Thursday, November 29, 2007

Marty Federman's 2007 Visit Journal - Entry # 5

Marty Federman, the co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, is traveling in Israel and the West Bank. On his trips, he always keeps a journal of what he sees as well as his observations. I have asked for his permission to post each entry on this blog and he gave his approval.

Journal Entry #5
Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007 – Sitting in a Café in Beit Sahour 2:00 p.m.

I’m sitting in a lovely restaurant on the road from Beit Sahour to Bethlehem, having just had a falafel sandwich and waiting to be picked up by SJ.

When the Cambridge delegation left I packed and waited for SJ who called a taxi to take us to Beit Sahour where I settled into The Arab Women’s Union Guesthouse, a lovely guest house/environmental center. It’s a multi-floor building with rooms on (I think) two floors and on the top floor and roof they are planning a center to focus on local environmental concerns. The woman who got me settled is from Utrecht and has been here for a year employed part time at a couple of NGO’s and working on fixing the guest house up. It is quite nice, extremely clean, with what seems to be all three-bed rooms but, apparently they’ve just starting taking guests so there are only a couple of people on the second floor – and me! I have a room of my own on the first floor right next to the bathroom where, this morning I took a wonderful hot shower – not something you can always expect in hostels and “guest house” – certainly not this inexpensive.

After a quick breakfast of pita and (French!) cheese I started out into Beit Sahour. After walking for a while a van stopped and the driver asked me where I was going. I tried to explain to him that I was just walking, but could he tell me where I could get a plug adapter (the one i have is buried somewhere in my suitcase). It took a while for me to explain what it was that I was looking for and finally he told me “I will take you there.” As soon as I got in I had the feeling that this was not just a nice local person offering me a ride but one of the many kinds of taxis that one sees here. And, when he stopped to talk to a woman on the side of the road it was clear that he knew neither what it was that I needed or how to get to where I could get one. The very nice woman – who spoke English well – understood immediately what I was looking for and directed the driver (in Arabic, of course). We arrived a few minutes later at an area with many kinds of stores and the driver managed to telegraph to me whether this is where i wanted to be. Having no idea if it was, but not wanting to ride around endlessly, I said it would be OK, got out and asked how much. Now, I have to say that my experience with taxi drivers here has taught me never to get into a taxi without being clear on how much the fare will be or at least how it will be calculated. Consequently, I was stunned – but not a bit surprised! – when he asked for $10. For a second I thought he said NIS10 (NIS=New Israeli Shekels), but realized that he had definitely said dollars – a fact that was confirmed when he helped me make the currency conversion by repeating “$10, 40 shekels.” I’ve begun to get an idea of what cab rides cost around here and I don’t think I’ve been in one yet that charged more than 15 perhaps 20 shekels – and that includes taking three or four of us quite some distance between Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and/or Beit Jallah. And this ride was, at most, a mile or two. I wanted to tell him how this kind of thievery is what feeds into all the stereotypes foreigners have about Palestinians/Arabs/etc., and didn’t he know how he was hurting his people and undermining the tourist trade around Bethlehem and what about the “we’re all brothers” stuff that everyone tells us, and . . . . but my better judgment – and total Arabic illiteracy – made me think better of my harangue and I was able to convey to him that I was not about to pay more than 10 shekels – which he finally took with a mild sense of annoyance.

Once back on my feet I went into a mobile phone store which did not carry adapters but knew where there was an electrical/hardware store a little way down the street. This led me into a wonderful few hours of walking and exploring Beit Sahour. When I saw the Orthodox Church I realized that I was in the only place I had really been in Beit Sahour the last time I was here, right near where the Rapprochement Center and ISM used to be (they have since moved). I spent my time walking, taking photos and speaking briefly to people I passed. Eventually I had circled back to where my explorations had begun and saw the office of the Alternative Tourism Group. I went in to see what they had and what they had that was of greatest interest was a couple of what appeared at that point to be extremely comfortable chairs, so I took off my jacket, sat down and began leafing through what seems to be a wonderful book by Rifat Odeh Kassis, “Palestine, A Bleeding Wound.” Kassis is apparently a Palestinian who is an international human rights activist who has been involved in many conflicts around the world including Checnya, Bosnia and, of course, Palestine. He now diects a commission of the UN in Geneva. I read a few pages and would very much like to recommend it – it’s a compilation of his earlier essays and writings plus some new material, all put together last year, so it’s pretty up to date. The only problem is that the books doesn’t seem to be available outside of Palestine. I may come back at some point to buy a copy but I’m hesitant to take $20 out of my tight budget and either not get it out with me or have to pay to ship it. In any case, while I was reading and catching my breath, JM, who runs the ATG came out to the waiting area – he is the person who spoke to us when we at the Badil building last week. We had an interesting one-to-one which shed some light on some of the other organizations I’d like to connect with, and made me think of a couple of people who should know, if they don’t already, about what the ATG is doing.

The absolute highlight of my walk, though, was meeting a group of high schoolers from the Lutheran School. As I was heading in the direction that JM told me I could find an internet café I saw a group of typical teenagers doing the typical thing teenagers do: hangin out. I asked them if I could take their picture and, immediately, the girls began to laugh nervously and run away while the boys all mugged like the macho guys they are and jockeyed for the best position in the picture. With a little encouragement they all (including the giggling girls) lined up together so that I could get a picture. After I showed them the shot on my camera screen we began talking. They all attend the Lutheran School just down the street, claim to like school a lot and asked me lots of questions about where I was from and how I like being in Palestine. One thing that struck me was that there were girls there, unlike at the American School where we were told that by high school they only had boys since the culture is such that people don’t see the need to educate their daughters that far – and yet here were two girls out of the five I was talking to, both of whom, when asked what they planned to do when the graduated immediately said that they were going on to college, probably Bethlehem University but possibly Bir Zeit.. Interestingly, when I asked them what they thought of the kids that are going to the American School they immediately made faces as if I had suddenly stuck a not-so-fresh fish in front of them. The clearly have little patience for kids that they see somehow the elite kids.

SJ just came in and I have to go, will pick up later.

Walking through Beit Sahour I am again powerfully reminded that is not some sort of Disney World created for the enjoyment of tourists, pilgrims and marginally engaged visitors. Manger Square in Bethlehem is, despite the significant absence of tourists now, continues to have a sense of not quite reality. As one moves out in any direction, and the hotels begin to thin, one begins to interact with a totally different world. Here people are mostly oblivious to Americans and Europeans who want only to see the Church of the Nativity and experience what the Bureau of Tourism presents as “authentic” Palestinian life (and, especially, souvenirs). They are busy with the work of living a normal life – home, work (for those who have it), schools, living. There are far fewer restaurants as you get away from the tourist centers, and they are smaller, simpler and cheaper. On the other hand, there are more little groceries, produce and spice shops, selling the staples that people need for everyday life. And, in place of stores selling (mostly tacky, occasionally exquisite) olivewood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs one sees shops selling all the wares needed for kitchen, bath and home. I was taken by the number of brightly colored plastic objects I saw as I walked – from house wares to furniture. The people I passed were friendly, and anyone I asked for directions went out of their way to help get to where I was going – but the main activity here is in living – daily, ongoing, real-life living.

11:30 p.m. – Back at the Arab Women’s Union guest House

I’m tired and my feet hurt as if I had run the Boston Marathon – but it’s only a factor of the hills, hills that make some of the streets in San Francisco look like a slight incline.

After lunch SJ picked me up with GR, one of the GRs (GNR & GSR) that I spent the rest of the day with – an incredibly intense learning experience. The first thing we spoke about was Bob and Maurine Tobin who, not surprisingly, they think are the best people they know, and then we talked about the work they are each doing and the many people we know in common. I was totally taken off guard when GNR remembered my name (I introduced myself as “Marty” and he asked “Marty Federman!”) and that I was with him when we took him and NG to speak with Alan Berger at the Globe and Barney Frank in 2002. And then, when we got to their offices, GSR remembered meeting me when I was traveling with ISM in 2003! (Maybe that has something to do with why I was stopped, searched and interrogated for two hours coming into Israel!)
In any case, I took copious notes, especially relative to things I will have to follow up on after returning to the U.S., but here I will only mention some of the key things we discussed.

GNR is the Executive Director of PCR, The Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement Between People. Their main focus now is on developing a media project whose mission is to disseminate news and information about the situation in Palestine to and through as many media outlets as they possibly can. It’s interesting the GNR said specifically that they do not claim to be objective, they only claim to be “fair and accurate.” They have five reporters working in the West Bank and two in Gaza, reporting in Arabic so that everything has to be translated in order to send on to U.S. outlets. GNR explained the difficulty with translating not only “words” but the sense of what they are reporting since the original Arabic is written for a Palestinian audience so they have to be sensitive to the nuances that will get the accurate story across to an English-speaking readers/listeners. They intend to get into audio and video broadcasting but logistics and, especially funding is, as always, a challenge. The goal is to project what GNR calls “two lines:” first the suffering and hardship that Palestinians endure as a result of the Occupation and secondly, the real life of Palestinians, i.e., culture, economics, daily life, etc. Funding comes primarily from individual donors rather than the Palestinian Authority, the U.N., or other NGO’s, something that they value extremely highly as a way to keep their independence and avoid being co-opted for any else’s agenda.
GSR is the founder and Coordinator of Siraj, the Center for Holy Land Studies which runs one and two month programs teaching Arabic, taking participants on political and eco-tours (hiking, biking and environmental tours). I asked about their connection, if any, with the Alternative Tourism Group and GSR said they basically have none – their vision is different. “Tourism isn’t static” he tells me, therefore they do not have packaged, one size fits all tours – everything they do is customized for each group based on their needs and interests – but all of what they do is geared towards having people explore the situation in Palestine and see what is “happening on the ground.” A key, even paramount issue in GSR’s view is that whatever is done is done from the ground up and must be administered by Palestinians, not (even well-meaning) foreigners. It’s time, he believes, to cut the ties to colonialist mentality and create a grassroots, Palestinian movement and leadership.

When we leave the Rapprochement Center SJ takes me to meet the director of the cultural center at the Al Assa (?) refugee camp, the third and smallest of the three camps in the Bethlehem area (approximately 1500 people). The director is delayed so we don’t get to meet with him, but I have an opportunity to see their library, computer room and some of the materials available for various classes, workshops and programs. Music/instrumental lessons are apparently one of the main activities and I see a number of violins and sheaves of music (notated in Arabic) in the camp office. Siince it is already dark it is difficult to identify very much, but my impression is that this is the poorest and least well kept of the camps I’ve seen (but this night-time sense may not be a fair assessment).

Say what you will – this ain’t the Lower East Side

An unexpected image re-emerges as we are walking back out of the camp and I hear a woman shouting from an upstairs window – an image that has darted through my head in other camps. There is a sense in these camps that is reminiscent in some odd way of my images of the tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when tens of thousands of Jews were packed into the limited space of Houston, Hester and Delancey streets. Fading memories for we second-generation Jews were enhanced by Molly Picon and others on radio and early TV, visions of mothers on the upper floors shouting (usually in Yiddish) for their children, playing in the narrow streets and running between pushcarts, to come home for supper. The images in some ways conjure up in me a kind of bonding with these people whose words I don’t even understand, a sense of the common experiences of peoples separated by time and place. I must, however, pull myself out of the warmth of this second- and third-hand nostalgia and remind myself of the reality of the profound differences in these two experiences. Despite the yearnings of having left a sense of community in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Jews of the Lower East Side had no real attachment to the places they had left and had always been, in varying degrees, strangers. (I once asked my father if he had ever thought of visiting the town in Czechoslovakia where he was born and I remember the bemused, quizzical look that said “Are you kidding? Why would i want to do that?”) Many of the people in these camps – we are told these stories frequently – continue to keep in treasured place, the keys to houses that mostly no longer even exist, in villages that have been razed and barely committed to the world’s memory. With all the hardships of tenement living, my father’s generation, thanks to the combination of their parents’ hopes and persistence and the (often limited, but ultimately existent) opportunities available to them, was able to lift itself out of the cramped apartments and streets of places like the Lower East Side and become, in the course of one or two generations, a vibrant, productive – and now powerful – part of American Society. I grew up with endless stories of the energy in the cafeteria of City College and the $17 a week salaries of first jobs, different stepping stones to an economically viable life in the New World. The myth of America as the “Goldene Medina” (The Golden Land) was destroyed in the difficult conditions of the tenements, but was replaced by a new reality that held a sense of hope and opportunity for the future. Without discounting the tremendous influence of caring parents and families that strive for the best possible future for their children, after four decades of life in the camps the options and opportunities here (and, to only a relative difference outside the camps) are incredibly limiting. The children who aspire to go to college are inspiring, but undermined by their limited experience of the outside world and the overwhelming restrictions imposed on them in every way. Over time my parents’ generation (not without tremendous effort) found there way to Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and “The Island,” (or Brookline, Newton, Stoughton and the North Shore – or the comparable new communities around Chicago, LA, St. Louis, Montreal, etc., etc.). Where can the children of the refugee camps go, especially as even the place that surrounds them is being squeezed as if a belt were tightening around it? While we moved into a larger, eventually accepting if not always inviting society and culture, these perpetual prisoners have little place to expand, something that is reflected in the way in which housing, especially in the camps, grows vertically, with additions put on top of dwellings that they can never own but strive to make their own. How long before they abandon the keys for locks that no longer exist and leave them behind with their dreams of a better life for their children in a place that once really was their home? A generation or two later some of us children of the Jews of Ellis Island retain (probably overly nostalgic) memories of our parents’ and grandparents’ life in a place of pushcarts, pickles, pumpernickel and people – what will the children and grandchildren of the refugee camps remember – or will they still be there?

One thing that is obvious – and not substantially different from the other camps – is that the main street into and through the camp is the only playground children have. They run and play in groups, large and small, and are obviously quite oblivious to there being any other place or way of playing. Without knowing virtually any Arabic of course I don’t understand what they are saying and shouting, but they call out hearty “hellos” as I pass and they respond with bemused giggling when I reply with my (probably incorrectly pronounced) “maharbah” (Arabic for hello). As we walk towards the main entrance/exit of the camp I am taken, as I always am, by the energy and apparent happiness of these children, confined in this compact place that is surrounded by a larger, marginally freer prison outside the camp. I can only marvel at their resilience and wonder what the effects of living in this place will have over time.

The day ended in Al Hadr, another village at the edge of Bethlehem where SJ lives with his family.

He lives in a very lovely apartment in a building apparently owned by his family and it was filled with his mother, sisters and sisters-in-laws. We had a nice supper in the living room (rice and lentils, two different forms of yoghurt – which I passed on – home-grown olives and a fresh-baked form of pita). As we were beginning to eat, SJ’s uncle who went to school in Louisiana and has been living in Houston, came in and the three of us sat and talked for a couple of hours. I got a great deal of information – and observations – about the struggle here in Palestine and the people/leaders/groups involved. I was also aware that, even in the home of this pretty radical grassroots activist the women clearly take a background place.

No comments: