Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Today I Saw Israel: No Smoking? No problem.

Israel recently passed a law that bans smoking indoors. It is a law that is making its way across the “civilized” world, it was inevitable that it would find its way to the Holy Land. I was in Be’er Sheva last weekend, a small (the fourth largest city in Israel, but far from anything substantial by American standards), college town in the heart of the Negev. I was visiting a friend. We went to a bar and within minutes of being inside, everyone that I was with had lit a cigarette. There were signs on the walls that said no smoking, but no one was bothering them. I looked around the bar and everyone was smoking. As my friends finished up their smokes and looked around for an ashtray, we realized that there were none. That is Israel. All that the smoking ban had done was to remove the ashtrays from the bar. So they threw their butts on the floor and continued with their night.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Teaching Kids English

I’m sitting in the office at the Ahali Center for Community Development the other day and Sobhi, one of my supervisors, calls me in.

“Maysoon is on the phone for you.”

“Uhhh, who’s Maysoon?” I ask.

“She’s the wife of one of our board members.”

Oh shit, I think. In the States, Board members are usually rich, powerful, and not to be ignored. “What should I do?”

“Pick up!”

“This is Nick”

“Hi, Nike” (some people mispronounce my name. They spell it Nike and say it Nyke. Rhymes with bike. It turns out that in Arabic, something that sounds like "Nick" means "Go f***." So Nick can't be my name.) “This is Maysoon. The last intern – his name is Seth – he talks to my children. Just talks. English. So, will you talk with them? Teach them English?”

“Uhhhh . . . “ and I cover the phone and ask Sobhi, “What should I do?” Sobhi just raises his shoulders, as if to say 'I don’t know.'

“Suurreee” I say with a question mark added on the last e.
“OK. We’ll see you tomorrow at five.”

So I guess you will


Well, I am now teaching a group of six boys, ages 9-14, English. And you know what? It’s a piece of cake! Twice a week Maysoon brings the boys (and two of the boys’ adorable younger sister) into the office. And we just talk.

I have set up some games – A rock, paper, scissors tournament, Hangman, and word searches – and they play them. If we’re not playing, we’re just talking. (I am also trying to introduce them to a diverse set of American and English music. Yesterday was a rotation between “Sgt. Pepper” and “Thriller.” Next time I will play "Pet Sounds" and "The Velvet Underground and Nico).


All of the boys are amazing well behaved. They treat me with a level of respect and interest that I would never have given me had I been their age and in their position. I keep think they are going to TP my house, or something.

Their English is mixed. Their vocabulary is very limited, but their grammar and pronunciation is spot on. I actually feel like they are getting better.


What does their behavior and manners say about Arab youth in Israel? I’m not sure. They could be outliers, though I have not yet met a truly rude kid here. Either way, they are certainly a pleasure to teach.


Oddly, there has only been one man hung in hangman. They managed to guess “Barack Obama,” “New York City,” “Brazil,” and “Jazz.” What word did they miss? “Hummus.”

Very strange.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shoulder to Shoulder at the Check-Point

Today I went with my boss, Aref, to Jenin, a town in the northern part of the West Bank, to meet an associate of his and talk to him about various projects our organization is doing at the local level. Once we drove out of Ramallah, we came under Israeli jurisdiction, which meant a large IDF presence and many check-points. We passed through four en route to Jenin, where we arrived in the early afternoon. It was a normal Palestinian town with homes and stores sprawled across the mountainous landscape. We met up with Aref's friend, who invited us into his house, where I met his wife and later his grand-daughter. While I was there, I was offered three rounds of drinks. First, a fruit-juice drink, then coffeee, and then tea after lunch. Their conversation was entirely in Arabic, some of which I was able to make out. The hard task of putting the sentences together quickly while they're talking is what keeps me from grasping main ideas. But, I think as long as a continue to listen to native speakers have detailed discussions, I'll be increasingly able to pick up what's being said.

When 1 o'clock rolled around, his wife served lunch, which was a delicious, home-made meal. This is what I mean when I rant and rave about Arab hospitality. I was a complete stranger, but welcomed into her home without reservation. The man's wife (I didn't catch her name) wore the hijab and looked like someone who had worked hard, manual labor her entire life. Sweat filled the creases in her forehead and her hands were hard and cracked. After lunch, their grand-daughter came out to be with them. I have never seen a more beautiful little girl. At only three years old, she lit up the room and continued to distract me from my attempts to understand the conversation. She stared at me in wonderment, like she'd never seen someone that looked like me before. Maybe it was because I was someone new in the house, but I'm convinced that part was because she'd never seen a white person before, which is understandable especially at age three. As I was looking at her, I wondered what her future held for her. Would she stay in Jenin? Woud she go to college at a place like Bir Zeit? How would she perceive Israelis and Jews? Would true peace materialize in her lifetime or would she live her life under occupation? How will seeing armed soldiers on a daily basis affect her mentally? How is her generation going to deal with issues in the future? She was so innocent and untainted by the problems Palestinians face daily. She is not yet old enough to comprehend the situation, but I wonder how her life will change when she begins to understand what is really going on. I fear that her innocence will inevitably be chipped away by life in an active conflict zone. I imagine that's how everyone starts out; as innocent children whose outlooks are shaped by their outside environment. Innocence is lost as the external environment molds personality and reality kicks in.

On the way back to Ramallah, our car broke down as we slowed to stop at the first checkpoint. Steam billowed out from under the hood as the IDF soldiers on duty directed us to pull-over. My first thought was "at least we're stuck here where we can use a phone in case ours was out of service." Aref didn't share that sentiment. For him, this was the absolute worst place to be stranded. We had to figure out what was wrong with his car in the shadow of three soldiers armed to the teeth. In his mind, they had complete control over our actions. I could tell he was very nervous and wanted only to get to the next Palestinian town and seek help. But he couldn't. After he poured all the water he had in his car into the radiator (I think it was the radiator) he asked the soldiers if he could use some water. No dice. When the cars passing through the check-point realized he needed water, one by one they handed him full bottles of water. He got five or six bottles of water from generous souls who saw he was in need and wanted to help. As he walked down the line filling his arms with liters of water, I stood back in awe. While it wasn't on par with paying his medical bills, I was stunned. It was a tremendous show of Arab solidarity in the face of IDF obstruction. Although this was a relatively small act, I give this moment significant symbolic importance. Help from his Palestinian brothers released him from his predicament. Back in the car, he told me how amazed he was by what had just happened. I'm glad I wasn't the only one.

On the Way to Work

We are now into the third week of our stay in Ramallah. I think most of us here have gotten ourselves situated and have acclimated very well to life here in Palestine. Together, we've found the local grocery store, good places to buy fresh produce, and have tried many of the local restaurants and bars that this side of the city has to offer. We've gotten to be a pretty tight group, partly because we are all in the same boat here and also because I think we're all pretty compatible. There are disagreements and concerns in any group-living situation, and those have been resolved as they've come. I think all of us appreciate the support group we've formed for each other here. Not to sound too koom-bayah-ish, but we look out for each other. I think the "Ramallah group" is known within our larger group as the one that really lucked out with the living situation and is located in a part of Palestine that actually has a night-life.

We've hosted our fellow students here every weekend, and sometimes during the week depending on the circumstances. So, not only have we solidified as a group here, but we've also been lucky enough to have others came and hang out. At this point we could pretty much be tour guides for some parts of Ramallah because we've been exposed to so much of it. Although I'm sure if you asked a West Banker how much he thought we knew the area, he'd probably laugh and say "very little." Which is probably true, but I can embellish. I think I probably know a sizeable percentage of the taxi-drivers in this city. I take one to and from work everyday, and they're always different. I even had the taxi driver who drove us to the Jimmy Carter event wave to me today from his car as he saw me standing from the sidewalk across the street. Maybe I made an impression? I think it was probably because I was a. American and b. spoke some Arabic. Apparently that's a rare find in these parts. I've learned a lot just in my daily taxi rides and trying to understand the local Arabic that the Palestinians are speaking, which is a lot different than the Modern Arabic I learned in school. Thanks a lot, Virginia Tech. So I can read some newspaper articles and understand Al-Jazeera if they speak slowly, but it's all Greek to me when its colloquial Palestinian Arabic. Great, so I know that Obama spoke in Cairo but not how to get back home after work. I'm exagerrating, but you get the point.

So, my route usually consists of passing through the old city of Ramallah, which I not sure how old it actually is, but it's up there I think. It's almost like a maze of old city ruins glittered with various markets and stores. On the other side are San-Francisco-esque hills that feel like a steep waterslide on the way down. Looking out the window, you can see the rolling hills of the West Bank dotted with clusters of villages and minarets that reach into the sky. Last night, a few of us walked up to a look-out point where we could see the sun set behind the clouds and into the Mediterranean Sea. It was an incredible sight, and we think we might have seen tall Tel Aviv buildings in the distance. I'm still not sure whether it was actually Tel Aviv, but I think it's certainly possible.

Anyway, sometimes I ask the cab-driver small questions like whether he grew up in Ramallah and try to develop a conversation from there, which often leads to stories of stolen land and displacement. Many have told me that their family owned land with deeds issued by the Ottoman Empire and keys to homes that were either destroyed or taken over during the 1948 War. My strategy is to bring up a related subject and have them volunteer the information, in case the subject is too sensitive to discuss. I find it good to have some degree of tact in a foreign land, but most of the time the people here are more than willing to dicuss their opinions and tell they're stories. Many are also very curious to hear my take on what's going on. Last night, I met a man who asked what I was doing here, and then asked what I thought about the situation here. It's pretty clear to me that many Palestinians are curious about outside perspectives regarding the conflict. Maybe this is a result of a lack of exposure to the outside world, since most Palestinians are barred from leaving the territories. Either way, I think that Palestinians here are just as interested about other perspectives as we are eager to hear their take on the issues.

Internship Essay

My weekdays in Ramallah have been spent working for an organization called Al-Marsad, which is the Arab World Democracy and Election Monitor. It is a non-partisan, nongovernmental organization, which conducts electoral observations and issues reports surrounding the advance of democracy in the Middle East. Its mission is the promotion and advancement of democracy in the Middle East, with special attention on capacity building of governmental institutions both on the local and national level in Palestine. In coordination with other international organizations, it dispatches observers to different countries to monitor elections, such as in Lebanon recently. I don’t think they were involved with the disputed Iranian elections. The organization has a wide reach throughout the world of international organizations, and often partners up with such organizations to conduct its projects. It’s located in a small office on the outskirts of the main city. It’s nearby Mahmoud Abbas’ Presidential Compound and many PLO/PA offices. So, when I’m taking my daily taxi to or from work, I pass by dozens of armed guards that line the streets of the city and serve as dignitary protection for high-level officials. I’ve often had to wait in traffic as a higher-up is traveling and the roads are blocked for 10-car convoys driving through the city.

So, this is the external environment of my internship, which is situated within the hub of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. You can look out an office window and see downtown Ramallah, and then look out a different window and see the rural, hilly areas of the West Bank. All of windows are open, which makes up for the lack of an AC in the building. Cigarette smoke fills the air. My boss, Aref Jaffal, probably smokes at least two packs a day. It’s one after another all day long. Luckily, my desk is separated from his office by a wall, so I’m essentially immune to direct inhalation. If that were not the case, I’m not sure what I would do. I’m almost unwilling to travel to other places with him because the smoking is constant, and wherever he goes, those he meets smoke just as much as he does. It’s incredible. But I go anyway for the experience and for the fact that he expects me to attend. I’ll just have to live with it.

Apart from the chain smoking, Aref has dedicated his life to the promotion of democracy in a region that seems resistant democratic development. His passion is working in Palestinian politics, and helping Palestine emerge as a true democracy in the wake of Arafat’s soft authoritarianism. The goal is for Palestine to become a democratic state once the occupation is lifted and Fateh and Hamas are able to resolve their issues. He has his work cut out for him, no question about it. Two women also work in the office, Watan and Layali, one of whom is pregnant, along with several project managers. A girl from Germany, who had been working there for the past year or so, just finished up and went back home. The small staff allows for a cohesive unit, where the lines of communication seem to flow with ease. Aref is easily accessible and, despite his busy schedule, is always willing to make time for questions and suggestions. The office is very casual and laid-back. Suits and ties are reserved for very special occasions. I get offers for tea or coffee several times a day, and whenever someone is out, they call in to ask what everyone wants for lunch.

In only two weeks, I have gotten a feel for the work of civil society in Palestine and how NGOs work with the government and other organizations. Al-Marsad in particular has one eye on the Middle East as a whole and the other on the situation in Palestine. So, as an intern, I am simultaneously looking at the situation in a broad and specific context, depending on the issues I am addressing. Right now, I am working on a report regarding the political advancement of women in Kuwait. This is a country that for decades has denied political rights to women, but has very recently given women full political rights and just this past May four women were elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament. The report will analyze how this unprecedented breakthrough actually happened and what it could mean for the regional as a whole. This research is part of the organization’s focus on Middle East democracy and the political empowerment of women, which is a huge issue. Researching and writing the first draft of this report has occupied a significant amount of my time at Al-Marsad thus far. Aref has conveyed to me that he places a very large emphasis on youth and women’s movements in the Middle East as they relate to democratic achievement. He plans on releasing a special report on the Iranian elections in the near future.

In addition to the report on Kuwait, I’ve been helping Aref with a proposal to the European Union for funding for an elections education program in the West Bank for the upcoming elections. The focus of the project is the political enfranchisement of Palestinian women and youth. The goal is educate Palestinians on the democratic process and to lobby for legislative change that would provide these targeted groups greater incentives to participate in the democratic process. When Aref handed me the proposal to look over, I realized how much work needed to be done for it to be taken seriously. I had to edit and rewrite substantial portions of the proposal in order for it to be coherent and grammatically sound. The entire introduction needed to be revamped while following sections needed attention in order for the final product to be adequate. This is only to say that English must be hard for non-native speakers and that I’m wondering if past proposals made it to some prominent international organization in a similar fashion. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does, but on my watch I had to bring it up to my standards. After all, I am going to be the one traveling to Jerusalem to submit the proposal, since Aref was unable to get a permit from Israel allowing him to cross the border and do this himself. This is someone who has traveled the world, is an expert in his field and a prominent member of Palestinian society, yet he is unable to leave the West Bank and travel to Jerusalem for a day. Now I am the go-between, and I’m glad I can help.

This internship could certainly serve as a launching pad for greater attention and focus on my part on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I could use the contacts and experience gained there as a basis for increased involvement in different aspects of the conflict, such as lobbying for the removal of settlements. As this is my first true exposure to the situation here, essentially everything that I am involved in here is a new experience. I have begun to scratch the surface of some of the sentiment in Palestine regarding the conflict and how NGOs fit into the broader context of Palestinian society. The NGOs here do very good work as they provide important services to the public, but the resistance to change is so great that I’m not sure if any of these organizations are engendering any lasting, sustainable change. While this might seem cynical, it’s hard for me to see how ground-level, grassroots activism is going to tear town the separation wall, evacuate the settlers, and bring border security to Israel. That it all has to come from the top is one conclusion I’ve reached so far. I’ve also come to realize that conclusions like these are a luxury here. Conclusions are elusive in Palestine, while the situation seems to remain in a temporary stage of limbo. The conclusion is somewhere in the future in a room of negotiators, who will iron out which demands are honored, which aren’t, and how each side will compromise to bring about the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state.

A Casual Military

It’s often claimed the Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East, and I imagine that’s true. This might not be apparent to those observe the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) throughout Israel. The IDF is omnipresent in Israel. Assault weapons are omnipresent in Israel. Almost everywhere you go, you see the IDF walking among civilians. The army is part of the public in Israel. Also, it appears the IDF conducts some training among the public. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in college with the ROTC living among the students. The only difference is that the cadets at Virginia Tech. The difference is that the ROTC cadets were disciplined and weren’t armed. The other day when we left the Holocaust Museum, we passed by a group of soldiers pointing their weapons into the woods. It looked like a drill. Just before that, we saw more soldiers walking, not marching, through the woods. It looked like an IDF field trip. No disrespect intended.

I’m assuming then that training occurs both in designated military zones and in non-military areas. However, I’m not sure that everything the IDF does in Israel can be considered training. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the IDF march anywhere. It’s always been a casual stroll of young adults, carrying what appear to be M-16s, who often appear to be joking or having fun. Many of these groups appear to consist of harmless kids who many Americans would expect to see in college classrooms. The casual nature of the IDF is both disconcerting and comforting at the same time. Disconcerting because these are kids joking around with assault rifles, but also comforting because they don’t appear to be in a constant state of alert. The IDF doesn’t appear to be on edge, so maybe that alleviates some of the stress that might often accompany a constant military presence. The casual nature of the IDF is thus a double-edged sword.


I’ve only spent a week in Ramallah, but I’ve been here long enough to notice a few things. When I tell people at home I’m living in the West Bank in the summer, I get the usual response of “what would possess you to go to such a dangerous place?” While that is a reasonable response from someone who has never been here before and who probably often equates Palestinians with Hamas militants, I haven’t felt any danger. The Palestinian Authority police and military are on every street corner in this city, largely in case Mahmoud Abbas is traveling and requires security on the way. The other day I saw what I think was Abbas, or another high-raking official in the PA, moving through the city. Much like other presidential convoys, there were several black SUVs flanked by marked Jeep Grand Cherokees and two ambulances. The entire road was clear on either end of the convoy. Like I was saying, life is Ramallah is much like life elsewhere, with some variations of course. The other night I saw kids playing on the playground with their parents at around mid-night. Not a care in the world. It’s refreshing to see that even under tough circumstances, kids are still swinging and playing soccer in the street. The only time I was a tad uncomfortable was when my cab driver had at picture of Saddam Hussein taped to his dashboard, but discomfort is expected anywhere you go.

The hospitality here is unbelievable. A request for directions often results in a personal guide to the destination. Some of us went out to dinner the other night, and the owner sat down at the table with us for at least 20 minutes. He wanted to personally welcome foreign students to his country and impart his wisdom. He even promised to take us into the Dome of the Rock someday. Yea right. Last week I went into a cell-phone store, which I visited previously, and half of the employees got up to come shake my hand and welcome me back. I was taken aback by their graciousness. Where else does this happen? The boss at my internship, who I’ve known for all of 5 days, treated me to dinner on Wednesday night. The staff at the Christmas Hotel was largely responsible for the ease in which I was able to get around in East Jerusalem. If they didn’t know the answer to a question, they would find somebody who did. Southern hospitality’s got nothing on Arab hospitality.

I don’t think there are speed limits in Ramallah. If there are, they are definitely not enforced. There are no stop signs, lines in the roads, and relatively few street signs that indicate where you actually are. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such a hard time giving directions here, since no one knows where they are. I’m joking of course. People drive as fast as they want, and often park on the sidewalk. I have to tell myself that they know what they’re doing, since they’ve lived here their whole lives and have grown up used to driving at high speeds through small, urban spaces. Honking is the predominant street-noise. Drivers are either too impatient to wait for someone taking their time or are trying to determine if a pedestrian needs a ride. One hand is one the wheel and the other is constantly on the horn. It never fails.

There is also a largely unfinished nature to the city. New buildings seem to be going up all the time, but none look to be close to completion. It’s like all these construction projects are just taking forever to finish or have been stalled in their tracks. It’s hard to tell. The external steps into my internship office appear to be brand new, and marble, but entire sections of the wall inside are missing and the bathrooms look like the construction workers walked off the job. Things from the outside look great, but things are falling apart on the inside. This is just something that I’ve noticed. I’m not sure if any of this means anything at all or are indicative of larger problems here. It’s really hard to say. But, I do see the enormous potential of this place. So many Palestinians are well-educated and have extensive international ties, often to the United States. If they were able to move freely, both within the West Bank and over international borders. I think Palestine would blossom. Connection with the global economy, and an increasing economic equality with Israel, would make Palestine competitive on the international scene and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Violence and stalled peace talks only delay the rejuvenation of Palestine, so leaders on both ends better get on the ball.