My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Up and Down, Side to Side (Act II)

                 This past weekend [note, this is now 3 weekends ago, exams and papers really get in the way!] was a bit of a whirlwind, and a testament to just how small this region really is.  At 1:00 pm on Friday I hopped on the Egged bus for the always beautiful 3.5 hour trip up to Jerusalem, through cracked and desolate desert speckled with improbable patches of green wrenched from the scorched earth by sucking water from aquifers or pumping it hundreds of kilometres.  Much of the trip is spent with the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan to the right, and then the turn at Jericho brings you to the Judean hills, spotted with the shanty-dwellings and goat-herds of unrecognized Bedouin, and, not unrelated, little vegetation.  First stop after the central bus station was an hour saunter through the decelerating activity of west Jerusalem, with shops closing or closed for the coming Shabbat.  The destination was Nava Tehila, a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service consisting of an inner circle of acoustic instruments, and concentric circles of singing and dancing – not your grandfather’s service!  As an existentialist by philosophical leaning, I go to this service for the immense energy and power that the people there draw out of themselves – the room is buzzing and electrified, something I generally find lacking from the solemn, quiet (read: boring) nature of most services I’ve attended.  If I’m going to spend an hour exalting a deity I don’t believe in, it had better come with some good music to allow me to transcend the absurdity of this act!
                After an hour at Nava Tehila, the next stop was a cab to east Jerusalem, just on the other side of the Old City, where the Arab buses leave to go all over the West Bank.  I hopped on the Ramallah bus with my friend Aya from the Machon, and, practicing my fledgling Arabic, ordered two tickets (“Shu adeish?  Ithnayn,” say I.  “thirteen,” says the driver in return).  The Ramallah bus heads through east Jerusalem to the north and east, and at a certain point traces the separation wall to the nearest checkpoint.  You can see as you drive along this barrier how neighborhoods, families, villages, economies have simply been wrenched apart by the wall.  "See that desolate junction?"  Aya says, "That used to be one of the busiest markets around.  Now there's a slight...barrier to trade."  Some people have been cut off from their families, and where they used to be able to walk down the street to say hi, now need a permit to get through the wall.  To put this into perspective for thos of you who know Toronto, my parents live on Wembley road just east of the Allen expressway and just north of Eglinton, and my Sister has been living just half a block west of the Allen, and half a block south of Eglinton.  Now, imagine a political wall has been erected along the route of the Allen, all the way down to the water and all the way up to Barrie, with the nearest checkpoint through it up at Sheppard.  Now a five minute walk is at least a half hour drive, potentially hours depending on the wait at the checkpoint, and it could be never, depending on your ability to get a permit to travel through the checkpoint in the first place.  Imagine the feeling of knowing that your grandchild is what used to be a five minute walk away, and now is a once-a-year visit, perhaps never.  These are my thoughts as we drive towards Ramallah, the wall rising up 10 meters on our right.
          Getting into the West Bank isn’t really a problem, no one checks you; it’s getting out that’s the trickier part, but that’s for later.  Once into Ramallah, we tore off the bus and just managed to flag down a cab as it was accelerating into a green light, then off to a concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace.  The Cultural Palace is a gorgeous venue, fairly new, with a high ceiling and decent acoustics, and the concert itself was one-of-a-kind: the front man was a jovial oud player and singer, to his right was a q’noun, and to his left two percussionists – a fairly typical Arabic set-up.  To the q’noun player’s right though, things started to get interesting: first a double bass and a cello, then…a saxophone.  Followed by an accordion and a piano.  Needless to say, the music was really unique, and quite good!
                After saying hi to some people after the show (The Rammallah arts and culture scene is reminiscent of most smaller cities – everyone knows everyone and attends each other’s shows), we headed off to the house of a friend of Aya’s named MisbaH.  Walking through the door, we were greeted by a table full of the best vegetarian food I’ve had since I got to this region.  Cooking, however, is not MisbaH’s only talent, and in the past decade or so he has become a central player in the Ramallah underground art scene, promoting the use of art as a means of resistance.  He looks every bit the underground artist with a mane of shaggy dark hair, a slight and agile build, a quiet, kind demeanor and dark, curious eyes.  He’s so good at what he does, in fact, that his talent recently threw him into the biggest decision-making crisis of his life.  You see, MisbaH has been living in Ramallah for the past decade (literally, in Ramallah.  He has not left this city in ten years due to not being able to get a permit to do so), but he is originally from Gaza, and it says so on his ID.  Recently, he got accepted by on long shot to a major art conference in Berlin, and also to a master’s program in Sweden (he has a BA in mathematics).  Israel has been slowly tightening restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially between Gaza and the West Bank, since 1991, but in the past few months this process took a qualitative jump with the introduction of the “infiltration law,” essentially allowing the Israeli authorities to remove anyone, no questions asked, to the place of residence on their ID, and then prevent them from leaving indefinitely.  You can see what this means for MisbaH.  He has spent the last decade building his life in Ramallah, but has been offered the opportunity of his life – to travel the world and develop his skills so that he can come back and use them in the community he loves and which he helped create.  But upon return, the likely situation is that the Israeli officials will look at his ID, see Gaza residency, and take him there immediately.  He left a week ago and is currently in Berlin – we’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out, but for now he’s a free man for the first time in his life.
                After dinner at MisbaH’s we went to one of the many and growing number of pubs in Ramallah servicing the international community, the new rich, and the returning Palestinian community.  Full of a mix of Palestinian artists, international aid workers and foreign students, the atmosphere is reminiscent of what I would imagine southern Italy or Spain to be – open stone patio with refreshingly cool breeze, lively conversation, warm-weather trees like pomegranate, lime, pepper, and fig bearing young fruits hanging around.  We were all drinking Taybeh, the delicious Palestinian beer that was recently highlighted by the New York Times.  The brewery was started by members of that returning Palestinian community, a family who had lived in Massachusetts for decades before returning to the West Bank to help develop the economy.  Looking at the bottle, one is struck by a very strange feature – there’s not so much as a single Arabic letter on the bottle, not even so much as the word Taybeh spelled out in the language of its country of origin.  This sort of thing throws the enigma that is Ramallah into relief – a growing rift between the rich and the poor, an uneasiness with the pace of economic growth and development for a people whose identity is so largely wrapped up in the struggle against the occupation and the resistance, wrapped up in being the victims of unjust Israeli aggression and occupation. 
                After a great night, the next morning I hopped back on the il-quds (Jerusalem) bus and headed back through the checkpoint at Kalandia.  I, of course, am armed with my Canadian passport, and so the wave of annoyance and aggression from the female soldier behind the glass in the bleak room of the checkpoint broke on my privileged status.  “ID, passport, SOMETHING, ANYTHING!?” she yelled as I walked by.  Placing my passport up against the glass, I was let right through without further questions, but a couple of younger men behind me got the full brunt of her anger, perhaps frustrated that I snubbed her attempt to assert her power.  After the checkpoint, it was smooth sailing back to the Damascus Gate of the Old City, and then a leisurely walk through the Arab Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter, out the Zion Gate, and into West Jerusalem again, where it is too easy to imagine that all of the past 12 hours, visiting that part of Israel which complexifies the myth, doesn’t exist at all.  Having picked up a couple of Taybeh’s in East Jerusalem, I brought them to the Shabbat lunch of my good friend Adi from the Machon last semester.  The crowd was the Ramah camp crowd, the American Jewish Jerusalem bubble.  We opened the Taybeh, which was quickly dubbed the “peace beer”, and made a little toast “l’Shalom” (to peace), while a couple of the guys, one of whom had made aliyah and was in army service, muttered audibly “I don’t believe in peace”.  After we had finished the Taybeh, Adi, who’s never one to let political correctness stand in the way of a good joke (one of the things I love about him), went to the fridge, pulled out an Israeli beer (Goldstar), and announced “alright, now who wants some Apartheid beer?”  We spent the afternoon playing wiffle baseball in a little empty lot in West Jerusalem, and they reminisced about camp.  We joked around and had a great time. 
After this year, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully be in Israel without also being in Palestine.  In the old city one of the oddest phenomena around is the rows of hanging t-shirts for sale, and in two rows side by side you have a IDF shirts and creepy shirts that say Uzi does it, and Free Palestine and Yassir Arafat for President.  Lastly, you have I love Israel and I love Palestine side by side.  But here's the thing, you can’t be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli without losing sight of the fact that  the two narratives, the two peoples, the two cultures, form two sides to the same coin - you simply can't understand Israel without understanding Palestine, and vice versa.  You have to be pro-justice and pro-humanity, and see where that leads you.

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