Monday, August 23, 2010

Palestine Book Project Update

I finally managed to get a hold of some books on the PLO and the wars that Palestinian freedom fighters and revolutionaries have fought in. Have lots to read.

When I say lots, I mean lots. I have Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation about the Lebanon wars (nobody told me it was 727 pages!) and The Great War for Civilization for a general overview of the region (I did know it was kind of dense... 1368 pages--what was I thinking?); and Arafat and the Dream of Palestine by Bassam Abu Sharif (a slim 260 pages-- I suppose former freedom fighters/terrorists don't waste words the way journalists do).

Arafat and the dream of Palestine.

Did I tell you that Tarek's Mom gave me a small embroidered pouch made from a traditional Palestinian dress that Abu Ammar (also known as Yasser Arafat) gave her years and years back? She cut up that dress recently to make a new, slightly more modern one (yes, I tried to talk her out of it, but somehow it didn't seem half as remarkable having been given a dress by Abu Ammar to her as it did to me), and had the pouch made for me.

Oh, and Tarek and I were invited for iftar at his neighbor's house and she told us about when she was 9 or 10 and lived in the old city of Nablus and Abu Ammar would come and hide at her house right after the 1967 war (her father was one of the town elders).

We never had historical figures hiding in our house when I grew up.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lebanon Amends Labor Law

Two days ago I wrote about the difficulties under which Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, and although I daresay that life will go on pretty much as usual for most Palestinian refugees who are still undereducated and lack basic social and civil rights, today Lebanon took a small step forward nevertheless.

The Lebanese Parliament voted to amend article 59 of the Labor Law and grant Palestinian refugees the right to work some professions that have been barred to them until today.

About time.

Update: I must admit that I didn't fully understand the Arabic article I got the information from. At the time of writing, there were no English articles available, but now there are. And it turns out that while the amendment to the labor law permits Palestinian refugees to work in the private sector, they are still not allowed to have jobs in the public sector, or in medicine, law or engineering.

Public health care and state education facilities also remain unavailable for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

So when all is said and done, thanks to the Christian factions in Lebanon, the country keeps falling far behind its neighboring countries when it comes to granting Palestinian refugees even the most basic rights.

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Christians Observing Ramadan

Many years ago, I met a young Christian man in passing at the airport in Cairo, who told me that he fasts during Ramadan.

It's not like he just walked up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Christian and I fast during Ramadan." We were talking about being Christian in a city where almost everybody is a practicing Muslim, and I remember asking him what it's like to live in a society where everyday life is arranged to accommodate people with a different belief system than yours, what with everything being closed in the daytime during Ramadan and all.

And that's when he said that he doesn't mind, because he fasts too. Not because he's forced to, but because most of his friends are Muslims and it just seemed like the right thing to do for him.

This conversation happened a long time ago and honestly, I have no idea if this person still fasts or not, but the memory came back to me as I was reading an article on Al-Arabiya about a Mike Kanawati who is a Christian living in Bethlehem, a Muslim majority city in Palestine that is also home to one of the largest Christian communities here. Mike, just like the airport person, also fasts during Ramadan as if it's the most natural thing to do:

"My grandmother used to fast, both Christian and Muslim fasting, and we were raised this way to show respect for and solidarity with other religions," Kanawati said.

Mike added that some of his Muslim friends fast during Christian fasting periods, too, because in Bethlehem there's a "centuries-old tradition of interfaith solidarity."

Isn't that something?

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Palestine TV's Ramadan Special

We were invited for iftar at Tarek's uncle's house today. Although the only one actually fasting is Tarek's aunt, we all waited for the maghreb prayer before we sat down to break the fast.

Tarek's uncle lives outside of Ramallah at the end of a bumpy road, on the slope of a hill looking out over an olive tree terraced valley. His house is new, huge and has a big flat screen TV in the sitting room.

After the bamyabatinjanmalfouf mahshy and the salad, we sat down in front of the TV to watch Palestine's government TV, Falesteen. 

Falesteen has a Ramadan special this year. Every night, they show one of their reporters walking around refugee camps in Lebanon, knocking on people's doors, stopping people on the street, asking them if he can know their name and where they're from.

Tonight, most of them were born of parents who fled from Akka in the north of what is today Israel. They were born into refugee camps in Lebanon, a country where they make up roughly 10 % of the population but enjoy almost no social or civic rights at all. They have no access to public social services, very limited access to health care and education, and they are forbidden by Lebanese law to work in around 20 different professions.

Wait, I'm not sure you got this: If your parents fled from Palestine and you were born in Lebanon, you are not allowed to be a dentist, you can't work as a doctor, you are forbidden by law to become a lawyer or an engineer, and you can never work as an accountant.


Around half of the 425,000 UNRWA registered refugees (as opposed to the non-registered refugees who fall outside of UNRWA's statistics and sometimes outside of their social service system) live in the 12 UN administered camps where UNRWA provides basic health care and education. But because of the very difficult conditions under which Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, the number of refugees living in abject poverty is higher than in any other of UNRWA's camps in the region.

They suffer from overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing conditions and no proper infrastructure, and many of the kids are so disillusioned with life that they drop out of school.

(Where do I get this information? UNRWA's website).

So it is to these camps that Palestine TV send out a reporter every day this Ramadan, to extend a hand from those who might not have much, living under occupation in their homeland, to those who have less, living in exile after having fled from their homeland.

The reporter walks around, like I said, and talks to people. And in some kind of attempt to reconnect these people with their roots, he asks,

"What is the capital of Palestine?"

And half of the time, they can't reply. So the reporter helps them a little and goes,

"Al-Quds, right?" Jerusalem.

Yes, of course!

And then he will sometimes say, "So can you mention five other cities in Palestine?"

Sometimes they will remember Ramallah, sometimes Gaza. But never do they mention the city their parents were from, and the reporter has to help them again.

"Areeha, Al-Khalil, Yafa, Haifa, Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem..."

Other times he will ask the name of the famous church in Jerusalem, or the famous church in Bethlehem. And again, most of the times, he has to fill in the names.

But every time, he pulls out a hundred dollar bill, says that they did well, wishes them a Ramadan karim and sticks the dollar bill into their hands.

It's not really a quiz so much as a way to remind them of where they come from--they're not just poor refugees living in squalid refugee camps in Lebanon, they're Palestinians.

Tonight, in the last house the reporter visited, a small child in diapers was standing in front of a fan, and an old man in shorts and a white t-shirt invited the TV team inside. The reporter is sweating a little in the heat as he starts asking him the same questions he asked everybody else.

But this man knows the capital of Palestine, he doesn't need any reminders. He has fought in the Palestinian revolution for 25 years. For 25 years he has been loyal to the PLO! Only to be left behind in this refugee camp. Like a dog, he says.

The reporter replies but I can't understand. He hands over the hundred dollar bill and the man with the gray hair accepts it and starts weeping. He sits in his sofa and weeps on national Palestinian TV. The reporter leans in and gives him a hug.

And now, writing this, I started crying and I don't know how to end this blog post.

I will go out for a walk.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Visa Extension

For having so many reservations about letting me enter Palestine only a month ago, Israel seems to be surprisingly lax about me working in Ramallah for a Palestinian organization.

The Ministry of Interior in Tel Aviv just approved a one-year extension of my visa.  

Oh yeah!

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Yoyo is Gone

Jessy the Mad Dog--the ex-settler who bit me and then became a thief--had a love affair not too long ago.

I think I failed to mention that here (didn't I?), but my Facebook friends will remember the Youtube link I posted on my wall:

Do I hear an Oscar Buzz?


Okay, but it's Tarek's and my first film. Cut us some slack.

Anyway, the object of Jessy's infatuation was a young stray puppy, as you can see here. She was white with light brown patches over her eyes and ears, and we named her Yoyo. Yoyo, I think, fell in love with Jessy right away and would follow us around when I took Jessy for walks. Jessy would strut along by my side with an air of indifference, and only occasionally pay attention to Yoyo. But when Yoyo fell behind to smell something, Jessy would implore me to wait so Yoyo could catch up with us again.

I could never really figure out if Jessy was playing hard to get; if her age and comfort in life had made her a little blasé; or maybe if it was a dog hierarchy thing.

Nevertheless, Yoyo wasn't put off. Au contraire--for a period of time she would come by the house each and every night to kiss/lick/smell Jessy through the metal bars of the gate.  Sometimes we would let Jessy out to play with her, or we would allow Yoyo to come inside the garden. There the two of them would sniff and lick each other unashamedly.

We used to give Yoyo food and water, and Jessy (surprisingly enough) was only mildly jealous of her. Only once did she try to bite her, and that was just because I gave Yoyo a piece of bread before I gave Jessy. Quite understandable, in other words.

Yoyo whimpered and ran away with her tail between her legs and we didn't see her for a week or two. But the bond between them was too strong for such an incident to break, and before we knew it, Yoyo forgave Jessy and came back.

This was in May. Observant readers will already have noticed that I write about Yoyo in the past tense.

It's not a grammatical mistake.

At the end of June, before Tarek's and my surprise visit to Sweden, Yoyo would still follow Jessy and me when we went out jogging, and she would still come by the house at night.

In the beginning of July, when we came back, the streets of Al-Tireh were empty. Not a stray dog in sight. The nights were quiet.

At first (rather naively) I thought that maybe it was too hot for the dogs (I mean after all, Jessy won't even drink in this heat unless we put ice cubes in her water first). But then, a few days ago, I learned that our neighbor's dog passed away a couple of weeks back after having eaten poisoned chicken that the Ramallah Municipality throws out in the neighborhood to deal with the "problem" of stray dogs.

And if our neighbor's husky died like that, then...

...I don't even want to think the thought.

Jessy still jumps at the mention of Yoyo's name, and runs to the gate to look for her. But she never comes. And her sleeping place on the street outside Dr. Taha's house is empty.

How sad it is when love stories come to an unhappy ending.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Ramadan Karim

On Wednesday, it seems, Ramadan will begin. We never really know until the very last minute, since it's not exactly up to us, it's up to the Moon.

I've never been in Palestine during Ramadan before, but I've had the pleasure of spending two Ramadans in Egypt. One of them was in Cairo, and Cairo is amazing in Ramadan. Amazing.

The days leading up to the first day of fasting are filled with preparations, cooking, stockpiling and the air is virtually vibrating with excitement and well wishing.

"Ramadan karim!"

"Allahu akram."

Literally: Ramadan is generous, but God is more generous.

Then Ramadan begins. The first day is difficult, they say. Exhausting without water, cigarettes or food. Long. But then it gets easier to fast because you get used to it. From where I'm standing, however, it doesn't seem to get that much easier at all. In fact, as the days creep by at a snail's pace, they just seem to get longer and hotter and people seem to get worse headaches and less patience by the hour. They talk less. Carry out their duties, but do little more than that.

In the afternoon, right before the prayer, you can hear a pin drop on the sidewalk in the middle of Cairo, if you had one to drop. Not a soul is out. And for Cairo, a city of something like 20 or 25 million souls, that is truly a strange thing.

So what's so amazing about this, you might ask yourself.

It's not the days, and it's not the breakfast (literally breaking the fast) at sundown with all its abundance.

And even though they are quite amazing in themselves, it's not even the nights that truly make Cairo amazing in Ramadan. It's true, every street is lit by multicolored lightbulbs strung up between buildings and trees, winking at people dressed up to go out to the Ramadan tents set up all over the city to smoke shisha and eat and talk. And as much as I do love the foul vendors that set up special Ramadan booths all over Cairo to provide its citizens with piping hot fava beans at night to keep them longer during the next day, it's not really that either.

It's what happens in the poor quarters. People who have been more blessed in this life line up table after table after table in long rows on the streets in the less affluent areas and invite anybody who needs a helping hand to sit down and partake of a good square meal that leave little more to ask.

I think it's this that Ramadan is all about. Reaching out to your neighbors who might be lacking what you have an abundance of, and share with them your abundance.

But, without wanting to offend anybody, I sort of don't really get the whole fasting part. I know it's supposed to remind you of what it's like for people who don't have access to all the food and water they need or want, but surely we don't need to deprive ourselves of food and water to understand that they need our help? And, honestly, there are people who need a helping hand during other months than Ramadan as well.

Which reminds me of Christmas. Somewhere along the line, the birth of Jesus was also made to remind us of the importance of being together and helping those in need. And just like some Christians (if not most that I know of, including myself who still celebrate Christmas without being an actual Christian) sort of forget about that--and about Jesus, for that matter--in the middle of all the Christmas gift buying, gingerbread baking and food preparations, I daresay some Muslims also focus on the symbolism around Ramadan and forget about the essence: they fast diligently, but then the indulge in an excess of food at night... which, I believe, is not really the best way of reminding yourself of what it's like not to have food on your table at all, day or night.

So. My point? Don't fast during Ramadan or indulge in an excess of food at night; don't buy lots of Christmas gifts and overeat Christmas food?

No, not at all.

Be nice and share all year around?

Yeah, maybe.

Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing what Ramadan is like here in Ramallah. I think very different from Cairo. Most people I have talked to don't exactly plan on fasting at all, except maybe the first day. No one in our office will observe Ramadan, which will make life much easier for me. Because even though I understand that it is actually illegal to eat or drink on the street during the fasting hours here, nobody will know what happens behind our office door.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Meat Trauma

I was hungry a second ago, but now I can't eat.

Struggling to keep inner calm.

It's like this: I grew up with a mom who refused to eat another bite of meat at the age of 11 and a dad who gave up meat after he started seeing my mom. My childhood was tofu, soya burgers, beans, and sometimes vegetarian hot dogs on special occasions.

I never even smelled meat cooking until I started school. No wait, sometimes they would cook meat at my kindergarten and one time one of the ladies had forgotten to make a vegetarian meal for me, and she suggested that I pick out the meat parts from the soup she had cooked for the other kids.

I looked at her as if she were from outer space.

Then I think she got the message and she made me some kind of instant pudding or other which I ate instead.

My point is that I've never eaten meat in my entire life, I've never wanted to eat meat in my entire life, I've never touched meat unless I was wearing plastic gloves (once when I worked in a restaurant: I almost threw up all over it, then they put me on chopping vegetables instead), and I always look away when I see meat at the market or in grocery stores. I walk out of the room when meat is cooking, damn it. I can't even smell it.

So you can imagine what it was like for me when I just went out into the kitchen two minutes ago, at my boyfriend's parents' house (who eat meat on a daily basis), feeling a little bit hungry, opened the fridge and took out the little plastic container in which I put the sun dried tomato pesto I made last night and I see something red dripping from under it.

Not fully realizing it at first, I went: Oh, the container is leaking and the olive oil is colored red from the tomatoes. 

Then: But it wasn't leaking at lunch when I took it out, and nobody else has touched it.

Then, holding the container in my hand, seeing that the red whatever-it-was had dripped on my foot, turning my eyes back to the shelf in the fridge, noticing a blue plastic bag, remembering that Tarek's dad bought meat in a blue plastic bag today on the way home: No, it is NOT!

It hit me like a punch in the stomach. It was meat juice. Like diluted blood. Dripping on my foot.

I called for help. Meaning: I asked Tarek's parents to clean it up, because I could certainly not, and I desperately needed to run to the bathroom to wash my feet with soap.

I also changed my pants in case a tiny drop had landed somewhere I couldn't see.

Then I went back outside and cleaned my sun dried tomato pesto container. First with a paper towel that sucked up the juice and turned light red as if it was blood.

Which it was.

And then I cleaned it with soap and water. And fully aware of the fact that there is no way the meat juice that was leaking from the blue bag had actually entered into my pesto, I still put it back in the fridge (on another shelf, mind you). Completely unable to eat. Especially something dark red.

I need to convince my boyfriend of the benefits of veganism.

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The Beach

I didn't tell you that we went to the beach the other day, did I?

If not: we went to the beach the other day.

It was a sunny, windy day and the gemstone-green Mediterranean thrusted its waters onto the seashore, wave after wave.

We spent hours in the warm water, tumbling around in the waves, (sort of) body surfing... (that is to say, Tarek tried to teach me. I might have gotten it right once or twice, but mostly I was just caught in the middle of enormously huge waves, sucked under the water, spun around a few times; I scrubbed against the sandy bottom, and then popped up again, gasping for air with eyes burning from the salty water)... I said, sort of body surfing... for hours and hours, not really minding the scorching sun and definitely ignoring the beach guards shouting at us in Hebrew through their loudspeakers. Supposedly something in the line of: you are not allowed to swim outside the designated swimming area!

But we didn't understand.

Once, we got out of the water as a nice gesture, but everybody else was still swimming so we jumped right back in, immediately swallowed by the waves again.

Tarek Swallowed by a Wave

Me Swallowed by Another Wave

Imagine if we were allowed to go there without permits, checkpoints and all that crap. Then we could take the car tomorrow morning and be there within an hour. And get all sunburned, sandy, sweaty and salty again. But Tarek doesn't have a permit to go to Israel now. So we'll have to make do with the hotel swimming pools here.

Yay (kind of unenthusiastic... although it's certainly better than nothing).

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