Friday, May 01, 2009

Crossing the Seam

Yesterday morning, I woke up early. Since my trip through Egypt, I was rendered with only one clean skirt and a semi-clean, long-sleeved plum colored shirt to wear. I dressed up the ensemble with a nicer pair of sandals, a pink scarf, a simple pair of earrings and my classic jean jacket. Of course, I smiled when I put the jacket on as I walked out of the door. If only this denim could talk, I thought. That jacket has been to more countries than most people have teeth.

My destination was to a certain university deep in the heart of the West Bank. The goal was to be on time for the second day of an annual academic and professional conference on Palestinian women. The particular women holding the conference are the same women whose research and writing has formed the backbone of my dissertation investigation. To me, these women are like titans than human beings. They are Palestinian women with Ph.Ds in their respective disciplines. They are feminists, of course, but more than this, they are warriors. In a place that can often hold very little reverence for the rights of women, one can imagine my awe and reverence of those who manage to get a PhD...

I made sure to eat a big breakfast before I left. I also filled my "Make Love Not Landfill" Sigg water bottle for the journey. Without haste, I skipped off the stops of first inter-city bus that could take me as close as possible to the East Jerusalem bus station. In order to get there, my knee-length skirt and I flitted along the looming outer stone walls of Jerusalem's ancient city. Along the way, I passed a flock of young nuns and many young Palestinian men and boys on their way to work in day labor jobs in the city. Of course, none of this was anything new to me. The sloping path from the New Gate (always surrounded by Christians in their variously styled frocks of faith) to the Damascus Gate (filling in the early morning with Arabic-speaking vendors peddling everything from cell phones to grape leaves), is a border that I have grown accustomed to crossing. In fact, as I made my way deeper into the awakening bustle of East Jerusalem, it occured to me that every sight, smell and sound was an encouraging reminder that I, myself, have finally returned to living in the costume of my own life. I am finally back my own skin. Finally...

"Beit Haneenah! Beit Haneenah! Beit Haneenah??", a driver yelled to me when I entered the large parking area that is otherwise known as the bus station. He smiled and made a sweeping hand gesture to me in order to demonstrate that his bus was in fact bound for that particular locale.

I smiled back and shook my head in the negative while I navigated through the small sidewalk of vendors to my left and buses to my right.

"Where are you going, girl?," another man said to me in Arabic from where he sat on a make-shift stool.

"Ramallah," I replied in passing. By this point, I had already read all of the signs of the buses (in Arabic), quickly located the right one.

"But you can't get on that bus!," he cried. "Israelis are forbidden!"

Instantly, I had a gut feeling that he was a "watcher", a man hired to keep on eye on who gets on buses, to where and why. So, per my style, I smiled at him and acted clueless.

"You are not Israeli?," he said in English.

"French!," I yelled back with a sly smile, which I am certain threw the powers-that-be into a minor tailspin for the rest of the day.

Crossing the next border into Ramallah was easy enough, I suppose. The bus filled up with many young women. Their backpacks and notebooks told me that they were students, and I would be wise to pick one of them and follow her to the next bus that would take me to the university. I chose the most serious and studious-looking one of the group. She was the only covered girl on the bus, but once we got into the streets of Ramallah, she blended in with every other woman on the street and became practically indistinguishable. She walked very quickly through the crowd and I lost her several times in the sea of identical head scarves. Finally, after doggedly trailing her like a bloodhound her for 15 minutes, she disappeared through the door of a women's vocational school. Fortunately for me, I wasn't lost at this point, but I was forced to look around, get my bearings in the crowd and come up with Plan B.

A hellacious taxi ride later with a driver who couldn't resist showing me all of the sights of Ramallah, including a place called the "Best Eastern Hotel", which made me chuckle--- I made it to the West Bank university on the outskirts of town. For more than I was willing to pay, the driver insisted on taking me through the gate and depositing me right in the middle of the campus. Once inside, I found it like any other college campus, only these grounds were full of Palestine's future--a new generation of kids who have never known anything but violence and military occupation. A part of me relaxed immediately in the energy of a crowd of young, college kids. They stood in their universal groupings--laughing, talking, gossiping and smoking, just like the kids on the campus where I most recently taught. And yet a small of part of me wondered how this particular crowd would react if they knew that I am Jewish. I immediately told that part of me to simmer down, and focus on finding my way to the conference. I did my best to relax, blend it and not attract too much attention, in spite of the fact that I had no idea where I was going and everything was in Arabic words I did not know.

After a few minutes, I found a large banner that announced the conference. I could read the name of the conference and the dates, but it was impossible for me to make out the name or location of the building where it was being held. I decided to walk up to a group of covered young girls with the hope that someone could point me in the right direction. Because a lot of past experience has told me to be careful (especially as a woman) in approaching groups of young women, I made sure to keep my head lowered and my voice soft. On the outside, I appeared necessarily sheepish and shy, but on the inside, I couldn't help but think that I had learned this technique from watching "Animal Planet". Girls in groups can be like wild animals. When in doubt, approach with your head down and avoid direct eye contact until one of their tails starts wagging. But of course, because these are Palestinian girls, and Palestinians are universally known for their friendliness and hospitality, each one of them instantly jumped to help me. Inevitably, the most dynamic girl of the bunch won the prize of showing me to the conference. Her name was Sonia, and she was remarkably lovely.

At the conference, I quickly realized two things. First, my academic Arabic is positively non-existant. I couldn't keep up at all with the discussions. I knew that I was missing out on some vital information, and I spent a couple of hours just sitting there, trying to glean a spot of something from every 50th word I could recognize. I was pretty miserable, and I wanted to flog myself for this. Second, everyone there assumed that I was Palestinian. I noticed that if I sat still and didn't say a word, nothing about me seemed to bring any attention. If anything, I can blend in pretty well with all of the other dark-haired, ethnic-looking young women. However, the minute I stood up and helped myself to a cup of coffee, I was immediately bombarded with stares and inquiries, which all came from men.

It was then that I realized that everything about me could be taken as a Palestinian except for the length of my skirt. My mounds of dark hair, scarf, and jean jacket all fit the bill. Yet, despite the fact that my skirt came just below my knee, it didn't take me long to realize that every man in the place was staring at my bare calves and ankles. I looked around and realized that the religious girls were all covered from head to toe in floor-length, polyester numbers. Meanwhile, the non-religiously dressed women wore skinny jeans with ballerina flats or Chuck Taylor rip-offs. I sighed and noted that I should invest in a pair of skinny jeans for the next time I venture back into student land. I will still, however, refuse to wear ballerina flats or those horrible Chuck Taylor's, which weren't bad enough the first time? Seriously...

In all, the day went well enough. I fully stalked the titans--the women that I need to interview-- to the best of my ability. I slipped out of the conference and wandered the building to find the location of their offices. I wasn't able to find any of them to get their contact information, but now that I know where everything is and how to get there, I plan to head back soon.

At the end of the conference, I was ultimately approached by a young man (of course) who spoke excellent English. I watched him smoke two cigarrettes in order to let him talk about his work in conflict resolution. He was smart and funny, and sweetly offered to escort me back to town to jump on the bus back to Jerusalem. Even though I didn't need his help, he was painfully nice to look at, and I enjoyed bantering enough with him to allow him pay for our taxi ride back to town. A new friend was made, and now the offer stands for me to come to Ramallah any time, and he will "make me a party"...

Heading out of Ramallah required me to go through the Israeli checkpoint along the way. The checkpoint itself is a foreboding institutional structure, full of swirling gates that lock without warning, flashing red and green lights, video cameras, and a intercom that manifests the voices of young Israeli soldiers barking orders to those between the gates, under the lights and open to the gaze of the cameras. The process itself took about 30 minutes, which was not so bad. I was the only American out of a hundred or so men, women and children passing through at that time. It hurt my heart to take out my American passport in the company of those who are not even permitted to travel to experience the sea. Of course, none of this was helped by the fact that the Israeli soldier doing his job behind the bullet proof glass pawed my passport at length for any tangible evidence that it might not be mine, or worse, that I might be an American with an Arab name or descent. He asked me to pronounce my extremely American family name. Referencing my given name, he also asked if I am Jewish. "At the moment, no," I replied dryly. After all, it was a most honest reply to an inappropriate question. (After all, my spiritual identification has nothing to do with the question at hand.) Of course, it was immediately clear to me that he failed to grasp my English. All he heard was "No", and for the sake of brevity I decided not to lecture him about the lecture he might have given me had I replied in the affirmative. I sarcastically thought about adding "sometimes I am even French", but knew better than to engage in excess information, especially when my "Make Love Not Landfill" metal Sigg bottle caused the conveyor belt of the xray machine to stop, the gates to be locked, and someone to tell me on the intercom to take it out of my bag and hold it up to the window.

"Hatha maya!," I said first in Arabic to the people around me who suddenly looked scared.

"It's water!," I said in English to the guards, only to see that the guy behind the glass did not understand.

"Zey MIEM!! Zey MIEM! Zey MIEM!!!", I said in Hebrew pointing to the bottle and then to my mouth, with a big, goofy smile.

With this, I was allowed to pass.

An hour and 20 minutes later, I was back in Jerusalem from my 10 kilometer journey from beyond. I passed the "watcher" man from earlier in the day and waved a friendly hello. In French he said hello, and I greeted him in return. He asked about Ramallah, and I told him, fantastique! Starving and dehydrated, I wandered over to my favorite shady spot on Nablus Road for some mint lemonade and cold yogurt/mint/garlic/lemon soup. I walked in the door, and was handed a menu in Arabic based on my appearance alone. I played the identity game, asked for my favorite drink and ordered in Arabic. Two men sat at the table beside me and asked for a cigarrette in Spanish. I charmingly let them use a lighter that I always carry for these occassions. (Even though I don't smoke at all, I have learned that lighting a man's cigarrette is a sure-fire way to start a conversation. Sometimes this leads to a few free drinks, and regularly parlays to a free meal.) This time, we simply spoke for a while, but I found neither of them particularly interesting. Nearby, a young girl on her cell phone yelled at her mother in Italian. I sat back and breathed for a little while, while silently processing some of my notes from the day.

After paying my bill and saying goodbye to the Spaniards, I slowly made my way back up the hill from the Damascus Gate to the other side of Jerusalem proper. Still standing at the New Gate, I found the same flock of nuns I saw earlier in the morning. Further up around the bend, an American tourist stopped me for directions to the Jaffa Gate, which I was happy to oblige. I crossed into town to stop at the market for vegetables for dinner and decided to pick up a bottle of red table wine from the Golan Heights. Waiting at the next bus stop, a woman asked to know where the Number 4 bus would take her. As best I could in Hebrew, I told her the neighborhoods along the route and we conversed about the time it would take to get her to the other side of town. Once on the bus, yet another famous verbal altercation broke out, which I have determined, only happens in Israel. A fat man with a kippah brought on a very big box. The bus driver told him that he would have to pay 2 fares, for the box took up too much space. The man yelled, screamed and wildly gesticulate, and the driver yelled, screamed and wildly gesticulated back. Like an interactive boxing match, the people at the front of the bus took sides in the debate and started to weigh in on the fair course of action. Meanwhile I was stuck behind the man and his box at the very front of the bus, pressed to the front window next to the door. For the next 10 minutes, I struggled for balance on the jerking bus with my grocery bags gripped in my fingers my fears that the screaming bus driver would suddenly stop and I would go flying through the glass window, only to be run over on the street. Which would kill me first?, I couldn't help but ponder. I knew that if I died, the passport in my bag would give me away as an American. But, clearly, none of this came to pass.

Finally, having lived another day, another bus ride, and yet another journey through the seam, I quietly trudged up the 8 flights of stairs to my spartan little flat in the forgotten, working-class side of town, with its view of occassionally burning trash heaps and construction. I locked the door, and smiled through a big, satisfied sigh, and immediately got to work on a hot shower and that well-deserved glass of vino.

I am home, I thought. In so many more ways than the obvious.

Shabbat shalom, ya'll. Make love, not landfill.



hannahjustbreathe said...

Wow... I absolutely love reading about your journeys, even the seemingly small, day-to-day ones.

VJ said...

Just lovely. And to think of all those forlorn languages, and to be needing still more to make sense of it all! Amazing stuff. Fill us in on the rest of the conference when you can. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'