Monday, December 27, 2010

Don't Forget Gaza

I spoke to two brothers who moved to Ramallah from Gaza fairly recently. They came to the office one day when there was a power cut because of a sand storm. I made them tea and asked them how things were in Gaza.

They said it's good. But that's because they're Palestinian and that's what you say when somebody asks you how things are.

We spoke a little more, and it turns out they still have frequent electricity and water cuts. People still live in tents since the war that started exactly two years ago today. Others moved into the schools.

"So where do the kids go to school?"

"In people's homes," one of them said.

"But it's better than during the war," the other said.

"You were there?" It's the first time I meet people who were in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. "How was that?"

They laughed a little. What are they supposed to say?

"We were very, very afraid," one of them said, looked at his brother and laughed again. Not sure what else to add.

"We couldn't sleep because of the bombs."

"They only bombed at night?" I asked.

"No, no, they bombed all the time", he said. "All the time. But in the day there was so much else to take your mind off it. At night, there was only darkness and the sound of the bombs."

"I put music on in my headphones to try to drown out the sound," the other brother said. "We were so scared."

I didn't know what to say. We drank our tea in silence.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

"You Shouldn't Have Come"

We went to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem and found ourselves at our new Canadian friend Nora's house unexpectedly drinking mulled wine together with a group of Israelis on Christmas Eve.

We had been out all day, watching the Christmas Parade, eating hummus at Afteem, listening to Christmas carols at Manger Square at night, squished in between thousands and thousands of other Christmas celebrating people.

Christmas Crowd on Manger Square in Bethlehem

Cold and tired, Nora had kindly invited us over for some hot mulled wine.

A little bit into our mulled wine evening, a colleague of hers called and invited himself and a few friends. Friends that proved to be four Israeli leftists from Tel Aviv. Naturally, the conversation quickly gravitated towards politics and the Conflict.

The Israelis were self-named activists, critical of their government, and had demonstrated with Palestinians in East Jerusalem earlier in the morning.

There were some insensitive Yasser Arafat jokes and (of course) Holocaust talk (because the Holocaust, it seems, inevitably comes up if there are Israeli Jews in the room).

For those of you who have not discussed politics with Israelis, the Holocaust is normally used as a way to excuse or justify, or at least explain Al-Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948) - an explanation that Palestinians generally oppose themselves to, since they did not have anything to do with either the Second World War or the Holocaust, and because they (rightly) feel as if their collective experience is belittled in the eyes of the world when referred to as a consequence of the Holocaust.

"Yes, but the Jews needed a safe haven to escape to after the atrocities committed against them in Europe, and..." somehow that makes it okay to kill and forcibly expel something like 800,000 Palestinians, displace them, raze their villages and towns to the ground, steal their farms, their property (even what was in their bank accounts, mind you), and then make them unwelcome strangers in their own homeland? Only to create an Apartheid Jewish state?

Tarek, the only Palestinian in the room, said that there will never be peace until the Israelis understand and accept the Palestinian history.

"No, no, that can never happen because that would mean that all Israelis would have to leave," one of the Israelis said. "That's how I see it; we would have to leave."

Nora's friend had sat quiet up until then, but opened his mouth and matter-of-factly said: "No, it means that you shouldn't have come."

Which sounds terrible in a way, but really summarizes it all. Anybody who reads the recent history of Palestine and Israel can only come to one conclusion (unless they read the fabricated Zionist version, of course, but I'm talking about the fairly objective history that is widely available to everybody who cares enough to learn, whether they are Israelis or not):

It was wrong for the Jewish Europeans to come and establish their own state on the land that was inhabited by the Palestinians (who were, contrary to popular belief, not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews too). No world-power resolution with borrowed legitimacy from the newly formed United Nations that recommended the partition of Palestine can make the colonial enterprise in Palestine right: it was wrong.

Just like it was wrong for Europeans to kill native Americans, native Australians and establish their own colonies-later-states.

That is not to say that Palestine should have been closed to those Jews who came as refugees; only that the Zionist colonial movement to create a Jewish state in the land of Palestine was wrong.

But now that the Israelis are here, there is not much we can do about it. And it should be clear to most people that since the PLO has given up the Palestinian people's claim to Historic Palestine and reduced their struggle to only regain the territories that were stolen in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza), that for Israelis to accept Palestine's history does not mean that the Israelis must leave.

It means that they will probably reach the conclusion that they shouldn't have come, but now that they are here, they need to recognize that there is another people with a very real claim to the land that they now inhabit. It means that they need to understand that something has to be done very soon to work things out with their Palestinian neighbors, to allow them to win back their human dignity, to stop denying them their human rights, lift the occupation, and agree how to share the resources of the land they both live in.

I understand the Israeli man who thinks he should leave; I too would probably have a very serious crisis of existence if I learned that my country was created by killing and forcibly expelling the people that lived there before me (and can only exist through oppressing and ever so often bombing those who stayed).

And I understand the Israeli woman who said that she would be happy to leave, because she disagrees so much with her own government that she is ashamed to stay, but where can she go? She doesn't have any other citizenship or national identity. Her parents came from the Ukraine, but she doesn't have a Ukrainian passport.

She can migrate and eventually seek citizenship in another country like almost anybody else (from the West, at least), but to expect that all Israeli Jews would do that is simply impractical.

And because of this, the solution is not to expel all Israeli Jews. Because facts on the ground (most of which very carefully thought out and meticulously planned by the Israeli leadership throughout the years) have made it impractical.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Bethlehem Checkpoint Stories

It's almost Christmas and although my boyfriend is a Muslim (albeit non-practising), and I'm not Christian at all, there's no better place to be than Bethlehem this time of the year.

The Christmas lights. The cobble stone streets. The Christmas songs playing in the small olive wood and mother-of-pearl handicraft shops.

One of the side effects of going outside of Ramallah, though, is that you have to pass through a number of Israeli military checkpoints and interact with teenage soldiers on power trips.

We went again the other day, Tarek, Moni and I. This time because there was supposed to be a Christmas Fair at Manger Square.

On our way, two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli police officer stopped our car, and must have seen there was someone in the back seat. The police officer comes up to the car, opens the back door, whereupon well-mannered Moni says,


And the police officer snaps, "Bye," and slams the door shut.

No "Please roll down the window," (which is actually what they usually ask), or "I will now open your back door."

Just open. Nice hi. Rude bye. And we moved on.

On the way back, it was late at night and Tarek got impatient with the soldiers who were just standing around ignoring us while we know all too well that we can't drive through until they wave an OK.

They have big guns.

So Tarek honked his horn discretely, and we got an immediate reaction. The come-over-here-to-the-side wave.

We drove up and rolled down the windows. Flash light in our faces.

"Men ween enta?" Soldier with basic checkpoint Arabic knowledge. Where are you from?


"Tehki Arabi?" Do you speak Arabic?


"Mafish zamer fel hajez, kwayes?" There is no honking at the barrier, good?


"Mafish dukhan, mafish mobail, mafish radio, mafish dow, kwayes?" There are no smokes, there is no mobile, there is no radio, there is no light, good?


"Yalla." Go.

Another lecture in checkpoint manners. Why? Because they're bored? Because they're little kids who suddenly find themselves with an unimaginable abundance of power and don't know what to do with it?

As if listening to the radio or smoking cigarettes are a security threat. If so; write a sign with instructions, then.

It's not like there is a written checkpoint code that we were violating.

When we got Bethlehem, it turned out that the Christmas Fair people had closed their stalls and gone home.

We ended up eating mandarine and passionfruit sorbet at a new ice cream place instead. Not so Christmassy, but unbelievably delicious.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How I Came to Hold Hands with the Palestinian President: Part II

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I think the best way to continue yesterday's blog post is:

A little bit out of focus, but that's us. The President of Palestine and I. Holding hands.

And why we were holding hands?

(After all, words do sometimes say more than pictures).

I think because Abu Mazen saw that I wasn't exactly going to push and shove my way over to him to be able to take a picture with him, whereas the other suit-wearing men did just that... he reached out his hand, pulled me over to his side, and then just kept holding my hand until Tarek had taken my picture.

Sweet of him.

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Lunch at the Muqat'a or How I Got to Hold Hands with the President of Palestine

On Sunday, that is to say yesterday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) invited Israeli Knesset members and civil society activists for lunch at the Muqat'a; the President's Compound in Ramallah.

Hanan Ashrawi shaking hands with Amram Mitzna

If you follow the news, you will probably know that the peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli governments are, as Nabeel Sha'ath put it, "in a deep coma," after Netanyahu refused to stop new settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories in September.

Yesterday was an effort from the Palestinian political leadership to reach out to the Israeli people - to show that they are committed to keeping an open dialogue with the Israeli Jews - no matter what is going on on the political playing field.

Now, you probably didn't hear anything about the lunch meeting on the evening news last night, but it's actually a pretty big deal.

Imagine the absolutely highest level of the political elite in Palestine inviting Israeli Jews for lunch in Ramallah at a time when there is almost no contact between the two societies at all. Except between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints and at the borders, of course.

And then imagine that most of the Jews who came yesterday have never seen Ramallah before (even though they live maybe 15 minutes or maximum an hour away); and those who have seen Ramallah, have probably not been for eight years.

But that time - eight years ago - they weren't invited. That time, they invaded Ramallah with tanks and bombs; they demolished and besieged Al-Muqat'a and held late President Yasser Arafat prisoner for months on end.

But yesterday, they - the same people - were invited for lunch.

Arabs and their hospitality.

Yasser Abed Rabbo speaking

We sat down... oh yeah, did I forget to tell you we were invited? Tarek, his father and I.

Anyway, we sat down, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the General Secretary of the Executive Council of the PLO and facilitator of the lunch discussion, leaned over his microphone at the table of honor and joked with the Israeli guests,

"Ya'ni, you would think that you could have at least one woman up here..."

Then, after two Israeli women were placed at the end of the table and the press was asked to leave so that the event wouldn't turn into a press conference (it was supposed to be an informal opportunity for dialogue), he gave the floor to President Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen.

"I told the Americans and the Israelis that if there is no freeze of settlement construction, I cannot continue the negotiations," Abu Mazen said as he was telling the story about the recent negotiations break-down. "Netanyahu said that it is impossible for him to freeze the settlements, because... because... there were many becauses."

Many becauses. I love it.

And then, "I can't accept that settlements are better than peace." Which is to say; he can't understand how the Israelis can choose settlements over peace.

Neither can I.

He said that they had been very, very close to reaching an agreement on the two most important questions - security and borders - before this latest round of talks (that is to say, two years ago at Annapolis), but that Israel had refused to continue negotiations after they launched their war on Gaza that Christmas.

One Jewish Knesset member said that he didn't know this; and that it is very important for Israelis to know that the two most important questions are borders and security, and not the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees. It gave him hope.

Other Jewish Knesset members thanked Abu Mazen for inviting them, and for extending a hand, and talked about the importance of dialogue, and how the majority of Israelis want peace and how they support a two-state solution.

"We have come here today to listen to you," one man said.

Another Jewish man talked about his 82-year-old mother who, although she always votes for the ultra-orthodox Zionist party, Shas (that has called for the total annihilation of evil Palestinians), she still "supports peace."

(Which is a little bit like saying that a Swedish neo-Nazi still likes immigrants).

The same man also had a 28-year-old son, he let us know, who had been here eight years ago, as an Israeli soldier besieging Al-Muqat'a. But he (again, like a Swedish immigrant-friendly neo-Nazi) is a real peace activist.

"Because you can't be a real peace activist unless you are a good soldier who protects the security of your country."

(I'm still trying to work that one out).

Then Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO, was given the floor. And she said:

"I don't want to rain on your parade..." and of course started raining a rather cold - but very refreshing - rain that brought everybody back to reality a little.

"If you say that the majority of Israelis want peace," she said, "then how come you don't elect a peace government?"

(I.e. not extreme right parties like Likud and Shas).

She spoke about the Wall and about the settlements that are "spreading like an octopus," leaving nothing but a few isolated population centers for Palestine. 

"The two-state solution is all but dead." It continued raining. "We don't have five minutes of negotiations left; we have only one minute. We are running out of time."

One Israeli man pointed out that leaders must not be pessimists.

A Palestinian woman stood up, perhaps a little empowered by Hanan Ashrawi, and drew attention to what an Israeli person who had spoken earlier had said: 

"You said you have come here to listen. Yet it is not we who need to talk, it's you. We already said everything we can say. Now it's Israel's turn to answer us."

A young Jewish woman who had probably prepared her intervention beforehand, and was therefore sort of very out of context, started talking about the need for Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Saeb Erekat, the Chief negotiator of the PLO, pointed out that the PLO already recognized Israel's right to exist years ago.

"But when you ask me to recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state," he explained, "you're asking me to join the Zionist movement."

Which he was not prepared to do for obvious reasons, not in the least that it would be very problematic to proclaim a state Jewish when more than 20% of its citizens are not even Jews.

We listened to Palestinians and Jews speaking their mind. Many Jews supported the PLO and criticized their own government. 

Waiters brought us bread and hummus, arugula salad, stuffed grape leaves, avocado salad, fresh orange juice, Palestinian olives, rice and meat, and knafeh, a very sweet Arabic pastry with nuts and cheese that literally drips with sugary syrup.

And before we knew it, the lunch meeting was coming to an end.

(So is my energy, unfortunately, which is why I think I will wait with the second part of the title of this blog post until tomorrow:

How I Got to Hold Hands with the President of Palestine).

Yasser Abed Rabbo took the microphone again:

"Thank you for all the kind words you have said about the Palestinian government. And thank you for the... semi-kind words about the Israeli. I think what Abu Mazen wanted to say today," (because sometimes Yasser knows better), "is that the two most important questions before us are borders and security. If these are solved, then all other questions will be solved... within an hour."

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Checkpoint War Game

We were on our way back from Bethlehem after a very nice pre-Christmas party at our friend Renee's house late last night, and as we came to the checkpoint after Wadi el Nar, we slowed down and waited for one of the Israeli checkpoint soldiers to wave us through.

It was dark save for a light from the narrow guard tower windows. Nobody was out.

Remembering another recent checkpoint experience when we drove through at night without stopping because the checkpoint looked unmanned, and we were pulled over by four young boy soldiers with huge guns pointed at us, and scolded for our bad checkpoint behavior; we decided it would be better to wait for some kind of signal.

But no signal came.

Tarek is not the most patient person in the world, so after half a minute or so, he honked the horn.

Still no signal. Nobody.

So we drove over the metal stop claws that allow you to drive slowly forwards, but would slice your tires if you back up or try to drive through in the wrong direction.

Still nothing.

As we approached the little checkpoint booth, we saw a light radiating from something inside, and a young soldier boy sitting as if glued to the source of light, not taking his eyes from it even to look at us, the (supposedly) potential terrorists driving past.

"He's probably Facebooking," we said to each other and craned our heads backwards to see what it was that mesmerized him so as we drove past.

But he wasn't.

He was playing Counter Strike. A first-person shooter computer war game at a checkpoint in the occupied Palestinian territories.

What the hell?!

I don't want these Israeli soldiers here at all, but to know that they're sitting at the checkpoints playing computer games in which you play war, makes me feel even less secure.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.

I'm reading Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It's a dauntingly fat book with font size 4; but very, very worth reading.

After the news that a suicide bomber blew himself up on the streets of Stockholm has sunk in, I read these words by Fisk (written about Afghan freedom fighters/terrorists during the Soviet invasion):
"Terrorists, terrorist, terrorists. In the Middle East, in the entire Muslim world, this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop erected to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? So our enemies are alway 'terrorists'." (p. 74)
I'm not saying I would like to say a word in favor of the actions by the man who strapped explosives to himself and (it seems like) intended to take as many persons as he could with him on his disturbed, suicidal way out of this world.

Because honestly. It seems a little misguided and anticlimactic hitting the streets not of Israel the colonial occupying human rights defying power; not of USA the meddler in everybody's affairs (especially if there's oil), but of Sweden.

Because we have 500 troops in Afghanistan (out of 140 000 foreign troops in total) and one lunatic artist who enjoys offending people's deep-held religious beliefs?

And his bomb didn't even detonate properly (thankfully, but anticlimactically enough).

No, I have no words in favor for his actions. Nor for anybody else's actions that aim to hurt or kill.

But I do have several words to say on the word terrorism. It is all about the politics of naming. Whoever dominates the public sphere gets to label people and actions according to what fits their interests for the moment, and the whole world nods and listens (it seems).

But here is no given definition of terrorism; no objective truth about the word.

Is it terrorism because the man in Stockholm was a Muslim? Because there were explosives?

I seem to remember another mad man who stabbed the Swedish foreign minister to death a few years back. Why wasn't he a terrorist?

Because he didn't send a letter before he killed her, maybe. So is it the motivation behind the action that makes it terrorism?

But then... I think we all can think of a countless number of actions by a countless number of persons and armies and governments around the world that have motivations behind them that would make them... terrorists.

And plenty of innocent victims where they bring mayhem. Which is necessary. There must be innocent victims for it to be terrorism, right?

So what if nobody had gotten hurt in Stockholm? And the suicide bomber had just killed himself? Would it still be a terrorist act?

This nitpicking doesn't make sense, I know. But once you start questioning the meaning of the word terrorism, you inevitably end up weighing these questions against each other.

Of course there are no final answers.

It is not surprising that still to this day we have not been able to agree on a single definition of terrorism. In the UN itself, there is no consensus about the meaning of the word (but still, the member states base policies on this undefined term).

But the word itself has no absolute meaning. And therefore, it is meaningless. A meaningless punctuation mark that exists to end discussions of injustice.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Travel Log: Mishmish the Camel

I think I might have told you before how I feel about camels.

They seem to know some kind of secret to life that makes them a little haughty; gives them this absolutely content and slightly arrogant look.

They might not be very pretty, but I love them.

That's why I took these pictures of Mishmish and her clover-munching colleague at the Pyramids in Giza:

Mishmish (which means Apricot) looking very Camel-like

Her caretaker said she started singing because she was excited about us being there 

Very, very excited 


Mishmish and her caretaker

 She's absolutely fabulous

Mishmish singing again 

Mishmish's serious look 

Not sure what's she's doing here 


Her clover-eating friend at the base of one of the pyramids

That's it. Just wanted to post some of my very cool camel pics.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travel Log: Flying with Egyptians

Back to my travel log:

Egyptians care very little, if at all, about instructions onboard a plane.

Well, they actually do refrain from smoking, which is nice for somebody like me who doesn't smoke.

But the fasten seat belt sign? It's as if it doesn't exist. Whether during takeoff or landing, or anywhere in between.

Can't go to the bathroom because we're two seconds from landing and even the flight attendants need to fasten their seat belts?

Nuts to that! I have to pee now.

And this whole thing about cell phones? Most actually do turn theirs off, but not necessarily before we take off. And they certainly don't wait until the seat belt sign has been switched off before they turn them on again once we've landed.

The millisecond we touch ground, there's a hundred switch-on melodies at once. Half a second after, half of the plane is on the phone with somebody.

Flying Egyptian

But one thing that's actually good, and something that I've never seen with any other airlines than Egypt Air, is sign language safety instructions in a square at the bottom of the screen.

How come everybody doesn't have sign language safety instructions? It ought to be mandatory.

Way too many of us take for granted our privileges and forget about those who can't hear, see, speak, read, or walk.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

They Know Everything

The secret spy side of me that has watched too many CIA movies is telling me not to write this (because what if they reeeaaaad), but the more sober they-already-know-everything side of me knows that... well, they already know everything.

(I don't use mine or anybody else's full name anywhere in this blog, but who am I kidding? They know it's my blog).

So here it goes:

The Israeli intelligence knows EVERYTHING. And when I say 'everything' I mean EVERYTHING.

Every single freaking thing.

It's freaky and scary and surprising all at the same time when you get pushed into situations where it becomes unmistakably clear that they do.

Our intern Moni's boyfriend and cousin came to visit, and they were held at the airport for six hours.

Six hours!

Six hours of interrogation and waiting.

They started out by lying about visiting the West Bank, because everybody knows that if you say you will visit here, then you will have problems.

But apparently, you will have problems anyway. (As I already knew, to be frank).

It soon became clear to them that it was entirely useless to lie, because the Israelis alrady knew about their girlfriend/cousin. They knew that she's here in the West Bank and not in Israel. They knew that she's working with us, in our NGO. They knew that she's working with Tarek and me. They freaking knew that she was in Jordan when they arrived!

(And nobody of us ever told them).

And yet, they let them in. Just like they let me in last summer after 5 hours of interrogation. Or like they gave Moni a new three-month visa.

So what's the point? Of all those hours of interrogation? Of freaking us out by showing off their intelligence-gathering skills?

Make us not want to come back? But we will.

And every time they do this to us, we get even more critical of the State of Israel, and we tell even more people of how they treat normal human beings who would just like to visit, or perhaps volunteer in a charitable organization, or, God forbid, work in humanitarian aid or even something so terrible as human rights.

And even more people will shake their heads, learn more about the conflict, join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Even more people will pressure their governments to take a stand for the Palestinian people against the occupying power.

Don't they know this?

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Travel Log: Camels, Horses and Cairo Garbage

There are a few things I'd like to see revolutionized in the Middle East, of which two stood out inescapably clearly during my last visit to Cairo:

1. Environmental Awareness

2. Animal Rights

The streets of Cairo are dirty. Much like, I think, everywhere in the Middle East (with the exception of Amman that is always eerily clean for being located in the Middle East), there is trash on the streets; old plastic bags and empty water bottles blowing around in the desert; the Nile has soda cans and potato chips bags floating around on its surface.

I mean, come on!

People throw chewing gum and cigarette packages out of their car windows, leave fast food paper bags on benches. True, there is an acute lack of garbage cans, which tells us it's not only a problem of people not caring about the environment; it's also a governmental problem.

Put up garbage cans! Hire people to clean the streets.

Thankfully, though, there's an initiative on Facebook called the Keep Egypt Clean Project. They have 78,337 followers (out of something like 80 million Egyptians, but still) and they organize cleaning events out on the streets.

Their last status update is:

"Guys i want everyone of u to suggest a place to clean.. take a picture of this street or this place if u can.. upload it here and write full details about where is it.."

Power to the grassroots!

Bird in a heap of garbage at the side of the street in the 6 October neighborhood

But then Cairo, being a city of something like 20 million or more with almost as many old and crappy cars (it seems), located in the desert, is also unimaginably polluted and dusty. The once-white or light-colored buildings are literally black with pollution; the cars become dark gray if left uncleaned for only a couple of days.

They say spending one day in Cairo is equal to smoking one pack of cigarettes.

Cairo needs a serious environmental protection plan.

Cairo also needs a serious animal protection plan.

On day three I think, we went to the Pyramids area to ride horses (camel for me, because I don't trust horses), and that experience made me depressed for the rest of the day.

My camel looked skinny, dirty and she had an open wound on the side of her neck. I considered briefly to demand another healthier camel, but then I felt bad for wanting to reject Sukkar and stayed with her.

As if that made her happier.

In any event, we rode past other camels and horses on our way out into the desert. Some with chafed off skin and open wounds where the saddle or the reins were; some so skinny that you could see their bones protruding; one horse so tightly tied to a concrete wall that he was panicking, trying to free himself in vain. We called a man who was standing there to check on the horse; he said the horse had a stomach pain.

A donkey was leaning his forehead against a wall, just standing there, reaching into complete apathy.

Beside the wall that surrounds the Pyramids area, right before you ride out into the desert, two horse carcasses lay and rotted in the sun, spreading a vile, metallic odor in the noon air.

A slightly crazy-seeming man who was purportedly a trainer, was pressing his horse so hard that he had pink froth in his mouth surrounding the bridle. From the blood. He was whipping the horse to keep him going.

We rode out in the noon sun. Tarek's horse was farting. My camel was strutting along, looking as confident and unaffected by anything as camels always do.

My camel Sukkar and I

I gazed out over the sand, the pyramids, and thought about the monkeys at Cairo Zoo that are about as apathetic in their small, empty cages as the donkey leaning his forehead against the wall and wished that the whole world was vegan or at least vegetarian and that animals were treated with respect and love everywhere.

The Pyramids at Giza, behind the constant Cairo smog

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Travel Log: The Day Tarek Got Arrested (sort of)

One of the days we were in Cairo - I can't remember exactly which one - we were taking the metro to Mar Gerges where the very old churches are. Among which, of course, the Hanging Church that is built on top of old Roman city walls.

An opening in the floor of the Hanging Church, showing why it has been named the Hanging Church

But first, we walked over to the Egyptian Museum from our hotel in the morning; over the bridge Kobry Al-Galaa, straight across the island Al-Gezira in the middle of the Nile, and then over the bridge Kobry Qasr Al-Nil with its huge iron lions guarding the crossing over the Nile.

It was still the holidays, and a little too early for the streets to be crowded Cairo style, but the streets of Cairo are never empty.

Much of the sky was whitened out by thin strands of smog; the sun shone through hazily, tossing glittery silver reflections over the surface of the river.

We got to the museum and did the whole bottom floor thinking we had endless energy resources, but quickly became too tired to do much more than the Royal Mummy Room (morbid, I know) and Tut Ankh Amon's treasures on the second floor.

If you haven't been, it's a huge museum with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, it seems, of ancient artifacts and it would probably take at least two days to do the whole museum.

Some Pharao outside of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Anyway, after the national dish koshary for me, and KFC for Tarek, we went under ground on Midan Tahrir to take the metro to Mar Gerges.

Tarek, thinking that it's Egypt and that they're probably not very particular with the non-smoking signs on the walls, walked under with his cigarette still in his mouth and placed himself in the middle of the hall while I was trying to figure out which line to take, when suddenly two or three white-clad Egyptian police officers walked up to him, looking for trouble.

"Where are you from?"

"From here," Tarek replied, probably without thinking at all. Or maybe, remembering what I had kept telling him: "Pretend that you're Egyptian when you barter in the souq." To get good prices.

But that only goes for the souq!

You see, as is illustrated repeatedly in the movie 'Asal Eswed that I was telling you about the other day, Egyptians don't exactly get treated very well by the police in Egypt. But wave a foreign passport, and you'll get away with pretty much everything.

That is to say, unless your passport is Palestinian.

The police officers ordered Tarek to put out the cigarette immediately, and when he couldn't produce an Egyptian ID and they realized that he had lied about his nationality (why oh why did he say he was Egyptian?), they ordered him to give them his passport ("Palestinian?!") and follow them to their small security room beside the turnstiles.

I was nervous like hell. Being Palestinian in any part of the world is not exactly popular; being Palestinian in a country that shares a border with the outdoors prison of Gaza, that is constantly fighting radical Islamists (and not-so-radical Islamists as well, mind you), and that is overrun by secret and military police, is potentially dangerous.

I followed.

Inside the small room, that had a desk, a chair behind the desk, a chair in front of it, and nothing much else, a man in civilian clothes looked at Tarek's passport while (ironically enough) smoking a cigarette under the glaring white neon light.

They reprimanded him a little for lying about his nationality, told him he had to go and pay a fine of 15 gineh (a little less than 3 US dollars) for smoking in the metro, and come back with the receipt to get his passport back.

And then the police officer who had done the talking outside pulled him aside and suggested that he pay the fine directly to him instead.

The corruption! Charming from a distance, perhaps, when you see people bribing police officers with a gineh or two. Not so much so when you're standing face-to-face with it in a security room under ground, though.

Tarek, in a way of trying to the officer an anti-corrpution lesson, did not give him any money, but went to pay the fine and came back with the official receipt.

The police officer handed back his passport, perhaps a little reluctantly, but we parted with smiles and well-wishes and headed to the ticket sales window to buy our tickets to go see the Hanging Church.

Disaster averted. All is well that ends well.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Travel Log Day 1, Late Night: Cairo

Coming back to Cairo was like seeing an old lover on the street. Familiar, yet surprising after so long. Comfortable in one way; painful in another. Painful because old lovers invariably change, and so do big cities, and you can never have them back the way it used to be.

We landed at 8:40 on Sunday evening. The man sitting beside Tarek, an Egyptian worker of maybe 35 years old who was returning to Egypt to celebrate Eid Al-Adha with his family, couldn't read or write so Tarek helped him fill out the entry form.

If you've seen 'Asal Eswed, a hilarious Egyptian movie about an Egyptian-American returning to Cairo for the first time since he was a small boy, you will be able to picture Tarek's reaction when we stepped out of the plane perfectly:

He took a big step out of the plane onto the staircase down to the tarmac, and drew a deep breath: Ah, finally here!

And then COUGH! Pollution. Lungs contracting. Dust. Night air humidity. Gasping for his breath.

"Oh my God, it's exactly like the movie!"

"Yes," I said. "Welcome to Cairo."

You get used to it. The car fumes, the dust, the dirt, the smog. You get used to it, or you overlook it, I'm not sure.

We were held at the airport for the better part of three hours for no other reason than Tarek being Palestinian. After a number of expensive international phone calls to people who know the Egyptian embassy in Palestine, we managed to get his passport stamped and left the airport and headed into the city night.

Cairo's streets are the same, but yet somehow different. The billboards advertise new planned cities out in the desert surrounding Cairo's crowded, polluted neighborhoods.

Come Uptown, to the New Heart of Cairo! 

Invest in 6th October south of Cairo! 

Move to Medinaty, a new planned city with everything you could dream of!

There are more newer cars, and many of the old flea-bitten black-and-white taxis have been replaced by new, shiny white ones whose drivers actually put the meter on.

And there are traffic lights. Who would have thought?

True, it is not rare to see cars that run a red light, but at least they're there. And looking fabulous, mind you:

Why doesn't the rest of the world have as instructive, pedagogic traffic lights as Egypt?

I was happy being back, but couldn't help but feel disconnected from the pulse that used to run through the veins of the city into mine. I had been away for too long.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ruby's Travel Log Day 1: Jordan

My boyfriend Tarek and I packed our bags about ten days ago and crossed through the Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian border controls into Jordan. As usual (and a little unfairly because I'm sure it is a country that has much to offer) Jordan was only a stopover on our way somewhere else.

I will regret saying where. There are so many people I didn't call (actually I didn't call anyone) because we decided it would only be us... Tarek and me... (and about 20-25 million others in the city).

I will regret saying which city, because I will make enemies out of friends, but since it's hopefully short-term (because I'm sure you all understand), I'll go ahead: we were on our way to Cairo.

Cairo. The city of pyramids, a thousand minarets, the oldest capital in the world, the home of the last existing wonder of the seven ancient wonders, the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Cairo Om el Donia. The mother of the world.

But first we had to wake up at 6 in the morning to get to the Allenby Bridge as early as we could. We weren't the only ones passing through Jordan that day; it was two days before Eid Al-Adha - the pilgrim holiday when millions and millions of Muslims from all over the world travel to Saudi Arabia to do their Hajj - and the bridge was packed.

As I've mentioned before, the only way out from the West Bank for Palestinians is through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge over to Jordan. This is why Jordan becomes a stopover on our way somewhere else.

Anyway. For days and days, people had been turned back by the Israelis because they couldn't pass before the bridge closed at night (it's open from 8 am to 8 pm on weekdays, and from 8 am to noon on Fridays and Saturdays). So naturally, we were a little nervous.

But we got through all right in just around four hours (luck and useful contacts), went to Tarek's neighbor's sister's house for lunch, and then headed to the airport and Cairo.

The way to the airport in Amman is nice though. With families parking along the highway to barbecue under the trees that line the road. And camels in the back of trucks.

Photo courtesy of Tarek

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life in the Occupied Territories

I've been collecting a whole mental list of items I need to blog about, but what with work and family I haven't had the time nor the energy to actually sit down and write.

But now, I'm taking the time. Here follows a summary of some of the things that have been going on:

We started recording a TV series at work. It's a development project for youth which we received funding for from a foreign aid organization.

The project is aimed at  giving an opportunity to young women and men in Palestine to express themselves freely regarding problems and matters that really mean something, while at the same time allowing them to take an active part in the public sphere and thereby sort of creating a space for democratic participation.

I had a vision of it being an honest, sometimes controversial, talk show that would stir up a society-wide debate on everything from unemployment to how the occupation affects love affairs between Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside what is now Israel. We would discuss the peace negotiations, gender roles, relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians...

But with all donor-related rules and regulations, we have been obliged to water it down to a wimpy little Q and A program that is half-advertisement for the donor's other programs. We are not allowed to discuss political or religious topics at all, and what's worse, they ask us to literally edit out mentions of the Israeli occupation if somebody happens to bring it up of his or her own accord.

(Perspective: something like a third of Palestine's economy is directly made up of foreign aid - so you can begin to imagine what this implies for basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, not to mention the development of a democratic society in the occupied Palestinian territories).

I will not mention our donor by name in case they google themselves, but suffice it to say that the money comes from a certain uncle by the name of Sam.

Anyhow, it is not only this censored TV show that has been taking up most of my time lately, my boyfriend's mom also came down with a severe case of double pneumonia a few weeks ago and had to go to hospital.

It is obviously distressing for any family anywhere in the world when a family member becomes hospitalized for whatever reason, but I daresay that being a Palestinian family in the occupied territories adds another layer of worry. I'll tell you why:

It all started like flu-like symptoms after Tarek's mom came back from a business trip to Turkey, but we quickly realized it was much more serious than that and took her to a hospital in Ramallah on a Sunday. On Monday she started feeling worse, on Tuesday even more so, and by Wednesday she had been moved to the intensive care unit by a group of perplexed doctors and nurses who didn't understand why she wasn't get any better.

The standard of the hospitals here leave much to wish for - after all we're living under occupation, in a conflict zone - so at this point, we realized that we needed to take her to a hospital in Israel.

However, because we live under occupation we can't just go. Even if a person is dying, they can't go without a special permit issued by the Israeli occupation authorities. And this might take three days, or a week, or who knows how long.

Who knows how many people die before they can get proper care?

Luckily, my boyfriend's family know people who know people, so in the end it only took one full day of office visits and paper signing before we got the OK to take Tarek's mom to a hospital in West Jerusalem.

Then it turned out that there were no beds available until the day after. So Tarek's mom had to stay one more night in intensive care in Ramallah before she could go see another doctor in Jerusalem.

At the same time, Tarek and his father were doing all the necessary paperwork to hopefully get permits to go with Tarek's mom to Jerusalem.

Finally, on Thursday at midday, they were allowed to go with her in the ambulance to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in West Jerusalem, where she stayed for another 5 days. The first night she was kept in the intensive care unit because she was close to lung collapse, and her doctor said that she had come to Jerusalem in the last  minute.

Again, imagine those who don't get permits. And those who can't pay the hospital bill.

I could go and visit her every day, which I did, but Tarek and his dad did not get permits after the first day because they were suddenly considered a "security risk." (Who knows why?)

So Tarek's dad slept in the hospital for four days (even though that meant that he risked being arrested, fined and jailed since he was a Palestinian in Israel without a permit). After two days Tarek was cleared, apparently ceased being a security risk, and could go and visit his mom.

The arbitrariness of occupation policies.

Tarek's mom is doing much better and things are getting back to normal. Except our TV program is still being censored.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010


In Palestine, there's a word that can close doors in your face or even kill your career like nothing else:


Or normalization.

The term is not exactly a hundred percent clear, because I daresay it means different things to different people. But the general idea is that it refers to normalizing relations with Israelis. If this is done in times when Israel is still occupying Palestinian lands, imprisoning Palestinian children, shooting peaceful demonstrators at close range in their heads, arresting people during nightly raids in people's homes, restricting movement of people and goods, denying Palestinians water, confiscating land, building illegal settlements... and generally making life as impossible as they can for Palestinians, then normalization is not a good thing.

Some might think normalization is wrong under these circumstances, but okay if the occupation ended. Some want absolutely nothing to do with Israelis at all, maybe because they've lost their sons, their fathers, or their brothers or sisters in the name of the security of the Israeli state.

What exactly constitutes normalization, however, is like I mentioned not completely clear. Some say you cannot have any relations at all with Israelis, others think dialogue is acceptable because it can help changing the way Israelis see the conflict, maybe make them understand what they are collectively putting the Palestinian people through.

The organization I work for, is accused of normalization.

We have a project together with an Israeli organization (whose director, I may add, is a Palestinian from 1948 - a shorthand for that part of Palestine that was declared as Israel in 1948) that is aimed at creating change through dialogue and joint meetings between Israeli Jews, Palestinians from 1948, and Palestinians from 1967 (the remaining parts of Palestine that was occupied in 1967).

We do this because we (the organization, I mean) think it is important that especially Israelis come in contact with Palestinians from 1967 in other situations than as soldiers at the checkpoints; that they get a chance to understand how their government's policies affect the lives of millions of Palestinians on a daily basis; that they understand that the version they get to hear about the conflict is not necessarily true.

And also a little bit because we think it's important for Palestinians to understand the Israeli version.

The idea is that dialogue could serve as a step on the way to creating change in both societies.

But it's difficult to recruit participants to this program. Some want to take part, but get threatened by their unions. Others would like to take part, but understand they would kill their careers if they did. Many don't want to have anything to do with the program because it is seen as normalization.

A part of me agrees. Have I not repeatedly advocated boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel? (Yes, I have, and I still do).

Another part of me thinks we have to open up a dialogue or we will never find our way out of this situation.

But when I write project proposals with another Israeli organization we might work together with in the future, and they can't even acknowledge that what is their independence war, is Palestine's ultimate colonization war... I see we have a long way to go.

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Today, for the first time in my life, I saw soldiers firing teargas canisters across the sky.

We went to Bil'in, a village not far from Ramallah that I've never visited even though I've been in Palestine for a year now. Not because I didn't want to, but because I'm not courageous - or maybe heedless - enough to go.

You see, Bil'in is a village that's surrounded by Israel's Apartheid Wall - there, a stretch of electrified fence, heavily patrolled by the Israeli army - and that has had about 60% of its land confiscated by Israel for the surrounding Israeli settlements.

Every Friday, the villagers walk up to the wall to demonstrate peacefully against the confiscation of their land. And every Friday, the Israeli soldiers respond with shooting rubber-coated steel bullets, live ammunition and teargas canisters at the protestors.

Sometimes they shoot children, sometimes they kill. Mahmoud Yusef Abu Rahme, a 12-year-old boy participating in the non-violent demonstration one Friday in 2007, was shot in his head with a rubber-coated steel bullet at close range. Bassem Abu Rahme was shot in his chest with a tear gas canister last year; he died immediately. Abdullah Abu Rahme was shot in his head in 2008.

Today, on Friday 1 October, we thought we'd drive out to Bil'in and go somewhere close to the demonstration. Not too close (because we'd prefer not being shot at, or arrested), but close enough to perhaps get some shots of the non-violent demonstrators facing the armed soldiers on the other side of the fence that cuts through the village.

Not knowing exactly when the demonstration starts on Fridays, however, and then getting a little lost on the way, we came too late. We came when the demonstrators were walking back towards the village center through the olive fields, equipped with flags, cameras and gas masks.

Demonstrators with cameras and gas masks

We could still see the soldiers patrolling on the other side of the fence, driving military vehicles. A group of children were biking up the hill together with the demonstrators. A few Jews from Israel spoke Hebrew among themselves. Some from other solidarity groups around the world walked with them. The rest were from Bil'in.

Demonstrators heading back

Up on the crest of the hill stood an ambulance in case the Israeli soldiers would injure somebody. The medical personnel were also walking back up the hill.

Israeli soldiers behind the electric fence in Bil'in (photo courtesy of Tarek)

The soldiers fired off a tear gas canister. As if to say to the demonstrators that they'd better be leaving. It cracked. Fizzed across the sky, and landed somewhere in the dry, yellow grass.

Tear gas canister landing to the left (see the smoke?)

Not before long, Tarek, Moni and I were the only ones left on the hillside, save for a few village boys and a Palestinian woman harvesting olives on the side of the dirt road.

Palestinian woman harvesting olives

She had spread out sheets on the ground under the tree, and was picking the olives with her hands, one by one, dropping them down on the sheet. Her skin was browned from the sun, and she kept her hair out of her face with a light green shawl.

The boys observing an Israeli soldier on the other side of the fence (photo courtesy of Tarek)

Suddenly the ladder toppled over and the woman fell to the ground. We ran over to her to help her up, and made sure that she wasn't hurt. The soldiers fired another tear gas canister at absolutely nobody further down the hill, and I exclaimed with irritation;

"Leesh?!" Why? "All the people already left."

The woman echoed my irritation with the soldiers, and then answered my question saying that they do it because she and her boys are there, harvesting their olives.

She called for her boys who had run across the street to watch the soldiers on the other side of the fence, worried for their safety. Then she climbed up the ladder again, because there were olives that needed picking.

"Yalla," she called to the boys, "help me so we can finish and go home."

Burned-out tear gas canister

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