Flowing With Milk and Honey

“I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place ofthe Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” Exodus 3:8

Young bedouin milking a goat near the family camp in Wadi el-Qelt

Beehives on a mountain behind the Palestinian village of Ein Sinya.

Land. What is it? In some places, like my country America, it’s a commodity, only worth as much as it can bring its owner. In other places, land ownership is a matter of personal pride. Sometimes, attachment to a plot of land can be deeply personal. Sometimes it can be ideological. It can be individual, or collective. The ways in which people relate to land can be infinite. But the land, unfortunately, is not.

In the last week, I’ve gotten to see a few more places and talk to a lot of people, and see the land from a few different perspectives. Each one has a little bit of truth, a little bit of falsehood, and a lot of reality.

Land As History
This one is probably the most obvious. Roots go deep here, and some places are valuable because they contain centuries of memories. Historical sites and artifacts date back thousands of years and aid people in their fabrication of national narratives. It gives people pride, in a sense, to know that the land that they tread on was once home to a golden civilization.

The ruins of Hisham’s Palace, built in the 7th century outside of Jericho, remind Muslims of a day and age when most of the Middle East was ruled by an Islamic Caliphate.

Remains of a Roman Aqueduct in Wadi al-Qelt remind people of foreign civilization that came, left its mark, and left.

Land as a Struggle

In my expert opinion as an experienced meteorologist and agriculturalist, I’d say that the climate and terrain in this area range from bearable to impossible. It doesn’t seem like much here is easy. A fellow intern and I just spent the weekend hiking through Wadi Qelt, a river valley that runs between Jerusalem and Jericho. I spent seven hours under the desert sun scrambling up rocks and into gullies and getting scratched and bruised, and by the end of the exhausting trek, I began to take some pride in the trail that I had conquered. If that was just a few hours, imagine a lifetime struggling against the land.

The Bedouin who live in Wadi el-Qelt scratch out a living herding goats near an oasis. Living a life that  is really not too far removed from that of his remote ancestors (without too much romanticizing), one Bedouin shepherd told me that he sells 20 goats each year for about $100 a piece. He also told me that he pays $500/ton of feed for them. I don’t really know how many tons a flock of goats can eat in a year, but I do have a lot of respect for a man who can feed a large family with such a large base income. He lives simply with his wife and children in a tent near a stream, and when I asked him if he’d lived there his whole life, he said, “Of course. I have all I need here. Water and free space.”

This land, geographically speaking, is not for the faint of heart. Living here requires toughness, tribal cohesion and stubbornness. It makes sense that people who feel that their ancestors have conquered the land and people who struggle against the land every day are not likely to be quick to let go of it.

Land as a Creation

The land here has shaped people, but they have shaped it too. Ever since the Israeli Declaration of Independence asserted in 1948 that pioneering Zionists “made the deserts bloom”, there has been a debate between Israelis and Palestinians about who were the first promoters of modern agriculture in Palestine. Such a debate tells us something about how much people on both sides of the border value their contributions to the land. They don’t just see it as a geological fact, they see it as their creation.

At this farm outside of Ein Sinya, young Palestinian boys pick squash. In both Israeli and Palestinian culture, it seems that there is an intrinsic value placed on working with the land.

This woman, whose family owns the fruit orchards behind her, takes pride in her family’s work. There is a local saying, according to her, that goes something like this: “Offer me the whole world, but I won’t give you a single apple from Palestine.”

Land as a Holy Place:

This is a crucial one, but a tough one. So far, I haven’t quite visited enough places to write about this. I know it’s important, so let’s make a point of returning to this one in a few weeks.

Land as a Symbol of Pride:

Two days ago, I visited Jericho with my fellow interns, and we saw the Tree of Zacchaeus, a site that holds significance for Christians. When Jesus was visiting the city, the story goes, a corrupt Jewish tax collector named Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better look at the Messiah, which resulted in a dinner invitation from Jesus, and later, salvation. Lonely Planet and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism both confirm that a certain tree a half a kilometer out of town is the sycamore tree of Gospel fame.

After seeing the tree and taking photos of it, I asked some locals why it was fenced in on a big plot of land. Apparently, the land that the tree is on is owned by Russia. For some reason, my first thought was one of indignation – what could those Russians want with my tree? Of course I calmed down and realized that it wasn’t my tree any more than anyone else’s, and that by ‘owning’ the tree the Russians weren’t bothering me or the tree at all. But I’ve tried to tuck that initial emotion away in my memory, because I know that it’s a smal example of a common emotion.

Land as a Common Challenge:

There are a few sad cases where environmental problems will force Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs to with each other.

One such example is the Dead Sea, which is fed by the Jordan River. Overdrawing of water from the river by adjacent countries has led the river to shrink drastically. Many expect that the river won’t exist at all in several years. As a result, the Dead Sea has also been shrinking rapidly. The environmental futures of Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, are all dependent on some sort of cooperation.

Land as Home:

It’s helpful, for me at least, to consider all these ways that people connect to their land. But it’s important to remember that these ideas are all different sides of the same coin (an expression which shows my skewed perception of mathematics and dimensions). For many people, the land has value that is economic, personal, historical, and so on, and the principles are so intertwined, they are impossible to separate.

There’s a reason why so many people here use the olive tree to symbolize the pride in their land. Think about it. Olive trees grow to be old, they are firmly rooted in the soil, they were planted by hard working ancestors, they persevere against difficult conditions, they are beautiful, they grown tall and proud, and most importantly, they never leave the spot where they were planted.

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Meeting, Greeting, and Eating

It’s night time, and Jalazone Camp is slowly going to sleep. Sitting on a roof at the top of the hill overlooking the camp, I look out on the buildings below as they turn off their lights, one by one. While I can only make out dim outlines of buildings, I can hear life in Jalazone continuing in the dark by the sounds that punctuate the silence. Behind me, sheep and goats bleat as their owner herds them into their stalls for the night and clangs the doors shut. Off to the right, some of the older men from Jalazone sit around the entrance to a store and converse in low monotones. Down the hill, pots and pans clatter as a woman cleans up from dinner, and across the road, it sounds like there are some children that aren’t thrilled with the prospect of bedtime. In one of the more affluent houses on the edge of the camp, someone is revving a small motor in his garage workshop. Now and again some of the dogs from across the camp converse with each other. A minute or two later, a few more dogs join in. If tonight is anything like last night, the cacophony of canine voices is going to make sleep hard to find. Doors slam, cars rattle down the gravel roads, and voices carry.

While Jalzone may be still, it is not at peace.

Jalazone is a refugee camp in the West Bank, established in 1949 for Palestinian refugees who fled their homes following the creation of Israel and subsequent war in 1948. There are over 19 refugee camps in the West Bank, built by UNRWA, that today house over 119,000. (Worldwide, the UN recognizes around 4.6 million Palestinian refugees.) For the most part, these camps are far worse off than the surrounding Palestinian villages in the West Bank; they are poorer, more cramped, less educated, have higher rates of unemployment, and perhaps worst of all, are socially isolated from their neighbors. According to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Jalazone’s affairs are administered by the Palestinian Authority, but its security falls under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Defense Forces. After 62 years in Jalazone, the residents continue to consider themselves refugees, waiting for the day when they will be able to return to their family homes on land now held by Israel. In the absence of any near-term solution to this refugee problem, however, residents of Jalazone have built their town knowing that they will likely live in it for a long time.

I arrived in the region four days ago, exhausted and bleary eyed after an overnight flight to Tel Aviv that went via Moscow. I managed, with a bit of difficulty, to make it into Israel after a long… discussion with the border guards, and I met one of my supervisors at the airport. We hopped a taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where I caught a few glimpses of the city before hopping another taxi to Ramallah. A small city of only 25,000 Ramllah is the major cultural, financial, and social hub of the West Bank, and luckily, it is quite close to Jalazone. A taxi ride later, we found ourselves in Jalazone, where we were kindly greeted by our hosts at the community center and were able to move into our apartment.

Al Minara square in the busiest section of Ramallah

Now, four days later, I feel settled. I’ve been joined by the three other student volunteers from Inspire Dreams, and we’ve spent our days walking around the camp, getting to know the locals, buying food for ourselves and not getting ripped off, and stopping to talk to the children on nearly every corner.

Most people here have been very welcoming to us so far. Of course, the men are a bit more discreet with their nods and winks, while the children are a lot more outgoing, but I’d hate to stereotype or generalize. So far, in my short time here, it seems [unsurprisingly] that people here are just like people anywhere else. Some of them seem thrilled to have us, some of them not less so. I’ve encountered nice people and rude people, some outgoing, and some shy. Some people here are rich, some people are poor. Some are educated, some are not. Some people go to prayer five times a day, some people drink beer on weekends. Some people, I think, do both. About 12,000 people live here in the camp, and I feel that there’s a good diversity among them. Hopefully, I’ll get to know a lot of them over the summer, and in doing so, get a better picture of the character of the camp.

Street in central Jalazone.

Grafitti on the streets of Jalazone.

For now, I’ll leave you with a few random first impressions of the camp.

  1. Felafel sandwiches are only 2 shekels. (45 US cents)
  2. There are a lot of twenty year old mercedes here, but there are also one or two brand new mercedes. I don’t understand.
  3. There are a lot of hair salons for men. I think later in the summer I’ll do a count of hair salons (spelled ‘saloon’ here) and calculate how many there are per capita. There are a lot.
  4. A lot of people I’ve met here don’t like the U.N. I am surprised.
  5. A lot of people I’ve met here don’t like Barak Obama. From what I hear, most don’t. I am surprised.
  6. Some of our hosts jokingly harassed us today for having a bottle of juice with Hebrew writing on it (meaning it was an Israeli product). We bought it in the camp though, so we asked them why people sold it in stores there. “Because there are some people who buy it,” was they’re response. Hmm..
  7. People often ask me my religion, and when I tell them Christian, they smile and say something like “It is okay. We have no problem between us.” Good to hear!
  8. The food here is fantastic.
  9. We haven’t been ripped off too much while shopping. Despite what Lonely Planet would have you believe, most people have been pretty fair to us. (With the exception of one egregious case where the shop owner told us the price of our goods without even looking in the bags to see what was in them.)
  10. The kids here (and the adults) feel pretty strongly about football. Today, some kids asked me what my favorite football team was, and I told them Barcelona, since I here that the reigning cup champion is usually the favorite around here. Later in the day, we ran across the same group of kids, and a little girl smiled and giggled and told me she wouldn’t talk to me because I liked Barcelona and she was a fan of Manchester United.
  11. People have been very kind in putting up with my sad attempts at Arabic. When I try speaking to people, I really do sound like a cross between a three year old and a Shakespearean performer, but people are very polite about it and together we’re able to accomplish what needs to get done. (“In truth good sir, have you… bottle.. water? Please? I… have… no no. I … need. it. Please.”) It seems like people appreciate the attempts. Also, our native speaking volunteers have been really helpful to us American volunteers in explaining, translating and teaching. Thanks girls!

In the coming week, we will be going more deeply into our work, planning our programs and getting to know the kids of the camp better. As I do some more interesting things, I’ll be sure to post some more stories and pictures that are more specific, less rambling, and hopefully interesting too.

Oh. There are some dogs down below. And some people. Calling their friends over. What is this building I’m up on? Is it okay to be on? I’d better climb down.


The apartment that we occupy sits on an upper floor of this house, nestled among

Our fine house on the edge of camp.

Living room / dining room of our apartment. It's furnishings might be humble, but it has wireless internet, so no complaints.

The bed where I'll be staying for the summer (on left).

Posted in Inspire Dreams 2011 | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Stepping Out

Yet there is another road in the road, and on and on.
So where are the questions taking me?
I am from here, I am from there, yet am neither here nor there.
I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee.
-Mahmoud Darwish

I think I am ready to go.

I’ve finished packing my small duffle bag and backpack, and I feel like I have everything a young man could need for two months in an unfamiliar world: jeans, tee shirts, camera, Arabic textbook, sunscreen, and copious amounts of deodorant. I should remember to pack my passport before I leave. I haven’t spent much time packing for this trip, because I’m expecting to live simply, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been preparing. I’ve been spending the last few months reading history, talking to people with travel experience, keeping current with the news, and making sure that I’ll be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead. I have the slightest premonition, though, that even with my textbook education, Palestine has some surprises in store.

I’ll be living and working in Jalazone refugee camp, in the West Bank, as an intern with Inspire Dreams, a small NGO that “provides academic, athletic, and arts-based education programs to Palestinian refugee youth”. I’ll be one of four volunteers picked to help the organization with its everyday operations. I’ll be helping to set up a summer camp, teaching classes, and running an educational workshop of my own design. I’m really excited to get to know the young people of the camp, which I hope won’t be too difficult across the language barrier.

(I’ve been studying Arabic for two years now at college, but the problem is that in a university course, students study Modern Standard Arabic, a highly structured version of the language that is used only used in very formal settings, like a BBC news report or a president’s speech in the Arab world. For common speech, every region of the Middle East has its own dialect, which can differ significantly from the Modern Standard. Thus, it’s going to be hard for me to understand. And when I try to speak Arabic, I’m expecting that my speech will be similar to that of a non English speaker trying to speak in Shakespearean prose.)

In my free time, I’m planning to travel throughout the West Bank and Israel. I’ll be keeping to a tight budget and a tight time schedule (which I can manage with cheap hostels and skimping on sleep), but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to see a lot of the land.

I’ll be sure to post photos up here of what I discover, and I’ll relate interesting stories I uncover. I’ll also use these posts to voice my thoughts about what I see. I realize that while I’m expecting to have fun, I’m not on a fun vacation. I’ll be walking on land where people having been shedding their fellow humans’ blood for decades. I realize that despite what my youthful idealism would have me believe, peace is not just around the corner. I’m sure that this land will be one that is fraught with contradictions and confusions, and as I sort them out, I’ll share them here.

Always feel free to leave feedback or criticism, and (for those of you who know me), stay in touch and tell me about your lives too!

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