Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Half of the Human Race

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, 
you see?" 

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

Getting to know the country

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.