Saturday, July 31, 2010

Palestine Book Project Update

I've realized that I need to study the history of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) much, much more closely. I know the basics I think, but I have interviews coming up with two very leading figures within the organization and I need to really know what I want to know from them, if that makes sense.

So I don't just sit there and go, "So... you want to liberate Palestine, huh?"

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Do Not Litter

When I was little, I was taught not to litter. And just like I can't go to bed without brushing my teeth, I can't throw an empty can on the street.

Do I ever think "Ah, but maybe just this once..."?

No. I tried, but it just doesn't work. I cannot.

Tarek, our friend Yazan and I went to Al-Kasaba movie theater in Ramallah the other day. It's the only movie theater in Ramallah, situated downtown. They show mostly Arabic movies without subtitles, which I guess would be annoying unless you're like me and you need to practice your Arabic.

I really do.

Anyway, we went and saw the new Egyptian movie Assal Eswed (Black Honey) with Ahmed Helmy.

There are two floors at Al-Kasaba. The top floor is beautiful and spacious with raw stone walls; the bottom floor is kind of cramped, the chairs are a little stained and broken and the walls are ugly. Assal Eswed was showing downstairs.

Was I bothered?

Not one bit, because before I knew it I was sucked into the beautiful, crowded, noisy life of Cairo, with the Nile, the pyramids, the people...

Oh. Sorry, this post wasn't supposed to be about how much I love Cairo. It was supposed to be about littering.

Yeah. So the main character, Masry, comes back to Cairo after having grown up in the States and notices that things are done a little bit differently in his home country. For instance, people litter.

His taxi driver (sorry, lemozeen driver) throws whatever trash he has out the window while driving down the street, and Masry goes "Shit! What are you doing?!"

Which is sort of how I feel here too. Because people litter. All over the Middle East (with the possible exception of Amman in Jordan, but I'm not sure if people actually don't litter or if the city just employs people to clean up the streets).

I fight with my boyfriend over it. And he goes, "What do you want me to do? It's not like there are trash cans around."

Which is true. So I end up keeping his litter in my purse until we come home.

Others don't. Which makes me sad, because all the trash on the streets, in the olive fields and among the bushes just gives the whole country an air of "Nobody cares about us, not even we do."

Which is sad.

Chewing Gum Wrap with Instructions

But chewing gum maker Orbit tries to turn things around by providing people with clear instructions of how not to litter. I know my scan isn't super clear, but see how they cover every situation?

I love it.

If you're in a car, you lean out the window and throw it into a trash can. See? If you're biking, you throw it while driving past a trash can. If you're alone, you walk up to a trash can and throw it. If you're with friends... oh, you thought you could get away with acting cool and spitting the gum out on the ground? Think again! You walk up to the trash can that's under the street lamp and throw it.

That's how you do it.

Or, in case of an acute lack of trash cans, you do it my way: keep it in your purse until you find a trash can. Or the Masry way: collect it all in a plastic bag and take it back to the hotel with you.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Settlement Freeze: When Pigs Fly

I haven't seen any pigs flying lately, have you?

I have seen a lot of construction going on in Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, however. Here, I'll show you:

New Constructions in Ma'ale Adumim

Going back and forth between Ramallah and Bethlehem over the past few months, I've seen this row of houses in Ma'ale Adumim--a gigantic Israeli settlement in the West Bank--going from concrete skeletons to finished houses.

I would have taken pictures earlier, only it's along the highway and you're not exactly allowed to stop to take pictures. But the day before yesterday we had a problem in the car and had to stop. So I pulled out my camera and made the most of the situation.

You see the second house from the right? It's still under construction. And so are number six and seven from the right. The rest in the row were all constructed in the past months.

Newer Construction in Ma'ale Adumim

This is a clearer picture. Tarek drove slowly after he fixed the car so that I could take better pictures. Another new house in Ma'ale Adumim, under construction.

So? You might think.

So. This means that Israel's settlement freeze is not a freeze at all, but empty words from Israel's government to appease the American government. As usual.

What about a partial freeze? I mean, Israel has said that they don't consider East Jerusalem occupied territory, and that demolishing Palestinian houses and evicting Palestinian families and putting up Jewish neighborhoods there is therefore like... constructing in Tel Aviv. They've been very clear on that point: they never intended the freeze to include East Jerusalem.

Fine. But Ma'ale Adumim is not in occupied East Jerusalem, it's in the occupied West Bank.

I know, my blog is turning into something like a settlement watch.

The past few months I've blogged about other non-East Jerusalem constructions, and uploaded pictures (here and here) that I've taken on construction sites faaar away from East Jerusalem. Because regardless of what you might understand from the world press, Israel is not only demolishing Palestinian homes and building new homes for Jews in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem during their alleged settlement freeze, they're doing it all over the West Bank.

So forgive me for thinking that there is a correlation between the absence of flying pigs and the continued settlement expansions. And forgive me for thinking that we won't see a settlement freeze here until the day pigs fly.

Arrested for Being Arab

An old film line comes to my mind after reading the news these past few days:

"We were arrested for being black on a Friday."

(The Wayans Brothers making fun of racist police officers in the United States in the 1990s in their parody of "African-American movies," Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood).

Change a couple of words, and you will have today's news in a nutshell:

"We were arrested for being Arab in Israel."

First, a Palestinian-Israeli man was found guilty of rape after not making it clear that he was Arab before having sex with a Jewish woman.

Then, another Palestinian-Israeli was sentenced to five months in jail for allegedly spitting at a police officer at a demonstration.

There's racism in the whole world, but I think Israel takes the prize.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Palestine Book Project Day 2

I'm sure you're asking yourself how you could have missed the blog post titled Palestine Book Project Day 1, but no. Day 1 was last night, in the car on the way to Bethlehem.

Tarek was driving. I was talking. That's how we work.

I think it was somewhere on the highway close to Maale Adumim (one of the biggest Israeli settlements in Palestine) in the middle of  trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do with my life (out loud, which is how I work) and talking about the photos of Tarek's family that we had gone through earlier in the day, that I somehow suddenly got the idea that, once it entered my mind, seemed so obvious that I wonder how on earth I hadn't thought of it before.

"I'm going to write a book about your mom!"

Of course!

Because among all the photos of Tarek's dad kissing Yasser Arafat's cheek, of his uncle posing for group photos together with dignitaries, and of a teenaged Tarek sitting with the revered poet Mahmoud Darwish, one picture stood out:

It's black and white. It's 1978. Tarek's mom is standing with two young men on a street somewhere in Beirut, with pants wider than any I've ever owned, holding a gun in her hands.

She fought in the war.

"Your mom is such a strong woman," I told Tarek in the car. Either before or after the Idea had entered my mind, I'm not sure. "It's not the gun. It's fighting for what she believed in until she no longer believed in fighting. It's marrying your dad even if it meant that her family turned their back on her. It's fleeing Beirut in the midst of a burning war. It's starting a new life in Syria. It's taking care of her late sister's daughter until a court order took her away from her. Raising two sons of her own while her husband was away most of the time, working with Yasser Arafat. It's working for human rights. Moving to Tunisia and starting a new life there. And then finally moving to Palestine in 1996, only to see Ramallah burn under Israeli fire a few years later."


So Tarek's mom (who has a name, but I haven't decided whether to use her real name or an alias yet, so for now she will be known as Tarek's mom, or Imm Tarek, if you will) will be the heroine of my book that I started working on yesterday.

It will be a story about love, war, dreams of freedom; about fleeing for your life, losing loved ones, winning new insights.

It will start in 1948 when Palestine was fought off the world map and her family forced to leave Yafa, and I wish it will end with Palestine being drawn into every atlas in the world again. But this is perhaps hoping for a little too much, so for now, I'll just focus on writing the book.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Jessy the Mad Dog Becomes A Thief

So, Jessy the Mad Dog--you know, the dog who bit me, also known as the Israeli Settler who became a Palestinian--has become a thief.

A few months back we took her to the Grumpy Jewish Vet in Jerusalem because she had had a rash on her belly for a long period of time. She wouldn't stop itching and licking and none of the pills we gave her made her any better.

It was a long way going there, to the Grumpy Vet in Jerusalem. Jessy is, as previously mentioned, a little mad and bites everyone she doesn't live with, so we can't send her in a car to go alone and meet us there.

Why would you? She's a dog.

Well, if you're Palestinian from the occupied West Bank, you're not allowed to go to occupied Jerusalem without a special permit from the Israeli authorities, and even if you do have this permit, you're not allowed to go by car. You have to walk through Qalandia Check Point and you're not allowed to take a dog. Of course.

So we had to send Jessy in a car. But like I said, we couldn't send her alone, and since I'm the only one with a foreign passport (who can therefore go to Jerusalem in a car) that Jessy doesn't bite on sight, I had to take her. But since I can't control or carry Jessy alone (the importance of which will become clear in the next sentence), Tarek had to meet up with us on the other side before we went to the Grumpy Vet.

Because Jessy doesn't like the Grumpy Jewish Vet. She hates him. She won't go near his clinic unless dragged, pulled and carried over the threshold.

This is what we did. Twice in one week. And Jessy was super pissed off at us and wouldn't talk to us for two weeks.

We had betrayed her. Twice.

On top of that, the Vet told us she has a food allergy and that we can't give her anything except the special dog food he sold us for a lot of money. This meant that Jessy would no longer get chicken especially cooked for her, barbecue leftovers, or pieces of bread from us when we were eating.

This was too much for her little dog heart, and she not only didn't talk to us, she got depressed. She just lay in her corner on the couch facing the cushion for days. She wouldn't go out and run with me, she wouldn't go out and walk, she wouldn't eat her expensive dog food, she didn't come and meet us at the door when we came home.

We had betrayed her. Again.

It gradually became better, though. The rash went away, and feeling confident that it was the chicken that had caused her rash, we started giving her small pieces of bread again at the dinner table. And at the breakfast table, and at the lunch table (all of which are, incidentally, the same table). Before we knew it, Jessy got up from her couch corner, and things were back to normal.

Or so we thought.

But it turns out that underneath all of that white fluffy fur she harbors a deep, dark secret.

She can't forget about the chicken.

She must have been dreaming about it. It must have consumed her. The desire. The longing. For that sweet, sweet chicken.

So on Wednesday when we had a barbecue in the garden with people from outside, and we had left Jessy in the house in order not to have any unfortunate biting accidents, the desire had finally burned a hole in her self-control.

We didn't know it at first.

Twice, Tarek went inside to get something and found a piece of half-eaten chicken on the floor. Twice, he came out and asked us who had given Jessy food, blamed his father and yelled at him a little.

Then Tarek went in for a third time, and lo and behold! There was Jessy, on her hind legs, thieving grilled chicken off the kitchen table!

We scolded her, but couldn't help but feeling guilty. After all, if we hadn't taken chicken off her menu, she wouldn't have been forced into this new habit.

Yes, habit. The other day when we were watching TV, I turned my head just in time to see Jessy snatching meat leftovers from Tarek's dinner plate on the coffee table.

Jessy. The dog who would never have stooped so low as to steal food, has become a Chicken Thief.

I guess desires left unfulfilled will eat away at your character.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Truth About Hebron

In January I went to Al-Khalil (also known as Hebron) for the first time, and I was struck by how eerily empty the streets were. Since I know that the old city has been invaded by the Israeli army and that Jewish settlers have taken over whole areas, I (a little naively) assumed that the reason why all the shops were closed and the streets were empty was because the native Palestinian population can't keep their shops open because they get harassed by the settlers. I wrote a blog post about it.

However, I was wrong. Naive. The streets of the old city of Al-Khalil are not empty because business isn't good with Jewish settlers harassing shop keepers and shoppers (although they do harass them on a daily basis, and that can't be good for business), but because the Israeli army has welded shut the doors and windows of Palestinian homes and shops so that the Jewish settlers can pass through the streets "freely."

Here is the story (by B'tselem) of how Malka Kafisha, an old Palestinian woman from Al-Khalil, was shut inside her home when the Israeli army welded the door and windows of her home shut. She now has to climb up on neighbors' rooftops to get out of her house.

I can't even find words to express how this makes me feel. What the hell is the world letting Israel get away with?!

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Friday, July 16, 2010

At the Allenby Bridge

Okay, so where were we? Oh yes, I was filling out the form the young Israeli border control officer gave me.

Another female border control officer--a few years older than the first one--came up to me, asked me to move to another waiting area and also be sure to write down the ID number of my boyfriend on the form I was filling out. I called Tarek who was already through the control, and we figured they already know everything about him so giving them his ID number wouldn't really make a difference. I wrote it down for them.

After quite some time, the woman came back, took the form, and left me waiting again. And then finally, she came with my passport and papers in hand, sat down beside me and started interrogating me.

Woman: "You were here in 2008."

Me: "Yes."

Woman: "You were here for three months and we know you weren't here as a tourist. We know what you did here because people you thought were friends have told us, so there is no use to lie."

Me: "Yes, I'm aware of that." I know how they work. Thinking: if they know everything already, why bother interrogating me?

Then she changed the subject completely (probably some kind of interrogation strategy they get taught) and started asking me about what I'm doing in Ramallah. I told her everything. She asked me about my boyfriend and about our future plans together. She asked me if I was Jewish (which I'm not). By way of asking more questions, she then came with the following assumptions:

1) I'm Christian (which I'm not).

2) Tarek and I will get married, and when we do, we will have problems because he is Muslim and I'm not.

3) We will have children, and when we do, we will have problems because he is Muslim and I'm not.

Then she changed the subject again. Asked me about my studies. Wanted to know the topic of my Masters thesis in detail. I told her it was on the UN and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but kind of felt it would be better if I left out the main assumption in my thesis (namely that Israel is equal to, if not worse than, Apartheid South Africa, and that it is therefore puzzling that the UN Security Council will not call for sanctions against Israel the way they did against South Africa).

Anyway, she switched subjects again, asked me about my family. Then she came back to 2008.

Woman: "What did you do here in 2008?" She added, "I know you were in Jenin."

(Flashback to the interrogations in 2008 at Tel Aviv airport: both coming and going, I denied ever having plans on going to or ever having been to Jenin. I said I would visit Israel only, maybe Bethlehem).

Me: "Yes, I was in Jenin." No point of lying anymore.

Woman: "What did you do in Jenin?"

I told her. But surprisingly enough, she was more interested in what I had done in Ramallah in 2008. Surprisingly because Jenin is where the vast majority of the martyrs/suicide bombers came from during the second Intifada.

She asked me who I knew in 2008. I gave her names. She wanted to know how I met one of them.

Me: "Through Facebook."

Woman: "You're lying."

Me: "No, I met him on Facebook." Why would I lie about Facebook?

Woman: "You're lying."

Me: "No. I met him on Facebook. Then we met in real life."

Woman: "I know you're lying."

Me, not being able to contain my irritation: "I don't know what else to say, I'm telling you the truth."

Woman: "Give me his phone number."

I gave it to her, knowing they probably monitor his phone already anyway.

She kept asking me questions about Ramallah, about the political activism I was engaged in, the demonstrations I attended. I denied all involvement in political activism. She told me I was lying. Over and over again. But I wasn't. I don't attend demonstrations because of the risk of being shot at by Israeli soldiers and/or deported.

(The loyal reader will remember that I did attend two manifestations in Ramallah, but they were quiet and completely without (official) Israeli military involvement).

She then switched again and wondered where Tarek and I will live. Will we stay here? The first time she asked me, I said I don't know. The second time she asked me, after having asked some other questions in between, I said we haven't decided. The third time she asked me, I had lost the little patience I still had and went: "No, we want to move."

Woman: "Why?"

Me: "Because it's such a hassle traveling in and out of the country!"

Woman: "Why?"

Me: "Because of this!"

Woman: "But this is the first time this happens to you."

Me, going bonkers inside because she kept provoking me by telling me that I'm lying and making up things that weren't true: "No it's not the first time this happens to me."

Woman: "Yes it is."

Then I thought it's probably better if she thinks it's the first time I'm being interrogated, seeing as how I lied about Jenin and pretty much everything else the first two times.

She kept asking me questions. Why am I here and not in Sweden? Why do I care about Palestinians? Why don't I worry about my own people? Why do I want to work in humanitarian affairs and development? (As if that's something bad).

Finally I had enough and said: "Look, if you want to deport me, then go ahead. Let me just go and get my bags and then I'll leave."

Woman: "This might happen."

And then she left me again. For almost three hours. I knew her threat was most likely empty, and I was sure it was a only a matter of time before I would be let inside. But the problem was that I didn't know how long it would take. It was Friday and Shabbat would start soon, would they send me back to Jordan and tell me to come back tomorrow?

The waiting area was full of people, mostly Palestinians, waiting to be questioned, waiting to have their luggage searched. Old, old women, young women with newborn babies on their arms, mothers with small children... everybody is a security threat in Israel's eyes.

I dared only take one photo with my cell phone. You can see the waiting area, with kids waiting for hours for their parents who get taken to separate interrogation rooms inside; and people standing in line in the background, waiting to go through the last two passport controls after they have had their passports stamped or their visas granted.

All this time I was sitting in this area, without anything to drink or eat (remember we had landed at two in the morning, had hardly slept and hadn't eaten since we had the food served on the plane the night before), Tarek was waiting outside in the scorching hot sun, having gotten through the border control at around 9 in the morning.

He called me every two minutes to check on me and ask if there were any news.

Finally the woman came back, only to tell me to wait in another waiting area. This was at around one in the afternoon on a Friday. The Israelis working there were getting nervous about getting home in time for Shabbat, and so things were beginning to move faster. An Israeli man in military uniform called out my name and asked me to step aside with him.

He started: "What is the purpose of your visit?"

Without an ounce of patience left, I went: "Come on, I already answered this twice!"

He said that he knew, but he had to ask me. So he asked me question after question, and after protesting some more, saying they even had my answers in writing, I answered them again because I had to if I wanted them to stamp my passport. I gave Tarek's ID number again, I gave him my address, my work details, everything. Finally he said, "I can only give you a three-month visa, then you will have to go to Beit-El to have it extended. Your passport will be ready in 15 minutes, they will call your name."

"Oh okay thanks," I said, a little taken aback by his almost-excuse for not being able to give me more than three months.

After maybe a half hour, they called my name and I finally got my passport back, complete with an Israeli stamp allowing me to stay for three months.

It was two in the afternoon. I went through the last two passport controls, found my bags among the hundreds of other bags thrown in a heap on the floor after the Israeli security check, and finally got through to the other side.

I burst out in tears. Relieved and angry at the same time. And more committed to helping the Palestinians than ever.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm Back

After way too long, I'm finally back.

I mean back to blogging. The past month was crazy busy at work and I sat with my laptop in the office, at home after work hours, on my days off and just wrote and wrote and wrote. This is what it's like working in fundraising, I suppose--sometimes you have several deadlines at once, and sometimes your partners don't do their part, so sometimes you sit with about three times the work you're supposed to have. Hence the lack of updates.

I'm also back in Palestine. Tarek got a Schengen visa, so we packed our bags and went on a surprise visit to Sweden. Almost gave Mom a heart attack when we walked in through the door.

On Friday, we came back. Barely, but we made it. Let me tell you:

Tarek is Palestinian, which means he is not allowed to travel through the airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. And if he's not allowed, I'm not going.  If he wants to go anywhere, he has to cross the border into Jordan and fly from there. So this is where I went with him.

When we came back, we landed at Amman airport at two in the morning. Arrived at the border at around 3.30 am. Waited until around six or seven before we could go inside and go through the Jordanian border control. They check Palestinian passports in one place, and people with other passports in another.

Tarek went with the Palestinian bus to the Israeli border control at around 7.30, and I was left alone, standing in the early morning sun, waiting for the tourist bus. People around me were talking about last night, when the Israelis turned back several busloads of people from the border and gave them no other choice than wait until this morning to go back and try again.

The first bus finally came at 8.30 and around 30 minutes later it took us to the Israeli border control. The ride is maybe 5-10 minutes plus the time it takes to stop at the first Israeli passport control, have everybody get off, show their passports to the Israeli soldiers, wait outside while a soldier searches the bus, and get back on the bus. So we arrived at the Israeli border at maybe 9.15.

I got my bags, went and stood in line in the sun, handed over my bags to the border control, had my passport checked again and a sticker attached to it with a number 2 on it (that's the next to lowest security number you can get, 6 is apparently the highest, which I know because I got a 6 at Tel Aviv airport once). Then I waited in line again, had my passport checked again, was given a little piece of paper with a number 9 on it, went and stood in the line in front of passport control window 9, and waited.

(All these details? It's for people who are thinking about traveling through the Allenby Bridge into Palestine).

Anyway, it was soon my turn and the 18-year-old girl behind the window started asking me all sorts of questions.

Israeli girl: "What is your purpose of visiting Israel?"

Unlike the first time I went to Palestine (through Tel Aviv), I decided to tell the absolute truth this time. Mostly because I've been here for 8 months and they know I'm not exactly visiting the Holocaust Museum every day.

Me: "I work in Ramallah."

Girl, looking through my passport: "You know you don't have a work visa for Israel."

Me. "I know, but I work in Ramallah." That is, not in Israel.

Girl, either being very incompetent or trying to get me nervous: "You stayed almost a year after your visa expired, why did you do that?"

Me: "I didn't, I had a one-year, single-entry visa right here." I showed her. (And for the record, I'm allowed to stay for 3 months without a visa, which means I only stayed 5 additional months, so even if I didn't have a visa for that period, it certainly wasn't "almost a year" extra). "I lost the visa when I left last week, but it is until 31 of December so I certainly didn't overstay my visa."

Girl: "But this isn't a visa for staying in Israel."

Me: "This is what the Israeli authorities gave me." Thinking: if it's not a visa for staying, then what kind of visa is it?

Anyway, you get the level of our conversation. Unable to look me in the eye, she said to my passport: "You shouldn't work in Ramallah," under her breath. Meaning I'm wasting my life. "You should go back to Sweden."

After a series of questions concerning my work, my living situation, and a phone call in Hebrew triggered by the mention of my Palestinian boyfriend, she handed me a sheet of paper and told me to go and sit down and fill it out and wait to be questioned further.

I went and sat down. And I'll tell you all about what happened after in my next blog post.

To be continued...

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