Monthly Archives: October 2010

Nablus

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” Ulysses

On Sunday, two friends and I went to Nablus for the day. Nablus is in the northern West Bank, founded in 72 CE as a Roman town. Since 1995, daily administration of the city is conducted by the Palestinian Authority, but Israel controls all the entrances and exits to the city.

So we drove first to the Old City and found a solid, local place to eat lunch – mixed grill kebabs and hummus and salada. Then we went on an adventure to find Sebastia, a town of Roman ruins supposedly near Nablus. Thank goodness we had a car, first off. But then we had a solid 30 minutes of surreal, trying to ask people on the streets how to get to Sebastia and getting the most ridiculously random answers! It’s one of the things I love most about being here, in the West Bank, where you can ask anyone on the streets for help with just about anything and they will do their damnedest to help. Especially since I look foreign, most of the time help is just offered to me, whether I need it or not! In Nablus, a much more conservative city than Ramallah, we had our male friend, who also was our driver, ask the men on the streets for directions. Finally, after incredibly amusing attempts to get directions, we found Sebastia, where in actuality, there is a church where John the Baptist’s head is buried.

But more importantly (or is that sacrilegious to say??!), there were beautiful, beautiful views of the countryside.

So we toured the ruins for a little, and then drove back to Nablus itself, with some time to walk around. We stopped in this big park right near the center of the city, which is really a great idea – I’ve been pretty surprised with the number of cities here that have decent size “parks,” as I’ve heard that places like Amman, Jordan have really no such places for kids to play/grow up. This park, like others I’ve seen, however, was filled with trash and was pretty empty. Except for a horse tied up near the entrance:

Then we walked around the Old City of Nablus, and wandered down a side alley and found the city’s massive, incredibly long (like took us an hour to walk down it completely) souq! It was so busy and fun, and I got lots of side comments, since I’m so clearly a foreigner. Our favorite of the day was from some teenage kid selling something on the side, at about 4:30 pm, who said, “Good morning, teacher!” to me.

And then of course we ate kanafeh – what Nablus is famous for! It’s the most famous Nablusi sweet, it’s made of pastry sheets with honey-sweetened cheese in the center, sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Though it’s now made throughout the Middle East, kanafeh Nablusi maintains a level of fame, partly due to the particular cheese used, jibneh Nablusi. It’s so sweet, and really filling, so we actually just had that for dinner and then went to have coffee and smoke argileh at this restaurant with fantastic views over the entire city for the sunset. It was a great way to end a great day trip! Though of course we had to stop at a few Israeli checkpoints, even though we never ventured out of the West Bank at any point… Interesting.

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Jaffa

” ‘The world,’ he resumed after a short pause, ‘has no faith in any man’s conversion; it never forgets what he was, it never believes him anything better, it is an inexorable and stupid judge.'” Uncle Silas

This past Friday, a friend and I made an impulsive decision to go to Jaffa for Friday and Saturday, and what a great decision that was. Jaffa (in Arabic it’s pronounced Yaffa and in Hebrew it’s Yafo) is 2.5 km south of Tel Aviv and is a hauntingly beautiful city.

Looking back at Old Jaffa from down the shore a bit

It was an Arab city but post-1948, there were about 4,000 residents left from a beginning number of about 80,000. Most fled when the fighting started. The Tel Aviv municipality had been accused of trying to erase the city’s Arab past – in the 1950s there were many Arabic street names that were replaced with Hebrew names. From the 1990s, though there were efforts to restore Arab and Islamic landmarks in the city, though that has meant this:

An old mosque (the minaret is undergoing repairs) but you can see the bottom of the mosque is now an Israeli restaurant with Hebrew writing...

So we did a lot of walking around and eating really really good seafood and at the oldest bakery in Jaffa (established in like 1802 or something ridiculous like that). Old Jaffa is really charming with beautiful old doors, and situated on the sea, it’s just beautiful. But it’s also sad to know the history behind it.

There’s also this fantastic paved walking path along the sea between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, so on Saturday morning with a lot of things closed for Shabbat, we walked it and sat on the beach in Tel Aviv for a couple hours, and then walked back to Jaffa and had a fantastic meal at an Arab restaurant. Though our meal was somewhat interrupted by a group of 8 American adults who had to be of that retirement-group-from-Florida type tour who were really amusing to listen to – “oh my god, it’s tapas!” or “it’s coleslaw!” or “is this stuff beets?” or “how do you eat this?” or the one woman who kept repeating “baba ganoush!” Then we laid on the beach in a food coma for a couple of hours in Jaffa, then had a hell of a time trying to get back to Ramallah on Saturday night.

With it being Shabbat, we had to wait until 6pm until the Israeli buses started running again to Jerusalem, then when we finally get on the Arab bus to Ramallah, of course Qalandia checkpoint is just at a dead standstill. First, of course, there’s an Israeli tank in the middle of the street right in front of the checkpoint (when you’re heading from Jerusalem to Ramallah you don’t stop at the checkpoint), forcing all the cars to attempt to drive around it, which obviously slowed down traffic. Then, because the line of cars trying to pass through the checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem was so backed up, there was no place for the cars trying to get to Ramallah to go. There’s no way to explain how cars drive to get in line at checkpoints. There are no rules. You drive up over barriers, you drive in between whatever spaces you can find, you drive on the opposite side of the road for as far as you can, dodging the concrete road blocks that Israel has put in the middle of the road, so when one side of the checkpoint is backed up – both sides are. So we sat on the bus for a solid 30 minutes going nowhere, ended up getting out and walking until past the traffic jam, and picking up another service to take us the rest of the way.

Yet again, another fantastic public transportation attempt – but still, yet again, I was very happy to be back in the comfort that is the West Bank, no joke.

And then the next day, Sunday, we took a trip to Nablus, which I’ll post about tomorrow, inshallah!

“We’re sorry…”

“One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts – just mere thoughts – are as powerful as electric batteries – as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison.” The Secret Garden

I love getting messages from websites like this:

Because?? This is the message you receive for Israel:


There are a few reasons this could be, perhaps. One being that there is no Palestinian post. Or, actually I read about one being sort of re-vamped, but that would also require street names and addresses and while those sort of exist here in Ramallah, people don’t really use them. But, there are lots of countries that I can think of that also don’t use real addresses with street names and they can receive packages/deliveries. So that can’t be the real answer!

So is it because Amazon/Kindle don’t think Palestinians can/want to/need to read? Palestine is such an educated place. I feel so lazy for only knowing one language really well (English!), and for not always being on top of analysis of current events, and for having spent most of my life in one country.

Or maybe it’s because most international/large companies think it’s too risky to place outposts of their businesses here in the Palestinian Territories. I know for a fact that IKEA won’t deliver to anywhere inside the Palestinian Territories, but has a huge store just north of Tel Aviv. And yet, I have to say, I feel safer in Ramallah than I did a majority of the time in DC!

Tel Aviv… and Gaza?

“If you could say, with truth, to your own solitary heart, tonight, ‘I have secured to myself the love and attachment, the gratitude or respect, of no human creature; I have won myself a tender place in no regard; I have done nothing good or serviceable to be remembered by!’ your seventy-eight years would be seventy-eight heavy curses; would they not?” A Tale of Two Cities

Well, there have been some adventures lately! Very unexpectedly, we got an invite to spend the night on the beach in Tel Aviv Thursday night, which of course sounded like so much fun. So we got to the beach around 2am on Friday morning. Thank goodness we had a car and someone to drive us – though we did have trouble getting through Qalandia checkpoint on our way. The soldiers picked two people out of our car and made them go walk through the checkpoint, though they were changing shifts and it would have meant waiting another at least half hour. So we turned around and went through the Hizme checkpoint, a little bit out of the way, but not too shabby. When we finalllllly made it there, it was so much fun! It was so crazy, the beach is just open for everyone to sit, drink, sleep, play in the ocean, all night long! So we swam – it was kind of cold… – and sat and had fun, and even though it felt like it was a bazillion hours that we were there probably because we didn’t sleep at all, we actually left Tel Aviv around 7am to drive to Ashqelon, a city just north of Gaza, where our friend’s brothers live.

Tel Aviv sunrise!

Ashqelon was beautiful – the beach was wonderful, really calm, beautifully clear water. And crazily enough, it was so surreal, you look down the shoreline, maybe a mile – it seemed really close – you can see the buildings of Gaza City. Not unclearly, not just the outline, not hazy, you can actually see the buildings of Gaza City. It’s so unbelievable that we’re hanging out in the ocean and you look to your left and you see the blockaded water stuff, you see military aircraft overhead almost continuously, and you hear the sirens going off every now and then.

We only stayed at the beach for two hours or so, and then went back to our friend’s brothers’ house and they cooked us the most delicious meal, and perfect food for not-having-slept-for-36-hours! Local fish, rice, homemade sauces, olives, bread… absolutely mouth-watering.

We finally got back to Ramallah around 4pm on Friday, after which I had about an hour to get ready for my friend’s going away party, but our cold water was not working! So I couldn’t take a shower without scalding burning water… which meant I took my first ever bucket shower. My roommate was very amused. It’s a very difficult thing to do! Plus, you all know I’m not the most coordinated person in the world, so it was a struggle. But our water is back on now, so hopefully that’ll be the first and last time!

In the news

“…what such people miscall their religion, is a vent for their bad humours and arrogance.” David Copperfield

The big news around town lately is the discussion over the continuation (or lack therefore) of the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. After Netanyahu denied extending the settlement freeze at the end of September, and Abbas met with the Arab League this past week, Israel has now come out with a request for Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state (Israel’s cabinet has just approved a controversial bill requiring non-Jewish citizens to swear a loyalty oath to the country as a Jewish state). This might seem like a reasonable request… except for the fact that a Palestinian leader recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is tantamount to an upfront concession on the issue of the right to return, a de facto acknowledgment that Palestinians have no right to be there. This is far too much to ask for in exchange for a possible one- or two-month settlement construction freeze (what Netanyahu has offered). The Palestinian Authority has flatly rejected this most recent offer of Netanyahu’s, continuing to demand a full settlement construction freeze. This is a big deal, because Palestinians who lost their homes and land in 1948 and 1967, land that is now considered part of Israel, are still asking for the “right to return” (a catchphrase here) or compensation for land- and life-lost. This is an issue that has to be a part of final negotiations, and something that Abbas cannot give into as a concession to begin negotiations again.

Here’s a link to a youtube video (courtesy of my other Boren fellow here!), where random people on the streets of Jerusalem (mostly foreigners) are asked about the loyalty oath. It’s interesting. I love the girl who wouldn’t swear a loyalty oath to the Christian state of America, because “there’s freedom of religion there.” Hmm.

Anyway, it’s something to keep an eye out for, and also to try to understand why President Abbas and the PA leadership could never agree to a concession that, from the outside, might seem reasonable.

In other news, I saw a film last night at the film festival that completely made up for the nonsense of the first film I saw – this one was called “Twelve Angry Lebanese” and is a documentary of the Roumieh prison in Lebanon. This outside organization chooses 45 inmates to work for a little over a year to put on a production of the play “Twelve Angry Men,” and how the inmates feel and change and for the first time, for many if not all, feel success and pride for the first time in their lives. It’s a really well-done film, and it makes you think – everyone should have a second chance in life, no?

It makes you think of rehabilitation programs in prisons and instead of hardening the criminals, giving them skills and abilities and pride in themselves so that when they are released, they are humans and not the same person they were when they entered. But, my friend and I were discussing the film after, and it also makes you think – if you were the victim or a relative of the victim of some of these inmates, would you want your (government) money spent on bettering the life of someone who had ruined your life? I would like to think that I would be above all of that reproach, but it’s definitely something to think about, and it’s hard to say what you would feel!

This “Twelve Angry Lebanese” film reminded me of a film we saw in DC, “The Choir,” a documentary about South African prison choirs, another wonderfully-made film about life inside South African prisons and how giving these inmates the chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to learn about working hard and being a part of a team, really changes people. The best part about “The Choir” is it follows a few characters really closely, even following them after they’ve been released from prison, and how even though they might have changed personally, they return to the same surroundings – with a lot of structural violence that restricts them from really changing their behavior. They’re still poor, with few opportunities for education or betterment, with the same friends and family around, with the same problems they had before they entered prison… So what kind of a second chance are they really getting?

I’m also finally charging up my camera battery so I will hopefully be able to post some soon!

 

Getting Cultured…

“Life is just a quick succession of busy nothings.” Mansfield Park

I’m going to backtrack right quick and describe what Taybeh’s Oktoberfest was like, considering all the excitement I had for it in the preceding month.

It was crazy. The afternoon was really nice, there were a bazillion people there, with lots of families and groups of people sitting and chatting. When we pulled up in the bus into the town of Taybeh, we saw lots of foreigners on the streets carrying Taybeh beer bottles, and we knew we had made it to the right place. The festival itself was a relatively narrow alley of booths – mainly food and drink booths and a couple booths with information on the municipality. The alley led to a building which had local goods (soaps, food, spices, etc) on sale, and then to a huge stage and sitting area. All afternoon, they had different acts and games on the stage. At one point, the MC asked for male volunteers for a drinking game. Of course, almost every guy’s hand went up. When they got up on stage, the game ended up being “who can hold a mug of beer with their arm straight out for the longest time?” There were a few disappointed faces of the volunteers, I’m not going to lie. But there also was traditional music and dance, and it was really a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

By the time the night fell in, around 6:30 or so, though, it had gotten ridiculously crowded and the crowd was more unruly. It was still fun, but you had to fight your way to walk around and that just got frustrating after a while!

As far as other ways of getting more cultured here, Ramallah (and a couple other cities in Palestine) is hosting an International Film Festival. So last night, some of us went to watch one of the films, titled  هاي بلادي و هاي الدار or “This is my country, this is my home.” It was awful. It could have been so good, and it just was very poorly done. It’s a Palestinian documentary film about three Palestinian cities – Akka, Yaffa, and Lotho – and what has happened to them and their Palestinian residents since the 1948 war. And yet it ended up just being an hour-long badly made music video of the director who clearly just wanted to be in front of the camera singing. It was so bizarre.

So there look to be a few other good films listed on the film festival schedule, and I’m hoping to actually catch some good ones! The only nice thing about last night’s film was the amount of Arabic I could actually understand, which will hopefully help for my test in two days…

Catching up

“… because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” Moby Dick

It’s finally gotten cold in Ramallah! Days are about low-80s with a rather strong wind, and the nights are cooooooooold. I haven’t yet broken out my leather jacket, but I was about to the other night! It was such a rapid sudden change in weather. And yesterday we got rain!! A solid intense rainstorm. It made me so happy. Though when I saw the clouds rolling in, I was in Jerusalem, I kind of thought the apocalypse was coming – it was the first time in 2.5 months that I’ve seen that type of cloud in the sky! I’m so used to clear blue skies, seeing black rainstorm clouds was a little frightening! But it’s been really nice to not sweat all.the.time anymore.

I have been such a bad blogger lately, but it’s because it has been such a busy time here! I’ve been getting myself into a nice daily routine of classes in the morning, coffeeshops in the afternoon to study, meeting friends for a few hours at night and then repeat. But I’ve had some adventures in the past week since I’ve blogged last (of course, there are always adventures here!). I went to the Dead Sea (more below on that), Taybeh Oktoberfest, paid an arm and a leg for a not-so-great pedicure in Ramallah, met with an old work colleague in Jerusalem, and almost went back to Haifa this weekend (even got as far as Jerusalem before we decided to turn around). I’m a little relieved to not be traveling again this weekend, just so I can get caught up on necessities like cleaning, email, and studying.

The Dead Sea – there are no words. It was the most amazing experience, I absolutely loved it. There’s no way to describe how just plain cool is is to just float like that! It’s in the middle of the desert, but because there is SO much salt in the water, the sand is essentially just salt – there are huge chunks of salt as you walk toward the water.

Dead Sea - you can see the white color near the water, that's all the salt deposits!

We paid an absurd amount of money at the Ein Gedi Spa (definitely not worth it!!), because we wanted to be someplace where we didn’t need to worry about leaving our stuff while we floated in the Sea. But, there are much better places and for much cheaper than the Ein Gedi Spa, so that was a little disappointing. For a place that is supposed to be “luxury,” it was far below what we were expecting. And it was also really sad, you took a “train” down to the water’s edge from the Spa building, and they had signs posted along the path of where the water used to come up to in certain years. So you’d see a sign for 1990, where the water used to be then; and then another hundred meters or so and you’d see a sign for 2001 … and the distance to where the water has receded is astonishing and really upsetting. The Dead Sea is receding by a meter a year; the surface has been reduced by a third since the 1960s. This is mainly due to a sharp decline in incoming water from the Jordan River, its main affluent. The Friends of the Earth Middle East, an NGO that brings together Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli environmentalists, has been working on bringing attention to this disturbing and unspoken-about phenomenon.

 

You can see the mountains of Jordan on the other side of the Dead Sea. (Sorry for my finger in the top corner!)

But it’s still an amazing experience, and I had so much fun just floating for two hours straight. The water feels.. silky! There’s no way else to describe it. Thankfully, even though I had some cuts, they didn’t sting too badly, but definitely be careful with what cuts you have on your body, or at least prepare yourself for the salt water to really sting. I unfortunately got some water in my eyes, which was so incredibly painful. But, I just stood there with my eyes closed for a couple of minutes and let them heal themselves and it was fine, no residual side effects!

And because we went on a Friday, stupid us, we had to catch the last Israeli public bus back at 2:20, so we really only got about 2.5 hours at the Dead Sea. So I’m definitely going to go back, soon, and do the mud thing (supposedly putting the mud from the sand/sea on your skin is the most soothing/healing/amazing for your skin), and relax more. It’s a beautiful place.

 

Looking up at the desert cliffs from the Sea (this is similar to what Masada, the fortress I went to a month ago, is formed on top of)

So that’s the Dead Sea, and it’s something that everyone should experience – it might have ruined all other oceans for me, it might be my new favorite place on Earth!