Volunteering Because You Can

As a child, I could tell you a lot about fjords and olive trees, even though I had never seen either one.  This is because I grew up around a lot of Norwegians and Palestinians.  The Norwegians were my

Tromsø

neighbors and classmates in Minnesota, the Palestinians our family friends, part of the handful of Arabs that we knew who gathered together for special occasions.  I didn’t think of Norway and Palestine together beyond my childhood.  One was all about snow and Nobel peace, and one was all about sunshine and the opposite of peace.

But this past year I went to Tromsø, Norway for a magazine article, and I discovered an unexpected link:  It turns out that this small Arctic Circle city, gateway to polar bears and reindeer, is the sister city of Gaza.

One of the few constant refrains I grew up with was, “If you forget your people, then who else will remember them when they need help?”

The answer to that question for many people from troubled lands is apparently Norway. Volunteering, whether abroad or at home, seems to be as much a part of Norwegian culture as waffles and jam.

In Tromsø, I met over hot chocolate with Knut Borud, the current secretary of the board of the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship group.  Like all the other board members on the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship Committee, he is 100 percent Norwegian.  He has lived in Norway all his life, a married high school teacher with teenage children.  He shrugs when you ask him why he has been involved with helping the Palestinians since the 1980s, visiting twice.  “There is something wrong there,” he explains simply, with that Scandinavian calmness.   “In 2001, we formalized our efforts to help when our mayor visited Gaza and signed the sister city pact. Contact has become more and more difficult as the situation has gotten worse but we continue.”

Knut teaches video production to high school students, and one of the Gaza Tromsø group’s projects is helping Gazans film their own stories.  One young woman, Nehal Afana, a cinematographer in training, was even brought to Tromsø to learn about developing a film art center for youth in Gaza, like the Tvibit Filmhouse in Tromsø for aspiring local artists.

“Yalla To Gaza” is a film made by  Gazan director Ashraf Mashharawi and features Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Tromsø native.   Along with fellow Norwegian Dr. Erik Fosse, were the only two foreign doctors allowed into Gaza during the 2008 bombardment.

In the video, Dr. Mads talks about the dignity of the people of Gaza, but sitting above the Arctic Cirlce, listening to Knut talk about a place so far away, a place for which he has no obligation to help, I thought equally of the dignity of Norway and all people who help others just because they have the freedom to do so.

http://vimeo.com/11712883 (Yallah to Gaza)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJndfs4Ctt8  (Nefal’s story)

And for a look at the magazine article that took to Tromsø, the home of the northernmost mosque in the world: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201201/ramadan.in.the.farthest.north.htm

Tor’s Palestinian Photographs: 1967 and 1977

Today my friend and photographer Tor Eigland sent me two of his photographs as his way of remembering 63 years of the Palestinian Naqba (Catastrophe).  Tor is Norwegian and he’s covered events around the world since the 1960s, but his most amazing stuff is of the Middle East (aside from his photo of Castro on his day of coming to power–which is pretty the much the photo of Castro coming to power).

Palestinian Refugees 1967

Tel al Zaatar 1977

What Arabs Talk About At Dinner

On a recent work trip to Kuwait, my American colleague started chuckling while he listened to my Syrian cousin and me arguing about the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “Is this what sitting down to dinner with family sounds like in the Middle East?” he asked.  Yep.  Pretty much always unless there is a divorce to talk about.

Until recently, if you were to look at the Middle East through television, which is how most people know it, you would think everyone in the Middle East was either a terrorist in training or a rich oil sheikh.  That was never the case, and maybe one of the good things that might come out of these heroic demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will be to see the Arabs as people.  And people who love to eat.

So in case you’re wondering what else we talk about at dinner, here’s a list. The order of this list may change family by family and depending on what is the largest and latest crisis of the moment.  For example, Libya (see no. 2) would top of the list today.  I don’t mention Osama bin Ladin, Al Qaeda or the hijab, because honestly those seem to be West’s favorite Middle East topics.

Here’s a peek into dinner, say over lentil soup, stuffed zucchini, cucumber yogurt salad, and hummos or something made with eggplant.

1.     Israel:  Israel via Palestine, Israel via Egypt, Israel via Lebanon, Israel via Syria, Israel via Jordan, Israel via Saudi Arabia, Israel via Iran, Israel via the nuclear bomb, etc.  These conversations are ready to go even on an empty stomach.

2.     Arab dictators:  Mubarak and Qaddafi and Ben Ali and so many more to choose from.

3.     Iraq:  See above.  We were talking about Saddam at dinner long before he became Enemy No. 1 and we’re still talking about Iraq because it’s still tragic.

4.     Shiite/Sunni:  Also see above.  Long winded stories to get to “@en did this divide become so big?”

5.     Lebanon:  See most above.  Also can revolve around “Do you think this is a good time to go to Beirut for fun?  I go the best haircut there.”

6.     America:  See all of above.  America means the U.S., not the North and South American continents.

7.     Conspiracy theories:  See all above, especially #1.  People are already buzzing on carbs from rice and bread when these started getting kicked around.

8.     Stories about how great the Arabs once were.  Remember Andalusia? So a thousand years ago.

9.     No one has better food than us. Followed by the latest diet theories and a bit of comfort that yes, America may have everything but that includes more fat, too.

10.  “What has the oil really done for the Arabs?”  This one usually comes at the end of the dinner, when everyone is wiped out, defeated, and decides, just like their fellow humans in America, to turn on the TV and zone out.  With some shisha.

Today the topic at the dinner table:  Is the conversation actually going to change now?

Outlandish Landless LandMine by Sami Zarour

Most of what I post on this blog are about the upside of life in the Middle East because most people living outside the borders of the Middle East, whether physically or mentally, are unaware that there is an upside.  Plus I don’t really know how to write about the

tragedies of the region without wanting to scream it all out on paper, which in general doesn’t make a good read, kind of like reality TV doesn’t make a good watch for me.  Reality is a tough thing to pull off truthfully and rationally.

So today I’ll leave it to Sami Zarour, full-time engineer, one-time model, part-time poet and one of my oldest and most rational friends.

Landless Landmine

OUTLANDISH   LANDLESS   LANDMINE
By Sami Zarour
Boorishly events are spin to evaporated still but fool is dish,

Such acute professional occupation for so nay shun so kitsch.

Accumulating adversary sipping six teas a sham anniversary,

Refuel to refuse refugees why In reality Is it In secure Is real.

Brim borders hoarder are ordered myopic meddling made it,

Terrain see tearing at tears wiping sheared visions intellect.

Four your eye two an I count free religious prayers preyed,

Hardly rock stony pebble softness unsettled by illicit build.

Bawling walls snivel grains from banging heads and two fists,

Crushed olive groves in the blood of fruit always blend less.

Your clouds on my sky, sole on my soul, bricks on my palace,

Time sits at a standstill peace juice in quicksand, no solace.

If I died first by you then tell me how could I have killed you?

A Palestinian Filmmaker in Israel

For years, my friend Hala Gabriel has been working on documentary about the destruction in 1948 of Tantura, her family’s picturesque village in what was then Palestine.  For a Palestinian to even attempt such a project as hers is to face unfathomable odds, which she has.  Finally, she was able to get to Tantura in what is now Israel to film the remaining footage. Below with her permission is the letter she sent to her friends upon returning to the US.  It is unedited, including the photo.

Hello Friends and Family,

Believe it or not, I just returned from my trip to Israel.  I finally did it.  I filmed the remaining things I needed in Israel for my documentary.  I even met with several of the soldiers who invaded my dad’s village Tantoura, exactly as I intended to do.  I met the Israeli general who was on the front line.  One Israeli soldier actually sent “greetings” to my great-uncle.  He recalled him well.  They all very old men now and I am lucky to find them before they die… I was there only 6 days, but I have to say that was emotionally enough for me.  I got back this afternoon and I’ve been sleeping most of the day.  It will take me a while to process the experience.

The Palestinian situation is much, much worst than I ever imagined.  It’s much worse than the news can even describe.  It’s indescribable to be honest and I didn’t even see the worst of it – I didn’t see Gaza.  What I saw was a refined cross between concentration camps, prison camps and a form of modern day slavery.  The Palestinians I met wouldn’t dare to speak to me of their life in front of the camera.  Not even the distant relatives would.  They live in constant fear.  One of them told me that he spent 2 and a half years in prison when he was 12 years old  for throwing a stone.  That’s where he learned Hebrew.  He said he would prefer never to speak Hebrew, but since he’s not allowed to own his own business he has to speak Hebrew to his Jewish boss.

My amazing Israeli/Jewish cameraman Amir I hired, he gave us the grand tour as he videotaped and documented along the way.  As he explained and showed us – The majority of Palestinian villages throughout Israel are sealed off with prison style walls (in fact the same architect that designs the actual Israeli prisons designs these despicable walls!)  Most villages have only foot access entry and exit – usually only one and they are heavily monitored.  Palestinians in the occupied territory are given green license plates for their cars while Jews have yellow – this is to enforce the “Jew” only roads.  I met one Palestinian man at the Ramallah check point who was born in Jerusalem.  He told me on camera that although he was born in Jerusalem they will not give him “citizenship” of Jerusalem, not a Palestinian or Israeli “citizenship”  – he only has a “residency” green card even though he was born there and all his ancestors were born there.  If he leaves Israel for more than 3 years he will lose his residency.  Although he is in his 40’s, he is not a citizen of any country even though his entire family history was in Jerusalem.

I visited the ‘Atlit’ prison camp where my father, uncles and grandfather where held for one year in 1948 after Tantoura massacre.  Ironically that prison was built by the British to incarcerate the Jews.  A portion of it is now a museum.  We took the “tour” and were not surprised that the tour guide some how had no idea what the camp was used for between 1948 and 1951.  That part of its history was some how “missing” or “erased” from the records – as so much of the Palestinian history was.  I so wanted to tell our tour guide that my father too was held there, but I became afraid – so did the Jewish friend I was with.

I traveled to Israel with a Jewish friend from the US named Frederick.  He had never been to Israel before and had no interest in going.  But he was interested in helping me doing my project, the reason why he agreed to join me.  It was astonishing how differently the immigration officers handled him versus how they handled me.  His family were holocaust survivors from Germany and he understood firsthand the meaning of atrocities , racism and ethnic cleansing.  He told me at one point that he was ashamed to call himself Jewish. He also pointed out that the Israeli’s have successfully managed to recreate the Warsaw ghettos.  I was certain that had not asked him to travel with him the Israeli’s would not have let me in at all.  They questioned me for 7 hours at the airport.  They repeatedly called me a liar.  (Apparently a “tactic” as I learned from the “proud” retired Israeli soldiers that taken my family home.)  At the airport they took my belongings, my phone and they threatened me.  On the way out of Israel they strip searched me and dissected my suitcase.  They wouldn’t allow me to take it as carry on, although it was smaller then the carry-on that Frederick was permitted to take it in.  In fact, my suitcase never arrived to New York.  I’m not sure I will get it back or not.  Fortunately there was nothing of great value but it’s the principle.  They also seem to have destroyed my cell phone.  It no longer holds a charge.

Having said all of that… my family village Tantura is beyond beautiful.  It is paradise on earth.  I always wished to be from a beautiful place and indeed I am.  The remnants of my family home gives a clue as to the aesthetic, thoughtfulness, wealth and beauty of the village and the homes that once were.  One of the Israeli soldiers I interviewed who saw the village a few months after they had taken it told me that he can’t describe in words how gorgeous the homes were.  It was a very rich village.  My family was very wealthy.  I understand fully why the people of Tantura continue to cry over 60 years later and long to return to their homes.  The majority of the villagers still live in refugee camps today.  My family is perhaps one of the very few that currently does not live in a camp.

As I wandered around the ruins of my family home, a fisherman approached.  He was apprehensive to speak to me at first.  He thought I was an Israeli.  When he learned who I was he gave me a hug.  When we left Tantura to the neighboring village of ‘Fradis,’ I was met with a crowd of people who are blood relatives.  Each one introduced themselves and explained how I am related to them.  A half-aunt named all her children after her brothers and sisters who she never seen again since the invasion 1948.   Their warmth and hospitality was beyond description.  They made a feast for me and my filming crew.  Delicious fresh caught fish from Tantura.  Before I left, one cousin called to say good-bye and to let me know how much the family loved me.   They know that the chances of Israel ever allowing me to enter again is minuscule.

My heart is so broken.  I bleed in pain for the people living under the occupation and the Palestinian “Israeli’s” who live in a daily horror of fearing for their life and livelihood in the quest for simply being.  The Jewish Israeli’s who are aware of the horror also live in their own prison camp and ghetto – it just has better amenities then the Palestinian villages as they described it to me in their own words.  They told me that it’s easy to live in the Tel Aviv “bubble” which they also described as the “Disneyland” or “Miami Beach” that Israel sells to the world.  There is even a separate road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that avoids the horror of the walls, barbed wire, occupation and imprisoned villagers.

I met a lovely gal at the hotel who told me she had only heard about people like me, but never met any Palestinian whose family was expelled.  It was like an urban legend.  She is originally from Holland.  She gave me her contact information and asked to stay in touch, unfortunately it’s in my suitcase.  I may have to call the hotel later and see if I can get it again.  Even my sound technician , was n Iraqi Israeli Jew told me he had no awareness of the history of Palestinians like myself.  They don’t teach it in Israeli schools.  In fact they are working on creating a law that will make learning about the “Nakba” (the Palestinian disaster) an illegal act.  He told me he had trouble sleeping the last several nights after shooting.   He hugged me and said he hopes I will find peace after this.

I am not sure when I will find peace, but I pray that my film reaches the appropriate audience.  I pray that it is relevant.

I still need funds to complete post production.  If anyone has any idea’s or any access to fund resources, I will be deeply appreciative.  If anyone would like to contribute to my project, any amount is most welcome.

Each person I have emailed has listened to my story and my project and has offered support along the way.  I thank  each of you.

I feel that I must cry now…

Much love,
Hala

Busted on Possession of Zaatar

I just watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament.  There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know.  Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?

Possession of Zaatar

Zaatar, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never had it, is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food.

It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village.  And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.

Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at IZHIMAN, a shop that offers several varieties of zaatar, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.

Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all  that wrong with zaatar.  And like the hookah, it’s got a retro chic cache to it these days, even being the name of a Middle Eastern restaurant chain that aims to give cutting edge appeal to old standbys.  But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is as manaeesh at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven.  So integral was manaeesh to our childhood that one when my brother and I were in college in Minneapolis watching the news about Beirut, there was a shot of our baker on Jeanne D’Arc Street busy sliding the manaeesh into the oven.  “Abu Ibrahim,” we shouted out simultaneously, knowing that Beirut was still somewhat okay despite the news if Abu Ibrahim was still making manaeesh.

There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days.  This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar?  Please.”  And of course, I did.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR THE MIDDLE EAST

I’m opposed to making lofty new year’s resolutions–aside from the token and easily forgettable “I’ll try to eat less chocolate”—as

New Year Resolutions for the Middle East

they sometime trivializes a dream.  But I’m happy to make resolutions for others, kind of like the UN.  Here are my new year’s resolutions for the Middle East, and I know they’re laced with loftiness and high expectations, and they probably need to be broken down into baby steps, but they wouldn’t be new year’s resolutions any other way.

1.    People stop smoking like life is a 1950s film noir or a 1970s disco.
2.    People put their cigarette buds, candy wrappers and other litter paraphernalia in the trash can they’re leaning on rather than toss it on the sidewalk.
3.    Let there be water—not just water to drink and help plants grow, but the kind that doesn’t make your hair fall out in shower.
4.    It would be a bit over the top to ask people to follow traffic rules, but maybe they could stop honking incessantly for no apparent reason.  And in relation to that, people should resolve to stop triple parking in back of your car when you’re already late for work, forcing you to honk your horn incessantly for an apparent reason.
5.    Let falafel, hommos and fuol continue to be affordable for everyone when so much else isn’t—and that they remain the best darn fast food man has invented.
6.    People will learn history here didn’t begin with an oil well or Al Qaeda.
7.    Crowded out Cuba won’t have to share its place on the TSA’s “terror prone lands” with more than the 13 Middle Eastern countries already joining it.
8.    Let electricity outages remind us that technology responds to the human condition it lives in.
9.    The word  “inshallah” continues to be a satisfactory answer to most questions.
10.    The peace wins, inshallah, not just people’s hearts and mind, but also on their streets, litter and all.