Sunday, 27 February 2011

Bethlehem/Beit Sahour

     I thought it was about time, or four weeks late, that I got around to writing a few words down about what it’s like in Palestine and especially in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour where I am. 
Beit Sahour, (place of the night watch) shares a ridge of the Judean Mountains with Bethlehem (house of meat) and over looks the plateau of shepherd’s fields, where many years ago, as they were tending their flocks by night, an angel announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus. 
Beit Sahour is known for the Shepherds’ fields, production of olive wood tourist souvenirs and as a center of Palestinian Resistance against the Israeli Occupation.  During the first and second Intifada activists pioneered non-violent resistance techniques, including refusing to pay tax to Israel in 1989.   This led to a 42-day curfew put in place by the Israeli Military authority. The ‘curfew’ amounted essentially to a siege. Food shipments were blocked, telephone lines cut, reporters and international representatives were prevented from visiting to investigate conditions and houses were raided and millions of dollars worth of money and property were taken.  The UN considered a resolution demanding the return of Palestinian property confiscated by Israel, but the US vetoed it, despite the resolution having the support of the 11 other security council members.
So, yes, by the way, there is an occupation on.  This means that Palestinians can’t leave the West Bank without express permission by the Israel military authority.  It has been difficult to fight the overwhelming dislike of Israel, Israelis, and IDF and try to remain not neutral, but remembering that not all Israelis/Jews are as bad as what we encounter.  But some of the stories I've heard, the most common being that "my family was from the outskirts of Jerusalem, we had a lovely big farm, olive trees, sheep, goats, and then in '67 the Israeli's evicted us and we had to move here and start over.  The Palestinian/Arab family is the nucleus of all social life.  Many homes are build on the foundations laid by grandparents or great-grandparents, with younger generations building another floor or two to accommodate the next generation.  The family is the main social support structure as well.  If a home is overlooked by an Israeli watchtower for example and tensions are high, Palestinians go and stay with their cousins, sleeping 6,7,8+ to a small room to avoid being shot by jumpy IDF as they walk past a window in their kitchen.  Sometimes for years.  
Pertaining to recent Middle Eastern events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, here’s a good article explaining the Palestinian position.
I’ve been working on construction projects at Paidia’s new center.  Check out Paidia website to see what they’re all about.
The constructing the new center has been an interesting experience; I’ve learned a great deal of Arabic working with local dialect speaking construction crews.  Especially from the Boss, Khalid, who is a jack of all trades, and owns and runs a wood oven pizza parlor that sends a third of their profits to help Palestinian children get heart surgery in Israel.  Khalid works 12+ hour days, half doing manual labor, 6 days a week if not more.  He's very kindly called me a good worker, but its difficult not to feel lazy thinking about his work week. 
Otherwise, it’s been cool through February, the buildings are all made to dispel heat, so waking up in the morning, layers of clothing on before heading outside where the temperature is considerably warmer, and the layers are removed.  
It's a funny old place but I'm happy to be here, everyday I'm learning something new about the Palestinian national personality.  For a people without a "country" they're making due with the merest of resources, and working with super human effort to ensure that they can afford to give their children, and their extended family the best chance they can provide to take their futures and improve their situations.  Very inspiring.  


Thursday, 3 February 2011

On Egypt, revolution and stone saunas

         Visit the nearby by eco-sustainable farm last night, its run by a friendly bunch of expats including British, American, and various Austrians, Belgians and Dutch.  An unnecessarily complicated batch of mulled wine was concocted from a clove-studded orange, brandy and an industrial-grade Chinese imitation of Merlot.  Shortly after the concoction had been conceived, it mysteriously vanished into the chill, clear holy-land night.  The eco-farmers, despite their friendly devil-may care attitude, are a greedy bunch of bastards when it comes to alcohol in all forms. Especially those which it is inadvisable for humans to ingest.  
         In the side of a hill, chiseled out of the stone, the farm has a small stone sauna, with a heavy camel hair rug for a door and heated by an old bread oven, covered in fist-sized rocks.  Smoke filtered out and water was thrown, filling the room with steam.  That little stone room outside the village of Beit Sahour, West of Bethlehem is the coolest place in the Middle East, in more ways then one.

In Tunisia, young men set themselves ablaze in protest of municipal bureaucracy almost a year ago in March, but until protesters began using cellphones, the web and specifically facebook to share images and ideas in early December, the revolution hadn't begun.  Once it did however, the rest of North Africa and the Middle East woke up.  The young and unemployed quickly lost their fear of authoritative governments heavy-handed punishments and went to work organizing, protesting and planning the same thing for the next day, the next week, the next month.

Night before last, Egypt's 30-year standing President Mubarak announced after weeks of protests shaking the streets of Egypt's cities, that he won't stand for reelection.  It would be extremely patient of the Egyptian people wait that long.  

In Jordan, King Abdullah II fired his government in the midst of protests.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, also a thirty-year political fixture has said he'll step down in 2013.  

Hell of a time to be in the Middle East, and it would be a hell of a thing to see if if ever sparked here.  However, there's conflicting opinions, as there seems to always be in Palestine.  The last couple of years have been relatively good visa vie Israel, occupation and the like.  People do not necessarily want to risk that, when the backlash could be severe, and the potential for any real gains very small.
Palestinians seem content for the minute to watch what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen.  Particularly interesting for the situation here will be the resulting power shift in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood has been quietly supporting the revolution there from the sidelines.  They've been outlawed from Egyptian politics for years, having to run for office as independents. However, they're very well regarded for their social programs domestically.  Internationally, however, they're associated with the big T, for Errorism, because of links to significantly less moderate groups.

In any case, this change in political hegemony from their large neighbor across the Sinai is freaking out the Israeli right-wing who fear for their security considering they've allied themselves with Egypt's repressive and autocratic government for the past thirty years.  And rightly so, the U.S. made the mistake of not backing Egypt's people quick enough, but when you've been giving an average of $2billion annually in military aid, to a country with growing food costs and shortages.

In any case, I've got very little idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months.  If the revolution is successful, and a New Egyptian government is eventually put together then we may see an interesting shift in power and international relations here in the Middle East.

What I do know is that I'm safe and sound, slightly chilly, but at least I don't have snow up to my nipples.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Work Journal

Day 2-Fri, Jan 21
            Spent the day in Paidia’s offices being welcomed again and given the orientation. The orientation included an expanded expectation of what the organization offers and what the organization expects from its volunteers.  Shortly after I am taken to Paidia’s Center and shown the projects including the construction of an enclosed chicken coop and feeding area, finishing off a compost toilet and putting together a low ropes course, that it is hoped that I can contribute to. 
            Spent the day in the office researching chicken coop and compost toilet designs.  The main challenge of constructing these projects is going to be utilizing the most cost effective and available materials, to save the organization money while still creating a sustainable asset. 

Day 3- Sat, Jan 22
            Worked for a couple hours on the Paidia center's garden, planting cabbage and watering small trees.  The center is being converted from an outdoor restaurant that was occupied by Israeli Defense Force personnel during the second intifada.  The result was a dilapidated shell of what was formerly a thriving business.  The owner of the property moved to America, and when approached by Paidia with the proposal for converting the site to an education center for young people, he was enthusiastic about the project and generously gave a year’s free rent.  The organization now faces the challenge of relocating the thirty-foot tall climbing wall as well as repairing and reconfiguring the former restaurant, to include sustainable initiatives like the free range chicken coop, organic garden and compost toilet, while also continuing to provide programs and for the regional and international youth and fund raising events.  Drove to Jerusalem in the evening, walked around Jaffa Street.  There is a striking contrast to Israel and the Palestinian territories.  The  order of everything from traffic to landscaping. Litter; newspapers, plastic bags, scraps of cardboard, water bottles, broken glass, etc are constantly present in Palestine, but just as blatantly absent in Jerusalem. 
Day 4-Sun, Jan 23
            Took a hike along the outskirts of Beit Sahour, the weather was pleasantly cool, but sunny.  The countryside has rolling hills, occasional olive groves and frequent construction sites.  Families save money, typically don't borrow, and buy property alongside each other and construct square stone multistory homes, with square balconies and flat roofs.  The stone exterior, coupled with interior tile floors and high ceilings help keep the buildings cool during the majority of the year.  However in winter, they do very little to hold any heat, and propane heaters are used in the Paidia office as well as in the guest house for additional heat.  In the mornings, I’ve found that getting outside and moving is warmer then staying in bed. 

Day 5- Mon, Jan 24
            Went to the office today and caught up on the journal and did online math coursework.  After lunch, Brady, my Canadian housemate and I went to measure the site for the proposed chicken coop and doorframe space for the doors to the composting toilet.  We worked to level the ground in the garden and considered ways to fight erosion from the footpaths into the garden beds and planted a few small trees.  

Thursday, 27 January 2011

On getting settled in Palestine

The week in Palestine began auspiciously.  From London Luton to Tel Aviv, Ali Suliman the Palestinian actor who plays a reluctant suicide bomber in the film Paradise Now was on the flight.  After picking up my luggage I went to immigration and clean shaven and with the love of the lord in my eyes and heart, said I was a religious tourist who was staying with friends, but hadn't decided on departure dates yet.  The gruff Israeli asked if I was planning on going to the Palestinian side, I said I didn't know but would probably see Bethlehem at some point.  Granted the three month visa of the cunningly dishonest, but before proceeding to customs and the exit a young woman disguised in the helpful and welcoming outfit of an airline stewardess interrogated me further about my visit, in case I had forgotten my cover story during the 30 second walk, and would suddenly admit to being a Palestinian sympathizer, some sort of criminal de-kosher-er, or an impoverished asylum seeker.
          You may have heard on the news that civil unrest has been rocking and rolling from Tunis to Cairo and Yemen.  Throughout the Middle East there's been looting, burning, rioting, tear gas and attempted suppression by police forces, people acting out in anger against their entrenched and corrupt, greedy leaders.  It's all really exciting, but it ain't happening here.
         In Beit Sahour, west of Bethlehem, its been windy, dry and cool.  The sun has shined through the day, a cool wind has blown and people have gone about their lives within an occupation, albeit now with one more expat volunteer in their midst.
           Rachel the managing director of the Paida drove us from the airport in Tel Aviv, past Jerusalem, around Bethlehem and through a checkpoint near an Israeli settlement.  Lit up against the night, the settlement looked imposing and readily defendable, like some sort of crusader castle with double glazed windows, occupying the top and most of a hillside.
             The having gone through the checkpoint several times now, I can say that it still creates a small amount of anxiety, mostly because I speak no Hebrew, and feel that I'd get in trouble for that.
            Two days ago I  spotted Banky's Peace Dove wearing a flak jacket, going into Bethlehem after going through the West Bank barrier wall.  The wall in two words, is a fucking monstrosity, and I can only hope that the gravel it will eventually be ground down into is used to line the septic tanks from future generations.
More soon, time for dinner...

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On getting on

Wait, what's all this? Monday here and we're back to work.  Or so I woke up thinking. It's quite a nice thing, dreaming about normal things like beautiful women and wide open countryside.  Up until recently dreams have been of bringing a thesis paper to turn in, and finding myself with a ream of blank, white papers, which promptly turn into a handful of maggots as soon as I realize that I'm wearing an unflattering shakespearian codpiece in place of trousers.  
It's pretty nice to not have to worry about writing thesis papers.  In fact, I think I might missphell something just for fun.  That sorta thing's allowed in "blogging" right?  Who cares, I'm in France now and happily re acclimated to the traveller's world of visitings, drinking, noncommittal commitments and vague conversation.  This has been aided by early morning runs up and down hills, through countryside.  Wine.  Rich food.  English people who like being expats.  French people who don't mind French-speaking English expats. And more wine.  
 So what's gone on? Well, the weather's been good by all standards, in the mornings before I run I can see the Pyrenees to the south.  As the sun comes up it hits the snow on them for a short while before hazing them out of sight.  The last few days have been awash in eating, drinking, talking to nice people or trying to string enough cognates together to understand and then cobble together enough Franglais to reply intelligently.  This has had mixed results.  The French don't seem to mind my slaughter of their language, but rather appreciate the effort.  

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Yell "Vive le France" pull pin, throw grenade and run

Arrived two days ago in Pau, southwest France.  Pau has the small and efficient airport Anne and I came into before shooting off with Father to the house they share slightly outside the little village of Castillion Debat.  The weather was, and continues to be what I had hoped for in England.  Rain, bit of wind, 50-60'F, wonderful winter weather in my opinion. "Weirdo" you call me?  Sure, snow is pretty and white christmases are supposedly better christmases, even though and it must be said that wee baby Jeesus didn't have one.  Anyway, keep the snow in the mountains where it's useful, the sky grey and the temperature in the region where one appreciates roaring fires, whiskey and heavy sweaters.

So, the house here, called Bel Air confusingly just like another one down the road, has all the exposed wooden beams, stone work and wrought iron fittings that belong quite happily in a cozy little country house.  The exterior is charmingly disheveled, and the interior is roguishly crooked, all of which reminds one that the house has been here long enough for the ground to have moved beneath it, and has been lovingly restored, maintained and expanded by Anne and Andy.
The main hallway leads into a rough finished work zone, a labyrinth of barny attached buildings, and a attack bat guarded wine cellar   The place used to have a forge, make wine, insult English, fight Germans, Romans and Visigoths before making love long into the night.  Well, that's what it would tell you anyway, if it could.  There are old farming implements and machinery, the most notable of which is an old steam driven hammer, used to pound hot metal into useful things.

The house is perched, as with the village, at the top of one of the higher points in the surrounding area, looking down at surrounding hills, valleys, fields and woods.  In the evening, low lying fog creeps up towards the house from the valleys, shrouding the landscape in a attractively eerie, think mist.

Christmas and New years parties are being held here and preparations are being make for nice things to  eat and drink.
I've been running around the countryside in the mornings for excersise. Jet lag is fading, but I'm still waking up at weird times of night.
Initially, the only French I was able to remember from high school, was a gracious apology for not being able to speak French.  More vocabulary has been forthcoming, but Arabic words keep rising from mind to tongue.
More soon, and pictures- a tout a leur-

Monday, 20 December 2010

Test Drive

So alright then.  Here we are blogging.  Seems like something that should be done alone in a hotel room somewhere near Stanstead, doesn't it? Anyway, if this thing works then it's the efficient way to inform You, sitting there at your computer where ever you are of what I'm doing sitting at my computer where ever I am.  Keeping in mind that I am writing to many of You, and I'm not going to censor myself, because then you're not going to know what I really think if I'm not free to use all the damns, shits, and hells that I like.

So here we go.  Got into England on Saturday morning. Fine flight from Detroit into Heathrow.  Ice had frozen the doors of the plane shut for an additional hour after we landed. The norse gods seemed to realize, that they could seize attention by messing with heretical christmas malarky by throwing down lots of heavy wet snow and chasing it with a sharp arctic wind.  I'll admit I was skeptical of it being any worse then Michigan, but it's been seriously cold and the snow's been heavy.

Shortly after arriving in Newport Pagnell, I had tea, a sandwich, beer, a snowball fight against the fearless young Currie brothers, more beer, short conversations about sleep and long conversations about the scurge of the snow.  There were good, hard hugs, a few names I couldn't remember and more then a few faces I wish had come out as there was loud laughter that lasted late into the night.
And there are pictures, as I became uncharacteristically snap-happy as lack of sleep dementia and silly drunkenness set in.

On Sunday, we fetched Vince's van from the mechanics, and the hill going down from the church to the river was full of kids sledding and playing in the snow.  We saw his boys and they were bigger and hairier then I'd expected.  We spent the rest of the day inside watching movies and ate a big lovely roast beef lunch with roast potatoes, peas, and Yorkshire pudding drowned in gravy.

I hadn't managed to fool my internal clock with saturday night, and jet lag woke me up early monday and I took an early morning walk in the freezing fog.  Later, around noon, head down to London and met up with Anne.  And there we are now, waiting to go to France early tomorrow morning.