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What does it mean to thrive?

Knowing your children attend a good school.  Earning a salary that allows you to save money for the future.  Going on a summer vacation, maybe traveling abroad.  Making dinner in a cozy home with abundant choices from the grocery store, choices that allow you to be vegetarian or vegan if you wish.  Being able to go out to eat once in awhile.  Joining a club in your town where you can swim and golf.  Being able to buy organic carrots.  Being surrounded by family.  Driving to your brother’s house for a weekend visit.  Having independence.  Building a new home for your family and imagining your grandkids enjoying the living room as much as your kids do.

We each have our own definition of what it means to thrive and, in my own country, people are still working to achieve it.  Everyone’s list is different.

While in Nablus, I became close to a group of teachers who were practicing their already excellent English.  They taught me a lot.  They talked about their families, their teaching jobs and their students.  They also talked about politics and the occupation.  It’s impossible not to.

One of my students said, “I think negotiations will take decades.”

He went on to say, “I don’t think we will achieve peace in our lifetime.  From 1993-2000 we experienced a type of peace.  We had hope that we would thrive.

He continued, “Maybe we will have control of a small percent of land, but not the Jordan Valley, not Jerusalem and not the sea.”

“We have containers, we don’t have cities.  Qualqila is a container with only two exits,” he said.

One of the students, along with being a teacher, is a farmer.  Some of his family land was taken by Israeli settlers.  His family had lived on that land for years before the settlers came to take it.

Another student travels often.  Once, while crossing a checkpoint, he was held for two hours under the hot sun with other Arabs.  He watched a little boy with a broken leg cry for relief from the sun while he waited to be allowed to pass.  The boy’s father was trying to take him to a hospital.

These stories are, unfortunately, characteristic of daily life for Palestinians.  This group of teachers were my English students, but I learned much more than I taught.

Stories from the Holy Land

I’ve lived in the Holy Land for the last seven months. This is my last week in Bethlehem before I head to India for a month, so I’ve been taking care of business. My apartment is nearly packed up: a pile of donations, a pile to leave with friends and a pile to take with me.

Just a few days ago, I went to the Jordanian Consular office in Ramallah to get a visa for my upcoming trip. After traveling two hours to get there, it was closed.
I made a new friend, a guy who also needed a visa and was equally disappointed to find the office locked.

The policeman guarding the embassy immediately sauntered over to chat with us, gun slung over his torso like a shield.

Click here to read the rest of “Stories from the Holy Land” by Cat Rabenstine for Mondoweiss.

One foot in, one foot out – a tour of a Palestinian village

Today I took a walk through a friend’s village near Bethlehem. The sky was blue and spotted with clouds. It was chilly but the sun peaked through with surprising radiance.

First, he (let’s call him Ahmed) showed me a 4×4 inch cement track that follows one entire length of the village, coming within yards of the school. This tiny bit of cement will, maybe within the year, become part of The Wall built by Israel in this case to separate their settlement from the Palestinian village nearby.

We walked up a dirt road to two demolished houses, the foundation of one home holding the remains of its former walls. The army demolished the houses, saying they posed a security threat. One family lived in a tent for a few months before building a new house.

Standing on top of the rubble, I saw the huge Israeli settlement homes looming above on the highest, closest hill. The houses looked huge and stable, capped with the ubiquitous red roof, a characteristic of Israeli settlement buildings.

We retraced our steps and walked the other way towards the paved settler-road to take pictures of the village from above.

The entire time we walked, the cement track followed us. Ahmed stood with each foot on either side of it, “One day, my left foot won’t be allowed in this spot,” he said.

He hesitated for just a second before we had walked up this hill. He wasn’t supposed to walk on it. He said, “If soldiers come, they all know me by name. We will just run to the Palestinian side.”

Once we reached the top of the hill, Ahmed pointed to three Israeli security cameras. All were pointed at us.

Each time I hear a story like Ahmed’s: homes demolished, livelihood wrecked, school children at risk, land taken, I consider my own family.

If it were my mother’s home being demolished or my brother being harassed daily by soldiers younger than him who haphazardly tote machine guns at their side, I’m not sure how I would react.

Would I try to defend them with violence?

Would I become depressed and feel hopeless?

Would I write about my situation, try to tell the world my story?

I don’t know what I would do, and I believe no one should have to answer this question. But I do know hundreds of Palestinians who have to respond to this question daily.

To read how “Ahmed” and his village have responded, click here.

The beginnings of Christmas in Bethlehem

This week, Christmas stores have popped up throughout Bethlehem.

My favorite Christmas goodies

1.  Para-gliding, blow-up Santa

2.  Mix-CD of Arabic and international Christmas tunes, homemade by the shopkeeper himself and on sale for $3.

3.  A tree that showers itself with fake snow.

Christmas cheer!
The city is covered in Christmas lights, from lamp posts to restaurants.  Below is a photo of the Christmas lighting as it ends in front of The Wall near Aida Camp and Rachel’s Tomb.

Christmas cheer + The Wall = Christmas in the occupied territories

Remembering Home

This year wasn’t my first Thanksgiving abroad, a holiday that is oh-so-North-American that celebrations overseas usually take on a little local flavor. In Kerala, India we were treated to curried barbeque chicken and the most delicious mashed potatoes I may ever taste. I wore a navy blue churidar to that meal. In Dublin, our Irish hosts had a special meal cooked up for our group of college students on a social justice study trip. We arrived after dark and left patches of snow on the carpeted stairs as we tromped up to the second floor, where we ate family-style. In Rome, I wore chic black and ate Chinese food at a restaurant in Monte Mario. Each time, the food was warm and delicious and I felt thankful to be among friends thoughtful enough to make Thanksgiving part of their week.

This year I celebrated Thanksgiving with hummus and pita in Bethlehem, Palestine while my Mom and younger brother made prime rib and Yorkshire pudding in Madison, WI. They probably talked about his latest rugby game and her projects at work and their upcoming trip to the Holy Land for Christmas. Pete fixed a few things in the house and carried the water softener salt to the basement while Mom set the table with festive placemats and a bouquet of enormous sunflowers. It probably smelled like slowly cooking meat and the house felt warm and cozy, at least in the rooms where Mom didn’t close the vents to save energy. Van Morrison probably crooned on speakers throughout the house. They might have remembered little Briggs, the ancient cat who blessed my family with her tiny presence from my childhood into my young adulthood. Though her little legs were atrophied in old age, she continued to launch herself with reckless abandon over sofas and between our legs, and proceed to sleep for hours with the same reckless abandon that got her to her latest perch.

Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is a time when going home is about just that – going home. There aren’t gifts or mad shopping-sprees to make you sweat with pressure. It’s a time to cook extravagantly and eat American-ly, and then sleep with the reckless abandon only possibly during a long weekend.

Once I left home for college, returning home make me conscious of what it felt like to be home, something I had taken for granted when I was always there. I realized that it smelled like detergent and wood and a constantly brewing pot of Red Rose tea. Mom would make up my bedroom with clean sheets, often placing a small vase of fresh flowers on my nightstand. I’d return to school realizing that no, I wasn’t actually Buddhist, and the guy I was dating was a materialistic yahoo and that I should take an afternoon and go to the Art Institute to absorb inspiration and realize my vast potential.

Home, no matter where you are, is a place of rejuvenation and encouragement, solace and stability, family and peace. When I asked friends what home means for them, whether American or Palestinian, their responses were fed with the same nourishing sentiments.

“Home is safe, caring, giving and can be anywhere as long as it’s a place where one can feel alive.”

“There is a song that says that home is where I’m loved, which is turning out to be the most true definition of home for me. Until I reach my own definition of the physical meaning of the home, I would say that my home is the virtual space where I’m comfortable. It could be a nice gathering in the evening or it could be a sweet late phone call with someone you love.”

“A place to be carefree without worries. Being with family. The only door that is always open when other doors are closed. Home is a place where one finds peace, solitude, serenity, tranquility and enjoys his time regardless of how trivial his lifestyle is, he still finds it to be sublime.”

“Home equals warmth, love and encouragement. It’s where you can just be you.”

“Home is where the heart is and where you make it a place of welcome. It is a place where family and friends can come any time…and there will be food.”

Home is hardly ever about the actual structure, it’s about the feelings you have when you are there. That is, until the structure itself is at risk.

My apartment in the West Bank is within spitting distance of The Wall near Rachel’s Tomb. When I look out my bedroom window, I see it wrapping around the other side of my building, up the hill next to Aida Refugee Camp. Heavy cement blocks soar up to 25-feet-tall with metal fencing on top, the kind that protects innocent outsiders from dangerous prisoners inside (I’m on the inside). I have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a huge kitchen and a living room that seats nine because the family that used to live here moved out when The Wall was built. Their store on the first floor failed because the street was difficult for shoppers to access and their view was, suddenly, demoralizing rather than breathtaking.

Fear and resignation are emotions I don’t relate to when I think of my home, but for some of my Palestinian friends this is their reality at home.

Once, I was invited to dinner during Ramadan at a friend’s house in a village called Sarra, situated near Nablus on the top of a hill and surrounded by Israeli settlements on all sides. As we walked through the village, my friend expressed pride in the beauty of her neighborhood. She pointed to her house from far away, “That is my home.”

The house was gorgeous, with a special room for the eldest daughter to teach English to kids in the village. The three daughters shared a pink bedroom. Her father, a taxi driver, came home just for dinner and then returned to work until nearly midnight. He cracked jokes and his daughters poked fun at him during dinner. He fed his wife a piece of bread with a look of admiration and adoration on his face. He made the best of the few minutes he had with his loved ones, relaxing in the home he created with them.

We sat on their porch to eat, sitting elbow to elbow on a mat that wrapped us around the generous meal. In the distance, I noticed a growing flame. Olive trees were on fire. I looked around at the family members when we all noticed and saw on their faces something frightening, resignation. They were so accustomed to watching their land burn, that they were resigned to it. We watched an Israeli army jeep drive past the fire, doing nothing about the huge flames burning innocent olive trees, the crops and livelihood of Sarra villagers. We continued to eat as the land burned.

Yesterday I visited Wadi Rahal, a beautiful village nestled among sloping hills and surrounded by olive trees just a few kilometers from Bethlehem. We drove the winding path from route 60 to the village, the foundation of The Wall followed us. When built, The Wall will separate the village from its own olive trees. It will sit 10 meters from the village’s one school. It will cut off the village from the highway. I met with two college students, both activists doing their best organize weekly demonstrations and train the village in non-violent ways to resist The Wall.

They said that, about twice a month, Israeli soldiers enter one of the homes in the village in the middle of the night to do a search. They use the butt of their machine guns to bang on the door. If it isn’t opened in time, they break down the door. They wake up the entire family and search the entire house, breaking dishes and wreaking havoc. One of the guys said if he hears any noise at night he believes it is the army and it scares him. His home does not feel safe.

Each Thanksgiving, many recognize that the holiday symbolizes a loss of land and livelihood for one group of people and the victory of another. While I stare at The Wall from my kitchen window, I think about my neighbors in Aida Refugee Camp, who were kicked out of their homes in 1948 so that Israeli families could have a homeland. I am thankful that during my Thanksgiving dinners at home, I have never looked out the window to see our trees burning down. I am thankful that I can sleep, with reckless abandon, after a huge turkey (or prime rib) meal, knowing that I don’t need to feel scared. My home smells like detergent and wood and Red Rose tea, and I’m not afraid of losing it.

Most of the time I feel that the conflict for a home in Israel and Palestine is too complicated to ever truly grasp, but sometimes, like on Thanksgiving, it seems pretty simple.

Backpackers in Bethlehem

After 15 days living in Bethlehem, I hosted a couple of backpackers for the Eid holiday, Kyle and Kim. Kyle is a guy from Florida with lots of questions. He’s tall with shaggy hair and a resonating voice. He loves coffee. Kim is from Belgium. She’s quiet, short and looked gorgeous even after waking up from a nap with the friendly mosquitos that have taken over my apartment.

It was their first time in the West Bank and Kyle’s curiosity and frustration was apparent. His recent experience staying at a kibbutz left him with more questions and the sense that people didn’t want to talk about the conflict.

Feeling daunted by the task of answering all his questions fairly, I did what anyone else would do in this situation. I threw a dinner party with the few friends I have in Bethlehem: two Americans, a Canadian and a woman from Belgium.

We sat in the living room, ate creamy pasta, salad and garlic bread (made by slapping butter and freshly chopped garlic onto pita bread), drank Taybeh beer and chatted.

We talked about the hierarchical nature of ones status in Israel and the misery of the three-month tourist visa. This is issued by Israel because Palestine does not control its borders. Israeli border control cannot know that you’re living in the West Bank because they would deny you re-entry.

Kyle asked, “who’s to blame?” The resounding response was that no one party is to blame. It’s an awful situation influenced by so many countries and movements that it’s impossible to place blame anywhere.

Though the situation seems completely unsolvable, one of my dinner guests said that if international law were actually followed, a solution would be much more possible. Instead, Obama offers concessions to the Israeli government regarding settlements.

To the question “what will happen in the future?” all hands in the room went up in the air as everyone responded in near unison, “it’s impossible to say!”

But they will keep working for peace. And Palestinians, like the non-violent resisters in Tuwani, will continue to do the same.

Slowly boiling olive oil, a lesson about religion and 9 hours traveling

I traveled to Zababdeh, a town in northern West Bank near Jenin, to tour the local olive oil business on the anniversary of Arafat’s death.  As I traveled from Bethlehem to Zababdeh, I passed a long line of buses with Palestinian flags fluttering out the windows, all headed to a commemoration in Ramallah.  After three hours and three buses, I arrived in Zababdeh and met my friend, Abuna Firas, a local Melkite priest, who whisked me off for the tour.

We visited three olive oil presses, two of which were finished with their harvest of olives, a small one this year, but the third was cranking away.  The workers laughed as I videotaped them pouring olives into a pulsing machine.  Next on the tour was an olive oil soap factory.

We walked into the back room of a small house where a woman was cutting soap bars to be dried on a wooden board.  In the back yard, a vat of olive oil slowly boiled before it would be poured into boxes for setting.  After coffee and a chat with the folks at the soap factory, we went to pick up Abuna Firas’s young boys from school.

We waited in the car queue with other parents, and Abuna Firas told me that the Christian and Muslim students each take classes about their own religion.

One time, the teacher came into his youngest son’s classroom to take the Muslim children to the appropriate classroom.  Elias, Abuna Firas’s 6-year-old son, stood up to go with the Muslim children.  When the teacher told him to sit, he asked, “Why?  I’m Muslim!”  The teacher had to tell him that, actually, he’s Christian.  He came home from school that day and asked his father if he is Muslim or Christian and Abuna Firas lovingly reminded him, “You are Christian.”

We headed home for a delicious lunch, complete with a bowl of local olives.  I sipped Arabic coffee with Abuna and his wife, Doris, while the boys watched SpongeBob Square pants (no less weird in Arabic).  At 3:30, Abuna Firas drove me to the taxi stand to begin the long trek back to Bethlehem.  He plopped me in a van to Jenin and paid for my fare.  With a shake of hands and a “shukran katir,” I was off.

From Jenin, I grabbed a van to Ramallah.  Traffic inched along through Nablus and into Ramallah.  By 6:30, I finally reached Ramallah only to find the bus station nearly empty.

No buses to Bethlehem, I was told by women wearing “I love Palestine” t-shirts.

A nice young man, Ahmad said he’d help me get home.  He said he works for the P.A. as security for President Mahmoud Abbas who was at the commemoration ceremony in Ramallah.

We caught a bus a nearby village.  He paid for my fare.  From there we caught a car to Abudis, where he lives.  He had 11 hours off before he had to guard the President next, but he spent the next hour helping me find a taxi.  Soon I was off, in the front seat of the yellow cab, with a wave and a “shukran katir” to Ahmad.

Within minutes I was handed a piece of piping hot pizza and a plastic cup of Pepsi form the backseat.  I hadn’t had pizza in months and it tasted like a little slice of sweet home Chicago.  The three guys in the back laughed at their desperate attempts to speak English and mine to speak Arabic.

Once in Bethlehem, I gave the driver directions to my place near Aida Camp and asked how much the ride cost.  He shook his hand.  Nothing, even though it had taken at least 45 minutes!  The guys in the back seat laughed and said, “Just go and don’t worry about it!  We want to get to Hebron anyway, so hurry up!”  So, with a very sincere “shukran katir,” to the driver and my pizza friends, I shut the door.

I looked at the clock once I reached my apartment.  Abuna Firas and Doris had taken care of me in Zababdeh and Palestinian hospitality had gotten me through the six-hour journey home.  On the anniversary of Arafat’s death, many people rallied and waved flags and a handful helped one American lady get home safe.  Shukran katir.

Canned pickles and I think I feel at home

I spent the last three days eating delicious dinners with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, debating how social justice and action fits into Buddhist ideals while sipping tea, and smoking nargileh all wrapped up in a warm blanket. It restored my sapped energy.

Two weeks ago, I returned from a wonderfully hectic trip to Egypt and Jordan. Since then, I’ve found an apartment in Bethlehem, published a few of my former students’ videos, solidified bi-weekly Arabic lessons, set up meetings about jobs and volunteer work all over town and planned a trip to Zababdeh to learn about the olive harvest there. Today, though, was the first day I felt at home in Bethlehem.

I returned from Hebron around 10:30 in the morning. I waved from the taxi as I passed my friendly neighbor Ehmad, who works as a mechanic. I walked through my door, laden with a box of new dishes from the Hebron Pottery Factory, and immediately flipped on the water heater and downed a cup of sweet tea from a pitcher that I had made before I left for Hebron (Grandma’s Pennsylvania Dutch recipe: minus a few cups of sugar, plus a bit of fresh mint). I heated up a frozen pita on the stovetop while I chopped a tomato and an avocado for a salad. Ira Glass’s melodious voice accompanied my late breakfast.

After breakfast and This American Life, I put in a load of laundry and packed my bag for a walk around Bethlehem. My home for the next three months.

I took the longer, quieter route to the Nativity Church. On the way, I passed a video store that sells new releases for 5 shekels ($1.40, holy crap!). I bought Switch and a teeny-bopper movie I forget the name of. I zig zagged through the market, picked up a map at the Bethlehem Peace Center and ducked into the packed Nativity Church for a minute of touristy-holiness. Afterwards, I caught up on email at Christmas Lutheran Church’s community center. There, I was asked if I would play billiards on a young guys computer with him. I politely declined and tried not to be distracted by the techno chicken song that he and his crew put on repeat for the next 30 minutes. I also tried to hide my smile, because it was, admittedly, a hilarious techno chicken song.

I stopped at a small shop to buy a ras el abed (an addictive treat, like a s’more, with a horrendous name: slave’s head), and then I picked up some groceries:
Pasta sauce
Rice and noodles
Lime scented hand lotion (strangely delicious smelling)
Canned pickles (mmmmmm), corn and mushrooms

Once at home, I warmed up a bowl of carrot stew and checked out some web pages I had saved about Sabeel, a Christian Palestinian organization that I will meet with tomorrow in Jerusalem. My apartment smelled like Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom, fresh mint and laundry detergent.

What it was about this day that made me feel so at home, I’m not exactly sure, but here I am and I feel lucky.

2 sq km + 28,000 people = Balata Refugee Camp

My friend Ayyash took me on a tour of Balata Camp, the refugee camp where he lives only minutes from downtown Nablus.

Here, in 2 square kilometers, live 28,000 people, said Ayyash.

He said that the unemployment rate is 70%.  Those who are employed, often work in shops inside the camp.  Most of the refugees are educated, finishing high school and college, but very few move out because of the cost of relocating.

Only when public officials visit to see the conditions of the camp are the streets cleaned.  We walked through tiny alleys that left no room for people to pass eachother.

Settlements surrounding Balata Camp.

All the homes are connected and there’s no room to build out, only up.

Kids playing soccer.

More info about Balata Camp:
Behind the Walls of Balata Camp

The walls are closing in

Today I sat in an auditorium full of Nablusi’s and Internationals, all watching the film To Shoot an Elephant, about the Israeli siege on Gaza. To my right, was my friend Ayyash, an activist who lives in Balata Camp. He translated some things for me and, having seen the movie a few times before, predicted some of the most horrific scenes as I shook with tears.

Watching a movie about Gaza while in the West Bank is surreal. The Palestinians sitting next to me cannot go to Gaza, and it would be extraordinarily difficult for me to get in. They are blocked by highways they cannot use, randomly erected checkpoints, machine guns wielded by 18-year-old Israeli’s with dreadlocks, an enormous wall, an identity card that clearly delineates where they are and are not allowed to go.

Today Netanyahu announced that the moratorium on settlement building would not be extended. I heard Palestinians talk about whether this would bring a third intifada. I heard about escalated violence. I felt the walls surrounding the people I love close around us.

Their land has slowly been taken away for years. My country has helped fund this. And now, though America is the top funder of the Israeli occupation, we seem to believe we can lead peace talks between Israel and Palestine.  I wait in anticipation from the West Bank.

I have witnessed the occupation.

Palestinians have a different colored license plate than Israeli’s. The white plates can only drive on designated roads. The yellow plates can go anywhere. This is an occupation.

The other evening my friend pointed out the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. “We cannot go there, of course,” she said. Another friend remembered going there back in 1998. Though it’s about 2 kilometers away, Palestinians do not have access to the coast. This is an occupation.

I went to dinner at a friend’s house and watched olive trees burn. Settlers had set fire to them. The Israeli army drove by and did nothing. This is an occupation.

Since I’ve been here, four residents of Iraq Burin, a village a few minutes from Nablus, have been arbitrarily arrested. Two of them young men, and two of them village council members. The people in this village are farmers. They have lived there for years. Israeli’s have stolen their land, burned their trees, and recently killed two of the young men in the village (16 and 19).  This is an occupation.

One of my 16-year-old students was late for class because a surprise checkpoint was erected on the way from her home to school. This is an occupation.

Yesterday my boyfriend had to run away from soldiers. This is an occupation.

One of my friends was arrested last week for being affiliated with Hamas. He’s in a PA prison in Nablus, but I don’t know when he’ll get out. Maybe, hopefully, in a few days. This is an occupation.