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Letter from Birzeit, #2: Welcome to Occupation

October 8, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Kitchen Adventures

August 28 img_0110I just made my first home-cooked meal using our funky little stove! We bought split red lentils, carrots, and onions, and I brought quinoa from home, and I added some salt and za’atar [a blend of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac] to the dish for some extra flavor. Today my roommates and I also spent a lot of time chatting with Shaadi, one of the co-owners of a photography store founded in the 1970s. It’s the only such store in all of Birzeit. He photographs weddings and engagements, mostly of Christian Palestinians because most Muslims would require a woman photographer. He said that weddings last three or four days and generally start in the afternoon and end at around 3am. Shaadi also showed us a bunch of his photographs, which are beautiful, and we tried our best to get him to speak to us in Arabic. We spoke about how colloquial is harder for us, while MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) is more difficult for people who grew up speaking 3aamiya [the colloquial], and we talked about how delicious food in Palestine is compared to food in the U.S. (he complained about Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Taco Bell and said he always cooked when he was there). He also recommended a restaurant for us to go to tonight and said that as long as we mentioned his name to Tony, we would get treated very well. img_0112Everyone else is just like Shaadi — incredibly welcoming and understanding of the fact that we are learning. When we buy things, most vendors throw in a little extra for free or give us a piece of candy or a snack. I like to think it’s because people are so nice and they’re excited to meet foreigners, but then again it might be because they’re flirting with my French roommate (that was definitely the case at the fruit and nut store last night). Either way, interacting with everyone is the highlight of every day, and of course it’s the best way to practice the dialect.

Welcome to Occupation

August 31 img_01361Today was the first day since I got here that I felt myself get truly angry. At around 3 pm, my roommates and a friend from the program went to Bil’in (بلعين) — if you don’t know the history of it, it’s extremely important. The recent documentary film Five Broken Cameras was filmed there, and there are weekly protests against the barrier wall that goes right through the town (here’s a clip from yesterday’s protest). Surrounding Bil’in is a massive settlement, each small section of which has 9,000 people. The homes are huge and lavish, and I’m fairly certain there’s at least one pool there. Between the settlement and Bil’in is the hideous and hateful wall, and on either side of the path next to the wall are several feet high of barbed wire. As we walked along the path to the edge of Bil’in, we noticed that the ground was littered with tear gas canisters and exploded sound bombs. (We were later told by a man named Mohammed that they were planning on using the empty canisters for planting flowers.) Between the wall, the enormous settlement, the barbed wire, the threatening signs, the olive trees burned by the IDF, the gas bombs, the hatred and meanness and dividedness was truly palpable. And then there was the intense smell. When we asked our cab driver (who was kind enough to walk around with us) what it was, he explained that the IDF would spray protestors with dirty bathroom water (literal translation). The smell was overpowering and it was all I could do to not run to the end of the path to escape it. But all I had to look forward to at the end of the path was the looming settlement, the wall, the actually paved road on the Israeli side, the dead olive trees, the barren land because the soil has been ruined. img_0133We spoke to several people there, men and women, and none of them came across as angry. It was unbelievable. There is a sort of sadness that hangs over everyone, though. Bil’in is at the top of a mountain and has the potential to be so beautiful, but it’s so hard to see it in that light given the circumstances. Still, the people were talking about constructing a park with money donated by the UNDP. Afterward, we tried to drive home to Birzeit, but the route back was not as easy and direct. First, our driver told us he needed to meet a friend somewhere because that friend owed him money, and for some reason our driver decided to meet his friend just meters away from a checkpoint (we were on the Israeli side). He parked his car and we were all standing outside to stretch our legs as we waited for his friend. img_0131After about five minutes of this, we noticed three or four men approaching us. We quickly realized they were members of the IDF, as they were in uniform and carrying massive guns in the ready position. Those guns are meant to intimidate, and boy, do they do that effectively. I will admit that I was terrified; I turned to the girls I was with and pretended to laugh about something that was obviously not a joke, but I could feel my heart pounding. Before we’d gotten in the taxi several hours earlier, I had asked everyone what our story should be if we got stopped by the IDF (I was not about to tell them that I was living in Palestine and studying Arabic at Birzeit University), but everyone just shrugged off my suggestion. In this moment, as the IDF soldiers approached, I was angry that I hadn’t pushed harder, because I knew they were about to ask us questions and I had no idea what to say. img_0127They approached us, asking what we were doing here and why we were in Israel, where we were staying, if we were going to cross the checkpoint to the other side. I was shaking inside to the point that I couldn’t even open my mouth with an excuse, but fortunately we were traveling with an older woman from the program who knew exactly how to remain calm and handle these guys — short sentences, and the less you say, the better. They walked around the car, looking inside and in the trunk, and at one point one of the soldiers raised his gun and aimed it at the ground next to us. I was simultaneously terrified and furious. How cowardly of them, to stand here and question us and raise their guns near us just to show their power, when they clearly couldn’t care less about who we are! They are not the courageous and powerful ones; the true courage is found in the people brave enough to participate in peaceful protests in demeaned and degraded villages such as Bil’in. img_01352After this, as we continued down the road, we had to stop again at the end of a string of cars because two IDF tanks had blocked the road. I have no idea why we were stopped, but I did see two of the soldiers just standing in the middle of the road, eating ice cream. My roommate turned to me and joked, “They could at least give us some of the ice cream!” Perhaps we are starting to develop the dark humor shared by all Palestinians I have met so far. Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.