Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Chapter 7 Abu Khalde

Lounging in an arm chair on our terrace balcony in short sleeves it’s difficult to believe that less than a week ago I was looking dejectedly out of my window onto a cold and rainy day. The weather in this morning is perfect. A cooling breeze skirts around us as we sit quietly, admiring the rolling hills of Nablus that make up our view. I feel peaceful.

Our moment of contemplative silence is in part enforced by the fact that the electricity has been cut since 7:30 this morning. An electricity cut can be the result of many things: years of conflict taking their toll on power plant production, a shortage of government funds that anyway are being allocated to other services and the pockets of government officials, or even the weather causing the electricity lines to short.

But these are not problems in Palestine that affect electricity. In fact it is a rare occurrence for the electricity to cut here at all. Unless of course one has run out of credit and must top up his electricity account. As was the case with us.

Naturally it took us a fair bit of time and fiddling with the fuse box before we figured this out. Once we had run out of switches to test and our internet withdrawel was starting to itch, we realized there was only one thing left to do: go ask the landlord.

As we made our way down from our fourth floor flat, the smell of cooking wafted up towards us. One of our neighbours had left her door open as she prepared lunch for her family and the smell was mouth watering.

We reached the ground floor and knocked on the landlord’s door. It was opened by his wife who, before even asking our names, had ushered us in with words of welcome and sat us down in the good living room on the comfy couch.

“Sit, sit” she said smiling warmly as her husband came in from one of the other rooms.

Abu Khalde is the one of those endearing older men whose personalities shine through their eyes and who always speak their mind. He liked his stomach, that much was clear from the moment he strode in and welcomed us reproachfully as if to say ‘why has it taken you so long to come and say hello to me.’

Within minutes we had cups of sweet tea and pieces of chocolate cake in front of us.

There are no errands in Palestine. Only visits where things sometimes get done. We sat with Abu Khalde for an hour; the electricity conversation lasted all of two minutes.

‘You need to top up’ he said immediately, completely dismissing that there could be any other problem then moved on to a topic that was much closer to his heart.

‘You see this scar?’ he pointed to the offending thick purple line that ran angrily up his leg winding around his knee towards his groin area. ‘This is from smoking.’

He had had open heart surgery a few years earlier which involved taking an artery from his leg.

‘Three packs a day.’ He shook his head regretfully. That was not his only health problem; he was also a diabetic following a strict dietary and pharmaceutical regime.

When the conversation moved onto the peace talks he said simply ‘what difference do these talks ever make? Nothing will change.’ Despite carrying both Swiss and Jordanian passports, in the eyes of Israel Abu Khalde was nothing more than his state issued ID card.

‘They know everything about you with this card. Everything. Where you live, where you work. Everything you have ever done in your life!’

A self professed ‘international man’, Abu Khalde had been a big time banker in London even speaking at conferences and was now happily retired in Nablus. Nablus has been quiet for years and, according to Abu Khalde, it would remain so.

We chatted with him for a while before going back upstairs. By this point the weather was oppressively hot, as it had been for the past two days. Our long sleeve cardigans were sticking to our backs and arms and all the water we were drinking was going exclusively into sweat production.

Our electricity did not come back and the heat had sapped all our energy. Crowding into our kitchen we undertook a cooking bonanza.

I began chopping onions for the loubieh bi zeit while one of my flatemates Julianne mixed flour with cocoa into a lovely paste that would soon be a chocolate cake. We were chatting with Rose and Jon when the knock on the door came.

‘Hello!’ came Abu Khalde’s voice booming through the door. He had come to check up on the electricity but mostly to have a chat. Climbing the stairs was difficult for him and he collapsed into a chair breathing heavily.

‘Turn down the fire’ he commanded me before taking a look at our supermarket choices and declaring them all a waste of money. ‘Next time tell me, I will get you the good stuff’.

The oven in our kitchen was temperamental and Abu Khalde took it upon himself to keep us posted on the cake’s status as we worked.

‘tsk tsk… the cake is on fire’ he would state calmly as the unreliable gas valve caused sudden raging flames and the rest of us panicked.

‘By the time you finish your loubieh I will have gone to sleep and woken up tomorrow morning,’ he grumbled as I stirred the mix of onions, beans and garlic.

‘But the company is lovely is it not?’ I countered.

‘Yes that is true’ he said cheering up a bit.

He treated us like family despite having so recently met us all. Like a surrogate uncle. He did not join us for dinner as his diabetes meant he could not eat in the evenings but sat with us on the table and chatted. Jon and Julianne had acquired a working level of Arabic and he delighted in correcting them as the conversation flowed easily around the table mixing between Arabic and English.

It was a lovely dinner and by the time Abu Khalde took leave of us the electricity was back and all was right in our little apartment.

The temperature of the hot water in our shower can only be described as cold and there seems to be a never ending flow of dust into the house but it is an easy home to settle into. As we turn in for the evening I look forward to tomorrow and realize this is how I want to end each day. With enthusiasm for the next.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Chapter 6 An unforgettable day

The air is fresh and there’s a cool breeze. Welcome relief from the stifling heat of Ramallah. I can smell fresh bread baking and the falafels cooking in the deep fryer. Young doctors in clean blue scrubs are inside ordering food at the café till, taking a quick break from their busy schedules in Rafeedyeh Hospital across the street.

In front of me are the hills that buffet Nablus on either side. They’re close enough for the tall residential buildings going up them to look large and their beige walls shine brightly in the morning sun.

It’s not a busy street and mostly taxis go by honking insistently at pedestrians and each other.

Inside the hospital is a team of American surgeons who have come to Nablus for the week to offer their expertise and donate their time and skills to treat children with urological problems. This covers genital issues but also other organs like the kidney and bladder. Their trip was coordinated by an organization that matches children with surgical needs with doctors and hospitals from abroad who have the facilities to treat them. Some of these children’s problems have been with them since birth while others are treated for injuries received during the many bombings or conflict related incidents that occur frequently in the Palestinian Territories.

Walking into the ward I am introduced to the organisation’s head social worker in Nablus – a warm, bubbly lady with twinkling brown eyes. She is simultaneously speaking with the doctors, manning the door to the surgery and shaking my hand as we are introduced. Her pink hijab matches her flowing pink top which in turn frames her pregnancy beautifully. She is in charge of finding children in need of surgery and helping to coordinate the logistics for the medical teams they bring in from abroad.

Next to her is Teresa. A friendly American lady in her 40’s whose short, ash blonde hair is part hidden by her surgical cap. She is the medical team’s nurse. This is the third trip to the Territories for this team and she has already picked up an impressive amount of Arabic.

‘Sabah al kheir’ she says cheerfully to the Arab doctors walking by. They respond in kind, charmed by her relaxed demeanor and quick laugh.

The three of us and the head of the organisation, who is also the kind friend who gave me a ride in to Nablus, stand around and chat about the team’s experiences and wellbeing. Since arriving in Nablus three days ago they have been doing almost back to back operations on children with a variety of surgical needs. Currently they are operating on a 1 year old who was born with under developed genitals and a faulty urinal system.

As far as I can understand, his urethra ends at the base of his penis instead of extending to the tip and he urinates through his abdomen wall. Because of this the penis is very small and has a severe curve in it.

‘Would you like to take a look?’ Teresa asks adjusting her eye glasses which rest on top of her head, underneath the cap.

‘What the surgery do you mean?’ I ask in surprise.

She smiles and nods giving me green slippers to place over my shoes and begins asking around for an extra pair of scrubs.

‘There’s going to be some blood,’ she warns as I suit up. ‘Are you alright with that?’

It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to predict how one will react to watching a surgery involving the reconstruction of the penis of a one year old until they are actually in the situation.

I nod hesitantly from behind my surgical mask.

‘The best thing to do is to keep your arms crossed like this’ she demonstrates ‘that way you can be sure not to contaminate anything.’

She leads the way into a spacious operating room. I walk in behind her my elbows practically pointing to the floor as I over cross my arms in fear of being that girl who messed up the operation.

To the left is a small group of doctors who are closely following the operation on a TV monitor. Less than a metre from there and right in front of me is the operating table. The baby is covered with a green sheet with his genital area exposed. A white haired American doctor is working on placing a tube through the penis and sewing a new urethra around it. Once this heals, the tube will be removed and the child should have normal urinary function. As he guides the curved needle in and out of the pink flesh the American describes the process, passing on as much knowledge as he can to his Palestinian counterparts.

The atmosphere is calm and orderly.

Teresa talks me through what the doctor is doing then motions me towards the head of the operating table ‘come meet the anesthesiologist’.

She introduces me to a friendly American gentleman who explains his job to me and shows me what the squiggly lines on his monitor mean.

We stand silently and watch for a few minutes as a man from across the world changes the life of a young child who will never see him again.

I nod at Teresa and we quietly leave the operating room.

‘How do you feel about helping me with my rounds?’ she offers.

As we go around the children’s ward, Teresa checks up on the patients the team has already operated on. I stand nearby and translate for her as she checks up on each patient and speaks with their mothers.

Are they eating well? Where is the pain?

Teresa’s Arabic is good however the mothers have concerns and questions that go beyond their English and Teresa’s Arabic. They ask questions about whether their child will now function normally and details about their condition; I do my best to translate.

Despite the language barrier the mothers clearly trust Teresa and she, in turn, speaks to them with genuine care. The connection between her and the women is heart-warming and their affection for her is obvious.

As a patient touches her warmly on the shoulder speaking of the olives she has set aside for her to taste I look outside the window; it’s a beautiful day.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Chapter 5 Ramallah

Ramallah is one of the wealthier cities in the West Bank and people from all over flock there for work. Some commute in and out while others move their lives and families there.

The centre of Ramallah – Manara Square – is a pulsating, crowded and heaving labyrinth of
roads. The square is actually a roundabout sporting stone lions like a mini Trafalgar Square. There are roads leading off from the roundabout in every which direction and each street is crammed with stores, falafel shops and shopping centres.

It is full of people. Groups of young men hang about on the street corners, women walk along on their way to somewhere and shop owners stand outside their doors having a chat with their neighbours while encouraging people to come in.

It’s also very dirty. There’s garbage everywhere and the flow of traffic never ebbs. There’s a vegetable market that lines two blocks with men and women presiding over the stalls of fresh produce yelling out prices. You can smell the vegetables, and the shawarmas and, wonderfully, the aromatic spices that line the pavements outside spice shops. The zaatar is so fresh and fragrant that you can practically taste it as you walk by.

The people are friendly and happy to chat. I spent about half an hour at a computer store, my transaction stalled by a friend of the owner’s who told a detailed story about the time his leg was run over by a car. The driver was texting and did not notice him praying in the middle of an abandoned parking lot.

You do absolutely get the customary inappropriate comments from the young men who hang around the stores and there are a lot of people look you up and down as you walk by. This is easily combated by an MP3 player or simply blocking them out.

There are a few places that have taken their names from Western chains with artful changes to the name and logo. Stars & Bucks and La Costa Coffee to name a couple.

I was fortunate enough to go to a restaurant/pub nearby to the square called Ziryab. It is fairly large with dark wooden tables inside. Near the entrance is a stone oven for baking bread and it has a cosy feel to it. The owner is an artist and there are interesting pieces of art that line the walls and each table has a candle holder with sayings on it translated into both English and Arabic.

The atmosphere was welcoming and friendly and it was a great place to relax and have tea or a drink. Ramallah is known for these kinds of places and I look forward to discovering more of them.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Chapter 4 The crossing

‘Just relax... don't worry’

This was the mantra I chanted silently as we sped through Jordan valley towards the border with Israel.

Amman was going through an intense heat wave but my breath was coming out in icy wisps as the taxi driver had cranked the AC dial all the way down.

‘breathe deeply... just like in that YouTube video. Feel your heart beat slow down to its normal speed.’

It worked.

Kind of.

Thump thump thump.

The closer we got to the border the lusher the Jordanian landscape became. Nourished by the Jordan River the farms on either side of the road stretched for miles. They were mostly vegetable farms with a good helping of banana plantations giving the area an almost tropical feel.

The area was incredibly rural and we passed goat herds from time to time. It was fairly desolate with the exception of the ministerial palaces that cropped up every so often.

My taxi driver was from Jerusalem with lots of advice on crossing the border. It was clear from the way he spoke he had an intense bond with his birthplace. Despite having made a life in Amman which he was very happy with, he missed the spiritual fulfillment he felt in Jerusalem.

It took us about 40 minutes to reach the border. Leaving at 7 am meant we missed the morning rush hour and we had an uneventful drive. He finally pulled up at a large blue gate.

‘Here we are’

On the left of the blue gate was a compound. The Jordanian customs.

We dragged my suitcase in to the foreigner's section (next door to the Arab's section which is generally much more crowded) and dumped it on a stalled X-Ray belt. I walked into the waiting room where about 7 other people who had also decided to make the morning trek sat patiently waiting for the customs officials to start work.

There was a mix of people. A young British couple; he ginger haired and earnestly reading his book while she sat calmly beside him wearing the long skirt and simple earrings of someone who had intense feelings about the world.

There was a group of Koreans who sat and joked together in the corner. Two men who appeared to be Arab sat chatting next to an older veiled woman. Sitting a bit apart was a young American in a floppy hat lost in thought.

I walked over to the customs window and spoke to the men who were in charge of collecting the 8 dinar exit tax.

‘What? you are Arab?’ exclaimed one and began chatting to me about Lebanon and his sister who lived in London while the other man, older, sat sullenly beside him chain smoking his pack of Gitanes.

‘Come come’ he exclaimed. ‘Why should you wait like everyone else? You are our sister. Give me your passport.’

His eyes were very blue and shone against his dark skin.

He marched me over to a private waiting room next to his office, relieved me of my passport and took it to the customs official to stamp.

‘We don't stamp your actual passport on the Jordanian side’ he confided. ‘But when you get to Israel, make sure you request the supplementary paper so you don't have trouble traveling later.’

The next half hour was really just waiting while the customs officials smoked and gossiped and my new friend made countless offers to take me out to dinner upon my return.

Eventually we made it on to the bus that would take us across the bridge. Our passports were given back to us and we were charged a fee for the bus ride and as well as a per-suitcase fee.

There were lighthearted moments as the customs official repeatedly mispronounced the Korean names and they good naturedly corrected him. As we began making our way however the bus became quiet.

I remained focused on my breathing.

The bridge itself was nondescript. Two lanes in each direction and surprisingly short. We passed by a Jordanian check point where 3 bored men guarding a tumble down shack and a solitary tank sporting a machine gun sat around aimlessly. They barely looked up from their phones and little cups of thick Turkish coffee as we drove by.

The few kilometres of no man's land between the King Hussein Bridge and the Israeli manned Allenby Crossing are desolate. Hilly and covered in that reddish sand that Jordan is famous for.

At the Israeli check point the bus was stopped and we went through a preliminary passport check as a young army man and his rifle boarded the bus looking for stowaways.

Despite having a Western passport, being born in what was technically an enemy country plus a shed load of Middle Eastern stamps dating back to 2002 was bound to be troublesome. I just wasn't sure when it would crop up.

The first check point was passed quickly and easily. No problems for anyone.

Eventually we arrive at the Allenby Crossing; the entrance to Israel.

At first glance it looks not unlike like a fish market. People mill around in a sort of queue outside. The 'queue' winds around posts leading to a check point right outside the main entrance. On the way there, people are herded through a luggage drop off area where their suitcases and passports are taken and given matching identification stickers before the suitcases are carted off for checking.

People are yelling at the luggage handlers who are yelling back names as they try to match passports to owners. As it's the entrance to the West Bank, all the workers are Arab so there's much back and forth in Arabic. One man stands at the front of the queue yelling at people who have brought milk in from Jordan. There is no reason given for this focus on milk nor why it is a problematic import.

When I receive my passport it has two stickers in the back with numbers and a bar code. I have no idea what the numbers mean but when I arrive at the check point the official circles the number 2 on my passport after asking me a round of security questions.

Where in Israel are you going? How long will you stay?

He grunts and lets me in.

Wow I think, could that be it?

It was not.

Another check point; our purses and hand luggage are scanned before entering the actual customs area.

I make my way into the line for foreigners and wait patiently as the people in front of me are questioned and ultimately allowed through.

It is my turn and all my breathing exercises go out the window. I approach the pretty young Israeli girl behind the glass with my heart thumping in my throat. I mentally will myself to relax as she brushes aside her fringe and gives me a pleasant smile.

Her brow furrows as soon as she opens my passport and she consults her colleague in rapid Hebrew. Her colleague, a plump unkempt looking girl, answers without even looking at me.

‘What is your name’ she asks.

‘What is your father's name?' She nods as I answer.

She asks me the normal security questions.

Where are you going? How long are you staying? Can I see your return ticket? Where will you be staying? Who do you know in Israel? Where are they from?

She keeps going through my passport and with every page she turns I see her shapely dark eyebrows furrowing even more deeply.

Somewhat unhelpfully, I choose this exact moment to ask for her to not stamp my passport.

‘Why?’ she counters ‘Do you live in Dubai?’

‘No,’ I reply calmly. ‘But I used to and I still travel there sometimes.’

She nods curtly, asks me to fill out a paper and then sends me to the “waiting area”.

I put that in quotation marks because the “waiting area” would more accurately be termed the “persona non grata” area. As I make my way, I see my waiting area colleagues are two veiled women and three men with long straggly beards and skull caps.

I look around. This is not looking good for me. Keep breathing.

I take out my book on Cocaine smuggling and settle in for a long wait. I was expecting to get questioned - it would have been foolish to assume otherwise and I also knew that there would be more than one set of questioning.

Indeed after about an hour a sweet looking girl with pale skin and dark curly hair came and asked me to fill out a form and to follow her to another seating area where she asked me the same security questions while making notes in hebrew.

She asked me slightly more probing questions about my life, work and political interests but all in all it was actually quite a pleasant chat.

She escorted me back to my seat and apologised for the wait.

Another hour or so passes.

Another young lady calls me over for more questioning.

The same questions - more notes in hebrew.

Who are these people that you know here? Where are they from? Do you have their phone numbers? Would they mind if we contacted them?

Not at all I say.

We talk some more and she asks me about what places I plan to visit during my stay. She is, like her colleagues, very polite and gives me advice on other places to check out. She is quite bubbly and giggles while speaking.

Back to my seat. Another half an hour passes before my name is called by yet another women who hands me my passport and gives me a small smile.

Could it be? Could I have made it? I don't even check my passport and go bounding over to the next check point like an over eager puppy.

The woman smiles at me as I approach then barks something in Arabic at a veiled Arab lady asking about her passport. She is also young and dark with curly hair.

She scans my passport and the machine immediately makes a buzzing noise. She looks at me quickly, keeps my passport and waves me over to another, similar, waiting area.

My face must have fallen to the floor. Had I actually been denied entry? As I walked dejectedly into the waiting area I pictured myself waiting for the bus to take me back to the inappropriate customs official in Jordan. How could I possibly get out of dinner now?

I wait for a while before a tall, slim young lady with a long pony tail calls me over.

She takes me into the luggage area and asks where my bag is. I point to it.

‘Bring it here.’

I lug it on to a table for her struggling under its weight

‘Open it’ she commands.

I comply.

‘ok go wait.’

Pffff I think to myself.

I go back and wait as she tests my bag for explosives then calls me back.

‘Ok’ she says ‘bring your bag here’ and points to a conveyor belt.

This time she helps me carry it, smiles and escorts me to through the area and towards the final check point.

The bleached blonde at the final check point takes a cursory look at my passport and nods me through.

At this point it has been 5 hours since I left the house. It has taken three and a half hours to cross the 500 metres from the entrance of the building to the luggage area in the back.

I grab my suitcase, exchange some money and make my way outside to a scene of pure chaos.

I am now back in Arab land and the area is heaving with travelers eating and chatting as taxi drivers aggressively sell their services.

I weave my way through to the only taxi stand and, in English, ask for the bus to Ramallah.

‘Ramallah?’ the man says ‘there's no bus to Ramallah, only taxi.’

‘Ok, how much is a taxi?’

‘450 shekels.’

I didn't even bother doing the conversion in my head. I wasn't paying 450 anything at this stage of my trip.

‘Are you joking?’ I exclaimed. ‘No, there must be a cheaper way.’

‘No,’ he grinned ‘450 is standard price.’

‘It's too much! What other options do I have?’

‘Ok, you find someone going Ramallah and go together.’

‘Fine,’ I say ‘How do we find someone?’

He looks at me in amusement ‘You go, ask, find someone.’

‘Me?’ I gasp incredulously. ‘You want ME to find someone?’

With the patience of a saint mixed in with that look Arab men get when they know they can be helpful to a woman in a way they may be able to exploit he says: ‘ok, I go.’

As he walks off someone who looks like a businessman asks me if I'm going to Ramallah.

‘Me too’ he says. ‘I'll negotiate a price’.

10 minutes later we were on our way to Ramallah and half an hour after that he had given me the low down on where to go in Ramallah. The driver of the taxi also joined in talking about Jerusalem, his home town and various other cities in the West Bank.

I'd only just arrived and didn't know much yet, but from all the people I'd spoken to that day one thing was very clear. Everyone here loves this land.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Author's Note

A quick thing. Well maybe a couple of things.

Don't be thrown by the dates on the posts. What started off as emails to family and friends has become a blog so most of the entries will not have been posted at the specific time that they refer to. There is a way to fix that and I will when I have the time I promise!

Secondly, people here have been wonderfully friendly and open. When I refer to people I meet in this blog I won't be using their real names. I feel like it's maybe more respectful of their hospitality that way.

That's it! Thanks for reading and I hope you continue to do so.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Chapter 3 Ready

Yes! Bought my ticket to Jordan and will be going through the King Hussein/Allenby Crossing shortly after.

I’m hoping to find some time in my itinerary to check out the famous Palestinian Oktoberfest.

That’s right – Oktoberfest. I was just as surprised. An annual beer festival in a little Christian village in the West Bank called Taybeh. Its family owned brewery hosts two days of festivities where Palestinians and Israelis come together for a couple days of music, festivities and good, wholesome beer chugging.

Sounds good I think. Plus I’ve been going through the guide books – Jerusalem sounds incredible and I definitely want to spend some time there. It’s now dawning on me how really worth a visit this country is and I’m getting more and more excited. As someone with roots in Palestine, to finally get the chance to visit and explore is actually pretty thrilling.

I figure if I do get turned away at the border I’ll just keep trying until I run out of borders.

Then I may have to come up with a new plan, but for the moment, I’ll just take things one bridge at a time.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Chapter 2 The unexpected

Life has a fantastic way of upping the stakes when you least expect it. My boyfriend has decided he doesn’t ‘do’ long distance.

So now – no job, no lovely boyfriend... nothing left for me here. Winter has made an early entrance and the prospect of having to face the cold months ahead only makes me more despondent.

It’s Palestine or bust for me now.

1 week to go...