Day 105: Volcanic Ash Cloud

April 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

I had felt that in some way I was tempting fate by naming my blog 99 Days. Sure enough, on Day 99, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland began to erupt, spreading ash across the flight paths of Europe. This is giving me extra time to catch up on a backlog of posts for this now inaccurately-titled blog. 117 Days is not very catchy, though, is it?

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Day 85: The Ramallah Elite

April 4, 2010 - Leave a Response

Thursday saw one of my rare nights out drinking in Ramallah, when me and my housemate discovered we were both free for the first time in two whole months. A new bar had opened with nibbles and minimalist décor. Despite the fact it’s not in the centre and doesn’t yet even have any signs up, giving you the feeling of just wandering into someone’s house, by the end of the night it was brimming with people. From journalists to activists, European NGO workers, Ramallah’s cool art-types and young women who looked fresh from the pages of fashion magazines – it seemed all sections of Ramallah’s small intense community were up to claim this new place as their own.

In Ramallah it is impossible to introduce anybody to anybody, as everybody already knows each other. My housemate knew my workmate, who both knew my friend, who all turned out to have lots of mutual friends, many of whom I’d already met. I think if I weren’t too antisocial and underfunded to go out here, it would quickly get pretty claustrophobic amongst the elite. I say the elite because, as diverse as this group of people might be, we are unified by sitting in a bar drinking 30-Shekel drinks (about £5.50/US$8).

Day 64-65: The Dead Sea

March 24, 2010 - Leave a Response

We decided to hitchhike. After a not-as-early-as-planned start, we got a bus from the centre to the outskirts of Jerusalem. I recognised the area as being where the bus from Ramallah passes through when it enters the city. We stopped in a layby to hitch, and we weren’t alone. We decided not to join the queue of religious-looking teenagers, who turned out to be at least mainly settlers. We instead waited further up near a couple of young women hitching apart from the crowd.

I had reservations about travelling in an Israeli car on an Israeli road through the West Bank to stop in an area of it which is almost entirely under Israeli control; that is to say, the Dead Sea. And sure enough, driving on those roads almost made it feel like like there was no Palestine. I can see how easy it could be for people in Israel to live in denial of its existence.

We waited a long time for our first lift. Mainly people just didn’t stop, though a few people pulled over who weren’t going in our direction, including an older smartly-dressed guy who told us to “kill some Arabs” for him when we got to the Dead Sea. In the end I was happy to wait the extra hour for our lift rather than spend any amount of time in a hot confined space with someone who could be so hateful.

We got there in two hitches, driving lower and lower below sea level. My ears popped. As we descended the air got thicker. The combination of the sheer rocky mountains towering on the right and the eerie mist rolling over the Dead Sea on the left made it look more like the moon than the West Bank.We got dropped off at Metsuke Dragot checkpoint and headed towards the water.

The area looked deserted, and the piles of litter around the rushes were the only indication that this was a favourite spot. We decided to swim in the last of the light before setting up camp, and were joined by a group of skinny-dipping old Palestinian guys and an Israeli making real efforts to speak Arabic.

I’d heard about the Dead Sea water when I was a kid and always thought I’d love to swim in it one day. I love water but usually I don’t seem to be designed for floating. Happily it turned out to be just as floaty as I’d imagined, and a lot more slick-feeling (apparently because of the high concentration of minerals). It’s really hard to actually swim though, because your feet kind of stick out of the water. We found a mudpile and smeared each other in Dead Sea mud, laughing and imagining paying for the experience at a European health spa.

There was a spring pool hidden by the rushes, in which we rinsed off the mud and, more importantly, the salt. We chatted in the pool with a Palestinian guy who is a lifeguard and swims in the water every day, who told us how much he loves that there are people of all nationalities that come to this spot and get along, and how especially pleased he was that all present spoke at least some Arabic.

During the night, the beauty of sleeping under the stars was somewhat diminished by being eaten alive by mosquitoes. No amount of citronella would deter them. The lifeguard came to find us in the evening to invite us for tea round the fire with a group of internationals, though we already felt quite settled and declined politely. He later came and kindly brought us spare mattresses to sleep on anyway, though at some point we gave up on sleeping altogether and just kept guard against beasties and played guitar.

The hot hazy sun rose over Jordan and the sea and we got up for a final swim/rinse off before leaving. My travelling partner encountered some different people by the pool, and asked them if they had been sat with the lifeguard the night before. “No, ” they replied, “we don’t sit with Arabs.” We declined their offer of tea.

We packed up camp and headed back to the checkpoint to hitch back to Jerusalem. We found also waiting some obnoxious teenagers, one of whom seemed intent on drowning out any of our guitar songs which weren’t in Hebrew. Luckily they were aggressive hitch-hikers and eventually got a lift by grabbing drivers as they were stuck at the checkpoint.

We eventually reached Jerusalem in two hitches. As we waited for our first ride we watched yellow number plate after yellow number plate pass through the checkpoint, and green number plate after green number plate turned round and sent away. This was a stark reminder of how much even what little  is left of Palestine is not under Palestinian control.

Day 67: Lockdown

March 24, 2010 - Leave a Response

Last week, during the lockdown, the Israeli army shot some Birzeit students protesting at nearby ‘Attara (the checkpoint that doesn’t exist). Three of the ten were shot with live ammunition, according to the hospital. This trend continued later in the week, with four young men killed in the West Bank.

(See also on Ma’an.)

Day 71: How to go to Jerusalem II: During clashes and closures

March 19, 2010 - Leave a Response

Recently there have been confrontations around Palestine between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians protesting against home demolitions and the restriction of access to important mosques in East Jerusalem. I posted this about travelling to Jerusalem from Ramallah, though it’s a bit different at the moment.

Step 1:

Check the news and ask friends to try and find out whether it’s possible or safe to travel. The checkpoint might have been closed down again or the roads might still be full of burning tyres, soldiers with rubber bullets and tear gas and lads throwing rocks. In the case that all is well, or perhaps in case of

Step 2:

Find the bus station and board a minibus, as usual. Sit on the floor.

Step 3:

Listen carefully as the bus driver provides alternative instructions for your journey. For example, “today the bus won’t drive any further than Qalandia refugee camp. You’ll get off there, walk to the checkpoint, pass on foot and another bus from Jerusalem will meet you on the other side.” Listen to the protests of your fellow passengers. Hold onto your ticket.

Step 4:

Note that the bus is taking an alternative route. Re-emerge onto the main road at Qalandia from a side street, one direction of which is full of standstill traffic, and the other oddly empty of vehicles. Listen as your fellow passengers insist one last time that the bus drives all the way to the checkpoint.

Step 5:

Cross the road and weave through the traffic following the trail of your new friend from the bus. Note the peppery smell of tear gas residue in the air, and the handkercheifs held over the faces of the women in the oncoming bus.

Step 6:

See your goal, the checkpoint, appear ahead. Note the tanks and soldiers.

(From Yahoo News)

Soldiers on the Qalandia side of the checkpoint

Step 7:

Hear a bang. “It’s only rubber bullets,” your new friend will reassure you, “they can’t hurt you.” Hear a smash. Observe blocking the other, empty, side of the road, a group of lads with rocks. Hear another smash. Observe their adversary: soldiers on the rooftops. Hear another bang. Quicken pace. “Don’t run.”

Step 8:

Reach Qalandia checkpoint and note how uncharacteristically uncrowded it is. “Nobody wants to come today.” Get harassed by the usual small poor Checkpoint Kid aggressively selling sweets.

Step 9:

Pass through the turnstile into the scanning room, accompanied by the Checkpoint Kid. Fail to show visa. Get called back. Show the beer you were carrying in your rucksack to the soldiers, who are still sitting behind the glass.

Step 10:

Find yourself unable to leave the scanning area as the soldiers can’t release the next turnstile while the Checkpoint Kid is still in there. This will give you plenty of time to put your belt back on. Watch with mirth as they try to convince him in bad Arabic, still from behind the glass, to leave through the turnstile through which he entered.

Step 11:

Eventually pass through the final two turnstiles and wait for another bus among the tanks. Ride it to the Arab bus station in East Jerusalem. Hope you didn’t lose your ticket.

Day 62: Strike at Birzeit University

March 9, 2010 - Leave a Response

Today saw the latest in a series of strikes at Birzeit University. This was a teaching staff strike (from which my course was exempt), though over the past few weeks there have been general and student strikes too. This morning I arrived at the servees station a normally-dangerous five minutes late, expecting to see the usual swarming tangle of people fighting over buses. Instead, I unhurriedly took a seat in the first of a neat row of waiting yellow minibuses.

The scene up at the university was similar. Instead of the usual slipstreams of noisy students filing along in all different directions on the campus roads, it was empty. A few grounds workers checked the bins in vain. Three boys carried a football, approaching the sports ground with a ‘no-school’ bounce in their step. All was uncharacteristically peaceful.

I saw the Faculty of Arts canteen for the first time today. I’ve been there often, but the sheer density of students milling and queueing and sitting on tables and floors had always obscured it from view and jangled my claustrophobic tendencies. Procuring food there is, for me, normally quite a test of nerve. But today I was the only one there, standing in a sea of my own space and unbreathed, unsmoked air. I bought one of those baguettes they toast, unafraid of being jostled while I waited.

I wondered what they were all doing, the other students. Where are the pairs of young female best friends in matching headscarves and dresses? Where are the couples who sit on the wall so close to each other yet so far away, never touching? Where are the groups of  studious-looking Muslim students in long overdresses carrying books? And where are the glamorous ones in the tight jeans and fashionable shirts, worn equally with hijab or long flowing hair? Where are the political students, Birzeit’s union hacks and party members, who hang around the Student Council looking ready to spring into action? Where are the gangs of macho guys with greased hair and observable pecking-order who get so physically intimate with each other that they really do look about to kiss?

Despite my new-found personal space, I missed them all!

Day 61: Potty International Women’s Day

March 8, 2010 - 3 Responses

Happy International Women’s Day to all of you. To celebrate this important and joyous event, my university saw it fit to issue female staff with cooking pots:

Day 60: Arabic learning

March 8, 2010 - Leave a Response

The time I spend in Ramallah has some kind of rhythm to it, dictated mainly by my studies. This time is punctuated by massive three-day weekends during which I travel and there is no normality.

I still enjoy my course at PAS (the Palestine and Arabic Studies programme at Birzeit University). My teacher is good, and although the level of the class isn’t really bringing me anything new, there are others in the class whose level of Fusha (“Fuss-haa”, a.k.a. MSA/Modern Standard Arabic) is higher then mine, which keeps things stimulating.

Others at PAS aren’t so lucky, though. My closest friend here just left after trying very hard but failing to remedy the problems with their Palestinian Arabic class. Instead they have bought the great but elusive Yalla Nihki ‘Arabi course and that seems to be going better than with a real teacher. Other’s experiences have been similar, especially with regards to Palestinian Arabic.

It seems to be a common problem that speakers of Arabic dialects rarely have any idea of how to teach them as languages, seeing them as sort of random and unpredictable due to their unwritten nature. But of course, like any language, there is grammar and there is structure and it’s these that students need. Instead learners are often just lumbered with long lists of vocabulary and set phrases and given no real idea of how to put them together.

I was expecting this to be the case here as it had been in Egypt. My plan was to learn by talking to people. However, the amount of time I spend talking to Palestinians in Ramallah is quite limited, as at the weekends I spend time travelling with other foreigners, while weekday evenings are spent doing the school work I didn’t do on my long weekend. However, with a few modifications of my pre-existing Egyptian Arabic and Fusha I can still get engaged in the odd political discussion in the kitchen with my leftie housemates. This makes me happy.

There’s only one real solution though: I’ll have to come to Palestine again.

Day 51: How to go to Jerusalem

February 26, 2010 - One Response

Step 1:

Find the bus station in Ramallah. It’s the dull grey pollution-stained multi-storey building with a constant stream of bright yellow shiny clean vehicles rolling in and out of it. Enter by the street that leads to the souq, to the level which is underground on one side of the building but on the ground floor on the other side, due to Ramallah’s hillliness.

Step 2:

Locate a Jerusalem bus, or a yellow servees to Qalandia. The destination is written on the side of the vehicles, but people are so helpful that you’ll probably know where each one is going before you get close enough to read it. If you get the bus, pay at the front. Hold on to your ticket. If you get the servees, pass coins round the bus during the journey as normal.

Step 3:

Look out for the West Bank wall. This section is covered in paintings and slogans, and there is a high concentration of watchtowers. The roads get dusty and the traffic gets hectic. This is Qalandia checkpoint.

Step 4:

Get out of your vehicle in the middle of the traffic, accompanied by all your fellow passengers. Dodge the lorries, cross a car park and pass a herd of taxi drivers offering to take you to the quieter checkpoint up the road. Evade small poor children very forcefully selling sweets. Enter the massive checkpoint by the somehow inconspicuous entrance.

Step 5:

Queue up and wait to go through a turnstile to queue up and wait in a narrow metal cage to go through a turnstile to queue up and wait to go through the bag scan and metal detector to show your ID to a young bored Israeli soldier who may shout at you a bit, then pass through the last turnstile and emerge into the daylight. Put your belt back on before your trousers fall down. I hope you didn’t lose your ticket.

Step 6:

Sometimes your bus will get through the checkpoint quicker than you, but mostly it won’t. Wait for it. Witness a few scuffles about lost tickets or wrong buses. Or, if you got the servees, take any vehicle into Jerusalem.

Step 7:

Arrive at the Arab bus station near Damascus gate, Jerusalem.

Note:

If you are Palestinian from the West Bank, you need your green Israeli-issued hawweya to travel. Please also note that anyone issued with one is not permitted to enter Jerusalem. For a one-off exemption, apply to the Israeli forces in advance for a tasreeh (permission of movement). These are rarely approved.

I also found this blog post. It has pictures.

Day 44: Bil’in protests

February 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

Having met some people who were part of the international Rhythms of Resistance samba band, as I used to be in Manchester, I decided to join them yesterday on the latest of Bil’in village’s weekly protests.

Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the Bil’in protests, perhaps the most well-known of a collection of similar weekly protests in villages throughout the West Bank which are threatened by the wall. For this reason, the protest was bigger than usual.

In Ramallah I bumped into some people I’d met at Bustan Qaraqa when I visited last week. As it was a Friday and approaching the middle of the day, we’d missed the end of the servees (shared buses) so we split a taxi to Bil’in village. The driver seemed to like me because I spoke Arabic and was handing out nuts. He asked if we were going “against the Jews”. I replied that we were going “against the wall”.

We arrived and followed our ears. The gathering group of protesters of all shapes and sizes, literally hundreds of us, looked fit to burst the edges of Bil’in’s small streets. I said goodbye to my travel buddies and followed my ears once again towards the sound of drums. My first hit was a red herring, as I found myself in the middle of a Palestinian scout troupe marching band. (I could have sworn they were playing samba classic ‘James Brown’ … )

Soon, however, the sound of agogos led me this time to the right group. To mark the anniversary there was a series of speeches and things before the march. This meant it was too loud and crowded to introduce myself to everyone, so after managing a few names I got on with playing samba. After a while of sitting in the sun waiting for the rally to end – I’m not a fan of being “rallied” – we went and found the scouts’ band again and played with them to much amusement.

On the way we passed some clowns – samba’s traditional creative activism allies. It all felt very familiar, right down to the samba rhythms which are the same worldwide. Ok, the hand signals have their own regional “accents” but you get by. There is one rhythm specific to Israel/Palestine though, “Hafla”, which was a pleasure to learn.

As the march began I bumped into some people who’d been at al-Ma’asara a few weeks ago, then some people from my university. It’s time for me to stop marvelling at how small and integrated the international community in Palestine is. Also, I was sure I saw Robert Fisk.

As we marched over a hill and round a corner,  a large swarm of protesters came into view around the fence at the top of the next hill.  Later, I read that in the absence of the normal amount of soldiers, people broke down a section of the fence and accessed the land on the other side. My sense of familiarity soon waned, as a tanker behind the fence began to fire continuous, large, high-powered jets of what looked like water at and over the protesters.

It took about twenty seconds for the stench to hit.  A few people began to retch. Although the liquid smelled like sewage, I was fairly certain this stuff was specially designed to stink. (After a bit of Googling, I found out that Haaretz and others call this a “skunk cannon”.)

We had already decided not to go any further and had stopped to play under some olive trees, a good distance from the flurry of movement on the next hill. We hadn’t been playing for very long when several brown-smoking missiles shot high into the air. Many of these landed close to us in the valley, filling it with a different, blue smoke. An ambulance flew down the narrow country lane, parting crowds of protesters.

Smelly people began to run back past us, coughing and spluttering. It seemed like the best idea for us to follow them, we agreed. Just as I was thinking, “that must have been tear gas,” my throat began to prickle and tighten.

A cloud of gas travels faster than a samba band.  My nose and throat began to sting more with every inhalation. My eyes became sore and were streaming. Even the skin on my face burned a little. I wrapped my scarf tighter round my nose and mouth as breathing became more difficult. Other people had brought clear plastic bags to be worn over their heads for protection, while even more people had come prepared with cut onions, a popular but unexpected tear gas antidote.

At this point I was on the verge of becoming a bit miserable with the situation, wondering if the effects would get any worse, and how long it would be until we could breathe again. Then, through the rasping ensemble of the other protesters’ coughing, came the sound of a loud, theatrical chorus of, “Boo, hoo, hooo! Boo, hoo, hooo!” It was the clowns!

We carried on playing as soon as was practicably possible and marched back to the village centre. As the gas began to disperse a little a helpful stranger advised me to remove my scarf and let the gas trapped inside escape, which helped a great deal. Unfortunately, this meant the return of the stink, especially as we passed groups of people along the way who’d been sprayed.

The band debriefed before I said my goodbyes and thank yous and began to seek a servees to get me back home. I got chatting in Arabic to a guy from the Scout band who I’d briefly spoken to earlier, who kindly offered me a lift to Ramallah. And so it happened that I piled into a battered old transit van with several sweaty, uniformed teenage boys and lots of drums, and was handed fizzy pop and sandwiches. This seemed a fittingly bizarre ending to my trip.

I left not really knowing what had happened at the protest on the whole, with a feeling that the whole thing had been over very quickly. I don’t feel in a position to make any general or ideological statements.  However, it felt like a good thing to have been there not only is support in terms of numbers but also in terms of making noise/music. I hope at some point my ding-donging kept someone going, as did the clowns’ boo-hooing for me.