Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Wall, Part 5: Action Photos

I wanted to wait until I left Palestine (and Israel) before posting more pictures of the wall and my (and my human friend's) contributions to it... I think the pictures explain themselves, but if you're not sure what's going on, read the previous Wall posts and these will make sense.  So from Istanbul, here they are...  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sitting next to a soldier...

Today I sat next to a young Israeli soldier on the bus; more accurately, he sat next to me, gun strapped around his neck the whole time. I was on the bus to Tiberias. He got off in another town and I watched him tenderly hug a man I assume was his father.

I have ridden Israeli buses several times in the last week and have found the pervasive presence of the soldiers unnerving, especially after having witnessed some of them on the job.  The fact that many of them keep their guns strapped to their bodies wherever they go is part of what makes their presence disturbing.

Today as I was boarding the bus, I told myself I'd sit next to a soldier if there were no empty window seats. I made this pledge because I have found myself feeling rather hateful towards soldiers and I thought sitting next to a soldier might help me remember that we're both just people. There was an empty window seat and I was relieved to be off the hook... And then the boy came and sat next to me.

I don't know how old he was, but by my standards, he was most certainly a boy. Yesterday I went on a tour with Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who are giving testimonies about what they did or saw while serving in the IDF, particularly during the second intifada, but even as recently as 2010, and particularly in Hebron, which I've written about before, though not only there. The ex-soldier who led the tour was 22 and had served in the military from 2006 to 2010, when he was only 16 to 20 years-old. I'd guess the boy sitting next to me was somewhere in that age range.

We didn't speak a word to each other, though I did nudge him when his arm and gun were making their way towards my lap. I thought about talking to him, but I never did. When I've been around soldiers in "normal" life, rather than the more potentially volatile situations, I've been trying my hardest to remember that they, too, are regular people. I was always happy when my students at home had this revelation about homeless people, immigrants, or people in jail. I thought I myself knew that all people are people just like me, but as I try to distance myself from the violence I see and hear about that is carried out by Israel and Israelis, I want to dehumanize them, perhaps in the way some of them dehumanize others, because I don't understand how humans can treat other humans so horribly.  I don't understand how one human (an Israeli settler) can punch another (an international observer) in the nose simply because she is wearing a keffiyeh (a type of scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian sympathies) or how another (an Israeli police officer) can laugh when the victim files the report and tell her she should have known better than to wear a keffiyeh on Shuhada Street on Purim. I don't understand how one human can throw acid on a child- on a child- simply because he is Palestinian. I don't understand how soldiers can throw tear gas at people without weapons peacefully demonstrating. I don't understand how they can arrest children and hold them in jail for days for no reason.  I simply don't understand and yet I know humans are doing this to other humans. These actions don't fit my definition of humanity and I don't want to believe they should.

I have no idea what the soldier sitting next to me has done or where he's been. I'd like to believe he has a conscience like the young man who led our tour yesterday. Our guide stressed that Breaking the Silence is not about asking the religious or historical questions, but rather the moral ones. The question should not be, "Do Jews have a religious or historical claim to this land?" but rather, "Is it moral to carry out the Occupation?" He stressed that the problem is not settlers or soldiers; they are symptoms of a much larger problem. The problem is the systemic forceful colonization (my word not his) of Palestinian lands. The problem implicates anyone who, by action or inaction, supports the structure that continues to demean, deny, and oppress. He said that Israelis sometimes ask him or others from Breaking the Silence why they are trying to delegitimize the state. His answer is that he is doing no such thing; the actions of the state are the problem, not his speaking about them.    

So the boy sitting next to me, cradling his gun as he slept, listening to "Mambo No. 5," a song I had going through my head yesterday, is not the problem. I wish I could just blame the soldiers or the settlers for what goes on here.  It would be much easier if the problem, though still daunting, were that small.  The problem is much larger. The problem is the militaristic state and anyone, like, say, the U.S., who supports its illegal and immoral actions.  It's the system that needs to change. It is overwhelming to consider.

Thank goodness there are small rays of hope like the young man leading us yesterday and the 800 other former soldiers who have given their testimonies. Their courage helps me to remember that I can't lump all IDF or all Israelis into one category. Their honesty  makes it easier for me to sit next to a boy with a gun and feel something other than anger and hatred. Maybe he is just a boy with no real way out of a messed-up system.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Wall, Part 4: Action

Last Saturday a human friend and I went to the wall.  Let me be clear that when I write "the wall," I am talking about my wall friend- did I call it/him/her my friend?- in Bethlehem, not the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Ever since I was visited a month or so ago and had my convers(at)ion, I knew I had to go back and continue the dialogue.

On Friday I was in Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall.  When I have gone there before, I have approached that wall armed with prayers, my own and those of friends.  When I went Friday, I had many prayers in my heart, but rather than approaching the wall, I stood for awhile at the back of the plaza, just watching and trying to make sense of what I was seeing and what I have seen and heard during my time in Israel and Palestine.  I watched people go by in costumes for Purim.  I watched Israeli soldiers standing around chatting. I watched groups of tourists passing through, taking pictures.  I watched, but I could do no more than watch from afar.  I had no desire to approach the wall that day.  My stomach was churning and my brain was going full-speed as it tried to reason with my churning stomach. My brain tried to explain that I was supposed to love the Israeli soldiers standing there because they are my neighbors as much as the Palestinians I've been spending my time with.  My stomach didn't listen.  It responded to the challenge that I've set for myself with, "Really?  I don't know how to love them and so I churn trying to figure it out."  I wished the wall before me beckoned me the way it has in the past...but that day, it didn't.  I did pray there from afar, but I couldn't bring myself close.  I will go back again before I leave Israel and I will place prayers there, but I think my relationship with that wall has changed.

I was looking forward to another intimate conversation with my wall in Bethlehem on Saturday.  You may have noticed that I use possessive pronouns a lot when referring to whomever or whatever has made its way into my heart. It surprises me that I refer to that wall as "my" wall, since I think the world would be much better if it/he/she didn't exist. But still I call it/him/her "my" wall.  It/he/she does exist and unexpectedly spoke to me in ways that now allow me to call such a horrible thing mine.  The wall is mine as surely as I am its/his/hers.

Saturday my human friend came to Bethlehem.  I didn't have a clear plan as to how exactly our time would go, but I did know where I wanted to go.  I also knew that I wanted to write messages and prayers and put them in cracks in the wall, the very thing I couldn't do at the Western Wall the previous day.  My human friend brought her own idea and a can of green spray paint to make it happen.  On our way to the wall, we picked up some permanent markers- black, green, and red (the colors of the Palestinian flag) and a pad of paper for me.

After talking to the wall last month, I knew I had to visit it/him/her again.  Ideas of what my return would look like came and went. I thought about inviting many people to go and making it a large public action. I thought about asking my friends to send me messages to put in the wall, as I have done at the Western Wall.  I contacted to ask what their position was on wall art and to ask about possible repercussions for doing a public action there. I never heard back from them.  As the time got closer, because of my unanswered questions, lack of time, and lack of desire to be in charge of a large action, I submitted to the idea of simply going quietly with my friend to the wall.  She was the first person I hesitantly showed my convers(at)ion before I posted it.  Her reaction to it showed me that she understood.  I knew that whatever happened at the wall, she was the right person to go with me.  Before we went I wondered if just the two of us going was enough. It wasn't until after we went that I knew our quiet presence there was exactly what the wall needed and (I won't speak for my human friend) exactly what I needed.

When we arrived, we walked along the wall until we reached the area we sought.  My human friend scoped out a spot to spray paint. I scoped out a spot to sit and begin writing my messages for the cracks.  It was a warm day, so a quiet spot in the shade suited us well.  She painted, I wrote and took pictures.  She painted a beautiful tree (over a black dinosaur someone else had drawn) and feather and wrote, "Hope is the thing."  She ran out of spray paint, so she did not get to complete her Emily Dickinson quote (on the wall- she did on paper): "Hope is the thing with feathers."  We agreed, however, that "Hope is the thing" was not a bad message to have on the wall.

When my human friend finished her creation, she took pictures of me writing and also wrote messages for the cracks.  My own messages varied, some as simple as "Tear it down," some longer like the serenity prayer followed by my own hope: I can make a change.   I wrote an apology for U.S. responsibility in the violence Israel carries out.  I wrote a small part of the convers(at)ion. When I wrote that, though I hadn't planned it, I knew I also needed to write on the wall it/him/herself.  So when I finished writing my messages, I made a practice drawing of a caterpillar on paper and then approached my friend, the horrible awful security wall.  I drew a (rather pitiful) caterpillar and (equally pitiful) butterfly and wrote, on behalf of the wall who cannot write, "I want to be transformed into something beautiful."  Then I drew another butterfly and across her wings drew the Palestinian flag. There I wrote, "Make me a butterfly."  Then I drew another Palestinian flag butterfly with the same message.  My human friend also drew a butterfly...

After we finished writing on the wall, we were ready to place our prayers, our petitions, our messages, our words in its/his/her cracks.  We walked along the wall, quietly folded our papers and placed them where we felt moved to.  Honestly, it felt so right to places our messages in the wall that I am surprised that others haven't done it.  Maybe they have, I don't know, but I've never heard of anyone else doing it.  Leaving our messages in and on the wall, we intertwined our lives with this inanimate yet strangely alive thing, the thing that I must call it/he/she.  My human friend and I talked about how we'll come back, how we'll bring more messages, and bring more friends.

That day the quiet time with my human friend and my wall friend who silently screams for attention was right.  I hope I will come back to see my wall friend.  Maybe I will bring groups to have their own conversations with it/him/her.  I don't know.  As with everything in my life, I hope I will recognize the call to do so if I get one.  In the meantime, I will wait, hope, and remembering my pledge, act so that my wall friend will be torn down and transformed into a something beautiful.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pushing the Limits of "Decency"

I wanted to hug my friends good-bye.

I have been living the last few months in a fairly conservative primarily Muslim society.  By no means is it the most conservative society in the world.  Also because I am neither Muslim nor Palestinian, I have not been bound by the same "rules" as women here.  Yes, I have dressed more conservatively than I might at home, wearing long sleeves and almost always wearing a scarf around my neck.  Both have been pretty easy to do, given that it's been quite cold most of my time here.  As it's gotten warmer, I have gone out a few times wearing 3/4-length sleeves and have wondered if people thought I was dressing indecently.  If they did, no one said anything.  At the time same, no women here wore or will wear anything but long sleeves.  I understand that and I respect that. 

The last few days, it's been particularly warm.  I took a lovely walk up to Sky Nablus- high up on a mountain with a beautiful view of the city.  As I walked and got warmer, I dared to take off my scarf.  Again, I wondered, "Do people who see me think I am being immodest?"  The warmth I was feeling from walking up the hill in the sun prevented me from caring much.  

A few days ago for the first time I wore short sleeves...under a top with 3/4 sleeves.  Both, by my standards were modest, but I knew they might not be by standards here, so I opted to put a scarf around my neck.  That day I visited a student, went out with a friend, went to the last class with my teens, and then had my last adult class in the evening.  

I always call the adult class my "man class," since it's only men.  My other classes were my "teenage class" and my "sweet little girls class."  Each had its own charm, to be sure.  When I first began teaching the man class, I dreaded it, first because it took some fits and starts to actually begin it and then because of the timing of it- from 6:30 to 7:30 in the evening, the latest class latest at Project Hope.  However, once the class got going, I quickly grew to love it.  They were, as my Australian and Kiwi counterparts might say, heaps of fun.  Heaps! 

After the last "man class," we all went out together. They took me all over Nablus- to one home (of three brothers, two of whom were in the class), to the business of another, to an awesome lookout point above the city, through the Old City, to a pizza place, and lastly, in true Nablusi-style, for sweets.  No celebration in Nablus is complete without sweets! 

I so enjoyed getting a larger glimpse into the lives of the men: where they live, work, hang out.  I had learned a bit in class, but being with them outside of class was more enlightening.  I met some of their family members, and saw where some of them spend their days.  The group of them are, and have been for a long time, great friends.  That was part of what made the class so delightful- they enjoyed each other's company so much and I got to join in the fun, both during class and on the Last Hurrah night out. 

At the end of a really great night two things happened that gave me pause.  To get from place to place, we'd driven around in my taxi driver student's car and brother #3's car.  As they drove me back to drop me off at the house, because it was a warm night I took off the scarf I'd been wearing around my neck.  I figured the top I was wearing was not so revealing that it would be a problem.

A few minutes later as we were standing around talking, one of the guys asked (or gestured or somehow got the point across) where my scarf was.  I said I took it off because it was warm.  Then I paused.  "Should I put it back on?"  His "yes" answer surprised me, but obligingly I put it back on.

Then, though I was pretty sure I knew the response I'd get, I threw this one out there: "In the United States, when we say good-bye, we hug each other.  Can I give you all a hug good-bye?"  Men and women do not casually hug here. 

First since I didn't teach them "hug" in class, there was clarification as to what I was asking.  Once we'd established what a hug was, one man said, "In the religion of Mohammad, it is haram (forbidden)."  I had expected the answer, but it still made me sad.  For me, it feels unnatural to leave people I genuinely care about with only a handshake.  But that's how we said our good-byes... The next day I discussed the hugging thing with another friend and with one of my female teenage students.  Their responses were similar, that a male and female hugging here was quite out of the question.

In saying all this, let me be clear that I haven't felt particularly constrained or restricted (though I'd probably feel different were I here for warmer weather) living in a society that is more conservative than what I'm used to.  I have loved loved loved being here and have felt so loved loved loved by those I've met and come to know.  Perhaps that is why it makes me so sad that I cannot show my affection in the way that feels right for me.  I just wanted to hug my friends good-bye...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hebron/Shuhada Street Protest Photos

No weird title like "Cat butt" (the previous post that these pictures illustrate).  What follows are my pictures from Hebron in general and the demonstration in particular.  At the end are two links to videos from the "Open Shuhada Street" demonstration.

A few of my photos...

Many streets in the Old City have been completely blocked off, like this one.  This makes getting around more difficult. As I was walking, I happened to peek through a hole and saw a burned out (possibly bombed out?) building. 

IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) are standing watch all over the place.

 The fencing you see is what Palestinians have put up to protect themselves from whatever Israeli settlers may throw down from above. You can see the fencing above the Old City market... If you look closely, you can also see the trash that's been thrown down on it.

Looking up through it , you also see the settler homes...

The mosque/synagogue...The entrance you see on the left of the building is the synagogue entrance.  The mosque entrance is farther to the left.  To get to either side, you have to go through security.  What you don't see in the picture is the IDF watchtower.

Muslims wait to begin Friday prayers as the IDF stands guard outside the Ibrahimi Mosque. 

Soldiers stand at the ready outside the mosque.  Ready for what, I do not know...

Inside, they also seem ready for action. 

Shuhada Street, which used to be a bustling Palestinian commercial area.  The doors to many shops were welded shut, with whatever happened to be inside stuck in there. Note the barrier in the street.  The left (narrow) side is for Palestinians, the right (wide) for settlers.  Remember that Hebron is in Palestine...  We chose to walk on the left.

Walking past Shuhada Street towards the protest...

The IDF is ready for the peaceful protest.  These were only a few of their vehicles.  There was also a bulldozer ready to go.  Not sure what that would have been used for.  Luckily, it didn't come out...

We had to walk through yet another checkpoint in the middle of the city.

And then we found where the protest was...just beyond the IDF vehicles at the end of the street. 

Children poked their heads out to see what was going on.  At that point things were still pretty calm...

Standing guard on a the roof of a house...

By the time the picture below was taken, the skunk spray (aka "cat butt") had already been used on demonstrators.  You can see demonstrators and casual observers in the back.

I'll let the next few pictures speak for themselves...

An arrest...

One of the journalists was hit in the head.  I'm not sure what hit him, but you can see he was bleeding.

Things got fun for us when the sound bombs were hurled towards us... That's when we ducked into a house...
After ducking in for cover, we were invited up to the home of an amazing family who made us feel immediately welcome, serving us tea, oranges, and a meal.

Even after a few hours, there were things burning in the street.  The street had been blocked and IDF was still on watch. 

These boys wanted me to take their picture, so I obliged.

 Remnants from the day left in the streets...on the side where journalists and observers were, not demonstrators. 

Late in the day, soldiers were still all over the place.

See the soldiers on the roof to the right of the Coca-Cola sign...

And a bit of the graffiti from around town....

Finally, here is video footage posted from the Alternative Information Center:

Here is another video someone posted on youtube: