From the US with Love

This past school year, I volunteered once a week at Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA. The main office was tiny, with one chair for visitors. Voices crackled over an ancient intercom system when a student was summoned to the office or a teacher was informed of a waiting visitor. Teachers shared classrooms, and fractions and equations competed for wall space with the Bill of Rights and pictures of our presidents. The teacher I worked with had to use his own laptop for lessons, as the classroom was only outfitted with an old desktop (probably only used to record attendance).

Beacon Street in Somerville, from Washington Street to Porter Square is riddled with potholes. It, like many US roads, bridges, and tunnels, is an embarrassment to our infrastructure, especially in comparison to the Roman roads I saw a few days ago in Jerash, Jordan.

Mass transit is not subsidized the way Big Oil is.

The excuse is always the same. There is no money.

But yes, there is. (I promise this goes somewhere…)

I am staying at a lovely family-run guesthouse (I actually have a basement apartment) in a town called Jifna, north of Ramallah. I arrived from Jerusalem by minibus, after crossing an Israeli checkpoint. An Israeli police officer boarded the bus and asked all of the male, only the male, passengers for ID. Another foreigner and I (they call us “internationals” here) took out our passports, and, after just glancing at the covers, the officer motioned for us to put them away.

The Palestinian men carried passports, ID cards, and another piece of paper in Arabic and Hebrew. This might have been a residency permit for East Jerusalem, but I’m not certain. Two of the men were escorted off the bus at the checkpoint, which made me realize—once again—how much of a golden ticket my American passport really is. (I almost wish the officer had at least checked my entry stamp, given the hassle it was for the Palestinians.)

Ostensibly, these checkpoints are security measures, but since the two men returned to the bus a few minutes later, I wonder if it was just an exercise of authority. They wouldn’t have been allowed back on the bus if they lacked any of the required documents.

After reaching Ramallah, I spent a few minutes in the main square, al-Manara, before taking a taxi to Jifna to meet my hosts.

Issa, the husband, took me on a great tour of the area. We went to Taybeh and its little-known brewery. It’s the only brewery in Palestine, and probably the only microbrewery in the Middle East. Taybeh produces a great lager and has set up a facility in Germany for easier export to Europe. It is not available in the US, and I’m going to make the unsubstantiated claim that this is due to the fact that the labels and boxes say “Brewed in Palestine,” which, obviously, the US does not recognize. The brewery tour was a much needed distraction from the fences, walls, guard dogs, and Israeli soldiers stationed in pillboxes (who probably don’t want to be there anymore than the Palestinians want them there).

After this tour and a quick nap, I walked to the neighboring village of Bir Zeit, whose name means “Well of Oil,” from the long tradition of olive oil production in the area. Olive trees are everywhere here.

Bir Zeit Heritage Week is taking place, with a festival being held in the Old City. It was like any festival back home, with musicians, vendors, and exhibitions. The only difference was the setting. (We don’t have two-millennia-old town squares in the US.)

In an old church, I watched a film in Japanese and Arabic with Arabic subtitles, documenting Japanese reconstruction efforts since the tsunami. The only word I understood was “years” (senouat). Still, anyone would have been able to get the gist of the film just by watching it. A delegation of Japanese tourists was there (as they are everywhere).

Beyond an American tourism booth, vendors selling popcorn, roasted corn, and ice cream, and people relaxing with beers or sheesha at cafe tables was an exhibit that, like everything else here, had a tremendous impact on me. The Palestinians, who live with this day in and day out and still manage to put a smile on their face, walked through the exhibit as if they had seen it all before, which they probably have.

The entrance to the exhibit:

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A Palestinian artist put on display empty tear gas canisters, stun grenade casings, used shells, and various other munitions that he collected from demonstrations over the past few years.

This is only a small part of the exhibit:

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Each one of these shiny little devils is stamped with:

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More:

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So that’s where the money is. Millions and millions of dollars… screw our needy neighbors, screw our students.

If any of you are thinking, “But we’re helping Israel protect itself. It is the only democracy in the Middle East,” I’ll be more than happy to engage in a debate when I’m home. Because if this is democracy—restrictions on movement for both Israelis and Palestinians, “administrative detention” of Palestinians by Israelis (ie indefinite detention without trial), constant protests, and vigilante justice on both sides—then the US is a utopia.

But for now, I’m going to kick back with my Taybeh beer, distract myself with a mass-market John Grisham novel (he’s good for something), and give my thumbs a rest. It’s difficult typing these posts on my iPhone.

Here’s to the olive branch.

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