August 10, 2010

According to the Koran, there was once a man named Lott who lived happily with his wife. There were men in Lott’s village that engaged in sodomy, which is thought to be wrong. Two angels came to warn the men to stop, but the angels were so beautiful that the men just wanted the angels and ignored the words of caution. Lott’s wife tried to persuade the men to stop, because she knew that the angels were there to punish the villagers. The angels told Lott and his wife to take all the good people, leave the village, and not to look back because it will be too terrible to bear. They followed the instructions, but just as they were out of sight Lott’s wife turned back and instantly turned into a pillar of salt. The angels took the entire village, gay men and all, and flipped it over like a pancake to create the lowest point in the world: The Dead Sea.

According to the travel books, the Dead Sea is 411 meters below sea level, 30% salt, and 30% smaller than it used to be. The surface area has shrunk by 25 meters due to a lack of water coming from the Jordan River. Historically it has been deemed an unhealthy place and shunned, rumored that no birds could fly over it. I didn’t see any birds when I was there. It was a famous refuges of religious political fugitives such as King David, King Harold, and John the Baptist who spent time alone its mountains and caves around its banks.

According to me, the Dead Sea is a bizarre, steaming pit of salt water with politically charged access, and minerals that have excellent skin benefits. Tourists come from all over to float, not swim, in a standing body of water as hot as a bathtub and as salty as miso soup. After the hottest bus ride of my life, we all rushed into the water. The Bardians in bathing suits, and the Palestinians still wearing their full hijab and jilbaab. Without hesitation we smeared the mud all over our bodies confidence in its ability to make our skin radiant. We slipped and slid around, but even if we tried we wouldn’t go under the water. The invisible salty force pushes us up like empty plastic bottles bobbing on the surface. I could do the yoga happy baby pose without going under the surface. It was spooky super-natural and too hot to be like anything else I have encountered.

The Palestinians don’t know how to swim. This was not the best location for lessons because the water rejected our bodily make-up and the salt burns so fiercely that every few minutes someone would emerge blinded from the water, arms outreached for the fresh water showers. Doha and Moale followed Liz in I in a mission to collect mud (I collected enough to bring back for facials for my mom and housemates). We were all scooping mud, and chatting so we didn’t notice how far off from the shore we had managed to float. When Doha and Moale realized their feet could not touch the bottom, they began to laugh and thrash wildly. We were laughing too and holding out mud bottles up out of the water so as not to lose the precious contents. Liz and I attempted a rescue mission in which I scooped Moale up like a baby and floated her in lifeguard style paddling wildly in my legs in water that laughed at my attempt to swim. A man noticed our commotion (we were laughing too hard to speak) and came over to try to help Doha get upright, but the unwanted male attention only made her more panicked and she got the salty water in her eyes. The four of us finally got back to shore and with hearts pounding and mouths puckered with salt, heaved ourselves out of the sea. It was an unexpected workout.

The beach we went to was officially a part of the west bank, but I could see the Israeli flag on both sides. When we were bobbing about in the water, a young man started talking to Liza, one of the Bardians. When he learned where we were staying in the West Bank with the Palestinians, he said “And they haven’t killed you yet?” It is important that we are here, and that we tell people we are here. Especially as a Jew, though not religious, I think it is important to form a positive Arab-Jewish relationship.

The bus ride from the Dead Sea to Bethlehem confirmed that I could never be a Muslim. The heat was hellish, and I was only wearing a T-shirt so cannot complain compared the full head covering and floor length coat that the Palestinian women wear. We passed through a temporary checkpoint to get into Bethleman. As we approached, we were pressed up against the windows with our cameras, documenting the discrimination in action. We saw Israeli soldiers running with their guns pointed, they were doing some sort of routine, but I have never been on the opposite side of a pointed gun before, so I felt my heart sink and twist in a knot. The Palestinians told us to put away our cameras because the soldiers would take them away if they knew we were documenting their activities.

The traditional religious garb is more than just a personal choice here. It is an immediate identification for whose side you are on and what invisible lines, or not so invisible (the wall) you can cross on the ground. The Hassidic Jews wear full coats and hats and most Jews at least wear the yamaca and the curls called pay-as. When we all arrived at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the location of Christ’s baptism, the Palestinians were not allowed into the church. The location is very important to Christians, and many were there after a long pilgrimage from Spain or faraway countries. They cry, pray and kiss the various locations where the baby Christ was born, baptized, and wrapped up in cloths. The Bardians talked to guards and eventually got permission for the Palestinians to come in with us. The Christians in the group wanted to explain the confessional and other peculiar Christian traditions.

I am not religious, but my family is Jewish. This is important for me to mention in discussion and in identifying myself here in Palestine, to contribute towards an Arab-Jewish partnership. We are choosing to do something good together. It seems to me more and more that this is the common ground, and the theological differences boil down to bickering over the details of a given story.

Today we hosted important visitors at the kid’s camp. In the middle of my third theater class of the day, in walked Paul Marianthal (the director of the TLS Office at Bard College) as well as the Palestinian Minister of Education along with both the girls and boys camp leaders. My class showed them a game I call “sculptor” in which two actors are “sculpted” by the “sculptor” into a situation or relationship (i.e. bird watching, fencing, etc). On a clap, the two statues come to life and begin the scene with movement and speech. The kids love the game and were very well behaved for the guests. At the end of the day we received word that Paul and the Prime Minister were very impressed with our efforts. They said this is the best summer education in all of the West Bank, not to mention much more organized than the boy’s camp. Paul is here to support Mujahed and focus on the sustainability of this project. Due to our good report we have been granted all the supplies we need, which is music to my ears. We are desperate for a staple gun to create the puppets for the play, which is hard to find in the West Bank.

I am developing a pattern. The art projects I take on are usually made of and look like trash, therefore are mistaken for trash and thrown out. (I am referring to my moderation project in which three bags of my “river” were thrown out a few nights before opening). Our half-finished ghoul puppet was nowhere to be seen yesterday afternoon, but has since been resurrected so no harm done. He is now too terrifying to be mistaken for trash and will be taken to the kid’s camp to be painted.

The group has attending a screening on non-violent protest in the West Bank, a lecture on Arab multiculturalism, and a discussion on Arab female leaders. Tomorrow we take a field trip (and day off from the kids camp) to attend an all-day lecture at Al Quds University on the history of Jerusalem. There is too much information to summarize, of course, but we did come across a few fundamental disagreement in our many group discussions which I will have to address another time as it is late and I am waking up 3:00 am for Ramadan.

My days here increasingly provide less time to write and more things to write about.