As usual, I am a little behind on the updates. Yet although things are happening, what I am looking forward to is the future and for that reason I often forget to go back and document the past. At the end of May, I wrapped up my life in Damascus and headed off again. I enjoyed my time in Damascus, maybe more than any other place in the Middle East. As a place to live it is great, as a place to learn Arabic it is the best, as a place to just soak in culture, you cant get any better. Damascus is an ancient city, meaning that it bears the scares of ancient times, which we now look on in awe and wonder. As well as recent and current scars, which we contemplate and discuss on a political level. For thousands of years governments and armies have come in to change this city, to leave their mark. They destroy buildings, they build buildings, they make laws, they break laws. They come in like a whirlwind only to be sucked up by the city itself. Damascus is an entity and no matter the size of the government or army, or the physical change that may appear, Damascus will absorb them. They bend and flex, morphing into what Damascus has always been. It is the people who bear the burden of these governments and armies, they live in the houses that have been built and destroyed, they face the laws. But it is also the people, who feel most what Damascus is, who are born with a pride in their city that is difficult to find elsewhere. Damascus is Damascus, and no matter how hard Western media or our government will try to make it look like a place of darkness and evil, Damascus will survive and continue to be the ancient city it has always been, with all its charm and mystery, for thousands of years past and thousands of years to come.
This past week I took a trip. Last time I “crossed the river,” referring to the Jordan River, was last summer. I had time off between sessions and wanted to check it out. Because I didn’t have much time I went to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv only. I had a blast. It was my first time in Israel and I loved it. Tel Aviv is a city designed for youth, it is San Diego, Santa Barbara and the Mediterranean all mashed into one. Having been in conservative, hot and stuffy Amman summer, the beach and bathing suit was a refreshing relief. It was like a mini spring break. Jerusalem was also amazing. To be in Jerusalem was mind blowing, to see all the history, to see the contemporary tension, to listen to the sounds and voices of the people. It is a city that never stops talking, where as Damascus is an ancient city that only just whispers to you, Jerusalem screams, it yells at the top of her lungs and then hushes down to sing you a soft song. Its existence is a dichotomy, whether religion or people or language, an existence that is at times flaming and others peacefully coexisting. The point of the trip was just to get out of Jordan for a couple days, which I did. I saw Israel and had a great time. But I felt that I had missed out on a large portion of the land. I knew that I would have to come back and see the occupied territories of Palestine. I finally got that chance last week. There was the opportunity to attend the Chartering Ceremony of the Ramallah Rotary Club, which of course I took. (and will write about in a bit.) I went to Jerusalem first and spent my birthday half in Jerusalem half in Tel Aviv. We did those two cities again because they are amazing and fun, respectively. Then we went to Palestine. The whole land of Israel and Palestine is beautiful, from the coast to the mountains. Rock covered hills lined with olive trees flowing down into valleys with ancient villages lined by thousand year old stone fences. The whole region is stunning.
As a preemptive measure I want to explain something before I go on to describe only a little of what I saw. First of all I am sad at the politics and ignorance of all sides on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, that force me to censor and adjust what I say depending on an audience. This issue is full of prejudgments and accusations; it leads people to fiery emotions and irrationality. I want to stay away from that. But I do have to say that what I have observed is that the narratives of both sides have distorted a reality and stifle any possibility to reach a solution. Neutral or unbiased does not exist in this issue (at least in the minds of those involved) I know this because when I am being honest about what I think I am always thought to be on the other side, no matter what side it is. The narratives make productive discussion almost impossible, and make a neutral argument fall on the side of bias, and an extreme argument fall on what is falsely considered by one side or the other to be the best option. We visited Ramallah, Taybeh, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron. All amazing and beautiful places. In Ramallah we attended the Chartering Ceremony of the first Palestinian Rotary Club since the founding of Israel. There were mixed Jewish and Arab clubs existing in Jaffa-Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but after 1948 those clubs created a separate district, which the Palestinian clubs refused to join. Rotarians in Ramallah have been trying to charter a club that will be joined with the multi country region (which includes all the Arab States) of 2450 for the past 15 years and were finally successful. It was a great ceremony and very exciting to see the seed of Rotary being planted somewhere that will see great benefit from it. The Rotary International President (which has the awkward acronym of RIP) John Kenney was there to present the charter, making the ceremony that much more special. I am excited at the prospects of Rotary in the West Bank and look forward to the possibility of returning in the future. One thing that interests me very much is getting other students involved in Rotary programs. Apart from the actual experience I get the most enjoyment out of telling other people about what is offered and giving them the opportunity as was given to me. This is just a thought for the future, but for a post-grad experience I was thinking about coming back to Ramallah and promoting the Ambassadorial Scholarship to youth there. Setting up a program to inform Palestinians about what is offered and help with the application process. I feel that participation in Rotary and its programs can be one of many paths to peace, and having both Palestinian and Israeli Ambassadorial Scholars possibly interacting and working together could one step closer to achieving that peace.
The next stop we hit was Taybeh. A friend had told me that the Taybeh Brewery was a must see, the only commercial brewery in Palestine, and definitely somewhere you don’t wont to miss. The drive to Taybeh was the first place I really saw the settlements; they crown the hills with large big-city suburb-looking houses, as well as guard towers and large fences. We saw the roads normally taken to Taybeh that had been closed do to settlements. It is a strange juxtaposition to see the bright and new Settler houses and roads as compared to those of the Palestinians. When we finally got to Taybeh Beer, we were met by Maria. Maria is the wife of David Khoury, owner of Taybeh Beer. Maria is a Greek from Boston who gave us a great tour of the small but top-notch brewery. Taybeh beer is not only good, but also a strong symbol for non-violent resistance in the region. Maria and her husband came back to her husbands’ hometown after the Oslo Accords thinking that there would be a chance for peace. Since then they have realized that economic empowerment and improvement is the strongest form of resistance. Being a small town with 50% unemployment, and Taybeh Beer being the only company with permission to export, the company tries to include many local products as well. Business has become difficult with the building of the wall, and the restricted roads and commercial checkpoints. As well as water being severely restricted due to the building of a nearby settlement. But Taybeh is chugging along and holds an annual Oktoberfest to try and involve the community in a festival of not only beer, but for a large portion who don’t drink, a celebration of music and culture. From there we headed north to spend the night in Nablus. A beautiful town with a winding old souk (market) wrapping through the old city, Nablus is quite and calm, with a beautiful view from the hills above. We also a hotel employee, whose wife was one of the activists on the flotilla heading to Gaza. When we were checking out of the hotel he received a call from the British Consul (she’s a native Brit) and they were trying to figure out if she would be banned from coming to Israel and Palestine for life. She had been denied entry into the country for the last 5 years. Our next stop was Bethlehem. We went through beautiful rocky hills, but the beauty was always juxtaposed with the occupation. (To restate what I said before, that is not a political statement). We were stopped at one of the checkpoints and after seeing our American passports, they said, “oh you’re on our side, go ahead!” The strange part for me was the different perspectives. Firstly the Palestinian cab driver, he is viewing the soldiers as the authority. They have the power of permission as well as punishment, both of which have been exercised. Then the soldiers, who look like a bunch of kids my age, goofing around, laughing, and then us, the Americans, caught awkwardly in the middle. Nothing happened, it was routine, normal, but nonetheless an experience. We took the roads around Jerusalem, following the wall to Bethlehem. Settlements line the hills, and the more interesting part, because it was so noticeable, were the circles. Every once in a while we would come up on a circle or roundabout. Except this roundabout was guarded by Israeli soldiers, sometimes checking ID’s sometimes not. There were also Jewish settlers sitting at bus stops on the round about. Again an interesting comparison, seeing teenagers who look like they belonged in some American suburb surrounded by trucks with big guns and soldiers. Two of the most interesting places we saw, which I’m not going to go into to much detail right now because I’m not in the mood, where Bethlehem and Hebron. In Bethlehem we saw the enormity of the wall and how it imposes itself onto the population. Surrounding houses on three sides, cutting streets in half, we even saw a gas station that had lost the street it was connected to, so if anyone was filling up there car, no one could continue down the “street.”
Hebron was even more mind blowing. It was the first settlement I saw within a city. Not only was half of the city Jewish settlers, but the settlers lived in the second stories of the buildings, then the Israeli army would come in and close the shops underneath due to “security.” There were also chain link coverings over the streets and markets to stop the settlers from throwing down bricks and trash on the Palestinians. The presence of the Israeli army watch-towers and bases on the roofs also gave a disconcerting feeling, a feeling of being constantly observed was overbearing; although it must be noted that the Israeli army not only protects the Settlers from the Palestinians but also protects the Palestinians from the Settlers. On the way back to Jerusalem from Hebron we took a shared cab with Israeli license plates so that we could get back into Jerusalem. (There are Palestinian plates, green, and Israeli, yellow, which are the only ones allowed into Israel.) Since we were in a car with Israeli plates we were allowed on the Israeli roads, but when we got to a check point outside of Bethlehem, we were stopped. After being yelled at for a minute or two by the Israeli soldier, the driver turned around and took us back to a point where we could grab a cab to take the Palestinian roads. We had been rejected. What I was told is that foreigners are not allowed on the road but that the rule is almost always overlooked. But because while looking at our American Passports the soldier saw first the one of a friend who is of Arab decent, he got upset. Our driver began to apologize to the soldier saying he didn’t know she was Arab. (the first half of the conversation was in Hebrew but than another soldier came over and the conversation switched to Arabic, our driver as well as everyone in the car was Palestinian but with Blue ID’s allowing pass into Israel.) We where then taken to a cab which took us along the wall to a point where we could pass through a crossing that looked akin to a prison, void of people. Once we crossed and were out of the West Bank, we took a bus to Jerusalem with no problems. What strikes me most about the situation is how beautiful and fun Israel is, how much it looks like Europe or the States, as compared to the West Bank, which is just economically deprived and militarily controlled. In cities like Ramallah and Nablus you can enjoy yourself and almost think you are in Amman or any other part of the Middle East. But once you try to go between cities or get near to the wall, everything changes. You are constantly reminded that there is someone else in control.
I didn’t want to write about this. I am fed up with the ferocity of rebuttal and response that is always felt necessary by all sides whenever anything is said. I want not to start a debate or even an online discussion (more than happy to talk about it in person) I feel this is not the medium for that. But, as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, I also feel it is my duty to relay to others what it is I have seen in the Middle East, my experiences, my feelings and my thoughts. The same way I discuss with people I meet here about where I am from, and what America is like. I’ve written about a small portion of what I saw and how I felt because this has been a part of my Ambassadorial Duty. Yes I know that my scholarship period is over, but I feel that acting as an Ambassador is always something I will strive to do. Visiting the West Bank has hardened my belief in universal human rights, as well as the holistic nature of approaching them. To often does one come to defend their own rights, and infringe upon others in the process, or even worse, they refuse to understand another human beings plea for these same universal rights. This is not a stab at the parties in this issue but a universal phenomena. We as human beings, over and over again, have pursued our own liberation, freedom and rights, but when it comes time to sacrifice something or help in another’s pursuit, we find it very very difficult to understand, let alone do. Let us stay on the moral pedestal we have placed ourselves on, let us not make hypocrisy the most fitting definition for our actions. As human beings we should understand another’s suffering, whether it was in the past or current. Our solutions should not be aimed at retribution or sole gain, it should be aimed at the greater good of the people and societies, all of them, not just one. Cooperation is coexistence, and to work together toward helping each other is taking one step closer to a solution.