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.

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