Finding my words

When I was working with preschoolers, we always advised them to “use your words” when they were frustrated or angry.

Well now I’m taking my own advice. I just need to find the words to express how I’m feeling upon returning home.

I hope that you’ve gotten the feeling that I absolutely love my host family over there in Palestine. They were sweet and caring and went way too far out of their way to be accommodating.

I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I went to Palestine through a program called the Holy Land Trust ( I paid about $2000 for a month there, and about a quarter of this went to my host family for food and rent. The rest went to programming: invitations to speakers, tours around Palestine and Israel, etc.

But after I’d been with my host family for 3 weeks, I found out by speaking with my roommate there that my host family had not been paid for our food and living expenses. So for three weeks a family that had no running water, that lived in a refugee camp, that had to take their oldest child out of university because they couldn’t afford it, they were feeding me and giving me a place to live out of their own pockets. They weren’t upset about this, at least not to me. They didn’t take it up with the Holy Land Trust. But we had to straighten it out immediately – and we did, relatively speaking. In the end, they got the money.

But here’s the thing that gets me. They didn’t have to love me. They didn’t have to be kind or caring. In fact, knowing how Palestinians are treated in America, and how relations are between America and the Arab World, I was surprised how kind and loving they were. In fact, they had so much more reason to hate me than to love me.

Accept they don’t. They didn’t know me. And i had to swallow each time I said, ‘I’m an American’ because, based on what they see on television, and based on the Israeli occupation and America’s support for Israel, they have good reason to hate Americans.

So why don’t they? Because they realized that I’m not my government. They realized that I’m just an individual.

The real kicker for me, though, is the fact that Palestinians and other Arabs in America don’t get the same benefit of the doubt. Rather than being treated as individuals, they are hated and persecuted for being part of a collective – not by choice, but purely by geography and skin color.

What if Americans were as welcoming as the people in Palestine? What if we didn’t judge people based on their skin tone, name, ethnicity, or religion?

There are one and a half BILLION Muslims in this world. Yet how are we still associating and stereotyping all Muslims?


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Fighting Apathy

The whole time I was traveling, I acted in dire need of information and knowledge, always exploring, always discovering.

But I’m down in Virginia now, and it’s hard to find the novel, dire, and needy. Now that I have such comfort, I’m settling in. And down in my heart, it leaves me needing so much more.

I’m hoping that when I go back to Philly I can find a proper outlet for the passion that inspired me in Palestine. I know that I was passionate last school year, and there were people doing some amazing things there.

America’s role in the world’s suffering is absolutely undeniable. But its going to take a revolution, and nothing short of it, to demilitarize America, bring the soldiers home, and teach people how to live with love.

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Understanding Western views of “terrorism,” “Islam,” “Muslims,” and “the East”

I want you to read through the following excerpt from Edward Said’s, Orientalism. Take your time to understand it, and perhaps read through it a couple of times.  Then, if you’re in your home, share it with a family member.  If you’re online, share it with a friend via facebook.  Perhaps post a link to this blog on your profile.  If you’re at work, call over a coworker and see what they think of it.

Then, after you’ve read it, consider what you know about Terrorism, Terrorists, Muslims, Islam, Saddam Hussein, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda, or Afghanistan.  What is your source of information regarding these topics: is it from local or national media?  Is it from friends or family, colleagues or strangers?  What informs us about our views of these topics, and how have we been taught to NOT LISTEN to these very people when they present their own viewpoints and beliefs?  As if people in America who know absolutely nothing of their lives and opinions, their struggles and beliefs, can be greater experts on people on this side of the world than the very people who live here.

Without any more exposition, Edward Said:

In the first place, it would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality… There were – and are – cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West.  About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute, except to acknowledge it tacitly.  But the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deal principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient (the East as career) despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real” Orient.  My point is that Disreali’s statement about the East refers mainly to that created consistency, that regular constellation of ideas as the pre-eminent thing about the Orient, and not to its mere being, as Wallace Stevens’s phrase has it.

A second qualification is that ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.  To believe that the Orient was created – or, as I call it, “Orientalized” – and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous.  The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony, and is quite accurately indicated in the title of K. M. Panikkar’s classic Asia and Western Dominance. The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be – that is, submitted to being – made Oriental.  There is little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history.  He spoke for and represented her.  He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was “typically Oriental.”  My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance.  It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled.

This brings us to a third qualification.  One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away.  I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be).  Nevertheless, what we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted-together strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its redoubtable durability.  After all, any system of ideas that can remain unchanged as teachable wisdom (in academies, books, congresses, universities, foreign-service institutes) from the period of Ernest Renan in the late 1840s until the present in the United States must be something more formidable than a mere collection of lies.  Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.  Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering though the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied – indeed, made truly productive – the statements proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture.

Gramsci has made the useful analytical distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools, families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination.  Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent.  In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West.  It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far.  Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hay has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component of European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.  There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness, usually overriding the possibility that a more independent, or more skeptical, thinker might have had different views on the matter.

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Meeting Blacksmiths and Shepherds

Shepherds and Blacksmiths

The place where I’m volunteering just produced a report on Husan village, which is slated to be quarantined by the Israeli apartheid wall in the coming months and years.  My supervisor asked me to go out to the village and take photographs for the report, so this entry is about my experience wandering around the Palestinian village of Husan.

The report mentioned Roman terraces and irrigation systems amidst the farmlands of Hunan – so this was the first thing that I wanted to see.  I thought this would be just one or two stones; it turned out to be two huge valleys lined with olive trees, as well as even more fertile ground bursting with fruits and vegetables: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, mangoes, apples, pears, almonds, and other fruits.  When I went to have a closer look at this lush farmland, I hear the shouts of children.

I descended a staircase built into the rock of the hillside that looked like it was built in Roman times and found a group of ten children in a swimming pool, built into the face of the hillside, with Hahwia Spring flowing into it.  When you’re living in a country that averages 15 cm of rainfall a year (and I didn’t have running water in my home for 23 days), it’s pretty spectacular to see a freshwater spring flowing into a pool.

These children were commanding a flock of twenty or so sheep, washing them with soap and water.  There was a film crew on the ledge of the pool with a cameraman and a broadcaster.

“Where are you guys from?” I asked the cameraman.


“And what brings you here?”

“We’re doing a documentary on how people can live with peace and cooperation.”

“How’s that going?” I replied.

“Not so well.  All we have so far is sheep.”

If these Danes didn’t find what they were looking for by speaking with the shepherd who brought his sheep to the spring amidst the Roman architecture, then I don’t think he’ll ever find what he was looking for.

Husan village lies about 15 kilometers from the city of Bethlehem, of Biblical notoriety.  And these are people who fully utilize the Roman architecture, which was probably also there at the time of Jesus’ birth.  So these people have maintained an agrarian lifestyle for thousands of years on this same land.  What’s more peaceful than that?

So I rambled on from the valleys and hillsides into the village, stopping intermittently underneath olive trees to rehydrate myself and take cover from the oppressive heat.  Judging by the number of people staring or calling out to me, I knew I was an anomaly in this quiet village.  I greeted most people, save for the teenagers who eagerly called out from doorways and rooftops, “What’s your name?”

Then, as I walked into the center of town, a man sitting in an empty building with no front, like a concrete box, waved me over.  He was in a circle of other men, sitting and drinking coffee; there were just two men and 5 boys when I arrived, but by the end of our conversation, there were twelve men from the village sitting in a circle together, chatting.

The two men there initially were Ismael and Ahmad.  Ahmad’s sister died the day before, in Jordan, of old age; so this gathering in the village center was a means for men to console the grieving.  Ahmad didn’t speak English, but Ismael spoke fluently.

He asked me what I was doing in the village, and I told him I was taking pictures of the village for a local news agency.  Then, when we were inquiring about families, marriage, and our ages, we diverged into a discussion of traditions.  He said that most men of my age (25) are married in the village.  And women marry much earlier than that, perhaps 16 or 18.  He said that it is permitted for a man to hold several wives, the reason for this being an unequal proportion of men to women.  But women can’t have several husbands because then there could be dispute as to who the father of her children are.  So in societies where there are more women than men, say, in a place where there is war, there is a much greater proportion of single women.  Ismael’s example: in Iraq, 80% of women aren’t married; in Palestine, just 1%.

But men in the village don’t really take more than one wife; only the wealthiest men have two.  Ismael himself isn’t married.  He studied English in the university for a year with the dream of going abroad.  When his Visa was denied for America, he gave up on his academic as well as his traveling aspirations.

“What is your story about?” He asked me.

“The Israelis and the wall that they’re building in your village,” I replied.

“There is no wall here,” he said.  Which is true: there is only a major highway that cuts along the edge of the village, dividing two homes from the rest of the village.  There is 20-foot high fence next to the highway; but no wall yet.

“They want to build one,” I told him, as he conferred with the other men in the circle.

“Well, then they will.”

“I have friends in al Wallajeh, today, trying to stop the wall.”

“Ah yes.  In al Wallajeh, they do have the wall.  But we cannot stop them.  They will do as they like.”

“Well, that’s why I’m writing the story.  Maybe if I tell people in America, then we can do something.”

“Yes.  Americans can stop the wall.  But we can’t,” he said, resolutely.

This is the map of where the Israeli wall is, and where the Israelis plan to build it.  As I told Ismael and as you can see in the top right of the map, the Israelis are currently building in al Wallajeh village.  They have bulldozed homes there to clear the way for the wall and they enclosed 2/3 of al Wallajeh village into Israeli territory.  There is little reason to doubt that the Israelis will continue into Husan village in the same way.

Map Courtesy of: Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. December 2008.

Apartheid Wall:

Red line = Existing

Orange line = Under construction

Blue line = Planned

Green Line = 1949 Armistice Line

Purple Line = Israeli Bypass Road

Palestinian Villages:

Green Shading = Area A

Yellow Shading = Area B

Israeli Settlements:

Grey Shading = Existing

Pink Shading = Planned

Then, as more men joined the circle, I found it rude to speak in English while they all were left out of the conversation.  Ismael told me of the conversation that they were having: one man has been planning a wedding in the village center for his daughter, the following day.  And they were debating whether it was right to have a wedding ceremony right after the death of the sister of a friend.  After a bit, I went off to take more pictures.

I walked down the main street, ignoring the calls of teenagers to “Come!  Come!”  There was a bank, the Palestinian Investment Bank, and a window shop with some young men working.  Then there was a small dark shop, with no lights on and a faded Arabic sign adorning the entrance; more like a garage than a shop.  Then the blue flame of a welder’s torch burst from the darkness.  I had to check this out.

Salim, the blacksmith, is from Turkey.  He invited me in to sit and drink coffee with him.  He allowed me to take his photo, though his hands were stained black by iron and his face was sweaty and dirty.

Salim studied philosophy in Morocco, then met his wife in Istanbul; she passed away last year.  He is 57 years old.  He has brothers in Toronto, Ohio, and Sydney, and a son getting his doctorate in computer science in Ohio.  Salim dreams of going to Sydney, or to the US, but is waiting for his Visa to be granted.  Until then, he will live along in Beit Jala, the town next to Bethlehem, and work here in Husan village.  He had a man offer him $120,000 for his house in Beit Jala, and said he would happily sell it and find work in the states if he has that opportunity.  But he also said that he would just like to go for three or four months, just to see his family.  He told me this as if I were the man who would be approving or denying his visa application.

I gave the blacksmith my address and phone number, in case he or his children ever wanted to contact me.  During the course of our conversation (in English), he was profusely apologizing for not speaking English well.  He asked if I knew any Turkish, German, or French.  I told him no, but that I just knew a bit of Kazakh, which is much like Turkish.  I counted to ten in Kazakh (the numbers in particular are basically the same between the two languages), and, beaming, Salim said, “Ah, how wonderful!  You are like Ahmad John Kennedy, Jr.!”

With a smile, we enjoyed a moment of silence.  I bid him farewell and caught the bus across the street heading to Bethlehem.

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Amazing Documentary on Nonviolence in the West Bank

So we went to a screening of the film, ‘Budrus,’ in the village of al Walaja, which is about 10 kilometers away from Bethlehem.  They are currently building the wall there, and the screening was given to inspire the local people to nonviolently oppose the construction of the Israeli Wall on their land.

Here’s an e-mail I received on the issue.  The Nicholas Kristof article is quite good:

Dear Friends,
The momentum for our work continues to grow. After publishing an op-ed in The New York Times calling Budrus “ this year’s must-see documentary,” Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof just posted a video online in which he calls the film “terrific,” interviews protagonist Ayed Morrar and explores the potential of unarmed struggle to change the current reality in the Middle East.
In the last few weeks we have won the Honorable Mention for Best Documentary in the Spirit of Freedom Award category at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, as well as the top prize – “Best of Fest in Nonfiction”- at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. You can view photos of these screenings as well as our San Francisco Jewish Film Festival premiere on our Facebook page.
For those in NYC, there are new opportunities to see Budrus in advance of our theatrical release on October 8th. Join us this Friday, August 6th, @ 7:45 pm and next Thursday, August 12th, @ 7:45 pm at the IFC theatre, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. Both screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with director/producer Julia Bacha.
Finally and most significantly, our team in Sheikh Jarrah has been bringing the film to Palestinian communities who are facing the loss of their lands. You can read a moving blog post about our recent screening of Budrus for the villagers of al-Walaja. As one Israeli viewer wrote in his blog following the screening, “I returned full of hope and anger, full of anger and pain, full of love…”
Stay tuned for screenings in Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, New York, Rio, London, Bethlehem and beyond. In the meantime, please consider joining us at IFC in the coming days, and making a tax-deductible donation to Just Vision so we can continue to shine a spotlight on Palestinian and Israeli civilians working to end the conflict without arms.
With appreciation,
Ronit Avni
Founder & Executive Director
Just Vision

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When the Caged Bird Sings

Let me preface this story by telling you about my roommate, Ryan.  Ryan is one of the top five kindest people I have ever met in my life; a 24-year-old Australian with all intentions to move to the Middle East in the next year, to the dismay of his partner of six years.  I share the basement of our host family’s home with Ryan, and we share many of our experiences together, while he teaches me so much – how to adjust the metering and ISO levels on our Nikon cameras, to the affects of the civil war in Lebanon on the Israeli apartheid.

So what does a wonderful day in Palestine look like?

Well, we started today in Ramallah, the headquarters for the Palestinian Authority and a city that has seen a massive boom (no pun intended) of investment in the last five years.  Our tour group was staying last night at a plush hotel, and then we were planning to go from Ramallah to Nablus to see sites in Nablus for the day (I say tour group, but I mean all of the people who have been volunteering.  At times I feel like these individuals want to do meaningful work in Palestine while we are here; but other times they act like 20 year-old college kids and want to do nothing but hook up and drink – endeavors which don’t fly with the majority of Muslims).

So, for the first time in the three weeks that I have been here, I, along with Ryan, left the group of twenty-five Americans, and we chose to trek out into Ramallah on our own.  Our host family had asked that we be back home by four o’clock so that we could all go out on a picnic; the bus from Nablus wasn’t going to make it back to Bethlehem by four, so we had to make it to Bethlehem on our own.  For the sake of being slightly more adventurous and not tagging along for another tour, we chose to not go to Nablus entirely, and instead we walked to the bus station in Ramallah, caught the first bus to Jerusalem, then transferred buses in Jerusalem to get to the check point to Bethlehem.

If you have an international passport, or are a Palestinian in East Jerusalem, you can get from Ramallah to Bethlehem in 25 minutes.  If you’re a Palestinian from the West Bank, you must take the 90 minutes drive around Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  This is because the majority of Palestinians (my host family members being among them) are not allowed into Jerusalem, and they are not allowed to use a number of Israeli-only roads.

“Let me put away my literature,” Ryan said, as he tucked away his three books: “Palestine Monitor: the Story of the Gaza Invasion,” “Jerusalem Arabic for English Speakers,” and “My Father was a Freedom Fighter.”  Any literature that hints at sympathy for the Palestinians is immediately suspect when Israeli soldiers search through your things, so we didn’t want to take our chances.  Fortunately, when the soldier came onto our bus with his M-16 Assault Rifle, he only glanced at the passports of all of the internationals on board the bus, checking their faces and ensuring that they had Israeli visas.  We didn’t need to give them an elaborate story for why we might be in Ramallah.

Once in Jerusalem, Ryan showed me an amazing bookstore near the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.  There were about thirty bookshelves full of literature on the Israeli apartheid, including fiction, poetry, historical background, and sociological, religious, photographic, and philosophical analyses – all in English.  I’ll be going back there this week, at least once, to sit down, have a cool lemonade, and read for hours on end.

We went from the bookstore to the bus station, where we took a local bus to the checkpoint into Bethlehem.  Only some vehicles – those with Israeli license plates – are allowed to enter the West Bank through check points (this way Israel can control what the West Bank imports and exports, and what products they buy).  These buses only took us to the check point, at which time we had to get off the bus and walk through a maze of gates and barbed wire under the gaze of soldiers behind bullet-proof glass, there to inspect our passports.  From the check point, we walked to our refugee camp, al Azzeh Camp.

Our host family was struggling with a pump to get water to the house.  All of the other families in the camp had running water, but for some odd reason, there was no water pressure getting the water into our home.  So they were not in the highest of spirits when we arrived, and in fact Ryan and I crashed from exhaustion for an hour or two while they tried to get water into their home for the first time in ten days.

It’s points like this when I feel absolutely helpless: when the locals are struggling with something like getting the water running, but I don’t speak the language, don’t know how a water pump would get water going in their system, and don’t know the necessary tools to fix the problem.  So Ryan and I rested.

Around five P.M., my host father, Muhammad, my host sister, Shada, Ryan, and I piled into a taxi that took us to a small stone home overlooking terraced cliffs of fruit trees.  We met Muhammad’s friend, Aref, and his family there; soon after, the three other host sisters, Sarah, Moodi, and Rahed, and the two host brothers, Najati and Saddam, arrived with our host mother.

What followed was nothing short of amazing.  Ryan and Najati wandered off while everybody else scavenged up and down the mountainside, raiding the trees and vines for fruit.  Take one pear, put it in the bucket.  Take another, put it in your mouth.  Take two prunes, put them in the bucket, take another and put it in your mouth.  Take a bundle of grapes, and just eat the whole thing while climbing down the terrace to the next almond tree (the fresh almonds are SO good!).  We scavenged up and down the terrace for about two hours, filling our bellies and horsing around.  Ryan and Najati finally returned after trekking over the hillside.  Najati had seen a gazelle galloping over the hillside, and so they had chased after it.

We had running water and open space at this old stone house.  It was everything that we don’t have in the camp, and so much more.  The neighbors’ home is literally 3 feet away from my host family’s front door.  Their home only goes up, and the only soil or greenery is in the buckets and bathtub that line the staircase and rooftop in the refugee camp.  So today, we had kilometers of terraced, rolling hills, fruit and olive trees, fresh air, and an unobstructed sunset.  All in all, it was some peace that I think we’ve all been looking for in a country where free spaces are all too rare.

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Nonviolent Tactics

Today, following a training on nonviolent tactics of demonstrating (basically how to not be charged with assault; how to protect others, particularly Palestinians, from being arrested; how to spend as little time in Israeli jail as possible; and how to avoid being blacklisted and banished from Israel and/or the West Bank for the rest of your life), I started wondering about the methods used to achieve peace. Is protecting ourselves from the obtuse, unjust, and oppressive civilian legal system of Israel the best means possible for eliminating this oppressive legal system?

There are no military zones right now in the West Bank. But, if we choose to hold a demonstration, then the Israeli Army can apply to create a military zone, and then charge us for being in a military zone. This is the most common charge against protesters.

Our facilitator in the training today told us that we should immediately question the procedure of the Israeli military in applying for and authorizing a military zone. If they do not show the proper paperwork, or if this paper is not properly dated and signed, then we have a means for getting out of jail much more expediently. If their paperwork is in order, then they can charge us, and we may have to spend up to 24 hours in jail and agree to several stipulations, such as agreeing not to demonstrate, agreeing not to go to certain cities in the West Bank, etc.

But here is my question to you: when a law is so blatantly oppressive and subject to the discretion of the enforcers – read, “unjust” – is arguing against the law the best means for eliminating it? I feel as though by arguing on their terms, we are merely legitimizing their oppression.

But how can we shift the frame? How can we appeal to 18 year-olds with M-16s whose sole occupation is to enforce unjust laws?

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