Friday, February 26, 2010

Abu Kamel Hummus Place

We went to this little outdoors hummus place in the old city of East Jerusalem, Tarek and I. Abu Kamel Restaurant. We found it by chance, looking for another hummus place that I once visited in 2008 and thought would be somewhere close to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I have mostly stopped trying to find my way around the old city of Jerusalem, because I always get lost anyway. But I really thought I could find this place.

I think they moved it.

(They could have).

Anyway, this Abu Kamel place seemed nice enough. It has been there for at least 75 years--nailed up on the stone wall is a black and white picture of old men eating hummus in that very place in 1935--so the hummus couldn't be all that bad.

We sat down on a plastic chair each. It was only the two of us, and a young, shy waiter who spoke with a lisp. He recited the menu:

"Feeh hummuth 'ady, hummuth thnober, hummuth thawerma..."

Old Arabic music was playing from somewhere, the air was chilly, the sky gray, and close by was a small coffee place where men sat and smoked shisha.

We ordered plain hummuth, hummuth with pine nutth and a plate of frethly made falafel. All very nice (if not in fact nicer than the other place I was trying to find), and I plan to go back there when my parents visit in April.

That is to say, if they don't move it before that.

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Qalandia Checkpoint

So. What happened at Qalandia Checkpoint yesterday:

We got there at around 11.30 am, with plans to spend the day shopping in Jerusalem. The sky was gray, the air chilly and we could perhaps have picked a better day for shopping, but nevertheless our spirits were high.

We parked (because we can't drive with a West Bank-registered car through Qalandia checkpoint), walked over towards the entrance that leads into this huge metal construction with corrugated tin roof and walls, and got in line. There were perhaps 50 or 70 people in front of us, plus another 60 or so already inside, past the first set of turnstiles--much like on any given day at around noon (in the mornings and afternoons it's much, much more crowded of course).

But before I go into what followed, let me tell you about Qalandia checkpoint. It is one of the 39 military checkpoints set up by Israel between the occupied West Bank on the one hand, and Israel and occupied East Jerusalem on the other. It is different from the  about 60 permanent checkpoints inside the occupied West Bank that we have to cross whenever we pass from one West Bank city to another (or as in Hebron: from one street to another). These checkpoints are generally "drive-thru" checkpoints that annoy and take time (and, above all, create traffic jams) but are normally relatively easy to pass through. A lot of the times these days, we don't even have to show our IDs.

Qalandia checkpoint was at first a checkpoint on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem set up in 2000, much like these internal checkpoints, but it has gradually been built to resemble a border-crossing-meets-slaughterhouse-meets-prison type of checkpoint over the past years. Like I said, it's a huge metal construction, and on each side of checkpoint the Apartheid Wall towers up against the sky. There's nowhere to go but through it if you want to cross to Jerusalem.

Of course, the absolute majority can't cross to Jerusalem. I can, because I have an international passport. My boyfriend can, because he has a temporary permit issued by Israel to cross over for work purposes.

Once you're inside the corrugated metal building, you have to stand in line in a narrow cage-like passage with metal bars on either side and above your head and wait for the Israeli soldiers to let you through the first 2 meter high turnstile, in small groups of ten or so. There are three passages, but normally only one is in use:

Waiting in Line at Qalandia Checkpoint

Then you have to go stand in line again, at one of five passages (of which usually one or maximum two are open at the same time). This passing takes time, because the Israeli soldiers behind their bomb proof glass only let two or three pass  through the next 2 meter tall turnstile at a time. 

(I would show you pictures, but it's forbidden to take pictures inside the checkpoint (the one above was taken by Tarek with his spy camera (read: cell phone)). But check out the picture slide on this Washington Post article about Qalandia, by Ben Hubbard).

As time passes, irritation grows and people start arguing and begin to blame each other instead of the Israeli occupation for the time they have to waste in line. Somebody tries to cut in line, another person forgets to take his belt off before he goes through the metal detector and has to go back. Because when you are finally let through this second turnstile, you have to put all your belongings on a conveyor belt, go through a metal detector, and show your ID and permit (or passport for internationals) to a usually very bored and most often arrogant Israeli soldier on the other side of the bomb proof glass. Then, you are free to pass through two more turnstiles and hop on a buss to Jerusalem on the other side of the Wall. 

This is on a normal day. Yesterday, we had been standing in line for even longer than usual at the second turnstile before the metal detector and ID check, because the soldiers were slow with letting us pass, and also sent people back every now and then, denying them passage to Jerusalem for no apparent reason. Right before it was our turn to go through the turnstile, the soldier shouted out something in the speaker system that some of the others understood as "Women will not be let through here, all women must go stand in line three". I did hear the word "talateh" for three, and Tarek nodded, so I went to stand in line three with all other women, confused and annoyed at this new, bizarre (probably very temporary) policy.

I saw Tarek go through, but our line wouldn't move. The soldier had sent us there, but hadn't bothered manning the window. Would she send somebody? How long should we wait? Should we go back? No, one woman tried, and wasn't allowed to pass. Should we go somewhere else? 

But there is no one to ask. There is no "Information Window"; no "Customer Service Central"--no phone to call and ask somebody in charge. Only soldiers in booths, unable to hear, and most likely unable to care. So we stood there and waited.

Finally, I went "Screw it!" on the inside and went over to line two. It was manned and there was about 35 people waiting to pass through the checkpoint. I had gotten no official permission to go over there, but I figured that since the line was mixed, it would be okay.

Then Tarek called on my cell phone. He told me that the Israelis had taken him to a small room where they had left him waiting. Without giving him a reason why he had been taken aside.

So there we were. Waiting on either side of the checkpoint. Waiting and waiting. We talked every two minutes or so, updating each other on what was happening (which was essentially nothing).

When they finally let Tarek go (still without an explanation), and when I had finally passed through the metal detector and ID check, it was after 2 pm and our mood was considerably less cheerful. We went shopping in the Arab neighborhood with renewed resolve to boycott everything Israeli.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010


Israeli soldiers teach us one thing: the absolute necessity of being patient. We were stuck today for something like two hours at Qalandia check point, just waiting and waiting and waiting to be let through so we could go visit Jerusalem. Nothing very unusual, but normally when we finally pass through the final giant turnstiles we just show them our permits and IDs and everything is fine and we are let through. Today, however, they separated us. Humiliated us. I will tell you more about this tomorrow.

For now, this is a picture of Palestinian sabr: the cactus that grows all over this land and usually marks the borders of Palestinian farms.

Israelis can try to uproot the sabr growing around farms long ago bulldozed to the ground all they want--it will keep growing back over and over, refusing to leave its place in this world. Because sabr means patience. And patience is the only way to deal with this occupation.

Either that, or outright rage (but this will get you killed, so patience is to be preferred).

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I Got Mail

Just got my MuLondon facial moisturizer in the mail (yes, you can receive things from outside when you're in the occupied Palestinian territories, at least if you have a PO Box, and if you don't mind waiting for almost a month).

Anyway, living in a land where nobody's heard of organic, natural, vegan skincare, and seeing as how I ran out of my MuLondon cream months ago and refuse to use mineral oils, silicone oils and other crap on my skin, my face is DRY. So you can imagine how happy I am to finally have a beautiful completely natural and vegan lavender cream again AND a marigold, frankincense and myrrh cream too (Boris, the creator of MuLondon, very kindly sent me a sample of the marigold cream--wohoo!).

I can't decide which one I like the best. They both work wonders for the skin, especially if you have sensitive skin like I do. In the mornings I put a very, very thin layer so I don't go shiny (because they're very rich in fine oils, these creams). But at night, I put on a little extra so it can work its magic while I sleep, and wake up with clearer, smoother skin in the morning.

I know I sound like a commercial, but I LOVE NATURAL COSMETICS. I really do. If it weren't for my Masters in Political Science, and all the time and effort I put into it, I'd change careers and go into the essential oil business or something.

Speaking of which, there's a lady in New York who has a very nice little shop in Greenwich Village for essential oils--Enfleurage. It's amazing. I wanted to move in there when I was in New York last fall. The owner, Trygve Harris, has a blog where she writes about the trips she makes to Oman, India, Jordan, Egypt--everywhere she goes to buy essential oils, frankincense and other aromatics. AMAZING. Wish she would take me with her on her next trip.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Adding Color to A Camel's Drab Existence

Yesterday we went to Jericho to barbecue. Close by the picnic barbecue area was a small farm with goats, ducks, donkeys, horses and camels, living a very colorless, dry, sandy existence in small fenced off compartments. Tarek and I paid them a visit, and this is sort of how the events played out:

Mama Camel willingly posed for my camera, in a cloud of flies.

She may not be the prettiest creature around, but she certainly has character.

And she can close her nostrils to avoid breathing in flies, which is more than I can do.

Tarek, always the gentleman, offered Mama Camel the only item of food available: a dry straw or two that had ended up on the other side of the fence. Baby Camel and The Two Donkeys watched jealously.

Mama Camel ate it, but didn't necessarily enjoy it (judging by her proud, discontented, perhaps a little offended look).

At that moment, I got an idea of how to bring some color into their world. Baby Camel gave me an encouraging smile.

Not long before, some men had dumped a truckload of unsellable (but not inedible, and decidedly colorful) cherry tomatoes and red and yellow bell peppers. They were being eaten by flies. As much as I don't want to deprive flies of their food, there was plenty to go around.
Feeling slightly uncomfortable with Mama Camels long neck and big mouth (no offence, Mama Camel), I gave Tarek the honor to offer her a bright yellow pepper.

Then I plucked up the courage to offer her a bright red pepper myself. By that time, we had gotten onlookers.

And before we knew it, maybe ten or so little kids ran off to the dumped truckload of colorful vegetables and got a pepper or two too.

Most of them didn't dare to actually give their pepper to Mama Camel (which makes me braver than the average Palestinian 6-year-old--go me!), but they all had the intention of doing so. Over and over as they ran back and forth between the vegetable dumping site and the camels.

Mama Camel was pleased at the children's enthusiasm. Baby Camel had too small a mouth to fit a pepper. She turned her back demonstratively. 

But even though Baby Camel went without peppers, Tarek (like I said, always the gentleman) didn't forget The Two Donkeys.

And that's the story of how Tarek and I brought some color into the life of our four-legged friends and started a new trend with the kids of Palestine, all in one day.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ode to Egypt (and Palestine)

There is no place like Egypt in this world. (There is probably no place like Japan or Burundi either, but that's besides the point). I love Palestine, and my current hometown Ramallah is cleaner, whiter, quieter and decidedly more modernized (at least on the surface) than Cairo, but some days I just MISS EGYPT.

Reasons why:

1. Eish Balady. The soft, flat, chewy, perfectly textured wholemeal bread you buy off the street. By far the best bread in the world. Sure, there's sand in it sometimes, but what do you want? It's the desert. The Palestinian taboun is sort of the same, but totally different.

2. The Egyptian Sense of Humor. It's stupid, loud, corny, and I don't get it half of the time, but I love it, and if it makes people laugh 95 % of their time regardless of what hardships they might face, I'm all for it.

3. The Heat. 48 degrees Celsius. July. You sweat like crazy, inside an old crappy black-and-white taxi from 1972 with no AC. The windows are down, but you're stuck in the crazy afternoon traffic so there is absolutely no breeze. I complain, but at the same time, it makes me comfortably lazy and completely relaxed.

4. Which brings me to the Zahma: I know I'm supposed to hate being stuck in Cairo traffic, because it's cray-zee. Travel time will double or triple, but who cares? You're in CAIRO.

5. Which brings me to the Absence of Stress: The minute I land in Cairo and step outside the plane, all the stress and the pressure just melts and runs off me like so much Swedish ice. The traffic, the noise, the crowded streets--nothing can change that.

6. The Music. To the untrained Western ear, all Arabic music may sound the same. But this is about as far from the truth as you can come--different countries and regions have very different music, and there's nothing like Egyptian music. Sherine, Amr Diab, Um Kalthoum, Tamer Hosny, Mohamed Hamaki, Haitham Said. Love them.

7. The Foul. The mashed fava beans at Gad in Mohandeseen. Dee-lish.

But actually. No one makes better foul than my Palestinian boyfriend. He makes it for breakfast on Friday mornings. And as much as I miss Egypt, Palestine is pretty damn amazing too.

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