Sunday, March 13, 2011

In the hands of strangers: Palestinian Hospitality

Some strange things have happened this week here that illustrate how different things are when seen as a whole or in the extreme. I'll write about them in due course. For now it's time to spill the beans on how easy it's been to be in this place, largely regarded as a tragic, intractable war zone. Right on the back of a most excellent weekend filled with good conversations, delicious food, meeting interesting people, and comfortable progression in the Arabic department. As anyone who's traveled in this area of the world knows, Middle Eastern hospitality has no bounds. For those who don't know, imagine that everyone you meet is a slightly autistic stalker, and then take away any connotations of fear, danger, or prurient interest. This description is immediately problematic, as it paints Palestinians in the unfavorable light of not knowing social bounds, or being so gormless as to latch onto any passerby. But as far as I can understand, society here is just that much more open. People know almost everyone they interact with on a daily basis in the markets, the streets, the neighborhoods, if you're a new face you stand out. The novelty of being a foreigner certainly heightens this, sometimes to a kind of celebrity status, but deep behind the cries of "Welcome to Nablus!" is a culture of respect that exists between people here. Simply put, almost anyone will go out of their way to welcome you and be your friend.

Now, a month in, I have a kind of routine, who I buy things from, who I stop by for a quick chat with, who my good friends are (though that last one's a toughie, as the organization I volunteer with keeps me improbably busy and I literally RUN from class to class, preparing and shooting video on my off days, more on that soon). I have my strawberry guys, who are young and insult each other. My half-yelled childlike introduction with them drew quite a crowd:

When I have time after walking home from class in the Islamic school I do a bit of language exchange with Arafi, who happens to have the excellent occupation of cake seller, which means sugar high at 10:30 am.
I literally think I have ruined my teeth forever here. Despite biking, running up stairs, and Thai Boxing, I've gained 5 pounds for the first time in my life. But we were talking about non-edible encounters.

Language is such an interesting factor in determining relationships. Depending on the fluency of the speaker concepts can either be basic or complex, and my personality fluctuates to suit. So with the vegetable sellers who speak no English I am always a comic, gregarious figure, who blunders through Arabic and mostly talks about where he's going and where he's been. With my co-teachers at project hope I approximate myself, but as a caricature, an ambassador of America which they attempt to match up with their notions about that place. It is only with a few people here that I feel I am myself, and unfortunately that's mostly a handful of the other international volunteers, who have a firmer concept, for the most part, of the variety of ways we have to be in the west. For whatever reason, to my fresh eyes, places like Palestine don't encourage strong cliques or subculture in the same way, say, San Francisco does. There are certainly artistic communities, and writers, and musicians, and other vocational preferences or lifestyle choices, but there seems to be a much stronger mainstream that bonds over similar cultural values here than in "the west."

Husam Abu Heyat (Husam, Father of Snakes!) Artist, Calligrapher, Graphic Designer, and Painter, Jenin.

But no matter who I talk to, in either a simplistic conversation in the market or a full-on discussion with my near-fluent student's family over dinner, there is a deep willingness to be understood and to share Arab culture, to share Islam. Friends and I have long conversations dissecting perceived and actual value differences between our cultures, people give me religious texts and even a English-Arabic Quaran, which I treasure and wonder how I'll be able to take it home. People use our broken language connection to grill me on what I know about the faith, and small children, after finding out I'm not Muslim, inform me in Arabic that Islam is the best. Why? Because it's the best, duh! The other day in Ramallah I sat down by a small tin-fire with some taxi drivers and one of them walked up, made a joke at me, which I responded to, then he said "Yalla let's go prey." It was Friday, the holy day, so everyone would be at the mosque. I said "sure" and he led me through the fruit markets of a city I'd never been to before, quickly cramming inside the mosque and lining up in perfect unison with 750 other men. They would grunt in assent with the Imam as he led them through their prayers, creating this breathy, huge vibration through the room, like a titan clearing his throat. Super cool. Moments later a casual stop in a bakery led to a half-hour long excellent tour spanning two buildings and rickety spiral stairs, seeing all the whirring, anachronistic machines and too-fast workers. The working class are often very young or very old here, I seem drawn to the construction and carpentry workers in the old city, who are usually chalky with plaster or sawdust. IMG_0226

There is a flip-side to all this generosity, however, which is of course the inevitable stress and claustrophobia that comes with too many social obligations. Everyone is grabbing at their phones every five minutes, and it seems perfectly acceptable for a co-teacher to stop translating the lesson mid-sentence and take a call. This coincides nicely with the fact that most phones appear have no ring-silence button and will continue to ring incessantly until the call is rejected or picked up. Indeed as I write this I have ignored 10 calls in the last 3 hours, half from unknown numbers, and half from a group of boys that have a habit of hanging out outside the door of our place here, heckling the other volunteers and yelling my name until I come shoot the breeze with them.

They speak freely with me but it usually takes quite some time until I'm not an awkward center of attention, holding up the conversation with translations and exchanging predictable platitudes about both cultures. That's probably the most tedious part of being a rudimentary speaker and an icon of westernism: the predictability of the course of conversation. Kids of a certain age ask you whether you support football teams FCB or Real Madrid (those two only strangely, like, jeeze Palestine, what's the big obsession with Spain?), or which WWE wrestler you like. They ask you if you know the wrestlers in real life, while in the back of my mind I'm thinking "wait, these programs still exist?" Older boys talk about either sex ("is it true you can sleep with whomever you want? how many girls have you slept with? Which are better, European or American girls?") or about the problems of Palestine. The sex question's getting pretty interesting, I'm just getting to the point where I can stumble through a fight for gender equality and point out that women are pretty involved in the whole consent process and generally are interesting people beyond their reproductive characteristics. Note as well the dearth of women in these pictures, largely because my life is in the public realm, where there are less interactions with women, and most women despise and detest being on camera. All my professional relationships with women are great, however, and probably deserve their own (upcoming!) blog post.

Adults talk about politics and Islam. Along these lines, everyone tries really hard to dispel the notions of Arabs as fundamentalist terrorists. But they needn't bother. It's clear, as a collective culture, that Palestinians just want to live freely and not be impoverished and humiliated. Their hearts are filled with love, empathy, and respect. I feel so much more gentleness and desire for peace here than I do in Israel. More than I do anywhere, for that matter. In respect to the occupation most people show an astonishing, life-long patience that floors me. The fact that this place isn't a gun-filled riotous shit-show all the time speaks legions to the Palestinian desire for peace. Everyone's stressed. Everyone knows someone who has died, who's house has been destroyed, who's in prison. Everyone's stretched thin financially, over-achieving but for what purpose? They're all motivated and intelligent, and daily life here is very close and satisfying, but there's the root listlessness, because they can't leave very easily, so there's an absurdity to excelling at anything. What's the point of being the best thai boxer or painter or mathematician if you can't get a job in it and there's little chance to leave Palestine to conferences or to start a business or whatever? And there's a breaking point. My friend Mamoon lives in Balata, one of the largest refugee camps. He's a thin-faced fellow with kind eyes, good natured and a good translator, waiting until he understands the beginning and end of an idea before accurately conveying the mood of it. His father died 10 years ago and Mamoon and his brothers support the family. He awakes at 6 to study English at the University until 2, when he volunteers for Project Hope for an hour or two. Then he grabs a bite to eat and works in a printing factory until 2 am, at which point he does it all over again, 6 days a week. And still he walks slow. And still he waits patiently for people to ask him favors. And still he commiserates with a silly foreigner who complains about his heavy workload of a handful of classes a day.

People shoulder the burdens of stress, lack of opportunity, inequality, violence, corruption and poverty with a grace and magnanimity that makes these things almost forgettable, and it's the power there that speaks to my heart amidst the sea of voices in this aged, blind, clumsy struggle. Forget what you heard. Palestine is a land of the best examples of human beings.
Read More......

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Uprising here, Uprising there: Tim Dechristopher's Spirit

I feel far away from the revolutions in Northern Africa, as a newcomer here with an far from acceptable grasp on the language. I feel equally far from an issue close to my heart, the trial of Tim Dechristopher. Much time has passed since he originally blocked the corporate powers of US resource consumption from chewing up more Utah land in the name of profit, now the Federal Court has tried him while carefully shielding his jury from any information that could make this case actually about reason and justice. The machine has not spoken, it has ground forward with another ugly, smooth crush. But Tim is far from silent. Here are his remarks after the verdict:

See more of interplay between awful corporate personhood and the strength of people to fight what they believe in on Peaceful Uprising's website. Read More......

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Being in Nablus: Mountain of Fire

Report to the world abroad: I've been incredibly remiss. I have no idea how to fill in the blanks between a month ago and now. I fluctuate like an aperture, a sine wave. I've had the greatest, the worst, the busiest, and the most tedious experiences of my life all in sequence. Time seems to race by, or it seems a lifetime since I rolled into the West Bank on January 31st. I've been incredibly busy here. Two days ago I thought I was a failure. This week I feel competent, on a good path, useful. Before all that I felt elated, and before that lost. But it's fine. Sometimes it's good enough to move forward, ceaselessly, and let the days shape how your muscles and callouses grow. It's time to describe Nablus.

To get us started I'll re-wind my notebook to my first impressions, on January 31st.
"Nablus is fantastic. I knew before that it was couched in a valley, and that Israeli barriers had destroyed its economy until the militarization ceased in 2009. The city center features a masterpiece of a shopping drag that rises to the south, it's absolutely filled with pedestrians day and night, criss-crossing the domain of merciless taxis. Fashionable stores rub elbows with sooty, wobbly eggplant carts, and boys looking fresh from the club greet wrinkled old men wearing what appears to be conglomerated dirt. There's an incredible food selection in the markets, fresh fruit and veggies overflowing at every corner. Everyone must know how to cook. The main fruit and vegetable market is off the central square in a canopied corridor, typical bustle of people and cheap, delicious stuff. Nizar, a Project Hope employee showed me a few preserved treasures like a large scale functional soap factory, which appears to make one product only: 6 oz blocks of fragrant olive-oil soap, spread out on the floor and arranged into insectoid columns to store and cure in a beautiful old warehouse, the floor slick with the sheen.

The old city is a remarkable mix of living history and a profound record of the abuse this place has been through. Computer shops operating out of ancient arched-stone structures, smooth walls getting narrower and narrower. It's ancient, and picturesque, but suddenly here and there you'll discover bullet-riddled walls and officially-ensconced memorials to suicide martyrs, from as recently as the second intifada (2002). Nizar briefly said hi to a young good-natured guy who had a vague look about him, who flinched when Nizar playfully pinched his stomach. 'Is he blind?' I asked. 'Yeah, he was injured' 'During the intifada?' 'He was trying to pull apart an undetonated shell stuck in a wall. He wanted to throw the explosive from it, and sell the copper. It exploded in his face.'

The markets here are less crowded but more claustrophobic, filled with delicious sweets, spreads, olives, dates, cheese, and tons of amazing-smelling bread. I'm in heaven. And unlike in Israel I know the rudiments of how to ask for things. But only the rudiments. Palestinian Arabic is tough and my brain is like a lead balloon. I don't hear subtle distinctions and remember things even more infrequently. I think the learning curve's steep but even on day one can see a light at the end of the tunnel. In truth I'm exhilarated to be here. If I hack this one out I may have a pretty rad future. If I could speak Arabic well, I could see myself working in this region for a really long time. Nablus is fully alive, in a way that only a place strangled by a brutal fate really can be."

I feel pretty good about my initial description still, tempered by a few new realizations that I've come to over time. For one, winter in the mid-east mountains is a perpetual wet spring, with weeks clammy and misty and others in full sunny contrast, perfectly temperate, and possibly even more beautiful. It's a lot like San Francisco, in a way. I think I really fell for this kind of weather in my second week. It had been raining 4 days straight and the world was wrapped in one of those surreal mists that wets your face and helps sound travel. I was walking down a huge ancient set of steps that descend the mountianside beside our house. All chipped up and knobby. It was dusk, and through the fog the call-to prayer reverberated, creating unearthly echoes the likes of which I've never heard. otherwise it was deadly silent. I was alone, in the heart of far away. I live for moments like that. I was so struck by the evening call to prayer I made a little video featuring it later, in the rain. It fails to capture what I experienced, but it's a nice little moment:


Nablus is my home now, though I'm still a stranger in it. I always will be, no matter how good my Arabic gets. The call of "taal, taal ijnebi/come, come stranger!" follows me everywhere, and depending on the combination of my apparel, company, or mode of transport I'm conspicuous enough to singlehandedly draw substantial crowds. Because of this my relationship to my home is a strange one. The public sphere isn't a place I can be by myself, but I don't mind that. I take pleasure in making friends every few meters and try not to be inconvenienced by it. This level of conspicuousness effects me greatly and changes the way I behave. I rarely take pictures in public, any more, and my photos reflect that. I feel awkward and invasive all the time, pulling out a camera puts it over the top. Of course my photography suffers from this, we'll see if I improve in time and can start asking people for their photos again. Friday is a respite, as the streets are dead, and a bustling merchant district becomes abandoned.

Since I'm our narrator here what could a visit be without the view-from-a-bike report? It's fantastic. I swerve and weave like a self-possessed fakenger listening to 'a band of horses' and people LOVE IT. Everyone treats you like it's your birthday. I always have an audience here, but on the bike I'm in my element, obviously, and I ham it up, obviously. It's a party. This city's on a hill, so you bomb through the potholes and minarets and dodge taxis, and they roll down their windows and say funny stuff to you then you dodge some ladies jaywalking and cut to another lane of traffic to avoid the lettuce cart guy splitting lanes against you then you swerve around a military gooseneck, pass some autoshops and a landfill, and you're at the refugee camp, exhausted, having about 200 near misses along the way.

There's much more to say, and much more to show, but enough. Stay tuned next time for either the people, the navigation, or even more harrowing, the classes!



Read More......