La Republica Dominicana

The day I landed in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, David, his uncle, and his aunt picked me up from the airport and we went directly East to Bayahibe (as we made our way to Punta Cana to visit Deborah). I would return to Santo Domingo later. My first impression: breathtaking. I had come from the winter of Washington, DC to the tropics. And the first thing we did was have a fish dinner IN the Caribbean Ocean (that’s right, we moved our table and chairs into the water), watched people dance bachata, and swam. We took a walk and found this graveyard on the beach.

The next day we made our way closer to Punta Cana, heading North and stopping at Higuey along the way. A major city on the Eastern side of the island (the capital of the Altagracia province), and home of the Basilica of Our Lady of Altagracia, pictured above.

As we continued northward from Higuey to Punta Cana we found wide open spaces, lots of fields and smaller towns. We stopped by this fruteria, beautiful in its glorious fruit display. Across the street I found the sculpture below: baseball, the national sport of the Dominican Republic. We wanted to see a baseball game while I was there (being a major Phillies fan myself), but we did not have the chance. The batter and catcher (pictured below) were set up several feet from the pitcher.

I had never met Deborah before, and was very excited to get to know her. When we reached Punta Cana, a resort town on the Eastern edge of the island, she had been out on a dive. Deborah was planting coral in the sea and monitoring the growing process. I may have this completely wrong, but that is how I understood it. I had never been in a resort before, but since she volunteered there we were given access to the resort as well!

Resorts are not my thing. Neither were they David or Deborah’s. But why not enjoy it if we have the access? We sat on the beach playing dominoes, went out with some of Deborah’s co-workers. My favorite part, however, was swimming in the ojas indigenas– very blue water holes.

After a few days in Punta Cana we took Deborah back to Monte Plata with us. Monte Plata is basically in the center of the country; David and Deborah lived there. They had amazing friends in the city with whom we spent a lot of time (family photos further down). At some point David needed to go to Santo Domingo for some work, so Deborah and I went along. Santo Domingo turned into a place where I reflected a lot. For me, a major part of the travel experience is to connect with the history of the country and understand it. Of course as a person from the Western Hemisphere, this place carries a lot of meaning for me. Above is a plaza where I sat for a while, staring at the statue of Christopher Columbus in the center. This was the place that it all began: where the Spanish (and by extension the Europeans) landed and never left. I needed to reflect on that– and I did. I glanced at the shoreline and then darted my eyes back to the plaza. I grieved and got lost in thought at this physical place and the repercussions of that landing some six hundred years back when Europeans became aware of the presence of the Americas. It held a lot of meaning for me as a Palestinian, an indigenous person who was also displaced by colonizers from the sea, and whose entire society was erased and replaced with another society. All of this as I sat in this plaza thinking about this country and its past. Santo Domingo was important to me on another level as well.

Architecture like this in the Caribbean, or in Latin America in general, reminds me of the smallness of the world. Every time. The architecture above is a typical example of evolved Arabic architecture, which today is known as Spanish architecture. Just before Ferdinand and Isabella funded the voyage of Columbus, the Spanish had conquered Spain (mostly the South) from the Arab empire and purged the Muslims. This was the time they set up the inquisitions. In fact without the wealth and navigation knowledge of the libraries of Andalusia, the voyage itself could not have been possible. In the Spanish colonies (even in the American South and southern Midwest) there is a distinct type of architecture. It is all Arabic-inspired architecture that the Spaniards brought with them from Andalusia. The world was once a much more porous space. Nationalism, a very modern concept, created the rigid border divisions that we have today. We believe that communication is now expanding and globalization is making the world smaller. In fact, we divided ourselves and are just now slowly moving away from the rigid divisions we only created recently.

The Dominican Republic is a very Catholic country. However, as in other Caribbean cultures, there is a fair amount West African religious influence. As we walked around the city we discovered this cathedral that also had a beautiful courtyard; and in the middle this statue. An anti-abortion sculpture, the inscription translates into:

“Human life is sacred and not to be violated, in every moment of its existence, including its initial moments that precede birth…” Joh Paul II.

As Deborah and I walked through Santo Domingo, we found a small shop where this man was rolling cigars. They’re not Cuban, but it was cool to watch. He welcomed us in and showed us how he rolled the cigar, then asked me to photograph him. I loved the way the colors came out in the photo.

My friends and amazing hosts, David and Deborah. On a trip that David made to DC for a few interviews, he stayed with us and invited me to visit them in the DR. Naturally I booked my ticket as he was inviting me! I am so glad that I did. This was the first time that I met his partner Deborah. This photo was taken just outside of their house in Monte Plata. To the left, not pictured, was their house, and specifically the window to the room I stayed in. Every morning the water truck drove past, selling potable water. Being from the Arab World myself I was used to obnoxious noises coming from gasoline, water, and vegetable sellers butt early in the morning. But the water truck in the Dominican Republic was different. This truck played a salsa song about agua. It was a fun song to wake up to, and unlike when the trucks that sell things in the Middle East come around, I was not unhappy to be awakened at 5am! I would even sing the agua song throughout the day.

This amazing girl, whose name I cannot remember right now, became Deborah and my instant friend. We met her at the clinic that David worked at when we accompanied him there for the day.We played with her for a bit, and then her mom took her away to where she needed to be. Moments later she strolled back to us by herself. She left her mom, who later showed up frantically looking for her, and walked around searching, until she found us. Her mom let her stay with us until we left. She was an endless source of entertainment, as most two-year-olds tend to be. She sang us songs and demanded that we applaud: UN APPLAUSO! Here Deborah showed off her glasses to our little friend, who also wore glasses.

The next few photos are family photos of Deborah and David, their friends Matilde and Moreno, and their children.

Finally, at the very end I returned to Santo Domingo. The city, and in fact the Dominican Republic, saw me off well. Here we randomly found a party at the central square. Live salsa music, hundreds of people dancing, fruit vendors. It was the perfect end to the vacation, topped off only by a bitter-sweet goodbye over coffee the next morning.

Qalandiya Checkpoint

As I said, the Qalandiya checkpoint deserves its own very special post. It is a special kind of oppression that has been mastered by Israel, and it really deserves some praise.

I spoke briefly before about the mechanisms of separation between Palestinians that Israel has devised. Palestinians in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, and in Israel proper all have different forms of identification. People in the West Bank have West Bank or “green” IDs. They can travel in areas “A” and “B” of the West Bank (Palestinian Authority controlled) but not in Areas “C” (Israeli controlled). For example, yesterday we had to cross a checkpoint to go to the Dead Sea, which is in area “C”. We were allowed in because two of us were carrying US passports, but they could have just as well turned us away. Then we saw signs for a fresh water spring and did not get as lucky at that checkpoint. We were turned away because two of us were carrying “green” IDs.

Palestinians in Jerusalem carry Jerusalem or “blue” IDs. They can travel in all of those territories. However, if it is proven that they live anywhere other than in Jerusalem, they get their Jerusalem IDs taken away and the state replaces them with “West Bank” IDs, effectively barring them from entering Jerusalem or “Israel proper”. The reason for this is the Judiaization of Jerusalem, which I wrote about before. By various means Israel is trying to decrease the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem and transferring them (yes, ethnic transfer) into the West Bank. By emptying Jerusalem Israel can unilaterally make it the capital of Israel and ban even more Palestinians from entering Jerusalem.

Palestinians who live in Israel proper carry Israeli citizenship but are not treated equal to Jewish Israeli citizens. After all, it is the Jewish State and if you’re not Jewish in a Jewish State you are not equal. There are few borders through which Palestinian citizens of Israel can cross into the West Bank where other Palestinians who share a culture and an identity are a majority. This matrix of separation and control has effectively created almost three divided Palestinian populations within the same territory, and that is not to mention the refugee status Palestinians of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who cannot even dream of seeing Palestine. Jews in this country, however, all have Israeli citizenship, and they can come and go anywhere. No separation mechanisms are set up for them. They have separate roads to drive on and different color license plates so they can drive on them.

Qalandiya is the main and permanent checkpoint that separates Palestinians in the West Bank from Jerusalem and from Palestinians outside of the West Bank. Qalandiya is a monstrosity.

If you have a visitor’s visa or a Jerusalem ID or a permit to visit Jerusalem in your West Bank ID you can go to the bus station in Ramallah and catch a bus to the Qalandiya checkpoint. Then you have to get out of the bus and walk through the checkpoint. (Unless you have a foreign passport with a visa. In that case you can stay on the bus and the soldiers will check your passport on the bus. I always encourage foreign passport holders to walk through the checkpoint at least once). Walking through the checkpoint the separation and the dehumanization continues.

The checkpoint is a giant momentary prison. Meaning that in the few minutes while one walks through she is in an animal cage. To get to the soldiers there are a sequence of barriers and corridors. People have to wait at the whim of the soldiers. They usually allow three people in at a time, and between those three people they typically allow several minutes to pass before they let anyone in. Meanwhile Palestinians are left waiting in multiple lines in cages–literally long cages in corridors. Not only are there wire fences on your left and your right as you wait, basically the exact width of a human being. But the fenced wire also covers the top of the corridor. Literally, Palestinians pass through cages to get to Jerusalem.

Once as I crossed Qalandiya I heard a conversation between two men who did not knwo each other. Above the cage we stood in, a bird was flying. One man said to the other, “Look at that. Look at the freedom that bird has. It has more freedom than we do.” And the other man replied, “You’re wrong. That bird is also carrying Palestinian ID.”

The Apartheid Wall just outside the Qalandiya Checkpoint.

Reads "Long Live a Free Palestine"

Haifa, My City

This past weekend Haneen and I headed up to Haifa for the weekend. We caught a ride with some friends we made in Ramallah. As soon as we entered the ’48 territories (Israel) I told Haneen to look closely under any forests she sees to find destroyed homes that mark the presence of a destroyed Palestinian village. And before I even finished my sentence a forest appeared on our right and sure enough destroyed Palestinian homes lay at the bottom of the trees. These forests were planted by the Jewish National Fund through the 1950s after the Palestinians were ethnically cleaned and their villages destroyed to erase any trace of their existence. So in reality this was not a ecological contribution but the erasing of a people. The absurdity is how can Israelis see these houses today and continue to believe that no one lived and built this land before they dispossessed them?

When we got to Haifa we asked to be dropped off at a street near the Baha’i Temple, which is full of Arab owned restaurants and cafes. We sat down for coffee and chatted with the wait staff until a friend I made in Haifa a few weeks before came by to pick us up. He was taking us to the home of another friend I made in Haifa whose family he wanted us to meet. The father prepared an AMAZING meal and while I got into a long and heavy political and literary (Palestinian) conversation with the parents, Haneen and our five new friends sat outside talking, smoking argileh, and drinking beer. Haneen and I both felt like we had known this family for years. It was a strange yet welcome feeling and I really felt at home.

We stayed with them in Hallisa– my grandparents’ neighborhood in Haifa. Before 1948 when my grandparents lived there, Hallisa was a middle class neighborhood. Today it is a predominantly Arab neighborhood, it is poor and run down. Our friends called it a slum and it is burdened by drugs and violence. Walking to the house we were staying in we saw a car with someone’s name on it, and our friends told us that this car belonged to a young man who was shot dead outside of his home. It is rough here and the residents were facing eviction by the Israeli government a few months ago.

The following day Haneen and I woke up early to go to the beach where we spent half of our day. At the beach I sat in the water and became lost in my thoughts, particularly thinking about the dispossession of my people from this land and my grandmother’s stories about the beach and about the view of the ocean from their house. But every time I got lost in my thoughts I would be awakened suddenly by my surroundings and the realization that this is not the same Haifa. Here the Palestinians who remained are living in slums at worst and at best attending university where they are forced to study in Hebrew– not their native tongue. This while they are indigenous to this land and in a few year’s time will make up the majority of people living in this country again.

And then there was the bus incident. On our way back from the beach to Hallisa we took the bus that would drop us off walking distance from our destination. I spoke to the driver in English because he was obviously not Arab and I cannot speak Hebrew. I told him we would like to be dropped off at Hallisa. “Hallisa you say? Not Khallisa? So you are Aravim (Arab)?” Yes, we are Arab. “And you don’t speak Hebrew?” No, we only speak Arabic and English. “And you go to Hallisa of course you are Arab. Only Arabs go to Hallisa.” OK– so can you tell us when we get there? “Yes, I will tell you when I get there.”

The boys in the back of the bus got very rowdy and loud and began bothering the passengers. The same bus driver assumed that they were Arab and in a derogatory tone he started to yell at them: “Ahmad! Ahmad!” Then broken Arabic to tell them to shut up. Haneen and I were confused because the boys were Jewish, not Arab, but it was assumption he made and refused to back down. Another Jewish passenger, male in his early forties, came to the front of the bus and told the bus driver to do something about those kids. The bus driver said, again in broken Arabic, “Can you speak Arabic? Tell them in Arabic, Ahmad! Shut up!” The passenger argued with the bus driver that the kids were Jewish, not Arab, but the bus driver insisted that they were Arab. Haneen leaned over and told me that for the first time in her life she believed that the way she feels must come close to being Black on a White bus.

After the loud kids in the back got off the bus, the driver told us he was pulling up to Hallisa. He went off route (we know this because the women on the bus started to yell at him about making a wrong turn) and told us that if we got off here we are to make a quick left and quick right and we would find ourselves in Hallisa. When we got off the bus, we asked and found out that we were lied to but the bus actually goes all the way to Hallisa. It was an odd type of racism that inspired that bus driver to kick us off the bus, but the Palestinians there understood. They were appalled by the story, but they understood the situation nonetheless. The responses we heard were, “Yes, that is how it is here”. We got on another bus (incidentally the same bus route) with an Arab driver and he got us to Hallisa.

When we got to Hallisa we washed up, ate, and went back out to explore the neighborhood and see my grandparents’ house. On a hilltop in Hallisa is a mosque called the Mosque of Hajj Abdullah. Hajj Abdullah was my grandmother’s uncle– he built the mosque and it is one of the few mosques in the ’48 territories that remains a mosque. Most were either destroyed or turned into bars or animal barns. Directly behind the mosque is the house my grandmother used to live in with her family. In 1948 she would have been 14 years old. Her sister and my grandfather’s brother were married, and my great grandfather rented a room in their building and the first floor as a grocery store from them. My grandfather was 18 in 1948. My grandmother and grandfather would not get married until my grandmother was 19 and they were refugees in Damascus. I will write more about them in a later post.

That day as we were going to see the old house on the hilltop in the Hallisa neighborhood in Haifa we met two of my distant cousins: one from my grandmother’s family and one from my grandfather’s. This is the Diaspora, and I have experienced it many ways before but this face of the Diaspora I have just experienced for the first time. The Diaspora is young enough for you to see your family, but old enough for you not to know them. Some photos below:

Reads “Masjid al-Hajj Abdullah”.

View from my grandparents’ house– just like my grandmother used to tell me

Walking up to search for the house

My grandparents’ home before the ethnic cleansing. The ground floor was a corner store.

View of old ground level grocery store from an opening in the outside wall.

Dome of my great great uncle’s mosque.

Ramallah

Ramallah is nothing like I expected it to be. I immediately had mixed feelings about it, and talking to folks just reinforced those feelings. On the one hand, Ramallah is one of those Palestinian cities into which the Israel Defense Forced no longer enter. The Palestinian flag is everywhere here– as opposed to Jerusalem which is being annexed by Israel and the Israeli falg is everywhere. (Not that flags really mean anything to me as someone who does not like nationalism, just that its an indicator of the place’s politics, especially here). Ramallah is cosmopolitan and has a little bit of everything. You’ve got your music and arts scene, you’ve got your depoliticized and your political scenes, religious and secular, etc. There are internationals everywhere who mis with the locals, and sitting at a bar after hours is the best place to meet young, active people. The BDS and one-state movement is alive here, and (unfortunately) so is the two-state movement. Its a beautiful city to live and work.

However I got the feeling that you could easily forget the occupation living in Ramallah. Not completely of course. People here cannot go to Jerusalem, for example, and this is something that they cannot forget. They are also forced to purchase most of their products from Israel, they still stop at checkpoints between cities. I remember my friend said, “They are making our prison bigger and prettier, but its still a prison”. It seems Israel is punishing Gaza, and in the same way “rewarding” the West Bank, almost to create examples out of either population for the other. Gaza, look how we are easing restrictions in the West Bank. West Bank, watch how we strangle Gaza.

The problem is that the Palestinian Authority is part of this system. I believe that Salaam Fayyad is unilaterally creating the Palestinian state in the West Bank. This is a serious problem because to get the state the Palestinians will have to give up everything else– the Right of Return for refugees, Jerusalem, and so on. Also, what exactly is the state going to look like? Bantustans and cantons carved into 22% of Historic Palestine? What will connect Gaza and the West Bank? How will the economy of a Palestinian State sruvive in the shadow of Israel? What will happen to the Palestinian citizens of Israel? What will happen to the refugee? Don’t these populations have a say? On and on and on.

Nonetheless, I have included photos of Ramallah. Its a wonderul place. Next I’ll write about Jerusalem and Bethlehem.Old house with a beautiful tree outside. I see two old ladies and two old men chillin outside this house all the time.

Plant nursery next to my job. Part of my daily walk to work.

Abandoned old house. I think it is being renovated.

Old Ramallah house. This one had a boarded up out house!

Hadil and me at al-Kamandjati.

Al-Kamandjati music center. This was an old Ramallah house that was transformed to the center.

Old Ramallah house.

Mosque with a mural of the Dome of the Rock.

Grandfather & Grandson.

Church.

Umm el Zeinat and Haifa

As planned, yesterday we returned to my ancestral village, Umm el Zeinat, near Daliyat al Karmel, on Mount Karmel, in Haifa.  Of course when I say “return” this is much greater than my brother and me.  This return is about my family, about an oppression that they, along with all the people of Umm el Zeinat and the people of the other 500 destroyed villages of Palestine had to endure.  What we undertook is the greatest act of resistance against the Zionist movement.  Three generations later we remember, and though not under our own conditions, we return to a village from which they hoped to erase our traces.

On our way into the village we met a man and his wife, picking cactus fruit with their four children.  My uncle pulled over to ask then how well they knew the village.  As it turns out they are from the Fahmawi family of Umm el Zeinat.  We told them we were returning and they offered to guide us through the village.  Of course all that is left of the village is rubble from demolished homes, overgrown shrubbery, and trees– both indigenous and those planted by the state in an attempt to make it seem as though no one ever lived there.

I discovered that the state of Israel grants permission to Jewish families every year to enter my village and harvest the olives.  The family that guided us through the village still lives off of the good of our land, however.  They have been trimming the fruit trees for years and eating pomagranates, cactus fruit, and they sneek around at night to harvest the olives, which they press for oil and pickle to eat.  They cannot harvest the olives in the day because it is illegal– the State sanctions the harvest for Jews only.  I was so happy to meet this couple and their kids, knowing that our people are still taking care of the land.  We picked and ate pomegranates, they gave us a bucket full of cactus fruit that they cleaned out, we drank well water from the only remaining working well in the village, we visited the grave yard where I read the fatiha for my great grandparents, and we explored some caves where its assumed that the fighters used to hide and store their weapons in 1936 and 1948.

I have never felt a more bizarre sensation for intense saddness and simultaneous ecstacy.  I was a returnee, and having eaten from the fruits of the land felt like I was taking back what was mine.  I also completely put down my guard and found myself laughing while tears rolled down my eyes.  I always said I would return to Umm el Zeinat and rebuild, but now I know I will.  I’ve had lots of thoughts that I need to comb through and understand.  I’ve been preparing for this moment my entire life, and now that its happened I cannot wait for it to happen again.  My village is there and it still exists, with a few folks left behind to take care of it until we can all reunite.

In the grand Zionist plan my brother and I were supposed to have forgotten this land.  We should not have known that we are from Umm el Zeinat, we should not have stepped foot on it ever again.  But in some small way we– and millions like us– have punched a very large hole in the Zionist plan.  I had a wonderful conversation today about this with Amin Mohammad Ali, shop owner and brother of Palestinian poet Taha Mohammad Ali in Nazareth.  I will write more about this conversation, but I realized that although I am in the “green line” and what is known as Israel proper, the Palestinians here are me and I am the Palestinians here.

Palestine, I’ve Returned

I have been waiting for this day my entire life, but have been afraid to go through with it.  I have to say it was not so bad crossing the border… we planned for the worst.  We got interrogated of course, individually, and then were made to wait without our passports for over 3 hours without word of what we were waiting for.  But we decided not to let it phase us, and if it did, not to show it.  Finally we pulled out a deck of cards and played some rounds of 3-person hand rummy as multiple groups of visitors came in and cleared the border, and finally we were given our passports and told we were free to enter– and thats with Lebanese and Syrian stamps in our passports!  I stepped on the soil of my homeland for the first time.

Crossing the Sheikh Hussein Bridge from the North of Jordan put us right into Nazareth– where my grandfather’s sister lives.  She and her husband have visited us in the States, but of her 6 children I have only briefly met two in the past.  I called her son late last night and told him three of his relatives would be coming, and without hestitation he said he’d be at the bridge to pick me up.  Not thinking we’d be held up for 3 hours he and his wife waited for us the entire time!

We arrived at my aunt’s house this evening, and I feel like I’ve known eveyone forever.  We had an incredible meal and enjoyed some of the best breezes of the entire trip.  I will have more to write in the next few days, but so far I have learned that the city of Nazareth is a predominantly Arab city.  I learned more about the nuances of being a Palestinian citizen of Israel.  Also, there is a confused rooster outside that crows at any hour of the day, but never at dawn.  I mention this because he is crowing as I type 🙂

Tomorrow I am off to my grandmother’s Haifa and my grandfather’s ancestral village, Umm el Zeinat.  My family knows our home in Haifa and my great great grandfather’s mosque, one of the few remaining old mosques of Palestine.

Damascus

I am now in the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.  Damascus.  I am staying with my mom’s cousin in the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp, and I have been visiting the Old City on a daily basis.  I lived in this refugee camp as a child, until I was about 6.  Maybe thats why I feel so at home here, or maybe it runs in my blood: my mother feels at home here as well.  In my eyes, and in the eyes of others who have seen it, this is the most beautiful city on earth. 

I cannot describe the old city in a way that would do it justice, but luckily for all of you we’ve taken video and photo footage.  The old houses remain inhabited from the late 18th century, while some buildings remain in use and standing from the days of the Islamic Umayyad Empire, and others from the Roman Empire.  Brick inlays are black and white alternating, with porticos, archways, engraved marble and stone, vines, fountains, terraces, courtyards, and more adorning the architecture.  Rob, Tarek, and I have spend hours getting lost among the neighborhoods, and we are never concerned about finding our way and turning back (except when we’re supposed to be somewhere for dinner, like now…). 

But Syrian people are the crowning jewel of this city.  In fact in my travel guide there is a section dedicated to Syrian people, and to no other people, and it really is no joke. 

More later, gotta head back to the camp for dinner and my parents are coming into town tonight.