Monday, April 18, 2011

The Curse of the Mummy

After 70 years of empirical-evidence-gathering (by others than me), all facts point to the same inevitable conclusion: the curse of Tut Ankh Amon is upon us.

Remember the first tumultuous weeks of the Egyptian Uprising, when the baltageya and other hired thugs took to the streets of Egyptian cities to create general chaos and disorder to blacken the name of the protesters?

Not only were somewhere around 800 Egyptians killed during this period, the NDP headquarters burned down (without a single fire fighter showing up at the scene), stores and houses looted, horses and camels unleashed in the middle of peacefully protesting crowds, but a number of ancient artifacts were also stolen from the Egyptian Museum close to Tahrir Square. In spite of the human shield created by young protesters around the pink Museum.

Among the stolen artifacts, was an ancient brass trumpet found by Howard Carter in Tut Ankh Amon's tomb in 1922. And here begins the magic:

In 1939, seventeen years after it was found, the trumpet was played for (as far as I understand) the first time in 3000 years.

Imagine what such an old instrument can conjure up.

It was James Tappern who, I assume rather innocently, sounded the trumpet as 150 million people from all over the world tuned in to listen to the BBC radio broadcast directly from Cairo. Moments before he was to begin his mini concert, the electricity went (like you would expect if you tamper with a pharaoh's belongings).

And? Shortly after, the Second World War broke out.

Years and years later, the trumpet was once again sounded by a, for me, unknown person. Not long after, the Gulf War broke out.

A coincidence?

One week before the Egyptian Revolution started this year, a member of the staff at the Museum reportedly lifted up and tooted the instrument, one would suppose, rather innocently. Days later, the Egyptian Revolution began.

See what I'm saying?

How can one not interpret these three unrelated events as evidence that Tut Ankh Amon's tomb was indeed cursed and that the trumpet possesses a mysterious power to summon wars and revolutions?

According to the BBC, where I learned about this thrilling story to begin with, the brass trumpet has been returned to the Museum. It was found in an anonymous bag in the Cairo Metro a while back. As if by magic.

I never expected a cursed trumpet to allow itself to remain in the hands of the baltageya for very long anyway. But I do wonder what will happen the next time an unsuspecting person picks up and blows the instrument.

Should we beware?

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Man and The Pigeons

Outside the New Mosque at EminönĂ¼ tram station in Istanbul, there sits a man at a small red stand who has found a way to make a small profit of the hundreds of pigeons that flock there: he sells birdseeds.

One afternoon a week or two ago, as I was walking towards the tram station, I witnessed a series of events that made me think to myself,

"This needs to go into a blog post when I come back home."

This is what happened:

It was another gray day, with clouds so heavy they threatened to burst into rain any moment.

The birdseed man was sitting at his red stand, having just sold a small plate of seeds to a visiting couple. I watched as the lady fed the birds, guiltily taking some pictures of "the general view" without asking first. I know it's not polite, but the scene was too pretty to just walk past and the birds would fly away if I were to approach her and ask her if it was okay to take pictures first.

The birds gathered around, lined up on the wall of the mosque. Not really cooing, even though that would have added a nice touch to the story.

A well-behaved boy walked past, and the pigeons moved a little. But they didn't fly away. The couple left. The birdseed man waited for other customers.

Then came two other boys who, like boys do when they're together, started chasing away the pigeons for no other reason than to just chase the pigeons away.

The birdseed man didn't notice the boys at first (as can be seen in the picture above) but when he did (I didn't catch this on camera because I was too astonished to remember to press the trigger), he stood up, produced a green plastic stick from behind his chair and, yelling Turkish obscenities (or so I imagined) started after the boys and chased them up the stairs of the mosque.

The boys, who I suspect had gone through this routine once or twice before, were of course much faster than the old man, and were inside the mosque doors before the birdseed man had even reached to the top of the stairs.

I chuckled a little to myself (can girls chuckle?), remembered I had the camera in my hand and took a crooked picture of the mosque before I continued my walk to the tram station.

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Life Under Occupation, in Numbers

I'm researching the issue of water access in the Palestinian territories, because the organization I work for is applying for funds from the EU to start up a new project to improve water access in poor Palestinian villages in Area C (Palestinian West Bank areas under total Israeli control, as opposed to areas B and A that are under varying degrees of limited Palestinian Authority control).

Apart from learning some numbers that had ended up in the back of my memory shelves anew--such as: Palestinians who are connected to a (very substandard) central running-water network in the West Bank (that supplies water during a few hours on certain days of the week) use on average 73 liters of water per day; Israelis use 242 liters per day. But then, some 191 238 Palestinians live in 134 villages that are not connected to a running-water network at all and rely on expensive water tanks that deliver water to the hefty price of 7 dollars per cubic meter, and they use much less per day. Simply because they can't afford to use more. (These numbers are from B'Tselem).

At the same time, Israeli settlers have access to unlimited amounts of water through the high-standard running-water network of Mekorot, or the Israeli national water authority, and can irrigate their unnaturally green lawns in the middle of the dry desert, fill their swimming pools, and water their water melon and cucumber fields.

Apart from this, I also learned that Israel routinely demolishes water cisterns built to collect rainwater. Which is very bad news for those who try to collect the little rainwater that is literally heaven-sent at a time when Israel sucks up the water content of the natural underground reservoirs (that the Palestinian farmers aren't allowed to tap into without impossible-to-get Israeli permits) and uses 80 % of it, only to sell back the remaining 20 % to Palestine.

In February alone, six cisterns were destroyed.

It is also bad news for my project planning, because we wanted to build water cisterns to ease the financial burden on households in Area C villages that currently depend on expensive water brought in by water trucks. We need to reconsider.

Anyway, I also came over the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) March report, and thought I would share some other numbers that I am convinced don't exactly make it into your evening news hour, but is a part of our daily reality in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In March 2011, 15 Palestinians were killed at the hands of Israelis. All of them were in Gaza. This is the highest number of Palestinian deaths since "Operation Cast Lead."

Out of these 15 killed Palestinians, 4 were children.

In the same month, 0 Israelis were killed in conflict-related incidents, 0 were children.

A total of 204 Palestinians were physically injured in conflict-related incidents, 196 of whom were civilians, 55 in Gaza, 149 in the West Bank. Out of these, 57 were children. For perspective, 15 Israelis were injured, out of which 5 were civilians, and 0 children.

Two of those children who were injured were Yehia and Mujahed in the village of Qattana. On March 21st and March 22nd they were shot with live ammunition by Israeli Border Police near the Separation Barrier (the Israeli euphemism for the Apartheid Wall, which, by the way, I just learned is twice the height of the Berlin Wall).

These are their testimonies, as given to UN OCHA on the 31st of March:

Yehya, 14 years old:
“On 21 March, I left school with a group of friends at about 1:30pm. The Border Police were parked at the fence, which is very close to the school. We went to throw stones at them. As we got close, before I could throw any stones, I was shot with three bullets—both of my legs were injured (one of them in two different places), as well as my arm and in my side. After I was shot, the Border Police did not try help, but that’s to be expected, after all, they were the ones that shot friends carried me away, and then I was taken to the hospital. One of the bullets remains in my knee; the doctors are worried about possible complications should they try to remove it.”

Mujahed, 17 years old:
“In the afternoon of 22 March, I was playing football with some of my friends just outside of my family’s home when we heard the sound of Israeli Border Police on a loudspeaker coming from the area beyond the fence (the Barrier). We were no more than 150 meters from the fence, and we could hear the sound of tear gas and sound grenades being fired, and smell tear gas. The Border Police were using loudspeakers—taunting us with curses, daring us to go out and meet them. We looked up (the Barrier is on the hill), and although we couldn’t immediately see the Border Police, we knew who it was, and my friends and I climbed up to throw stones at them. They were hidden behind some of the trees in the area, and began shooting at us. I was shot twice with live ammunition, once through the hand, and once in my back. They tried to arrest me, but my four friends carried me away. I’m worried all the time that they will come looking for me, and that I will be arrested...both of my older brothers have been sentenced to three years in prison for throwing stones; one was arrested from our home on his eighteenth birthday.
The Border Police come here very often—maybe every other day, or sometimes even daily. This is the second time I’ve been shot with live ammunition—the first time I was shot was in March 2009. At that time, I had initially left school for a period of one month, but when I tried to go back, I kept having dizzy spells and bouts of nausea. In the end I dropped out of school completely, and haven’t been back since.”
Mujahed was arrested two days after the interview. Because Israel doesn't give a hoot for the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In March, 22 Palestinian died as a direct result of Israeli settler violence, and 55 settler-violence incidents that led to damage of Palestinian property and land were recorded. During the same period, one Israeli settler lost his life as a result of settler-Palestinian clashes, and three incidents led to damage of Israeli settler property/land.

In March, 381 "search campaigns" were conducted by the Israeli army in the West Bank, and 320 Palestinians were detained. 'Awarta, a Palestinian village whose only proven fault is to be located too close to the Israeli settlement of Itamar, the scene of a brutal murder of a settler family of five, including three children, by an unidentified knifeman/woman, was hit especially hard. 'Awarta was placed under two complete curfews, one of which lasted for four consecutive days during which the villagers couldn't leave their homes even to buy food. Homes were searched and damaged during nightly raids, villagers were interrogated (more than 400 of them, to be more exact), arrested and detained (at least 50, including 8 children, are still being held).

In addition to this, Israeli forces also demolished 78 structures around the West Bank, 77 of which were in Area C, and 1 in East Jerusalem. These demolitions led to the displacement of 153 Palestinians; 63 of whom are children. If you think the problem of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons is a thing of the past, I mean.

Ah, and not to forget: the military checkpoints that have provided so much material for my blog posts. In March 2011, there were 62 permanently staffed checkpoints in the West Bank; 26 partially staffed; 428 unstaffed "movement obstacles" and as many as 454 so-called flying checkpoints, or  temporary checkpoints set up at will by Israeli soldiers.

Gaza continues to be completely closed off.

This, my dear readers, is just one month under Israeli occupation. One month of many.

And we can't even build water cisterns for Palestinian farmers in Area C.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Traveling Alone

You know how there are people who prefer to travel alone?

I, as much as I am attracted to the idea of being the independent, lone globetrotter, do not belong to this group of people. I do go places alone; to work, visit friends. But I am not the lone traveler type.

For a long period of time, I tried to play the part, however.

Example one: a few years ago I decided to explore Egypt on my own. I was visiting friends in Cairo, and thought to myself: while I'm here for the 20th time, I should totally take the opportunity to go and see Alexandria and Aswan too.

Because that's what a suave lone traveler would do.

Result: I arrived at the train station in Alexandria, lump in throat, feeling more abandoned and alone than ever before in my entire life, I think. There were no more trains back to Cairo that day, so I went and checked in at the hotel I had booked beforehand, notified the young guy in the reception that I would only be staying one night--not three--turned down his kind invitation to share his meal, and went out and took a walk along the Kornish. Alone in a sea of families that were taking evening strolls, children eating cotton candy, men sitting on plastic chairs placed on the side of the beach walk, drinking tea and eating roasted seeds.

The years add a certain romantic hue to the image in my head, but I know I felt utterly, utterly alone that day. Until two young Egyptian university students took it on themselves to keep me company, which made me feel approximately a hundred times better about the situation even though we hardly understood each other. We smoked shisha (well, they did), drank mango juice and discussed politics and religion with their broken English and my even more broken Arabic.

Alexandria's evening breeze was actually a nice change from Cairo's stifling diesel-scented heat, after all.

Example number two: when I first came to Palestine I spent the entire summer in Jenin. At the end of my stay here, I had managed to see Jerusalem, Bethlehem (barely), a Jericho hotel swimming pool and Ramallah (mostly alone actually) but I said to myself: Self, you can't go home without having visited Israel. I mean: independent woman, independent woman.

So I packed a bag and took a bus up to Haifa. Again, lump in throat, feelings of abandonment rushing through my system. I immediately thought: rebook ticket, go back to Palestine. Now. But Shabbat had started and I was stranded (everything stops working during Shabbat in Israel).

So I walked around on some street whose name I can't recall, and the next day I met a friend's friend who showed me around the city. Israel may have the sea of Palestine, but they never did adopt the local custom of hospitality and the Arab tradition of showing kindness to strangers on the street.

So you can imagine how relieved I was when I finally returned to the West Bank. But at least I had made an effort to see Israel too.

Example number three (all good things come in threes): last week I went to Istanbul with my (very lovely) boyfriend's mom. She has a clothing store and buys her clothes from there. Tarek couldn't come because of university, and his mom would be working most of the time, but once again I imagined I was an experienced, assertive single traveler and decided to go with her.

Going through Jordan was fine (if you don't follow my blog, you might not know that Palestinians can't travel anywhere unless they go through Jordan--Israel doesn't allow them to go through the Tel Aviv airport that is so much closer and would be so much easier to get to, if they only allowed them to). Anyway, Jordan was fine, but the minute we landed in Istanbul the feelings of abandonment set in.

I wasn't technically alone yet, but I hadn't factored in the I-miss-my-boyfriend part. At first I thought that I had become a very unindependent woman all of a sudden, but then I came to my senses and realized that it's only natural to miss somebody that you not only love very much, but also spend almost all your time together with.

It was the first time I was away from him longer than a couple of days, and I was experiencing the classic you-don't-know-what-you've-got-until-it's-(temporarily)-gone.

Then, after having spent a day and a half together with my boyfriend's (very hardworking) mom, I decided to go and explore the city alone.

I had barely left the office in the wholesale market in Osmanbey before I got lost in their very uncomplicated tram system. And with all the clever people who know to travel in pairs around me, tears of loneliness and envy suddenly welled up, one blink away from falling down my cheeks.

I was beginning to realize once and for all that I'm pretty lousy at playing the part of the lone traveler.

I got off at Sultanahmet at last, walked around because I couldn't not walk around, snapped some pictures of random rooftops, and swore to myself never to travel alone again.

Mosque rooftop and minaret reflected in puddle

The next day, however, I had learned the tram system, knew my way around (well, not really, but I had gotten into the Istanbul mood and was feeling more confident of myself), and actually started enjoying my trip.

Sure, I kept wanting to turn to Tarek to share my thoughts with him, and I kept texting him descriptions of random scenes such as:

"Honey, I just saw the Cup from which Prophet Mohammad Drank Water and Prophet Abraham's Saucepan!"

(Which I actually did. They can be seen at the Sultan's Palace Topkapi, together with the Cane of Prophet Moses, a rather impressive collection of small glass containers with gold inlays containing a hair or two from Prophet Mohammad's beard, and an even more impressive collection of golden locks and keys for the Kaaba in Mecca--one for each dynasty who ruled the Islamic world).

The morale of the story? Traveling alone sucks the first day, to be frank. Then you usually somehow find something that makes it all worth while--a friendly smile, mango juice, a way to understand the tram map--and it's not all that bad.

But if you travel together with the right person to begin with, you always have that friendly smile, the mango juice tastes so much better, and not understanding the tram map is just another adventure you share.

And that's why I'm not the lone traveler type.

Memo to self: remember this for next trip.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011


There lives a girl in Um el Sharayet who is like no other girl in Palestine.

When she was born her brothers were detained in Israeli jails and her family went through great hardships. So they named her Sabreen, from the Arabic word for patience.

From the stories she tells me, it must have been obvious from early on that she wasn't going to let the world tell her who to be or how to act. When her mother told her to behave, she did exactly the opposite; when her brothers told her not to get involved in conversations they thought she didn't understand, she raised her voice.

She still does, by the way. Every time they discuss politics, religion, or anything else that she is passionate about.

She came to the office where I work last summer because we were looking for women journalists to take part in a project we were just starting up. Like expected (that is, if you knew her, which we didn't at the time), we noticed quickly that she wasn't like any of the other young women who came for interviews. She wasn't satisfied with just being interviewed. No. She offered to volunteer to help us find more participants, and before we knew it we had five new candidates each day, sent to us by Sabreen.

Not before long, she quit her old job at the TV station she worked with and started working with us instead. As my project assistant.

At first I thought,

"How is this ever going to work? She doesn't speak English, I barely speak Arabic. How are we going to work together?"

And I must admit I was a little bit... well, unhappy with my boss who had hired her.

But that's because I didn't realize that he had just hired the best project assistant (and soon-to-be friend) in all of Palestine, and that she would improve my Arabic tenfold in a matter of months by just being patient with me, overlooking most of my mistakes, and respectfully correcting the ones that were way off target.

Other people I work with will forget to do what they should, or postpone it into a distant future, but Sabreen always does exactly what is expected from her, and then helps me with what she can, and if she doesn't know how to, she will ask me to teach her so that next time she can do it.

This way, and because she has way more spunk than I will ever manage to mobilize in me, she soon took over a lot of the everyday coordination between ourselves, our young trainees and our TV partner. She took on the fights, solved the problems that arose and directed everybody's role in our TV show.

I was left with the slightly more boring evaluation, reporting, donor relations, and the never ending making-sure-we-follow-the-regulations-and-the-budget work. (And the even less exciting project planning and fundraising for new projects, of course. The dark side of development work in a small NGO).

Sabreen had her share of boring work too, mind you; she took over most of our administrative assistant's and our accountant's work as well. Not because they quit, but because she is much more organized than both of them put together.

Anyway, our project is finished now, and the two of us sit in our room with more time on our hands than before. We still work, of course, but with my squiggly Arabic we also find the time to share our life stories, some secrets, and our plans for the future.

But if my planned move back to Sweden comes up, her eyes get teary. And so do mine.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Words for the Mediterranean Sea

Friends, I must share this story with you. It was sent to the organization I work with by a young girl named Kholoud Ajarma. My organization was the national jury for a regional writing contest a few months ago, and Kholoud's story was selected (by yours truly) as one of the best 20 in the region.

I was brought to tears by Kholoud's words. She is 25 years old and lives in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, Palestine. This is her story:

(The story has been temporarily removed upon the request by Kholoud, as she is expecting it to be published in a magazine, on the condition that it hasn't been published electronically beforehand)

That is Kholoud's story, unedited and unabridged. She told me that she would like to know what people think of her story. So please do comment, and I will pass everything on to her. Thanks.