Bouncing around the Mid-East, Part 3
I met Michele in Korea, when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Mid-East. Part 1 deals with her experience in Kuwait and Part 2 in Oman. Part 3 comes from both a Skype interview and group letters she sent to her friends at the time. Much of her experience in the West Bank has to do with the difficulty of getting around, or as she says of one trip, “So, it was 6:45 p.m. and we were finally home. It had taken us four and a half hours to travel a distance of just 100km/60 miles – but that’s life in the West Bank!” Again, thanks to Michele for the photos.
In August 2004 I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv to begin a one-year contract with Arab American University – Jenin (AAUJ) in the West Bank. The last time I’d been there was twelve years before, but the situation had gotten worse. At passport control I was interrogated for an hour and a half: where I had been, what was in my luggage, who I was meeting, where I was going. They were particularly interested in my trip to Lebanon. They eventually gave me a three-month visa—Israel was no longer giving out one-year visas to foreign workers—and fortunately they didn’t stamp my passport. Otherwise I couldn’t have used it to get into an Arab country. A taxi driver picked up me and another teacher who had arrived earlier, and we rode through Israel to a checkpoint where we got out of that taxi with our bags, walked through the checkpoint, presented our documents to a soldier and then got into a van which was waiting to take us to the university.
The difference between Israel and the West Bank was like in the film The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and the world suddenly turns from black-and-white to color. Israel is a developed country with paved roads, nice houses and green fields, while the West Bank is basically a large ghetto with unpaved roads, trash everywhere and houses that are falling apart. Our apartments were on campus, on the top floor of the English department’s building, so we had to climb three flights of stairs located outside, on the right side of the building, with heavy bags in the heat. It was about this time that I started wishing I’d stayed in Oman, but after a shower and some rest I had no regrets about my decision to accept the job. For me it was a way of showing the Palestinians that not all Americans agreed with the US government, and I think the two other American teachers were there for similar reasons. The eight foreign teachers were all women ranging from their late twenties to maybe mid-fifties. Our offices and classrooms were on lower floors of the same building.
My furnished apartment was small but clean and fairly homey—a tiny entryway, a bathroom, a bedroom and a large room living room/kitchen. The windows faced west so I got a lot of sun in the afternoon and could watch the sun set in the evening. The building was on a hill and surrounded by hills covered with olive trees and wandering cows, sheep and goats. It was quite pastoral and beautiful.
Zababdeh, the town closest to us, was small but had most of the things we needed. Or we could go to Jenin, about twelve kilometers to the north. Residents there had shown strong resistance to the Occupation over the years, especially during the latest Intifadah. We went there to do some shopping and open bank accounts—we were paid in USD, but everything else was in Israeli shekels since there is no Palestinian money. We weren’t sure we could get through to Jenin because of two suicide bombings in Beersheva the day before. Surprisingly, no Israeli soldiers stopped us. They didn’t roll into the town in tanks and instate a curfew or cause chaos by making people leave their houses and shops while they did a search, which has been the case in the past.
The university had around eleven buildings scattered about the campus. One day the English department was in kind of an upheaval. When I went to class I learned that the university was closed because the Palestinian Authority had accused one of the professors of collaborating with the Israelis, and they were trying to get a confession out of him. I don’t know how the issue was resolved, but the university opened a few days later. Surprises would come up out of the blue. Another time I found out that students were barricading the university, so the security guards wouldn’t allow those of us who lived on campus to leave. They did allow us to go to the little supermarket just outside the university gate, but we had to be back in an hour.
Speaking of food, I had to adjust to the lack of variety and somewhat poor quality of food available. Also, most of the products were from Israel, so I felt buying them meant I was supporting the Occupation, but there were no alternatives. The few restaurants served only Arabic food, and you were often disappointed if you ordered anything other than the usual “salads” like hummus or tabouleh, or the standard shwarma or felafel.
One day when I went for a walk with three other teachers, we went around the campus and then off on an unpaved road that I could see from my apartment. The landscape reminded me somewhat of Tuscany with its patchwork fields and tall cypress trees, which wasn’t surprising since we were near the Mediterranean. A young Palestinian of about fifteen rode by us on a horse, bareback. He rode by three times, saying nothing but smiling broadly. Just past the top of the hill we reached a Roman road which must have been built almost 2000 years ago. When one of the women asked where the road went, she was told, “To Rome,” but actually I think it led to the next village. We turned and saw the boy and his horse about half a kilometer up the road, at the crest of a hill. The sun was setting behind them so their silhouette was backlit by an orange sky like in a Marlboro commercial.
An old Volkswagen bus was available when we wanted to go to a real supermarket in Afula, a forty-five-minute drive into Israel. Getting through the West Bank to the checkpoint was difficult. Most of the roads were unpaved, and there were no landmarks, street signs or street lights. As the default driver among us I had to memorize the route. On the gravel road you had to drive just a few miles an hour because it was bumpy and the dust would be all around. The directions were along the lines of go to this house and that store, turn left at that street, and so on. The roads were narrow so I’d have to play chicken with other cars on the road or slow down almost to a stop to let them go by. Eventually we got to Oz, where there were paved roads and big, green highway signs with white lettering in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. The security guards at the store would inevitably ask whether we had a gun.
On what was supposed to be our day trip to Nablus, we left the university in a taxi at nine, rode for a while to a checkpoint, which was only a barrier across the road. We got into another taxi and after 20 minutes or so arrived at the checkpoint nearest Nablus. This was more formidable. People going into and out of the city had to stand in line to show their identification, and all vehicles—including ambulances—are stopped and searched. The three lines are covered with an awning and separated by concrete walls that are about two feet high. The concrete floor had a three-inch wide shallow ditch running down the middle. When motioned to come forward, you walked up to a kiosk with two tiny windows manned by soldiers. Palestinians were issued ID cards by Israel and had to carry them at all times. Hanging around outside the kiosk were other soldiers, all in uniform with helmets, bullet-proof vests, mobile phones and automatic weapons. We presented our university IDs to the soldier at the kiosk, and he went off somewhere. He came back and said they were still checking our IDs. While we waited we stood to the side and watched people coming and going, a typical mix of old, young, teenagers, men, women, children, as well as the occasional UN worker in a vest with the letters “UN” on it. Most of the people had blank or distracted expressions on their faces, but some men chatted with the soldiers in Arabic and were actually smiling as they left. Even in this bizarre, humiliating situation a bit of humanity was able to prevail.
After about twenty-five minutes the soldier with our IDs came back and told us that we didn’t have permission to enter Nablus. We called the director of our department, who said she’d do what she could. It was now around 11:45. We were hungry, tired of standing and in need of a bathroom. I asked a soldier if we could sit on the benches in what looked like a detention area. We ended up chatting in a mixture of English and Arabic with four Palestinian university students who were trying to go to a club meeting in Nablus. They certainly didn’t look dangerous, but it appeared that the Israeli Defense Forces weren’t taking any chances. Even so, they talked with the soldiers in a very relaxed manner, and one of them offered us cigarettes and orange juice in plastic cups. Then we got a call from the director saying she couldn’t get permission, so we said goodbye and got a taxi for a checkpoint where we could then get another taxi for the city of Toulkarem.
Israel was so intent on controlling the movement of Palestinians that they weren’t allowed to travel from one Palestinian town to another and were also subjected to searches and detention at any time, no explanation needed. As a foreigner I had more leeway than a Palestinian might, but even so anyone who was not an Israeli had great difficulty getting around the West Bank and Israel, while Israeli settlers were free to come and go as they liked at any time, even though it wasn’t their country. As for Gaza, thankfully it wasn’t a place most people wanted to visit as it was virtually impossible to get into or out of. One week several people were assassinated in Jenin and Nablus, two towns fairly close to the university. We’d been hearing a lot of jets overhead recently, and I assumed that they were used in the attacks.
When the semester started, I found that the students in my three intermediate and two advanced classes actually appeared to be at those levels. They were okay for the most part, and they certainly appeared more motivated than the Gulf students I’d taught. The guys wore jeans, t-shirts and sunglasses, carried backpacks, had mobile phones and were very good at giving excuses for why they couldn’t study. A lot of the girls covered their heads and wore ankle-length coats, but there were a number of Christians and Muslims who dressed like western girls. As a result I felt less like an outsider here than I did in Kuwait or Oman, although I still dressed more conservatively than I would if I were teaching in the US, Europe or Asia.
In the student union there was a week-long event held to raise money for the various student groups, including Hamas, Fattah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and a few others. Outside was a large, circular tent, and next to that a mock prison which resembled the one housing a member of Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade who was sentenced by Israel earlier that year to six life sentences. Another simulated setting showed the graves of two men assassinated by the Israelis earlier this year – Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and Mr. Rantizi, the former leader. Radiating out from the middle of the tent were individual stalls where you could buy computer stuff, Islamic books and various things you’d find in a bookstore. There was also a “Ladies Only” stall selling cosmetics and shoes.
One day several teachers and I went to Jenin where we met a Palestinian colleague and her mother, who took us to an old building that had belonged to a pasha, a sort of governor, in Ottoman times. It now housed a women’s group working to keep alive traditional Palestinian handicrafts, including embroidery and wood carving. We walked down two or three steps into a small courtyard that had a few trees, some wildflowers, and an unused fountain ringed with potted plants. A volunteer took us into a room where some of the products were made. The ceiling was high with two domes; Ottoman architecture from what I understand. The stone walls were about 1.5 feet or half a meter thick, and the floor was tiled. After looking at everything there, we were served Arabic coffee. We were told that the pasha and his family had lived on the upper floors of the house while the servants lived and worked on the lower level—a bit of Upstairs, Downstairs in seventeenth century Palestine.
On the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the second Intifadah, the students had a rally. I went to check it out, but it was hot, and there were no shady places to sit. Also, the students were speaking only Arabic, and I wasn’t able to understand much. I hoped that what was being said—or shouted—was constructive and forward-looking, rather than simply a litany of past and present abuses and grievances. The audience was made up of relatively young people who I felt needed to be given the means to find a way to help end “the situation,” as the Occupation is called by Palestinians. It seemed to me that this constant looking back and focusing on what had been done to one side or the other wasn’t getting anyone anywhere. I was tired of all the rhetoric from all sides, and couldn’t bear to think that this generation would also be doomed to live their whole lives under Occupation.
The sentimental or romantic view seemed to be that Palestinians threw stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers because it personified the battle between David and Goliath, but actually stones were everywhere, a cheap and plentiful weapon. Almost all the buildings in Palestine have lovely cream-colored stone facades, and you’ll often see pathways and steps made from stone. The low hills surrounding the campus look as though someone cut terraces out of the stone—but they’re natural—and the nearby fields have stone walls around and through them which were built using stones cleared from the fields. Years ago I saw t-shirts in Jerusalem with “I got stoned in Jerusalem” printed on the front.
At one point classes were cancelled two days in succession because the university was showing solidarity with Palestinians who had recently been killed in Gaza. On the second day the students held a memorial. Someone was shouting into a microphone, and on the lawn in front of the building were mock corpses covered in the flags of the various political groups, like Fattah, Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Students were mulling around and flyers were being handed out. The scene seemed surrealistic as it was a beautiful day and here on a college campus these average-looking college kids were looking at mock corpses and listening to a political speech. Palestinians live with death and violence on an almost daily basis, so that for them this was a case of “same shit, different day.” On another day the students went on strike to show support for a dean who’d apparently been sacked for no reason. Office politics had gotten out of hand. The president had resigned the week before, and the university was closed for several days at the beginning of the semester because students had set up a checkpoint outside the university and weren’t allowing anyone in. The Israeli Defense Forces had taught them how effective checkpoints were. I found the irony depressing, and I wondered how I was going to teach my classes. I also had to complete interviews for a case study for a course I was taking. So many things were beyond my control.
I stayed only one semester because it was stressful. One of the things adding to my stress was the fact that every now and then Israelis would drop fake bombs that sounded like someone had slammed a big, heavy metal door right next to my apartment. Apparently they were using these bombs to freak people out. They didn’t destroy anything. It was a psychological tactic to make people afraid, never knowing what’s going to happen next. When I had to make a visa run after three months, I went to Jordan. At the border it was just a mass of people. Arabs, God love them, don’t tend to stand in lines unless made to. I answered the border official’s questions about what I was doing, and eventually she gave me the visa. I got a taxi to Amman and then a bus to Petra. Jordan is very beautiful but some of the desert areas reminded me a bit of Kuwait. When I got to the hotel room I had booked online, I was babbling, “I’m so happy. I’m so happy.” I wondered why I was saying this. I think it was relief from the stress of living in the West Bank. So after my two days in Petra I went back to the university and gave notice. That was in December of 2004.