Saturday, April 21, 2012

The More the Merrier: My Second Tel Aviv Adventure And The People Who Made It Wonderful.

Last time that I went to Tel Aviv, it was with two other internationals who were working at the Bible College with me. This time, I went with a group of students and a few of the staff from the college. Typically, no one would have been able to go because Palestinians are not generally allowed into Israel for "security reasons," but during Christmas and Easter, the Christians in the West Bank can apply for permits from the Israeli government for temporary access to Israel in order to worship at the holy sights. They don't alway get a permit, but if they do then they have a month where they can visit Israel. The students often joke that Israel thinks they're terrorists... except over Christmas and Easter. It doesn't make much sense to me why for 10 months out of the year, you classify someone as a security threat and don't allow them to travel in, to, or through Israel, and yet the other two months you give them unrestricted access to the entire country... but that is a post for another day.

Our wonderful Soheir, the college mama/professor/translator/all around fantastic human-being decided that since some of the staff and students had NEVER SEEN THE SEA BEFORE (even though Tel Aviv is only 35 miles away from Bethlehem), she would rent a bus and organize a day trip for everyone. She is the absolute sweetest. The Christians' Easter permits expire tomorrow (Sunday, April 22nd) and so it was decided that today was the day for a seaside adventure!

Isn't she adorable? Told ya so!
There ended up being 20 of us total, Soheir, Hala (the college librarian) along with her husband and three kids (none of whom had ever been to Tel Aviv before), Rita (one of the cleaning staff) and her friend, William (the groundskeeper) and his wife, Ron & Joanne (the new couple who run the Guest House), seven students, and ME! We left Bethlehem at about 8am and arrived in Tel Aviv around 9.

Before we did anything else, we (obviously) took a few ridiculous pictures... and some pretty cute ones. Haneen, one of my good friends and a first-year at the college, wanted a jumping shot, and so I dutifully played photographer. It took us four tries, but eventually, we captured it:

Haneen and the Jump Shot!
Me and Haneen in Jaffa's town square.
We began in Jaffa, the town that is right next to Tel Aviv; if you started out in Jaffa walking toward Tel Aviv, you would get into the city without even realizing that you'd left Jaffa... they sort of just run into each other. In the morning, we visited St. Peter's Church, browsed the street merchants, and went on a little museum tour to learn more about the Jaffa sea port that has been active for over 5,000 years. 

St. Peter's Church
We all went to lunch together around noon, and then afterwards we split up and each went our separate ways for a few hours. I ended up hanging out with Soheir and Jabra, a student at the college. Jabra speaks basic English, and I speak very basic Arabic, so luckily Soheir speaks both languages fluently. We ate ice cream, walked around Jaffa, explored the little artisan shops scattered throughout the town, talked, laughed, and basically just had a pretty rad time.

Jabra in Jaffa, overlooking Tel Aviv.
Jabra is one of the male student that I'm closest to at the college, but male-female friendships are not encouraged in Palestine, and you are DEFINITELY never supposed to hang out one-on-one. Most of my closest friends in college were guys. I tend to connect easier with men than with women (maybe it has something to do with only having brothers?), and I've found that to be even more true when there is a language barrier. Somehow guys just don't need as many words to communicate; you can totally bond nonverbally, which you can't often do with girls. The fact that it is not culturally appropriate to have any real male friendships here has been an incredible challenge for me. Jabra and his roommate David (who unfortunately was sick and not able to come to Tel Aviv) are two of the sweetest, kindest, most humble guys I have ever met. Jabra especially has such a gentle spirit. He is essentially the opposite of the "loud, angry, domineering Arab man" stereotype that we so often hear in the West. At 24, he is the oldest student living in the college dorms, and he is definitely having a positive influence on the other guys who are living there. 

Here is a story from today that basically sums up who Jabra is in a nutshell:
[Ok, backstory: so I trimmed my bangs a few days ago because I always cut my own hair and it wasn't a big deal at all. Well I'm an idiot and wasn't really paying attention, so I ended up cutting my bangs short. Wayyyyy short. I've been pinning them back until they grow out, but unfortunately for me some of the shortest bangs constantly come out of the bobby pins and I totally can't tell because instead of falling in my eyes, they are so short that they stick straight up. Seriously, it's a tragedy.] 
So today we're all sitting on the bus waiting for one last person to arrive when Jabra, who is in the seat in front of me, looks at me and says "your hair is sticking up." I was super frustrated with myself and my stupid hair and totally overreacted by basically yelling: "JABRA. I KNOW. I can't do anything about it and my hair just won't work and I'm so tired of trying to fix it and I don't have any hairspray with me and it looks ridiculous and I hate myself for being so stupid and not paying attention to what I was doing and now everyone is going to stare at me all day and I'M JUST GOING TO SHAVE MY HEAD." Also I may or may not have teared up... but I'm blaming that on my lack of sleep. 
Now instead of calling me a crazy person for totally mis-directing my anger at him and/or yelling back at me, Jabra doesn't even bat an eye. He calmly gets up and comes to stand right in front of me. Without a word, he gently takes all of the bobby pins out of my hair and begins to slowly and carefully twist the short bangs under the longer ones and pin them down. Ten minutes later, I had no more sticky-uppy bangs; they were all pinned down, and they stayed pinned (despite the windy beach) until half way through the day (when I immediately had Jabra re-pin them).
RIGHT? I know. He definitely wins the award for "kindest way to deal with a girl trying not to sob over her hair." I'd bet every penny I own that he has a sister.

After the whole group met up again at about 4, we headed down to the beach! Again, we all split up as some people went off to swim, some went to walk further into Tel Aviv, and some (like me) went off to find a quiet place to relax and enjoy the weather.  I ended up walking down the beach until I came to the portion that has huge rocks piled on top of each other to create a sort of wall against the tide. I decided to climb down the rock wall/pile a little ways to find a quiet, more out-of-the-way spot (side note: doing this in a dress was a super classy idea). I spent an hour just listening to my iPod and watching the waves. It was the most soothing thing I've done in a long time.
I know it looks like I could just step onto the beach, but I'm actually about 25 feet up.
The view of the sea and the sun was beyond incredible.
We ended up heading home at about 7:30pm, and got to Bethlehem a little after 8. I was left with some beautiful pictures, wonderful memories, approximately eight pounds of sand in my purse, a very fancy flip-flop tan...

SUNBURN. My poor, poor burned body.
Although it's never officially summer until Meredith forgets that she's caucasian and goes out in the sun without sunscreen only to come back hours later burnt to a crisp

There's really nothing better than having a mini-vacation. I feel so recharged and refreshed, even though technically I was only away from my "regular life" for 12 hours.

In other news: get excited for the next few weeks... I have visitors coming! I'll be doing a bunch of traveling, which I will obviously share with you all, and I'll also explain why I intentionally haven't done much traveling up until this point.

I hope you all are doing well - Happy Weekend!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

5 Things I Just Cannot Get Used To No Matter How Hard I Try

1. Greeting everyone individually when I walk in a room.
Here, whenever someone enters a room, they are expected to say hello to everyone who is there, individually. This is often done by greeting everyone by name ("Sabah al kheir [good morning] Anita, sabah al kheir Meredith, sabah al kheir Ghadeer"). Other times, it's just done by making eye contact with a different person and repeating the same greeting over and over. Sometimes, it's done by kissing on the cheeks, although often that is only gender specific (so men will kiss men and women will kiss women).

2. Bargaining for every good or service.
"Oh, you want to charge me 15 shekels for a cab ride home? Well, I think your time is only worth 10." "You want me to pay 100 shekels for that handmade scarf? Well, it's not that great. I'll give you 50." That is basically what I feel like I'm saying every time I try to haggle with people. I feel so rude. SO RUDE! Of course here, it's not rude. It's how things are done, and if you don't haggle then you are hugely taken advantage of. The general rule for market items here is that you are supposed to end up paying about 30% of the sticker price (or of the first number that the seller offers you), but you have to bargain your way down to that number. Cognitively, I know this, but it doesn't make it any easier for me when I'm trying to haggle my way down.

3. A phrase for every occasion!
In the West, we basically say "thank you" whenever someone does anything remotely polite for us. Give me a ride in your taxi? Thank you! Wish me a happy birthday? Thank you! Refill my water glass? Thank you! Hope that I get well soon? Thank you! Say you like my new haircut? Thank you! Tell me to enjoy my meal? Thank you! Here, there is a unique response to each different phrase. There are a hundred of these phrases that I can never keep straight, and they each mean something that, in my brain, doesn't at all correlate with what is being said. For example, when someone says "sahhtain," which roughly translates to "enjoy your meal" the correct response is "ana qalbek," or "on your heart." Huh? I usually just end up saying "shukran" (thank you) at the same times as I would in the US. People look at me a little funny, but at least I don't feel rude when I can't remember the correct response.

4. Shame Culture v. Guilt Culture
I was raised in a guilt culture, which means that if I do something wrong, even if no one else knows, I generally feel guilty about that and it eats at me until I do something to atone for my wrongdoing. In the same way, if people think I have done something wrong but I have not, then I defend myself, fight against these false accusations, and I do not feel guilt. In the shame culture in which I now live, what I have done does not matter, what matters is what others perceive that I have done. If I do something wrong, then I shame my family (or tribe) and it is a public thing, not a private thing like guilt. This might explain it a little better:
Basically, shame is a holistic feeling: I am bad. Guilt is much more specific: I have done something bad. Therefore, guilt does not generally overshadow your life the way that shame does. All that to say, that I am not used to living in a shame culture. Having to worry about things as mundane as making sure not to come home after dark (because my neighbors will see, assume I've been doing something inappropriate, and it will bring shame on my host family) is something that has been a challenge. Having to think about the way that my actions will be perceived by outside observers, not just whether they are right or wrong, is something that I have never encountered before. Growing up, I was always told that "as long as you know that what you're doing is right, then it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks," but here, it is essentially the opposite: "it doesn't matter what you're doing, if people think that you are doing something shameful, then that is what is important."

5. The constant presence of soldiers.
That's pretty self-explanatory. It doesn't matter how often I see them... every time I turn the corner and run into a pair of teenagers with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, my heart starts racing.

For the most part, I've adjusted fairly well to living in Bethlehem. I've gotten into the rhythm of life here, and I very much enjoy it. As I begin to wind down my time here (I only have three more months!) it really hits me how much this place has become my home, and how most things that seemed to strange to me when I first arrived have become totally normal. I can only imagine that when I return to the US, everything is going to seem incredibly bizarre for the first few months!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Debunking the Myth

Happy Easter, everyone! I know, I know, I'm a few days late. Unfortunately, I was pretty sick over Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter), so I didn't get to participate in the local events as much as I had wanted to. Easter is a huge deal here, for obvious reasons. Jerusalem is the setting of the crucifixion and resurrection story, and the entire city was bustling with excitement. Thousands of tourists and locals alike participated in all sorts of different activities to commemorate different Holy Week events. Many of my other ex-pat friends said that the Easter story felt so much more real to them after being here, and I agree. It is much easier to visualize things when you're here and seeing the sites first hand.

Orthodox Good Friday procession down Via Dolorosa.

It was fascinating for me to see all the tourists with their bright smiles and their incredible enthusiasm. They smiled and danced from one place to the next, and I was constantly overhearing people talk about how Jerusalem is "the holiest city in the world." And I also constantly heard people say how they "hope those Arabs just leave us alone over Easter" or how they hope that "Palestinians don't bomb Jerusalem and kill us all." Not realizing, of course, that East Jerusalem is an Arab city, or that there were Palestinians standing right next to them, or that there are plenty of Arab Christians who are celebrating the rising of the Savior, who died not just for you, but for them as well.

Yesterday marked the eight month mark for me, and I find that the longer I'm here, the heavier my heart grows. This occupation is weighing on me, and I am not even constrained the way that most residents are. I find myself feeling drastically different about Jerusalem than so many of the tourists that I saw. For them, it is this holy city with a bright light shining from it. For me, well, sometimes I can literally feel the dark cloud that is hovering over Jerusalem. The air is heavy, the pain is tangible, the oppression is smothering.

I feel like living here has opened my eyes to so many things, and I wonder if I've gone through life with the same naivety, with the same blinders on me as so many of the tourists I've seen over this past week. Do I think critically about things, or do I just follow the leader and buy into what I'm told? Do I wrestle with what I encounter, or do I take everything at face value?

I ran into this quote by Henry Rollins a few days ago, and it so accurately summarized how I'm feeling:
"I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You’re going to get a sense of what globalization looks like... And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people—Americans and Europeans—come back and go, ohhhhh. And the light bulb goes on."
I feel that for me, the light bulb has gone on. I read a bit more about Henry Rollins, and found this article written about him. While I don't agree with everything that was said, I did love this little excerpt:
The fact that [Henry Rollins has] generally had a good time and been treated well by the people in the Middle East has made Rollins question the way those countries are framed in Western media. That's convinced him that there's not as much to fear in the world as some would have us believe, and that the US could instead serve the far greater purpose of making things better for people around the world. 
It is for this kind of hard-won education that Rollins travels in the first place. 
"To take the myth away from something," he muses of his motivation for visiting places many view as difficult.
"There's not as much to fear in the world as some would have us believe." Those words hit home for me. I can't even remember how many times someone recoiled in fear when I told them my post-college plans, or how often people told me "don't get blown up" when they found out I was going to live in the Middle East. Living in Palestine has shed so much light on our shared humanity. People here are the same as people everywhere else in the world. People want food, water, and shelter. They want safety and stability for themselves and their families. There is no great mystery here. There are just people, who are pretty much the same as you and me.

As I look forward to the three months that I have left in Palestine, I hope to continue to de-bunk all the myths that I have about this part of the world. I hope to explore and adventure, and I hope to truly see Palestine through the eyes of those who call this place their home.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

World, Meet My Coworkers!

For the past week, I've been working on getting out the Shepherd Society's Easter newsletter. On Thursday, my boss decided that he wanted a picture of the staff in our newsletter, and so we got to have an impromptu PHOTO SHOOT! I'm really excited, because now you can see the Shepherd Society staff! The Bethlehem Bible College employs about 20 staff members, and probably around 20 faculty members. The Shepherd Society, the humanitarian branch of the College, has only four staff members, but what we lack in numbers, we make up for in awesome.

Our very serious, Palestinian style photo.
Alex, George, Muna, and Me
Alex is the director of the Shepherd Society, Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College, and pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church. Alex has an absolutely incredible life story, and wrote the book Palestinian Memories, the second edition (which I was able to help edit!) was published in March. Alex's father (a hospital worker) was shot in the head and killed by Israeli snipers in 1948, afterwhich he was raised by a single mother along with his six other siblings. While he spent his childhood living in and around Jerusalem, the Israeli government revoked his citizenship after he left for college and refused to let him return to his family, and so for a time, he was a man without a citizenship, without a country. Now he is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Palestine on and off with his wife Brenda for the last few decades.

George is the deputy director of the Shepherd Society and is working toward his Masters in Counseling at nearby Bethlehem University. He coordinates the initial meetings with new families needing assistance, and does the best he can to help them cover things like medical costs, utility bills, and tuition payments. He got married a few years ago, and his wife packs him tea-time snacks for the 10:30am tea break. It's all sorts of adorable.

Muna is the Shepherd Society social worker. She does extensive follow-up with families and helps to make sure that we are best meeting their needs. She also runs the family to family sponsorship program, where a family in the West can sponsor a Palestinian family. Her daughter comes into the office on Fridays (since school here runs Monday-Thursday and 1/2 day Saturday) and is the spitting image of Muna. It's so crazy to see Muna's identical twin who is 8 years old.

How we are normally, on very windy rooftops.