Thursday, July 08, 2004

Email from Pam, subject line: Abbel Boy

Dear all,

It is so strange to be sitting in an office in front
of a computer eating a chicken sandwich and drinking
fresh carrot juice with a multi-lingual Palestinian
woman (fluent in French, Arabic, and English, passable
in Spanish) chatting like in any other office, typing
up a report about, for example, a family that was
gunned down in their home at midnight in a Palestinian
town where friends of mine live by the army of a
country where other friends of mine live. One report
last week said Israeli soldiers in Nablus shot and
killed two sons and shot their father in the head in
front of their mother and sister.

Every day, it's like a normal day at work, and then a
report comes in about another family killed, another
operation or incursion or ambulance attacked or curfew
instated or checkpoint closed or parcel of productive
land destroyed, and your stomach turns to water. Last
week another nine-year-old kid was shot and killed at
a peaceful protest in Gaza, and I doubt the mainstream
news even reported it. Things like this have become

While Muzna and I were typing up reports one day last
week, two guys showed up, a reporter and a
photographer. The photographer walked in like a tall
beam of sunshine, a half-Palestinian half-Catalonian
from Barcelona, effortlessly charming in a friendly,
smiling, confident way, and in possession of a
passionate devotion to human rights, animal rights,
and Spanish soccer. Seemed like the type for whom
women just fell at his feet.

He came in and all the women fell at his feet. Muzna
suggested that if he really wanted to learn Arabic, he
should get himself a Palestinian girlfriend, and I had
to make an effort not to stutter. Later we and some
others went out for drinks at a place called Sangria's
with a gorgeous outdoor patio and garden. Most folks
ordered a very decent Palestinian beer called Taybeh,
and I had some Turkish coffee and a nargila.

Someone asked what a nargila was last time I wrote.
It is a tall ornate hookah, sheesha, water bong,
usually filled with flavored tobacco. My favorite
flavor is warad (rose), but grape and mint and
raspberry and mango are also nice. It's one of my
favorite things about the Middle East, time together
sitting around on a porch talking, usually about
politics, and laughing and enjoying each other's
company with no concept of time whatever, taking turns
blowing smoke rings and making coffee and tea while
people come and go and goats wander up the stairs and
cats come and sit in your lap and someone comes by
with some leftover desserts and the sun sets and
al-Jazeera or CNN comes on, and everyone rolls their
eyes because they are lying as usual, or at best
telling half the truth, and people who come randomly
by sometimes end up becoming great friends... That's
a short definition of nargila.

Anyway, we were hanging out on the patio of Sangria's
when a happy birthday song came on the loudspeakers
and two cakes came out with fireworks spewing fire out
on top. The birthday party had gotten enough cake for
everyone on the patio and the waiters passed it
around. When Muzna said, "La, shukran," (no thanks),
and the waiter asked, "Lehsh?" (why?), I laughed out

Alex, the Canadian journalist, told Mushir the
Spanishtinian heartthrob to tell his story of crossing
into Israel. Mushir laughed and said, "Ah yes, the
girl at the border control, she ask me, 'What will
your address be in Ramallah?' I said, 'Why, you want
to come visit me?' She turn very red, and she try to
answer me in Spanish, then she try to answer me in
English, then she start cursing in Hebrew." We all
laughed and he said, "But it is not so funny, because
then they give me only two weeks in Israel." Normally
tourists get three months. So he'll have to go back
to Jordan and renew soon. I almost don't blame the
poor girl.

After drinks I followed Alex and Mushir and a law
student named Omar to their apartment to watch the
Portugal/Holland soccer game. Omar is an itriguing
person to me because he is so thoroughly American and
yet has a certain understanding of things because he
has close family in the Middle East. He turned down
an amazingly lucrative summer job in the States for a
$500-a-month stint in Palestine. I am not sure how he
holds so many ideas, some of which seem contradictory
to me, in his head at once. I think I will learn a
lot talking to him.

He works for the economic arm of the Palestinian
Authority and is pretty disappointed with it. The PA,
from most accounts I've heard, is weak and
disorganized and dishonest and generally lacks
solidarity with the Palestinian people. Many
Palestinians are more upset with the PA, which was
installed by and is dependent on Israel, than with
Israel itself. Many feel betrayed and
ill-represented. And yet maybe 1/3 of the West Bank
population is dependent on it for their livelihood,
and Palestinian citizens have little to fall back on
politically except the fundamentalist party Hamas.
Somebody told me about half of Palestinians identify
with neither Hamas nor Fateh (the dominant party in
the PA). I hope al-Mubadara can be a viable Third
Front, and I hope its call for democratic elections
will be honored, but we will see. I have a lot to

While we were watching the game, Omar jokingly asked
Mushir if he would like anything, "like maybe some
abbel boy?" Mushir laughed, and Omar explained that
they had dinner one time with a girl who had been in
the West Bank a little too long, and she asked a
waiter, "May I have some apple pie?"

The waiter looked at her, confused, and the girl said,
"Sorry, some abbel boy, please?"

The waiter smiled, relieved, and said, "Oh yes, abbel
boy! Right away."

The next night, when I was studying my Egyptian Arabic
textbook, the Palestinian girl I live with said that
all Arabs understand Egyptian standard Arabic, but
almost no one speaks it. "And by the way, all our
books are written in Egypt, published in Lebanon, and
read in Iraq." I laughed but she said, "No, I'm
serious, it's been true for 200 years. All the
thinkers are in Egypt, but they have never had
democracy. So everything gets published in Beirut,
but they are all too busy to read. In Iraq everyone
is so smart, so that's where they read the books." I
wondered how much reading the Iraqis have done lately.

There was another expat party on Thursday night at my
house, and I was talking to an American guy who has
lived in Palestine for more than five years. He lived
in Gaza City for about two years, and he said the US
Agency for International Development spent tons of
time and US taxpayer money to build several wells for
the Gazans--our tax money given to the government's
business partners. Fair enough if it provides the
Gazans with much-needed water.

But then Israel came and destroyed all the wells, with
weapons paid for by US tax dollars to the government's
defense contractor business partners. And then the
first well-building business partners got another fat
tax-funded deal to rebuild the wells.

I was reminded of Milo Minderbinder, the black market
mastermind in Catch-22, bombing his men with their own
planes, making a large profit from it, and calmly
explaining to everyone why it was in their best
interest and done, after all, in the sacred and
inviolable name of Free Enterprise.

The American guy said, "I've seen so much stuff, I
didn't think I could get angry anymore. But the wall
makes me very angry."

Halfway through the party an Israeli Jeep showed up
and cut off our access to the main road, and it stayed
there for hours and hours. My Palestinian housemate
ushered us all into the house like it was a
thunderstorm or something. And, like in a
thunderstorm, we kept hearing explosions every twenty
minutes or so and vainly made guesses as to how far
away they were and what kind of damage they might have

A French diplomat and a German guy were playing bottle
caps, and I talked to an Irish guy who got sick of
being rich in Geneva and is working now for al-Haq, a
human rights NGO. He and the Swedish girl both said
that the UN pays well, but you have to have
connections to get hired.

The next day at work I found out the explosions were
part of an Israeli incursion, with six people arrested
and several doors blown down and at least two people
injured, including one child. Arafat's compound was
surrounded again. I believe two houses were
demolished. Three of those arrested are from Tulkarm
and work for the Palestinian Red Crescent. All six
were taken to unknown places. Details are sketchy,
because a curfew was in place, and to be a witness
would have been dangerous.

Walking around looking at the strong, beautiful stone
houses in my neighborhood the other day, I was
thinking that if someone were even to think about
destroying them, for any reason, I don't know how my
anger could be contained. My Palestinian housemate
later told me she was a victim of the very first home
demolition in Ramallah. She used to live in a very
nice five-story flat, and one night Israelis came and
found a wanted man, killed him (extrajudicial
assassination, illegal by the Geneva Conventions),
threw everyone out of their apartments, including
families with young children, without letting them
bring anything out with them, and dynamited it before
their eyes as an act of collective punishment (also
illegal by international law). My housemate lost her
father when she was 13, and her portrait of her father
was destroyed, as well as her book, clothes, CDs,
furniture, personal effects... she said she could not
count what she lost.

She grew up in Gaza City, and her family is made up of
wealthy Communists. (Wealthy Gaza Communists--triple
oxymoron? I have yet to meet a truth that was not
stranger than fiction.) She was hit with a bullet the
first time when she was six years old. During the
first Intifada in 1987, Israeli soldiers were shooting
at youths who were throwing rocks. She was on her way
home and was caught in the crossfire, and a bullet
grazed her ankle, and then a stone hit her in almost
the same place.

She said Israeli soldiers came into her home all the
time when she was young, and she saw her father being
beaten more than once, and sometimes her father or
brothers were taken away and put in prison. I wonder
why a family of Gaza Communists was so dangerous to
the security of Israel.

I told her Ronan's story from southern Lebanon about
the four prisoners being killed by an Israeli soldier,
including a child. She told me one time she and her
friends were playing in the road when they were about
7 or 8 years old, and some Israeli soldiers were on a
rooftop nearby. The soldiers started pointing at the
kids and laughing, and then one pointed his gun and
shot one of the children in the cheek. Another
soldier shot another kid in the eye. She said each
time they aimed she could not tell whom they were
aiming at. She said with a weak smile, "They were
playing a game, who could shoot a kid in the eye."

She said the worst thing she saw lately was that one
of the American torturers in Abu Ghraib was a pregnant
woman. "How can she do that when she was in that time
of life that is most... I mean could she not think
ahead and think that someone might do that to her
child someday?"

When the Al-Aqsa mosque compound was stormed by Ariel
Sharon in September 2000, the spark that lit the
powder keg of the Second Intifada, my housemate was on
her way to a party in West Jerusalem, but because of
the craziness she decided not to go. A Communist
friend of hers phoned and said he was going to go
check out the protest. He wasn't religious or
anything, he was just angry that the country that had
oppressed his people so long was now spitting in their
eye, and excited to be part of a big passionate group
of people. The next they heard of him was that he had
been shot and killed at the protest.

She said, "I have never lived anywhere else, and I was
six years old during the first Intifada and I was just
learning what the world was about. I thought it was
always about soldiers and beatings and killings and
checkpoints. I don't know what normal is." She's
hoping to study for a masters in finance in France
soon, and I can't imagine what a relief it will be.
Despite it all she still wants to raise kids here in
Palestine. She doesn't want them to see what she has
seen, but at the same time she says her experiences
have made her stronger, and she wants to stay with her

She and I went to see Mystic River at the
Cinematheque, and on the way back yet another Israeli
Jeep was blocking our path, and teenaged boys were
running toward it with stones. She turned me around
and said, "Don't go that way, ugh, I hate it when they
do that. Don't they know some of the Israeli soldiers
are not right in the head? They get scared and they
just shoot."

Last night a group of us went to a club called The
Orthodox to watch the Portugal/Greece game. There was
a small but vocal group of Greece supporters, and they
were very happy at the end. The guy sitting beside me
was from Nablus, works in Jericho, will study in
Missouri next year, and said he hates to leave
Palestine and is only going away for a time because of
the situation. He doesn't want to study here now
because it is too hard just getting around, and with
checkpoint and curfews and everything else, serious
study would be very stressful if not impossible. (My
housemate lost a year of study because of some
problems with her Israeli-issued documents.) But he
definitely plans to come back to his homeland to live.
I asked what he thought of Dr. Barghouthi, and he
said, "Like most Palestinians I think he is a very
good man."

An international film festival is coming to town next
week, and I hope to catch some good movies. There's
one about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries that
looks good. My housemate, like me, enjoys long walks
around town, so I am looking forward to exploring the
area with her. We're thinking of walking the 20 km to
Bir Zeit at some point and catching a cab back.

Today I showed Dr. Barghouthi our new web page design,
and he is happy with it. Insha'Allah we can get it up
and running soon.

I hope you all are staying well and look forward to
seeing you again.


"Few of us can surrender our belief that society
must somehow make sense. The thought that The State
has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent
people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be
internally denied."
~Arthur Miller

Day 5
Moon 6ish


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