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.