Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jordan Challenge 39: Remembering the Red Sea Dive

For months I've been meaning to write this post.  It's the very last challenge I did before leaving Jordan, and it makes no sense that I didn't write about it the week I got home, or the next week.  But I didn't. I think on some level I knew that writing it was acknowledging that my year in Jordan had ended and my life in Vermont had picked back up again.

Something's changed, though, and now I felt like writing the post, and I think it's because my excellent Fulbrighter friend Grace recently came to spend the weekend in Vermont.  Grace was a part of many of the adventures I posted about last year including our Christmas-y Madaba excursion; my first trip to Beirut; our Wadi Mujeb wet hike; camping at Dana Nature Reserve; and perhaps most memorable of all, our trip to Cairo. Throughout the year last year I annoyed my fellow Fulbrighters to the point of distraction by insisting that not only was Vermont the best state of the Union, but that Camel's Hump was quite possibly the best place in that best state. So when Grace yielded to my arm-twisting and agreed to come see Vermont for the very first time, it was only obvious what hike we needed to do. An additional bonus came when my friend and former student Alexsis decided to come for a visit as well, with her roommate and friend Meghan in tow.  (Alexsis has participated in plenty of other projects on this blog as well, including among many others, a trip to Jordan, the West Bank and Dubai; snowshoeing at night; and helping me become a better skier in winter 2011).

Grace, Meghan and Alexsis all agreed with me that this bench near the beginning of the trail was pretty cool.

Alexsis, Meghan and I on the top of Camel's Hump complaining only a little that it seemed pretty snowy for early November!

So, I think Grace has helped me accept the fact that it's past time for me to fully reorient my life back to living in Vermont.  I'm going to do this final post, and after this I'm going to move into my new blog project for 2013 (and the part of 2012 that's left), which for now I'm calling Focus on Five.

But before that happens, here's a short story and some pictures from my final adventure in Jordan, doing a "try dive" complete with a scuba tank in the Red Sea.  Grace and I had agreed that we'd squeeze this one last experience in before I left the country and her office colleague and friend, Lucy decided to join us for good measure.  Because we didn't have time for a full-fledged (or even a half-fledged) course, we opted for the baby version, a "try dive".  In this version, the dive master cuts straight to the chase and runs through the most basic of basics -- mainly what to expect in wearing a tank and how to communicate via hand signals under water. Thus oriented, we strapped on our weights and surprisingly heavy tanks and other gear and explored a coral reef with the luxury of breathing under water.  Because there is so little instruction beforehand, in a try-dive the dive instructor literally leads his or her charges by the hand (and never lets go).  Grace and I swam on both sides of one instructor, and Lucy swam with the other one.

Most important sign we learned: I'm not drowning (yet).
Pulling off my diving shoes at the end of our try-dive adventure.
Everything about the experience under water was amazing.  The red sea coral reef was alive with a huge array of colorful tropical fish, corals and sponges.  It really was like visiting another planet where the atmosphere was completely different, and the movement was so much more three dimensional than ordinary life.  At one point I thought about the fact that this reef might, like so many others, be killed by our human activities that are destroying the oceans, and it just felt so incredibly tragic.  How could we destroy such a beautiful alternative universe?

Lucy checking out the coral at close range while snorkeling

Grace and I attempting (badly) synchronized snorkel-swimming for the camera.

After the dive was over, we were allowed to keep our fins and masks, and given snorkeling equipment so that we were able to pass a good chunk of the day snorkeling around the same reef that we had done our dive in.  Grace had a waterproof camera, so we were able to take some pictures then as well, though they didn't really do justice to what we had experienced previously.

Spending my last weekend in Jordan in Aqaba, the only seaside town in an almost entirely landlocked country, was a great way to experience one last facet of the fascinating country that was my home for ten months.  Doing it with my friend and fellow intrepid explorer Grace made it that much more outstanding.  And now that Grace has been to Vermont and started to explore the wonders of my chosen permanent home, it feels like the pieces are starting to settle into place.  I've been reminded that the world is full of amazing places and friends we haven't met, but who when we do, have the potential to become lifelong fellow explorers of still more exciting new and returning destinations.  It's great to reminisce and exciting to look forward and imagine what might lie ahead.

A perfect reminder that life is always changing, and that there's nothing wrong with that.  Grace and I, posing with Lucy in front of the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan in June, 2012...
...and less than six months later, Grace and I standing with Alexsis at the trail head to Camel's Hump in Vermont.  Halfway around the world, still having adventures with great people in great places.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Jordan Challenge 38: A Whirlwind Tour of Istanbul

I'm back in Vermont now, and my experience as a Fulbrighter in Jordan has been done for some weeks.  In fact, Ramadan has come and gone during the time that I've been back, and having my Jordanian friends write on the occasion of Eid has got Jordan front and center in my brain again. It's reminded me that I got to have a few more fabulous adventures before I left the Middle East, and I wanted to write about them before any more time had passed.  One of these adventures was visiting Istanbul with my wonderful friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Elizabeth.  We only had a weekend to do it, and therein lay the challenge.  For as we realized, Istanbul is a world-class travel destination, and absolutely jam-packed with amazing things to see or do. 

If you're going to Istanbul, my first piece of advice is to learn from our experience and give yourself much more than a weekend to begin with.  But if, like us, a weekend is what you've got to work with, my second piece of advice is to do with we did, and seek help from others who have been.  My friend and former student Alexsis is not only an impressively intrepid Middle Eastern traveller, she also lived in Istanbul for a semester.  Elizabeth and I were grateful to her for her exquisitely detailed written suggestions.  And so, to pay her good deed to us forward, here are some suggestions for others of some of the phenomenal sights and experiences of Istanbul.

1. Istanbul has perhaps the most intriguing position of any city in the world, It literally sits on the line between two continents, and figuratively defines the edge between East and West.  Where else in the world can you take a boat ride with Europe on one side of you and Asia on the other, or have the first site along your tour be the Aghia Sophia, still bearing traces of having been both a mosque and a church of great renown? The most fascinating places in the world are the ones that bring cultures and even civilizations together, and nowhere I've ever been (except maybe Stonetown on Zanzibar) does it with such a punch as Istanbul.

A must-do activity in Istanbul is to take a ride on one of the many ferries plying the waters of the Bosphorus and allowing tourists to stand on the deck of one boat to look at two continents.

A view from inside the Aghia Sofia.  Once a Greek Orthodox basilica, then a Roman Catholic cathedral, then an Islamic mosque and now a museum, the interior bears signs of all these previous uses.

2.  Istanbul is a feast for all five senses.  Feed them all while you're there. Like any other amazing tourist city, there's so much to see, but there's also music and dance, the sound of the call to prayer from the huge mosques, and so much good food to taste and smell -- from the scent of roasting kebabs everywhere to tantalizingly beautiful trays of sweets in shop windows to apple tea that I came away addicted to drinking.
I was sorely tempted to buy a lamp, not least because I loved passing the lamp shops at night and seeing the glorious and gorgeous patterns they made in the dark.

As in Jordan, there seemed to be a sweet shop on every corner, selling the most beautiful and delectable sweet treats, only in Turkey you can also get Turkish delight, which most Americans only vaguely remember reading about in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

At dinner our first night, Elizabeth and I were overwhelmed by not only the taste of the food but also the brightness of colors of everything on our plates.

The only thing better than Turkish food is getting to eat it several stories up at an open-air restaurant overlooking the water.

3.  In some places, the tourist meccas really are all they're cracked up to be.  Most major cities have a particular area that is prime real estate for tourists, and in Istanbul, that is Sultanahmet.  And inch for inch, I don't think I've ever been to a place that has so much of interest to outsiders crammed into a space. I was warned by locals and previous tourists alike that some visitors never get outside Sultanahmet at all, and having visited and stayed there, I can see why.

This was my favorite unexpected sight in Sultanahmet, the basilica Cistern.  It doesn't look like much at all from the outside, then you go down underneath to this amazing dark cavern full of partially lit columns, strange carvings and schools of carp swimming in the water that fills the floor of the cistern.  It's very beautiful and other-worldly.

A magnificent park and promenade, composed partly of the old Roman Hippodrome, separates the Aghia Sofia from the Blue Mosque.  It's open to the public (except, of course, during prayer times) and makes a great companion stop to the Aghia Sofia.
The Disney-esque front entrance to Topkapi Palace doesn't begin to do justice to what it's in store inside.  The complex is simply enormous, and was home to a long line of Ottoman Emperors and their harems. A visitor could easily spend multiple days inside taking in all the buildings and exhibits of life behind the walls of the palace throughout the centuries.

Islamic art doesn't show people or animals, but one of the things it does feature is intricate geometric patterns and designs.  This room was part of a library, and the walls were panelled with all kinds of differently-patterned tiles.  The three vertical dark shapes here are actually a set of special shelves cut into the wall to hold turbans.

4, I'm not a big shopper but...anyone who is will never find a better place to explore.  First, there is the famous Grand Bazaar where one can everything from high end imitations of designer bags to housewares of all kinds. Then there is a spice bazaar and sweet shops selling delectable pastries and Turkish delight. Istanbul is also crammed with carpet shops selling -- of course -- Turkish rugs.  Anyone who knows me well, particularly my sister Katrinka, who begins any shopping trip we make together by asking me how many minutes I will be able to tolerate being in the store (true story), will be shocked to learn that I voluntarily spent an entire morning in a rug shop, while Elizabeth and I each bargained our way towards buying our very own Turkish rugs. After three rounds of apple tea, two narrowly-avoided walkouts, and several viewings of photos of the shop's famous carpet customers (including our favorite, a young Donald Sutherland in geeky walking shorts and black socks), we both walked out with our very own rugs, packed to an astoundingly compact size in their special little cases with handles.

The nephew of the shop owner fell in love with Elizabeth instantaneously.  I'm pretty sure if she would have just accepted any of the hundred marriage proposals he made in the course of our morning's bargaining, she could have negotiated a better discount for both of us.  But sadly, she decided that the life of a rug vendor was not for her, and that particular bargaining avenue went untapped.

It was so much fun to watch the masters at their work.  We would mention a particular color or design, and suddenly there would be five variants unrolled on the floor, each with its own story, village of origin and proof of some aspect rendering it uniquely desirable.

5. Just go! This was the last international trip of my time in Jordan.  When Elizabeth and I booked our tickets, waning budgets, diminishing days left in the country, and competing priorities were all conspiring to suggest that we might need to forgo it.  But we threw caution to the wind, and went for the weekend, and it's one of the best decisions I made in my ten months in the Middle East.  It was also a lasting reminder of a truism that takes many forms.  Basically, there are always a million reasons not to travel -- not enough time, not enough money, work needs to be done, something in our daily routine might suffer.  We can live our lives letting these excuses make our decisions for us, or we can just go.  Istanbul is my lasting reminder in favor of the latter choice.

The view of the Bosphorus from the backside of one of the grand buildings within the Topkapi Palace compound.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eight Things I Wish All Americans Knew About Palestinians

For ten months of the last year I lived in Amman, Jordan as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow at the University of Jordan.  During that time, and in two previous short research trips, I met not only Jordanians but also ethnic Palestinians living in Jordan – some with Jordanian citizenship, some without – and Palestinians who were living in the West Bank and Gaza. I also had the opportunity to visit both Israel and the West Bank on several occasions, and to see for myself many of the issues at play – in Jerusalem, in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and in the West Bank areas of Bethlehem and the South Hebron Hills.  My experiences left me with a strong belief that there will never be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and in the Middle East more generally -- where the status of the Palestinians is a perpetual  political question-- unless and until the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians are understood,  acknowledged and addressed.

 It also seems to me that one of the major stumbling blocks to even opening up that conversation is that most Americans know very little about the Palestinians, or the nominally-Palestinian land upon which many of them live under military occupation by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). To make matters worse, Americans are often offered only the Israeli perspective on issues regarding the Palestinians.  There is little to no  reporting in the American press about the conditions that Palestinians are subject to in the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), the non-violent campaigns --including, several months ago the largest and longest prison hunger strike in history  – that Palestinians have launched to try to change their circumstances, nor the violence done to Palestinians by not only soldiers of the occupation, but increasingly and with impunity, settlers living on Palestinian land they have appropriated.

This essay is my own attempt to challenge my fellow Americans to learn more.  Some people may read what I have written and disagree with either the facts as I have presented them or the context.  While I do not claim to be an expert, I have had many more opportunities than the average American to talk to Palestinians (as well as Israelis and Jordanians who are their neighbors) and to see first-hand many of the manifestations of the occupation in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.  I hope what I have written here will not be the last word on the subject, but an opening for much more discussion and debate.
Here then, are eight things I wish all Americans knew about the people we refer to collectively as “the Palestinians”.

1.        Who the Palestinians are. One of the first things I’ve realized when talking to students and others, is that people in the United States are often not quite sure who, exactly, the Palestinians are. They often erroneously  associate the mere word with the word “terrorism” or with conflict with Israel.  Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich got a few headlines last year with his remarks that Palestinians don’t actually exist, but of course they do.  By Gingrich's logic, Canadians  and Americans as former parts of the British Empire are also "invented peoples" and equally undeserving of their own states. Palestinians are the descendants of the culturally and linguistically Arab people who lived in what are now Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories  at the time that Israel became a state recognized by the United Nations in 1948.
On a personal note, I have been told by some of my American students that they've never met a Palestinian, so I couldn't resist introducing two of the most wonderful Palestinians (and people in general) anyone could ever hope to meet.  In the top photo is Shamo, who works with Friends of the Earth Middle East - Palestine office.  Here she is taking my former student Kate around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, her hometown.  When Shamo heard that Alexsis, Kate and I were staying in a hotel during our 2010 research trip she insisted we move to her place and took us all over the region to look at projects of Friends of the Earth and meet with local Palestinian villagers.  The second picture is of my fabulous student Mary (wearing blue), sitting with her equally fabulous Health, Environment and Human Rights classmate, Noura.  Mary is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip.  She and her twin brother earned scholarships to attend the University of Jordan, while the rest of her family still lives in Gaza.  Mary is passionately devoted to human rights and development for everyone, and through her patient and thoughtful answers to my questions I learned a great deal about the lived experience of Gazans under the occupation.


2.       Why there are so many Palestinian refugees. Part of the reason that the term “Palestinian” is perhaps tricky for Americans to wrap their minds around, is that most people would agree that Palestinians operate in that  conundrum of being what political scientists refer to as a “nation” without a state.  Very broadly speaking, when Israel was granted statehood by the United Nations the area known as Palestine was partitioned into Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem being designated an “international” city.  The countries of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria did not accept this and attacked Israel. Israel won the war, but in the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed out of Israel into what are now called the occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza or into neighboring countries, and forced into refugee status. This war is seen by Israelis as a war of independence and by Palestinians as the “Naqba” (the Catastrophe).   

  A series of peace treaties left the areas now known as the West Bank and Gaza under the control of Jordan and Egypt respectively.  However, in 1967, the Israel launched a pre-emptive war against Syria, Jordan and Egypt (referred to in Israel as the Six-Day War).  In this war, Israel took the areas of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt (they later returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accord), the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Many Palestinians in these areas were again pushed out, creating a second wave of Palestinian refugees. The UN agency that deals with Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), defines refugees as "people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." But even in their own work with the 58 official refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, they acknowledge that ten of the camps had to be constructed after the 1967 conflict. When it started in 1950 UNRWA estimated that it served around 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Today there are almost 5 million official Palestinian refugees qualifying for their services, with about one-third (1.4 million) still living in the camps that were set up back in 1948 and 1967.

Almost four million Palestinians still live in the occupied Palestinian Territories, but the majority of ethnic Palestinians live outside of them.  About five million Palestinians live in Arab countries, 1.2 million live inside of Israel (most are citizens and are known as “Palestinian Israelis” or “Arab Israelis”) and 0.6 million live in other foreign countries. 

3.       Where the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are. When we speak of the occupied Palestinian Territories, we are talking about two pieces of land separated from each other. The West Bank refers to land that is on the western side (bank) of the Jordan River.  The Gaza Strip is literally a strip of land that used to belong to Egypt and now borders it.  As the map below shows, Jerusalem sits on the border of Israel and the West Bank.  In the UN separation in 1948, West Jerusalem went to Israel and was about 38 square kilometers.  The remaining East Jerusalem is only about 6 square kilometers.  Following the 1967 war Israel annexed an additional 70 square kilometers from the West Bank to add to West Jerusalem. The West Bank is home to approximately 2.5 million Palestinians, the Gaza strip 1.6 million and East Jerusalem  0.2 million.

Here is what these areas look like:

In the very simple map above, the Palestinian Territories are in orange, and one of the problems of creating a state for the Palestinians from them becomes immediately obvious – they are not connected and there is a travel ban in place between Gazans and people who live in the West Bank.  The map also demonstrates how small the Gaza strip actually is, which demonstrates one of the great hardships of the Palestinians.  In that small strip of land live over 1.6 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet with almost 10,000 people per square mile. During periods of siege, the borders to Israel and Egypt and the shoreline have all been tightly controlled, making trade, travel and basic services such as water, electricity and waste disposal difficult to impossible for the people trying to live normal lives there.

4.       What the Occupation is. As noted above, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem are all referred to as “occupied territories” because they are under the military control of Israel.  Technically, there is controversy on this point.  Israel actually considers East Jerusalem part of Israel because it annexed it when it annexed the additional part of West Jerusalem in 1967.  Although the Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the annexation of East Jerusalem, and Israel does  not grant Palestinians in East Jerusalem full citizenship (they are only “permanent residents”), no other country in the world has recognized this annexation. The Gaza Strip is also technically no longer under occupation because Israel withdrew its troops and all its settlements in 2005.  However, all the borders of Gaza, including its coast and airspace are totally controlled by Israel.  Finally, the status of occupation of the West Bank was made more complex by the 1993 Oslo agreement.  Under the agreement, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C.  Both security and administration in Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  The Palestinian Authority has administration over Area B, but Israel has all security authority and Area C is totally controlled by Israel.

  Below is a map showing the areas, with Area C in brown.  In all, 61% of the West Bank is Area C (completely controlled by Israel) and only 18% is Area A (under complete control of the Palestinian Authority).


5.       What a settlement is. The term “settlement” refers to civilian Israeli communities that have been built in the Occupied Territories.  Currently, there are settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.  According to international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention) settlements are illegal, and this position has been confirmed by the International Court of Justice and most recently, a 2012 statement by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.  Israel has rejected these ideas, and there are currently about 120 settlements formally supported by the Israel government and dozens more “outposts” not formally recognized by the state.  The 1993 Oslo Agreement included a promise by Israel to freeze settlement activity, but since 1993, the settler population has grown from some 116,300 to 289,600 in the West Bank and from  152,800 to more than 186,000 in East Jerusalem according to former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.

The settlements of the West Bank comprise much of Area C and are connected with roads that may be accessed only by settlers and other Israeli citizens.  Israel has built these roads, but Palestinians cannot use them. Although the development of official settlements continues apace, and all the settlements sanctioned by the government of Israel are provided  with roads, electricity and running water, the Palestinians living in the neighboring areas cannot access any of these resources, and in fact must petition the state of Israel to build this infrastructure for themselves.  These petitions are routinely denied, and I have personally visited Palestinian villages (in May, 2012) where people live in tents (because they are not allowed to build permanent homes), have no running water or electricity (because they are not allowed to create these systems, even to use them in their tents) and have had their wells sealed by the IDF so that they have no choice but to go to the nearest Palestinian town to buy water at ten times the cost of what is charged within Israel.

One of the tasks of the occupying  IDF soldiers is to protect the settlers from the Palestinians.  However, the opposite is not true, and the IDF is neither trained nor ordered to protect Palestinians from Israeli settlers, who can and do harass and violently attack Palestinians and their property and crops.  One notorious example is Hebron, which was a Palestinian community of 35,000 when a settlement of 800 Israelis purposely located itself in the city center, and IDF forces instituted severe restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce.  According to a report by two Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem  and the Association for Civil Rights, between 1994 and 2007, thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave and 1,829 Palestinian businesses went under. The remaining Palestinian community has attempted to keep its marketplace alive, under extreme duress from settlement residents who live in housing that is literally above the marketplace. The merchants have been forced to erect a “roof” of chicken wire over the market to shield themselves from the garbage that is hurled at them from the settlement housing above.

6.       What the separation wall is. The separation wall (referred to as the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians) was begun ten years ago, with Israel stating that it would serve as a security barrier against Palestinian acts of terrorism aimed at Israeli civilians.  However, the route of the wall (not all of it has been built yet) is not along the line demarcating Israel and the West Bank.  It is more than twice the length of the Green Line (the recognized border between Israel and the West Bank), and 85 percent of it actually lies within Palestinian territory, taking about 8.5% of land that is part of the West Bank.  Included in the additional land are many of the settlements referred to in the previous point, farmland belonging to Palestinians and water sources.

The Separation Wall is also responsible for the creation of “seam communities”, which are Palestinian communities trapped between the Green Line and the Separation Wall.  The people of these villages are entirely enclosed behind the wall and can only go outside of it through small gates manned by IDF soldiers who determine when the gates are open.  If their farmland is outside, they must bring all their farming equipment in and out of the gate every single day.  They can harvest only when the gates are open, and their work day is determined not by their needs, but by soldier decisions of when to open gates.  The same is true for school children who travel in and out, and for people having medical and other emergencies.

7.       What all of this means in the day to day life of Palestinians.  The combined presence of the occupation, the settlements and the separation wall come together in mutually-reinforcing ways that conspire to make everyday life miserable, dangerous and impoverished for the Palestinians. Here I list just a few of the many things I learned about or saw for myself in the last three years:

*Restrictions on movement. One of the most devastating impacts for Palestinians in their daily lives has been restrictions on their movements  in large and small ways.

 Israel closed both Palestinian airports (one in Gaza, one near Ramallah) in 2001, so Palestinians can only fly to other areas of the world via Jordan or Egypt.  This, of course, assumes that they can go to Jordan or Egypt, which requires permission from Israel to cross the borders.  I’ve crossed between Jordan and the West Bank at the single border crossing open to Palestinians on four different occasions.  Palestinians are processed separately from non-Palestinians, are transported on separate buses (no one is allowed to take their own cars over the border), and I’ve personally witnessed the humiliating and arbitrary treatment that Palestinians face in simply trying to enter or leave their own homeland.

Within the West Bank is a dual road system.  Settlements are connected with well-maintained, direct roads which settlers may use freely.  Palestinians are relegated to circuitous, poor roads littered with temporary and permanent checkpoints.  The ability of Palestinians to pass through the checkpoints, like their ability to go through the security wall, is at the discretion of the IDF soldiers who staff them.  As a result, for the Palestinians everything takes longer and is less predictable.  A trip that would take an hour for an Israeli settler might take three for a Palestinian living in the same area.  Or it might not happen at all, if a checkpoint is closed or passage is denied.

*Home demolition. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) estimates that since the occupation began in 1967 approximately 26,000 Palestinian structures have been destroyed by Israel.  In recent years, approximately a third of these have been homes. There are three general categories of home demolition: punitive (6%), administrative (23%) and military (47%) Punitive home destructions are done as punishments to people associated with the household for actions ranging from attacking Israelis to political organizing.  Although this policy is seen as a deterrent, studies have shown that home demolitions generally result in more violence (including suicide bombers) not less.  Administrative demolitions are carried out against Palestinians who did their constructions without legal permission; these homeowners are trapped in a Catch-22 nightmare, however, since in Area C, 94% of all building permits submitted by Palestinians are denied.  Finally, military demolitions are carried out by the IDF as a means of clearing land for a stated military objective.  In the past week, for example the Israeli Defense Minister has ordered the demolition of 8 villages in the South Hebron Hills for the sake of Israeli Defense exercises.  I visited several of these villages in May.  Some of them are actually tent cities, because the residents have been unable to get permits to build houses there, although the nearby settlements (which share the same land area but will not be cleared for the sake of the same military exercises) have had no problem building homes or having Israel provide them with roads, electricity or water.
In the two pictures below you can see one of the many structures that is now slated for demolition within this tent village. Note the mobile water tank that the village takes to the nearest town to pay to have filled.  Behind these are the Israeli settlement, which you can see more clearly in the second photo.  Although, as the first photo illustrates, they both occupy the space that the IDF has deemed necessary for military exercises, only the tent village will be demolished.

*Incarceration. As of June 2012, there were almost 4500 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons.  Of these 285 were under administrative detention, a policy that Israel has allowing a Palestinian to be arrested without any charge and held for any period of time at all. There are also about 200 Palestinian children in detention, most of them prosecuted under the military law used against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A large proportion of them were convicted for stone-throwing, an activity which is also performed with impunity by settlers of the same age who target Palestinians walking byAccording to a report released by Friends of Humanity International in 2011, the Palestinians are the most incarcerated people in the world, with over 40% of Palestinian males having experienced detention at some point in their lives.
In 2012 incarcerated Palestinians went on the largest and longest prison hunger strike in history. Some of the strike leaders had fasted for over two months' time, and over 1,600 prisoners fasted for a full month until the strike ended in negotiations with Israel in mid-May They were protesting the policies of administrative detention, extended solitary confinement, and denial of visitation of family members for prisoners from Gaza.  I was living in Jordan during the strike, which was widely discussed (and supported) by my Jordanian students and colleagues.  When I tried to discuss it with my friends in the US, most had heard nothing at all about it.  

*Water. This is one case where the numbers speak volumes. Daily per capita water use in the West Bank is 73 liters (the World Health Organization sets the minimum a person should have at 100), and  Israelis (including residents of the settlements) consume three and a half times this amount daily. In Gaza, the situation is even worse; a 2010 report issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) and various NGOs found that fully 95% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.  This is due in part to the siege on Gaza begun in 2007 that prohibited the importation of materials needed to fix and maintain the water and waste water treatment facilities there.  Though the siege has eased, the ban has been maintained.

The inequalities in water are immediately apparent to visitors to the West Bank.  Driving down a road open to foreigners (but not Palestinians), one sees settlements with not only running water but landscaped yards and swimming pools next to Palestinian villages with primitive dry wells.  Under the Oslo Agreement (which was supposed to be a temporary framework), all Palestinian water projects must go before a board that gives Israel veto power.  In interviews I conducted with two students in summer 2010, we learned that the fact that Israel almost always vetoes proposed water projects makes donor countries unwilling to support them as well.  The Separation Wall has made the situation worse, bringing numerous above and underground water sources over to the Israeli side of the wall and driving Palestinian farmers reliant on these water sources out of business.  When their land goes fallow because they cannot water it, it becomes subject to seizure by Israel, which claims the right to any land not being cultivated by Palestinians.
The picture below shows the water source of a tent village we visited in the South Hebron Hills.  Though it always went dry in the summer, the water is now completely unusable because the IDF crushed and threw a block of rusted metal into the well so that people would not be able to drink the water in order to enforce a ban on developing water sources in the area.

*Economic and human development. Not surprisingly, the impediments to movement, demolition of homes and seizure of land, deprivation of water and other fundamental abuses of rights that occur daily under the occupation have devastated the economy of the occupied territories.  The areas are legally and logistically unable to develop infrastructure – roads, airports, water and sewage treatment, communications networks – to connect Gaza and the West Bank, the Territories to the outside, or even communities within the regions.  Farmers and manufacturers must compete with subsidized settlements that have not only the benefits of water, government-provided services like electric lines and roads, and the provision by the government of the land itself, but also the ability to farm and manufacture under conditions of their own choosing.  In addition, the settlements can take advantage of the cheap labor of farmers who have lost their own land and must now make the choice of working on the settlements or living in abject poverty.  Under such conditions it is hardly surprising that according to Palestine's 2010 Millennium Development Goal Progress Report, 34% of Palestinians live below the national poverty line -- 23.6% in the West Bank and 55.7% in Gaza.  Even these numbers are kept artificially low by humanitarian assistance.  If this assistance were withdrawn, the poverty levels would be estimated to rise to 45.7 in the West Bank and 79.4 in the Gaza Strip.  The same report notes that food insecurity, is also high, with 25% of those in the West Bank and 61% in Gaza qualifying as food insecure, while unemployment has doubled since 1999.

8.       Ways to be a part of the solution.  This post has already gone far longer than I ever meant it to, and so, instead of writing another lengthy section, I will close very briefly by saying that there are many, many organizations and information sources for people interested in learning more and contributing to a just and lasting solution that will benefit both the long term interests of Palestinians and Israelis.  Rather than trying to create a list, I will mention and thank the two organizations most responsible for igniting my own interest and further research on these issues, Friends of the Earth Middle East and Breaking the Silence.  The groups are very different, but they both have inspirational founders, courageous staff and volunteers, and visions for change grounded in educating larger publics about the ways in which current policies are systematically denying the rights of Palestinians and making lasting solutions to shared problems an impossibility. These groups, and the Palestinian friends and their supporters who I've met in the past three years inspired me to learn more and speak out on behalf of injustices that are happening every day.  There is a wide spectrum of opinion among Palestinians, Israelis and their allies about the best means of finding lasting solutions to the problems outlined here (and others that I've left out). But a first step, I would argue, is to ensure that all voices are heard, and particularly those Palestinian voices that have not been heard, especially in the United States, though these issues affect their lives and futures most directly at all.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jordan Challenge 37: Up All Night in Beirut

Lots of people know New York City as the City that Never Sleeps, and I had a great time testing out the title with Chris a couple years ago. So naturally it seemed like a good idea to try out the same strategy in a new place, with Mike and Cooper totally on board. I am proud to say that Mike, Cooper and I proved that Beirut is a very easy place to have an all-night adventure.  Should anyone at home wish to try it, you can start with this handy step-by-step guide.

Step One: Begin the Day as Usual
For Mike, Cooper and me this meant breakfast, some further exploration on foot of the city, and some quality time reading at a cafe on Rue Gouraud.

It began like most other days in Beirut -- putting in some time with some caffeinated beverages and reading materials at a lovely cafe.
Step Two: Go to a Soccer Game
Funny the things you take for granted.  Beirut is the first city any of the three of us had ever been to where political tensions could be measured by whether spectators are allowed to view the national team play its soccer matches. Luckily for us, according to Mike's journalist friend Steven, things were pretty calm the week we there, which meant that Lebanon could actually play its match against Uzbekistan in front of fans rather than an empty stadium.

Nothing says carefree like a solid wall of riot police ringing the field for the entire game.  This is also the only professional sports event I've ever been to where my entry was seriously delayed because every single fan was subjected to airport-style security searches as the stadium gate.

My favorite fan was sitting about 4 rows down. She had the Lebanese flag painted on her face and also covering her hair.  It was probably due to her attentive support that Lebanon was able to score the single goal that ended the game in a tie.
Step Three: Fuel Up at (Where Else?) Le Chef
Le Chef is something of a local legend.  It doesn't look fancy from the outside, but the food is awesome and you can't miss the distinctive tall, thin waiter who is always there waving people inside with a gravelly-voiced "Welcome, welcome".  Once inside he gives you a menu, which is a bit superfluous because he has already decided what you will order, and resistance is futile. Le Chef had its 15 minutes of fame in 2006 when, under Israeli bombing, internationally-famous foodie Anthony Bourdain, insisted on pressing on with his show at the restaurant before cancelling the rest of the Lebanon series.

If you don't go to Le Chef while you're in Beirut, you may as well stay home. It was, of course, the perfect dinner for our Up All Night experience.
Step Four: Take Up Residence at One of Gemmayze's Charming Bars for a Long Night of Drinks and Conversation
After taking care of the all-important dinner requirement, it was time to move a few doors down the street to one of the many small and friendly bars on the block for drinks and Intelligent Discussion of Important Things. For our political science-heavy contingent (Cooper actually got his degree in economics but if pressed he could play a political scientist on TV remarkably well), that can only mean one thing.  Not celebrity gossip or whether this season of Mad Men was good as the others, but whether the nation-state is inherently a social construct that encourages immoral behavior.  You know, the usual 2 am chit-chat in a bar. We managed to keep the debate alive till about 3:30 am, when we didn't run out of ideas, but the bartender ran out of patience with us and a few other stragglers and suggested we take our witty and urbane ideas elsewhere.
Our good-natured waitress snapped this picture about 2 minutes before she broke the news to us that we would have to move our weighty political discussion to another venue -- perhaps the UN?

Step Five: After Closing Down the Bar, Explore the City
Once our bar had closed it was time for some general city exploration in search of others that might still welcome us with open arms.  Our thought was that the high-end hotels with their rooftop bars along the waterfront might be just the trick.  But alas, we discovered that the high rollers there apparently turn it in by 4 am, too.  However, the security staff did seem concerned about us, and I think noting our less-than-glamorous clothes, decided we might be in desperate need of wet wash cloths for some on-the-spot freshening up, and bottles of water for rehydrating.  We accepted their charitable contributions to our cause and made our way onward to the Corniche.

Around 4 am, and the guys were getting punchy and I was getting bossy.  Hence, the order for them to pose among the statues.

Step Six: Head to the Corniche for the Sunrise
So, obviously, when all else fails (and especially when you're starting to get sleepy) the thing to do is to head to the waterfront.  We were not alone in this conclusion and we spent a pleasant hour or so waiting for the sun to come up by trying to sort out the late-nighters from the early-morning types who inhabited the space with us. 
Mike and Cooper, hiding their sleepiness fairly well.

Mike also took the opportunity to play around with the settings of his camera.  Here is his Artistic Black and White Shot.

Step Seven: Declare Victory and Head Back to the Hostel for Some Well-Deserved Rest
Around 5 am the sun came up, and we watched it make its appearance and then did some more people-watching as well.  Then we gathered ourselves for one last long walk back to our hostel and some serious sleep. Victory!

We did it!  Pulling together one last burst of energy for the long walk home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jordan Challenge 36: Untangling the Politics of Lebanon

One of the many things I've learned from my ten months in Jordan is that I absolutely love Beirut.  As my good friend and fellow political science Fulbrighter Mike and I often concur, it is a political scientist's stomping ground of the first order.  No decision could have possibly easier, then, when Mike and Cooper graciously invited me to join them for a return trip to Lebanon for a week.  Although the three of us are, admittedly, a bit nerdy in our fascination of the politics of the place, I am proud to say that we also got in touch with our more adventuresome side and did a Middle Eastern version of one of my favorite things from my year of 52 New Things: 24 hours without sleeping (this time in Beirut instead of New York City). But work before pleasure (even if learning the politics was pleasure to our rabidly political brains), and the story of 24 hours on the go in the not-so-sleepy city of Beirut will get its own post.
Mike and Cooper on the Corniche at the beginning of our week-long quest to learn more about the complicated realm of Lebanese politics.

If I could neatly explain Lebanese politics in a single blog post I would be brilliant and probably worthy of some sort of important prize, because that is an impossible task.  So, I shall not attempt it, but rather content myself with briefly mentioning two of the obvious features that make the politics of the country at once impossibly complicated but endlessly fascinating.  The first is Lebanon's sectarian make-up and the second is its neighbors.These two things cause tiny little Lebanon to pack a punch far greater than its size -geographic or population-wise - would normally warrant.

 When Lebanon got its independencefrom the French in the 1940s, there was a national census that found that Christians were a slight majority of the population. A system of governance was set up that gave different sects different roles in the government. The demographics have shifted over time because of a number of factors including the outward migration of Christian Lebanese to other parts of the world, differential birthrates, and the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 who now number some 400,000 (in a country with only 4 million people). But there has never been another census -- one of many points of contention among politicians and the citizenry. The system still works by setting aside special roles for each religious group -- Christians still hold the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Ministership, Shia'a Muslims the Parliamentary Speakership. The fourth largest group are the Druze (a religious sect that broke from the Shia'a in the 11th century), and they have often constituted a sort of wild card in parliamentary politics, where their votes and positions are needed to form a viable government or bloc on an issue.

At various points in time Lebanon has been occupied by both Israel and Syria, and has been engaged in its own civil wars, with those two neighbors also playing pivotal roles in aiding particular sides in the fighting. These two countries also played important roles in the emergence of what is probably the most well-known faction to Americans, Hezbollah. In the 60s, 70s and 80s Palestinians organized through the PLO and Christian militias known as Phalanges with the backing of Israel fought each other, and the situation became an outright Civil War in 1973. The civil war gave Syria a reason to come in as an occupying force in 1976, which it did, and then Israel came in to occupy the southern part of Lebanon in 1978. Hezbollah emerged in 1983 as an Iranian and Syrian-backed resistance movement that used terror tactics to drive out Israel. Now in 2012 Hezbollah continues to control a lot of Southern Lebanon. It also holds twelve seats in the Lebanese Parliament and considers itself still at war with Israel, in part because of some disputed territory still under Israeli control called the Shebaa Farms.
A place I never knew existed, much less ever imagined I'd visit -- the Hezbollah Museum in the town of Mlita in Southern Lebanon.  If you want to understand Lebanon, you have to learn about Hezbollah.  And to do that, go to the source.

This centerpiece exhibit features captured and destroyed weaponry from fights with Israel.

The occupation by Syria was also highly controversial and the cause of much fighting, which came to a head in a terrible car bombing in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister (who was running again for office), Rafik Hariri. Hariri had been a very successful businessman-turned-politician. He was seen as a good coalition-builder and who had been increasingly moving to a position of demanding Syrian withdrawal. His assassination was credited with galvanizing a critical mass of the country and a political coalition known as the March 14 Alliance into demanding Syria's withdrawal. Although the Alliance eventually succeeded in forcing a formal withdrawal, Syria's presence remains a reality in many ways in Lebanon and Syria's civil war has spilled over into the North. A coalition of groups, including Hezbollah and its fellow Shiite group Amal, known as the March 8 Coalition continue to back the Al-Assad regime in Syria, while the March 14 Alliance opposes it.
The memorial to Rafik Hariri is a permanent tented display next to the giant mosque he paid for and had built for the city of Beirut.

With Hariri in the upper right, the other images are of other people who were killed the day of the bombing.  The total eventually extended to 23.  One of the deaths I thought was most tragic was of the young man in the lower left hand corner.  He was a paramedic in the convoy who was on hand in the event of just such an attack.  He burned to death when the blast caught his ambulance on fire.

As I hope even this extremely brief and superficial description of a few salient features and events illustrates, Lebanese politics is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. But we threw ourselves into it. We read books on the subject while we were there, plied Mike's friend and former student turned Lebanon journalist Steven with many questions, visited Beirut neighborhoods and areas of the country that visibly identify themselves with various political factions and discussed, discussed, discussed.
Book club!  In between our wanderings, all three of us were reading books to help us make sense of what we were exploring.  Mike and I were reading Killing Mr. Lebanon, the story of the Hariri assassination, and Cooper tackled Warriors of God, the story of Hezbollah, both of which were written by the journalist Nicholas Blanford.

And of course, we had to discuss -- at great length -- our questions and discoveries, preferably over sunset waterfront dinners such as this one we were having in Byblos.

As I told Mike and Cooper at the conclusion of our week, I now believe I know quite a lot more, but understanding is a whole different thing. It's a good thing I love Beirut, because I think the path to clarity on this one is long and winding, and maybe even never-ending. That's hardly a burden, though, when the quest for understanding is happening in such an amazing place, with two fabulous and equally curious friends and travel buddies. I'd be ready for another round just about any time.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Jordan Challenge #35: Wet Hike Through Wadi Mujib

I just got back from a week in Lebanon with my good friends Mike and Cooper, tackling challenges galore there, but before I record them, there are a couple others I wanted to write about that happened before I left.  For this one, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my fabulous friend Grace, who chose this as her birthday activity, to Kelsey who did most of the logistics, and to Sarah M, and Nathan, who rounded out the crew of Mujib explorers.

One of the lesser-known features of Jordan (at least to foreigners) is Wadi Mujib, the country's "Grand Canyon". It is a giant gorge that enters the Dead Sea, and has the claim to fame of being the lowest nature reserve on earth. In the winter and early spring it is closed because of the danger of flash floods, but in the summer you can throw on a life preserver and try out the "wet hike" experience.  Most of the trails are long and very difficult, and hence require guides.  But the Siq Trail is self-guided and shorter, so that is the one we took.
Ready for anything ahead -- me, Grace, Kelsey and Nathan..

The thing to know about wet hiking is that it really lives up to its name.  We were forewarned to leave everything, including sun glasses, back in our car because we would get totally soaked, and there were places where the water would reach above our shoulders.  Happily, Kelsey had a waterproof camera, and she did bring that, lashed tightly around her wrist, and I have her to thank for all of the fun pictures in this post.  This is definitely a case where the story is in the pictures, so I'll let them tell it.
Watching Nathan tackle the first waterfall, I must confess I was feeling some trepidation.

Turns out that the climb was slippery, but kind of fun.

Sarah and I pressing forward.  Something I learned that day is that pounding water has a lot of force behind it!

Success!  Kelsey, Sarah, Nathan, Grace and I standing in front of the waterfall at the end of the Siq Trail -- all of us, as promised, completely soaked.

Coming back we slid down the waterfalls we climbed up before.  Here's a Grace-ful landing by the Birthday Girl.

In case anyone was wondering, Fulbrighters do float!  But beware -- they also get bruised and a bit beat up by the rocks lurking below.

When we were headed back home, Kelsey shared a secret with us, her favorite abandoned building in the city, discovered on one of her many runs throughout Amman. We just had to explore it, and once we were on the roof, realized it would be the perfect setting for a band doing photos for an album cover.  That was obviously too good of an opportunity to pass up, so here is what we would look like if we were a band in addition to of a bunch of Fulbrighters who just waded our way through an adventure-filled canyon.
Nathan, Sarah, me and Grace working on our sullen/thoughtful rooftop band pose, but not quite there.

Like any good band, we need a little drama.  Here Grace gets kicked out and Kelsey shows us some attitude.
I had just about accepted the fact that a wet hike just wasn't in the cards for this year of Jordan Challenges when Grace and Kelsey made it so.  Sadly, things are winding down for both of them (and me) as our school years are over, and technically our work is just about done.  But I'm glad we're making the most of our last few weeks together, and Wadi Mujib was surely a "mostest" in lots of ways.