Gaza Freedom Flotilla

I will begin by mentioning that a few years ago the leading Jewish academic Judith Butler gave a talk at Temple University about the ethics of anti-Zionism. The most powerful statement she made, which resonated deeply with me, was that Israel is threatened by democratic liberalism. She went on to explain what she meant: that anti-Zionism, from which Israel is so afraid, is simply a call for Israel to be a democracy for everyone and to implement international resolutions in giving the refugees their right to return to their homes.

International law, in my opinion, is a farce, it is a joke. Over the past few years we have seen that the jurisdiction of international law extends over poor countries, but it does not punish the colonizer for their violence against the colonized. Israel is a case in point: European colonizers displaced the indigenous Palestinian people 62 years ago and the United States and European nation-states that have a vested interest in maintaining this colonial system—in fact the last one remaining—will go to extremes to ensure that Israel maintains its domination.

One of Israel’s greatest weapons, aside from those they employ to repress militarily, has always been its propaganda. The best example is the creation myth: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” Not Palestinians, but Israeli historians have revisited the documents of the founding of the state of Israel and have re-written the history: the Palestinians are not accidental refugees of war, but were ethnically cleansed from their homelands. There was a plan in place which was implemented village by village and city by city to rid Palestine of the Palestinians. (For examples of these revisionist historians and histories see Benny Morris, a Zionist Israeli Jew, and Ilan Pappe, an anti-Zionist Israeli Jew). The Palestinians have been telling this history for years–including both my grandparents. Americans in particular still lack education on the history of the creation of the state of Israel. This is a shame predominantly because we are Israel’s greatest funders. Instead of spending our money on the urban public education system or healthcare for our citizens, we send $5.5 billion a year toIsrael, which is used to maintain an illegal occupation, to keep the Palestinians that were expelled in 1948 out, and to punish anyone who wants to stand in solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians—and the freedom flotilla is an example.

Israel is not losing the unwavering support of the developed world, and it will not be condemned by international law in any meaningful way. Israel (and everyone else) knows this, so why should it change its violent tactics? The international community has long given Israel the green light to use its military capacity to the fullest—from its creation until today. Israel was not a miracle, nor was its creation story impressive. Israel was created through ethnic cleansing and can only be maintained through repression and violence. The truth is I personally was not surprised by Israel’s act of violent piracy in the Mediterranean. After the 1,500 Gazans killed last year in the Gaza massacre, who really is shocked that Israel killed 9 activists? Moreover, I am not expecting a serious response from any government or any international organization. The powers of the UN are seriously compromised when the US can veto any plan of action that can check Israel’s power and put an end to its Apartheid regime.

What Israel is losing, however, is its propaganda machine. At this point media is so easy to come by, so why would any of us look to the corporate media for our information? What will really pose a challenge to the state of Israel are people all around the world whose greatest power lies in pressuring their governments through solid grass roots movements to pressure and isolate Israel, as the world did with South Africa, until it ends its Apartheid. Negotiations between the PA, Israel, the US, and the EU are useless. Such negotiations have revealed a historic trend whereby Israel only gains more land, more power, and greater support. Negotiations assume a certain equality between the parties involved which does not exist between the Palestinians and the Israelis. With the Palestinians living on 12% of 22% of their historic lands (Palestinian controlled territories in the West Bank), what can they possibly negotiate? To negotiate you need leverage. This is why the ANC and Nelson Mandela refused to negotiate with the racist, white Apartheid regime in South Africa. And this is why today the South African peoples, more than anyone on earth understand that Israel is a pariah state and can only be checked through a movement of the people—like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS).

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement is growing. It remains a small force of international activists, but this year more student bodies at universities are pressuring their administration to withdraw all funds that support the Israeli military and settlements, and more artists have cancelled their shows in Israel (Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, and Gil Scott Heron). This is the critical moment and these are the crucial movements that will put an end to Israel’s unchecked power and domination. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla is just one part of this growing movement, and in the end it is ordinary people who will support other ordinary people against racist governments such as Israel, South Africa before it, and Jim Crow USA before that.

Here in Palestine, the Palestinian are not so much shocked at how low Israel can go, because more than anyone else they have been victims of this domination. Most people here are surprised at how brash and unpremeditated the attack on the Freedom Flotilla was. In other words, Israel is destroying its own image. People here are aware that attacks on international supporters (rather than on Palestinians) creates an international outcry. And the outcry is beginning, but I think that the greatest result of this outcry will be the growth of the grassroots base of the solidarity campaign with the Palestinian people, which in time will create the necessary conditions to isolate Israel as a pariah, apartheid state—like South Africa. In my personal opinion the attack on the Gaza Flotilla demonstrates that Israel knows that it cannot go on this way much longer. The Israeli state is holding on to its domination and pushing the limits while it can.

Entering/West Bank

The Israeli border is the scariest border I have ever crossed. So much that my nerves begin acting out weeks in advance of traveling and I keep strategizing in my mind, I keep reviewing my story and searching for any holes they can poke. After the crossing I always let out a deep breathe in preparation of inhaling the breeze of my homeland. A Palestinian professor of mine once told me that he would rid the world of nostalgia if he could. I agree in one sense that nostalgia produces a lack of self-criticism and completely falsifies reality. But there is something good to be said about nostalgia—it keeps you connected emotionally and existentially to something you’ve lost. I think its just important not to let that nostalgia give you a false sense of reality. But I digress.

After taking my big breathe across the bridge in Palestine I knew that the worst was over. Anyway now I have my visiting visa stamp on my American passport. I’m good for three months to go wherever I want in this country… right? My cab arrived in downtown Nazareth and my cousin picked me up and took me to my aunt’s house. We had dinner—the best dawali (stuffed grape leaves) I have ever had (confirmed by others)—and then I argued for half an hour with my cousins about how I need to get into the West Bank. I told them I would not relax until I crossed a checkpoint and got into the West Bank. Then, getting to Ramallah would be a piece of cake, and within two days I would begin my internship. They finally agreed. The closest point into the West Bank is Nazareth-Jenin, and there my uncle Maan’s friend from his youth would be waiting to pick me up and take me to stay with them in Jenin for a night. That crossing closes at 3pm, which was when I got into Nazareth. I was never going to get through that way. My next option was to go through the Barta’a checkpoint. So my cousins made their way and so did Amo Mahmoud. This was an hour out of the way. When we got there we couldn’t find the checkpoint, so a young Palestinian man offered to come with us in the car to show us the way. When he got us there I thought this would be it. I told my cousins I would see them in a few weeks.

I walked into the checkpoint with my bag and confidently handed over my passport, revealing the page my visa was stamped on. The soldier behind the window examined it too closely. He flipped through it and begin saying, “Falasteeni! Falasteeni!” (Palestinian, Palestinian). I did not reply. “Do you have a hawiyyah?” (hawiyyah is the Palestinian ID which is issued by Israel to Palestinians in the West Bank. Its restricts their movement to the West Bank only. Palestinians with this ID cannot even enter East Jerusalem).

“No!” I replied, “Only American.”

He kept repeated Falasteeni and I kept repeating no, only American. Then he told me to wait on the bench. I sat and looked up to find another Israeli soldier walking above me, his M-16 pointed directly at me. I decided to look away quickly. Looking around me (rather than up) I realized what this checkpoint looks like: a prison. As Palestinian women and men passed through the checkpoint waiting for the turn stiles to be turned on they stand in tiny cages waiting for further instructions from the soldiers—pass or do not pass. Enter the West Bank or do not enter the West Bank. I was awakened from my deep thinking by a young Palestinian man who was turned away at the window too. “Why did they turn you back?” Unsure as to whether or not I should be talking I looked up at the soldier with the M-16. “I don’t know. He keeps asking me for a hawiyyah but I don’t have one. I have a US passport.”

“Oh” he said, “That happened to me last year. I have a Jordanian passport and a hawiyyah. I tried to travel with my passport and they found my ID and I got in trouble. They are trying to figure out who has IDs”.

Before we finished this conversation three more young men were turned back, each asking why I wasn’t allowed through. These young Palestinians gave me a greater sense of security—the Israeli soldiers seemed less threatening when Palestinian men and women passed through the checkpoint or sat next to me and talked to me. About 15 or 20 minutes later another Israeli man comes from a door I hadn’t seen before, carrying my passport, and just in case I was a threat, and in case the guy standing above us with the M-16 was not enough protection for him, he was escorted by another soldier with an M-16, his pointing to the ground but his finger on the trigger. I smiled to myself at such a ridiculous scene: three soldiers, two with an M-16 and one with my passport just to confront me.

“I am sorry” he said, “This visa will let you go into the West Bank, but after this you cannot leave, you have to stay in the West Bank.”

So I agreed. “That’s fine,” I said. I knew he was not telling the truth because I had been here with the same visa and I’ve gone in and out of the West Bank. I also knew that there were checkpoints through which I would be able to enter the West Bank without them looking at my passport. But why was he saying this? After I agreed this soldier changed his mind.

“No, actually wait. I want to check something else one more time. Can you sit down again and I will be back in five minutes.”

“Sure,” I replied, “Take your time.”

He left again with his escort. I was completely confused by the whole encounter. I went to take my seat again with the young men who had more questions and advice about where I should go if I get turned away. Fifteen more minutes went by before the soldier came back with his escort carrying the M-16, again. I walked over a met them half way.

“Sorry I made a mistake. Actually you cannot go into the West Bank on this visa. This is a B-2 visa it is only good for Israel, not the West Bank.”

There are no visas for the West Bank. I knew he was lying to me. So I argued, first telling him that I had a B-2visa last year and that I got into the West Bank fine with it then. Then I told him that I could go through Qalandia in Jerusalem and no one would even check my passport. He insisted that there was nothing I could do and that I simply could not enter the West Bank. I knew he was not telling the truth but I did not know why. So I went back to my seat to gather my belongings and I told the guys what I was told. They told me that I should go through Jabra checkpoint, another hour and a half away closer to Tulakrem.

We did go to the Jabra checkpoint and here we simply drove right into the West Bank—no questions asked because we were in a car holding Israeli license plates, of course. How arbitrary the checkpoints are. You go in and out of the territories based on the whims of Israeli soldiers. Just the weekend going from Jenin (in the West Bank where my cousin came to pick me up) to Nazareth (1948 territories or “Israel proper”) my cousin’s car was completely emptied and searched for two hours—because of me. Not sure what about my US citizenship raises red flags but they asked my cousin if I gave her any weapons or if she thinks I was given any weapons. Me, who is terrified of any weaponry and wants to rid the world of them. And the crazy thing is my taxes fund this madness. Rather than giving me health insurance or improving the public schools I graduated from, my taxes fund this apartheid military state. Obama, what are you doing?

Entering/Palestine

Two weeks ago I entered Palestine through the “Jordan River Crossing” in the north—the Sheikh Hussein Bridge. I took a bus from Amman about two hours north to Irbid and then West to Palestine. I had only crossed this bridge once before, last year. Then I was not alone, I was with Tarek and Roberto. I knew I was going to lie at the border. I have a two and a half month internship in Ramallah but I cannot tell them this at the border. Why go to Ramallah? The West Bank? The Territories? Typically at the Israeli border any mention of the West Bank means they will turn you back, or if you go through the bridge leading directly into the West Bank—Jericho and then Ramallah—you will be held up for hours and questioned about the “purpose of your visit”. So I always play it safe and go up through the Jordan River Crossing, go directly into Nazareth and then plan my movements from there. That day my plan was to get to Nazareth—the largest Palestinian town within the green line ’48 territories—eat dinner with my family, and have them drive me to the crossing between Nazareth and Jenin, stay with friends in Jenin for a night, then hop on a bus and reach Ramallah. But at the border I would not say this. At the border I am going to Haifa (my home city) and Akko and Jaffa, to swim and relax for the summer with my family during my two month break from school.

So that was my story. Everyone in line before me went directly through the border, a simple check of the name and the photo. This time, I thought, I am a woman traveling along, surely they will not ask me to “step aside” like they did myself, my brother, and my husband last year. But surely enough, I got to the front of the line and the border guard asked my name. “Nehad Kamel Khader” I replied. Oops, Arab name. “Step Aside Please.” I literally could have spoken those words with her as she uttered them. So, I stepped aside—please. I went through the metal detector, but they held my bags and passport. And after waiting for a few minutes the same man that asked me the questions last year came out, this time with a woman. She would question me this year, a set of stupid, meaningless, and incomprehensible questions. I exhaled as my heart began to beat faster. They had one passport but my other American passport was strapped to my waist under my pants. They do not need to know that I have it, and the Syria and Lebanon stamps from last year would surely raise some questions. “Hello. What is the reason for your visit?” Internship in Ramallah and Master’s thesis research. “Vacation”. “Where will you stay?” Mostly Ramallah, but also Jenin, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem. Anywhere my feet can carry me. “Nazareth.” “With who will you stay in Nazareth?” My mom’s aunt and her family. “My aunt.” “What is her name?” “Nidaa.” “Where are the places you want to go in Israel?” In Palestine? I want to go to Haifa to see my grandfather’s destroyed village and go to my grandmother’s house but knock on the door this time. I want to go back to Hebron and see how the settlers are torturing the Palestinians in the old city. I want to go pray in Jerusalem—no I don’t usually pray—but in Jerusalem I will make an exception. I want to stay in Ramallah, a Palestinian city where I feel comfortable getting on and off buses from one part of the city to the other, and going into shops and speaking Arabic with the keepers, and studying the embroidery on the dresses of the older women. “I don’t know, swim in the sea, see Akko, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.” “Where did you stay in Jordan?” With my mom and dad’s friends. “With my aunts.” “Did they introduce you to anyone?” What does that mean? “Excuse me?” “Did they introduce you to anyone?” “I’m not sure I understand your question.” Are you accusing me of something? “When you stayed with your aunts, did you sit only in the house?” Should I say yes? “No, of course not.” “So, did they introduce you to someone?” Wow. They are really asking me this. Do I pose a threat to Israel? “No. Listen, I was in Jordan for one day, I barely got to my aunt’s house, ate dinner, slept, and got on the bus to come here.” “Do you have any weapons?” Did you see any weapons in your X-Ray machine? “No.” “Do you have anything that looks like a weapon?” Haha, that “looks” like a weapon… like what? A toy? Did you see something that “looks” like a weapon on your machine? “No.” “OK, thank you.”

Thank you, Israeli soldier. Thanks for your fear tactic, you’ve definitely won. Not just the material wars, you’ve not only displaces my family. I will definitely think twice about coming to my homeland again. I understand that to you I pose an existential threat. I was supposed to have forgotten Palestine and Haifa—my parents were not supposed to have remembered. Well then I guess you’ve lost. It seems you are more afraid of me—alone, carrying only clothes in my suitcase and an American passport in my hands. This is much more difficult than you imagined, isn’t it?

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.

Goodbye Syria, Hello Lebanon

Rob, Tarek, and myself got very sick in Syria during and after an interesting adventure we had with the railway system!  My parents came to Damascus a few days after my last post and we rented our friend’s apartment in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp.  Being that my parents lived in Damascus in their heyday, and having been a 5 year old back then, we got dinner invitation after lunch invitation after dinner invitation, after lunch invitation and so on.  Of course my parents’ friends wanted to see Tarek and I so we got roped into all these house visits, and I am sorry to say that neither one of us experienced Damascus as we should have.  We spent tons of time in the Old City, but not much else.  So we got sick and after thinking we got better decided to take a little trip up North, to Aleppo, Lattakia, Homs, and Hama before returning to Damascus and heading to Beirut.  I’m thinking we’ll take the train, its cheap and of course more comfortable than taking the bus.  WRONG!  Apparently EVERYONE knows that you do NOT take the train in Syria. 

Well we took a slow night train to Aleppo… not so bad.  It left Damascus at midnight and arrived in Aleppo at 7am, so with the windows down we practically had air conditioning and we slept the whole time anyway.  Aleppo was beautiful and a refreshing change from Damascus since we had no one to visit and stayed down town.  After resting in our hostel we walked down town and went into the old city, had lunch, walked through Jdeideh, the Christian Quarter, ate dinner and went back to the hostel.  The next day the boys went to the men’s Hamman and I went to the Women’s.  Being bathed in the old Hammam was a relaxing and fun experience for all of us… though they scrubbed the shit out of us to get the dead skin off.  Then I walked to the Aleppo Citadel to meet Rob and Tarek.  As I waited I met a nice young man, 13 years old, named Mohammad who was selling gum.  He struck up a conversation by asking where I was from.  I found out that his mother and father died on the road from Damascus several years back and he has to work to take care of his brothers and sisters.  None of them go to school, though he told me that he has a rich uncle who does not care to help them out.  I introduced him to Rob and Tarek when they arrived, and he refused to let us treat him to juice, insisting that he was a working man.  I will never forget him.

When Mohammad went back to selling his gum we bought student tickets (Syria is #1 for student discounts in my book) into the Aleppo Citadel, built by the Mamaleek in the 13th century.  I’ve seen many ruins on this trip but none compare to this one.  The fort was built on top of a hand-made mound, which surprised me because it looks like a natural mountain.  The king’s or royal chamber has been beautifully restored and inside the citadel is almost its own city.  I lingered, thinking of Arab and Islamic achievement.  I’ve felt ill many times on this trip just thinking of global power dynamics and what has happened to the Arab World.  I am also in the middle of my Summer Reading for Georgetown– Contending Visions of the Middle East.  Its all about the rise of Orientalism and Europe’s interest/obsession with the East.  The combination of travel and reading this book are overwhelming.

From the citadel we rushed to take a train to Lattakia, port city on the Mediterranean and Syria’s most open cities (ie not religious).  People were crowding to buy train tickets and the man behind the counter could not hear me above everyone else asking if this was the modern train (air conditioned, express) or the other train (stuffy, old, SLOW).  Turns out it was the latter… ohhh Lord was that a fun trip!  3:45 to 7:30 we were on a train without air conditioning, that was moving so slow and making every stop between Aleppo and Lattakia.  I think I got a taste of hell.  Rob’s temperature shot up (since we were already suffering from stomache viruses or something) and I started freaking out.  My brother though seemed to be enjoying the trip, haha.

We got to Lattakia and after my freak out episode, and since we were all sick as hell, we decided to spend a few hours at the sea and then take the first train back to Damascus where we can rest in our apartment and get a doctor if needed.  I am sorry we didn’t get to stay longer.  The few hours we spent there were amazing.  Its a beautiful place.  We got some sandwiches and sat on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.  We started guessing what cities and countries the different lights across the sea were coming from.  We could see Africa from Asia.  Can you imagine?

Finally, 1 am rolls around and though we are enjoying Lattakia we also can’t wait to get on the train and rest til we can get meds and more rest in Damascus.  Now I learned from my mistake (though I still didn’t know that I should have taken the bus) and bought tickets on the modern train.  I wake up at 5 am (we’re supposed to reach Damascus at 7 am) and the train has broken down, once again no air conditioning.  Another train’s cart is pushing ours.  While we were two hours from Damascus, we arrived 7 hours later at noon.  And when no one was complaining I became suspicious that this is a normal experience on the train.  And later our friends told us that it is, apparently we were crazy for taking the train… nice!

Syria has been a place of contemplation for me, about Arab history, about our present and our future.  Its been a sad and thought provoking trip, and I do plan on returning one day.  My best moment was reuniting with our neighbors from Baghdad and some of out closest friends.  They now live in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp.  Amo Abul Wafa, my father’s friend, wrote a published a book on Palestinians in Iraq, and he gave me his last copy, telling me that he wanted it translated into as many different languages as possible, without any compinsation.  He hadn’t made any money off of this copy, his only objective is that information about this topic be disseminated.  I really bonded with him.  He spent time in Chile with the Palestinian community there, which reignited my desire to go, since he said he could connect me with folks.  He walked my parents and me back to our place in the camp and he and I parted with a hug– people here don’t hug they kiss on both cheeks.  I think I will write a post on my experiences with people here alone– but some other time.

We are now in Lebanon– very different from Syria.  Its so beautiful.  We’re in the South– in Jezzine, back with our friends from Jordan, the Nimers.  Heading to Beirut shortly.  We’ve fallen in love with this place, and its my friend new country on this trip.  Yay for amazing food, beautiful scenery, and short skirts!  Although I’ve been warned against saying I’m Palestinian here.  We’ll see…

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.

Jordan

I am writing from Amman, Jordan.  Its a city of about 2.2 million, hilly, and comfortable weather.  We have lots of friends and family here.  We’d been worrying about where we would stay in Amman, but that’s been the last thing we think of.  Everywhere we go people insist on keeping us for breakfast, lunch (the biggest meal), and supper (light meal later in the evening). 

 I once read in a Naomi Shihab Nye poem about hosting a guest in the Arab World something like, “No I was not preparing to be busy…” and now I understand what she wrote.  Everyone works and has a personal life to tend to, like anywhere else in the world.  But for the time that you are around everything gets put aside and your company, conversation, and comfort becomes priority.  This is what they call Arab Hospitality.  I have been driven from one end of Amman to the other at 1am ater having insisted that I take a taxi and my host insists that he or she drive me wherever I need to go.  No one pretends to be busy.  They want nothing but to make you feel at home and loved.  We have to carry a change of clothes everywhere we go because there’s a 95% chance our hosts will make us spend the night.

Amman is the old Roman city Philadelphia (Philly, Philly!).  There’s a Roman ampitheater in downtown Amman, completely intact, where concerts are still held, a temple for Hercules, and an excavated Ummayyad Palace.  Aside from the Palace I do not think there is much Arab history in the city.  Outside of the city there is tons to see– ruins, dead sea, hot springs, caves, red desert valley, etc.  I have been trying to get the caves for a while but by the time I make plans someone else has invited me to eat dinner and sleep in their home, so I reschedule.  We are going to be here longer than planned as a result.  I am not bothered, and in fact happy to change my plans.  People give so much of themselves and the only thing they ask in return is that we eat with them and sleep in their homes.  Its really all been wonderful. 

When we went to the dead sea it was way too hot to swim in the sea, considering the fact that we pulled over to the side of the road to soak our feet in it.  Its not hot in Amman– the weather here is excellent!  But the Dead Sea happens to be the lowest point on earth, so you can imagine how hot it gets.  It is impossible to swim in the dead sea and walk away without showering– the water is just FAR too salty.  There are ample warnings about getting the water in your eyes or mouth, and I do not think that you’ll get it until you visit.  Aside from salt its also full of minerals, so much so that the sea is oily, and I’m bringing home some of the mud that I collected from the shore… I’ll give you some if you’d like!  It is so powerful that my mom had a little sore in her foot that disappeared the next day!

The city is quite class segregated, and I’ve realized this on previous trips, but I think I can finally begin to analyze it.  I begin to think about how racially segregated the United States is, or at least I can speak more honestly about Philadelphia. The more I learn about the nature of class segregation here, and the more I learn about it the more I realize that the racial segregation that I know so well in my own city is really a form of class segregation and that beyond skin color, folks in Philadelphia decide (unfairly) the class of those around them by clothing, manner of speaking, etc.

People live here, and I am enjoying living with them– what is more important and beautiful than the sites, the fun life and the geography is the people who surround me.

I will write more on food (WOW!), art scene (the little I’ve seen), etc.  Planning on seeing the caves tomorrow and to Petra, the Rose City, in the next few days.

Tatreez Exhibit

I had been researching, doing interviews and curating my tatreez exhibit for a long time.  Tatreez is Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery which is very intricate and is often quite political.  Having spent so much time and energy in the process of gathering information and putting up the exhibit (including translating and typing all text in Arabic), opening night, Friday June 5th, was very exciting.

The project began when I applied for a Leeway Grant for Art and Change around the art of tatreez, traditional Palestinian embroidery.  My greatest motivation was Palestinian youth in Philadelphia who face discrimination everyday in school and on the street, and the possibility of complete loss of identity.  I wanted to provide a model of something they could be proud of and a piece of their heritage that they could participate in.

The most common theme that appeared again and again in the interviews is the idea that by making tatreez an individual woman is contributing to the collective Palestinian identity and is therefore resisting.  It is worthy to note that tatreez is also one of many Palestinian arts that Israel as a society has appropriated.  At international fashion shows the Israelis would model Palestinian embroidery as theirs, and I even have a photo of Menachem Begin’s wife wearing a thob (traditional embroidered dress).  Of course our arts (and not to mention our food) have been appropriated because Israel is a 61 year old state that does not have any concrete “Israeli” traditional arts, dances, music, foods, etc.

Given that background, and the fact that the creation of the Jewish State translated into our expulsion and continued efforts to deny that we even exist (I have been told many times that “there is no such thing as Palestinians”) the women I interviewed and whose work was exhibited are quite thrilled to be weaving Palestinian identity into being.  I am grateful to all of them for their support and generosity in inviting myself and Sarah Green, the photographer, into their homes.

Opening night was wonderful.  The gallery was full as people were coming in and out, marveling at the handmade work of seven local women, their stories and pride in their heritage.

Yosemite and Indigenous Communities

Last week while in San Francisco, we decided to rent a car and drive out to Yosemite National Park.  I went with my friend Fatima, who is half Native American, her tribe unrecognized by the federal government.  When we made the first stop to look at the scenery I mentioned imagining indigenous communities in this space.  Then she told me that until the 1850’s this was the home to the Miwok and Paiutes, and that they had been placed on reservations to make way for visitors.  I sat down and took a few deep breaths, trying to understand the implications of this information as I took in the beauty of the wilderness.

The first thing I did was to recognize the park as stolen land, and thought at the very least this will stay on my mind all day.  Then I began thinking of the 500+ Palestinian villages that were destroyed in the 1950’s and how Israel has identified them as “national parks,” though they contain graveyards of the ancestors of those who lived there only 61 years ago and the demolished frameworks of homes.  For the rest of the day I was cynical as I read plaques around the park about how the tribes maintained the surroundings, and how park authorities simulate the same methods.

The park was absolutely breathtaking.  And when we went to see the giant, 3000 year old Sequoias I started thinking about our Olive Trees, some over 2000 year old, that the Israelis uprooted from our villages 60 years ago, and the olive trees that they continue to uproot.

I can describe the events and the processes, but I cannot find the words to describe what I had been feeling.  I want to recognize history and places from which communities were displaced.  There are more contemporary instance of displacement, here in Philadelphia even.  But I think the deep valleys, vast mountains, and high waterfalls made this experience so different.