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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