July 31, 2010

I landed in Tel Aviv at 4am this morning. We were advised to say we were on vacation and leave out our intention to enter the West Bank. I was provided with an address of someone who I could say I was staying with in Israel, but as I approached the passport check, I realized I could not pronounce her name. I began to get nervous, but made it through without any problems. When I saw Mujahed Sarsur's (Bard '12) uncle and three sons with a sign that said "Bard" and a single red rose, I felt relieved. And when we all piled in the car and Beyonce came on the radio, I felt right at home.

Next thing I knew I was sitting at the kitchen table with Liz Castle '12, another Bard student on the trip, looking out at heaving green grapefruit trees and listening to our hostess dissect the current political situation as she boned a chicken. We are staying for a day and a night in Kufr Kassem, a Muslim Arab city occupied by Israel in 1956. Tomorrow we will make our way with the rest of the girls to Mas-Ha. 

We learned that the city is entirely Muslim, but the street signs are in Hebrew and the people must obey Israel laws though they are treated as second-class citizens (no matter how many years their ancestors have lived on this land). Coming from America, it is remarkable to see a city so homogeneous in it’s religion and ethnicity. When the people of this city try to fight for their rights in health care or education, they are harshly shot down. This is a part of Israel. As our host put it, “when the judge is your enemy, to whom can you complain?” Within the first few hours of being here, I felt immediately acquainted with an endlessly complex set of issues that this region is facing and little hope for where I fit in that puzzle.

On the other hand, the hospitality I have received since my arrival has been incomparable. Welcome is the only word I have mastered in Arabic so far, because I heard it so many times. When I offered some shekels for an ice cream I was given our kind hosts responded with, “Are you crazy or something?” I feel entirely at home and welcome in this community, despite the many fundamental cultural differences (such as the acceptance of pre-marital sex, a topic that came up in hushed tones in the company of the young women only)

Today, Liz and I were chauffeured from house to house by a few of Mujahid’s young relatives. We were treated like royalty and joked that we must be doing something saintly to be receiving such a warm reception. We ate all day long with various loving families in various relatives’ homes. I feel I should partake in the fasting during Ramadan if only to reverse the damage done to my figure in this one day. My eagerness to taste new things overcame all sense or will I could muster. Liz studied the methods of baking the delicious flat bread they bake here in ovens in the back yard, which I hope to reap the benefits of when we are back at Bard.

The city maintains a sad beauty, poised in its limbo between decrepitude and a modern push. The white staircases float without rails around half constructed buildings ending in nothing. The homes that are occupied are immaculate. The gardens groomed and the cars washed. But the sidewalks are littered with cardboard and the streets with unapologetic potholes that function as natural speed bumps as we cruise around the city. The relationship between the people and the oppressive government is apparent in the few feet between the front door and the sidewalk.

After a magnificent meal and a few more Bardians joyously arrived at the house, I was asked over mangoes and mint tea why I wanted to be part of this project that Mujahid has so admirably thrown himself and his family into. I responded that I wanted to come to see for myself, to be cynical of American papers, and to explore my Jewish heritage by being open. But mostly, I am here because of Mujahid’s description of last summer: He organized a community service project in which the children would help the adults to clean schools and public places such as grave yards. Mujahid recounted the image of more than two hundred children showing up to eagerly clean a cemetery. I am here to bring something else for these children, to bring what I have to offer in the form of theater.

In the late afternoon the phone rang. It was Kendra and Rosi (the female student leaders) eagerly awaiting our arrival in Mas-Ha. “The whole village is waiting!” We were asked to cover our heads when we enter the West Bank tomorrow. Since the only scarf I brought has cream-colored pom-poms around the edge I will borrow a headscarf from one of the women we have met here. I have no problem following this custom, though in my feminist heart of hearts I may have feared feeling pity or frustration with this dress code. However, I see now that this is simply tradition. It is out of respect. Vanity falls far down the list of values for the Islamic people. Connection with family, individual responsibility and awareness, and good food are much higher on the list. And quite to the contrary of what I secretly expected, the men in this community look squarely to the women for the lead. The women are strong and smart and wear their hijabs with pride.
The night ended not unlike many back home in the Bay Area. I sailed with my new friends through the darkened streets of the city, with arms and head out the sky roof to catch a breeze, blasting Arabic pop music.