Monthly Archives: August 2010

A new week

“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the somber colors are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.” Oliver Twist

After the ordeals this weekend (failures of transportation, teeth, internet, blackberry service – all the modern amenities!), I was ready to be done with living here. But, I got a couple nights of good sleep and a couple days now without any major catastrophes, and my spirits have picked up! Part of that is due to this being a new week, it’s always good to start things afresh, and my new apartment. My new digs are in a really nice neighborhood, and the walk to and from al-manara, the city center, is much quieter (and a little cleaner!).

The view from my new apartment kitchen window!

My new 'hood at sunset

This also means finding a new supermarket. I tried one out today right by my new place – not as close as the supermarket to my old apartment was, but close enough. They had a huuuuuge selection of stuff (and they were also unpacking a lot, as were all the stores in Ramallah, so there must have been a big import allowed through). But this supermarket had … dun dun dun… peanut butter!!!! It’s the first time I have ever seen peanut butter here!! It didn’t look very good, and I probably will never buy it (I’ll rely on my parents’ care packages, thank you very much), but I definitely laughed out loud when I saw it. They also had:

TIDE!!

Tide! Laundry detergent, transliterated of course.

It’s also exactly a month ago today that I left DC, and it’s crazy to think about how much I’ve been able to do, and travel, and see in just that short amount of time. But, it’s also a little incentive to really focus on what I came here to do – learn Arabic and do my research. We finally received our student IDs today, so I can access the university library. Not only is the library at the university supposed to be a really great resource, it also has AC… which might change my life forever.

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Craziness (and a dentist!)

“On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, ‘Aren’t you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?’ Smailovic responded, ‘Playing music is not crazy. Why don’t you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello?'” The Moral Imagination

[Yes, to my IPCR colleagues, I just quoted JPL]

On Friday, we went to Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a cliff side fortress in the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Built by Herod a bazillion years ago (he reigned from 37-4 BC), Masada is the site of the last stand of Jewish patriots against the Roman army, in 73 AD.

But, beyond some interesting excavated columns/stones, etc – well, it’s hard for me to get excited every time I see some ruins, everything in this country has ruins – there were three interesting things. One, these beautifully intricate mosaics, very well maintained, from Herod’s time, had stunning colors and delicate designs. It’s crazy to think that something can survive for that many thousands of years, whereas buildings built now crumble at the threat of an earthquake. Two, the view was really extraordinary. My camera battery died, of course, as soon as we arrived, so I don’t have many pictures, but I should be getting some soon from my friend.

Dead Sea - and the mountains on the other side are in Jordan (taken from the bus)

View from Masada looking down, 450 meters, to the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea

Looking up at Masada from the cable car we took up (we walked down the snake path coming back)

But lastly, the story is wonderfully haunting. There was a Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, in 66 CE, and a rebel group conquered Masada and lived on the mountain. Masada was the last rebel stronghold; in 73 or 74 CE the Romans laid siege to the mountain. After a few months, the rebels lost hope, and their leader Eleazar Ben Yair convinced the leaders of the 960 members of the community that it would be better to take their own lives and the lives of their families than to live in shame as Roman slaves. So ten men were picked to kill the others, then one of those ten men was chosen to kill the other 9 and finally to kill himself. Supposedly two women and five children who had been hiding in the cisterns survived the mass suicide and told the Romans what happened that night, which was also the first day of Passover.

So a depressingly beautiful place, and you really feel alone while you’re there (there are a decent number of European tourists, but looking out into the desert – there is nothing). It was really really hot, and our decision to walk down the snake path at 12:30 in the middle of day was not the smartest. But we survived and after a hugely disastrous attempt to return to Ramallah, we finally made it Friday night.

On Saturday, yesterday, I was reading the newspaper and eating some cereal, when I felt something crack off my tooth. I have a mild (… ok, really an intense) freak out, when I realize I really need to do something about this. The university has a clinic for students, so I decide to head up there, even though it’s already 1:00 pm on a Saturday afternoon. While the university is open on Saturday, it’s Ramadan and so things are really only open until 2:30. Well, I figured, I might as well try. So I get there right around 2, and walk into the clinic and ask for the dentist. “She’s just finishing up now. You can sign up for an appointment on Monday,” I was told. “Monday?!?! I really need to see a dentist now, something cracked off my tooth!” “Well, there are appointments available for Monday morning,” the receptionist insisted. So I ask for a referral of a dentist in Ramallah. She replies, “Yes, there are many dentists in Ramallah, you can go now and find one.” Somewhat frustrated at this point, I try asking again for the name of a dentist. Confused, she reiterates that there are many. I attempt to explain to her that I don’t know where they are, or which dentist is perhaps better than the others, or might know English, and then ask her if there is some way I can look up, or search for, a dentist. Stubbornly, she insists, “There are many dentists, you can find one.”

Really, I wanted to break down and cry. So I sign up for an appointment for Monday after class, and head over to my program’s office to see if I could get a referral there. But, of course, the office is closed down already. So I head back to Ramallah, as actually I was supposed to be moving to my new apartment yesterday. I get home and pack my stuff up and get into a cab. Once I’m at the new place (after some confusion with the taxi driver over where I wanted to go), I get a text back from my friend, who is in my university program and had a filling put in by a dentist last week, who gave me the name and number of her dentist. At this time, it’s 4:30pm, and I’m skeptical that anyone would be open for business, but I give it try. And actually, the dentist answers! She tells me to come in whenever, she’s in the town of Birzeit, I tell her I’ll be there in an hour, and I bolted out the door.

So, all in all, I got it fixed and paid only 80NIS, which is something like $20, for the filling and for the anesthesia. Unbelievable. Then, because I finished right at the time of iftar, there were no services to Ramallah, so I grabbed a taxi, which charged me almost the exact same amount of money (70NIS!!!!) to get back to Ramallah!! I was so mad, and argued with him (as best I could in colloquial!), but alas I ended up paying him. Then again, I was planning on paying so much more for the dentist that I felt not so bad paying that much for a cab.

So my first encounter with the medical system here in Palestine, and it seems, like everything else in this country, you just never know what will happen. Your dentist might be open at 5:30 on a Saturday night, while a wedding procession is going down the street in front (yes, that did happen).

Free bananas!

“…human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.” Madame Bovary

Most of the time when I speak Arabic now (both the formal and informal), I feel like speaking as a cracked tin kettle – kind of grating, I want to wince a little as I butcher what I know I want to say. My vocal chord memory – as there are sounds in Arabic that you just don’t have in English – hasn’t been as quick returning to me as, say, the vocab or listening, and I can write really well. So I’ve been embarrassed, in class, on the streets, talking to people. Because I know what I want to say and I know that I know how to say it and yet that gap, between knowing and actually forcing the sound to come out of me sounding correctly, is sometimes quite vast.

So today, I was absurdly happy, when I bought bananas. Here’s how it went down: in my colloquial class, we’ve been learning what seemed to be pretty random words – looking through my notebook, I see vocab in one day, “three, mosque, university, happy, angry, the location in Egypt for Sudanese refugees, student, skirt, table, address, envelope, and lucky.” But, over the past week, we’ve learned some pretty useful words – “banana, half, good, to speak, to eat,” etc.

And today I really needed bananas (il moz would be transliterated, I think). My usual fruit vendor guy was not there, so I looked around and saw across the street a vendor with a table full of bananas. So I went over and waited while the family in front of me bought like 6 kilos of bananas – well, maybe not that much, but it was a ton. Granted, I don’t really know how much a kilo of bananas is, but that’s what people measure here in. When my turn comes up, I step up and ask for “nuss kilo” which is half a kilo, and when he asks me again, “nuss kilo?” to verify, I replied yes in the colloquial (“aywa”). He then said to me, in colloquial, you speak Arabic good – it’s a rough translation, but even just last week I would not have understood him! I didn’t know ANY of those words in colloquial Arabic last week. So I was pretty thrilled that I understood him, at the least, and that he thought my Arabic was good, though I’m realizing now that I didn’t really speak much to him. But, people are THRILLED here when you even attempt to speak in Arabic – like they are anywhere in the world when you try to speak whatever language of the country you’re in. So I laughed and replied in Arabic, “good? a little, a little,” after which he laughed. We’re standing there giggling at each other, (well, probably I’m just giddy at someone complimenting my colloquial), then I ask, in colloquial, “how much?” and he replies in English, “normally… but today, you’re my friend,” and gave me the bananas for free!!

It was my FIRST full conversation in colloquial, the first time I understood and was able to respond in what apparently was relatively well-pronounced colloquial Arabic, AND I got free bananas. Good, good day.

Peace talks

“There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.” The Jungle

So recently I haven’t done anything interesting so I won’t bore you with mundane details. Instead, I’ll write about the news that seems to dominate what I’m reading online in American newspapers: the declared resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Map of Israel, the Palestinian territories (We...

Image via Wikipedia

The Palestinian side agreed on Friday to come to the talks based on a statement of principles issued by the Quartet (U.S., U.K., Russia, EU), which calls on the parties to resolve “all final status issues,” like Jerusalem and refugees. It also calls for “a settlement that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state.” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, has not confirmed these Quartet principles in agreeing to join the Washington talks. Instead, Netanyahu is said to have explicitly rejected the language of the Quartet statement.

One side is responding to one letter of invitation; the other is answering to a slightly different request. It has gotten both sides to the table, but it emphasizes the enormous differences that exist between the two sides, and that could crash the talks.

People are pessimistic, honestly. There is a definite lack of enthusiasm with which both Palestinians and Israelis approach the talks. There is not even a modicum of trust, which severely restricts the ability of negotiators on both sides to make concessions. There is really no sign that Palestinians are willing or able to accept less than a viable, territorially united state in the West Bank, including a capital in East Jerusalem and some political solution on the refugee issue. There is no sign that Israel’s government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian “state” consisting of disconnected autonomous areas, with Israel in full control still of the borders, air space, water supplies, etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated clearly that this is what he means by a “two-state solution,” and has declared often that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley.

There are roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and I can’t imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition would not allow him to make any meaningful concessions. There is also the question of whether the moratorium on Israeli settlement-building, which is set to expire in late September, will be extended. American officials are clearly hoping that once talks have started, Netanyahu won’t want to resume settlement activity [aka won’t want the political disaster of being seen as undermining the US-led peace effort].

And lastly, the American government is just not willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. They can twist Mahmoud Abbas’ arm as far as it can go (which is why he’s agreed to the talks, even as Israel continues to take pieces of the territory of a future Palestinian state), but the US has long abandoned the pretense of bringing even modest pressure on Israel.

So there is definite pessimism surrounding these talks, which most major newspapers have missed, in my opinion. There are some good analysis pieces which I’m linking to below.

In contrast

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Adventures of Tom Sawyer

So we’ve been having the heat wave of the century here. It’s oppressively disgustingly hot. And there’s rarely relief here, buildings don’t usually have AC, and the breeze just blows more hot air around. Classes are tough, without any AC, and I’m now used to standing up with wet pant legs from all the sweat.

Needless to say, we got outta Dodge and went to Jerusalem. I had an appointment with the American consulate there on Friday morning, but we went on Thursday night, not only to get out of the heat in Ramallah (not like there’s no heat in Jerusalem, it only being 10 km south, but there are more places with AC!), but also because of Friday morning traffic between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It’s not just rush hour traffic. Because it’s Ramadan, a lot of Muslims want to attend Friday prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City in Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the second oldest mosque in Islam after the Qa’aba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) and is third in holiness and importance after the mosques in Mecca and Medina (also in Saudi Arabia). Al-Aqsa holds up to 400,000 worshipers at a time. During Ramadan, the area is filled to virtual capacity.

And yet. This year, Israeli police “will restrict the entrance of Palestinian worshipers to the prayer session at the Temple Mount compound.” Men aged 45-50 can enter only with a special permit; men over the age of 50 can enter freely. Women aged 30-45 can enter only with a special permit; women over the age of 45 can enter freely, as can worshipers with Israeli (blue) identity cards. In fact, Israel closed the Qalandia checkpoint (the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem) last Friday morning, not allowing cars to pass from early morning until late afternoon, and it was expected that the same would happen yesterday (haven’t heard from anyone yet on this). So transportation is ground to a halt between Jerusalem and Ramallah on Friday mornings.

So we were lucky enough to have a place to stay in Jerusalem for the night and went down Thursday early evening. We arrived right at the call to prayer to break the fast, and got the most delicious shwarma from a vender right in front of the Damascus Gate.

On Friday morning, bright and early, I headed over to the American consulate. It was my first time, visiting my consulate or embassy in a foreign country. A very interesting experience to say the least! There was security all over the entire street in front of the walled compound, and only a veryyy small door with a little sign over the top saying “American Consulate.” [Side note: most countries do not recognize Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as the capital of their country, to not legitimate territorial expansion by military conquest. The UN Security Council has declared the Israeli annexation of greater Jerusalem as “null and void.” So most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv, and then some have consulates in Jerusalem to deal with citizens in the West Bank.] There were black SUVs all on the sidewalk in front of the compound (really, not too different from the rest of the cities in this area – everyone just parks on the sidewalks), but the amount of polo-wearing, muscled guys with sunglasses was amusing. They wouldn’t let me in until the person I was meeting came down to escort me through security, but inside the walls was just a beautiful oasis, really. Everyone was really friendly and it was nice to be around professional Americans again!

Yesterday was kind of a wasted day, after that, however. My local phone stopped working and then the battery died, so I had to walk around around in the disgusting heat trying to find a place where I had enough signal to call, thank goodness I was in the Israeli part of town where I could at least drink water in public! I was going to head to Bethlehem today, but decided it was just too hot, and I hadn’t been home since Thursday evening. Maybe I’ll do some studying…

…Homework?!

“I like them to talk nonsense. That’s man’s one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen.” Crime and Punishment

Between yesterday and today, I probably made over a hundred and fourteen mistakes! Though I’m not sure I’m even close to the truth yet… Yes, Arabic classes have started. Yesterday, there was some confusion over the location of our fusha class, so the professor ended up canceling it before 5 of us, who had been waiting in the building listed, finally went back to the office to ask after 30 minutes. So that was a little frustrating, but it gave me an extra day to review some grammar and vocab, which was much appreciated.

So because classes start at 8am, I leave my house around 7am to walk the 15 minutes to just a little past al-manara, the center square of Ramallah, to the service parking lot. Because there are so many people (students, professors, admin) who take the service to and from Ramallah and Birzeit, there is a separate parking lot just for that. Which makes it nice – I don’t have to go up to each bus and ask where they’re headed – they’re all headed to Birzeit. Now, there’s a town next to the university that is also Birzeit (bir in Arabic means well and zeit means oil, so it translates to well of oil, referring to the wells in which its inhabitants historically stored virgin-pressed olive oil). So, the service driver will ask, just before the university street, if people in the service want the “jam’a” – colloquial for university, it’s good I figured that out early on…), and if we do, then he drives up the hill and drops us off right at the student gate.

A lot of the students in my program are living in the housing provided by the university in the town of Birzeit. I went to a house of a student in my program, and the views were breathtaking:

Looking out from their house

Again

Yesterday, the first day of class, since my first class was canceled, I only had the colloquial class, which seems very basic and will be a good review, while learning how to actually speak to people on an everyday basis. Then, after class let out, I had to get back to Ramallah to get a passport photo taken, which I was only vaguely aware of one store that some other students had gone to, though none of them could remember exactly where it was located. Thankfully, after just wandering down two streets, I found it! It was a lot of running around, back and forth to the university and to Birzeit town, plus a little stop at the Arab Bank (yes, again! and no my money was not there yesterday, but I was reassured it would be there by today. I didn’t have the heart to check!)

Something I really love about being here in Ramallah and the West Bank, as soon as shopkeepers or even students you talk to on the service discover that you’re from the US or Europe, they immediately say, “Welcome to Palestine.” And not in a touristy-trap kind of way, but genuinely, you are welcome in Palestine. It’s so crazy, you would never hear an American in the streets of DC tell a clearly foreign person, “Welcome to America.” I just would never think of that! But the hospitality and happiness (?) that Palestinians show to foreigners is something I’ve never experienced before. Now, on the other hand, sometimes when I’m walking by a group of young men on the street, as they’re staring me up and down, they will say in a more “sexually-nuanced” way, “welcome to Palestine,” but it makes me think of the creepers who go up to little kids in the streets and try to lure them away with candy or a balloon… I really want to tell these guys that that’s not the way to catch a girl’s attention!

So yes, like the post title says, I do have homework and should be going to do it.

Adaptation

“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.” Vanity Fair

Today, the world was frowning at me – or, I at it? Something that has been an adjustment for me here in Ramallah is the concept of time. There really is no such thing. When I first arrived and was attempting to set up a bank account, I was at the bank 5 days in a row, the first two just to figure out what documents were required [after waiting about 45 minutes each day], and the rest trying to reconcile good ol’ Bank of America with the Arab Bank. Because money that is transferred to Palestinian bank accounts has to go through multiple governmental checks (US, some European country – I think BoA goes through Switzerland -, Israel, and then finally the Palestinian Authority), this takes a while. Little did I know. Plus, because I’m not getting paid directly to my Arab Bank account, they would not give me an ATM card, so I have to sit and wait interminable hours just to check how much money is in my account or to withdraw money. Last week, I was at the bank at least 2 hours each day for three days straight. I’ve received two confirmations from my BoA that my transferred money has gone through to the Arab Bank. When I checked last week (again, concept of time…) they somewhat chuckled at my American impatience and said “not yet, give it some time, check next week.” So, today, my last day before classes start, I leave somewhat early in the morning (it is Ramadan, so nothing is really open before 9:30 or 10) to do a bunch of errands. I get to the bank first, thinking, great, I’ll get this taken care of first. I grab my ticket as I enter, and look down at my number – 326. I look up to see what numbers are being served – 89. You have got to be kidding me. So yes, three hours later, I go up to the window teller to check my balance and hopefully withdraw some money. But of course, the money that I transferred is not there yet! So after all of that, the money is still not there, I couldn’t withdraw any from that account (well, I could have, but I’m supposed to keep a minimum balance that I’m already below), and it’s already almost closing time for the bank because of Ramadan hours. So I can’t even go upstairs and check with the accounts managers.

Frustrating?! To say the least. But, there’s always tomorrow, if I can get out of class on time and catch the service back to Ramallah. I was able to do almost all of the other errands on my to-do list (yes, I still like to carve my time up into to-do list time slots, even though I’m learning to more go with the flow…), so I feel relatively accomplished. Though, looking back on what I wrote, and knowing how today actually went, it’s a miracle that, here, I feel accomplished for doing tasks that I’m used to taking maybe 45 minutes. So perhaps I’m adapting to this time thing better than I’m giving myself credit!

I did spend some time looking through my Arabic readers for tomorrow’s classes and was pleasantly surprised at how much of the formal fusha I could understand in the first text. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow!

Here also are links to two reports on demolitions of Palestinian housing in the West Bank: one new report by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and one by B’Tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the Occupied Territories. Two well-known, as neutral as you can get, organizations with interesting reports, if you’re interested!