Monday, July 09, 2007

Deep In the Heart of the West Bank

Hebron on a Saturday

Getting to Hebron is easy enough. Dr. B and I have been traveling together for weeks now. Between the two of us, we have managed to master the Palestinian transportation system and take it by storm. Because I'm the Arab-o-phile, I act as the navigational beacon in locating the appropriate bus or driver that will take us to our destination. Because Dr. B comes equipped with a penis (remarkably useful in a man's world), I'm able to use my non-penis-toting charm to cajole and bargain with drivers and vendors while he provides back-up when necessary. It's his job to stand between me and the guy behind me that keeps grabbing my ass. It's my job to make him look like a random white guy with an ethnic wife when he saunters up to strangers and asks to see their guns. It's his job to give me a stern look and say something that at least sounds harsh in English when I give him his cue in public: "I don't know, honey, what do you think?"--which is code for "I think we need to get the hell out of here." It's my job to ask him off-handedly if he wants to stop for ice cream or get a diet coke. It's his job to put up with my hotel breakfast buffet-stealing antics. As friends go, we balance each other quite well. As adults with significant love interests at home, we've both managed to respect and cherish an actual friendship between a man and a woman that doesn't involve the precarious nature of sexual tension. I suppose it helps that there isn't an ounce of mutual attraction between us. It's lovely, much like traveling with my brother. We hit our travel stride 6 weeks ago. Now, we not only finish each other's sentences, but we keep each other safe. I can't imagine making it through these past two months without him.

But Hebron. Yes. Dr. B and I have a tendency to see eye-to-eye on the vast majority of the political matters we are witnessing here. Similarly, we both share a burning desire to get down to the rawness of the matter, or, in Dr. B's words, "To see the shit." Seeing the shit is our essential motivational device for being here in the first place. Dr. B came to study health care behind the wall. I came to study the ladies. Inevitably, the two go hand in hand, but ultimately find their way back to the larger, geo-political struggle, if not the most glaring issue: walls, guns, human rights violations, militant fanaticism, and a bunch of angry, overheated Arab and Eastern European-type of folks respectively running around on their sides of the fencing, who, when not beating up on each other, are simply waiting patiently for the next opportunity to do so.

Hebron has long been a hot spot for this sort of thing. In 1929, the Arab folks revolted against the British and massacred 69 Jewish folks in Hebron. The thing about Hebron is that it's at the site of one of the holiest places in Judaism. It's also a holy site for Christianity and Islam, but that's beside the point. The point is, it's a Numero Uno Jew thing. A very big deal. Abraham purchased a cave there back in the day, and he buried Sarah there. Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried there, too. Obviously, the Jewish folks never forgot the Hebron massacre. Nor did they forget that the British forced them all to leave two years after the massacre, in order to keep the same thing from happening again. Like the Arabs, the good thing about the Jewish folks is that they are very patient. The British Mandate Period eventually came to and end. By that time, the Jewish folks had been saving up all their arms and energy and they were ready for a good fight. But in 1948, the Jordanians won control of the West Bank. All of the Jews were kicked out. Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. It's difficult not to blame the Jews for being angry. They dealt with a lot already, and they had every right to be pissed.

But like I said, the Jewish folks were patient. 1967 rolled around, and in 6 days, the Jewish folks took back the West Bank (and a lot of other land, too). After that, it only took two years before the Jewish folk started moving their women and children back in.

"Deep in the heart of the West Bank!", I sang as off-key as possible to the tune of "Dixie", in an attempt to get Dr. B to crack a dehydrated smile in the heat of day. We both knew that we were going into the shit. But the thing about doing this sort of thing is that you never really know what to expect, so the key is to expect the unexpected. We were unloaded from the bus in the heart of a bustling shopping day. Since it was Saturday, we were a bit disoriented. Rumor has it that Hebron is empty and full of gun-toting IDF soldiers on a Saturday. In this case, we could have been dropped in the middle of Dubai for all we knew. We were definitely elbow deep in the Arab world. I was the only uncovered head in a sea of black, dark blue, and olive green colored feminine head garnishings. Because of everything we read about conservative radicalism, Dr. B and I fully expected Hebron to be the next best thing to Kabul. Instead, we found a booming shopping metropolis and modern buildings for miles. In fact, Dr. B and I looked around and realized that we were smack-dab in the middle of one, gigantic outdoor Middle Eastern shopping mall.

Fortunately, we didn't have to exchange too many words. We had both studied the map, and we both knew what we were there to see. Once we got our bearings, we spear-headed our way towards the old city. As we walked, the streets became less and less crowded and the vendors became more hoarse and desperate sounding. We eventually passed over the barrier between old and new, radical and not. It really didn't take us long to find the shit.

At the edge of the shit, we were greeted by a freckled face Arab man with nothing to do. He introduced himself as Jamal and escorted us through the old city. There was nothing good or satisfying about having Jamal walk with us. It was abundantly obvious that he was paid by someone to follow us, but we couldn't figure out who. He insisted on taking us for several detours, which we reluctantly followed, if only to see the shit. And to be perfectly honest, it was shitty.

What we found was a completely abandoned city, evidence of by-gone violence, a lot of heaviness in the air, and a great deal of preventative fencing and barricading all done so that 700 Jewish folks can 'safely' live on a heavily barricaded land-island, deep in the heart of the West Bank. Where Palestine meets Israel on this small, dusty island of crumbling buildings and signs pointing to yesteryear, we were halted by the IDF in our attempt to get into the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Dr. B was allowed to pass on the Muslim side because of his dashing American looks, but I was told that because of my "Jewish name and Jewish face" that I was not permitted to enter the Muslim side of prayer. While Dr. B went to check out the place, I wandered down to the next checkpoint to flirt with the boys there and see if they would let me pass. Instead, what I got was my passport confiscated and a million and one questions. I calmly diffused an otherwise stressful moment by saying that my husband was in the Tomb on the Muslim side, that I came into the West Bank with him, and that I wanted to see the Tomb of Patriarchs on shabbat and that it would be a "personal mitzvah to me and my family" to let me pass. Like all flirtatious Jewish girls from Long Island, I coyly took my passport back from the nice 19 year old boy with the gun before his smarter side kick had a chance to call my numbers in, and the man behind the curtain watched me pass under a million and one of surveillance cameras that were attached high up on the crumbling buildings.

In his dry, Southern white boy tone, Dr. B said it best: "This place is shit! I can't believe that this is the place that people are killing each other for."

I couldn't help but agree. My "Jewish Face" got us over to the heavily fortified, Jewish side of the fencing, where we toured through the empty Saturday streets of what can only be described as a movie set of someone's worst nightmare. The Jewish side of Hebron is nothing but a shanty-town of old, overtaken homes and barbed-wire fencing. Honestly, the people in my 60-year-old refugee camp in Bethlehem live better than the Jews in Hebron. And, I, for one, cannot fathom the decision-making process that one understakes when making the choice to bring up your children in a place full danger, where the concept of playing on the street is unheard of. I shuttered to think that this isn't just a breeding ground for fundamentalisms on either side, this is ground zero for the world's best and brightest future sociopaths.

Dr. B and I discussed this as we walked through. We both agreed that we are disgusted with humanity from both sides. On one hand, it's just 700 Jews who feel a closeness to the Tomb of Patriarchs, and think it's cool for them to raise their families there. Let them live there and get their Jew on. There is nothing wrong with this. At the same time, the amount of militarization for 700 Israeli Jews is not only a gross over-extension of resources on the part of Israel, but it has let to a gross and unjustifiable occupation of the city and its inhabitants. The wild part is that Israel is building a wall, yet Hebron is well past it on the other side. My IDF soldier boy friends told me that it is their job to defend Jews wherever they are, but this is an obvious illegal incursion into land that is not Israel's with a justification that is blindly obfiscated by religion and not governed by the least bit of common sense. This is not evidence of a "Two State Plan". In addition to fascism, I could throw out a few more fruitful -isms, but I'll just leave it at that.

Deep in the heart of the West Bank, I was one again reminded that a story always has two sides. I was also reminded that sometimes the Golden Rule of humanity is nothing to do with the Abrahamic ideal of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, but rather, with the realpolitik version of "He Who Has the Gold Makes the Rules."

In the face of so many hard choices and blind alleys, how do we not become the evil which we deplore?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting N, and Dr. B sounds like a completely convivial traveling companion, and a highly useful one too. We should all be glad of that. I think part of the real force here is history, even the 'recent' 'stuff. The Jews dare not leave their squalor for one second lest the 'other side' (PA etc.) destroy the sites like the example provided by the destruction & desecration of Tomb of Joseph in 2000.

As you noted, this was also done in wholesale form by the Jordanian authorities when they controlled the West Bank from '48-'67. The destruction of graveyards & Temples and the desecration of tombs & sacred places may have some place in jihad, but not for everyday 'living' or some comity of existence between peoples or states. And these atrocities came from the Jordanians! The Israeli's then as now had some of the best & mostly respectful relations with them. What earthly purpose can be served by such wanton destruction, save to perpetuate deep enmity& foment further ethnic hatreds?

This then is part of the reason the 700 are there, and why no PM in Israel dares to let it go. Only to then see their quick or even eventual destruction at the hands of gleeful jihadi's & teens who could care less, but know that it will make them big TV stars for that month on Arab TV, maybe even be getting a poster made up in their honor for their great 'revolutionary deed'.

But I wish you & Dr. B continued good luck and safe travels. We hope that no one catches on before you leave, right? Cheers, 'VJ'

Anonymous said...

response - you know that the choices presented as the only ones available at one moment are not as significant in the scope of an infinite universe.
Big voices, big sticks, and strategic interests blow sides of "good and evil" into rather more amorphous encounters.
Focus on the positive, walk in the light and see who smiles.