Monthly Archives: June 2009

Jad and Shadee come to Palestine!

Jad, me and Shadee in al-Quds

Jad, me and Shadee in al-Quds

This morning, Uncle George and I drove down to the Israeli-Jordanian border to pick up Stephen, Jad and Shadee. Yay! The last time I saw them was 2006, when Hal and I came to visit them in Beirut.

Shadee and Hal, last trip to Beirut 2006

Shadee and Hal, last trip to Beirut 2006

The five of us drove up to Jerusalem and then walked around the city a bit before heading over to a Maronite (kind of a Lebanese spin-off of Catholic) monastery to meet Mariam. Stephen, Jad and Shadee are Maronite, and Stephen wanted the kids to see the monastery and meet the nuns. Plus yesterday was my 24th birthday, and in celebration, Mariam had asked the nuns to cook us all a special meal !!!!! what the what?!?! hehe. so happy 🙂 George’s friend Albert told us that the food these nuns cook is so good that people who eat it can’t speak when they eat because they’re overwhelmed by the amazing flavors. In other words, these nuns rival the guy who made the world’s largest knafe as my all-time heroes.

While we were waiting for the food, we all went up to the roof of the monastery for a view out over the city. !!! These nuns have the best view in the city – it’s insane!!! We were so close to the Dome of the Rock, you felt like you could almost reach out and touch it! By the by – if you’ll indulge another nerdy history rant – the Dome of the Rock (“Qubbat el-Sakhra”, in Arabic) was commissioned to be built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in the 680s CE, making it the oldest known Islamic structure on Earth. The rock that gives the ‘Dome of the Rock’ it’s name, is, according to Muslim tradition, the rock on which Muhammad was standing when he ascended into heaven. And, underneath the rock there’s this cave that Muslims call the ‘Well of Souls’ where the souls of the dead supposedly linger before they disappear into the afterlife. Spooky in a cool way 😉

The Dome of the Rock, as seen from the top of the monastery

The Dome of the Rock, as seen from the top of the monastery

Jerusalem, as seen from the top of the monastery

Jerusalem, as seen from the top of the monastery

After taking in the amazing sights, we came back downstairs where the nuns presented us with bag after bag after bag of food. We thanked them about a thousand times over, lots of hugging and besos and then we started the walk back to the hotel/monastery where Stephen, Jad and Shadee were staying. Thing is, we were so hungry and anxious to taste the food that for now we could just smell, that Shadee and I peeled back the tinfoil covering one of the trays to reveal a steaming pile of kibbeh (ground lamb or beef cooked into patties with bulgar wheat, garlic, sumac, and pine nuts). The smell overwhelmed everyone and one by one, as we walked, all the kibbeh disappeared. So worth it.

IMG_0273IMG_0274 We got back to the hotel around 7, and started unwrapping the rest of the food. There was tabbouli (a salad made with finely chopped parsley, bulgur, mint, tomato, scallion, and other herbs with lemon juice, olive oil, and all spice) grilled eggplant, chicken cooked with sumac (a deep-red spice made from the ground berries of sumac plants – tastes kind of lemony and awesome) and served over rice, hummus (mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini (paste made from ground sesame seeds), olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic), fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, meat pies, kibbeh nayyeh (raw kibbeh), stuffed kousa (stuffed zucchini), kafta (ground lamb grilled with spices – sort of like a hamburger, but better), stuffed grape leaves, and fresh pita bread. You know that scene in Chocolat, when everyone is sitting around eating at Judi Dench’s birthday feast – it’s in slow motion and you can just see everyone’s faces as they savor every bite of the food. Yeah, that’s what it was like. The only thing missing was the background music and Johnny Depp playing guitar. Birthday feast extraordinaire!

My first helping ;) yesssssss!

My first helping 😉 yesssssss!

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Twenty-Fo’a, Shut the Do’a

Two Four! oh yeah. I'm going to be so bummed on my 56th birthday when I can't do this anymore...

Two Four! oh yeah. I

Although the real celebration will be tomorrow when Stephen gets back with Jad and Shadee, today is my official birthday – woohoo! George and I were supposed to drive into Amman today, but those plans were cancelled at the last minute so I spent my 24th in Ramallah! How nuts is that?? George and Mariam got me beautiful orange roses, a CD called ‘Lullabies from the Axis of Evil’, and a book of selected poems by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into English, entitled ‘Unfortunately , it was Paradise’.  Perfect birthday gifts!

Lullabies from the Axis of Evil CD Cover

Lullabies from the Axis of Evil CD Cover

I was psyched about the book, because I’ve been wanting to read Darwish’s poetry, and the CD just cracked me up. It’s a compilation of lullabies from all of the countries Bush labeled as enemies of the U.S., part of the modern day ‘axis of evil’.  Aside from the awesome and hilarious title, the idea behind the CD was cool – to show how similar the lullabies mothers sing to their children are, all over the world – to highlight the humanity and the similarities between peoples that have often been reduced, in references by the U.S. government, to simply ‘the enemy’.

After presents we went out to a little place where we had a breakfast mezze (selection of appetizers – sort of like lots of tapas) of olives, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, lebneh (strained yogurt – it becomes thick, like a spreadable cheese), tabbouleh, foul (pronounced ‘fool’, it’s made of brown fava beans, partially or completely mashed, which are slow-cooked and served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice), pita bread, and fried eggplant. Sooo good!

070708_ramallah_hmed_1p.widecAfter breakfast George and Mariam dropped me at Pronto where I sipped on ice cold lemonade blended with mint and ice – my new favorite drink – and FINISHED editing the ‘Cultural Routes in Palestine’ UNESCO report! Oh yeah. Such a good feeling. My first assignment completed and submitted, George came over to the cafe and started prepping me on my new projects. The rest of the afternoon was spent working with George, editing down his and Mariam’s latest film for Al-Jazeera to a 3-minute short, to be submitted to a Gaza film festival. I’m working with film!! Okay, granted I’m not wielding the camera, directing the shots or scripting witty dialogue, but I’m at least playing some part! You have to start somewhere, right??

Now, we’re all back at the apartment resting up for awhile, and in about a half an hour, George and I are going out to the bar ‘Blue’ for a little birthday cocktail. Good day!

al-Quds

JerusalemUntitledI just spent the day in al-Quds (aka Jerusalem)! You know, the holy city for Muslims, Christians and Jews, one of the oldest cities in the world (dates from 4th century BCE), the city where Jesus was crucified, the city the Crusades were fought over…no big deal.

No, in all seriousness – what the what?!? Too good to be true!

George, Mariam, Stephen and I woke up early this morning, had eggs with zaatar, pita bread and olives for breakfast and then piled into the car. The drive to Jerusalem took us somewhere between 30-45 minutes + a passport check at the Jerusalem checkpoint and we were in! As we drove into the city, George was pointing out the distinctions between East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian and West Jerusalem, which is Israeli – it’s bizarre to see the similarities and contrasts of these peoples living side by side. Our first stop, was at the top of the Mount of Olives for an insane view over all of the city.

Me on the Mount of Olives, overlooking al-Quds

Me on the Mount of Olives, overlooking al-Quds

Suleman the Magnificent and his sweet hat

Suleman the Magnificent and his sweet hat

Hadrian

Hadrian

After our scenic detour we made our way down to the Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances into the old city. A gate has stood at that spot since at least the 2nd century A.D., constructed by the Romans, under the rule of Hadrian. However, the gate that stands there today, was built in the mid-1500s by the Ottomans, under the rule of Suleman the Magnificent. Sweet!

Uncle George and I in front of the Damascus Gate

Uncle George and I in front of the Suleman the Magnificent's Damascus Gate

When you enter through the gate, you’re right in the middle of the souk (market) that runs through the center of the old city. All of a sudden, you’re bombarded with thousands of different colors and smells, fabrics and foods, jewelry and carvings – it’s amazing!! I can’t do it justice with descriptions so I’ll just post some photos 🙂

Inside the souk in the old city

Inside the souk in the old city

Zaatar Mountain! Spices for sale in the souk

Zaatar Mountain! Spices for sale in the souk

Nuts and candies for sale in the souk

Nuts and candies for sale in the souk

In the end, we couldn’t resist the allure of the intoxicating smells wafting from the sweet shops, and made a stop in the souk for some hot knafe, which is probably my all time favorite Lebanese pastry. Oh and get this, apparently, a couple days ago, a Palestinian guy set the Guinness Record for making the world’s largest knafe. This man is my HERO.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Bellies stuffed and huge smiles plastered on our faces we wound our way out of the souk and over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, if you didn’t know, a sepulchre is “a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.” So the Church took its name from Jesus’ sepulchre, which lies inside the church. Yup. That’s right. This is where Jesus was buried. Insanity.

The church was built in the early-300s CE, under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine I – you know – the first Christian Roman Emperor, the guy who changed Byzantium to Constantinople. Constantine’s mom, Helena, was one of those people who always needed a project – kind of like my Mom. So, Constantine gave her the task of going through the Holy Land (which was then all part of his empire), digging up all the Christian relics, and building churches on the sites of her finds to promote them.

Now, before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed, there was a temple to Venus standing on the site. Helena was not a fan of Greco-Roman paganism, so she had Venus’s Jerusalem temple demolished. I’m not saying that Venus cursed her for it, but Helena did get divorced and was never remarried so…who knows? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d say, when in doubt, don’t do anything to piss off the goddess of love.

Anyway, after Helena had it demolished, she decided to excavate under the ruins of the former temple. According to legend, during these excavations three crosses were uncovered. Helena thought that one of the crosses might be the ‘True Cross’ that Christ was crucified on, so to test her theory she supposedly let a sick woman touch all three crosses. After touching the third cross the woman was healed, Helena decided that meant the cross was the ‘True Cross’ (meaning that this must have been the site of Jesus’ crucifixion) and she ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the spot. The church also contains the ‘Angel’s Stone’, a piece of the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, and his sepulchre itself which was discovered during the construction of the Church.

I’ve never been a particularly religious person, by I do have to say that it’s incredibly moving to see people from all over the world coming to this church. They believe so completely in the power of the church and the relics inside – everyone’s crying, lighting candles, kissing the stone that Jesus was laid upon after he was taken off the cross. And they’ve been doing this for centuries now! Big example – Crusaders used to visit this church and they would carve small crosses into one of the church walls – sort of a ‘I was here’ mark. The wall is covered with hundreds of crosses now. It’s amazing!

Touching the 'Stone of Anointing', also known as the 'The Stone of Unction', where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was laid after he was taken down off the cross

Touching the stone that Helena claimed Jesus was laid upon after being crucified

One kind of funny tidbit about the church – sometime in the early-mid 1800s, someone was washing the church windows or repairing part of the exterior, and placed a wooden ladder on the facade of the church. The guy forgot his ladder, years passed and no one ever moved it. And now the ladder, which is still there, has come to be called ‘The immovable ladder.’ Tourists take photos of it. And just like that this guy’s forgotten ladder has become a part of this church. Can’t help but smile at that 😉

The Immovable Ladder

The Immovable Ladder

After visiting the church, we were walking around the city when we bumped into an old friend of George’s, Albert. When George was around my age, he was working as a photojournalist in Palestine, met Albert and ended up renting a room from him during his stay. The two have been friends ever since. When we ran into Albert, he was sitting outside with some of his friends, smoking their narghiles and drinking tea. We sat down and joined them.

Tea and argyles with Albert and his buds in al-Quds

Tea and argyles with Albert and his buds in al-Quds

Albert’s stories were all in Arabic, but I hear he’s a crack up. And honestly, this dude talks more than I do. It was impressive.

Burning Garbage…

One smell that was new to me when I arrived in Palestine, was the smell of burning garbage. Coming home in the afternoon from a café, there is almost always a cloud of black smoke or small flames flickering somewhere in view. With waste collection unavailable in almost all of the Palestinian territories, the people have to do something with their waste. Sanitary landfills cost money and require space, both of which aren’t readily available. So they burn. I looked it up and discovered that it’s actually a pretty common practice in small towns and even rural areas all over the world, utilized by those who want to avoid waste collection costs.

Problem is, when you burn your waste, a lot of pollutants that are damaging to the environment, particularly the ozone layer, are released. Additionally, burning garbage can create and release toxic pollutants that cause eye and lung infections, and in some cases, cancer.

Good thing is, the Palestinians are aware of the problem.   And despite the fact that they have other, more pressing, priorities, slow but steady steps are being taken within the Palestinian territories to correct the situation.

According to an article published last February in the publication ‘This Week In Palestine,’ some Palestinian municipalities are working together to create regional systems of waste management; systems that include organized collection of waste and the creation of sanitary landfills. Cool beans. Go Palestine!

Ramallah

_41117069_israel_ramallah_map203First full day in Ramallah! Okay, so for those of you who don’t know, Ramallah (which basically translates to ‘mountain of God’) is a city in the West Bank, populated by around 27,000 people.

Today, we all had to work. George and Mariam were editing at the studio, Stephen was writing in the apartment, and I headed into the city to do my work. I love working at cafes and in other public spaces – makes the whole experience so much more pleasant, and when you do need a break, there’s quality people watching at your fingertips.

Today, I spent most of the afternoon at a cafe called Pronto. Right now I’m editing a grant proposal for UNESCO. The document is 90 pages long, and it’s taking a loooong time to edit BUT the project proposal is fascinating. It’s all about promoting tourism in Palestine by creating paths that trail through the country, stopping at all the important religious, cultural and historical sites. An added bonus for me – the proposal includes details on each of the sites that the proposed routes will connect, meaning I’m learning a ton about Palestine in the process.

Downtown Ramallah

Downtown Ramallah

Fresh squeezed lemonade and manaaish (bread with zaatar), a comfortable chair, interesting work, great people watching, and a sunny afternoon in Ramallah. Who could ask for anything more??

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish

I came back to the apartment around 5pm and we all went out for a walk around the neighborhood that took us over to the grave of Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish is one of, if not the most famous Palestinian poet of the modern age, playing a critical role in the development of ‘poetry of resistance.’ I didn’t know who he was and when I asked, the reaction was exactly the same as when I asked my friends in Spain who Raul (the famous footballer for Real Madrid) was. This guy is a BIG deal. Ooops. Played the ignorant American card and promised to look for an English translation of his poetry – another on a long list of books I’ve promised to read while I’m here.

There were two guards on duty by his tomb, just sitting on the ground having tea. They recited some of Darweesh’s poetry for us, but it was in Arabic so I didn’t understand. Ah! Can’t wait to go to Beirut next month and start taking classes!! Stephen translated bits of the conversation for me.

Cousin Stephen in front of Mahmoud Darwish's grave

Cousin Stephen in front of Mahmoud Darwish's grave

Okay, side-note. It’s hilarious when my family translates Arabic for me. I don’t understand anything that’s being said to me, but they seem to assume that I’m understanding everything except for a few very specific details, so they’ll just translate a word or two, or tell me who a person is that was mentioned in the conversation. It’s hilarious. Basically, I hear: alkdsjflkasjdflkjaslkdfjaksj asjdlkfjaslkfjklasjdf and eventually someone turns to me and whispers, “That means ‘green.’ Oh, and Lena is Mariam’s cousin.” So the only thing I take away from the 30 minute conversation is that at some point in the middle of all the aksfjklasjdflajsfkldjalskjfdakl, something that may or may not be significant is or was green, and Mariam has a cousin named Lena. I have found it’s better to just smile and nod along with the conversation, pretending I understand and hoping against hope that no one asks me any questions.

After a lot of curious questioning later, I did find out that the guards speaking to us were both refugees from a village that’s now part of Israel.  One had been in jail from the age of 15-20 for trying to cross the border to visit his family, who he hadn’t and still hasn’t seen in years. Here, people’s stories are so intense – I can’t imagine living out your whole life through war and under occupation. It’s horrible. I don’t know how they don’t walk around fuming mad all the time, but everyone I’ve met so far has been so wonderful – nice, happy, open. It’s remarkable. They always want to share their stories and it can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve discovered that I’m more emotional than Uncle George – he takes in the stories calmly, asking intelligent questions while I find myself crying, enraged, and/or frustrated.

After that, we just walked around a bit before heading home for some fresh cherries (my stomach has finally adjusted to the local fruit. So relieved!) and chatting.

*Random fact about Ramallah – the Mayor since 2005 is Janet Michael, the first woman to hold that position. Maabruk (Congratulations) Janet!

Mayor of Ramallah - Janet Michael

Mayor of Ramallah - Janet Michael

Viva Palestine!

RAMALLAH
We’re in Palestine!! This is so amazing!!! We’re chilling in Ramallah in George and Mariam’s apartment. Cousin Stephen is here with us as well – he came in from Beirut this morning to conduct research for books he’s writing – one on Arab photography and the other on Islamophobia*. Meanwhile, George and Mariam will be meeting with their editor who’s going to help them finish up their latest film for Al Jazeera.

Getting here was definitely an adventure. What should be a 1 1/2 hour drive, becomes a 6+ hour ordeal thanks to what feel like dozens of checkpoints.

I’ll begin at the beginning. After we got Stephen from the airport, we drove to the Jordanian border with Israel.  Checkpoint #1, Jordanian military guys checked our passports. They actually know George and Mariam because they cross the border so much for work. They were friendly, and basically just let us drive right through.

Drive for 15 minutes or so and…Jordanian checkpoint #2! Everyone out of the car, all the bags through a scanner, inside to get visas. Not too long of a wait, but it’s over 100 degrees outside, so it feels a bit longer. Everyone piles back in the car.

Drive for a few minutes and now Israeli checkpoint #1! Pull into a parking spot while Israeli military people ask LOTS of questions. That takes about 30-45 minutes.

Drive for about 2 minutes and now Israeli checkpoint #2! This time out of the car for more questions. Who is your father? Who is your grandfather? (Lucky for me my father and paternal grandfather have Irish last names, so I was asked fewer questions than I would have if I’d had to give the Lebanese surnames of Saddic and Azar from Mom’s side) Next up was a list of every Arab country, and a string of questioning centered around whether or not I’ve been to any of these countries and why I was there? And then she asked all the questions again. I have no idea why. I just answered dutifully. But she didn’t stamp my passport. So I can still travel to Lebanon – score! This whole process took about 30-45 minutes per person. There were 4 of us.

Next up….you guessed it – Israeli checkpoint #3! Now you take everything out of the car again, scan it and wait in a small room with your bags while they search your car and hold your passports. That took about an hour. Very hot, sticky and smelly. The car was cleared, yay! Now we wait in line to get insurance or a permit or something, so that we could legally drive the car in Israel.

And finally, we’re out! We made it through!!

Crossing into Israel, you’d have no idea there was a water shortage in the region – sprinklers are watering large fields, massive orchards of palm trees (which, admittedly don’t need much water). It really was beautiful. Then you drive into the Palestinian territories, and the water shortage is quite apparent. Parched earth abounds. But that’s another story for another time.

What’s ridiculous is passing by signs that read Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc. !!! These are cities I always read about in history books, and now I’m actually here!!

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall

We drove past the apartheid wall and into Ramallah around 7pm. This city is amazing. Gritty and pulsing with energy, it’s a far cry from calm, clean-cut Amman.  I love it! We were all starving so we went out for dinner at this fun place in the city center. The place was full and bustling, red table cloths, Fairuz playing on the stereo, and a dinner of grilled chicken with sumac, hummus and pita bread for dinner. HEAVEN!

View from George and Mariam's apartment in Ramallah

View from George and Mariam's apartment in Ramallah

After dinner, it was back to the apartment for bed. What a day, huh?? I’m going to sleep in Palestine!

*Stephen has since published his book Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims if you want to check it out.

Catchy Cover

June cover of JO Magazine - A free, monthly Jordanian magazine, published in English

June cover of JO Magazine - A free, monthly Jordanian magazine, published in English

I love ‘The Graduate,’ so when I saw this cover I cracked up. But I don’t quite know what to think of the article itself. Read it for yourself:  On the Prowl, by Hamza Jilani, JO Magazine