nablus Wednesday afternoon at 2:30pm and had to be back Sunday night in order to teach on Monday. As buses run infrequently, I decided to take a shared taxi to Jericho and hitchhike my way down the Dead Sea to the border and beyond. Not long after being dropped off by the main road to the Dead Sea, I found myself standing in the middle of a dust storm. Small rocks and was felt like enough dirt to bury the empire state building was hurled at me by relentless high speed winds. Standing pathetically at the side of the road near a tied up camel and watching cars pass by in the midst of all this was proving an ineffective tactic in getting someone to stop.
Luckily, as seems to be the usual case, a friendly Palestinian across the street waved me into the lawn and garden set up. The three Palestinian workers gestured me to join them in their eclectic employee area for some food and drinks to wait out the storm. They asked me what I was doing, the usual, and made lighthearted comments about the storm in Arabic. I waited a solid 45 minutes to an hour before venturing across the street once again. After a little while I was picked up by an Israeli family man on his way home to the Ein Geddi Kibbutz. He was incredibly friendly and open-minded  about everything. I enjoyed chatting with him as he drove me down to Ein Geddi. The next person to pick me up was an older Israeli man who did not speak any English. It was a relatively silent ride which took the pressure off for random chatter trying to avoid politics. He tried talking to me in Hebrew, and from what little I did get he was telling me he would go a different route to take me a little further and drop me off under some lights, as it had started to get into the evening. It was very kind of him and he insisted I take some chocolate wafers with me as a parting gift. The next car to pick me up was another Israeli man, probably in his late 20’s, who also didn’t speak any English. I think he tried to play music I would know as he shuffled through his iphone. He dropped me off about 150-200 kilometers north of the Eilat, the city that borders Egypt.
 I was immediately picked up by the happiest truck driver on the planet. His name was Moshe and he spoke just enough English to communicate with awkward pauses and slips of Hebrew, which I of course did not understand at all. He was all smiles as he chatted and drove down the road. He was younger than your typical truck driver—my guess early thirties—delivering milk to hotels in Eilat. He called his friend who met us in Eilat. Moshe dropped off the truck and him and his friends took me all the way to the Taba border crossing, which is a few kilometers outside of Eilat. I felt bad as I only know how to say a simple “thank you” in Hebrew, which I said like five times repeatedly as I waved goodbye.
I had two options: keep on trucking through the border and take my chances on the Egyptian side, or try to crash a camping group on the beach outside the border. It was 10pm and I was feeling a pull to go on through. I walked through with ease, as only a few people were crossing at this time. Walking out onto Egyptian soil in the border town I remember from last time filled me with an immense feeling of freedom, and slight apprehension as I now had no place to stay and no idea how I was going to get a ride with little money and little traffic. I didn’t feel scared though, as I was filled with what I believe to be divine peace. A taxi driver spat out some high prices for me, and I just said I would walk. He looked at me like I was insane, and rightly so. After a minute contemplating how serious I was about this, he drove off. I kept walking towards to checkpoint that let out of town. I chatted with the guys at the checkpoint as they took a unnecessary amount of time to look at my stamp. They were nice though, and amused by my determination to keep pressing on by myself at night. (Side note: had I not felt at peace with the situation I would have most definitely figured something else out, but like I said, something just told me to keep walking).  
Then a small shuttle pulled up. The guy opened the door and inquired about my intentions with the same curiosity all the others had. These are the moments when speaking a conversational amount of Arabic comes in super handy. He told me he was going to Nuweiba to pick up people at a resort or hotel to bring them to the border. As he had no passengers with him, he offered to take me a far as Nuewiba for free. It was incredibly nice of him to do this, and I was sincerely grateful. He suggested I find a cheap place to spend the night in Nuweiba as it would be hard to find cars going to Dahab this late, and it wasn’t exactly a wise idea to wander around further this late at night (by the time we arrived in Nuweiba is was most likely past midnight). I again felt a pull to stay in Nuweiba so I did. I walked down the road to the camps from the main road and inquired where I could find the cheapest lodging. They directed me to “soft beach.” I think I was one of 3 people staying there besides those that worked there. The toilet had to be flushed with water and the room was really basic, but I could not have been more pleased. The man that ran it was A Sudanese man who had been living in Egypt for a long time and spoke incredible English. I chatted with him and some other guys at the fire for a while. I woke up and had a coffee and was greeted by my first Bedouin girl of the trip. The Bedouin girls roam the beach fronts selling homemade bracelets and jewelry. I chatted with her for a while a bought a bracelet for one of my Palestinian friends who had helped me cut my hair. Lodging for the night plus the coffee cost be a total of 20 Egyptian pounds, which is about 3 dollars and fifty cents. I could not have been happier with the situation. I offered the owner some of my spices I had brought as a gift to the person I was couchsurfing with in Dahab and he in turn kindly offered to take me to the best place to find cars going to Dahab.
The first person to stop was a taxi driver who offered to take me down the road further for free when he realized I was serious about not spending money on a taxi for the hour long trip to Dahab. He was literally the only person who turned out not to be nice, but he just let me out 10 minutes down the road and that was that. I wasn’t bothered by his misunderstanding of my profession as I’m quite used to that by now and know how to insist in Arabic that I am merely an English teacher. Done and done. The next car to stop was a couple of Bedoiun men. The owner of the place in Nuweiba had advised me to only ride with Bedouins, as they are friendly and trustworthy. It was only later that I remembered that whole kidnapping thing that happened a few months ago—although to be fair, its always a small group that misrepresents the majority in the media. When they offered to take me to Dahab I verified that they were not a taxi, and their reponse was “No! We’re Bedouins!!!” It made me smile.
They dropped me off at the place I was staying: a hotel run by a fellow couchsurfer who offers to the ouchsurfers stay there for free. We ended up having some miscommunications and not getting along, but that didn’t become problematic until around the time I left, and at first we seemed destined to be friends. Funny how things work.
Anyway I met up with a Canadian couchsurfer who had stayed with me in my flat in Nablus, and we had got along really well. We chilled on the seaside drinking chai tea and catching up. It was SO nice to not have a care in the world and enjoy her company. She will inshallah (God willing) be in Cairo teaching when I move there in LESS THAN A MONTH, which is amazing as we have become quite good friends, and I am so looking forward to hanging out with her more.
She left the next morning and I spent the entire day at the beach taking in the sun, gazing at the mountains, and staring in disbelief at the many shades of blue boasted by the sea. I put on sunscreen but my skin, which had barely seen the sun in months, was red by the end of the day regardless. The next morning I did some shopping for shirts that are lightweight but cover my arms so that I can survive this last month of Nablusi dress despite the increasing heat. One of Kira’s friend’s friend helped me to the checkpoint from which I could hitchhike as I had missed the last bus to the border. They instructed the people at the checkpoint to find me a ride to the border. I ended up with a group of really fun and nice musicians who had played in Dahab and were on their way back to Cairo. I really enjoyed talking to them, especially one who teaches music and theater in Cairo, sharing my passion for the dramatics and who also had a very interesting perspective on politics. From where they dropped me off I ended up having to take a taxi, ironically with the same driver who had taken Lindsey, Amy and I to Dahab the first time I did a visa run. It was an expense, but I had saved so much that weekend from hitchhiking (half the time unintentionally) and staying for free.
I spent a long time at the border being grilled with ridiculous questions about my work and personal life in Nablus and waiting for who-knows-what to be decided about my liability to the “state” of Israel (if Palestine does not have the right to statehood, I don't see why Israel should). Apparently which bar or club I go to on my weekend nights potentially poses a serious security threat. After a few hours I was granted a 2 month visa, which is all I needed to cover my remaining time teaching here. I was again stranded at the border at night, and decided to go around the campsites at the beach to see if there was an extra tent lying around. It seemed like there were very few people there, although I realized the next day I only needed to go down further. However, I was quite lucky to run into a few men with their kids, there to camp for the weekend. They generously offered to let me stay with their families and even insisted I eat dinner with them. They were so incredibly nice and hospitable and the 12-yr-old boy ran around collecting pieces of coral for me after I had shown slight interest in one I had picked up. Now I have a huge bag full, so if anyone wants some coral, please let me know.
They took me to the bus station the next morning, again really nice. Once there I was informed that the first bus to Jerusalem that was not completely booked was not until 5 pm—it was about 9am in the morning. I sighed and set out walking to the outskirts of the city to once again stick out my thumb and face constant rejection in the hopes of being picked up by a friendly face. The first person to pick me up took me about an hour North after which I was picked up by a first generation in the region couple (one from London and the other white Zambia) who immediately lectured me on the dangers of hitchhiking, which was really quite sweet. I appreciated them taking pity on me and we ended up having a nice conversation. They were really quiet open-minded about the situation. They took me all the way to Jerusalem which was literally a God-send. Once in Jerusalem it was easy to catch a couple buses back to my home in Nablus.
I had an amazing experience that I would never take back, and while I don’t intend to hitchhike unless its necessary or 10 times more convenient like it was this past time, I do not at all regret my decisions thus far. I am thankful for the lessons learned and the people met who have inevitably touched my life in some way or another.
As my post is already quite long, I think I will leave it at that for tonight and spend some time thinking about what I need to share about my time in Nablus that I have no already shared.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Come to the home?

My Balata students never cease to amaze me. 

This semester has been off to a rough start in Balata, as only 5 or 6 students from last semester are coming, and about 20-25 new students are showing up to the first class. After registering the students, and permanently kicking out the trouble makers, I now have a pretty regular 20 students with a few extra that come irregularly. I did not like these new kids at first. I wasn’t used to their rambunctiousness and they weren’t used to my style of teaching. After some tough love and a very stern Miss Casey at the beginning, they have begun to understand my rules, and I have begun to become my goofy and lighthearted self in front of the white board. I enjoy them now, all their quirks and attitudes taken into account.
The second class had all my favorites returning, although without the consistency that is needed for a good class. And on top of that, they have been speaking in Arabic deliberately and without regret. I love them to death and I make it a point to be lenient on them, but at the same time, I think some tough love may be in order.

But as I said, my Balata students never cease to amaze me. Heavy rainfall today didn’t bode well for students showing up to school. For some reason rain is taken very seriously here and people, especially children, are hesitant to leave their homes. I’ve noticed however, that a fair number of my Balata kids come on rainy days. My first class only had about 9 students, but those 9 came in soaking wet and eager to learn. It was definitely the most fun I’ve had with them thus far this semester.  One of the girls I couldn’t stand a month ago is now one of my best students, and I love having her in class. Then, in my second class only three girls showed up, two of which were already at the center because their father works there. The other one told me how her parents had had a disagreement over whether or not she could come. Needless to say, she was allowed. They talked in Arabic a lot, but instead of ending the class I decided to try something different. I put on the Happy Days Theme Song and The Lion Sleeps Tonight (two songs they learned last semester and loved) and we all started dancing to them, Middle Eastern style. If you know the songs and anything about Middle Eastern dancing, you know they don’t exactly blend together, but graceful movements and harmony weren’t the focus: laughter was. We all sang at the top of our lungs, and since it was girls only, danced without shame or embarrassment (not allowed to dance in front of men).

However, the best part of the day was being invited to two of my students’ home. Mohamed and Salsabeel are both in my first class and have been coming since last semester. They’re both really bright, and as I found out today, twins in 5th grade. After class ended they approached me and asked me to come to their house. Last semester I was likely to try and excuse myself, but my immediate reaction this time was “when?” I told them I had to teach another class but I could come after. So after my last class was finished, I walked outside and saw Mohamed standing there, umbrella in hand. He led me back to his house, offering me his umbrella, which I politely declined as he definitely needed it. I was welcomed warmly my Mohamed and Salsabeel’s mother and two younger sisters. She sat me down next to their gas heater, chatted for a minute or two, and then told me she would bring me dinner. I then met Mohamed and Salsabeel’s older sister who is 19 and a student at one of the local universities. Apparently they have another sister who is my age but she is married and therefore doesn’t live with them. Mohamed’s mom brought out avocado, bread, yogurt and grape leaves stuffed with rice. The food was delicious and was followed by tea and Arabic coffee (which is the reason I am writing this as it is midnight and I’m not at all ready to sleep). They put on the 19 year-old’s engagement party video and we chatted in Arabic about the kids, education, me, them and other little things. The kids showed off their English reading and speaking skills, which made me realize they’re definitely ready to move up to the higher class—it was the perfect opportunity to tell them, especially as Mohamed brought it up. I got to meet their father as well before I headed out into the rain. I have an open invitation to return and was invited to the sister’s wedding in September (should I be here).

Mohamed on left

Salsabeel on right

They’re hospitality and kindness doesn’t surprise me, as that is a well-known trait of Palestinian families, but it does amaze me--every time. I wish everyone could come to Palestine and experience the warmth of being welcomed into a Palestinian household. It truly is quite amazing.

Right after that I got into a service (cab with a specified route and standard low fee) with perhaps one of the bubbliest drivers I have ever run into. He immediately greeted me with a resounding Kifik (how are you) several times and asked me a bunch of questions. Then he went on to say he only knows a few words in English including the infamous "what's your name" (get that a lot) and "how many books are on the table?" He then asked me what "how many books are on the table?" was in Arabic. I translated and he giggled a bunch and said something I didn't understand. The he drove me down past the drop-off point that I paid for so that I wouldn't have to walk far in the rain. It was really very nice of him. I was really glad when someone else got in the cab needing to go further down the road. Palestinian hospitality: love it. 

Lately I’ve been reflecting on all the many experiences I’ve had since coming to the West Bank four months ago. It’s truly hard to believe I have only been here four months, as it seems like I’ve been here for over a year. Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve packed in so many challenges and life experiences into such a short amount of time. I’ve been tried and changed in just about every aspect of my life--in some way or another; and despite the harsh realities I’ve had to face and the hurdles I’ve had to jump, I can’t think of a single notable regret.  I don’t think I could be more satisfied with my overall experience in terms of personal growth, knowledge gained and friendships formed. Oh and did I mention? I love my kids!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lice or Love

Perhaps part of the reason I’m writing now is from my lack of motivation to do lesson plans. After drawing a water nymph and part of a centaur appropriate enough for first graders in Palestine as a favor for my roommate, I’m not exactly in work mode. Reflecting seems much more appropriate.
It wasn’t the best of days for several reasons; although I really cannot complain, nor am I going to. I do, however, want to focus on an event that has resulted in a disturbing, yet necessary self-realization.
I headed to Balata right after school as usual. I was already feeling a bit drained and very contemplative, both things leading to a degradation of focus. Before I even started the first class, I had to kick two kids out for the day for punching each other. This proved to be even more of a hassle than I could have imagined as they both came back into the room multiple times, and I thus had to kick them out multiple times. On top of that, I had a couple groups of new kids walking in, trying to join the class, which I really can’t allow--or I will lose even more control over an already overcrowded class.
Then the door opened again. I nearly made a tasteless face of annoyance, bracing myself for either new students or the ones I had kicked out so many times before. I automatically made the “close the door” gesture, when I saw a familiar face pop her head in. Three more of those faces popped in, saw the gesture, and turned to leave until I quickly changed my demeanor and told them to join. I braced myself for a different reason this time, and rightly so, as I was met immediately with shouts of protest from the other students. I explained with aggravated gestures that the girls that had just walked in were not new because they came last semester. The protestations settled, but the looks of disgust remained. The girls sat down and immediately all the other students near them flinched and moved closer to the students on their other sides. The others couldn’t wait to tell on these girls for any offense possible, however small, hoping I would kick them out. Needless to say, they weren’t focusing on the lesson.
So who had walked in? Who were these children, that their very presence should warrant such disgust? Ghaliya, Celcity, Sally, and a youngin I hadn’t seen before. All four of them are sisters from a family of 11 (soon to be 12) kids; I believe one of the poorest families in Balata and thus most likely all of Nablus. I’d gander they could be one of the poorest families in Palestine, but I really have no proof at all to back that statement. They all live in an incredibly small apartment with their mother who can’t even keep track of them all—basically they’re street children.
I hadn’t seen them in months—they don’t come to class very often, and I’m sure they aren’t going to school as regularly as they should either. I know the organization I work for gives them food sometimes, but it’s evident that they’re not healthy. They looked noticeably dirtier today too, which says a lot as they haven’t ever looked clean when I’ve seen them. They all had various cuts and scrapes on their faces, indicative of life on the streets, and their hair was matted with all kinds of dirt, and most likely lice. They were somewhat properly dressed--thank God--since its been cold the past few days, but it wasn’t enough to be excited about. They were really quite subdued in class today, which was great as I didn’t have to kick them out; but the other children’s attitudes and lack of focus were enough to make me lose it.
When we went to the back to do the hokey pokey and head, shoulders, knees and toes, nobody would stand near them. Even I tried my best to keep my hair out of contact, as I was reluctant to get lice again—an attitude which made me realize I was no better than the students making faces.
After class had finished and I had spent 5 minutes trying to clear the classroom, I approached these girls last. Of course they weren’t leaving easily, but I had another class to teach and needed to set up. So I told them to come again tomorrow and the next day, and they seemed pleased with that. Then Sally came up and gave me a huge hug. For a second I cringed, thinking of the hassle of washing all my bedding and having to pick bugs out of my hair. Then I was overcome by shame for thinking of my own comfort first when I was presented with the opportunity to show love to a child who I’m sure rarely, if ever, feels it. I moved my arms all the way around her and lifted her off the ground a little. Her sister Ghaliya came up a few moments later, and again I swallowed my hesitancy and gave her a hug. I’m tearing up as I write, thinking firstly about those girls and the unjust cards they have been dealt, and secondly of how pathetic it was for me to put my lice concerns and past struggles with germaphobia before these kids. Even though I opened my arms up in the end, the fact that my mind and not my heart played first string makes me feel sick inside.  It was an important realization for me: that I had given my mind too much power, and had benched my heart—in all areas of life. My walk home gave me the space to think about how closed I had been to people in general lately in order to protect myself. And while, I know that for most things, a balance of love and logic is needed, I genuinely hope and pray that I never again second guess a moment to open my arms to a child, regardless of what else I’ll be hugging. 

As embarrassing as it is for me to admit all this, I really wanted to share about these girls without painting myself as their saintly teacher to the rescue. I also really needed to write this all down into a coherent train of thoughts, and this blog has pretty much become my journal for the time being. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A New Hope

(if you get the reference in my title, I love you)

No need to brace yourselves; this post is not nearly as long as the previous one. I have officially been back at school teaching for 2 weeks now. I’m starting to get back into the swing of things, adjusting to my previous schedule which allotted little to no time for a social life outside of school. Luckily, I have some incredible co-workers which make the day to day pleasant and the weekends oftentimes extraordinary (even when we stay in). Now, as I mentioned I’m sure many times in my previous posts, all but one of my best friends here in the program (cheers Ella) have moved on from TFP. Three or four weeks ago that idea made the prospect of this semester seem rather dark and (pathetically) hopeless. I suppose I wasn’t factoring in the potential of the new teachers, and I’m happy to say that they all have been wonderful and I am enjoying getting to know all three of them. I have to say, my current flat mates and I have been getting on really nicely, and I enjoy living with them. Of course it goes without saying that the dynamic is entirely different, and I will continue to miss my sisters even after I leave Palestine.

Which brings me to the main motivation for writing this update: as you may or may not know from my blog and/or any conversation you may have had with me in the past month during which Im sure I mentioned Egypt at least once or twice, I love Egypt and got the idea in my head (and heart) that I want to go back. So I began looking for summer internships in Cairo, just to see what I could find. When googling “refugee rights cairo internship” one of the first things that pops up is the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo.  After reading up on the position, I began working on the application right away. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent so much time on or asked for so many opinions about a cover letter before. I also completely revamped my resume and debated for a while on which writing sample to submit. 10 hours over 4 days or so later and I submitted the application. I interviewed and just today sent my email of commitment. It’s not paid, but I’ve already had two families express a desire to host me (exhibit A why I love Egyptians), and I have some money saved up from my previous work at About Faces, so I’m not worried. Then of course there’s the bonus that I already have a great group of friends there that I am excited to spend more time with. So needless to say, so long as something completely out of my control messes everything up, I’ll be shipping off to Cairo from September to January and perhaps beyond. Oh I suppose I should say what I would be doing, as that is my primary motivation for taking a leap of faith. I would be interviewing refugees and preparing written submissions to international organizations (UNHCR, IOM) regarding the refugees’ need to be resettled out of Egypt. The majority of the refugees are Sudanese, with some Iraqi and Eritreans in the mix as well. I’m really so incredibly excited for the opportunity, and am hoping for enough political stability in the region to make it there this summer or fall.

 Now I just need to find something for the summer which allows me to break even. In all likelihood, that will be the summer camp at the school I teach part-time at currently. Unless anyone knows of something elsewhere in Palestine or Egypt?

Regardless, as the title states, this internship has given me an incredible feeling of hope, peace and relief that I had been lacking previously. That paired with and prompted by a renewed motivation to focus more on my spiritual life (which I had left to the side for too long) has left me feeling rejuvenated and motivated to give the next few months my all—go out with a bang and all that jazz.

Also, on a side note, I have started getting into the Wire, a television serious which apparently put Baltimore on the map in the international community. Bmo certainly doesn’t look her best, but they do say the camera adds 10 pounds, right? Or does that only apply to people?