June 18, 2014 The World According to Sami part one

Last night, as we leave Elbeit Alnisa’I for dinner, the nine of us wander off into the dark streets of Beit Sahour, past churches and statues of the Virgin Mary, tempting pastry shops, and a clear starry sky, challenged by sidewalks begging for unsteady ankles. A small elderly woman with a twinkle in her eye who hosts us at the hostel with a steady stream of mint tea and Turkish coffee, takes H. by the elbow and leads us determinedly up and down the hills and winding streets to a lovely restaurant complete with sappy music and the World Cup on a large screen. Later, overstuffed once again by tasty rice, cauliflower, eggplant, watermelon, and more, we set off on our uncertain course home and immediately find ourselves in the midst of ten or so teenage boys on bikes doing various testosterone-driven things that boys do. In any other city I would feel afraid, but we soon find ourselves surrounded by these young men who carefully herd us back to our guest house, leaving us with the customary, “You’re welcome!”

Tonight I am writing from the bosom of a family living in a refugee camp in Bethlehem and once again the extraordinary decency and generosity is overwhelming. The house is multistory with various adjoining apartments, kitchens, bathrooms, a large room filled with rubble which is under construction, and a spiral staircase in the kitchen that seems to lead to another apartment where the four girls sleep. There is definitely a baseline level of calm, organized chaos. The parents have two more sons: one who is busy studying for final exams, the other who is severely disabled with cerebral palsy, partly related to a premature birth and then another episode of severe oxygen loss while hospitalized, maybe from infection.

Mostly he sits curled in a swing in the hall that seems made from a seat in a car, and rocks back and forth, making various cries and calling “Ma.” His mother tenderly explains that she understands him, as do his siblings. At night, he sleeps curled up with her. He attended a special school for a while, but the family wanted him home because the teacher did not understand him and he cried all the time. He is also fourteen years old and tall for his age, increasingly difficult to carry, and facing an educational system with inadequate resources or understanding for children with multiple severe problems. There are fifty children now at home in the three Bethlehem refugee camps with disabilities and enormous needs, mostly met by their unbelievably supportive families.

I meet the paternal grandmother who, like me, was born in 1948 but, unlike me, looks like a fragile eighty-year-old who has lived through an inordinately large amount of stress. She smiles, enjoys holding hands, and prays quietly with her beads. She asks me why I am travelling without my husband and lets me know that if I were her daughter, I would be killed. I give her a quick rendition of a modern American marriage and assure her that my husband and I love and respect each other very much. Everyone seems impressed that I am a doctor. This seems to put the issue to rest.

Various nieces and nephews drift in and out, and I think the family is also caring for the son and daughter of the father’s brother, who was killed ten years ago. Pictures of the martyred uncle adorn the living room, where we drink tea and then chop a mountain of tomatoes, baked eggplant, and onion. Caution: large wonderful meal ahead. The puzzles, finger puppets, origami, and magic markers emerge from our bags, and suddenly the children are very preoccupied. There is a lot of touching and cooperation, laughter, playful shoving and hugging, and a sweetness to the interactions.

At dinner, the disabled son is carried into the dining room and is hugged, kissed, and fed by a variety of family members (much like a baby bird with a broken wing in a nest with foragers bringing back delicacies). They all clearly love and accept him and are not at all distracted by his movements and behavior. Somehow, this kind of full acceptance and support makes me want to cry.

I have been trying to keep track of the events that are heating up all around us. Three Israeli settler boys from Hebron (read right-wing, ultra-Orthodox) were apparently kidnapped, and while this is to be utterly condemned in general, their disappearance is being used to whip the country into a wild, xenophobic, Hamas-hating, unity government-hating mood. Everywhere we see large signs on buses, “Bring our boys home!” and there are special hashtags and quite a media frenzy. Prime Minister Netanyahu seems convinced this is the work of Hamas despite what seems to be a lack of carefully collected evidence, the Israeli Defense Forces are making massive arrests, people have been injured and shot by the soldiers, a friend of mine was hit by a tear gas canister while protesting the forcefeeding of the hunger strikers in Israeli jails, and we keep hearing that the city of Hebron is under closure, with a massive military presence throughout the West Bank.

While I understand the terror and horror of kidnapping teenage boys, Palestinian children and teenagers have been detained and arrested (isn’t it kidnapping if it is done by an arm of the state acting in an utterly egregious manner????) often in the middle of the night in front of terrified mothers and fathers, with no lawyers, and often no charges. Big surprise, there has been no public outrage for these Arab children and obviously no collective punishment of Israeli families whose sons have been beating and cuffing and interrogating frightened kids, ignoring international law and common decency. It all feels different when the victim and perpetrator are flipped, doesn’t it?

So we are back in what is often called ’48 Israel, I.e., the Israel contained within the increasingly phantasmagorical Green Line, and we are meeting with one of my favorite academic-activists, former city councilor Sami Abu Shehadeh. The focus is Yaffa and the subtitle is mixed cities and racism. Sami notes that the poet Mahmoud Darwish once said that most wars end with, “we are here and they are there,” but in this war, no such separation occurred. More than 90% of the historical Palestinian population lives in total separation from the Jewish population, but the boundaries are very messy.

Until recently, he explains, with his ironic mix of deprecating humor and truth telling, there was no need to legalize the process of separation, but in the past decade, Arabs (Israelis deny that there are Palestinians in Israel, so they are called Arabs), have tried to move into Jewish areas (better housing, better schools, better services), and because there were no racial laws in Israel, a new criteria was invented. People can be excluded from communities because of “unsuitable compatibility.” Who are we fooling here? At Tel Aviv University, a professor noted that Tel Aviv is the only Western city without an Arab community and also the Western city with the closest Arab adjoining community in the world, I.e. Jaffa.

As we wander the streets of Jaffa, through shabby neighborhoods and gentrified streets and glorious views of the Mediterranean and elegant, expensive old Arab houses now developed or bought for foreign embassies, wealthy Jews, etc., Sami explains there are two main narratives around a particular point in the run up to the 1948 war and they are in total disagreement, as is much of the discourse in Israel. The Zionist narrative states that in January 1948, two months after partition but before the war, this central market area where we are standing had buildings housing Arab terrorists, threatening Tel Aviv, and two heroic Stern Gang soldiers brought a truck loaded with explosives into the central market and blew the place up. A major Zionist victory.

The Palestinian narrative states that while there was a lot of violence resisting British occupation and Zionist expansion, there was no Palestinian army, and Arab armies could not reach Jaffa. The Saray House in the market place was used by ordinary people and in fact held an orphanage which was blown up by Zionist terrorists, murdering innocent children. A major Zionist massacre. Framing is everything.

As we find refuge in the shade, Sami reflects on the historical importance of Jaffa, which was even mentioned in the Old Testament when King Solomon brought cedar from Lebanon through Jaffa to build the temple, and then the prophet Jonah had that unfortunate incident with the whale and got spit up on some lonely Jaffa Beach. Not that any of this matters for the present, right?

He notes that there are two types of Palestinian historians: those who believe Palestinians are Europeans who immigrated from Crete and settled in the Levant, and those who are pan-Arabic.

Palestinians arrived from the Arab peninsula and, oh by the way, that was around 12,000 years ago. Everyone else then arrived to occupy this spot, the perfect seaport, the center of commerce, the gateway to Palestine. Jaffa was occupied some 30 times and obviously had its times of success and times of neglect. But Palestinians were clearly here first: not that any of this matters for the present, right?

The big deal happened in modern history with the famous Jaffa orange export business. Apparently some stroke of genius or luck led to the production of a thick-skinned orange that could be shipped anywhere, the Shamuti orange, carefully wrapped in special paper.

So an enormous industry was created: the growers, the pickers, the wrappers, the guys who built the special boxes, the transport to the port, the boats, you get the picture. In the 1930s, five million boxes of oranges, containing 400 million oranges, passed through the port of Jaffa. (So much for the Arabs’ inability to make the desert bloom, and their backward agricultural processes!) Tel Aviv was founded in the late 19th century as a neighborhood of Jaffa with some 100 Jewish families. As Sami notes, “Before 1948, people came to work in Jaffa from all over the Arab world and now we Palestinians leave to work all over the Arab world.” The ebb and flow of history, and it is clearly not done with the ebbing and flowing part.

This all ended with the 1948 war, when Jaffa was largely depopulated of its Arab population. After the war, Israelis passed an aggressive program of Judaization, changing Arabic signage, destroying the Old City, and disappearing the history and culture of the Palestinian majority that had existed for centuries (I think this part is important for today, right?). With British support, Tel Aviv became a city in 1909; by 1919 there were two thousand Jewish inhabitants, and by 1948 the number had reached two hundred thousand.

In the unforgiving sun, we admire the famous Clock Tower, built in 1901 by the Ottomans; across the street was the Ottoman prison which became the British and then the Israeli police station.

(Must be a trend?) It is slated to become a fancy boutique hotel with its northern wall adjacent to the mosque of Jaffa. The history of this city is embedded in its architecture, and sometimes I feel the walls are weeping when they are not outright screaming for our attention. We wander through the old covered market, now mostly cheap Chinese imports, a herd of Birthright kids, signs for a Lady Gaga concert, and tattooed bikers and rainbow hair. We are standing in front of three hundred new apartments, this is gentrification on steroids, upscale bars and cafes now appear like mushrooms after a spring rain. Sami teases, there are now hairdressers for dogs, and in Tel Aviv more couples have dogs and cats than children.

Welcome to the twenty-first century, when pet adoption and doggy daycare are the norm, but no one has the money or motivation to support a severely disabled Palestinian boy.

We wander by the Scottish Church, the Old French Hospital, Saint Joseph’s School for Boys (soon to be a boutique hotel)?the colonists and religious institutions were busy for a long time; there are a long list of stories about Jesus and his disciples, miracles, visions, angels, etc. that relate to Jaffa. The impact of that is now mostly apparent in a very strong tourism industry, focused on visiting all the cities in the New Testament. Religion in the service of capitalism.

Sami notes sarcastically, “Then there was the most important real estate invention: The View.” We pass by the upscale Andromeda Hills project, the most expensive housing project in Jaffa, gated illegally, tied up in court battles, and now for the past ten years gated “for the public safety.” Really? He notes ironically, in the past at the sea, poor people used to smoke hashish, and now at the sea, rich people smoke hashish. Rents are as high as twenty thousand dollars per month and houses sell for millions.

We look up at a large poster of Handala done by the cartoonist and political activist, Naji Al Ali. In the poster, an American in Lebanon is asking for the religious identity of an Arab (I think there are sixteen types of religious identities in Lebanon), and the guy replies, “I am an Arab and you are a donkey.” Subtle? The Handala character stands nearby with his back to us and spikey cactus hair.

Naji, a Palestinian living in Lebanon, left for his own personal safety to Kuwait and then to London, where he was assassinated in 1987. There are so many theories about who pulled the trigger.

He pretty much offended everyone by speaking the truth to power.

Sami explains that Handala came to Naji in a dream, a small child who would help him tell the truth. Naji said he left Palestine when he was ten and Handala will only grow up when Naji returns. He turns his back to the viewer because the world has turned its back on Palestine. His hair is spikey because reality is bitter. He is now the most famous Arab symbol of perseverance and resistance in the world.

This brings us back to the Palestinians of 1948 and the neighborhood of Ajami (see the film of the same name and my blog posts from previous delegations). In 1948, the remaining Palestinian inhabitants were rounded up and put into the neighborhood of Ajami; their houses were declared neglected, and they were declared present absentees, or they kept their houses and had to share with incoming Jewish immigrants. Sami’s great-grandfather was a soldier in the Ottoman Army; he was not willing be a refugee so he stayed, was sent to Ajami, and lived surrounded by fences, soldiers, and dogs. Even the European Jews called it the ghetto. They should know.

These refugees (thirty-nine hundred remained out of a population of one hundred twenty thousand) experienced the dispossession of the Nakba and the loss of all friends, family possessions, libraries, teachers, doctors, hospitals, and language (“the biggest armed robbery in the twentieth century”). They experienced the fact that if the Israelis wanted cheap labor, Palestinians were present, but if Palestinians wanted their homes back, they were absent. This was a humiliating personal and economic loss that led to decades of depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, and criminality. In 1950, Jaffa was annexed to Tel Aviv and since then it has been run by Jews and planned for Jews “in this liberal democracy of Israel.” Until 1993, Palestinians were not even statistically counted as a separate group.

Haneen Zoabi, the Palestinian Knesset member who recently criticized the hyper response to the kidnappings of the yeshiva students, is now facing death threats and being called a traitor.

So how does this segregation and racism look up close and personal? In the mixed cities, there are three kinds of schools: secular Jewish, religious Jewish, and Arab. Some 20 to 25% of Arabs go to secular Jewish schools where the education is better, though completely Zionist. Jewish parents complained when the Arabs reached 50% of the student body in one school, so the school divided itself into two schools, Arab and Jew. Then the parents demanded a wall down the middle of the playground. The municipality refused and used words like multiculturalism, so the Jewish parents took their kids out and sent them to schools in Tel Aviv, or to the right-wing national religious schools. The Israelis do not even seem to have the inclination or institutional or legal building blocks to build a multicultural society, let alone face the glaring endemic racism.

It is late and I am too tired to continue. Let me just say that I knew I was in ’48 Israel when I ordered a Turkish coffee and a lovely cappuccino arrived. I didn’t want to complain, so I grabbed the cinnamon, sprinkled the steamed foam liberally, only to discover that it was actually pepper.

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