I’ve been in Hebron for 6 days now and I feel like I’m finally starting to get a bit of a sense of place in this town.
For the uninformed; I found a program to teach English as a volunteer in Hebron, one of the holy cities in the West Bank and they are housing me here for a month. Prior to my arrival, everything seemed to good to be true; I would get to live with a Palestinian family in the Old City (the old architecture and buildings that are present in a lot of Arab or Muslim cities), I would only spend $100 a month for housing and $300 for my Arabic classes, and I would have opportunities to travel within the country.
Now that I am here I can assure you, this program exceeds expectations and I am having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
16 hours of travel, a flight from JFK in New York to Baku in Azerbaijan for an hour layover, and then 4 more hours to Tel Aviv. Having spent the last week of school writing papers, drinking copious amounts of coffee, packing, spending precious moments with friends and soon-to-be graduates, I knocked the fuck out when I got on the plane, which has helped me adjust myself to the time zone difference. When I got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I was hit by a wall of dry heat. The Middle East is hot in the summer which goes against all of my own personal preferences for climate and I soon found out that bringing a light jacket with me was pretty excessive. Once I got past passport control and got my luggage, I had to get myself a phone and an iPhone 5 charger that fits into the European style electrical outlets. When I went to the cash register to buy my Euro iPhone charger, the cashier spoke to me in Hebrew and I had to explain I was not in fact, an Israeli or a Jew. This was the first mistake assumption about my ethnic identity and far from the last. After getting my phone equipped, I took a Nesher shared taxi to Jerusalem, step 1 to get to Hebron. The whole way to Jerusalem my eyes were glued to the window. The geography of Israel is impressive because certain areas seem like they shouldn’t be able to exist on earth. You see rolling hills, lush fields of agricultural produce, pine tree forests, land that looks like sandy deserts. Most impressive to me is how in some parts of the country, there would be desert looking terrain with trees growing out of the land. After about 45 minutes of gawking at the scenery, we arrived in Jerusalem at one of the central bus stops. The central bus stop is a two minute walk from Damascus Gate, the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. As I walked over towards the line of taxis, I could see the Dome of the Rock peeking over the walls of the Old City. It is hard to believe that through Damascus Gate, there exists a whole city whose architecture and history is antiquated while bus stations, coffee shops, and supermarkets built in modern buildings lie only a three minute walk away.
I got myself a taxi from Jerusalem to Hebron and overpaid to the tune of 250 shekels (60 dollars) due to my own ignorance and inability to find the shared taxis to Bethlehem that would then take me to Hebron. On the way to Hebron, my taxi driver told me his experiences of living in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War and his memory of seeing the city be taken by the Israelis. He remembered that the Israelis were accompanied by American soldiers when they took over the city, something that I do not recall reading in many of the books and articles about the war. The taxi driver, like many Palestinians in East Jerusalem, does not have Israeli citizenship, instead he has only an East Jerusalem residency card. Like many Palestinians, he has never left the country.
As we arrived into Hebron, we were greeted by a red sign alerting us that we were entering “Area H1” in Hebron, which is under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. The sign, which reads in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, tells us that Jews/Israelis are not allowed into Area H1 of Hebron under the laws of the Israeli government and that entering this Area would put their lives at risk. Hebron is divided into two sections, Area H1 which is under the PA’s control, and Area H2 which the IDF controls. The Old City is part of Area H2 and as Nicole,—the director of La Casa’s program—walked me through the Old City and into the neighborhood where I would live, I saw Israeli flags perched on rooftops and watchtowers.
The neighborhood where I am in the Old City has its fair share of Orthodox Jewish settlers who are protected by the IDF. As we walked deeper into the Old City, I noticed chickenwire which was placed above the streets and in between the buildings. Nicole told me that this is in place because the settlers had a tendency to throw their garbage and their feces at Palestinians who would walk the street. After we passed a section of the alleyway that consisted of women’s shops (a partnership set up with La Casa to allow Palestinian women to have entrepreneurial opportunities), we arrived to a small green metal double door. The Arabs in the Old City use neither locks on their doors nor addresses so the onus is now on me to remember the house with visual reference points.
We entered the doors and came into a stone alleyway and then into a courtyard with steps leading you to various rooms.
This house is more than 900 years old and has at least 6 different rooms in various sections of the house. The layout is hard to describe without pictures but here are the things worth knowing about the house: I live in a section of the house with a kitchen and a bathroom and two bedrooms. In the first bedroom, there are two beds, one occupied by me, and one occupied by Sammy, the Czech whose Arabic is so good that people from other towns tell him he sounds like a Khalili (al-Khalil = Hebron in Arabic). In the upstairs, Stefan, from Bulgaria, has his own room and TV to himself. On the other side of the house, there are three American girls. Bridget and Lara are from Pennsylvania and Virginia and met while studying abroad in Jordan. Brynn, who Stefan, Sammy and I hang out with more often, is from LA and went to the University of Oregon. I am the youngest visitor in this house; everyone else has graduated college already.
In the main courtyard is where we most often see our host family. From the courtyard, you can see the houses of the Jewish settlers who live literally across the street from us. The court yard once was open, but today the top of it is covered but chickenwire because the settlers used to throw objects at the kids and the family.
Fatima, the mother, is a woman presumably in her 50s who always is covered in a hijab and long gowns that do not expose an inch of her skin. A few years ago, Fatima went through a stillbirth after an IDF soldier threw a stun grenade into the courtyard and she suffered the brunt of the impact. Fatima’s husband, Ahmad has been at the house the last few days, but his presence comes and goes and as Ahmad has two wives and two families. This familiar structure is not uncommon in Hebron. As for the family themselves, Fatima is probably the loudest person I have ever known and the sound of her yelling at her 6 children generally served as an effective alarm clock in the morning. Fatima has 3 boys and 3 girls. The boys are about 5, 6, and 8 years old and spend their time building kites with wood and garbage bags, repairing bikes, playing Grand Theft Auto, or watching Real Madrid soccer games on YouTube. The three girls are mostly invisible and do not talk to us. None of the family speaks English, save for a few phrases, "sit down”, “eat”, “father”, “mother”. Sammy is our translator as he has been in Hebron for 8 years now. When Sammy isn’t around, Brynn has enough phrases in her neatly written notebook that she can negotiate rudimentary conversations with Fatima and the kids. Without her and Sammy I would be unable to understand a single thing that happens in this house, save for when Fatima pushes to me a plate of yellow short rice, or a bowl of eggplant or potatoes with a red curry/sauce.
Having been now in Hebron for 6 days, I can feel how painfully foreign I feel as a result of the language barrier. I have been told multiple times through Brynn and Sammy that I look like an Arab, but this generally occurs after someone has tried to speak to me in Arabic on the street. If I walk around Hebron with Brynn or Stefan, we will get a few instances of “hallo, how are you”, but when I am on my own I am subject to the assumptions of the Khalilis who assume I am an Arab. One thing that is great about looking like an Arab in Hebron is that I feel completely safe when I walk around the city.
Every day at some point I go walking for a about a half hour, usually up Ain Sara, the biggest street in Hebron, and rarely do I get bothered or looked at funny. As a brown man in Hebron, I am allowed a certain safety that women are not and I am allowed a certain anonymity that whites are not. Hebron, with the exception of the Orthodox Jewish settlers in the Old City, is a 100% Muslim town. One cannot find alcohol in Hebron because no one would dare sell it here. All the women in the streets cover themselves and wear the hijab, with the exception of visitors from other towns or other countries. Christian women or non religious women still make sure to cover their arms and their legs when they go outside and even Brynn is conscious to make sure that she doesn’t show too much skin, lest she get into trouble.
While men can smoke cigarettes casually on the streets, women are not supposed to do so and are expected to engage in such acts in alleyways or in the privacy of their homes.
Even with all the expectations of what a woman can and cannot do in Hebron, it is amusing to me to see the shops in the New City that sell clothes that a woman would never wear in public in Hebron. The men here dress differently according to age and what I can assume to be religious adherence. The younger men wear skinny jeans and tight fitting t-shirts with English phrases on the chest, but many of the old men wear headdresses, kaffiyehs, and long linen gowns to combat the 90+ degree heat. Stefan seems to have found a way to fit perfectly into the Palestinian fashion sensibility, but I think I have a ways to go unless I start swearing skintight shirts. I am starting to find my favorite businesses to frequent in Hebron and here it is where my relative anonymity goes away as I have to negotiate my language barrier and find a way to pay for my food. I have on a few instances, been screwed over by people who have noticed I don’t speak Arabic who then overcharge me, but the shops that have their prices listed are generally safe bets for me.
On my third day here, Stefan took me to his favorite falafel place where he is known as “teacher”. Here, I can get a warm pita pocket filled with 3-4 falafel balls and french fries. When the guy behind the counter hands you the falafel, you can then apply chopped up cucumber/tomato salad, chopped cabbage, pickles, pickled beets, salt, a yogurt sauce, and a hot sauce. This heavenly concoction costs all of 3 shekels, less than a dollar. I almost always tell myself I am going to only get one, only to relent and get myself a second one. I have been surprised by how little meat there is here in Hebron. Granted, my preference is to seek out veggie type of foods, but I fully expected to be in a land of lamb. I have since been told that lamb is generally brought out for special occasions which I am quite ok with, I do assume that any food that is saved for special occasions is absolutely delicious when prepared right.
Here at the house, Fatima makes us a lot of food, all of which is delicious. She makes her own flatbread that is heavenly when fresh; it is a perfect crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The last time she served it to us, she gave us breaded fried fish, a cucumber/tomato/lemon salad, and a cilantro/onion type of salsa to fill the bread with. Fatima also has made some delicious cucumber yogurt and several great soups.
On my second day, after eating a dish of rice with a soup that one pours on top of the rice, I decided I was going to go see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The mosque is only a 5 minute walk from our house in the old city, so I was told, so I walked out the doors, turned left and just kept walking. The old city really looks like the stereotypical image one would have of the ancient Middle East. White, stone buildings with thin streets that are more alley than they are street. The old city in Hebron is more than 900 years old, probably even older and it is quite obvious that these streets would never be able to take cars and traffic. The old city is meant for walking.
After wandering for about 5 minutes, I found myself in a small alleyway with a white metal cage and turnstile leading to a metal detector. At the end of the alleyway, an IDF soldier was hanging out in a glass booth, waving people through the metal detector. After taking off my belt, wallet, etc, I walked out into an open area where I could see a huge building made of white stone. The presence of another military checkpoint to my left was unappealing to me so I turned to my right and walked down the street down to what seemed like a big street of old and beautiful houses. Surprisingly, the street seemed almost devoid of life with the exception of a few shops that I assume target tourists going to see the mosque. I would later find out that this street used to be one of Hebron’s most economically active streets in the Old City until settlers moved into the neighborhood. I didn’t walk very far down the street but I could see another booth with an IDF soldier, which I now presume demarcates the beginning of the settler’s neighborhood. In all reality, their neighborhood seems like a miserable place to live. The architecture is absolutely beautiful, but the constant eye of the IDF and the way that the neighborhood seems like a ghost town makes it seem really lonely. Then again, these settlers could give a fuck about loneliness, in their mind, they are less than a mile from the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Leah, Sarah, and Rebecca. Proximity to holiness probably means more to them than being a part of a vibrant, peaceful, and happy neighborhood. Given that the settlers like to throw trash at the Arabs, I think coexistence is the furthest thing from their mind.
Rather than go deep into the settler territory, I walked the opposite direction towards a park and the mosque. Eventually, I walked up white steps to a courtyard filled with visitors and Orthodox Jews. Some of them were praying at the Seventh Step (worth a wiki search), but most of them were walking towards another checkpoint to enter the mosque. I would later find out that there are two different entrances into the mosque, one for Jews, one for Muslims. The Jews refer to this building as the Tomb of the Patriarchs whereas the Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Unknowingly, I entered through the Jewish side and ended up inside a building that was nowhere as impressive as I expected it to be. A lot of the architecture, adorned in Arab script was consciously covered by elegant velvet drapes inscribed in Hebrew. In the main courtyard, there are several entrances into the various tombs of the Patriarchs. In each little room, there is a metal gate that keeps visitors outside of the area where the actual tombs are held. Through the gates, one can see beautifully adorned coffins covered in Arabic. Inside these big rooms, I was surrounded by men, women, children, and even a few soldiers who held their prayer books and rocked to the right and to the left while saying their prayers in what is one of the holiest places in the world. As I took pictures part of me couldn’t help but feel a little dirty, as if I were intruding on someone’s intimate moment with God. Because there was no writing in English anywhere, I found it difficult to grasp the significance of where I was without doing the proper research beforehand so I soon left and walked my ass back home.
On my third day here, Sammy told Stefan, Brynn and I that we were going to the Dead Sea to spend the night on the beach. Since Sammy knows the language and knows the land, I wasn’t in any place to ask questions about the logistics so I put my faith in him to get us to where we needed to be. Around 5, we took a taxi from Hebron that left us about 30 kilometers from the edge of the Dead Sea and left us on the side of a road near a gas station. At the gas station it was clear we had entered an area that was not under Palestinian control; the signs were all in Hebrew and in the fridge at the counter, one could buy beer and wine. After stocking up on the sinful items we could not get in Hebron, we met Rasha, a half New Yorker and half Arab that counts as one of Sammy’s many foreign friends. Once we made sure we had enough food to survive (bread, veggies, fruits), we started the process of getting our ass to the Dead Sea.
Rather than go to the tourist heavy beaches of the Dead Sea’s northern waters, Sammy wanted to take us to En Gedi, one of the southernmost points of the Dead Sea. En Gedi used to have a vibrant resort that has since closed but it still has one Israel’s most impressive nature reserves where one can climb up into the mountains and valleys of En Gedi and find fresh sweet water waterfalls, less than a mile from water so salty you can float in it. To get to En Gedi we had to either wait for the bus or hitchhike. Sammy soon found out after talking to some IDF soldiers that the last bus from this station to En Gedi had already come and gone so we resorted to hitchhiking. After a half hour of failed attempts, Sammy eventually found a little van/taxi that charged us 5 shekels each to take us to the next bus station. All in all, the driver took us no more than 2-3 kilometers but the next bus station actually had buses coming through, so after another hour of failed attempts at hitchhiking, we eventually took a bus to En Gedi.
On the way there, we passed through a kibbutzim where some passengers got off. Kibbutzims are the symbol of early labor Zionism, the ultimate socialist dream of collective farming and becoming in touch with the land. At this kibbutzim I was shocked to see men and women in civilian clothing walk around carrying assault rifles and was even more surprised by how everyone else’s nonchalance. After passing through the Kibbutzim I started to knock out and by the time we made it to our stop, I had finally fallen asleep. After getting off, we walked about a mile into the abandoned resort and then down a ramp and stairs to get to the beach. In the pitch black, it took us a while to find a suitable place to lay down our food and our sleeping bags, but once we did, we broke out the beer and the rum, stared at the impossibly bright stars, talked about politics, life in Hebron, politics in the Czech Republic, hung out with the stray cat that joined us on the beach, made a fire and eventually fell asleep.
When I woke up at the sunrise, I was surprised that the beach of En Gedi on the Dead Sea was not the alien world I imagined. I had expected something like an unknown planet, but En Gedi is really just a beach with a gorgeous view of Jordan across the water.
The best thing about En Gedi, now that the resort is abandoned is that the beach is empty. When everyone else finally woke up, slightly hungover (save for me and my Mexican/Irish blood, built for drinking), we made our way into the water and were the only humans as far as the eye could see. Other beaches on the Dead Sea may be more picturesque but the trade off is sharing the experience with thousands of people. In this case, we were all alone as we floated in the water and tried to keep the salt water out of our eyes and out of our mouth. This task is easier said than done because you have to retrain yourself in the water to accommodate the saltiness. Normally in water, you can tread by standing up and moving your feet. In the Dead Sea, you have to put in effort to kick your legs at the right increments to stay up straight, or else the water will propel you to float on your stomach, or if you lean back, you’ll be facing the sky.
The downside of the Dead Sea is the sliminess of the salt. After getting out, anytime you run your fingers over your skin or through your hair, you feel slime and you can see your fingers are shiny with salt. As the resort at En Gedi is now closed, there are no showers so our best solution was to walk a mile and a half into the En Gedi nature reserve where there are fresh sweet water waterfalls.
The En Gedi nature reserve is beautiful beyond words and I know that cannot do it justice in language so I will put up pictures instead. What I will say is that walking up the mountains and in the valleys in scorching heat takes its toll and everytime you encounter a small waterfall it is an incredible feeling.
In a few minutes I am about to go with Stefan at one of the secondary campuses of the Hebron University to partake in an English class. I have done two English related functions for La Casa so far, one was an English lesson with Stefan and a Palestinian from Bethlehem, Ahmad, who walked from Bethelehem to Hebron. Although his English could use some work with sentence formation, one of my favorite moments so far here has been listening to him talk about American politics and ask me questions about how Americans view the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. In return, I asked him what he thought of the Palestinian Authority and what he thought of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA). The general assumption I had is that most Palestinians view Abu Mazen as a shill for Israel who bends to their desires in order to maintain his own power. My taxi driver from Jerisalem was of this opinion, as is Aiman, the man that has Brynn write proposals for grants for Hebron University. Ahmad surprised me and said that Abu Mazen is a man of peace and compromise and that he is a good man. I’m not so sure I fully believe his answer because there is part of me that thinks that someone may assume that an American may be terrified to hear that the Palestinian people find the peaceful solution, or at least the man who represents that solution, to be painfully ineffective.
In any case, I greatly enjoy being in situations where I can speak English with Palestinians and ask questions. The langauge barrier is most frustrating for me in that regard because there are so many questions I want to ask. I want to know people’s memory of the intifadas, I want to know what people think of the PA, I want to know how they feel the political situation in Hebron had changed, I want to be able to ask Fatima how she cooks half the things she makes, I want to know how Ahmer, Fatima’s second oldest son is so damn good at mechanics and repairs at the ripe age of 8ish, I want to be able to ask people what they do on a day to day basis, I want to ask the guy that cut my hair who was wearing an israeli construction company shirt if he worked in construction in Israel because I wrote a whole paper on Palestinian labor I flows into Israel and the West Bank’s economic dependence on Israel.
In short, I’ve had a great time so far but I have a long long way to go and the lone arabic class I took is somewhat helpful for me to be able to ask very basic questions, but I am realizing that I am taking off a bigger chunk than I thought I was. Arabic is not easy and I am not going to maintain the foolish assumption that I will be able to be here for a month and learn a lot of arabic or even be able to communicate with lots of people, but this trip is the beginning of a process and for that I am infinitely grateful to be here.