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! 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Visiting the West Bank

A friend of mine was working in Ramallah for the summer, so I planned a short trip to visit. It brought me back to reality, social, political and otherwise. Travelling by the Palestinian mini-buses, we passed the giant gray bleak wall, separating the West Bank from Israel. Entering the checkpoint, there is a sign reminding Israeli's that it is illegal to enter and warning visitors that entering is a threat to their lives...the checkpoint is massive, tall and decorated with barbed wire. Once in the city center, all fears evaporated. It was a scene I was used to, the Arab world. Women with their children, scurrying among shops with bags full of fresh food, men huddled into a smoke filled nargilla shop, and numerous dessert stores with store displays of baklava mountains dripping with honey.

I was surprised by how few mosques I saw, only three or four, though I am sure many more exist. Usually minarets decorate the skyline with little green lights and sonorous voices that call people to prayer. There were several churches in Ramallah though, and a friend and I were able to go inside one of them. We were lucky enough to run into the manger of the church, who opened the doors for us. It was a church cut out of white Jerusalem stone like the little cave church in Bethlehem with stars carved into the stone roof. The church was simple, with stained glass windows of the Virgin with child as well of pictures of Jesus, the way I imagine he looked, with dark, Mediterranean features. It was nice to chat and learn that Ramallah was originally (centuries ago) a Christian village until the Muslims conquered the area. We wandered over to a faux-Mexican restaurant that my friend loves covered in palm trees. Playing through the speakers was an Arab rendition of "Happy Birthday" which more or less includes singing 'Happy Birthday to you' for four minutes, interspersed with runs in Arabic and Arab beats. It felt surreal to be eating hummus and quesadillas in Ramallah. It was actually quite good.
City square of Ramallah

the little cave church

downtown Ramallah

me and Shay

Sunset over the West Bank

We ended our little trip with a drink at a rooftop Hotel restaurant overlooking the West Bank, stretching all the way to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. The ride back was a little depressing, I guess going through the checkpoint is always depressing, alas. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I'm Back + Life in the Holy City

Dearest loyal readers,

Thank you for always reading my latest travels, musings and observations about this crazy thing we call life. I took a brief hiatus to focus on grad school. I started a double masters in Middle Eastern Studies and Global Policy. Hence, my time has been stolen by the ever demanding teachers to which I am subservient. Welcome to the life of a graduate student. They say jump, you say how high? And is there a special jump you'd like me to do? Any specific form? Acrobatics?

But back to the life I am living currently...

After a glorious, arduous and mildly ridiculous first year of grad school, I received a fellowship to study abroad again! Can you guess where? I am back in the Holy City, Jerusalem. I am studying Hebrew once more, to hopefully skyrocket my Hebrew to higher levels. I am also trying to find a good place to intern, though Hebrew classes are taking up more time that I thought!

In the hot breezy mountain top city of Jerusalem, I am lucky enough to live, literally, on top of the famous Mechane Yehuda market. I awaken every morning to the sounds of trucks vrooming, venders shouting whilst filling their wooden crates full of the freshest produce money can buy. The oranges are ridiculously orange. The grapes are sweeter, the nectarines are juicer and the sweet smell of leavening bread constantly drifts through my window in an effort to remind me of the foodie paradise I am surrounded by. Just this morning, I stumbled across the most salivatingly glorious croissant I have ever had the pleasure of eating- sweet dough sprinkled with powder sugar, filled with goat cheese . Now, before you judge, imagine. Though, sadly, I know it is impossible for you to comprehend the honor which this food bestows on its carbohydrate category. Magnificent. 5 Stars. Picture to follow :)

This summer I am happy to have the unique experience of living with very religious Jewish women. I found a sublet online and chose to live in the city center instead of isolating myself in the dorms atop the mountain where Hebrew University is located.  I am learning all the rules of Shabbat (more than I knew) and also of living Kosher. My roommates are both sweet as can be, and very open minded. One of my roommates, Tamar, is as she calls herself "almost Haredi" (Ultra-Orthodox) explaining that she chooses not to dress in the traditional Haredi costume. The difference between her community, called National Religious and the Haredim community is that one is Zionist (National Religious) while the Haredim are generally not so much. Now, living in my glorious apartment means accepting their rules. When they found out that I wasn't Jewish, she had to consult her Rabbi. Even though I am living kosher and following all the rules requested of me, she still thought their might be some problems. We spoke yesterday and she told me there might be a problem with me using the kitchen because I am not Jewish. (Ever so sweetly, of course, and saying that we will find a solution that works for both of us!) I was a bit worried that I won't be able to use a kitchen for a good month... but today we received good news from the Rabbi.

Of course, they found a loophole :) If they constantly keep a candle lit (lit by a Jew, and not me) in the house, then I am able to cook. Only, If I want to cook, I cannot light the gas stove by striking a match, I must take a match and light it from the candle lit by one of the Jewish girls. Oh, I also can't be the one to open a bottle of wine.  Now, these rules and more, are in addition to the usual kosher rules of having two sets of plates, forks, cups, etc. for all things meat and all things dairy. It is an interesting challenge, and the girls are so sweet about it, how can I say no? I am taking it as a new experience, a chance to learn and a fabulous summer.

As always, if you have any questions about life in Jerusalem, religion or the Middle East, fire away! Feels so good to be back. Below is a view from my room!

View from my Apartment

View from Campus overlooking Jerusalem and the West Bank

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Travels to Mesopotamia

As we last left off, we explored the fine city of Diyarbakir. Now, the capital of Kurdistan, or the base of the Kurdish people, Diyarbakir is a truly unique city. I was surprised, as the eastern parts of Turkey seem to have many more churches preserved than western Turkey does. We visited the church of Mar Peytun, built in the 4th or 5th century. With stone floors and a simple square design, this Chaldean Church still functions today. Red clothes with gold crosses decorated the church. Byzantine portraits of the Christ child and the Virgin are hung beside the altar. A miniature sized temple sits atop the red velvety altar, protecting an ancient relic of a saint from long ago. The church, to me seemed like a compilation of numerous styles and ages- like each person from a different century wanted to add a special touch. Blue and yellow checkered drapes next to red and gold drapes, hanging brass lanterns swaying in the breeze, wooden benches and colored fabrics concealing hidden corners of the church. (Pictures to come!)

After viewing this church, we wandered around to several other churches and mosques, taking refuge from the sun throughout the day. One mosque we visited had a beautiful women's section outside with a staircase leading up to the top for a stunning view. The women were praying, some napping, celebrating, and enjoying life. It was beautiful to see a religious place fully utilized not only as a place of prayer, but as a place of community. But my favorite place of all was the old asylum & jail. The remaining buildings of the old jail and asylum still stand, and you can see where the old rooms were- walking through the complex was a bit eerie. It is odd to imagine that a place so beautiful could hold so much pain within its walls. It was a sad realization for me. Directly next to the asylum was an old Zoroastrian temple. The Zoroastrians celebrate the lightness and darkness, and especially fire. It is an ancient religion- and the temple was exquisite. There was an altar in the center for sacrifices and an open roof, exposed to the elements, but also the light and dark of the sky. I am completely intrigued by this religion! Check it out

We headed to the bus station on Sunday night, ready to leave for Hasankeyf, but were distracted along the way. We passed a check point of sorts- but unlike any I'd seen before. Men and women were led through propped up wooden booths. The women's booths covered in black sheets so as to honor privacy and as they excited, they were thoroughly patted down by security guards. Only then were they allowed to cross a bridge, to a destination we couldn't figure out. I couldn't help but wonder what was on the other side, or what necessitated the check point. Earlier in Diyarbakir, near the walls of the old city, around sunset as we were descending the stairs at Keceborcu, a group of what looked like police officers all filed out of cars quickly, each carrying large machine guns, looking like they had a purpose. That was all I needed to scadaddle, quickly. It was the first time in Turkey that I didn't feel safe.

Before I conclude about Diyarbakir, I had to share some culinary higlights with you:

  • Fistikli Kaymak Baklava (a syrupy sweet dessert of baklava filled with pistachio creme) 

  • Fistlki ve Cevizli Kadayif (a thicker, crunchier dessert- tasted like breakfast cereal to me)

  • Menengic coffee (Kurdish coffee, made of wild pistachios and boiled with cardamom and milk 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Diyarbakir, Kurdish Turkey

Day 1 in Diyarbakir: After eating a meal of Kurdish traditional dishes and a semolina helva dessert, we marched through the Diyarbakir streets towards to the far gate of the city to watch the sunset. The huge city wall of Diyarbakir is supposedly the second largest continuous, and ancient wall in the world, second after the Great Wall of China.
the walls of Diyarbakir 
The wall, called Keciborcu (ke-chee-bore-ju), was a nice walk through the center of town towards the outskirts. We watched the pumpkin orange sky fade into shades of purple, the Tigris River to our backs and the call of the muezzin ringing harmoniously throughout the skies. The fortresses surrounding the city still stand proudly, whispering the tales of greatness from centuries past. Amidst the wind and chatter rise voices of Turkish and Kurdish, highlighting the tense politics that seems to simmer quietly in this city of the east. Seeing the bounty of the Tigris in person is like learning world history all over. This is the place where civilization began; the roots of the human race. The same place where another nationality fights for their recognition. A quite contentious issue, it is only in Diyarbakir that I've been able to hear the other side.

Omer, a tour guide at the hostel we stayed at, when we mentioned we were from Duzce said "** etc...fascists!" Clearly taken aback, I simply chose not to respond, honestly knowing quite little about the subject, but simply said, the people in Duzce are very kind and welcoming, which is one-hundred percent true. But even with open hostility, the Kurds prsent a beautiful city aglow with the green lights of the assans, the pounding of drums in the distance and the gentle sounds of wind across the vast plains of Mesopotamia. I feel at home here, it reminds me of a quieter Egypt- a bit grittier, a bit more "eastern," and more flavor. The city is quietly alive with a buzzing passion. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Teaching Children

Things have been pretty normal this week. Though it defiintely leaned towards the "what an awful week" side. This week in class, I had one kid raise his hand and ask if he could sleep during my class. As in, in the front row, sleeping. Asking permission. I had my other class reveal to me today that they followed me home from the bus and found out where I lived. They claimed they were joking, but oddly enough, they all now know the name of my landlord. I gave my class a lecture today- because after three hours of them looking at me like I was speaking in an ancient dialect of some far-flung country, I told them sit for an hour and study their words. After nearly nine months of English classes (only English classes for their whole first year!) they still do not study nor do they even bring paper to class. I walked back into class after a short break and found my kids making paper airplanes and saying "look teacher!" like they were so proud to see them zooming around the classroom. My students are in university. They are 18-25 years old. But really, they are like children. Culturally speaking, I understand the diference. Turkish kids, especially women, aren't raised in the same way that American kids are. In America, we are basically taught that by 18 we should be independent and ready to take on the world by ourselves. We are sent off to college to live on our own and "discover ourselves." In Turkey, this is just not so. The kids here are extremely dependent on their families, and lack a strong sense of independence. When they arrive to university, they don't know what to do with themselves. They were never taught sound studying practices and most return home every weekend to be with their families.

In other news, my MACbook Pro died two days ago so I am using the internet on my iPhone.  And I got sick. Wah wah. Okay, enough venting. I am heading out of Duzce as quickly as possible, after this lousy week and going to the South, to Antalya, the land of endless beaches. I will come back sun-kissed and worry free. This is, at least, my goal.

where I go to escape, Antalya 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Akyaka, Best Beach in Turkey

Akyaka is not widely known. In fact, many of my Turkish friends were unfamiliar with this little beach side village on the Aegean Sea. It took me a 14 hour bus ride to make it there, but it was worth it. My weekend in Akyaka was like a hidden fairytale. Nick and I took a 30minute mini-bus ride from Mugla's otogar (bus station) to Akyaka, where we wound down the twisty rocky streets of the mountains until the town of Akyaka came into sight- beautiful, whitewashed and stunning in contrast to the rock-faced mountains and the jewel-toned sparkling Aegean Sea. Akyaka is full of Turks, students from Mugla Universitisi and a large population of British ex-pats.

Full of summer houses, the houses are either bright white or made of wood, all cutely embellished with vines spiraling upward, twisting around the verandas and porches, painting a picture perfect villa complete with freshly blooming flowers, adding to the Eden-like feel of this tiny sea-side hideaway. Our friend Jena who lives there (yes, we hate her for her luck :) !) escorted us back to their bungalow where we dropped our bags off and drank some coffee before heading off to eat some traditional Akyaka breakfast and relaxing. We (EB, Clayton, Jena, Whitney, Nick and I) walked for about 30 minutes to reach this place along a road that hugged the shoreline. Little harbors, Lycian tombs and rocky cliffs dotted the shoreline, turning our walked for food into an unexpected nature adventure. We marveled at the beauty, mostly at the water, but also at the rolling tree covered hills opposite the shore, creating the nestled little cove where Akyaka sits. The hills seem to roll on top of each other, folding and rising and dipping in a perfectly harmonious fashion. The birds sang a secret tune, saved just for spring time, welcoming all to its hidden hills.

When we finally reached our little breakfast sport, we were greeted with a pecked, umbrella-lined shore, a little lake of crystal clear waters, a flowing brook, a footbridge and a luminous teal Aegean Sea that would  put any postcard to shame. We had a local breakfast spread with special honey and cheese from the village. The rest of the day was spent earning back our summer tans, lazy naps sounds of rolling waves and swims in the chilly water. It was worth the 14 hours bus ride.

If you happen to be near Mugla, head down to Akyaka, it was by far my favorite beach I've been to yet, a quiet little paradise tucked between the mountains and the Aegean.

Beach of Akyaka 

the Aegean Sea, Turkey 

Me, EB and Jena 

Nick and I 

our little breakfast nook 

craggy mountains and sand lined beaches 

little boats in the harbor 

deserted beach, my favorite time to walk along the shore

mountain/beach contrast 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Duzce, my home away from home

Throughout this year, we did a lot of traveling. Turkey is gigantic. The places to see are countless and the days are few. But in this beautiful season of spring, Duzce has re-captured my heart. I go for long bike rides out in the villages, inhaling the sweet perfumed air of lilac bushes. I watch children play and flowers bloom and animals romp. I watch women turn their crops in the fields and the bakers pull freshly fragrant loaves out of the oven. I watch the butterflies flutter from flower to flower. It as if the world has turned perfect, if only for a few weeks. The weather is 70 and sunny. The breeze is constant. The smiles continue and the days are long full of tea, games, and laughter of days passing. Sunsets glow a blazing red color, fading into pumpkin orange before disappearing over the mountain tops. The only sadness is that my time is coming to an end so quickly. Only two months until I am back in America. I am determined to cherish every moment that passes.

Our city center, abloom in tulips 

children in the market on Children's Day 

the villages on the outskirts, random garage

the tree fields on the outskirts of Duzce

my road.

the long and winding road...

the flowers that perfume that city of Duzce 

the front of our school 
where I eat my lunch- with the frogs 

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