More than Just Sand

There’s a rumor going around America that Jordan is just a big sandy desert. Now in the business of clarifying that, there are two slight misconceptions there. First of all, not all of Jordan is a desert, just most of it. And unfortunately for those who were expecting images of sunsets over golden dunes, most of the desert is not sandy.

What is Jordan, geographically speaking? In fact, it’s a rather eclectic mix of environments.

Most of the people in Jordan, and in fact, most of everything is concentrated in a little North-South strip on the Western edge of the country. In the north of this strip you find the capital, Amman, home to 38% of country’s population and the center of the country’s economic, intellectual, and cultural life. In the far North, Irbid (my city) and the city of Zarqa hold 34% of the people, and serve as hubs for the country’s industry and trade. The South holds desert outpost cities like Ma’an and Tafila and on the Red Sea, the luxurious resort town of Aqaba. Then, to the East, it’s pretty much all desert. (There’s also a valley in the South called Wadi Rum, which is home to massive sand dunes and monoliths and mountains and such. It looks like the stereotypical “Middle Eastern Desert”, and as such it is one of the most popular locations to shoot classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Transformers II. I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s not in this post, but I’ll be sure to snap a few shots when I visit it.)

The eastern desert plateau covers 80% of the country and has an arid climate year round, which explains why there’s nothing much on the map there. (Thanks to USAID-Jordan for some of the stats.)

But what are all of these places really look like? How exactly is this country sculpted?

First of all, we have our pretty regular looking climate around Amman and Irbid. Classified as “Mediterranean” or “Semi Arid”, this is characterized by rolling hills, shrubs, and sparse tree cover.

It doesn’t rain much here in the summer, and in the winter, the rainfall is irregular at best, but nonetheless, it’s enough to sustain life.

In the north of the country, the Ajloun mountains add a taste of greenery to the landscape. This area gets a decent amount of rainfall and even snow during the winter, and as a result, it hosts beautiful green forests and cool weather during the summer.

Also, if you’re in the castle building mood, the Ajloun mountains provide a pretty great vantage point for defense against invaders. I’m pretty jealous of the crew that got to hang out here.

At the northernmost part of the country, the Jordan River Valley winds through a rare strip of fertile farmland and hosts much of Jordan’s agriculture. Only 2.8% of Jordan’s land is arable, and most of it is found here.

Umm Qais, an ancient Roman City perched on the northwest corner, provides a beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape and an interesting lesson in politics, as you can see the fertile hills of the Jordan Valley stretch across the northern border and join with the hills in the West Bank of Palestine, Israel, the Golan Heights, and Syria. (Like most borders that I’ve seen in the Middle East, I can’t help wondering what the Brits and the French were thinking of when they penciled this one on the map. I knew before that it wasn’t about the people, and seeing the land, I’m not pretty sure it wasn’t about geography.)

On a side note, the pine groves nearby offer a pretty comfy place for a barbecue and a nap.

Down south of Amman, the land gets increasingly desert-y. But every once in a while, the dry plateau opens up into a huge wadi that collects what little water there is in the water table and funnels it into a stream that ends up in the Dead Sea. These wadis, some of which are dry in the summer and flow only in the winter, serve as valuable sources of water for plant, animal, and human life.

From the outside, the Wadi looks like an extension of the dry and barren desert, but when you poke your head inside – or go slogging for hours through a stream bed – you find a treasure trove of greenery and life. If you poke around a bit, there are some interesting surprises.

And then… finally, there’s the great eastern desert. Before I visited, I had grand illusions of a vast sea of sand dunes inhabited by camel caravans, bedouin king, vipers, bands of 40 thieves, and castles. As it turns out, I found the camels and the castles, but unfortunately the other rarities have remained elusive.

You get a sense of heading off into the wild when you leave Azraq, the last important town on the Eastern frontier. There’s really only one major road heading East, and there’s not much on the road except huge trucks shipping cargo to the Iraqi or Saudi borders. And off the road, there’s dirt, shrubs, rocks, and power lines. As the road rolls over the hills heading off towards Iraq, the stark rocky landscape rolls by with the occasional turnoff for a small bedouin village or a military outpost or a mine, but for the most part, there’s not much human activity.

If you keep going for a while, you hit As-Safawi, which really is the last thing before the middle of nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be a lot there except a main street with a tasty chicken restaurant and a couple of vegetable stalls, but as always, the people are friendly and welcoming. It’s an understatement to say that foreigners don’t usually tend to come here.

After As-Safawi, there’s a road and one more town before the Iraqi border. But in the hundreds of kilometers that stretch between them, there’s earth, and there’s sky.

It’s quiet, peaceful, and rugged. The towers of power lines rising from the earth and the loud roar of 18 wheelers chugging down the highway provide a striking contrast to the serenity of the landscape; it really is man’s industry versus desert’s wildness. Right now, they seem to have found a friendly working relationship.

So far, from what I’ve seen, this place isn’t exactly what I was expecting from watching Aladdin, but for real life, I think it’ll do.

Posted in Arabic in Irbid | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Chicken, Rice, and Everything Nice

Goodness gracious this rice is hot, I think to myself as I plunge my hand into the center of the heaping dish. The steaming chicken juice stings me, but the rice has a warm softness that’s surprisingly soothing, and I linger for a second, wishing that I’d had the chance to wash my hands. I pull my hand back out again holding a handful of moist rice, and I look across at my host, who’s done the same and is now working the rice it into a nice, neat ball. I try to mimic him, and then, when it comes time to plop the golf ball sized clump into my mouth, I fail miserably and make a mess on the floor. We both laugh, and then we head back to the plate in search of some chicken. This is mansaf, Jordanian cooking at its finest.

I first met my host last weekend in Amman. I was loitering outside a bustling mosque during Friday prayers, waiting to talk to the young men when they emerged to get a better sense of the political currents in the city. Stopping at a fruit stand, I met a man named Suhel selling grapes and tomatoes from his farm. He was about middle aged, he spoke far too fast for me to understand everything, and most importantly, he invited me to his village outside of Irbid to see his house and eat mansaf. Of course, this is an invitation that Jordanians love to give foreigners, but this time, I decided to take him up on it. He was nice, I was getting a bit tired of felafel, and I really wanted to see life in a small Jordanian village.

The village of Burma lies about twenty minutes down a curving road from the ancient city of Jerash, near Irbid. The village is set in the foothills of Northern Jordan, where views of pine groves and expansive forests offer a welcome respite from the sparse landscape near Amman and Irbid. There’s not much to the place other than a paved road, a few dirt roads, and a few dozen houses. Driving through, it’s hard to tell which of the concrete houses are completed and which are half finished; it’s only on arriving at Suhel’s house that I realize all of them are lived in. Suhel’s house sits where the dirt road abruptly terminates at a solid rock exposure, and there, nestled on a ledge on the steep hillside, is a concrete dwelling that is home to Suhel’s family and that of his brother. Surrounding the house are olive trees, fruit trees, ducks, chickens, goats, and a few young children. Disappointingly, the strange white man with broken Arabic scares the daylights out of the kids and the ducks alike.

Suhel and I sit for two hours in his living room, sparsely furnished like so many others in the region with foam floor cushions and a TV. We sit and talk about everything: our families, our work, our hopes for the future. He’s especially interested in getting a visa to America. Do I know how to get him an American visa? he wants to know. How about taking a second American wife to get citizenship? Are there any single girls in my language program here in Jordan? We discuss immigration, citizenship, cross cultural marriage, polygamy, and a whole host of other topics that they never taught us about in Arabic class, but we make it through okay. (I do my very best to make it clear that chasing American girls around Jordan is not a good route to getting a visa.) We have our laughs, I learn new vocab, and Suhel has a good time too. He talks to at least four people on the phone during my visit; I don’t catch all of what he’s saying, but he happily tells each one that he has an American at his house. I feel honored.

The mansaf, as described, is fantastic. In traditional fashion, his wife and daughters who cooked the meal stay in the kitchen the entire visit; but a few times I catch the young girls peeking their heads around the doorframe to get a peak at the foreigner. One of the hardest things for me to adjust to in the Middle East is eating meals at people’s homes and not being able to thank, or even meet the woman who labored to make the food, but that’s how it is here, so I ask Suhel to kindly thank “the cook” for me.

After the meal, we wander a bit more before leaving the village. Of course, it’s been a short time here, but I see a lot. Young guys playing soccer peacefully in a grove of olive trees, piles of appliances stacked up in people’s front yards, chickens walking through the house, satelline dishes on roofs, children walking home from school, and a massive cooking operation for a funeral for a prominent woman down the road. I don’t see many cars, I don’t see soap in the outhouse, and I don’t see kids in an internet cafe. I’m not trying to make a point with these observations.

Because this is a visit for learning. Learning about the fabric of Jordanian society at the most basic level. Despite the SUVs and high rises that grace the Amman city center, the rural village is still the basic unit of the Jordanian economy, and for me, this is the place where I can start understanding the country.

Suhel and I part with a warm handshake and smile. Come again when you’re hungry again. Mmm. Good deal. I’ll keep that in mind.

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Goodbye, English

The smell of dust and diesel is intoxicating. As I walk out of my hotel and step into the busy streets of Amman, it is the smell more than anything else that helps me to fully realize that I’m back. After a month resting up in the States, I’ve returned to the Middle East, where I’ll be settling in Jordan for the next four months. Under the auspices of CET Academic Programs, I’ll be living in Irbid and studying at Yarmouk University, one of Jordan’s most respected institutions. (People here call it the Harvard of the Middle East, and it is a very high quality institution, although it lacks the grassy quads and gothic buildings.)

During the next four months, I and fifteen other students will study Arabic language, culture, and politics, while pledging to speak only Arabic, 24/7. With our peers, our teachers, the stranger on the street; in the house, in the classroom, on trips – everywhere. In our free time, we’ll be exploring Jordan and getting to know its historic and cultural sites.

Since coming here four days ago, we’ve moved into our apartments near campus and gotten oriented around the campus and city. We live not far from the University, and hopefully the short commute will help me to get to know the surrounding area.

Irbid isn’t on the top of Jordan’s attractions list. My guidebook (from the Rough Guides series) describes Jordan thusly:

“This busy, crowded city – around 75km north of Amman – is genial enough, with rambling souks filling the downtown alleyways, but there’s little to merit a diversion. It is most often visied as a staging-post for journeys into the far north of Jordan; if time is short, give it a miss.” (173)

This lackluster description is one of the reasons I came here. If I were a tourist, I probably would “give this city a miss”, but right now, I haven’t come looking for adventure. Or rather, I am looking for an adventure, but it’s of a different sort. During these next four months, I am looking to establish normalcy here. I want to experience life not as a traveler or a tourist, but as a resident. I know that a semester is an awefully short time, but I want to use it well to get to know the city and its people. If I can stay out of the house and spend enough time with locals experiencing every day, mundane life here, I’ll feel like I can leave saying not “I visited Irbid”, or, “I studied in Irbid”, but, “I lived in Irbid”. To me, studying the Middle East isn’t just about seeing its monuments or its historic sites, but about understanding the everyday lives of the men and women that make up its societies. Hopefully, this day to day immersion will be an adventure in and of itself.

Yesterday at 10:30 AM, all 16 of us signed our language pledges and ceased speaking English. The transition to Arabic wasn’t quite as hard as I expected, but phone conversations have been rather frustrating. Today was the first day of classes, and in what our curriculum described as our “easy week”, we were bombarded with stacks of vocabulary and grammar to learn before our first test on Friday. I’m curious to see what this looks like when they step it up a notch.

Right now, it’s off to my classmates’ apartment to cook up the veggies we bought at the market today. I’m expecting a strange strange fusion of Eastern and Western cooking that you might read about in a post soon.

But between now and then, I’ll be here, making a goof of myself in the streets of Irbid.

Posted in Arabic in Irbid | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Coming Home

Well, I’m back. Two weeks ago, I returned to my suburban American home, and since then I’ve been enjoying family, air conditioning, and any food that’s not derived from chickpeas. I went a while without posting anything up on here, as I was rather busy during the month of July. I can’t recount it all, but here are some thoughts.

Our Work with the Kids

During July, I kept busy with the Inspire Dreams team. We ran a different summer program for kids each week in three different camps, and we tailored each program to the needs and ages of the kids. Our first one, which we called our Youth Leadership Academy, was for a group of about 15 high school age youth in Dheisheh camp outside of Bethlehem.

Over the course of four intense days, we talked to the youth about the meaning of leadership, teamwork, cooperation, communication, and personal vision. We played games with them that taught them how to work together, we did exercises in speech and debate, brought in outsiders who taught workshops on human rights, nonviolent activism, and sensitivity to others with handicaps.

The four of us interns worked with our Inspire Dreams supervisors to create the schedule for the camp and design each of the workshops. We tried to strike a balance between being serious, having fun, teaching the students, and letting them discover things for themselves. The last day of the camp ended with a trip to the pool and a graduation ceremony which gave the kids a neat sense of accomplishment.

After that, we spent a week in Jalazone, a week in Askar camp outside of Nablus, and a final week in Jalazone doing similar camps, but with different age groups of kids. For each program, we tailored the activities to the specific age and group size, and we experimented with new games. One of the things that I loved the most about interning with Inspire Dreams is that while kids were learning from our programs, we were able to learn a lot about how to design and implement the programs, through trial and error. We held debriefing sessions after every day and we had longer one on one meetings with our mentors each week. Taking the time to reflect, as always, helped us to be more purposeful in our work and enabled our programs to make a difference.


Outside of work, the month of July was a busy one. I took trips with the other interns to cities in Israel including Jerusalem, Haifa, Akke, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv, and spent more time exploring places in the West Bank like Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus. I feel lucky to have seen all those places, an experience which not many people in either Israel or Palestine get to have.

The Sea of Galilee at sunset

The Galaboon waterfall in the Golan Heights – a great place to relax and swim

The Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel – the most holy site for members of the Bahai faith

Hanging on the beach in Tel Aviv

Fields in the north of the West Bank, outside of Jenin

A Play’s the Thing

This morning I followed my usual routine and got out of bed and walked to my computer. I opened my email to find an email from the staff at the Jenin Freedom Theater. The theater is Palestine’s only theater school, located in the Jenin refugee camp in the north of the West Bank. In 2002, Jenin was the site of a pitched battle between the Israeli Army and Palestinian guerilla fighters; during a nearly two week siege, hundreds of men, women, and children were killed or wounded.

A sculpture made from scraps of metal taken from ambulances destroyed during the siege of Jenin

A memorial to guerillas killed in the siege of Jenin

The Freedom Theater was established to help children overcome the trauma of living through war and to give them a creative, nonviolent outlet for their passions. The Theater ran acting programs, put on plays and musicals, and offered theater degrees to students from around the West Bank. In March of this year, the director of the Theater, Juliano Mer Khemis, was shot by assassins in the street in front of the theater.

The main entrance to the Jenin Freedom Theater

When I and the other interns visited the Theater in July, the staff there were still reeling from their loss. The new director (whose name or photograph I won’t print here), had worked by Juliano’s side for years and told us of his death with tears in her eyes. He was shot as he was getting out of his car one afternoon, holding his infant son. Students and children were in the street at the time and saw the entire thing. Until now, there has been no verdict as to who the killers were. The theater staff had received threats in the preceding weeks, possibly from religiously conservative Palestinian factions offended by theater’s liberal inclusion of girls into their singing and dancing programs. Even so, there has been no proven link to the killing, and the theater staff has given up trying to solve the mystery. “Whoever they were,” said the new director, “they couldn’t have been from our community. People here loved Juliano. They saw what he did for the children, and even if they disagreed with his methods, they respected him.”

After Juliano’s death, the theater staff refused to stop their programs. “A lot of the interns left for Ramallah and wouldn’t come back, and people here told us to stop,” the director told us. “But I told them no. If we did that, that would be letting them win. I knew that we owe our work to the kids, so we didn’t close down. We opened again the next week. We’ll stay open,” she said between a few tears and a few nervous laughs. “I’ve had anonymous threats that I’m next on the list, but if they come and get me, someone will take my place and continue.”

The email that I got this morning read as follows:

In the past three weeks, the Theatre has come under attack again.  On July 27 masked and heavily armed Israeli soldiers attacked the Theatre at 3:30 a.m., hurling rocks at the building and knocking out many of the windows.  They arrested the Theatre’s facilities manager, along with the president of the Theatre’s Jenin Board, whose home was also damaged.  Then, on August 5, Israeli forces blindfolded and arrested a 20-year old acting student, part of The Freedom Theatre’s young acting troupe, at a checkpoint near Jenin.

The men who were arrested in July were held for at least two weeks before being able to see their lawyers. According to the Israeli authorities, the raid and arrests were part of an investigation into the killing of Juliano, a dubious claim in light of the fact that all of the Theater’s staff have already willingly cooperated with an investigation by the Palestinian Authority Police.

The email came with a link to a short youtube video of the Theater staff showing the building damage and giving their testimony.

It’s a bit eerie sitting at my laptop and viewing the same portico where I stood a few weeks ago now littered with broken glass and rocks. I know that I’m an ocean away from the theater, so my feelings of anger and hurt are compounded by a feeling of helplessness.

What’s important about all of this story is the things that I don’t know. I don’t know who killed Juliano, and I don’t know why men wearing Israeli uniforms barged into the Theater. (This isn’t the first time the IDF has harassed a Palestinian NGO.) I have only been to Jenin once, and I have no idea what kinds of motivations are involved. But I know one important thing. The kids of Jenin and the staff that serves them are sandwiched between two enemies: the forces of extremist religious conservatism in their own society, and the forces of the Israeli occupation on the other. In a way, this tiny conflict reflects so much about the conflicts in Palestine. It is multifaceted, its history is very important, there are hidden personal and military secrets that make unbiased investigation impossible, and there are passions, greed, and feelings of self righteousness at its core. The ones who suffer the most – the children – are the ones who are the most innocent. I ask myself the same questions about the Theater as I ask about Palestine as a whole. How can this be stopped? What is my role? What can I do? What can anybody do?

This same morning, the BBC carried this headline: “Deadly attacks hit Israeli Vehicles near Egypt”. According to various news sources, an Israeli bus was carrying passengers this morning from the Israeli town of Beersheba and the popular resort town of Eliat on the Red Sea, and came under attack on highway 12 near the Egyptian border. The BBC writes:

Reports say two or three men climbed out of a car as the bus travelled on Highway 12 next to the Egypt-Israel border and opened fire on [the bus]. The bus driver carried on until he reached a nearby military base where the wounded received treatment before being flown to a hospital in Eilat. No-one was killed in this incident, but Israeli officials say the assailants fired an anti-tank missile at another vehicle and a military patrol hit an explosive device.

Photo from BBC World Service

So far 7 have died, and over 25 have been wounded. Several hours after the attack, the Israel Defense Forces launched a retaliatory attack on the town of Rafah in the Gaza strip, striking the town from the air and killing six.

There’s direct link between the bus attack and the Theater raid, but reading about them on the same morning is sick – Israeli soldiers abducting boys and girls for acting, and Palestinian guerillas shooting at boys and girls for going to the beach. Many passionate people on both sides will rationalize the actions of their side as justification for the crimes of the other, but as most people know deep down, two wrongs can never make a right.

Moving Ahead

It’s usually easy enough to judge people as wrong, but it’s harder to do something about it. In the end, all this writing that I’m doing is nothing more than self serving punditry if I don’t try to work for something better. That’s why I’m going back to the region. In two weeks, I’m headed off to Jordan, where I’ll be spending a few months studying Arabic and learning about regional politics. I’ll update this blog every once in a while and share some of life in Jordan. My goals there will be the same as they were in Palestine: to understand the people there, to help them understand Americans better, and to learn how I can work for peace in the coming years.

If I ever needed an incentive for all of this, the kids we worked with this summer are enough. Seeing them learn and grow and laugh, I couldn’t help wonder what lies in their futures. Will they see freedom? Will they see peace? Both? Many say we can only hope so. I disagree. With decades of work, with dedication, compromise, and a tenacious spirit, we can make it happen.

Posted in Inspire Dreams 2011 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Independence Day – For Those Who Have It

To all my friends and family in America, happy Independence Day.

A majority of the people reading this have never seen the United States invaded by a foreign country. We’ve never lived under martial law. We’ve never had restrictions placed on our freedom of expression, worship, or movement. We’ve never been afraid that if they got arrested, we wouldn’t get a fair trial. We complain (and rightly so) about the dangers of government wiretapping and email-reading, but for the most part, we can count on our government to protect us, not persecute us. If you’re in America right now, reading this safely at your computer in the security of your own home, breathe a sigh of relief and count your blessings.

It’s ironic that I spent this afternoon visiting Hebron, the largest city in Palestine and one of the most stomach churning examples of the oppression that fundamentalist Zionism has brought to this country. Hebron is a bustling city of around 170,000, has been an important trade hub in the region since the 18th century B.C., and is known as the burial site of monotheistic patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah. Hebron, like thre rest of Palestine, was fought over in antiquity by tribes such as the Caananites, and Jews, and it came under Arab control after the 7th century Muslim conquest. A minority population of Jews lived in the city continuously until the 1920s, when the city’s Arabs became angry at the massive influx of new Jewish settlers there and clashes led to the Jews’ expulsion from the city. The city became part of Palestine when the land was partitioned in 1948, but after the failed Arab invasion of Israel in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, and Hebron with it.

It was under the protection of the Israeli Occupation that the first Jewish settlers began their attempt to retake Hebron. Guided by a belief that the Messiah will come once the Holy Land has been reoccupied by God’s Chosen People, a radical fundamentalist Jewish group under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented out the Park Hotel in Hebron to celebrate Passover in 1974. At the end of the holiday, however, they refused to leave, and instead, the Israeli Army (IDF) was summoned to protect them. Under the soldiers’ protection, they left the hotel and occupied a number of buildings in the old city of Hebron, the ancient neighborhood of beautiful stone homes and winding allyways that was home to Hebron’s markets and many of its residents. The army forcibly ejected Arabs from their homes and put up fences to keep them from returning to certain parts of the city. After that, more settlements were established within the old city, as Arabs were either bought out of their homes, harassed until they left, or forcibly pushed out. The Jews who live in the settlements acknowledge that they are there for religious and political reasons, not out of convenience. In fact, many are only short term residents who live there on shifts of only a few months, so that there can always be a Jewish presence laying claim to the land.

The old stone building at the bottom left was once a mosque, but it was taken over by settlers, who built the newer structure on top of it. The intersection of streets used to be a crowded vegetable market, but it is now off limits to Arabs.

In 1997, an international agreement divided the city into two administrative divisions. A large portion of the old city, now called H1, was given to Israeli control. The rest, called H2 was given to Palestinian control. To protect the settlers in H1, entire streets and sections of the city have been cordoned off to Arabs, including those who still legitimately own the houses inside. Today, around 800 settlers live in settlements within the city, and there are over 1,500 IDF soldiers there to protect them.

The re-occupation has not been a clean affair. In the tightly packed old city, settlers have moved into houses and with the help of the Israeli government, erected massive barriers between their settlements and the surrounding homes. Some houses lie abandoned because they are on the line between the two. In other cases, shops have settlement annexes built on their roofs. Alleyways that lead between the two have been closed off with barbed wire, and openings in walls have been sealed shut.

Above the streets of the old city, wire mesh catches the trash that settlers throw down on the local Arab population. On the rooftops, Israeli soldiers stand by to put their lives on the line to protect the settlers.

According to the Ma’an Development Center, “of the 1,610 shops that existed in the Old City before September 2000, 354 have been closed by military order and 700 had been driven out of business because of a lack of trade.” (21)

Perhaps what’s most painful about the situation is just how ugly the settlers and the army have been to the citizens of old Hebron. Settlers commonly harass the local Arab population by spitting on them and throwing garbage on them from their windows, and violent attacks have been common. There have been numerous incidents in which settlers beaten Arabs, killed them, or thrown Molotov cocktails in their schools and homes. Perhaps the most famous case was the Tomb of the Patriarchs Massacre, in 1994, when a settler dressed as an Israeli officer walked into the mosque built over the tomb of Abraham and opened fire, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding 125. Settlers ever since have celebrated the anniversary of the massacre, and the killer is buried in a place of honor in one of the settlements. The Israeli government’s response was to partition the mosque and set aside 60% of it as a synagogue for the settlers.

The tomb of Abraham has been partitioned so that it can be viewed through a grate from the Synagogue or from the Mosque, providing a convenient way for the devout to pray at the remains of their ancestor without having to look their fellow humans in the face.

The Mosque at the same site contains the remains of Isaac and Rebekah.

“Undoubtedly the most aggravated settler behavior occurs in Hebron, where Palestinian schoolchildren are assaulted and humiliated on their way to schools, shopkeepers are beaten and residents live in fear of settler terror. Despite rulings of the High court of Justice that it is the duty of the IDF to protect Palestinian farmers from settlers, there is still evidence that the IDF turns a blind eye to settler violence, and on occasion, collaborates with the settlers in harassing and humiliating Palestinians. Indeed I have witnessed such conduct on the part of the IDF myself in Hebron.”

-UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories

It’s no surprise that the violence has gone both ways. Attacks on settlers began shortly after the settlement’s founding, and in 1980, a group of Arab youth murdered a group of Jewish students returning home from prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Local Palestinian citizens of Hebron have attacked the settlers with guns, knives, and grenades countless times over the years. Since the end of the second Intifada, however, there has been an increased IDF presence in the city, and the settlers have clearly had the upper hand.

Walking through the city, I met the people who have been scarred by the occupation. I visited one house, shown below, that forms part of the division between the settlement and the old city.

A little girl stands on her roof, looking at the roof of the Avraham Avinu settlement, which has been built against her family's house.

The settlement was built up against its walls, and the IDF closed off all windows and doors facing the new building.

Now, the family that lives inside is not allowed to lock their doors, as the IDF demands the right to conduct searches and seizures. At times, IDF soldiers demand lodging in the house for the night, and the family has no right to refuse.

Perhaps most heartbreaking is a room on the upper floor, where according to the family, settlers a few years ago threw a molotov cocktail and killed their infant son.

On the roof of the home sits a metal water storage tank, empty because of the holes poked in it by settler youth.

Apart from the harassments and the violence, Palestinian life in the old city is made miserable simply by the weight of the occupation. To move throughout the city, Arabs face numerous checkpoints, even in areas supposedly controlled by Palestine.

On the streets near the settlements, settlers and foreigners (if they are Christian or Jewish) are allowed to walk. Palestinians and Muslim foreigners are not. Soldiers stop young men in the streets and demand ID’s, and often enter houses without warrants.

For the newcomer, Hebron can be quite a shock. The injustice is ongoing, and it couldn’t be more clear. But what’s most disappointing is that it’s not an isolated incident. Israeli settlements aren’t just limited to Hebron; in fact, the ones there are some of the smallest. Throughout the West Bank, there are over 300,000 Israelis living in 121 settlements, which are all recognized as legitimate municipalities by the Israeli government. Israel provides private roads to the settlements which are off limits to Palestinians, and thousands of soldiers for their protection. Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, has said of the settlements: “These are parts of our homeland, and these are our brothers – they are part of us and we are part of them.” Last year, Netanyahu willingly ended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority in order to continue building settlements. So, even if the people actually living in the settlements are religious fanatics, they have the entire power of the State of Israel behind them.

Today, as my friends and I were preparing to enter the Synagogue at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we had to stop at several Israeli checkpoints. At one of them, the Muslims with us were turned back, and I was told that I had to change my teel shirt. My tee shirt had Arabic writing on the front, and I was told that it would cause problems for me to go into the Synagogue area wearing it, so I went into the bathroom and flipped it inside out. And what was on the tee shirt? A picture of a white dove, and a single word: “Amal”. In English: “Hope”.

Right now, with absolutely no end in sight to this insanity, Hope is all that’s left.

For Further Reading:

An excellent overview of the Israeli occupation by NYT’s Nicholas Kristof:

Account of a tour of Hebron given by an ex-IDF soldier:

Basic overview of Hebron’s History on Wikipedia:

An account of Hebron’s history from the Jewish Virtual Library:

An account of segregation and forced displacement in Hebron written by a Palestinian NGO:

Videos of Israeli Soldiers talking about their experiences in the West Bank (by the United States Institute of Peace):

Thoughts by another visitor to Hebron, a US Ambassador:

Posted in Inspire Dreams 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I am want The study English

Two weeks ago, I was introduced to a group of five or so young men from Jalazone who wanted to learn English. All were between the ages of 20 and 30, most were looking for jobs, and none spoke any English beyond “Hello!”, and “How are you!”. So, for two weeks now, I and another intern have been teaching English class for two hours a night. After our classes started, word spread and the class size quickly grew, but now it’s stabled out around 8 or 9, depending on the night. Tonight is the last class of our mini-course, as we’re getting ready to move to another camp, and I’m going to miss this a lot. It’s pretty crazy to see how much everyone’s learned over such a short period, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

When the guys started out, everyone could read and write English words, but they couldn’t speak much more than greetings.

So, we started out by memorizing basic phrases in English, and then moved on to basic vocabulary words. What words to you teach someone when you’re introducing a new language to them? The easiest words? The most important words? The most common words? I guess it’s not until you start with a blank slate that you realize how many words you need to express yourself. And there are so many types of words to memorize and categorize.

For starters, we tried some nouns that everyone could use:
father, mother, brother, sister (and so on), house, street, car

As for verbs, we picked some easy ones that weren’t too too hard to conjugate:
work, play, study, walk, eat

As we moved on and learned out to make basic sentences, we peppered in a few adjectives (big, tall, short, small, blue, red, yellow, good, bad, fine, tired, hungry, angry) to make things interesting. We even managed to get a few adverbs in there (very, a little bit, quickly, soon) for bonus points. Prepositions weren’t too hard to pick up, and once we explained the articles, the guys were making sentences about their lives, jobs (or lack thereof), families, and homes, all by day two.

On the third day of class, we learned words to describe people. I figured it’d be engaging to try collectively writing a poem about the women of our dreams, an assignment I once did in Arabic class. As you can see, our result wasn’t quite successful. The awkward lines in the middle are attempted translations of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Apparently they make more sense in the original. Also, I didn’t have the hear to explain to them that maybe “fast” wasn’t such a good word to use in this context…

In a way, this has been something like a dream assignment for me. I love languages, and I’ve been pretty lucky to have received first class instruction in four languages in the past few years.

The most important for this one is English. Ever since I was a kid, I liked learning about the grammar and structure of the English language, but it wasn’t until now that I’ve finally become grateful for all those years at St. Aloysius Catholic academy that I spent sweating through Sister Susan’s painful grammar drills. (Ok, maybe not quite grateful, but I can see the logic behind the torture.) It makes it a lot easier to explain things in English when you know why they are that way. Should I say “I am living” or “I live”? What is the difference? Why do we put the word “do” into questions? When do we do that? Is that word always in questions? The other intern that I’m working with speaks Arabic fluently, and she’s great at translating my convoluted explanations and making them make sense. I think that the boring grammar stuff is pretty important, even though these guys need quick instruction and just want to be able to speak the language. It’s important because without a base knowledge in grammar, learning a language becomes just blind memorization. These guys have shown that they’re capable of a lot more than that.

Even though I’ve never really taught a class before, doing this feels pretty natural, mostly because I’m just copying the methods I’ve learned from my own language classes in the past. From my seventh grade Latin teacher, I learned the importance of making charts to conjugate verbs. From my ninth grade Spanish teacher, I took the importance of repeating the same vocabulary over and over again in class for memorization. From my tenth grade Spanish teacher, I learned games and drills to make language learning fun. From my sophomore Arabic professor, I learned the importance of balancing speaking, reading, writing, and listening. This last one has perhaps been the most important. In fact, most of the course that I’ve taught has been pretty much a copy of my Arabic course, just inversed. We do a lot of the same drills, homework, and in class exercises. For vocabulary, I’ve even been printing out vocab sheets that our Arabic profs made us that have English and Arabic side by side (thanks profs!). It works out great, especially since the sheets have words I had to learn in order to learn about life in the Middle East. Just as I learned “mosque, minaret, politics, international relations, invasion, refugee, occupation” in Arabic, the guys are looking at my same vocab sheets in reverse, so that they can tell me about their lives in English.

I realize now just how lucky I’ve been to have had teachers who knew what they were doing. They’ve all put a lot more thought into teaching than I have, and they’ve figured out things that worked. I still have a lot to learn about teaching, but I already feel pretty indebted to all the teachers I’ve had who’ve taught me how to teach.

As of our last class, the guys can talk about themselves, their backgrounds, their families, and talk about what they want and need. They can talk about finding a job, they can describe people, and they can have basic friendly conversations. It’s all very rough, and most of the guys are pretty shy so it’s hard to get them to speak a lot in English, but I realize that this all takes time. They can understand a lot more English than they did before, and their writing has improved a lot too. Last night, one of the students typed up his C.V. in English and I helped him edit it. It was the first tangible product of our work and it was pretty encouraging. I wish that I could stay here and do this for a longer period of time.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important thing. Laughter. We spend a lot of time each class laughing. We laugh at my lousy Arabic, my lousy explanations of English (“Every English sentence needs a verb. Except when it has two. Or one and a half!”) the guys’ English (“I have four fathers!”), each other, and mostly, the ridiculousness of the English language. Apparently, if you’re not a native English speaker, the word “water bottle” might be the funniest word on the face of the earth. Say it a few times. It is a pretty silly word.

Water bottle. hmmm…


Also, in other news, we’ve been taking some fun trips on the weekends. Last weekend was Haifa, this time, we’re off to Tel Aviv for a music festival. Stay tuned for pics of beaches and stories of life on the other side.

Posted in Inspire Dreams 2011 | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Magic School Bus – Palestinian Style

I’ve been here for a little over two weeks, I’ve posted some reflections,  and I’ve put up some pictures, but you may be wondering just what I’m up to over here. What kind of ‘work’ am I doing in this community? What does ‘helping with summer programs’ mean?

We came here to do to things:

1. Help with the activities of the local community center.
2. Run our own week-long summer camp program in three refugee camps.

Our summer camp program is for older kids, who are still in school, so right now, we’re focusing on the first one. Which right now, means helping them run a two week long summer camp for younger kids. There are about 25 kids, ages 4-12, and except for one who has lived in the States, none of them speak any English.

So for now, here’s a day in the life of a volunteer.

Every morning, at 9:00 AM, the four of us volunteers show up at the center, bright and happy and energetic and excited to meet the day (of course we never, NEVER show up bleary eyed and grumpy), and we meet the kids. Usually, by the time we arrive, they’re already tearing around the room at full speed, so we like to begin with exercises. We take them outside and we stretch, we do jumping jacks, and we play a great game where I play the guitar, they dance, and every time I stop, they have to stop. It’s like musical chairs, minus the chairs. And you know what? It never get’s old.

After that, we head inside for some activities that are fun and educational. Well, we try for both at least. We usually do different activities every day, repeating the ones that go well, and a few of the local volunteers at the center help us out. Some activities, like learning origami, have been a little bit over the heads of the five year olds. Some, like reading a story book about Afghan refugees, have inspired good discussion and helped the kids to talk about issues that they face in their own lives. We’ve done arts and crafts, singing (my personal favorite), and acting workshops.

Some activities, like playing duck-duck goose, have been a lot more about laughing than about learning hard skills. But who’s to say that both aren’t important?

Every day we have a quick break when we volunteers go buy Felafels, and the kids take their money and buy chips, soda, and ice cream from the store. I worry a bit about these kids’ health. They don’t eat particularly balanced meals, and they certainly don’t take care of their teeth. It’s really sad to see, but a couple of kids’ baby teeth are literally rotting out of their mouths. Yes, we are planning a dental health workshop. While fresh fruits and vegetables are available throughout the camp, junk food is even more plentiful. It’s sad to see that here, it’s cheaper to buy a can of soda than a bottle of water. (The bad habits have been rubbing off on me too; I’ve been averaging 2-3 chocolate wafer bars a day.)

While most families eat more balanced meals at home, the food that’s available at restaurants is also not very health-friendly. There are three restaurants in the camp that make felafels (fried in oil), one that makes kebabs (covered in grease), and one more expensive place that sells fried chicken and fries.

In addition to the poor diet and the bad health practices, smoking is a little out of hand too. Around the camp, a lot of kids start smoking around 12-14 years old. An eight year old asked me if I smoke, and I responded by telling him it’s bad for him. But why, he wanted to know, do his uncles each smoke a pack a day?

Back at the center, we resume our activities in the afternoon, usually doing arts and crafts or relay races or story time until 1:00 PM, when the kids go home. After that, we begin planning activities for the next day.

We then get much needed rest, socialize with people in the center of the camp, and prepare for our nightly English classes. I and another volunteer are teaching c a class of 8 men in their late twenties who are just beginning to learn English. These classes have been my favorite part of my work here, and they have been the most visibly productive and rewarding. I’ll write a post about this later.

At the end of the day, we go back to our house, socialize with whoever is in the mood to come over and smoke, and finalize our preparations for the next day.

Sometimes, when all the kids are yelling and running around, the work can feel like glorified babysitting. Actually, scratch the ‘glorified’. Sometimes it just feels like we’re watching people’s kids for free. If that’s the case, why can’t any of the hundreds of young unemployed men in the camp do the same thing? This is a big question I ask myself. After all, I paid good money for a plane ticket, and I sacrificed two months of potential work to do this. Is it worth it?

There are two ways that I’ve been working all of this out in my head. First, I believe that our work is more than just babysitting. While we might not be teaching hard skills as efficiently as a school, there are other important things to teach. We’re working hard to teach the kids basic social skills like listening to each other, showing respect, settling fights without hitting, following directions, and paying attention. By introducing them to new things, like origami, we’re helping them learn to be open to new and unfamiliar things. Of course, all of these things take time, but I think that every little bit helps. Even in the short time that we’ve been with these kids, I’ve seen a big reduction in the number of times each day the boys are violent with each other. A lot of the girls who wouldn’t talk the first day have come out of their shells and begun to speak out loudly (quite loudly), and altogether, I think the kids have grown a lot in their interactions with one another.

Of course, there’s still the question of why I had to come from the U.S. to do all this. Well, one reason is because it shows the kids that someone cares about them. While the West Bank is isolated to begin with, the refugee camps here are even more isolated. Even other Palestinians in the West Bank are prejudiced against people in the camps, and view them as dangerous ghettos filled with lazy people and thieves. The people here in the camp know that they are near the bottom of the global food chain. It’s an important symbolic action then, when people come from far away to care about the community. No, it’s not about trying to be Angelina Jolie and wanting to take pictures with cute kids for Facebook. It’s about living here in the camp, among the people, and trying to live alongside them in a community. Sitting in the same cafes, dodging the same cars in the same unpaved streets, and dealing with the same power outages and water shortages as everyone else. For kids and adults, it lets them know that we care what they’re going through, and we care about their situation. And I think that that’s important.

There’s three ways that people here get to know Americans. The first way is through Israel. When people here see the uniformed soldiers who humiliate them at checkpoints and kill their sons, they think of America footing Israel’s expense bill. I’ve been told more than once that America has 52 states, with Israel being the last one. (I’m not sure what they think is our 51st.) When people here see guns, bombs, and armored cars, they see America. The second way that people see America is on T.V. And most of that programming, for some absurd reason, is the World Wrestling Entertainment. The most well known American figure here in the camp, and throughout Palestine, is pro-wrestler John Cena. The third way that people in the camp know America is by the Americans who have been here. And, from the conversations that I’ve heard, the real presence of concerned Americans here has helped (most) people to make the distinction between the American people and the American government. I don’t mean to inflate my role as a cultural ambassador, but I think that every little interaction helps.

Finally, I am doing some things that people here can’t do, such as teach English, and later on when we do our own programming, I’ll be a lot more useful. We’ll be doing a youth leadership program and other workshops for older kids, and I expect that then I’ll be able to share some of the skills that I’ve acquired through my education. We shall see.


In my off time, I’ve been taking some time to see the surroundings. Two days ago, I went to the famous Apricot Festival in the neighboring town of Jiffna. What I thought would be a small town party turned out to be a massive three day affair featuring guest musicians, arts and crafts from around the West Bank, and a special visit by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The word for apricots in Arabic is “mishmish”. I think that my favorite part of the festival was hearing crowds of people talking and dignitaries giving formal speeches all about the “mishmish”. It’s a fantastic word. Say it aloud and see for yourself.

Yesterday, a few of us took a day trip to Jerusalem. We spent a day wandering around the Old City and hit up the top rated holy sites / tourist attractions, including the Western Wall, the base of the Temple Mount (we couldn’t go up since it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer), the Church of the Holy Sepluchre (built on the sites where Jesus’ passion was played out), and the Mount of Olives. We visited a church on the Mount of Olives, and while we were sitting in a pew looking around, we fell asleep. (For anyone who doesn’t get the Biblical irony of this, look up Matthew 26:36-44.)

Jerusalem is an interesting place. It’s old. It’s really sacred to a lot of people. It’s the focal point of a lot of prayers, and the focal point of a lot of hatred. Jerusalem is a very interesting place. I can’t wait to get back.

Posted in Inspire Dreams 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments