Monday, July 16, 2007

Sons of Bitches and a Look In The Mirror

July 2

Left: On the wall: Son of bitch number two.

Today the PMRS mobile clinic went to a village near Bethlehem named Abu Njem. We waited until 9 am for Dr. Nisreen to come to the office; when she didn’t show up they called her and asked if she was coming in to work today. She said she was trying, but the army had blockaded her village to all traffic again, and there were no taxis available because the road to the village had been blocked at its entrance. We went to the road where it had been blocked, waited for her to walk to the clinic van, picked her up and headed out.

When we got to the village we set up in some kind of community center. It was decorated with all sorts of Fatah posters, pretty much all of which had a picture of Arafat or of Abu Mazen. There was no electricity when we got there (there was no clean water at all), so patients who needed blood work just had to sit around and wait. The electric came back on after a few hours.

We saw the same sorts of simple primary care cases: chronic diseases in the elderly and infections in children. I was with Dr. Ibrihim, but Dr. Nisreen also saw quite a few ob/gyn cases.

Dr. Ibrihim and I saw patients in a large room, the one pictured above. At one end of the room was a picture of Abu Mazen staring off into space like an idiot, and at the other end was a picture of Arafat smiling like a buffoon. When we were packing up, Ismail, the guy who drives the clinic, came in, pointed to both pictures, and asked, “Taraf?” (“Do you know them?”).

Aiwa, Abu Mazen oo Abu Ammar,” I said (Abu Ammar was Arafat’s street name).

“Yes” he responded, in English. “Son of bitch, and son of bitch”, he said, pointing to each picture and smiling.

Aiwa,” I said, laughing. “Kulwahad son of bitch.” (Literally, “Yes, everyone is a son of a bitch”, but I think he understood that I meant “they’re all sons of bitches”, meaning Fatah’s leaders.) He laughed, lit a cigarette and walked out of the room.

At home we were all sitting around watching TV. On al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya (the two major Arab satellite news stations) there’s a commercial that runs quite often now for an organization that, as far as I can tell, is called “No Terror” in English and “al-‘arhab” in Arabic (I don’t know what al-‘arhab means or if I’m even transcribing it correctly). They have a website at It appears to be an Arab Muslim organization dedicated to using the Koran to show that terrorism goes directly against Islamic principles of law and conduct of warfare (which, as anyone who has read the Koran knows, is true).

The commercial starts off with a man being led to a plastic chair in a dark, drab room; you see this through his eyes. You can only see the very bottom of the screen. Then a masked man with an assault rifle, a keffiyeh around his neck and a black mask lifts a hood off the man’s face and screams “Sunni!”

The camera cuts to a market that I assume is supposed to be in Baghdad. Everyone is well dressed and healthy, and every single person whom the camera focuses on is smiling. The camera stops on a middle-aged man walking with his wife and children, one of whom is on the man’s shoulders. The screen goes black and white, you hear the disembodied laughter of a child, and then the terrorists show up.

They drive into the market in a gray BMW. Several men jump out, all dressed like the man with the rifle mentioned above. They start firing in the air, and the camera cuts back to the man in the dark room. Two men are standing at his side, one holding his head up by his hair. The man who screamed “Sunni!” at the beginning of the commercial is standing over him.

The man, now tied to the chair, is being tortured. His torturer screams, “Inti sunni ow shi’ite!?” (“Are you Sunni or Shi’ite!?”). Terrified, the man doesn’t respond. The interrogator strikes him, repeating the same question after each blow and becoming angrier and angrier. The man whimpers in fear, unable to understand why this is happening to him.

The camera cuts back to the market. The terrorists, having gotten out of their cars, are now firing randomly at people. The camera cuts back to the room, where the torturer is now obviously ready to kill the man in the chair.

Inti SUNNI OR SHI’ITE!?” he screams, now at the top of his lungs. The camera cuts back to the market. The terrorists kidnap two or three men, throw them in the trunk of the car and in the back seat, and then tear out of the market, firing in the air on their way out. The tortured man’s wife stands up with her children, looks around and screams “Tariq? Tariq!?” (Tariq is a common Arab name.) She becomes hysterical, and her children start to cry. The camera cuts back to the room.

The two men force Tariq to his knees. The man who was beating him loads his rifle and points it at Tariq’s head; the barrel of the gun is waving around wildly, as if the man can’t contain his hatred for whatever Tariq might be. “Sunni ow shi’ite?” The man asks one more time, much calmer now. The camera cuts to Tariq, the barrel of the rifle pressed to his forehead. He finally answers “Iraqi”. The man in the mask executes him.

The commercial is propagandistic, of course; Baghdad isn’t exactly full of happy, well-fed middle class families whose only worry in life is hooded terrorists who hate life itself. But it’s interesting to think about. This seems to be an attempt by some Arabs to force other Arabs to see the consequences of what's commonly called "Arab terrorism" or "Muslim terrorism". The consequences of terrorism (as practiced by Arabs) are shown in all their brutality; the modus operandi of Iraqi terrorists is exaggerated for effect and simplified for impact. There isn’t an ounce of sympathy for the murderers, not the slightest indication that these faceless monsters might be human beings. They are one-dimensional tyrants, vicious, brutal, fanatical, violent, irrational and wild. They inspire nothing but contempt.

Every time I see that commercial, I always end up thinking its American counterpart could simply never be shown. The major mode of illegitimate violence Arabs engage in is what we (correctly) call terrorism, on display nowhere so much as it is in Iraq today. The major mode of illegitimate violence we engage in today is incorrectly (or perhaps incompletely) called war. The consequences are largely the same, even if the methods differ (although they are often identical). The only difference is that our violence is more lethal, and by orders of magnitude.

Imagine a commercial shown on CNN that took the essentials of the Iraq war – the drive to control Iraqi oil and Iraq’s strategic space, and the human disaster that has followed – and simplified them for a one-minute commercial. The commercial would start with a child born in Iraq in the mid-1990s. She would be born with anencephaly and other neural tube defects, caused by our use of depleted uranium shells during the Gulf War and our subsequent refusal to remove the spent munitions from Iraqi soil; treatment was made impossible by our imposition of sanctions. The camera would show the child’s grotesquely distorted features, show her mother wail in horror after giving birth to the dead child, and show her father go berserk with a desire for revenge. The commercial would cut to George Bush Sr. delivering his most infamous line: “What we say goes!”

The commercial would go on to show the dismembered bodies of children strewn about Iraq, one of whom would lie next to a piece of metallic shrapnel that says “Made in U.S.A.” American soldiers would be shown abusing Iraqis, calling them “Hajjis”, breaking down the doors of homes in the dark of night and throwing terrified families around like so much garbage. Maybe there’d be a brief rape scene. And maybe then they’d flash back to the National Security Council meeting in 1945, when it was decided that the US would seek to control the Middle East’s oil at all costs and for the rest of time. In the end, the man whose child was born without a brain would be kidnapped by American forces, tortured just like Tariq was, and then handed over to a governmental death squad. His wife and the rest of his children would be rounded up, and they’d all be executed together.

Just imagine anything even remotely like that being allowed on American television. A commercial that forces us to look at the consequences of our violence, just like this “No Terror” commercial forces Arabs to look at their own violence. It makes one wonder what good freedom does in a society that chooses not to use it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"Why should I ask someone for permission to pray?"

July 1

Left: A small child at the al-Jalajl clinic.

I went with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society mobile clinic to a village called al-Jalajl today.

Today two doctors were on the clinic, one male and one female. This is how they usually staff their mobile clinics, but when we went to al-Eddesa on June 25 the female doctor was giving a breastfeeding education workshop, so it was just Dr. Ibrihim and the nurses.
The female doctor is a 25-year-old pediatrician and ob/gyn named Nisreen; she is everything that is good about human beings: religious but without a hint of closed-mindedness, intelligent, insightful, well educated, capable, curious, thoughtful, nationalistic, polite but assertive, motherly, etc. She’s also strikingly beautiful, the way you expect a princess to be. Her English is nearly flawless and her accent makes her even more appealing. She’s married to a Palestinian whose mother is Italian, and they have a beautiful two-month old baby named Sara, whose picture she had on her phone.

Before leaving, Dr. Nisreen and I were talking to each other; we had met before but hadn’t spoken much. She told me she was born in Jordan, and so was a Jordanian citizen with a Jordanian passport. She recently married a Palestinian from the West Bank, and afterwards went to Amman to have her passport renewed. The Jordanian government refused to renew it on the grounds that she had married a Palestinian, leaving her stateless. She also told me that she has never once been to Jerusalem or to the al-Aksa mosque to pray, even when she studied at Abu Dis Medical College (Abu Dis is a large village just east of Jerusalem). "I think maybe I could go", she said, meaning if she tried the Israelis might not stop her, "but I don't want to be humiliated. Why should I ask someone for permission to pray?"

Dr. Nisreen’s father was a teacher and businessman in Kuwait; quite a few Palestinian refugees moved to the gulf oil sheikdoms to work, and their remittances help keep the territories alive. She was very young when Hussein invaded Kuwait (with his American-made army), but she remembers Iraqi soldiers and tanks moving on the streets. After the US invasion most of the Palestinians in Kuwait were thrown out; the US reinstated Kuwait’s dictator, who was upset that the PLO had voiced its support for Hussein.

Dr. Nisreen’s family lost everything when they were expelled from Kuwait. “I think in the wars,” she said, “it is always the Palestinians who suffer the most. I think because we have no one to back us up," she said, laughing a bit. The sentiment is genuine and the observation true.

We talked about Palestinian history for a little while; at one point she asked “How is the media in the US? People know what is happening here?” I had to say no, but told her that there are alternative media that are trying to educate people on the simple facts that are hidden from them. "Are they having success?" I had to say no again, but said that we are showing signs of progress. When I told her the propaganda in the US is scaling new peaks of lunacy - I mentioned Alan Dershowitz specifically - she said this is good, since it proves that these people are getting desperate.

We headed out to al-Jalajl in the clinic and saw patients until about 2 pm. A little less than half of the children who came in showed signs of malnutrition: anemia and vitamin deficiencies are very common problems here. Blood hemoglobin is one of the few things they can test on the clinic: every single person we tested had a hemoglobin count under 13. Failure to thrive is another serious issue for children, as are parasites from untreated water. More than one family told us they had eaten nothing but tea and bread last month. About half of the children had shoes.

Once the waiting room was empty I sat around with Dr. Ibrihim, Ismail (the guy who drives the clinic) and Dr. Nisreen and we talked about the economy in the US, the Iraq war and the creation of the State of Israel. Ismail knows a great deal about the geography of Palestine and Israel, I think he used to work and live in Jerusalem as an ambulance driver. He kept asking me and Dr. Ibrihim if we knew the name of the Arab village this or that Israeli town is built on top of; we almost always no. Dr. Nisreen interjected – quietly, as though she was talking to herself – and said, “They occupied our lands. But they created beautiful cities.” It’s amazing that people in this occupied and dismembered nation can still recognize their tormentors as human beings.

We left al-Jalajl and dropped Dr. Nisreen at her village. The dirt road leading into the village was blocked by three huge stones, and an army jeep was standing at the entrance.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"Here in the penal colony, I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth."

June 29

Left: Don't hold me to it, but I'm pretty sure the building made of new white cement is the Tel Rumeida "settlement" (Tel Rumeida is actually the name of the section of Hebron the "settlement" is in, I'm not sure if it has another name). Watch the video mentioned below, it's only five minutes long, to see what these people do to the Palestinians who live across from them and to their own children. "Love thy neighbor" is the technical term.

Neetha and Matt came to visit, they’ve both been working in Sudan. They met me at the baladi and I took them to the old city. I had a vague idea of how to get there on foot but I didn’t want to get lost, so we asked someone where the old city is (and in this way I discovered that Matt is conversational in Arabic); it was only a ten minute walk but the guy insisted on driving us. When we got to the closest barricade we got out and walked to the mosque. It was prayer time so going inside didn't seem right.

We went to the synagogue instead; I gave a tour as if I knew what I was talking about. I wish I could remember the Hebrew letters so I could have told them which tomb was which, but I couldn't remember any of them. Then we went up the road to Kiryat Arba. I'd never been in that place before, so we decided to try going in. We were stopped by a security guard, some old Russian man with an Uzi. He didn’t speak any English so he called a border policeman who did; the border policeman asked us over the phone to wait for him, so we did. When he arrived he asked for our passports, asked us what we were doing there, etc., he was very professional. He looked through Neetha’s and Matt’s passports first. Since they’d just been to Syria, Sudan and Jordan he was a bit confused, but I told him they were working in Sudan with the refugees and then decided to travel around the region. He asked me what I was doing in Hebron, and I told him. He said “okay, wait just one minute”, and went to his jeep. He got a police report, filled my name and passport number into it (not Neetha’s or Matt’s), and then took me aside and said “you can go, it’s okay. But don’t tell anyone that you work with the Arabs. They will be *pauses for a word* angry.” I found it amusing that even the border policeman guarding the colony recognizes that the people living in it are lunatics.

We walked around Kiryat Arba, an old man gave us water, and then we left. It could be a small town in Upstate New York. I’ve said it before: the banality of evil is on full display in Palestine.

We left and walked back down to the old city. Matt was nervous because we had water in a Coke bottle with Hebrew writing on it. I tried to explain that half of the commercial products in the West Bank are from Israel and that nobody would be anything but curious even if we told them we'd just been in Kiryat Arba, but he was still nervous so we tossed it.

In the old city we found the same store keeper whom I’d bought a keffiyeh from a week ago. We spoke to him for quite a while. His English is excellent; when I asked why he said he had lived in England and worked as an engineer for years. He then looked at us and said “You can’t believe it, it’s Friday, but we have been here all day and I haven’t sold even one shekel [meaning one shekel’s worth of merchandise]. But we are determined to stay here.” It was a guilt trip of course, but the fact that he hadn’t sold a thing was probably true (Friday there is the equivalent of Saturday in terms of shopping) and the sentiment was genuine. Neetha and I each bought a small change purse, they’re beautiful and handmade in a village nearby. Cost: 10 shekels. The same thing would fetch 100 shekels in Israel.

When we got to the store I saw Tariq again, the Christian Peacemakers Team member from Sugar Land whom I’d met about a week before when I was with Musa. I asked him if he was heading to the CPT office and he said yes, then invited us to come see the place. The store owner was nervous that we’d use this as an excuse to leave, so he said he’d send his son with us to the office (it would have been difficult to find on our own).

At the CPT office we met Tariq and an older white man from California, both of whom work with CPT. The man’s life story was quite interesting, unfortunately I don’t remember it in detail so I won’t relate it. I also don’t remember his name, and I'm not actually sure I asked.

This man was very knowledgeable about the history of Hebron and the current circumstances, even his dates were correct. He took us up to the roof of the CPT office and showed us the different “settlements” (the reason for the quotation marks is below) that are in Hebron itself. He also told us about Jewish children throwing bricks at him, which was interesting. It's the kind of thing that everybody who comes here knows goes on, but it's different reading about it and having someone tell you "I had bricks thrown at my head."

The information he gave us was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but he pointed out something I’d never realized, despite the obviousness and the fact that I’d seen it plainly with my own eyes. Some of the “settlements” in Hebron (meaning the ones that house the 400 Jews who live in the old city, not Kiryat Arba) are actually built on top of Palestinian buildings. I think it was the Tel Rumeida settlement that he pointed out, which is actually built directly on top of the store that we bought the purses from. The settlers just laid down cement and bricks on top of the existing structure. It’s a wonder the Palestinians don’t just march into those buildings and strangle those damn people. For a short video of what the Palestinians living in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood have to deal with, you can see a short video B’tselem made at, or course you can read their various reports on Hebron.

On Swallowing Lots of Toothpaste

June 27

Left: The checkpoint between the old city's market and the mosque area. If the soldiers don't want to let you through they'll tell you which house to go to and ask the people living there if you can walk into their house (the front door is on the market side of the checkpoint) and go out the back window (which is on the other side of the checkpoint). Security is paramount...

We ran out of water while I was brushing my teeth today. That sucked. I've never had to swallow a whole mouthful of toothpaste, it's not a pleasant experience.

On the way home from Ahli the IDF had set up the checkpoint at the base of Musa's hill. Apparently they were actually looking for a specific person this time, and so we knew about the checkpoint miles before we got to it. In every third car and taxi we passed someone would lean their head out the window and yell "Jesh! Jesh!" (army!) or "Sede! Sede!" (I think it means “closure!” or something along those lines). It’s experiences like this that make clear that the “security checkpoints” have nothing to do with security: whomever the Israelis are supposedly looking for is obviously going to get out of his taxi well before he gets to the checkpoint.

Monday, July 2, 2007

They're Just Following Orders

June 25

Left: One of the two mobile clinics the PMRS runs in the southern West Bank, outside the community center in Eddesa.

Today I went with the Palestinian Medical Relief Service to a small village five minutes outside of Hebron named Eddesa. When we got there the main road to the village was blocked and the soldiers in the sniper tower nearby wouldn't acknowledge our presence, so we had to go around the roadblock, which took half an hour.

When we got to the village we set up in some kind of community center. We laid a cloth down on a table, sat at another table in the same room and started seeing patients. The two nurses who came with us set up a pharmacy (meaning another table) for the drugs we'd brought with us and a lab for doing blood hemoglobin levels, blood sugar counts and a few other simple tests.

We continuously saw patients from about 9:30 am to about 1:30 pm. The doctor took a ten minute break to eat zatar and pita he’d brought with him. We probably spent about ten minutes per patient, on average. Often we saw a mother and several of her kids. I can only think of four males we saw between twelve and sixty years old, I’m curious why.

When we drove back the soldiers at the entrance to the road that was blocked told us we couldn't drive on the road because it was still blocked. We asked them to have the army open the road but they said they couldn't. The soldier was sympathetic and even apologetic, but still refused to even try opening the road for a clearly marked mobile clinic filled with two women and three men, one of them in his late fifties.

This raised an interesting point I hadn’t thought of until then. I always made a distinction in my mind between IDF soldiers who act professionally and understand what they’re doing here, versus those who act with wild abandon, beat and shoot people needlessly, etc. Both are present in large numbers in the occupation forces; I’m not sure which is more prevalent, and I’d venture to guess that the same soldier can be one way on Monday and another way on Wednesday, depending on what happened Tuesday.

But when it comes down to it, at least in cases like this, it makes little difference which soldier you get; after all, only the most zealous lover of violence will drag someone out of an ambulance or mobile clinic and beat or shoot him for no reason. There are some IDF soldiers who would do this, but they’re the bleeding edge of the occupation’s sadism.

So we got a polite soldier, but still, our freedom of movement was restricted. If we’d had a rude soldier, we’d have had our freedom of movement restricted just the same and might have been cursed at, no big difference. It comes down to the fact that these young men are following orders. They didn’t choose to close that gate, and they probably don’t give a damn whether it’s open or closed. They’d rather be in Tel Aviv looking for another eighteen-year-old to sleep with. Indeed, the soldier we spoke to seemed like he actually wanted to open the gate. Maybe he’s an aspiring doctor, who knows? But, he has his orders, and since he struck me as intelligent I’d venture to guess that he understands how pointless it would be to call his commander and say “can I open the gate for this medical vehicle?” He knows the road was blocked specifically in order to make these peoples’ lives more difficult. He doesn’t agree with it, but who is he to make policy?

On the way home we drove for some time on one of two parallel roads. Our road, the Palestinian road, was a broken-up piece of crap barely wide enough for one car; when two cars came towards each other they both had to slow down, go half-off the road (risking falling off the steep incline to our left), and then get back on. The parallel Jewish road was a flawless two-lane highway with lane markings, guardrails and hard shoulders.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

"Look here, Bedouin!"

June 21

Left: the really reac-tionary segment of Israeli society. I think there were a few hundred people at the protest. Note that Jews protesting gay rights not only are allowed to block a road, but are assisted in this endeavour by the police. Meanwhile, Palestinians protesting the theft of their land (in other words, something that actually has an impact on them) are forcefully stopped from doing so. Different laws for different ethnoreligious groups under the same government, aka apartheid.

In the clean corridor I was talking to one of the anesthesiologists between procedures. He trained in Russia but speaks enough English to communicate. He asked me about all the usual things, then about working in the US. I said it’s possible, and it’s easier for medical professionals than for most other people. He responded by saying it’s difficult to go to the US because of the political situation. Then, a bit randomly, he said “I want to live in peace with everyone, I hope to live in peace.” It's a sentiment that, as odd as it sounds, works itself into almost every conversation I have when I meet someone new.

Today I went to Haifa to visit Seher, a friend from college. I took the service to Jerusalem, it cost 15 shekels. There’s a tunnel near Bethlehem and Jerusalem on the Jewish highway, it’s meant to bypass the Palestinian village of Beit Jala (which is pretty much continuous with Bethlehem). There's a checkpoint at the tunnel entrance. We stopped; the female soldier looked at me and told us to pull over. We pulled into the holding area and another female soldier came over to us. She stared at me and I stared back until the driver said “she want passport”. I gave it to her and then argued with her about whether or not my visa was expired, which it obviously isn’t. Then a male soldier who looked like he was trying to bring the Bon Jovi look back into style came over, put the barrel of his assault rifle on the deck of the van and said something in Hebrew. The female soldier said something, and then he walked away. She checked the driver’s ID, then gave both of us our IDs back. When we pulled away I asked the driver what the male soldier had said: “He ask if there is trouble maker here. She say no.”

Needless to say, a car with Israeli license plates carrying Jews - be they American or Israeli or Polish or anything else - doesn't have to deal with any of this. But a car with Israeli license plates carrying the indigenous population does.

When I got to Haifa I had to walk to the central bus station, which I think took about forty minutes from Damascus Gate. On the way there I passed through an Orthodox Jewish protest, of what I couldn't figure out. There was a police barricade set up to stop them from moving out of their designated protest space (which was a large intersection). I went to one of the cops at the barricade and asked where the central bus station was; I already knew, but I wanted him to hear me speak in English so he wouldn't stop me from walking through the protest with my backpack. I walked through, looked around and took a few pictures, then walked through to the barricade on the other side. I asked two women what the protest was about. "They don't want the...uh...the homosexual." I guess the American and Israeli religious establishment do share common values. (Although, to be fair, Israel's treatment of gay Jews - not all homosexuals - is far more humane than American treatment of gay Americans.)

I took a bus from Jerusalem to Haifa (I was floored when they said it was 39 shekels, that's a week's worth of food in Hebron). It took forever because of traffic, but normally the trip takes less than two hours. Eventually I got there and met up with Seher and her friend Nour on Ben-Gurion St. I’d forgotten how attractive Seher is; her intelligence only enhances her appeal. I love being friends with such people.

Seher is living with a young Palestinian woman named Nour (her name means “light”), who also happens to be incredibly attractive. She’s a lawyer at Adalah, I think she said she specializes in prisoners’ rights issues. Being around her means you're constantly laughing, every word out of her mouth is a joke. Her favorite thing to do when someone asks her a question is to respond (in English), "come, I'll show you the light." She cracks herself up, and then everyone else laughs at how easily she amuses herself, it's fantastic.

When we met up Nour mentioned that her friend Katie was going to join us later. I got excited, I assumed it was the Katie I knew when I lived in Haifa, but Nour insisted it wasn’t. It turned out that Nour is also bad at keeping secrets and wasn’t supposed to mention Katie’s name, since it was indeed her.

Watching Nour interact with her friends at the bar was hilarious. They’re all Palestinians who live in Israel, some of them are politically active and others aren’t, but they’re all pretty well steeped in their culture and so the jokes they make are all about each other’s heritage. Nour is Bedouin (stereotype: stupid violent goat herders), some of her friends are descended from fellah (peasant farmers; stereotype: stupid violent farmers), and some are medini (city people; stereotype: conniving arrogant elitists). My favorite running joke of the night was that Nour is a terrible and reckless driver because she learned to drive on an Israeli tank (Bedouin Palestinians often join the IDF; she’s never actually driven a tank.)