Friday, July 26, 2013

Ramadan in Nablus

On a rather scorching hot Tuesday afternoon, four women from all over the world decided to take a visit to Nablus in the West Bank. These four ladies, all very different brought some interesting cards to the table. We all study together at the Hebrew University, coming everyday to absorb Hebrew slowly but surely. Our common language is Hebrew, but we were a surprising little group. One from England, fluent in Spanish. One American-Russian, fluent in both. A Frenchie, who also speaks English, Italian and Spanish, and myself, an American with Arabic and Turkish.

After heading down on the new Jerusalem light rail to Damascus Gate, we ventured towards the little Palestinian bus station that takes you anywhere in the West Bank. After pushing our way to the get in the line, fighting grandmas who were trying to take us down, we finally made it on the bus to Ramallah, our first stop. We crossed through the Qalandia checkpoint, depressing as always, and shuttled up the hills to reach the central bus station (the last stop) in Ramallah. There, we waited to hop on a bus that would take us to Nablus. This bus was rather large, and we shuffled on, clearly being the only foreigners on the entire bus. We sat quietly, taking in the stunning landscape of terraced hills, beautiful white-washed villas, lambs wandering the fields, and villages popping up in each valley, decorated by a community mosque, it's minaret peeking up above the hills. It is also possible to see some of the settlements, which stand out as not belonging with the rest of the landscape.

views of the hills of Nablus
I turned around to ask someone behind me how long it'd be before we would reach Nablus and was sucked into a conversation with the two men behind me. They were very curious about where we were from and who we supported politically. They were very enthusiastic about Russians, expressing how the Russians have helped the Palestinian cause for years. Before this trip, I didn't know that Russian support would emit such an emotional response from so many.

We reached Nablus about an hour later, and stopped off in the city center. The sun was preparing to make its descent, and the streets were filled with energy, anticipating the hour which they could finally break fast and eat. We wandered into a few different stores to ask about prices back to Jerusalem and also to inquire about some good restaurants. I was pleasantly surprised upon meeting several people from Nablus. They were the MOST welcoming people. They asked about us and our families, introduced us to their families, promised that they were our personal contacts now in Nablus, invited us to a meal in their homes and even introduced us to their children. We were welcomed with open arms and could not have felt more accepted. They pointed us in the direction of the old market and encouraged us to come back and have tea with them.

the clocktower
The streets in Nablus highlight the views of the surrounding hills and the terraced houses. We made it to the old city,slowly and sweetly taking in smells of baking sweets, the sounds of the streets and the stunning views of the landscape. We sauntered by an old Turkish bath (which was sadly closed for the day), and found ourselves at the central mosque and church tower.
When we entered in the mosque, we immediately entered the woman's quarters, which were off to the side, not even touching the regular mosque. It was quite strange to me, never had I seen a woman's quarter so isolated from the rest of the mosque. What was actually quite sad was the amount of propaganda inside the women's quarter. There were pictures of "appropriate Muslim clothing" which showed women in naqab's (full length dress) and pictures comparing stylish women to rotten candy. I was so bothered by this, I asked my boss for the NGO who explained to me that this was quite unusual, and we pondered about the Salafi presence in the West Bank, apparently it is something that is gaining influence in some areas. Besides that downside, the mosque was beautiful, its top dome painted in a stunning teal green shade.

ladies eyelashes: a sweet dessert 
Luckily, the best was yet to come. We stumbled upon the BEST kunefe shop in all of the West Bank, called Al-Aqsa Kunefe. Alas, we arrived and they were completely sold out! So with sad faces, we ventured to the next best bakery shop, Damascus sweets, where the gentlemen working there were so happy to help us, and even gave us a tray of the dessert they call ladies eyelashes, filled with fresh cream and smothered in a sugar syrup. One of these babies is enough dessert for a week. Sugar literally oozes into your mouth when you take a bit, followed by a hit of a smoothy cream.

We made many friends along the way, all of whom invited us to break fast with them. Being short on time (*we had to return to Jerusalem that night because we had school the next day) we had to sadly decline, as many of these meals and parties last all night long. We instead broke fast at a restaurant called Al-Khamees . We endured a three hour, several course meal, including breaking the fast with dates and the traditional carob juice, accompanied with cola, water, Arab coffee and of course, nargilah. The night ended sadly, as none of us wanted to leave. We hopped on a shared taxi back to the border, wishing we could stay all night long. We completed our trip by going through the Qalandia border by foot. It was a quite scary experience, and unnerving. Sitting in a holding cell and waiting for people to buzz us into the gate to be checked for security made me understand what many people go through every day. There was tension, and we were all uncomfortable with the whole process. It was an odd end to a glorious day!

Monday, July 22, 2013

You can't pick a future.

There are those times in life when you are given an experience that changes your life, turns your world upside down and rocks it. I have been lucky enough to experience that a few times in my life, the first being at the University of Haifa.

Originally, I didn't even want to study abroad in the Middle East, I wanted to go somewhere like China or Australia. Israel? Not on my top 10 to say the least. I don't know exactly what it was, or how it happened but I fell madly, deeply, inexplicably in love with the Middle East. The more I saw, the more I was sucked in. The language enthralled me: the deep guttural tones with spinning notes of the oud interspersed throughout my day.  For the last five years, I haven't ceased. I have literally been in the Middle East every year since 2008, and have yet to stop. Sometimes, I find myself asking what the heck I am doing with my life. Grad school? Knowledge? Adventure?

Of course the existentialist in me revels in these deep questions of life direction, but living life one day at a time forces you to shove those questions to the top theoretical shelf and leave it for later. As a graduate student, and perhaps even more as an undergrad, I asked myself what I want to do and how can I get there? How can I plan my future? I can't count the number of times I have been asked  "Why the Middle East?" or "what do you want to do after grad school?" These questions, unfortunately, pluck you and your avoidance back into the fast-paced reality where life forces you to choose a dream, choose a field, choose a future. Choose your path.

Well, I for one, am going on strike. I deeply believe that life nudges you into new paths and that with a little effort and a whole lot of courage, you will get where you need to go. One day, I would love to make a difference in our foreign policy. Most people like to suggest to me that it is absolutely critical that I a) go to an ivy league or b)go to law school. My response is this: no one who ever changed the world did things the normal way.

So why I am ranting at midnight on a Monday in Jerusalem? To encourage the college students out there, those wandering aimlessly, or unhappy in what they do, to do some soul searching and figure out what they really like to do, when no one else is watching (besides facebook!) Last year I made it my personal mission to take myself out on weekend or day trips, go to a new place by myself, explore, meet people and learn about myself. It's easier to do or be what everyone else wants. Would it be easier if I just went to law school and got a job at a firm? I'm sure it would, it would fit much more neatly into the little life most people dream for themselves. But I made the choice to take the path with the unknown end, trusting that life will push me forward.

So don't pick a future. Pick yourself. If you don't, know one else will. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Shabbat in Jerusalem

The shabbat horn blows like an orchestra bubbling up through the streets, penetrating every sidewalk crack, dark alley and welcoming home. Called a shofar (traditionally a Ram's Horn), it loudly belts out its first proud note. For two whole minutes the Shabbat horn blares proudly. The Haredim hustle to prayer, prayer tassels swaying in time with their steps, the little white tassels rippling in the wind that sweeps up the narrow cobbled streets. Their giant black hats present to the world their origin and religious identity. Who knew hats could say so much?

At precisely 7:13pm, (time changes weekly) nearly all noise ceases. With the exception of taxis, only one civilian car dares to rev its engines. Today, for the next twenty-five hours, the whole city collectively exhales. Nothing but the tinkling of plates, the sound of muttered prayers, and the wind carrying over the plains of Israel can be heard. Somehow even the wind calms itself, as if it knows the holy hour upon which is blows. I had forgotten the power of Shabbat, the pure relaxation, reflections and quality time with family and friends.

It is my last Shabbat in Jerusalem, and already I mourn my departure. There is something magical about this city. The religious intensity is infectious. Well, I'm off to celebrate Shabbat at a friends. Shabbat Shalom to everyone around the world, and Ramadan Kareem!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bat Mitzvah Madness

Bat & Bar Mitzvah's in Israel bring party to a whole new level. I attended a fantastic Bat-Mitzvah a few weeks ago (my friend's cousin's Bat Mitzvah) and was astounded. I had been to a Bar Mitzvah previously in Israel, about 3 years ago, which was just as grand. This time, some highlights included

  • 350 guests
  • 7 courses
  • endless free drinks
  • DJ
  • Live Band
  • Conga Lines
  • Hollywood ball gowns
  • breakfast, yes, breakfast

So after getting ready for several hours, taking a crash nap and then driving to the venue which literally looked like Versailles Palace. Grandiose, a million lit lights dancing and reflecting, twenty foot gardens surrounding the castle like structure, I knew we were in for a great time ! When we walked in, girls on stilts were dancing, there were about 10 appetizer tables (of sushi, foie gras, etc.) set up, and a busy open bar. Bottles popped, champagne poured and cameras flashed. One of my very favorite things about parties in Israel is that they have photographers who take your pictures and then print it on magnets that you pick up during the event! The food was grand, lush and endless. And do you know what I thought... so much wasted food. At this gorgeous event, all I was able to think of was how much food was present and how much was uneaten. Dinner choices were foie gras or fresh fish. The meat dishes came later. It was literally endless. Desserts, drinks and even breakfast was served around 3:30am. Pure madness. 

Anyway the DJ was fabulous, the live band was great and people partied endlessly. One thing about Israel, the parents dance just as much as the kids do, maybe even more. Everyone lives largely. But the best part was the family. Moroccan in background, Israeli in nationality, they are the kindest, warmest people I have ever met. Their family adopted me, more or less, and treat me like their own. The entire family. My friends family, from her immediate family to her aunts, uncles, and even grandparents welcome me with open arms. Being the only blonde in a Moroccan family emits a giggle every now and again, but they accept me without question. Israeli culture, when you are invited in, is one of the warmest most open, accepting and amazing of any that I have experienced. Particularly, my friend's family makes Israel what it is for me: home. 

Reut and  I


the girls of the family


inside, video cameras swirling around

me and Reut's brother

the live band...and everyone else! 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ramadan in Jerusalem

Jerusalem at sunset 
There is nothing like the calls to prayer echoing through a city. The azzan calls the city's Muslim inhabitants to prayer in its sonorous voice, competing with the other minarets for the most beautiful prayer to God. Having never been in Israel or the West Bank for Ramadan, its customs were surprisingly familiar, though a bit less exciting than their Egyptian counterparts.
Ramadan dessert: a light pancake

At around 7:50, there was a huge bang, sounding like an explosion. As I was walking through West Jerusalem to meet my friend in East Jerusalem, the religious Jews were noticeably unsettled. The Muslims knew what it meant, fast had ended for the day. Instantly, everyone lit up their cigarettes, hastily drank the fast-breaking drink, usually carob juice or tamarind juice and then dug in to fill their bellies. Street vendors supplied the many hungry people with everything from sweet corn, to pitas stuffed with freshly grilled meat to freshly leavened bread.

A friend, Jazz, and I decided to spend this glorious night sitting and relaxing by Damascus Gate, outside the old city. The longer we sat, the more people appeared, in droves, heading to pray or coming out to celebrate the end of fast with friends uproariously. Jazz and I sat to nosh on some delicious Ramadan snacks (see to my left) and took in the sights, sounds and smells of the Jerusalem Ramadan. The special multi-colored lit Ramadan lamps swung lightly in the mountain breeze, as if signaling people toward the old city to pray.
Smoking nargileh 
The hookah (nargila) stands that line the streets
our new friend and his pancakes 

In Egypt, the whole country would stop and pray together, sometimes on the streets, and in poorer neighborhoods would break fast in the streets, with dozens of lined tables ready to serve the hungry. The most beautiful thing during this time is the generosity you see. The hungry are fed, the families are together and the homeless are given food and shelter. It is a mass production, one with no other comparison I've found yet in the world.

Here, I would say more than half of the population fasts, but not more than 75%. I could be off, but there are numerous shops open, and most of the people I know don't fast seriously. Some days on, some days off, or they will sneak in a cigarette or a bottle of water. (Of course, I'm sure in the West Bank, fasting is more serious...planning a trip there next week, so i'll update you!) Ramadan rules dictate that while fasting, nothing can pass between your lips- including water, medicine, gum, cigarettes, etc. (Unless of course you are ill, on your cycle, traveling, etc.) The goal: to abstain from food, relieve your body of its earthly cravings to bring you into a more focused state to pray and commune with God. I think it is a beautiful religious idea, though after doing it for two weeks in scorchingly hot Egypt, I couldn't continue. It takes a lot to continue day in and day out for 40 days of fasting! Whew.

But, tonight brought me back to my Egypt days. Tonight Ramadan and the spirit of the Arab world was pulsating, emanating outward to draw you in. Everyone relaxing, joking, smoking, eating- it is impossible not to be sucked into the cultural moment. There is simply no comparison to Ramadan in the Middle East.

If you ever come to the Middle East, make sure to catch a glimpse of Ramadan. While most businesses are closed during the day, the vibrancy and electricity of the night are contagious. All night celebrations rule, and the communal spirit becomes contagious. If you are in Jerusalem for Ramadan, make your way towards Damascus Gate, sit on the steps and watch the beauty unfold. Drink some amazing Arab mint tea, or try a famous Ramadan sweet.

Ramadan Kareem! (That means, Happy Ramadan!)

one of the many street foods: lentils and parsley 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

NGO's in East Jerusalem + Art in Assawiya

Me at  our MEND event
Arabic map
the city of Assawiya 
friends who came to the event! 
On Monday, July 8, after Hebrew classes had ended for the day, I took a few friends: Jazz, Rika, Alana and Melissa to an event that my NGO was hosting in a neighborhood in North Jerusalem called Assawiya. It was a startlingly bright sunny day, with clouds racing by, as if chasing the day to end. We waited for the bus, waiting to recognize the PA buses which are distinguished by the forrest green and white colors, decorated with flourishy Arabic script lining its sides. Dressing conservatively, and a bit warmly for the weather I might add, we hopped onto one of the Palestinian Authority buses to go Assawiya, a city that identifies as Palestinian but is located inside of Israel directly below the mountain upon which Hebrew University sits. While climbing the stairs of the mini-bus and asking for five tickets to Assawiya, the bus driver asked me three times if I really meant to go to Assawiya, which I quickly learned is not exactly a popular tourist destination. (It is the city written in red on the map to the left.) The bus ride took only ten minutes, but the stark contrast between the place we came from and the new streets we were surrounded by was shocking.

We hopped off of the bus onto a street corner, searching for Salon Style, the venue where MEND (Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy) was holding its gallery opening. After questioning several puzzled young men, none of whom knew what I was talking about, we found our way to the building, thirty minutes late. Alas, we were the first ones there. I had forgotten, Middle Eastern time. Everyone was late, and/or stuck at the border crossing. I love the way time here is a suggestion, life runs so much more calmly due to the relaxed attitude.

Hanging on the walls were pictures taken by people from Assawiya of Assawiya over the last several decades. The goal of the project was to raise awareness of the community, its history and create a video to spread this knowledge. All completed by youth volunteers, the project was a complete success! There were several dozen people there, deliciously fresh croissants and perfectly glorious conversation. We watched a video of the history of Assawiya, interviews with residents who lived their for decades, and a gallery full of stunning pictures dating back to the 1950s. A few hours later, once all the guests had trickled out, the five girls, our project director and a bunch of men were left hangout and chat. One of the older men there, one of whom is a well-known singer, Mahmoud Esawii. (I completely butchered the English spelling) He used to perform in Chicago!

We had uproarious conversations about the latest Arab Idol winner from Gaza, the politics of their city, their families who lived all over America, the best dishes of the region, and their prison time. There were about seven men with us, ranging from 16-60 years old. Every single man there had been in an Israeli prison at least once. They were arrested for demonstrating. It was so sad to hear how casual the conversation was, like everyone had been to some old restaurant in town. It wasn't a uncommon occurrence nor a shocking one in their community. Well, call me naive, but I was surprised.

There are two sides to every story, and I heard a lot of stories from the Palestinian side that day. Beautiful stories, sad stories and of course, political stories. It was so interesting to hear their perspective while sitting around chatting, no rallies or protests, just chatting with friends on a balcony on a windy summer day. Most of them spoke some English, but translating was easier, so I became the translator for the girls there, none of whom spoke Arabic. We bonded over places we had been and things we all loved. Our lovely day ended with an invitation to a Ramadan meal to break the fast, a couple of pictures that I get to take home with me to frame from the gallery, and a box of yummy treats! Perfectly successful day.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Threat

Having lived in the Middle East on and off for the last 5 years, I'd like to think I've become accustomed to most unusual occurrences. Especially the more one travels, the more bizarre you see.

Tonight however, was different. Some friends and I went to the Western Wall to see the end of Shabbat, said our prayers while touching the wall and went to eat dinner at a little hole in the wall restaurant in East Jerusalem. We had chicken kebabs and practiced our Palestinian dialect of Arabic. While hopping back on the train to get home for the night, an older man approached us asking for money to buy him a ticket. We politely told him no, but he continued for about five minutes. After saying no politely for the first 4, I had it. I simply said, no, yet firmly. He became quiet, looked at me and said (in English!), "you are a bad person. I would want to shoot you in your head. If I ever find you alone, I will hurt you." My friend Rachel went off on the guy, bravely defending my honor, while onlookers watched in awe. Mind you, he was about 60 and clearly not right in the head. Still, death threats aren't exactly welcome, nor do they give you peace of mind wandering about a city you generally feel comfortable in.

This, is no way, reflects the reality of the life I live here. This is the first time in 5 years I have had anyone threaten my life, crazy or sane. I usually feel quite at ease in the Middle East, especially in Israel and am comfortable enough to walk alone at night. I wasn't quite sure why I wanted to share this story with my blogosphere. When I finished writing it, I considered deleting it. I don't want to scare people, nor encourage the stereotype that the Middle East is more dangerous than anywhere else in the world. I wrote this blog because my blog reflects my life. The reality. How I live it, what I experience. And this particular experience frightened me. Life, no matter the location, is full of ups and downs. The fact that I experience both is merely a reflection of living life fully.

Tonight, I was scared. But less than an hour earlier, I had prayed at the Western Wall. I had prayed for world peace, and a little more love in this world. Guess we all have a long way to go.

In other news, I went to an amazing Bat-Mitzvah on Thursday. News and pictures to come on that next...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Jerusalem Summer Tales

The past week deserves many adjectives, the most expressive and accurate of them being, exhausting.

This week, I will share some tidbits with you all from conversations, experiences and awkward situations.

Firstly, this week I started to volunteer/intern at an NGO (non-governmental organization) called Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy, MEND. It is a very interesting organization founded by a British woman who married a Palestinian. I had emailed a few organizations before I came here in the hopes of securing an internship for the short time I'm in Jerusalem. This week, the director of MEND emailed me and expressed her interest in me coming to work for them. So today after Hebrew class located on the unbelievably lush Mt. Scopus campus atop Jerusalem, I hopped upon the new Israeli light rail train and headed due north towards Beit Hanina, the location of the NGO. Leaving the flowery oasis of the Hebrew University campus and getting off at a dusty road was like walking into two different climates. I met up with another intern who walked me through the downward sloping streets to the office. There are two interns, a director and the manager, with several other project leaders. I am thrilled to be able to work here for the next month, employing my Arabic while strengthening my Hebrew. More to come on my new work...

Some tid bits from the week:

I told a friend of mine that I was working at this place.
She asked, "Are you working with Arabs?"
I say, "well, yes, of course."
She replies, "Even at my work, I work with Arabs but I don't like them."
I asked, "why not? But, wait  do you mean Arabs, Muslims, Christians or Palestinians?" There are so many terms, some politically correct, some politically incorrect, others inaccurate. I explain the Arabs originally came from Arabia, and a great majority of the Israeli population are Jews who came from non-European, Arabic speaking countries.
She said, "I mean Arabs. In Hebrew, they are all the same. We just say Arabs. They are, how do you say, my enemy?"
I say: "all Arabs? Christians too? Why?"
She says: "No, they aren't trying to take my land. Just the Arabs I don't like."

I honestly didn't know how to respond. First, such hate is tragic. Second, no distinction between Arab communities, religiously and culturally diverse reveals a serious lack of knowledge. I took this as an example of what I want to work for this summer. Instead of demonizing the "other" side, lets find a common ground, shall we? [Dispelling stereotypes is one of the key foci of MEND!]

I officially cannot eat hummus. For me, it is like the ice cream of the Middle East. Because I am a child living inside a grown-ups body, it is nearly impossible for me to eat hummus without dripping some on myself. Today, 4 spills. My jeans are covered in little beige spatters of hummus. I suppose evidence of the glory of the hummus.

Found a glorious little garden in a religious neighborhood behind my home. In back windy streets, off to the left, my friend saw an intriguing cluster of roses. We walked carefully along the cream colored streets lined with Jerusalem stone towards the roses and happened upon a glorious garden surrounded by little apartments. Roses, yellow red and white filled the trellises. Little wooden benches sat romantically under the lush greenery. I couldn't help but take pictures, which of course, do it no justice.

#4: Drank a freshly juiced watermelon/melon drink today for $2.00. Be jealous. Nothing beats Jerusalem heat like a fresh watermelon beverage on a fine Tuesday! 

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