One Book, Many Communities: “Mornings In Jenin”

At the wall dividing Palestine and Israel
Susan Abulhawa

Last December, I came across an announcement for a “One Book, Many Communities” campaign organized by the group “Librarians and Archivists with Palestine.”  The “One Book, Many Communities” plan was for people around the world to read Susan Abulhawa’s novel Mornings in Jenin in January of 2015 and then to organize discussion groups about the book.  For more information about this campaign, click here.

I thought this was a great idea and wanted to participate, especially since I already had Mornings in Jenin sitting (unread) on my book shelf.  (I had discovered it in an English-language bookstore in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, when I was there in 2012.) The bad news is that I wasn’t on the ball enough to read the book and/or organize any One Book event in January.  The good news is that I DID read the book in February, along with one of my book groups, and we discussed it today.

Mornings in Jenin

I think we all agreed that the book was a powerful narrative dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian family.

For an overview of the novel, here is the blurb provided by the book’s website:

Palestine 1941. In the small village of Ein Hod a father leads a procession of his family and workers through the olive groves. As they move through the trees the green fruits drop onto the orchard floor; the ancient cycle of the seasons providing another bountiful harvest.

Palestine 1948. The Abulheja family are forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Ein Hod and sent to live in a refugee camp in Jenin. Through Amal, the bright granddaughter of the patriarch, we witness the stories of her brothers: one, as stolen boy who becomes an Israeli soldier; the other who is sacrificing everything for the Palestinian cause, will become his enemy.

Amal’s own dramatic story threads its way through six decades of Palestine-Israeli tension, eventually taking her into exile in Pennsylvania in America. Amal’s is a story of love and loss, of childhood, marriage, parenthood, and finally the need to share her history with her daughter, to preserve the greatest love she has. Richly told and full of humanity, Mornings in Jenin forces us to take a fresh look of one of the defining political conflicts of our time. It is an extraordinary debut.

 Although the novel focuses on Amal, it is actually the saga of an entire family, including Amal’s parents and siblings.  This family, although fictional, is meant to illustrate the history of the Palestinian people as a whole (or at least 20th century history).  Abulhawa takes the readers from the 1930s in Palestine, when Amal’s family were peacefully farming the land their family had cultivated for centuries, through the creation of the state of Israel when the entire community was forced away from their village and into the refugee camp of Jenin.  The horrors do not end with life in a refugee camp, though.  The narrative takes us through the bombings of the 1967 war, life under Israeli occupation, the horrors of the Shatila camp massacres and even the 1983 terrorist attacks in Lebanon.  Through all of these events and more, readers cannot help but be moved and horrified by the experiences the Palestinians had to endure—and still do endure.

The mainstream U.S. media, when it reports on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is almost entirely one-sided.  Americans can easily get the impression that Palestinians are all terrorists (for no particular reason except that they are somehow born that way) and Israelis are harmless victims who do nothing except to defend themselves.   Of course, there are plenty of nonfiction books available that give a broader perspective, providing much needed historical and political information.

However, not everybody reads these nonfiction books.  For people who want to know more about the Palestinian perspective, but are loathe to slog through analytical nonfiction, I think that Mornings in Jenin is a great alternative.  Many of us can relate better to conflicts that are in the news when they are told in narrative form, whether that is fiction or nonfiction.  We can understand the people in the conflict as PEOPLE, not as abstract entities, and thus our empathy is more likely to be engaged.

So, although there are flaws with Mornings in Jenin as a novel, I nonetheless urge as many Americans as possible to read it.  I say “Americans” because our government and our media are so one-sided that we need to do all we can to learn about Palestinian perspectives.

(Perhaps readers from other parts of the world do not confront this same odd (to me) one-sidedness in their government and media.  I’d be interested to hear more from all of you on this subject.)

 

 

Scenes from Bethlehem (2012)

Bedouin Tour

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Bedouin Tour

(This post was written in March of 2012 when I was visiting the West Bank).

Last Saturday, I joined a local tour guide named Hijazi for a guided exploration of the Jerusalem desert, followed by dinner with a Bedouin family in their tent. (See Hijazi’s web page for more information. http://hijazih.wordpress.com/). I am so glad I did; this “Lovely Evening with Bedouins” was one of the highlights of my trip so far.

Our group was small—just two other women (one from Germany, one from Switzerland) and me, in addition to Hijazi. I am not a big fan of the large group tour, where the tourist sheep are herded from one historical site to another and forced to bleat on cue, so I was happy about the size. Hijazi picked us up in Bethlehem and drove us east to the desert region. Israel and the West call this the Judean Desert, but Palestinians call it the Jerusalem desert. Politics!

I was surprised to learn how varied the geography of Israel and the West Bank is, despite the small size. (From Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea is only about a 60 mile drive.) The climate from west to east ranges from Mediterranean to steppe to desert, and the changes occur abruptly. There is a tunnel on the eastern side of Jerusalem, and one of my tour guides said that on the other side of the tunnel, the climate will be completely different. He was right! The further east we drove, the drier and more mountainous the area became.

After driving for about a half an hour or so, we stopped to take pictures of this breath-taking view. These lumbering rocky mountains, crisscrossed with horizontal striations, declined steeply to a grassy wadi below.   It was springtime after a particularly rainy season, so the landscape was dotted with abundant tufts of greenery. These mountains are noted for their anticline structure. (OK, so I learned that word on Wikipedia.)

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What, you ask, is an anticline structure?   Well, according to my friend Wikipedia,

“In structural geology, an anticline is a fold that is convex up and has its oldest beds at its core. The term is not to be confused with antiform, which is a purely descriptive term for any fold that is convex up. Therefore if age relationships between various strata are unknown, the term antiform must be used. On a geologic map, anticlines are usually recognized by a sequence of rocklayers that are progressively older toward the center of the fold because the uplifted core of the fold is preferentially eroded to a deeper stratigraphic level relative to the topographically lower flanks. The strata dip away from the center, or crest, of the fold.”

If you happen to win money on a game show because I taught you this word, I do expect to receive a percentage of the winnings.

(Dear reader, here I feel the need to share with you my own personal drama. At this point in the trip, I realized that my camera batteries were dying and we had already passed all of the towns where I could have bought batteries. Kick self hard! Because of my dying battery, I was measly with my picture taking for the rest of the evening. The batteries eventually died completely when we arrived at to the Bedouin camp for dinner. Kick self hard again!)

After our photo op stop, we got back in the car and continued driving east. The landscape changed again. Now the greenery was almost completely gone and the landscape was dominated by great expanses of nude limestone rock of the desert.   I have to admit that I have never been a huge fan of the desert and this initial entry into it was a little shocking to my green Midwestern sensibilities.   So when we first pulled up at one of the encampments of the Bedouin family who was to host us that evening, my initial reaction was one of pity. It looked so desolate and poverty-stricken.  

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Hijazi introduced us to the family patriarch, Hajj Ali, and his son (whose name unfortunately escapes me.)   Hajj Ali was warm and friendly, and despite our language barrier, he managed to make us feel welcome.   We went inside his tent, made of black goat-hair. Although the interior was simple in, with no furniture, only cushions to sit on, it was quite inviting and cool compared to the heat outside. We sat down on cushions while he served us tea. Hijazi and Hajj Ali talked animatedly in Arabic.   It is at times like these when my lack of Arabic really bothers me. Even though Hijazi translated for us, our exchanges consisted of not much more than bare-boned pleasantries.

After tea, Hajj Ali gave us all pieces of bread he had made. It was too much to eat, but I didn’t want to give it back or throw it away, so I held on to it during our ride.   For the next part of the tour, we all got into Hajj Ali’s four-wheeled drive vehicle.

 

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Hajj Ali with our tour bus in the background

They gave us the choice of riding inside or in the outdoor bed. We all chose to ride in the bed, standing up and holding on to the rails for dear life. (Just for the record, none of us were spring chickens, and the German woman said she had great-grandchildren.) Then we were off on a jolty, windy ride through the rugged desert. There were no roads to speak of, but our driver knew exactly where to go.

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The ride was fabulous–so much better than a traditional tour on a big bus. The more we rode, the more I started to appreciate the desert, including its variety.   We saw a number of female camels with their month-old calves. Apparently, they only need one male camel for a herd of dozens (or maybe hundreds?) of female camel. That is one busy camel! There are some animals in the desert (ibex, foxes, etc., but we were making too much noise for them come near us.) We saw a beautiful pistachio tree, and lots of delicate wildflowers. Mostly, we saw lots of undulating rocks glowing in the sunset. I wasn’t yet ready to move to the desert, but I was starting to see the appeal.

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The peak experience for me was when we arrived at the cliffs overhanging the dead sea at sunset—one of the most beautiful view I have ever seen.   My photos really don’t do it justice, and my words even less so. I wish I could convey its beauty.   I am somewhat afraid of heights, so getting close to the edge of the cliff was exhilarating, yet a bit frightening (especially since the rocks are loose). However, the young Bedouin guide was absolutely home in these cliffs, climbing up and down them with as much ease as a suburbanite in a shopping mall.

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I was fast becoming a desert convert with one part of my mind, while the other reminded me that this was sunset overlooking a sea in the best possible season of the year after a particularly rainy season. I suspect that if I came in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer, my reaction would be quite different.

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After we were done lingering by the cliffs, our guides drove us back to have dinner with the Bedouin family.   The Bedouins are nomadic desert Arabs who rely on their herds of sheep, goats and camel for a living. They have lived in this area for thousands of years. Life has always been hard for them, but it has become much harder since the Israelis took control of the land. The Israelis have been forcing them off of their traditional grazing land and now they are confined to small areas with impoverished villages. Hijazi says they are not really nomadic anymore (because they are not allowed to be), but they are not really villagers either, since that goes so deeply against their grain. They are sort of in between the two, eking out an existence in small patches of the desert near Jerusalem. We Americans are familiar with this narrative, since it sounds very similar to what we did to the American Indians over the past few hundred years.

Our guides took us to a different encampment than the one we originally visited, even though it was the same family. Hijazi said that they use one in the summer and one in the winter. They also use one for visitors, or perhaps when they just need space from each other. The second one was tucked away into a naturally protected area underneath a cliff. It was not quite a cave, but the area was protected from the wind. (By this time it was dark out, so nothing was clear to me.) When we drove into the encampment, we were greeted by a few camels and several small children. I felt like I had time travelled back to Biblical times. Eventually the women came out to greet us as well. Everyone was gracious and welcoming. Hijazi said that normally, the women would not show themselves to strange men. However, Hijazi knows the family very well, and so they do come out to socialize with them. He says the customs vary from family to family. This family is not as conservative as some.

The black goat-hair tent is divided into two parts. One is for men and guests, and the other is for women. Both were open this evening. There was also another tent that I was told is used as a kitchen. They do have electricity, and I saw what looked like a refrigerator and a washing machine in the women’s tent. Like the other tent, this one had no furniture, but a lot of cushions. The part that surprised me the most was their color tv! Because of their satellite, they got excellent reception, and everyone was sitting around watching a Turkish tv show dubbed in Arabic. So much for going back to Biblical times.

We settled in on the cushions, and our hosts brought us dinner on one large platter (no plates.) They made a rice and lentil dish served with chicken on top of it. It was quite good. Normally, they don’t use silverware, but they gave us some, knowing our strange manners. After dinner and tea, everyone hung out on the cushions. I couldn’t tell how many children there were—maybe six or eight? Some were Hajj Ali’s children and some were his grandchildren. Even though he is around 70, he has a little girl who looks to be about 2 years old. I was told the child was from his second wife. (She is absolutely adorable!) Hijazi told us ahead of time that it might be nice to bring some small gifts for the children, so I did. I distributed the gifts, which were well-received.   The small cars were just as popular with these children as with American children, and Hajj Ali’s little girl clutched the coloring book and coloring pencils I gave her all night long.

(We were introduced to everyone, but my mind is too feeble to remember names. I need to work on that!)

The family members asked us questions (translated by Hijazi.) They seemed fascinated by us. When I told them I didn’t have children, they seemed puzzled and full of pity. Hajj Ali told me that they believed that children were the whole point of a woman’s existence. I felt like saying, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before, but I kept my mouth shut. I told Hijazi to tell them I had a boyfriend, but he told me I can’t say that here. It would be like saying “Hi, I’m Debra and I’m a slut.” (Sort of like Rush Limbaugh.) He advised me to say I had a fiance or husband. So now I have a fiance.

Looking at the whole family snuggled up together on the cushions, I was struck by how cozy the whole scene was. I was tempted to curl up with them, but I figured that might be frowned upon.   After the end of the tour, I wasn’t quite ready to move to the desert and reproduce rapidly. But at least I could understand its charms. Sort of.

Go Take a Hike, Part II (West Bank)

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“How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do.” (Raja Shehadah, 40)

This entry is a postscript to my previous entry on hiking in Palestine. Today I started reading Raja Shehadah’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape.  He writes not only about his own experiences walking in the hills near Ramallah, but also of what previous Western travelers have written about the region. He writes:

“Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travelers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travelers’ imaginations. Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or travelers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition.

Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West’s historical and biblical imagination. The landscape is thus cut to match the grim events recorded there. Here is how Thackeray describes the hills I have so loved:

Parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones—a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate, meet the eye wherever you wander round about the city. The place seems quite adapted to the events which are recorded in the Hebrew histories. It and they, as it seems to me, can never be regarded without terror. . . ” (11)

Shehadah quotes other writers as well, such as Mark Twain, who describe the region as “desolate and unlovely.”   I was surprised to read this. Were they writing about the same place I visited? Granted, I visited in spring, the best time of the year, but still, the difference in perspective is striking and surely has as much to do with imagination and ideology as it does with observation.

Shehadah’s book serves as a refreshing antidote to these earlier travelers’ descriptions. He writes in a loving, elegiac tone about a landscape and a way of life that endured for centuries but is now rapidly disappearing under Israeli expansion and apartheid policies.

 

 

Part of Bedouin Tour in Palestine
Part of Bedouin Tour in Palestine

 

Go Take a Hike!

If you travel to the West Bank, I encourage you to get off the tour bus and take a hike instead. Rural Palestine offers an abundance of walking opportunities and provided me with some of my most memorable experiences. In addition to enjoying the beauty of the desert, plains, hills and wadis, you can’t help but encounter ancient buildings, monasteries, and monuments of religious and historic significance.

If I understand correctly, the hiking-as-tourism movement in Palestine is relatively recent and is starting to gain momentum. One impetus to this movement is a newly published book by Stefan Szepesi called Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank, Interlink Publishing Group.

(You can also find Szepesi’s webiste devoted to walking through palestine:   http://www.walkingpalestine.org/.)

In this book, Szepesi guides the reader through twenty-five walks in different areas of the West Bank. I confess I have not read the book yet, but agree with the blurbs and reviews which claim that Palestine is a walker’s paradise and that walking is the best way to get to know a country. It is largely through my walks in the countryside that I have been converted into a fan of deserts and almost-deserts. (My native habitat is the humid green and blue lands of the Upper Midwest.) For me, there is something magical about the landscape here, something that even the best photographs don’t really capture. It’s hard for me to explain the attraction, but it is powerful. There is a reason, I think, that the desert plays such a prominent role in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

If you plan to travel to the West Bank, you may want to join the “Walking Palestine” group on Facebook. Group hikes, many of them guided, are posted regularly on this site.

A slightly older book (2008) about walking in Palestine is Raja Shehada’s Palestinian Walks.

 

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Here is what the Amazon website says about this book:

“Raja Shehadeh is a passionate hill walker. He enjoys nothing more than heading out into the countryside that surrounds his home. But in recent years, his hikes have become less than bucolic and sometimes downright dangerous. That is because his home is Ramallah, on the Palestinian West Bank, and the landscape he traverses is now the site of a tense standoff between his fellow Palestinians and settlers newly arrived from Israel.

In this original and evocative book, we accompany Raja on six walks taken between 1978 and 2006. The earlier forays are peaceful affairs, allowing our guide to meditate at length on the character of his native land, a terrain of olive trees on terraced hillsides, luxuriant valleys carved by sacred springs, carpets of wild iris and hyacinth and ancient monasteries built more than a thousand years ago. Shehadeh’s love for this magical place saturates his renderings of its history and topography. But latterly, as seemingly endless concrete is poured to build settlements and their surrounding walls, he finds the old trails are now impassable and the countryside he once traversed freely has become contested ground. He is harassed by Israeli border patrols, watches in terror as a young hiking companion picks up an unexploded missile and even, on one occasion when accompanied by his wife, comes under prolonged gunfire.

Amid the many and varied tragedies of the Middle East, the loss of a simple pleasure such as the ability to roam the countryside at will may seem a minor matter. But in Palestinian Walks, Raja Shehadeh’s elegy for his lost footpaths becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for the deprivations of an entire people estranged from their land.”

If you are like me, a person who gets lost every time she travels to Minneapolis, you may prefer to hike with a live tour guide rather than a written description. If so, I would recommend Hijazi Eid, http://hijazih.wordpress.com/ who guides small groups on a variety of tours ranging from a half day to several days. He loves the area and knows it intimately—the flora and fauna, the history, and the politics—and can arrange meetings and overnight stays with local families so that you can get to know local people. One of my regrets is that I did not get a chance to do an overnight hike, but I did immensely enjoy visiting the Bedouin family on the Hijazi’s Bedouin tour.

Here are a few photos of the landscape I saw while hiking in Palestine:

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Yalla! Yalla! Scenes from my Wadi Qelt hike

While staying in the West Bank of Israel, I went on a guided hiking tour of part of the Wadi Qelt. Wadi Qelt is a spectacularly dramatic crevice in the desert hills between Jerusalem and Jericho. (In Arabic, “Qelt” means valley or sometimes riverbed.) It follows the spring of Ein Qelt, which provides the route with lush greenery. Wadi Qelt used to be used as a major travel route in the Roman times. The tour was led by Hijazi Eid http://hijazih.wordpress.com/. There were three of us tourists, two American women and one German woman. Hijazi picked us up in Bethlehem and drove us to the beginning of the hike, at the top of chalky, undulating desert hills.
In this scene, D refers to me (Debra), H to Hijazi, and T and K to the other tourists (in order to protect their privacy.)

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We all get our backpacks , water bottles, hats and sunglasses in place and start to hike.

Two minutes into the hike:

H: The valley of Wadi Qelt used to be used as a main travel route between Jerusalem and Jericho. We will not hike the whole valley today, though. Our hike will be about 15 kilometers. If you look below you’ll notice….

D: Look! A camel! Can we stop and take a picture?

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K: Yes, let’s stop and get a picture.

T: Oh, I love camels. Hi, sweetie. [Pets camel on head.]

D: Hmmmm…that camel looks really dirty, but is still awfully cute. [Pets camel gingerly.]

Camel does the camel equivalent of rolling eyes and thinks, “Oh, brother. More tourists. It’s such a drag to be so picturesque.”
(Several minutes of picture taking and cooing ensue.)

Seven minutes into the hike:

H: So, as I was saying, if you look below, you’ll notice….

Small child walks up to us carrying scarves and says something in Arabic.

H: Does anybody want to buy a washaha [Arabic word for scarf)?

D: Kahwah? Did you say coffee? Yes, I’d love some.

H: Not coffee–scarf, washaha.

D: Oh, sorry. This one’s kind of pretty. [Fingers the scarf.] But no thanks. I don’t want a scarf.

K and T shake their heads no.

Ten minutes into the hike

H: OK, ladies, yalla, yalla [Arabic for “come on, let’s get going.”]

[Everybody starts walking.]

Twelve minutes into the hike.

H: If you look below, over there, you will see the remainders of an aqueduct. It was built over 2000 years ago by the Romans and was used by the Hasmonean rulers to carry water from the Ein Qelt [Spring of Qelt] to their palaces and to the city of Jericho.

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D: Oh, wow! Look at those pretty flowers! What are they called?

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T: Anemone

K: They are lovely. [Takes out camera.]

D: Yes, they are. And they are so, so…..red. [Takes out camera and stoops down low to take pictures.]

D, T, and K stop for a few minutes to take pictures.

T: It’s so beautiful here.

D: Yes, it is. I’m glad we’re here in the spring when everything is in bloom.

Sixteen minutes into the hike:

H: Ok, ladies. Yalla! Yalla!

Lady hikers start walking again.

Twenty minutes into the hike:
D: Look! There are the remains of some old structure over there. What is it?

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H: The remains of a Roman aqueduct.

D: Really? The Romans built an aqueduct here?

H: Yes. They built it to lead the water from the Ein Qelt spring to Jericho and all the homes in
between.

D: Oh, look at the lovely tree. It’s so green. K, could you please take a picture of me by this tree?

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K: Sure, if you could take one of me, too. T, would you like us to take one of you, too?

T: Yes, please!

Several minutes of picture taking of lady tourists in front of tree ensue.

Twenty-five minutes into the hike:

H: Yalla, yalla, ladies. (Begins to sing a song in Arabic that has the refrain “yalla, yalla.”)

Ladies begin walking again.

H: Below you will see the remains of a flour mill from the 19th century. Today, a Bedouin family is living in the house and taking care of it.

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D: (looking at her camera’s record of the 35 hiking pictures she’s taken so far while trying to hike at the same time) thinks, I look like a dork in this hat, but I need it to keep out the sun.

Thirty-one minutes into the hike:

T: Could we stop for a few minutes, please? I really need to go to the bathroom.

H: OK, just find a rock and we’ll wait for you up ahead.

D, K and H continue to walk a little bit to give T some privacy. They stand around and wait for t to finish. D thinks her foot might be starting to hurt a bit.

D: Hijazi, what would happen if I tripped and hurt my leg and couldn’t walk back?

H: I would have to carry you back. (He says this with a look of absolute terror in his eyes.)

D: Bummer. (That’s English for “that would be quite unfortunate for you.”)

Two minutes later, H presents D with a walking stick that he made from wood found near the path.

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D thinks, That was very thoughtful of him!

H thinks, Please, God, please, please, please don’t let her hurt herself today!!! Not on my watch!

D: Hey, I think I saw a woman in that house over there. Does somebody live there?

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H: Yes, a Bedouin family lives there, next to the remains of a flour mill from the 19th century.

T comes back from the powder room.

Thirty-eight minutes into the hike, the group have advanced about 300 meters and have collectively taken 72 photos.

H: Yalla, yalla, ladies. This is a four-hour hike without breaks. At the rate we’re going, though, it
will take us three days to get to Jericho. We need to pick up the pace.

T: Sure, of course.

D: No problem.

K: I’m ready.

H: Please be careful! Watch your step!

The ladies focus on hiking for several minutes. Progress is being made.

But then, 45 minutes into the hike:
D: Oh, look! There’s a Palestinian dog! I wonder if he speaks English? I really need to get a
picture of him. . . .

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(Several minutes of “nice doggies” and “good boys” and “oh, I missed him in that shot” ensue.)
. . . . .
Fast forward eight hours. The group is still hiking.
D: How much longer before we’re there?

H: Just 15 minutes or so.

D thinks, I’m hot. My feet hurt. I’m thirsty. This hike is taking sooooo much longer than H said it would. He really needs to be more accurate in the future.

Where is the Lean Cuisine? (West Bank)

Part I of Debra’s Excellent Adventures in Palestinian Cooking

Spice shop in UAE
Spice shop in UAE

 

While in Bethlehem, I am living in a fully furnished apartment by myself. This is a good situation, except at feeding times. There is no room service to bring me over-priced spaghetti, and no hotel restaurant for my immediate caloric gratification. It seems that I have to do something I’ve only read about in foreign novels: cook for myself. Of course, I shouldn’t exaggerate. I do cook for myself at home. But for me, “cooking for myself” equals “putting frozen food-like product in microwave and pushing button.”

Alas, my kitchen here does not have a microwave. I do not know if this is because it is a mere rental, or if this shocking lack of a basic human necessity is shared by all members of the Palestinian community. In any case, I quickly realized I needed to find another source of cooking heat, unless I wanted to eat raw stray cats for dinner. My landlord pointed out a large white object on top of which were four dark circles covered by dark iron lines in the shape of a star. The side of the object could be opened, and items could be placed inside of it. I thought at first this was some sort of exotic religious contraption used for sacrifices and perhaps the burning of frankincense and myrrh. However, my landlord explained to me that this is called an OVEN and a STOVE. It looks something like this:

Natives use this for cooking
Natives use this for cooking

 

He explained that when used properly, the OVEN and STOVE can be an invaluable tool for heating up food. Hmmm. Interesting. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.

The next step was to find some food to insert into this contraption. My landlord told me that there is a supermarket only a block away, so finding food would not be a problem. I walked to the market, expecting an equivalent of Kowalksi’s or the Target grocery section, except perhaps with more hummus. However, Supermarket Khleif (pronounced like you are trying to rid your throat of a foreign object) was not exactly the same as the grocery stores at home. First of all, it was much smaller—maybe five aisles instead of 35. I could forgive the size, but I was shocked to learn that everything was in Arabic rather than in English. What are these people thinking?
Well, I figured I would just go to the produce section and grab some stuff from the salad bar. I don’t need language skills for that. Hmmmmm….where is the salad bar? Ummmm, where is the produce? I circled the store several times looking for fresh fruits and vegetables and couldn’t find any. Do they not eat produce in Bethlehem? Is there some religious prohibition against salad? I was perplexed and starting to panic. Well, I would get some protein instead. Where was the dead animal section? I couldn’t see any boneless, skinless, free-range, antibiotic-free chicken breasts anywhere. What exactly do people eat here?
The aisles were full of stuff in packages, but I didn’t know what most of it was, or what to do with it if I did know. It seemed that there was one full aisle of crackers, cookies, candies and other fun stuff. I backed away slowly to avoid temptation. Other aisles contained pure mystery and I started to have dark fantasies about needing to walk the streets of Bethlehem at night, armed with a steak knife, looking for prey to kill simply in order to survive. I would be arrested for terrorism when really I just wanted a nice big salad with chicken breast meat and perhaps some Balsamic Vinaigrette. Then I had the bright idea of frozen food. Frozen dinners are a universal, right? I’d just get a few Lean Cuisines and insert them into the thing called OVEN.
Or not. I could not find any frozen dinners either. In what state of barbarianism do these people live? By this time, I was in a state of pure panic, bordering on tears. Fortunately, I found the refrigerated section and I recognized a few things. That stuff looked like hummus; I grabbed it. That white stuff looked familiar. Could it be yogurt? Good. And look! They had Laughing Cow cheese wedges—truly a universal product. I started to breathe easier. If I could just find some bread, I would have dinner tonight.
Where was the freaking bread? They had to have bread! I decided to ask for help. I went up to the man behind the counter and wished him peace, if God were willing to grant it. He wished the same for me. I searched frantically in my brain’s weak Arabic files for how to say “bread.” My most recent Arabic lessons came to mind instead: Waladee Ta’mal fil umammil motaheeda and Rooseea Balad KaBeer Jiddan.I decided, however, that “My father works at the United Nations” and “Russia is a very big country” would not be helpful at this juncture.
Finally, I remembered the Arabic word for “bread” and I expelled the sound “chubz???” The clerks said, “Na’am” and pointed behind me to a stack of pita bread. I thanked him, bought the bread, hummus and cheese, and made a hasty retreat. Dinner was ready