Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Blackbird Singing in Ramallah

(Our broke down palace.)

The one thing about traveling and living on the edge of a social and political razor's edge with deep ravines on either side reaching into their own, respective fire-filled pits of human despair and collective doom is that one must be absolutely nuts or have a resoundingly solid sense of humor. Ok, maybe both. At the moment, I can't say for sure whether I am quite possibly the most balanced person I know, or if, in fact, I've simply lost my mind to the moment, which, ironically, brings about it's own form of lucidity...

For starters, I haven't worn a seatbelt in a while. The other day, when I was rolling into Ramallah in the smelly backseat of a stuffed and overheated public taxi sort of car, it didn't even phase me when I felt the large thud of the back tire beneath me when it lost it's pressure to the road. It didn't matter that our sardine can on wheels was chugging over the most impossible mountain roads that my eyes had ever seen. The only thing that crossed my mind was that I was simply thankful that the tire blew while we were going uphill and not down. Considering the lack of guard rails in these parts, I suppose it was logical to be so mildly relieved. Meanwhile, in the heat of the day, as I sat along the roadside next to a fully covered woman with no visible eyes, the only thing I could think was, "Damn, I wish I knew where I put my dried apricots." In addition to this, I was absently pondering whether or not a weekend in Ramallah will allow my skin to heal from the awful bedbug bites I've been suffering from for the past two weeks.

A weekend in Ramallah turned out to be far more than I could have ever faintly imagined. For starters, getting in and out of Ramallah were only two of the three moments when I felt that I wasn't just testing fate by venturing forth, but dancing like a drunk child on my own mortality. The tire blow out was nothing compared to the random Israeli checkpoint that we came upon as we chugged along the pitted and broken road. When we came to a stop, the soldiers looked in our car and took everyone's identification. Even though my two friends and I were obviously Western, they still demanded our passports. I watched as carefully as I could to see if they were calling in our numbers. I can't say for sure if they actually did this or not, but my best guess is that I'm going to have a hell of a hard time leaving Israel in the fall. (I'll deal with this later.) The hardest part, however, was when one of the soldiers handed us back our passports, and in a perfect New England accent menacingly said, "You's guys better be careful. We don't want to see your faces on the news tonight." Then, the guy winked at me. Intrepidly as ever, I looked him up and down, sarcastically told him in Hebrew to "Keep up the great work" and winked back with a smile that told him that I may or may not be Jewish...and I may or may not be just kidding. (Could I not be so sassy with the gun-carrying trained killer man? Hmmm...Maybe next time...)

Yeesh...

So, we rolled into Ramallah just at the moment of the Friday afternoon Muslim call to prayer. Of all things, we came in by way of the mosque on the outskirts of town, where the taxi literally had to wade through the largest crowd of Muslim men I have ever seen. Half way down the street, it suddenly occurred to me that there wasn't a single woman on the street, only men of all shapes and sizes, in long robes, many with beards, getting their devout prayer thing on. Even though they were mostly placid and in prayer mode, I couldn't help but have a not-so-fresh feeling come over me. I crouched a little lower in the tight backseat out of fear that someone would spot the uncovered Western woman and go completely Talibani on our ride. Fortunately, we made it through with only a few looks. As is customary here, I did my best to avoid eye contact when some of the men passing by looking into our car. There would be no sassy winking at anyone this time. Nope, none. No winking from me....

For what it's worth, the inside of Ramallah was surprisingly placid and enjoyable. We ended up renting a cheap flat for the weekend with a tremendous, top-floor view of the city. I geeked out over the Greek salads for lunch and the incredible, Ottoman-era buildings that were still largely intact. But the next day, my friends decided that the wanted to walk across town to visit Yasser Arafat's grave. While I would much prefer to make a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit The King, I agreed to go along for the walk. After all, I'm always up for a little adventure.

Getting there wasn't a problem. We located the compound where Arafat was kept under seige by the IDF in a matter of about 20 minutes. The people we passed on the street were mostly friendly and open to us, if not just a little shocked to see three Western faces trampsing through town. We walked along the tall walls of the compounds, encountering armed guards about every 100 meters. Every time we came upon a guard, they looked at us like we were nuts, but kept ushering us along. Finally, we came to the edge of the compound where the entrance to the grave seemed obvious. A young man with a very large AK47 came up to me, while my two, trusty male friends drew back. He asked if I spoke Arabic and I told him a little. Then he said that I was welcome, but that a large caravan was coming into the compound. He pointed to a small driveway on the other side of the street and told me that he needed me and my friends to stand there, a little bit off the street, while the caravan drives by.

For whatever reason, I'll be completely honest: an unlocked AK47 that is four feet away from me suddenly makes me understand and speak a hell of a lot more Arabic. Funny how that happens. Then, before I knew it, I was sweet talking the soldier into allow us to stay and watch the caravan come down the street. He seemed hesistant, but it was completely obvious that we were unarmed and unaware of who was about to come down the street. Thirty seconds later, the guard became serious and braced himself with his gun, while others behind him along the wall held theirs in place (at us) while several armed cars came down the street. Then, from the back of one of the cars, the face of Mahmoud Abbas looked back at us. It was...unexpected...if not entirely overwhelming and tremendous. After Abbas passed and entered the compound without incident, my sugar talk ended up getting us escorted to Arafat's grave. However, nothing about the experience was especially enlightening for me. It took everything I had not to freak out with all of the guns trained on us. The knowledge that Abbas was in the compound made me feel like a sitting duck as well. Fortunately, nothing newsworthy happened. Whew.



(Yasser Arafat's Grave...like, whoa.)

Long story short, I made it back over the trecherous hills from Ramallah, all of the way home to my little bedbug infested place in the world. At the moment, I'm living about 2 miles out of the outskirts of town. I could have taken a taxi, but I felt like saving 50 cents and using the cool breeze of the evening as an opportunity to take some time to process through the weekend. On the way, I came upon a large pool of blood at the bottom of the road. I looked up at the house where the blood was coming from and noticed that it looked like something had happened there. The house was quiet, and there was nothing obvious that I could see, but something felt off about the whole thing. For example, if the blood belonged to an animal, it would still be on the road. It definitely wasn't animal blood. But then, just yesterday I learned that there was an IDF raid on the town over the weekend, and 22 men and teenage boys were taken from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, where I'm living right now. I didn't want to ask if one the men was taken alive or dead. I've learned not to ask such things in these parts. I know that if I'm patient and watchful, I'll hear about it sooner or later on the street.

In all, it's safe to say that I realize that just getting through the day here is inherently taking a few risks, but that I'm learning more by feeling this place at its cellular level than I could ever learn from a book. That said, there are tricks that I am consciously employing to keep myself sane in some otherwise alarming and hair-raising situations. Realizing that the situations themselves aren't necessarily going to subside for a while, I'm taking solace in my ability to stay focused. I don't have many crutches or material trappings, but I will say that my only crutch at the moment is the music in my Ipod. In particular, there is just one song that I keep listening to over and over again, just to bring myself down from the edge when I feel my senses becoming too gritty. The song is "Blackbird", covered by Sarah Mclaughlin. It was donated to me by a very dear friend. It not only reminds me of him (which causes me to smile like a 12 year old school girl and practically feel him walking beside me), but listening to the lyrics, I can't help but wonder if I'm taking my own broken wings and learning how to fly.
From the hills to Ramallah, to the AK47's, to the blood coming from my neighbor's house, I've been soothed by the words of this song:
"Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life. You were only waiting for this moment to arise."
Maybe I have been waiting all of my life for this moment to arise...

And maybe, just maybe, in everyone's own way, we all have? If so, it causes me to put all of my fears and anxieties aside. Past and future are largely irrelevant when focusing on trying to make good choices from one moment to the next. It's enough to simply stay focused on doing the very best I can in the now...

(Brother and sister walking on a street in Ramallah.)




6 comments:

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Brilliant. I felt scared and sassy and brave along with you all at once.

A Unique Alias said...

Chilling.

restaurant gal said...

Incredible story.

Anonymous said...

Another home run. Your writing alone makes me want to marry you, on top of your amazing strength and inner beauty. I bet you're one of those women who is never single...

Anonymous said...

Another home run. Your writing alone makes me want to marry you, on top of your amazing strength and inner beauty. I bet you're one of those women who is never single...

inowpronounceyou said...

Simply the best thing I've read in a very long time. Thank you for sharing this.