by Dina Heisler and Susan Nobel
PEOPLE around the world and across time crave similar things. They want the chance to raise their families within a peaceful and fair environment, one that affords a decent quality of life without fear of one’s fellow man. This was the main takeaway from our voyage into another world: Middle Eastern, Muslim, working class, rural, and “occupied.”
We visited a family on the West Bank/Palestine through a connection with their oldest son who now lives in Jordan. Our goal was to learn Palestinian cooking. We also hoped to absorb as much as we could about Palestinian life within their small village near Tulkarem, which is located just over the pre-1967 Green Line border. The impressions we formed are just that — impressions. They were shaped through discussions with our host family, their neighbors, and an American peace activist living in Palestine with her Palestinian husband and children, and via encounters with Israeli IDF soldiers, displaced Palestinians living in Jordan, and Susan’s American niece who has relocated to Israel.
When we first crossed the border checkpoint from Israel, Ahmad, his wife, Salma, who served as our translator, and their neighbor, Muhammad, bundled us into a Jeep that refused to start. They called upon another friend who picked us up in his car, and by the time we had visited and exited the Tulkarem Archaeological Museum, the Jeep had been fixed. We continued on to their home where we received a loving welcome, and no one looked back on this incident. This experience provided a telling metaphor for the hardships Palestinians face and their resilience in rising above them, and it became a theme throughout our five-day stay: The unexpected happens, friends and family are usually on hand to help, and people move forward without dwelling upon their misfortunes.
The Al Zeebades are an extended family who occupy the same large house in separate apartments. They often cook together, help raise each other’s children, communally entertain neighboring relatives and friends, find solace in their religion, and take great pride in their land. They were originally from an area near Netanya, a coastal city now inside Israel, but their grandparents fled during the violence of 1948.
They have a yearning for their homeland, which they cannot visit without a permit from Israel (and permits aren’t easy to come by) until they are older — age 50 for women and 55 for men. Even then, it’s not always possible. Ameena, the family matriarch, age 66, attempted to go on a tour, but her bus was turned away at the checkpoint. She told us that no explanation was given. She plans to try another time. Ahmad and Salma lovingly named their children after their places of family origin: Jaffa and Besan (known in Israel as Beit She’an). They told us this expresses not only their deep sense of loss, but also a hope to one day visit and/or repatriate with their homeland.
THE FIRST DAY we arrived, Ahmad demonstrated how he prepares chicken for the grill. In the years before he was arrested, he worked in a restaurant and learned to cook. Five years ago, he was caught up in the Intifada and sent to an Israeli prison. As Ahmad explained it, a philanthropist had asked him to deliver money to the poor. However, at his trial he was accused of threatening Israel’s security by supporting saboteurs. He was sentenced to two years in jail. This happened three months after his wedding to Salma, who subsequently miscarried their first child.
While a prisoner’s mother is given visitation rights (and even these are sometimes revoked), Ahmad’s wife was allowed to visit only once, and letters from the family were forbidden. The only way that the family could communicate to Ahmad was through announcements on the prison radio station. He told us that while he was there, the prisoners were fed largely carbohydrates, with one piece of fruit and a vegetable every month. The family was finally able to secure his release by paying a 10,000-shekel fine (approximately 2,800 U.S. dollars).
During his two-year incarceration he went on a hunger strike, and spent sixty days in solitary confinement, locked in an unlit cell with no ventilation, alternating hot and cold temperatures, and no room to move. He couldn’t tell day from night. As a result, Ahmad now suffers from PTSD, chronic asthma, and possible pulmonary disease. He is not allowed to travel outside the West Bank for at least the next five years. The travel restriction means that he has not been able to receive a definitive diagnosis and treatment.
We heard that some forty percent of Palestinian men have had some brush with the Israeli military court system and spent time in prison. Countless others have been shot and killed. Their pictures and names (along with innumerable images of Arafat) have been memorialized throughout the West Bank — on public monuments as well as via more spontaneous graffiti. Next to the Al Zeebade home, a cousin’s wife runs a kindergarten. She explained to us that over half the fifty children in her care have lost a parent, either to prison or to death.
ALONG THE WAY, we experienced a rich array of Palestinian food. We cooked various dishes: Manakish — large loaves of flat taboon bread with various toppings; Maqluba — basmati rice, fried chicken, potatoes, eggplant, and stuffed grape leaves; Alemassachan — another chicken dish served with a pizza-like doughy Arab bread soaked in olive oil; and Musakhan — chicken with onions and pine nuts over taboon bread. We also made olive oil soap, a long and hand-intensive process.
We joked with our hosts, enjoyed the antics of a pair of two-year-old cousins, and learned about the Al Zeebades’ lives. Our meals were served on a communal platter along with bowls of yogurt and Arab bread, and at each meal, we were seated either on a couch-like cushion around a low table or in plastic chairs on the terrace. We ate with our hands, scooping food with the bread. We were continually exhorted to eat more. Ameena helped us along by giving us the choicest morsels from her own plate, which she often lovingly placed directly in our mouths.
Whenever we visited others or entertained with the family at home, beautiful bowls of fruit, trays of cookies or homemade cake, juice and mint tea instantly appeared. We sat in living rooms, perched on heavily-upholstered furniture, the curtained windows dramatically swathed in lace and satin. Plastic flowers, along with precious keepsakes, adorned the walls. In this desert landscape, where water is at a premium, fresh flowers are rare. However, during the winter rainy season, Ameena will plant her vegetable garden. She also harvests olives from her orchard, either to soak in brine as a condiment or for squeezing as olive oil.
Ameena pointed with pride to her well-stocked larder and a refrigerator bursting with meat, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. She told us that if the IDF suddenly announces a curfew, she and her family won’t starve. However, this won’t help if their water and electricity are turned off. This happens from time to time in Palestine as a way to apply collective punishment.
OUR HOSTS TOOK US to visit various locales, including a famous mosque in Hebron and the ancient Bethlehem church that sits atop the manger where Jesus was said to have been born. They took us to the Nablus shouk (open-air market), where we had a chance to taste the celebrated sweet knafeh, a cheesy, syrupy pastry, and on visits with Ahmad’s married sisters in Tulkarem. And they gave us the opportunity to meet and chat with an American-born peace activist married to a Palestinian.
The activist, her husband, and children have established an educational center in Tulkarem. The classes they offer Palestinians include English language acquisition, nutrition, CPR, cooking, a book club, and other skill-building workshops. These classes are all free. Both organizations seek to promote dialogue and, hopefully, trust between Israelis and Palestinians.
The current debate within the Palestinian community is between “normalization” (creating pathways towards mutual Arab-Jewish understanding as a vehicle for peace) vs. “resistance” (complete independence by any means necessary). This peace activist feels that while the current situation is a stalemate, extremist violence doesn’t solve anything. The only solution open, she says, is to educate the Israeli public. During our stay in Palestine, we didn’t get an opportunity to discuss other points of view on this issue. However, we did see the Newsweek article whose headline read in block letters, “ISRAEL DOESN’T WANT PEACE WITH THE PALESTINIANS, JOHN KERRY SAYS.”
On our last day with the family, Ahmad and Salma, along with their three-month-old baby and their family friend Abdel, took us on a daylong journey through the West Bank. It was the first time that this couple had visited these landmark sites. Along the way, Salma pointed out various Israeli checkpoints, Israeli soldier stations, and illegal settlements. The settlements were well-built structures with state-of-the-art housing and all-inclusive community services. The peace activist we spoke with told us that not all settlers are messianic fundamentalist Zionists. Housing, water, and electricity in the settlements are offered to Israeli Jews at low or no cost. They are also offered jobs. Clearly, this offer is very enticing, even to those without ideological motivation.
ALL THE SOLDIERS carry submachine guns and some are dressed in full riot gear. Cars are randomly stopped for inspection. There are numerous roadblocks/checkpoints to protect the settlers, and settlements keep expanding. One of the peace activist’s daughters was returning home by car and was stopped at the Za’atara checkpoint (near Nablus) by the soldiers. She saw the soldiers shoot inside the car in front of her. The activist’s other daughter was stopped near the settlement of Einav, east of Tulkarem. Settlers attacked the people inside the cars and her daughter returned home with her face all scratched up.
A Palestinian salesman friend of the peace activist was stopped at a checkpoint by the IDF. They searched him and had him lie facedown on the ground. Then they let him go. He had a feeling that something was wrong and stopped before the next checkpoint. Searching through his car, he found a knife in the glove compartment that didn’t belong to him and threw it away. At the following checkpoint, soldiers stopped him and searched his car again. They were puzzled because they never found what the friend was certain was a planted knife.
During our trip around the West Bank, we were stopped at one checkpoint and soldiers peered into the car with great suspicion. However, when our driver, Abdel, explained that we were visiting from New York, their grimaces turned to smiles. They bade us, “Have a nice day.” Our hosts were overcome with surprise and delight. They’d never experienced this type of treatment before. The stakes are very high for Ahmad since he’s been in prison and is always in danger of being rearrested for any infraction.
Towards evening, on our way to Ramallah, Ahmad had a severe asthma attack. He was moaning, gasping for air, and couldn’t talk. Ahmad had forgotten to take his inhaler. Abdel immediately exited the highway and frantically asked at various shops and with passersby for directions to the nearest hospital. No one could help us. Finally, in a panic, he drove up to an Israeli IDF station. Abdel and Salma explained the situation to the group of soldiers and pleaded for help. Initially, the soldiers appeared sympathetic, but asked that Abdel and Salma speak with their commander.
When the commander came down to the car to check for himself, he attempted to interrogate Ahmad. Dina explained that Ahmad was having an attack and couldn’t answer. The commander then announced to us and his men in English, “I don’t believe him! Do you think that I’m a donkey? Do you think that I’m stupid?” He began writing out an exorbitant fine for Abdel, waved his rifle, and said he was going to arrest “them”. It was clear that the commander was becoming more and more nervous and hostile.
Susan assured the commander that we knew he wasn’t “stupid,” and begged him to help us. Dina joined in. Finally, the commander angrily told us to drive on, but never directed us to the emergency medical clinic which, as it turned out, was only fifteen minutes away. We were left with the clear impression that if we Americans hadn’t been in the car, the outcome might have been devastating.
THIS INCIDENT drove home the points made by a neighboring cousin, Sa’eed, who holds an important position within Tulkarem’s Department of Education. He explained how the occupation’s checkpoints affect employment and the West Bank educational system. In Tulkarem alone, there are currently 4,000 unemployed, fully-licensed teachers. They can’t travel for work outside their home district because of the checkpoints. If stopped, they could easily be harassed, delayed on their way to work or, even worse, arrested or killed. Another challenge Sa’eed personally faces is his artificially depressed wage. He told me that while he earns 1,000 shekels a month, someone doing an equivalent job in Israel earns 6,000. Overall, purchasing power for Palestinians is low compared to that of Israelis, with the per capita GDP in Israel being more than eight times higher than that in the occupied territories.
Despite these difficulties, Sa’eed proudly described the place education holds in Palestinian society. “We import ideas from everywhere,” he said. Teachers have traveled to Germany and the United States to learn new methods. A Dubai-based organization held a competition for best teacher in the Middle East. The contest was won by a female Palestinian teacher. Sa’eed concluded, “We don’t have land, water, or petrol. Education is our only road towards self-realization.”
In a visit to an amusement park, zoo, and picnic area sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Salma carted in an elaborate rice dish with chicken, yogurt, and vegetables. Wandering through a dilapidated zoo, we came across an exhibit on Palestinian history. One installation was of a water well. The accompanying sign explained that Palestinian water is now being siphoned off from aquifers by the Israeli settlers. The predictable result is that crops and orchards dry up and then the “uncultivated” land is claimed by settlers along with the water. Salma said that this happened three weeks ago to Ameena’s brother, Ibrahim, a farmer. His olive trees have all dried up. Ibrahim is now trying to protest, but with little success. Israelis control all water rights in the landlocked West Bank.
Another exhibit held a fifteen-foot-tall stuffed mother giraffe and her baby. The sign read that Israeli soldiers at one point came into the zoo and chased the pregnant mother giraffe, and the baby was born while the mother was dying. Shortly afterwards, the baby died, too.
EVERYWHERE WE WENT, the people we met shared their love of all people and hope for peace. When they learned that we were Jewish, they were amazed and heartened. In the church crypt at Bethlehem, Salma, when asked, proudly announced, as she and Dina stood arm in arm, that she and Dina were Muslim and Jewish.
At the same time, the Palestinians are understandably angered by the occupation’s injustice. As the peace activist said, “You can’t have one country inside another.” One of her daughters, a university student, wrote a paper comparing the Palestinian situation to Olympic medals. The gold is Israel; the silver is the wealthy Palestinian businessmen who have VIP permits to enter Israel and control the laws in the autonomous sections of the West Bank; the bronze is the Palestinian Authority which is corrupt, inept, and seen as a puppet government; and at the bottom, without a medal, are the Palestinian people. However, wrote the activist’s daughter, they are the strongest and most resilient. The hope is that they will eventually overcome all these hardships.
Dina Heisler was the founding principal of Pablo Neruda Academy in the Bronx.
Susan Nobel is a psychotherapist in private practice.
Both believe that homestay travel offers unique opportunities for dialogue and friendship across boundaries.