Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On the Other Side of the Wall

"You were in Jordan? Jordan is trash, King Abdullah is trash! Egypt is trashier, and Syria is even worse!" said Abdullah as he lounged against the 5 meter wall of graffiti covered concrete. "Lebanon is alright, but only because they support Hezbullah."

I point to the wall behind him which is being constructed illegally by Israel (according to the International Court of Justice, because it crosses the Green Line), "That's trash."

"This? No, this is good. This means that they're finished."

I had this conversation in Arabic about a week ago as I was traveling from Ramallah to Jerusalem (only a 30 minute trip) through a checkpoint in Israel's West-Bank Barrier. Abdullah went on to list all of the heroes he had which included Hezbullah (written above his head on the left), Hamas, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida. And although most Israelis and Americans would be scared of a youth with such role-models, Abdullah was a really nice guy, and his opinions make sense given his situation.

Besides his support of everyone on the US's list of terrorist organizations, what struck me most about the conversation was the blunt acceptance of reality that his opinion about the wall portrayed. I wrote a research paper about the economic effects of this barrier for a class this spring, and I must say I'm not a big fan of the way that Israel has constructed it, although the case for some sort of border fence may be legitimate. However, for someone who has grown up in the West Bank and had to live in "the world's biggest prison" (as a bit of graffiti on the wall put it), I suppose that it is logical that you would put up with one last injustice if it means that your enemy is finally going to stop advancing and leave you alone.

The wall may be a land grab, but if a just solution can actually come from it, then maybe it is in fact a better step than separate peaces. I don't really agree with Abdullah, but it has been awesome just being here and being able to talk to people like him who you meet on the street. His view isn't representative of anyone in particular, but that is his opinion, and one that is rarely heard in the media.

Also, it is a view that I would be completely unable to hear if I didn't speak Arabic. So that has been a really amazing part of my 7 months here, being able to communicate with people who just two years ago were completely beyond my ability to interact with beyond pantomime and the occasional "Hello, how are you?" I still have a heck of a long way to go with my Arabic, but it is enough to get my point across, and that can go a heck of a long way.

Well, my next post should be about the rest of my trip on the other side of the barrier. Don't worry, much more to come - pictures, stories, and hopefully a video soon. Right now I'm saying goodbye to Amman, and I'll be back home just in time for Christmas, so I hope to see everyone in Chapel Hill soon! (and to any SIT people who may be reading this, I miss you guys and hope you all have a great break before jumping back into school back in the States, or wherever you are).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Checking in from Jerusalem

Quick post while I use up a bit of internet before trekking through the old city for a while. My study abroad program ended yesterday with a beautiful, rushed, and bitter-sweet farewell as people said goodbye and prepared to scatter all around the Middle East before we trickle back home to the states over the next few weeks. For many of the people from the program, it will probably be the last time I see them (at least for a long time), but I'm looking forward to catching up with a handful back in the US (Bonaroo '10?) and wherever our adventures take us in the future (Paris?).

For myself, I will be in Israel and the West Bank for the next 2 weeks, exploring holy sites around Jerusalem, checking out the night life in Tel Aviv, hopefully finding some live music, and hiking a bit in the Golan Heights.

My trip here was like any border crossing in the Middle East, made wonderfully difficult by the strong regional tensions. I took off with a group to try to cross the King Hussein Bridge which is the quickest route to Jerusalem from Amman. Unfortunately, it being the Sabbath, it was closed by noon. So, quick 3 hour detour to the northern border! Here I was held for 2 hours while the others went on. They questioned me extensively about my travel in Lebanon and Syria and my stay in Jordan, and even wanted to see what I was writing in my journal.

Finally, I made it through and continued on to Jerusalem. I met Libi, a wonderfully energetic Israeli girl on my first bus, and we made the transfer to Tel Aviv together. She shared her mango with me that she found on a "foraging trip" this weekend. She is about to start her national service work this week, helping new immigrants adapt to Israel. She declined military service because she is religiously orthodox (and a vegan). I looked incredulous and she pointed out the skirt that she was wearing over her jeans and the red checkered kuffiyah that she wore like a bandanna covering her head.

We sat on a bus for a couple hours surrounded by young Israeli men and women wearing military dress and many of them toting pretty heavy duty weapons. We laughed and sang and they tried to teach me military songs in Hebrew which I didn't really pick up easily. Libi tried the best she could to translate for me since she spoke more English than most of the others.

A strange bond united these young Israelis as we sat together in the back of this crowded bus. For most, they had never met before, but interacted like long time friends. And only a few times did difficult political questions come up:

"Do you love the Israeli army?" asked one man, dressed in civilian clothing.

"I don't love any army," I responded.

He thought for a minute, then looked at me again. "I was in Gaza last year."

I didn't quite know what to say, I smile and nodded. The conversation moved on.

They always say it is important to see an issue from both sides. After 6 months in Jordan, this is my chance to do that, and I'm really interested to see how that goes. My first experience with Israelis was a really good one, but it is definitely difficult to talk politics here, even for someone of a fairly moderate perspective.

Alright, back to the old city for a bit, and the 24/7 prayer house that I found which overlooks the city wall!