Saturday, December 20, 2008
I've been meaning to write for quite some time as I've had lots of exciting experiences I've been wanting to tell you about. As a matter of fact, I had just come home from the last evening of an ARZENU conference, which was very very interesting, opened my e-mail and gained a very different kind of perspective.
Not the kind that academic exegesis enables or political activism allows for. The famed cultural relativism went flying down the wadi and brought me to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The e-mail message was from my Dad. He wrote: "Dad died this morning about 11:30 eastern time. I'm en route to Oklahoma."
My paternal grandfather died on Wednesday. Robert Emmet Sharp. I've collected a few memories sitting here clear across the world, amidst palm trees, hummos and failed cease fires, and I feel very far away from all of my family. My husband says I have a memory like an elephant. But like many of us this particular talent only kicks in for the things we want to remember. I have a lot of memories of Grandpa Sharp.
Grandpa would sit in the armchair in the living room on North Grand, with the bookshelves behind him, and sometimes he would read to us with his sonorous voice and oddly British accent, reserved for story time and saying grace. Sometimes, if we begged him enough, he would cross his legs and give us a horsy ride; a little kid perched on his foot, being tossed wildly up and down, his knee cranking the "horsy". I must have been very little.
We would come to visit in the summer, commuting between grandparents. It was always, very, very hot, much more so than in New York where we lived. Grandpa would sometimes set up the sprinkler in the yard and we kids would cool ourselves in the refreshing shower of water, racing in and out of its spray.
Grandpa used to take is to a country store, outside of Okmulgee, and there was an Indian man who worked there. This is where Grandpa used to buy us turquoise bracelets, the kind that I could bend to fit around my little girl wrist. No one at my school had bracelets like these. I liked the store with all its seemingly coincidental wares and foreign smells. Grandpa was talkative with the Indian man. I was curious, but I never learned anything more about him . He was just the Indian man with the bracelets. I wonder where he is and if he remembers Grandpa?
Grandpa had a garden. One summer we found a zucchini that had managed to grow to an enormous size, unnoticed by Grandpa's otherwise careful attention, hidden under a big leaf. Grandpa and I proudly presented it to Grandma in the kitchen, who said she would have to make a lot of zucchini bread out of it. I thought that bread and zucchini sounded like a strange combination.
One summer we made homemade ice cream from Grandpa's strawberries. Even though we took turns, our hands got tired from the crank. In the evening, Grandpa would tell me about the freight train that passed near their house. I loved the sound of the whistle, mixed with the racket of the crickets on those warm balmy Oklahoman nights. I remember a thunder storm on a night like that, and we were allowed to stay up with the grown-ups on the back porch watching the meteorological drama unfold.
In the morning we would get ready to go to church with Grandma and Grandpa and I had to get dressed up. I thought it was too hot to wear tights, but they told me I looked real pretty. There was a fountain at the church and Grandpa would give me a coin to throw in. I always sat next to Grandpa in church while Grandma played the organ. Every time I went to church with Grandpa, his bass voice ( the one reserved for grace and storytelling, and not at all like his everyday voice), warm and impossibly low, singing the hymns, never ceased to amaze me. Grandpa was always chatting with the people at church. The men laughed at his sometimes slightly off-color jokes and the the ladies were charmed by his gentlemanly manner and flirtatiousness. By the time we left, the muscles in my face hurt from smiling at all the new people that Grandma and Grandpa wanted me to meet.
Sometimes we went to a restaurant after church. They had a big buffet and I always got jell-O and fried chicken. But sometimes we came straight back to the house because of the dog and Grandma would make me a pimento and cheese sandwich, which I never told her I didn't like. Then we kids would bolt from the kitchen and explore the house on North Grand, the backdrop for many fantasies and adventures: Like dropping my doll down the laundry shute, about a thousand times. My sister tried to convince me that I too could jump down the laundry shute. "Grandma has lots of laundry down there, it would be a soft landing..." I showed my kids the laundry shute, too, and I think they thought it was a little strange that Mom was having so much fun throwing their toys down it.
We would rummage through the old and mysterious tools in Grandpa's garage, looking for the croquet set. Sometimes we'd go up the rickety stairs to the abandoned apartment above the garage. Someone told me once that it was for servants or for slaves - my childish perception of history made this seem like a possibility, and set me off on fantasies of myself as a southern belle, like in those movies about the Old South. But it made me feel bad too, because I knew that the people who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, just near Grandma and Grandpa's enormous house, whose houses were much smaller, whose kids we weren't allowed to play with, were the descendants of the previous inhabitants of this apartment, in a time when Grandma and Grandpa were children.
Grandpa's war stories fascinated us. Sometimes he showed us his war mementos, but he was always a little reluctant to talk about it. He brought out his Japanese flag and the medals he earned once and showed them to my son Emil. It was amazing to see those two, each born on either end of the century, sharing a piece of history together. Grandpa said he still had a bullet shell under his skin, I think on his hand (was it the right one?) and he could jiggle it. We loved how gross that was.
We had secrets together sometimes, like the time he let me drive the car when I was 14. I had no idea how to drive, but we practiced a little and then we hit the streets. After Grandpa's heart attack he wasn't allowed to eat candy, but he showed me his stash in the kitchen and said I could have some. He liked Babe Ruth candy bars. Once he came to visit us in Connecticut and he showed me the long scarlet scar along the length of his leg from his bypass surgery.
Grandpa made everybody laugh when he took on his falsetto voice and "spoke" for the dog. "The dog" - Collette, Chipper, Lili or Brandy - always teased Grandma and it was Grandpa's chance to say things that were a little scandalous. Sometimes I wasn't sure if he was joking. When the dogs "spoke" in that treble southern twang, they were always very impressed with Grandpa and us grandkids who were "little lambs." Grandma admonished him, but I could tell she thought it was funny. Grandpa used to say in that same voice that Grandma was "a real piece of work". But once he returned to his normal register, he would say to her "You are good, mate." My husband thought that was such a funny and nice thing to say, that he says the same thing to me today, which sounds really funny, because he's Danish. Now it has a sad ring to it, too.
I saw Grandpa for the last time a few years ago. He didn't know who I was, but I think he sensed that he should. My daughter Ella was with me. It was a hard visit, because I felt the same way about him and I was filled with all these memories, but he didn't know me. He seemed confused a lot of the time, but he still whooped with laughter when we caught him streaking to the bathroom in his underwear at bedtime, just like he always did. And like always, his voice was still filled with that bassy gravity and warmth when he said grace over our Sunday dinner.
In the last many years, Grandma has had to help him with just about everything. If any of us can manage to be as strong as Grandma, at any time on our lives, then we can count ourselves among the elite few.
The last time Grandpa saw me, I mean really saw me, was a few years before our last visit. I've lived in Europe for a long time and it's hard to get back to Oklahoma. When we said good-bye, standing in front of the house on North Grand in the round driveway, I wanted to make sure that Grandpa knew how I felt about him. His whole face lit up, and he laughed a little shyly and responded, "Well honey, I love you too."
Friday, October 24, 2008
You know how some people talk about there being another world, with people like us, living their lives parallel to ours, but we just can't perceive them? Maybe you've wondered: "Wouldn't it be weird if while you're just going about your business, going to work or the supermarket... and right there with you, are people from a totally different world. You can't see or feel them but they're there. Wouldn't that be wild if there was an existence parallel to our own?"
Well, I've found one right here in Jerusalem! Here, you can easily live a life free from Arab riff-raff and never know that they're actually right next to you all the time. Take for example the free tourist maps. These maps are very handy because they list the bus numbers and routes through the city- certainly something you won't find at the bus stops (never mind a schedule). The bus lines shown on these maps list only Israeli busses. It's not that there's really anything wrong with this - I mean, Danish bus maps don't list Swedish routes. But then again Sweden isn't in Denmark and Denmark isn't in Sweden...
The wide-eyed tourist wanders the city, clutching his piece of Local Authoritative Knowledge (The Map) and vaguely registers the public mini-vans with Arabic writing on the side, catching a glimpse of women in head-scarves, watching their alter-ego society speed past them in their own weird head-gear. The vans whisk them off to some foreign location. We're told at the university not to ride in these busses. Who knows where they will take you? No doubt central Bagdad or the moon. Same thing. You wouldn't want to risk it.
Most Arab communities are not on these maps. Imagine walking through Copenhagen, wandering into Sydhavn (or Brooklyn, Prenzlauerberg, Lehen...) and when you consult your map to figure out where you are, you discover that you've just walked into oblivion. The area is not on the map - you're, according to your map, precisely no where. Recently I went to visit an anthropologist who works at Al-Quds university. "Al-Quds" is Arabic for "Jerusalem" and is one of the biggest universities in Palestine, teaching Economics, Political Science, Philosophy, Medicine and Anthropology. I was amazed to find that many Israeli locals didn't know what Al-Quds University was.
A Palestinian University in Jerusalem? Never heard of it. Where is it?"
That was of course the million-dollar question, because, again, its not on the map. After a bit of research I learned that the campus has several centers from southern Jerusalem to Ramallah (a strip of land that is about 15 km long - I bike that much in a day in Copenhagen). Several centers are within walking distance of the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus, where I am studying. Still no one I spoke to knew it was there. To be fair, in order to get to some of these places, you have to cross a check-point, something Israelis are not allowed to do. So how could they know? These check-points are there to curb Israeli-Palestinian violence, but they are also Information borders. Bombs can't pass, but neither can Knowledge. It occurs to me: the check-points are a bit like antibiotics - they kill everything, even the good stuff.
That was a tangent: Anyway, I made an appointment to speak to the anthropologist and we agreed to meet at his home. He gave me directions. The roads that he named to help me find my way were, again, not on the map. I got hopelessly lost and he finally had to come get me. When I heard Brahms Symphony No. 1 blaring from his car stereo system, I knew I was in good hands. It turns out his home is 5 minutes walk from where I live. After our meeting, I did a little research on the net about his neighborhood. Besides private residences and shops, the neighborhood of Shuafat also boasts a refugee camp, which - you guessed it - was not on my handy map (I live at "French Hill Junction" - just for perspective, it takes me 15 minutes to walk from French Hill Junction to Mount Scopus).
Whether they're on the map or not, borders move topsy-turvy (see the blue and pink areas in map above), in and out of areas that seemed to be in the middle of being a neighborhood. And suddenly you find yourself next door to a refugee camp. In Denmark, at least we have the decency of hiding our refugees far away from the rest of society. I've gotten mixed reactions from my acquaintances regarding my foray to Shoafat. Some say its an upper scale Palestinian neighborhood with an adjacent poorer area (the camp). Others said that I shouldn't be going to there, especially alone and certainly not at night. It seems that there is no consensus for what counts as A Bad Neighborhood. This is always a bit subjective but here it has been exaggerated ad absurdum.
There are several types of borders in Jerusalem, some are very physical realities, like The Wall (in red on the map). You can only cross these borders at a designated cross-point. In some places the wall hasn't been built yet and the border is just a thick layer of barbed wire. You can see people gingerly picking their way through it. Going around it would mean a big detour in frequenting the places of their daily life.
The curious thing about Jerusalem is that it is home for so many kinds of people, each one claiming cultural and/or political ownership. One is constantly wandering in and out of different worlds, crossing a much more common kind of border here, the invisible ones. Some are more fluid, marking the vague passage between one neighborhood to another, while other borders are quite pronounced. But you'll never find them on the map. A map is a flat, 2-dimensional representation of what is supposed to a physical reality. Because of that we tend to see reality as stretching out in front of us in a horizontal fashion. I think however, that Jerusalem may be a vertical kind of place, as realities are piled on top of each other in endless layers of perspective and time. Depending on your point of view, to which layer in the varying vertical realities you ascribe, you can either be in Palestine or Israel. Or both. How do you draw that on a map?
But what the map doesn't tell you, your eyes and ears will, effectively demoting your map to scribble-note status. I feel more at home in the Jewish parts of town, which probably doesn't come as a surprise. I enjoy the Shabbat Shalom greetings at the market from anyone to everyone on Friday mornings. It feels great to be included in this orgy of loud well-wishing. Despite the fact that the Jewish areas are clearly not European, they seem more Western in terms of how people dress or the way the storefronts look. I can identify with the patrons in the cafes and of course, there is also the language. One of the beautiful things about Israel is that people have come from all over the world, their backgrounds are very different, but there is a general sense of belonging because of a shared Jewish identity (There are also huge problems in Israel due to disagreement within the Jewish community, but that is a topic that deserves more than a footnote). Its a cozy, insular village feeling. Jerusalem has about 700,000 inhabitants. That's big village.
A few evenings ago, I waited with a Palestinian woman in the German Colony (a hip Jewish neighborhood, full of cool cafes and interesting boutiques) for a taxi to bring her to an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, where she lives. I was the local (!) that would ensure her safety in what was, for her, a strange environment. She was clearly afraid to wait alone. She called an Arab taxi company (she doesn't speak Hebrew) instead of hailing a potentially Israeli one on the street. She was concerned that the Arab driver would not be willing to come into "this area". I was completely at ease. She was obviously way out of her comfort zone. It was a reality check for me.
Just as my charge was very sure that she was not in Arab Kansas anymore, I don't need to consult my map to know when I've wandered into the twilight zone, otherwise known as Palestine. People dress differently, it seems to be a little poorer, although there are certainly very poor Jewish neighborhoods. I can't envision myself sitting down in a coffee house with the local gang, sharing a water pipe. And then there's the Arabic. I don't speak Arabic.
In my last entry I went to some pains to describe the feel of the area around Damascus gate, the night before Eid. Nothing happened to me there, it just felt very foreign to me. People stared at my friend and me. I suppose we stuck out. Some ill-behaved young men called after us, but that can happen anywhere. What was it that made me feel unsafe?
Let me return to my anthropologist friend. Maybe that can shed some light on the question. When I left his home the other day in Shoafat and started walking home, my belly was working on a cup of arab coffee spiced with cardamon and a cookie filled with dates. My mind was digesting all the interesting things that I had observed and the lively discussion that we had. While I was there, I met the gentleman's family and some of his friends. His daughter introduced me to her guinea pig and showed me her father's paintings. I felt like I was visiting old friends. When I walked out into the dusk of Shoafat, it seemed like everyone was smiling at me. In fact, a little girl enjoying the cool evening breeze courtesy of the open window of the car she was in, shot me a broad grin while I stood waiting for the traffic light to turn green. I couldn't help but match her exuberant greeting. I felt safe.
So how do you find out who is Us and who is Them? You will never discover the truth if you don't look for it yourself. Relying on accepted public opinion (whatever that is) just reflects others' experiences and agendas. We tend to think of maps as Information. Fact. Sometimes I wonder if there's an invisible foil on my tourist map and if I could just manage to get my fingernail under the top layer, I could peel it back to reveal the real Real. Steering through Jerusalem, on and off road, requires varying skills and my success in maneuvering in and out of these parallel existences depends upon my ability to change navigation strategies. Its like there's this secret alternate society that can not be accessed through the usual channels. We take for granted that the topography represented on a map is ours for the walking upon. In Jerusalem, this is an illusion. Maps may lull us into a false sense of security of understanding where we are and by association, who we are. We need to challenge these assumptions, get our heads out of the map and start looking where we're going.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Here's a riddle: What is wide-eyed, bare-headed and unaccounted for?
For the benefit of my male readers, let me present you with a hypothetical scenario: You're leaving your home in the morning, you have plans for the day. Maybe you'll be taking a train or a bus somewhere for a meeting or there is a store or a restaurant you want to go to. You've packed your briefcase with the papers you need or a backpack with some necessities, a phone, your wallet, perhaps a small lunch for your outing. Maybe the weather is nice and sitting in the park on a sunny afternoon with a good book sounds like a great plan for the day. Later you may meet some other men for a beer and a chat at a favorite bar. You stop for a moment, remember and wonder: Will the women where I am going single me out, make rude comments or touch me as I pass them? Will they stare stupidly at my broad shoulders, my backside or the gentle incline in my pants - regardless of whether I challenge their glance or ignore them? Do you think about asking a female friend to join you, knowing from experience that these strange women won't act this way if you in the company of a woman?
I didn't think so.
Women aren't treated like this all the time and everywhere. But I'm confronted with these questions more often in Jerusalem than in Copenhagen. Of course this kind of thing happens in the West and my female readers will certainly recognize the scenario. Here, I experience this kind of behavior almost daily. I've discovered that its not just a question of being female. Its also a question of how my femaleness shows itself. What sticks out (pardon the pun) about my femaleness here, I think, is that it is distinctively western.
I was in East Jerusalem last night where I met a girlfriend at her hotel. She is traveling through Israel with a tour group from Denmark. The streets near her hotel were clogged, absolutely congested like the lungs of an asthma patient, desperate and wholly unsuccessful at finding his inhaler. The air around Damascus gate is not objective. The olfactory experience infiltrates every unsuspecting breath you take, stinging your nostrils and mind with the reality of these streets. You're not just anywhere. You're in East Jerusalem and with each breath you are less and less a spectator, and more and more a participant. Tonight is the festival of Eid - the celebration ending the ascetic month of Ramadan, a central part of Muslim religious life. Last night the predominantly Muslim neighborhood outside of Damascus gate was filled with people anticipating the celebration, buying food for the holiday and generally enjoying the cooler evening air. There were women, children, couples, families and men, either alone or in groups, young and old, maneuvering through the chaos. The otherwise ever-present kippah-wearing Jew was absent from my view, the snippets of Hebrew conversation I pride myself on almost (but never quite) understanding, were not part of the Damascus gate soundtrack. The vendor's wares spilled onto the streets and sidewalks, rudely contradicting my understanding of the term "pedestrian". Garbage was piled any which way, accompanied by blaring music of all kinds. The greasy and wonderfully spiced smell wafting from the falafel stands mixed antithetically with the fumes from the backed up cars and tourist busses on the choked and misunderstood "streets".
As my friend and I walked- or rather dodged our way- towards the restaurant that was recommended to us by the hotel manager where she was staying, I watched the women. How did they do it? They went about their business, no one bothered them. In Jerusalem I'm used to being honked at, stared at, gesticulated at - unless I'm in the company of a man, of course (which given their track record is rare- sorry guys). There must be some rule I haven't been able to discern yet, there had to be some logic that was evading me and my white/western - and female - understanding of How Things Work. My friend and I navigated our way though the same crowds to which the head-scarf-clad women seemed elegantly oblivious. We rarely, if at all, saw women on the streets without head scarves.
So I observed, my friend steered - and the men stared.
And they whistled, gesticulated and spoke to us, whispered to us, in seductive tones, in a language I don't understand. "Yalla, yalla pretty ladies." I wanted to be sure we were going in the right direction and so we stopped and asked a young couple window-shopping with their baby, sleeping peacefully in a carriage, for directions. They were helpful and friendly and did their best in halting English. It was better than our Arabic. We continued and after another 10 minutes or so, to be sure we were still on the right path, we approached a group of women wearing head scarves and floor length robes. They had gathered on a street corner, chatting. The women didn't speak English and one of them asked if we spoke Hebrew. I wondered if an affirmative answer would tag me disadvantageously. I answered that I understood a little and she proceeded to explain the way in Hebrew, her words peppered with the throatiness of Arabic vowels. We left them, relieved that we were on the right track, glad for their friendly assistance and the warm wishes of Salaam aleikum resounding from the group, sending us off into the night. As we walked, the streets became less congested and we opted for the first taxi that was belched forth from voracious hub of East Jerusalem.
We reached the restaurant, our dinner was tasty and the setting beautiful - the hotel manager was right to recommend this place. The restaurant patrons were a mix of what I assumed were locals and western tourists. The only women that were unaccompanied by men were bare-headed, English or German speakers - or in our case, Danish. Our waiter provided us with impeccable service. The menu was in Arabic and English. I was beginning to feel wary about trying out my newly acquired linguistic toy on people. Hebrew isn't the lingua franca in Israel.
We had satisfied our appetite for dinner and evening strolls and ordered a taxi to pick us up directly at the restaurant. The plan was that the driver would take me back to my apartment after we had dropped my friend off at The Ant Hill, aka, her hotel. Because the streets near the hotel were still wheezing uncontrollably with anything and everything, our driver refused to bring us directly to to the door. He would have been stuck in the congested mess for hours, losing hundreds of shekel in income, had he complied. So, we both got out - I didn't want my friend to walk alone - and we waded through the crowds once again.
We spoke to the friendly hotel manager who was still on duty about how to get me home and he called a taxi for me. He said it would take a while until the driver could get through and suggested that we sit in the lobby and have a drink. About 15 minutes later, he approached us and said that the driver had called and said that he couldn't get through to Damascus gate. It was past midnight at this point and the manager had changed out of his work clothes and was clearly on his way home for the night. We had a situation. How would I get home? He offered to accompany me on foot through the congested streets until we found a taxi in a quieter area.
What was I to do? Should I allow this strange man to lead me through the streets of East Jerusalem? I felt ashamed of my lack of faith in people, yet all the while my childhood mantra "don't go with strangers" blared its sensible warning at me. My friend couldn't help me - if she accompanied me, she would just have to walk back by herself. I was tired and eager to get some sleep. My plan was to attend Rosh haShana services the next morning. I certainly wasn't going to attempt the streets and the yalla- yalla guys by myself and I didn't want to spend the night in the hotel lobby.
I decided to trust this gentleman. And so after taking leave of my friend, the hotel manager and I went out into the balmy Palestinian night together, making polite conversation as we walked through the crowds. There streets were still choked with people, even young children. At one point my escort gently steered a little girl of about 5 years old, trailing behind her mother, out of harms way - the throngs of pre-Eid Jerusalemites unaware of the under 4 feet crowd.
The hotel was a family business, he told me. Upon hearing I was from the States, he told me he had lived in L.A. for six months. He liked it there, but nobody walks. "Walking is good for your circulation, you see?" He told me that he had studied Accounting and Business at a university near Ramallah. He was a Jerusalemite, as were his parents and grandparents. He was the father of two girls, 8 and 10. He told me about Islam: "We pray five times a day, you see?" "Will you go to the mosque tomorrow in connection with the holiday?" I asked. "Some do, you see, but it depends on how religious they are. Some do, some don't, you see? Tomorrow is a big festival and my whole family will celebrate together, you see?" Of the hotel business he said: "I like to work at the hotel. I meet a lot of people, hear a lot of languages and learn about other cultures,
I saw. I saw that this man was kind, and polite and was doing exactly what he said he would do. After about 30-40 minutes walk (yes, it took that long), we reached an area where the traffic was moving smoothly. He hailed the first cab we saw, gave the driver instructions in Arabic and secured a fair price for my safe passage home. I wished my cultural-relativist cavallier a peaceful holiday and thanked him for his generosity. The last I heard before the taxi sped me home to French Hill was my escort giving the roof of the taxi a friendly thump and an order to the driver to "yalla": Let's go. Not once during our walk did he behave disrespectfully towards me and no one on the street leered at me while in this gentleman's company.
So what have I learned from this? Trust strange men? Not going to happen. Some may suggest not going to East Jerusalem as an option. Or should I always enlist the assistance of a man if I want to go somewhere? My Anthropology training (and my good up-bringing, I might add) implores me to see things from the native's point of view. The muslim women didn't seem to have a problem. Even the little children on the streets were safe. Why wasn't I, (for all practical purposes) a single, clearly non-muslim woman, safe to find my way home alone? Would the solution have been for my friend and I to don headscarves in the recognizably Muslim fashion? Maybe.
My feminist readers may wonder if I've gone mad. For many, the Muslim head scarf represents the suppression of women's rights. Women's rights may be suppressed in the Middle East and other places in the world, but this has nothing to do with the headscarf. And it has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with the fabric of the society and its willingness to accept this kind behavior from its men. As a matter of fact, for Muslims the headscarf signalizes a specific status. It says, this is a respectable woman. Whether this status gives her the right to have a career, go to the university, get a divorce or to travel alone, may be another question. And these are important questions. But it may keep her from being leered at on the streets.
Muslim women who cover their heads don't always enjoy this respectable status. In the West they are sometimes seen, by default, as pitiful creatures who are in need of liberation. It doesn't matter if the "victim" in question has a doctorate in astrophysics, runs her own business or her own family. But last night, I was the victim, the one lacking in liberation. I couldn't move freely through the streets of East Jerusalem without the help of man.
Maybe we should all work in a hotel for a while and become cultural relativists. In a world where fear is the tool that our leaders consistently use to control us, we tend to look for quick and easily recognizable symbols of safety and danger, instead of stopping to find out what a person is made of. Its safer to assume now and think later. I can easily follow the logic.
I was in a strange place last night, where the rules were unfamiliar to me. But even though I stuck out as an outsider - for some I was perhaps a symbol of the oppressive and morally inferior West- there were decent people there who were kind to me and helped me. Luckily, I was forced to choose trust last night, as I didn't have very many other options - and I was thankfully rewarded. Being a single woman in Jerusalem means, unfortunately, that I will have to watch my back. But I hope that I will still be able to recognize a good person standing right in front of me.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
It's been a while since I've written and I've seen and done alot in the meantime. A few weekends ago I went on a trip to the Golan Heights - or as our fantastic guide, Miki (right, in the picture), pronounced it: Golan Hyatts. The youth hostel was nice, but...After having spent about a month in Israel and having not seen much outside of Jerusalem, I was eager to get a feeling of where I actually was; to get a feel of the geography. Being in Jerusalem is a bit like being in a bubble, especially the atmosphere at the university seems far away from the daily life going on in Israel otherwise.
(Here is our group, the hills in the background are Syria.)
About 70 very sleepy students in two tour busses left Jerusalem at 6AM and drove north-north-east for about 4 hours. Our bus tour circumvented the West Bank, then cut across to the east, driving along the Sea of Galilee, a sparkling and refreshing impossibility surrounded by an otherwise rocky and dry landscape. But there it was, so big I couldn't see the other coast, giving life to kilometers of banana plantations and other agricultural endeavors. After passing the Galilee, we began winding up steep roads that made the faint of heart (not me of course) gasp at the drop, our bus teetering around the hairpin bends.
We turned onto a rough dirt path, pocked with huge pot holes, making the bus rock dangerously from side to side (now we were really awake). We had reached the site of our hike: The Jelabun River. This gorgeous countryside boasts rocky hills, beautiful valleys, colorful
oleanders as a kind of ever-spreading weed/brush and enormous cacti loaded with sabras, the cactus fruit; prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. The Israelis have named themselves after this fruit as they feel they have these characterisics in common.
It was very hot, about 38℃, and we were reminded to drink often, a warning that I did not heed very well (I had a killer of a headache that evening). After a bit of a climb downwards, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of a waterfall, cascading off the cliff (we were walking just to the right of the waterfall, along the cliff) into a pool, which was so far down that we could not see it, it being obscured by trees and the incessant oleander. Now it really went downhill and we had to climb in places. By the time we were at the pool we were completely soaked in sweat and after removing our muddy shoes, we all waded into the pool in our clothes and swam to the waterfall. With a little bit of luck you could find a place to climb up on the cliff and sit just behind the waterfall, after of course being thoroughly pummeled by the waterfall in the process. We stayed there for about an hour, not always sure we were happy about the impromptu pedicure we were getting by the local fish, but otherwise very very content. It was a popular place and there were many families with young children on the trail, resting in the cool pools that sprang up along the way and at the waterfall/pool itself. We had a steep hike back up the mountain, where our clothes managed to dry in the heat, then get completely soaked again by sweat. We piled into the bus and were subsequently carted to the next attraction.
We drove further north to one of the smaller cousins of Hermon Mountain, a 2224m watchman overlooking this strategic spot, where we could see the UN buffer zone, just east of our vantage point, into Syria, treating us to a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountainous
(We were in the most north-easterly part of the pink area. The tan area running parallel, to the Golan, along the eastern border, is the UN buffer zone.)
We got a little history lesson, about how the Golan was conquered in 1967, defended in 1973 and officially annexed by Israel in 1981. The Golan is seen by the UN as disputed territory, but as far as the Israeli government is concerned, it is a part of Israel. As I write these lines, Israel and Syria are negotiating the return of some or all of the Golan to Syria in an effort to secure peace between the two countries. The area has been quite peaceful for a long time, but the UN governed strip of land, in places only a few hundred meters broad, is a constant reminder of how fragile that peace is. The concern from an Israeli perspective is (at least) two-fold: border security and water rights. As mentioned, just south of the Golan is the Sea of Galilee, a major water source for an otherwise parched Israel and with the bird's eye view of the border and Syria, with lots of handy nooks to hide in, the Golan is an important stronghold in terms of border security and the concern of terrorism.
The area, both on the Israeli and Syrian side is mostly farming country and the lives of the civilians on either side were severely disturbed during the armed conflict. Everyday life stopped and activities were only undertaken if there was no shooting: this included getting water, going to the store, tending fields or going to work or school. But this is standard fare for a war zone. The view from our mountain vantage point, during a time that has been quite calm, consisted of peaceful fields with apple orchards and villages in the distance, clumsily interrupted by UN barracks, their white buildings lined up like
hotels in a monopoly game. They just didn't belong to the scenery, but the question is of course, how could they not be there?
There are positive things happening in these contested areas though, too. The Middle East in general and Israel in particular, has become synonymous with conflict. Some people however are reaching out to their neighbors and there are some exciting developments, both on a more infra-structural level but also on an interpersonal level. Just today there was an article in The New York Times about the towns of Jenin and Gilboa, neighbors in the Galilee area, about how joint businesses are beginning to sprout up in spite of the border. There is also an article on IPCRIs website (stands for Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information- very interesting organization - go to "articles" then "peace process", it's the article from august 4th) on the efforts in Jenin and Gilboa. Even though the media focuses almost exclusively on conflict, which is certainly a reality, there is a wealth of organizations and private people that are doing productive things.
Have a look at, for example, the circus project where both Israeli and Palestinian kids perform and train together or the efforts of ICCI, creating fora for Palestinians and Israelis to meet and together to plan projects that will help dismantle some of the conceptions of "the other" as "the enemy" within their communities.
I hope to get to know some of these organizations better while I'm here- in the mean time check these websites out; they shed some needed sunlight on a dark and musty chapter in our history.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
This is the text that should have appeared here some days ago, being the first one that I wrote:
It is amazing how so much seems to be packed into such a small amount of time. Already now I have so many new impression to tell you about.
On Friday after Hebrew class I rushed back t my apartment to drop off my heavy bag, get some water and a little lunch in order to meet the other students for a tour of the old city that the Ulpan (the Hebrew language program) had arranged. We were herded onto a tourist bus that drove us don Mt. Scopus into the center city. Our guide was called Efrat and she gave us a very informative introduction to the old city. Most of her presentation focused on the campaign to secure Jerusalem in in 1948 and how 19 years later (in the six day war) the Israelis won territory up to the old wall of what used to be, ca. 2000 years ago, the temple. I was impressed by Efrat's way of telling the story. Her presentation was factual but also included personal stories, poems and excerpts from articles, essays and once an excerpt form the Bible. Today is Tisha B'Av or the 9th of Av which is the day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temple and Efrat focused on this day of remembrance in her presentation. Since the Holocaust, Tisha B'Av has expanded to include other calamities that have befallen the Jews and it is generally a day of mourning that many Jews mark by fasting. Efrat's premise was that mourning the loss of the temple and longing for it to be rebuilt is, for her, not a literal wish but a metaphorical one. One often refers to the rebuilding of the temple as synonymous with the arrival of the Messiah and for some, therefore, of salvation. In Efrat's metaphorical way of interpreting this idea, the temple symbolizes the condition of the Jewish people, or even mankind. Just as the building is a ruin, a remnant of what it once was, similarly humankind is in need of some serious renovation work and rebuilding itself. Her theory was that when people manage to put themselves in others' shoes, to understand the others' suffering as if it were their own,, then the human collective soul, the metaphorical temple, will be "rebuilt" and whole again. I was impressed by her courage and candidness, offering such personal (though her ideas are certainly shared by other scholars) perspectives. She told the story of how the Jews of Jerusalem would climb up onto the roofs in order to catch a glimpse of the Temple wall during those 19 years when it was inaccessible to them (that part of town was Muslim). She told us how the Jews longed to touch the wall and pray at the wall which is said to be imbued with the spirit of the Shechina (the female spirit of God).
I was surprised though by the slant that she gave to the rest of the story. During the six-day war (1967), the Israelis pushed forward to the temple wall in Jerusalem, bulldozing an Arab residential area, in order to clear their way to the Temple Mount. Since then, this day has been a day of celebration for the Jews, the day when their longing and praying for contact with the old Temple wall and Temple Mount was answered, Efrat explained. I understood that a wish had been realized and it is understandable that this will give rise to celebration. But reaching the Temple Mount had not just consequences for the Jews but also for the Muslims. The people who lived just west of the wall, lost their homes. Additionally, the Dome of the Rock is a holy place for both Jews and Muslims, for Muslims this being the place where Muhammad prayed before he ascended to God to receive the Qu'ran. It is also said to be the place where Abraham supposedly nearly sacrificed Isaac. The Dome of the Rock (in the background of the picture posted) is also said to be the center or starting point of the world, in both Jewish and Muslim tradition. after Efrat's seemingly egalitarian comments regarding understanding others' suffering, I was surprised that she did not point out that this day of celebration for the Jews at having reached the Temple Mount was also a day of loss and suffering for the Muslims. To one of my fellow classmates who is a devout Muslim, I feared that Efrat's comments must have felt callous and cynical. Indeed my colleague who was moved to tears to see, also for her, this holy place, was disappointed by Efrat's one-sided explanation. It is not that Efrat's narrative was false, it just seemed discordant with her earlier comments about empathy.
For me, seeing the western wall, approaching it and finally laying my hands on it, was strong experience. I have no religious ambition regarding the rebuilding of the temple, but it is powerful to touch the stones of what use to be the place of worship for the people how laid the foundations for what I believe today. I recited the Shehechianu, a blessing which is said upon experiencing the joy of having reached a new season in life. Translated, it goes like this: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ling of the Universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.
So there was the power of being at the wall itself, but the hubbub around me evoked strong feelings too. there were women (the wall is separated by a partition so that men and women are segregated) rocking, swaying, mumbling their prayers, with looks of anguish and /or joy, tears streaming down their faces. At the same time there were small children wriggling to get free of their mothers' embrace, eager to get down to play. prayer books were scattered at different tables on the periphery, worn with years of use. A woman at the entrance checked that we were sufficiently covered, clicking her tongue at me when a shock of skin on my back was revealed. The sweater that I had brought along to wear for the occasion in the 30+ degree heat, had crept up to my shoulders.
After that the our broke up and most everyone was heading back to campus. The school had arranged for a group Shabbat celebration and dinner. I hadn't managed to get myself signed up in time and it was booked out. So instead of heading back up to Mt. Scopus for a Shabbat dinner alone, I decided that I would try to find a progressive synagogue where I could celebrate my first Shabbat in Israel. I asked of the counselors to point me in the right direction. he told me there was a progressive synagogue in the German colony, about a half-hour walk form the old city. He had heard that it was nice there, so off I marched. It took me a while to navigate out of the old city and I had to ask for directions several times. People were helpful, though a bit in pre-Shabbat frenzy. It was about 5:30 PM when I set out. The half-hour walk ended up being about a 7K hike down the valley to the Sultan's Pool, back up the mountain overlooking the entire area to a final, but slow descent along Emek Ref'aim, a boulevard in the German Colony. he synagogue was supposed to be at the end of this boulevard. I had no street address though, no house number and it was clear that Shabbat was approached, to which the flapping tzitzit of the men running to get to schul on time, gave witness. I heard two men speaking English on the street and I asked them where the synagogue was. it turned out that they were on their way there an I could go with them. I arrived at the synagogue which was packed with people, the temperature steamy inside. The congregation was segregated by a curtain down the middle, he Torah placed in the middle of the two halves, in the front. The whole service was in Hebrew, the congregation sang, both men and women, in unison, in parts and sometimes polyphonic, little extra melodies trailing off after a sung phrase, like personal afterthought. Afterwards there were announcements, luckily also in English and before you can say Bob's your uncle I found myself invited to one of the congregant's homes for Shabbat dinner. Michelle, a rabbinical student fro Philadelphia, invited all together five people for Shabbat dinner. None of us knew each other previously, though some of them went to the same conservative yeshiva and recognized each other. It turns out that Isaac from Norway and I have some common acquaintances from Shir hatzafon in Copenhagen! I couldn't believe how welcoming and generous these people were. I was moved by the openness and kindness with which I was received. When I arrive at Shir Chadasha (the name of the synagogue), i was exhausted by my hike, parched probably looked like a vagabond with the dirtiest feet this side of the Jordan, and they took care of me. Wow.
Ok. I know this is very long but you'll have to bear with me a little longer. Yesterday was my birthday and I had a lovely day. I went into the old city again with a fellow student who had agreed to spend the day with me. This time we approached the city on foot, walking from Mt. Scopus through East Jerusalem, entering the city at Damascus Gate, accessing the Muslim part of the old city. After our long hike down the mountain, nature called and when I entered the public ladies room, I was greeted by women and children washing their feet i the sinks, lifting their skirts out of the dirty puddles of water on the floor and re-arranging their head scarves in the mirror. Smiling, curious faces made it clear that I was not the usual patron of these facilities. One woman asked me shyly where I was from and told me that she had relatives in Denmark. It turns out that they were all preparing to enter the mosque/Dome of the Rock (as described above - the entrance for Muslims is on the east side of the wall).
Afterwards we wandered around through the narrow alleys, crammed with an impossible amount of people, wares, smells and sounds. We hoofed our way through all four quarters of the city and saw more sights than you want to read about here, and ended up at damascus gate again with the friendly help of a tour guide on his way home from work. He pointed out sights as we hurried to keep up with him, "here is the seventh station of jesus' path to Golgatha on your right, you see it? Watch your step. You know, people are people, no matter what. Muslims, jews, Christians, it doesn't matter. See everything while you're here. everywhere is beautiful in israel. i go to the Golan when I go on vacation. It's quiet there, not so much noise, like here. Take a taxi home, don't walk home alone. You'll found me at Mount Zion if you want a tour. It was nice to meet you." he shook our hands and disappeared into the crowd.
And so we were spat out of the labyrinth that is the suq at Damascus gate at dusk, hungry and eager to find the restaurant that was recommended in my guide book. It was easy to find once some soldiers helped us figure out that we were indeed on Nablus Road. We had a nice dinner, talked and talked and got a cab back up the hill, which we shared with an Italian couple that had just arrived and needed to get to their hotel at the Mount of Olives.
I sat in the front and peppered the poor taxi driver with questions. By the time dropped us off at the dormitory, where my colleague lives, I had found out that he lives in the old city, loves it there, has a wife and two girl, 1 and 4 years old, that it's hard making a living because it's so expensive, gas costs 7 skekel/liter. He has a second job, painting cars near Tel Aviv. the shop is owned by a Jew, he said, and he and his friends car pool to work together from Jerusalem. he knew why Jews were fasting at Tisha B'Av and told me a funny story about a girl he drove once who said she didn't know why she had to fast at Tisha B'Av and so this time when wasn't going to. his English was excellent, having been a tour guide. He was mild-mannered and you had to listen closely to hear his soft spoken words.
Have a good week.
written on August 10th
This past week has been dominated by Hebrew classes. For those of you who have spoken Hebrew all your life, the language might not seem particularly difficult. This is a major misconception. My fellow Aleph inmates will tell you otherwise. Hebrew is hard.
I was speculating on what precisely is hard. I speak three languages and must admit that although I certainly have had my linguistic frustrations along the way, I think I've been blessed with a good ear for languages. Perhaps the "ear" can give us a hint. When most of us learned to read and write our mother tongue, we already had the benefit of a sizeable spoken vocabulary. So once we began arranging random letters into words, sounding them out as we went along, we already had an idea of what sounds we should hear. We draw on these experiences when we learn foreign languages too. We know how to sound out words, and even if there are specific pronunciation rules to the new language, they are quickly learned. The learning technique is the same, although the specific rules differ. For example, badminton and tennis require similar skills and the set up for the game, a ball, a racket, a net and a point system, are the same. Specific rules must be learned but the point of departure is quite similar.
Not so with Hebrew. First of all, most of us Aleph students don't have any spoken vocabulary to base our learning on, so we don't recognize the sounds we put together as words. They might be real words - and they might not be. You ask, can't you just sound it out? Well, that's another little Hebrew challenge. Vowels as such are not part of the written words. Those of you who have made a stab at learning Hebrew or speak Hebrew already, know that there are some consonants that can double as vowels, but never exclusively. So if we take the word "dog" for example and apply some Hebrew shinnanigans to it, it could be written like this: "dg". The options for how this word should actually be pronounced, were we to apply Hebrew rules to it, are multiple: dag, dog, dig, dug etc. On top of that the letters that function as vowels and consonants, depending on their mood, can change how many syllables are in the word. So taking the word "girl" as our guinea pig, we could end up with garal, grol, grel etc. Or grevel - the "v" can be an "o" or "u" in addition to being a "v"... Hebrew letters should have taken Oscar Wilde's advice: "be yourself, everybody else is taken".
Besides being maddening this is also very interesting. First of all, it means that children growing up with Hebrew have been solving brain teasers since they were about five years old. Secondly, it opens up an interesting elaboration on what Talal Asad (From "An Idea of an Anthropology of Islam" 1986) refers to as "discursive tradition". Discursive tradition is about what is accepted as correct and right practice in a social group. Asad was specifically writing about Muslim practices, but I think his idea can be expanded to other social groups. In his argumentation, "apt practice" (I think that's how he referred to it) is determined by the person or institution who has been given status and power by the group. This can be in the form of academic degrees, appointment to leadership position or simply by being a respected elder in the community. This could be the local Imam, for others it could be their teacher or parent that instructed them. So, where for example the orthodox beit din (Jewish religious court) says this or that is correct Jewish practice, a reform beit din may decide differently. But if they didn't have a group behind them to say "You are our expert", their opinions and rulings would be insignificant.
So, what does all this have to do with Hebrew? I wonder who decided what vowels were to be accepted as the "right" ones in biblical writings in Hebrew. In class, we ask our teachers daily questions like, how do we know this word is "salt" and not "king": m-l-ch? It has the same spelling. They tell us it depends on the context. Well, context can be a very personal thing. So, my point is that interpretation of biblical texts must have happened on a very basic level. They were not just discussing what the scribes of the Torah meant by this or that, but scholars must have also have wondered, "what words are written here?" The slightest change in vowel can lead to a dramatically different word and thereby meaning. I don't know how much educated guess work the scholars did. Maybe there weren't so many uncertainties. In theory though,the demand for many view points - all of them potentially right - are incorporated into these writings
With that I will return to my studying and will try and keep this philosophical frame of mind, rather than....well, in the name of free interpretation, I'll let you fill in the blank.