Monday, May 29, 2006

What am I doing?

Well, for one-finding my way around "suburban hell", as my friend put it. Its been quite a long sretch of non-blogging for me and my fingers are starting to itch. but I'll make it up over the coming days I promise! between packing our things, getting ready to move down to North Carolina, finishing up some work and giving talks and interviews, and well, just having fun with my family and niece and nephew, I've had little time for anything else. we're currently staying with my brother in a suburb of Maryland meant for DC commuters known as "columbia".

It is a "planned community" meaning it was built from the ground up with family suburban living in mind-and the picture-perfection of it all can really get to you-everyone has a perfectly manicured lawn, two kids, and a dog; there is a park on every street, and the "town villages" are named things like "King's Contrivance", "Harper's Glen", and "Hickory Ridge" get the picture! You begin to feel like you are living in this bubble where everything is jolly good and the people are shiny and happy, to quote REM, and where nothing else matters in the world; to me, as comfortable as it is to slip into that zone, it is discomforting and uneasy.

Its also a very stark contrast to everything in Gaza of course (which I"ll get to in another post), as BBC's Dan Damon suggested to me in an interview last week; but one needn't go that far to see the divide-journey twenty minutes to downtown Baltimore and you'll get the picture: the contrasts in America itself between rich and poor are as vivid, if not more so, than perhaps anywhere else. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, some 13% of Americans are poor-in the richest country in the world. And of course Katrina gave us a taste of that. Mindboggling.

Luckily we won't be staying in Columbia much longer; in a few weeks we move down south to Durham, NC where Yassine will start his Opthalmology residency in Duke. In the meantime, Yousuf and I have been enjoying our re-union with Yassine, and with my brother and his two children. Here are some pictures from our journey out of Gaza into Suburbia, and in between.

Yousuf says goodbye to his nursery in Gaza.

Yousuf takes his turn in line on the once-dreaded bus of Rafah Crossing. The journey was smooth and effortless (as effortless as an 8 hour journey across a dessert can be to access the closest usable airport). Only Palestinian ID card holders are allowed through Rafah to Gaza, and Israel still ulimately controls who goes in and out through a remote "control room" in Kerem Shalom. Many families who live abroad but whose spouses and children lack ID cards have been unable to unite in Gaza.

My father purchases peaches from a farmer in Sinai on our way to Cairo.

Yousuf is excited about the journey to Egypt

Taking a break on a beach-side fish restaurant in al-Arish, Egypt.

Enamoured, Yousuf kisses his cousin Sereen, who approvingly gives the "thumbs up".

Boys will be boys. Yousuf and his cousin Zade play with the dirt and later, eat tree leaves and scrape their knees.

Celebrating Yassine's 30th birthday

Yousuf gives baba his gift- a hand-carved olive wood "key to return", with names of villages burned in it.

Yassine and Yousuf choose their dinner during a night out on the town, in which Yousuf insisted on tagging along. To our (and the waiter's ) surprise, he ended up eating all the clams!

Yousuf hopes no one is watching as he stuffs his face with fresh-picked strawberries as a local farm.

At the farm, we met a palestinian family from Jerusalem; a Syrian woman; Sudanese; Jordanina; and Egyptian! The Palestinian woman is a Jerusalem resident who must renew her residency status every three years, and keeps addresss at her father's, in order not to lose her right to return to her homeland. Her husband, who is from Ramallah, and her kids, have to sneak across checkpoints through the mountains to join her in Jerusalem.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Either return..or return

This month Palestinians mark the 58th year of their ongoing dispossession.

58 years since Yousuf's grandparents were forced out of their villages of Wa'arat al-Sirris and al-Yajur, both of which were completely destroyed and ethnically cleansed.

Now this fourth generation carries on the torch of dispossession; Like his father and grandparents before him, Yousuf, too, is a refugee. And like it or not-he, and the millions like him, will not "disappear", much as the government of Israel would like them to, whilst trying its utmost to render their return unfeasible and their plight irrelevant: it lives on. And American passport or not, "Palestinian" is stamped on his forehead (and in my identity document, to which he is added and thus rendered "Palestinian", not "American", by Israeli forces, meaning he is not alloweed to return or visit Haifa)... as the Palestinian Gazan poet Haroon Hashim Rasheed said.. "Filisteeni ana Filisteeni..naqashtu ismee ala kulil mayadeeni"

There is so much to write and say on the occasion of al-Nakba, and what it means to each of us as Palestinians. I decided to search my archive for three pieces I wrote last year while visiting Yassine's refugee camp and others like it in Lebanon.

The first is an interview with the veritible godfather of right of return, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta; the others are features, one on the plight of Palestinai refugees in Lebano, the other about a Palestinian heritage museum in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon-and the amazing man who runs it. His words echo stronger than mine could, at least right now.

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta: Palestinian Right of Return is feasible

"There is nothing in international law or in our sense of morality that says racist or ethnic exclusive considerations should overrule principles of justice."

"By what scale or measure is it that the refugees in Gaza live only five kilometres away from their homes, to which they cannot return, and Israel is seeking out obscure tribes in India and Guatemala, and bringing them over in a hurry to populate the land which belongs to the refugees?"

"[W]e have found by looking at maps, both old and new, that 90% of village sites are still vacant today."

Safeguarding Palestine's Past

Hidden away in a squalid Palestinian refugee camp is a historical treasure trove that keeps the dreams of many alive.

In a corner of the Palestinian refugee camp of Mashook in southern Lebanon, 68-year-old Muhammad Dakwar shows the way into a dusky two-room gallery that he guards with his life.

Inside, ragged pieces of traditional Palestinian garments hang on thin metal racks; decades-old clay pottery and copper plates are neatly arranged on shelves amid a melange of traditional Palestinian household items.

Rustically preserved samples of Palestinian earth - soil, rocks, and olive tree branches - are displayed on poster boards, crudely taped and labelled according to city or village of origin.

All are part of what Dakwar says is the only Palestinian museum in exile, and by some estimates, the only Palestinian heritage museum in the world.

Dakwar insists on using the year 1948 - the date of the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, as a benchmark for dating items on display.

"This is no coincidence, to centre the museum around 1948," he explains eruditely. "I want to make sure people forever remember this date and what it means for Palestinians. This is part of the museum's purpose."

[See link for rest of story...]

Lebanon's Palestinians keep dream of return alive

Um Muneer Utoor fought back tears through wistful eyes as she told of a dream in which she was returning home to Palestine.
In it, the 67-year-old refugee was going back to her house just behind a young almond tree on a small, breezy hill in the village of Jish.

"Just the way I remember it when I was little," she recalled.

And for a moment, Um Muneer's eyes were not so sad.

Then she woke up.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

You're from where?

well, I made it (one border crossing, an 8-hour taxi ride, two planes, and a broken generator-induced delay later). I must say I feel totally dislodged from my element. I feel I have no sense of time or space or being, as odd as that sounds (and from the sleeptalking Yousuf has been doing, neither it seems, does he). Our plane was late leaving Cairo by 3 hours due to a mysterous problem with the engine generators ("the first time we've ever experinces something like this", according to the Captain).

So we missed our connecting flight in London's Heathrow, which wasn't all bad-given BA put us up in a five-star hotel for the night, complete with a jacuzzi tub (which Yousuf seemed to enjoy..). and yes, it took the ticket counter people a while to "place" us, ala "you're from where? *click click click*"...[hushed whispers to colleagues]...and finally typing in the correct code to "bypass" the system's neglect of my identity. I must have been asked that questin a dozen times over the course of our trip.

Of course, it took us a while to get through immigration in London where we were put up for the night-and given our strange combination of passports, mispelled names, and travel history, I wasn't the least bit surprised (and the fact that a Nigerian woman in the line next to ours was stopped trying to get into the country on a forged German passpart didn't help either).

"Palestinian what?" asked the bare-headed man at behind the counter. After lengthy consultation, and questions about why we were carrying two passports (an expired Jordanian travel document, which the Jordanian government is phasing out for all Palestinian Authority passport holders), and our PA passports, and who received what passport and why, including various interventions from from each of my parents and attempts to retstrain Yousuf who made a canvas out of the immigration halls's metal poles, we were finally allowed through, only to be stopped by an unnamed, bearded, somewhat scrawny intelligence officer for "further questioning", which included "whether we thought the Middle East Conflict would be resolved?".

I hate all-encompassing borad questions like that. What the hell is "the middle east" conflict anyway (i posited a slightly more toned down rhetorical)? and is the approval of my entry visa contingent upon my answer? Will a resounding "hell no! not in our lifetime!" ensure I sleep in the airport, not the nice comfortable bed with four belgian chocolates tucked under the pillow and shower with complimentary mint-sage shampoo? I thought for a few seconds, and then replied "There is a famous Palestinian novel-a sort of absurdist tale with a comical, Don Quixotesque hero, called-the Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. You should read it" I replied, to his raised eyebrows. "That sort of sums it up."

He gave us a cautious smile and called me "diplomatic", and then proceeded to ask me about the "new" government, about whether they wanted a place in the international community and how they would go about doing that, about what Palestinians thought about Olhmert and whether thing would change under his rule. I babbled something about the reign of unilaterism as my father tried to shut me up with his glaring eyes. Obviously the officer knew everything, at least I assumed as much. i had been exposed to this line of questioning before-by both Israeli and American intelligence: he was simply testing the waters, fishing for certain answers, and checking for consistency.

He then asked about our mysterious passports, why we all had different names in them, we we each had two passports (and to make matters more compliated, our names spelled differently in each, no thanks to the incompetent passport officers who issued them... my father's name: moussa el-haddad in one, mousa alhaddad in the other, mine Laila El-haddad in one, :Laila Dawood in the other, while Yousuf's was Yousuf get the picture). So I had to take a few minutes to explain the history of the Palestinian -Israeli conflict, the issue of identity documents, refugees, 1948, 1967, family reunification...

We were finally let through, and helped ourselves to the all-expense paid hotel buffet, and a beautiful walk through London's parks.

the next day we made it to the US, and received similar quizzical looks from a Chinese-American immigration officer who barely spoke English, and of course no Arabic, and who I think was even more confused than his British colleagues. Luckily we were not taken for fruther questioning, as I breathed a sigh of relief (given my past experiences with US immigration, including my detention and the confiscation of my passport for 3 1/2 months). Customs checked our bags (all seven of them) and confiscated a single bag of green wheat my mother insisted on bringing (known as freeka in Palestine), and after asking, once again, where exactly we were from (and then, "oh, how is the weather over there, I'll bet its great all year round!) , we were off, and reunited.

Now I'm trying to recover from the jetlag, and still finish up the insane amount of work I have-including an interview I'm working on with the head of the Council of Unrecognized Palestinian Villages in the Negev to mark the ongoing al-Nakba tommorow.

For now, I sign off...and get back to unpacking my bags!!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

On the way..

Well, this is just a quick post to say that Yousuf and I have made it safely out of Gaza-currently in Cairo after a pleasant and quick trip through Rafah Crossing and Sinai (I can't believe I'm actually using "pleasant" and "Rafah Crossing" in the same sentence)... the new Egyptian terminal is running very smoothly, and the Palestinian side impressed with its efficiency-and hey, Yousuf even got a toffee and a "how are you" in what I think was swedish from one of the European monitors. I couldn't help but think though of the thousands of Palestinian families who were split apart, unable to travel to Gaza because they lacked Israeli-issued ID cards.

We stopped by al-Arish for a fish lunch before continuing our journey through Sinai.

We left so quickly that I hardly had time to think about leaving Gaza...I keep thinking I'll step outside and see the ice cream place, and when I hear planes from nearby Cairo airport overhead my instinct is to take cover.

I feel lonely here. And yet, somehow, as a Palestinian, it seems lonely everywhere.

I hope to write more soon but I am still drowning in leftover work (brought my laptop with me) and of course the mandatory shopping here in Cairo... so more soon

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where the purple trees grow

I'm in a daze. Honestly I think my blood pressure is low or something. I almost thought I was seeing things today when, on my way back from Gaza's ghost airport for the photostory I'm working on, I saw a purple tree...! I know for those of you who have seen the glory of American or European springs won't be surprised, but it was quite an incongruous-and pleasant site to see in Gaza, which saw back-to-back, by the minute, thunderous shelling and sound-bombs all day long. So behold-the purple tree of Gaza! :)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Days of Catastrophe

I'm in a final dash to pack up my things for my anticpated Monday travel to the U.S. via Cairo and Rafah Crossing, to meet up with Yassine, and that means finishing up as many of the articles I have left as I can.... someone was commenting yesterday how "well we have advanced so much, now at least we can cross Rafah without having to worry about Netzarim checkpoint and Abo Holi..." funny, its all a matter of persepcive I guess...two steps forward...5 steps back! What in any other universe is completely in the realm of the absurd, is all of a sudden an acceptable status have to travel 8 hour simply to access an airport, while there is one sitting half an hour away.

Tommorow I visit Gaza's "ghost" airport to shoot a photostory for Aljazeera, and after that I must finish up an article on the 55, 000 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza with no status-waiting for Israeli to grant them family re-unification permits and ID cards for going on 10 years.

In the meantime, the shelling continued to pound Gaza hard today. And the souks have lost their usual Thursday hubub. People feel suffocated. Someone commented to me the other day how they think 90% of Gazans have some form of depression. And if the other 10% dont', they there must be something REALLY wrong with them...

I digress from the topic of what was meant to be a short post, but I just cannot avoid the despair and hopelessness, it is everywhere I look. I saw a man sweeping the street next to us the other night with his children, collecting stray rubbish in a wheelbarrow and disposing of it in a nearby garbage container. I was shocked, and curiosity got the best of me. After going upstairs I headed back down to ask what he was doing-and he casually replied "just something my sons and I like to do every now and again"... that, along with a sign in a public taxi I took today that say, in a crudely written handmade sign, "smoking is not allowed in my taxi!!", made me smile.

So, the point of all this, is to remind of the 58th anniversary of Israelis celebrate their "independence" this month, Palestinians commemorate their "days of catasrtophe". Usually this is May 14, but "filisteenyit il-dakhil"..1948 Palestinians, mark it to parallel Israeli Independence Day, when they march to a different ethnically cleansed Palestinian village each year. Thus comes this moving article by my colleague Jonathan Cooke. An excerpt:

"The Palestinian refugee families were joined by 150 Israeli Jews in an annual procession to commemorate the mirror event of Israel's independence called the Nakba (Catastrophe), that drew the overwhelming majority of Palestinians from their homes and out of the new Jewish state.

This year, the families marched to Umm al-Zinat, a Palestinian farming village whose 1500 inhabitants were forced out by advancing Israeli soldiers on May 15, 1948, a few hours after Israel issued its declaration of independence."

58 years...and waiting. A longer Nakba post later inshallah.