Thursday, December 8, 2011

Palestine 2011

Wednesday, September 7th

After all the worrying I did, customs was a breeze.  The agent did not even make eye contact with me.  He was too busy talking to his friend in the next booth to ask me even a single question.  He just stamped my passport, gave me my Visa and said "Have a nice visit".  I must not look as criminally insane as most of you think I am.  : )

As instructed, I took a sherut to Jerusalem & asked to be dropped off at Tantur Gate as it is the closest stop any taxi will make to Bethlehem Bible College this side of the checkpoint.  It had been suggested to me that I might offer the driver an extra ten dollars to take me to the checkpoint.  No such luck.  He basically told me to get out of his cab and he left me somewhere along Hebron Road.  So, it's 90 degrees & I'm hauling a giant suitcase and two bags half a mile to the checkpoint (which is on top of a hill I might add).  I tried to walk through it and was immediately screamed at by the soldier on duty and was told to go back to the bottom of the hill and have someone drive me back up.  WTF?  Luckily, some nice man that didn't speak English offered to drive me through the checkpoint.  (he mimed it)  After several wrong turns and bad directions from people on the street, he finally dropped me here at Bethlehem Bible College. 

I hadn't been in my room for more than 20 minutes when my phone rang.  Dear, sweet Kasem had come straight to BBC after work to see me.  For those of you who don't know, Kasem and I met on my ill-fated 2008 trip.  The man is a saint.  He literally carried me not once, but twice to the hospital and back to St. George's.  He is without a doubt one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know.

We made a quick stop at the Church of Nativity as they were closing up for the night.  We found an outside cafe in Manger Square with Taybee on tap (yippee) and had a wonderful dinner of kidra.  We then wandered back to the college via the old city of Bethlehem where I am just about to crash.  Sorry, no photos tonight but I will be at it first thing in the morning.  Right after I buy a new electrical adapter as mine just blew up.  Seriously, loud pop and now it's smoking.  Gotta run.


Thursday, September 8th

This morning I put on my tennis shoes and got lost.  I believe this is the only way to really experience someplace new.  I covered nearly every square inch of Bethlehem.  (Some more than once as I have zero sense of direction)  I spent hours in the markets trying to take everything in.  There do not seem to be many foreign tourists visiting the labyrinth of shops in the old city.  I saw maybe one or two the entire day.  Only the locals shop here and that is for daily necessities, not the higher end items tourists might purchase.  I spoke with several shopkeepers and their stories are all very similar.  There is no profit to be made but this is their life and it's all they know.

I spent a good part of my afternoon with Alaa.  He's 27 years old and runs a small shop that sells keffiyehs made in Hebron, hand-carved trinkets, musical instruments and various items his mother hand embroiders.  Some time ago he received a scholarship to the University of Chicago but has been denied a student visa 5 times.  He has given up on his own education and now works two jobs to pay for the education of his 5 younger sisters.  He joked that I should not call him Alaa but instead جمل (camel) because he carries the burden of his entire family.  He brought me some coffee and while we chatted, a friend of his that runs a shop across the street came running over, happy as can be, to tell him he had made a sale.  I thought it must have been big for him to be celebrating.  The sale was 15 dollars and it was the first one he'd made in 4 days.  Alaa explained to me that this was normal now.  The tourists that do come to Bethlehem usually come as a group with hired guides that never bring them into the old city.  He believes the tourists are afraid to venture in alone.  This just blows my mind that people are afraid to come here.  It's media hype and fear mongering that makes them feel this way.  I can't imagine anyone coming here and not having the experience I did today.  They are missing real life.

After a short break at BBC, I went down to the Wall to photograph some of the graffiti.  It's really amazing stuff.  The messages of love and peace adorning this monstrosity only highlight what this is:  it's apartheid and it's revolting.  I remember the first time I saw the Wall in 2008, I felt physically sick.  I knew it was here, I knew what it's purpose was and I'd seen hundreds of photos but it didn't prepare me for the visceral reaction I had when I saw it with my own eyes.  I felt the same way today.  I don't know how any normal human being could feel otherwise.  While the rest of the world is trying to move beyond the sins of their past, Israel is blatantly moving in the opposite direction.  My own country makes small but steady steps attempting to move away from it's racist past and at the same time the state of Israel is building a separation barrier that is higher and longer than the Berlin wall was.  If apartheid is immoral and unacceptable elsewhere in the world, why is it allowed to exist here?  To this day, it's the saddest and most disheartening thing I've ever seen and it makes me ashamed to be human.  

I decided to wait until morning to go to Nabi Saleh.  So instead tonight I went to dinner with Mary and Derrick (the keepers of the BBC guest house) and another guest, Gregg, from Oregon.  We had pizza baked on olive wood, mint lemonade and some bright pink pickled radishes that I don't think I'll ever eat again.  The conversation was great.  All three are devout Christians and understand after tonight that I am not.  They don't seem to hold it against me.

I have so much more to say but I have to be up in 3 hours to catch a bus to Ramallah and then figure out how to get to Nabi Saleh from there.  I'm feeling very anxious about tomorrow.  I don't know anyone there and I'm going alone.  I'm going at the request of an Israeli attorney who contacted me after seeing some of my photos online.  Photos from rallies in Kansas City, supporting the people of Egypt, Libya, Syria.  He contacted me in the comfort of my home and asked me to travel thousands of miles to someplace I'd never heard of.  Of course I'm going.

Friday, September 9th, Nabi Saleh

Early this morning I left Bethlehem and traveled deep inside the West Bank to a tiny village called An Nabi Saleh.  One resident told me the population was around 500 and that this number included the dogs and the donkeys.  This village is one extended family.  I was told an outsider has to survive three Fridays in Nabi Saleh to become one of them.  I guess I'm now one third of the way.

I was dropped off at the house of Tamimi.  I don't know what else to call it.  It's the home of Bilal and Manal and it's opened up to one and all every Friday, most likely every other day of the week as well, but Fridays are special.  Every Friday after prayer, the villagers and dozens of International activists gather together for a demonstration.  It is a non-violent demonstration.  Their only goal is to walk to Al Qaws Spring.  (This spring has been shared by Nabi Saleh and neighboring villages for generations.  Almost two years ago, the Israeli settlement of Halamish began building at the sight, diverting the water for their use and blocking Palestinians from their own land.  The battle went to court and the end result was that the area is now declared a closed military zone and no Palestinians are allowed at the site.  At the same time, Halamish settlers continue to use it and the villages now have to buy their water from Israel.)  The Friday demonstrations are held to draw attention to this land theft.  The young and old of the village wave Palestinian flags while singing and laughing and celebrating.  There is no aggression, there are no weapons.  There is only strong will, solidarity and a refusal to be silent about what is happening to them.  (I might also add they are very witty.  As part of today's demonstration, we held a mock funeral for the Oslo Peace Accords.)

We began near the mosque, walking through the village and down the hillside which ended in a road that marked the boundary.  Directly on the other side of this road is the illegal settlement of Halamish.  At the crest of the hill we could see the military vehicles parked along the road and maybe 20-30 soldiers standing like sentries among the rocks and trees waiting for us.

I must make it clear that at no time did anyone cross outside the village perimeter.  No one confronted the soldiers.  They simply spread out along THEIR hillside, holding flags, singing, chatting with new friends and even sitting in the shade of trees for a drink of water.  This went on without incident for maybe 30 minutes.

This is only my opinion, but I believe the soldiers were bored and grew tired of being there.  Nothing was happening that warranted their presence.  Without provocation, they began firing tear gas canisters at us.  I assumed at the time this was normal practice and that they just wanted us to disperse so they could leave.  I had no idea it was only the beginning of a day long attack that continued long after everyone was forced into their homes with windows and doors shut tight to escape from the gas.

When the first assault began, everyone began retreating back up the hill towards the center of the village.  The terrain is rough and it's hard enough to run uphill without battling tear gas at the same time.  Not only does it burn your eyes making them tear so much you cannot see, when it hits your lungs the feeling is one of suffocation which of course makes you panic.  One other nasty effect I was unaware of until then was that it also burns any exposed skin.

Anyway, we retreated to the top of the hill, recovered a bit and began walking towards the other end of the village and we were assaulted again.  There were now soldiers on the hills all around the village and the canisters were flying at us from all directions.  It was impossible to know which way to run.  People were falling down, unable to see through tears and the scarves and t-shirts over their faces.  The panic you feel is unbelievable.  Everything burns and you cannot get away from it fast enough.  The gas itself isn't even the most dangerous part.  They're firing directly at you and at such close range that the canisters themselves can cause grievous injury if you take a direct hit which several people did.  Volunteers from the Red Crescent were in the village in case of injuries but it's chaos during such an event and it's difficult to know what's happening right in front of you.

Most everyone (excuse my choice of words) hauled ass for shelter inside a house.  Any house.  I really thought that must be the end of it because what else could their goal be but to interrupt the demonstration and send everyone running back into their homes.  Maybe 20 people took shelter in the same house as me.  Everyone was checked to make sure they were alright, eyes were rinsed out, the older women and youngest children went into an interior room where they were protected from the windows.  When the shots became fewer, we ventured onto the rooftops to see what the IDF was doing.  By this time they were on foot and walking through the village, periodically firing at anyone that was still out in the streets.

It calmed down for awhile though they wouldn't leave.  Every so often they would fire tear gas close enough that we would have to retreat back inside the stairwells, close the doors and wait.  During these hours the "shabab" (young men) of the village began the rock throwing.  This I struggle to understand.  I know they are angry and they are provoked but I can't comprehend how it results in such blatant disregard for their own lives.  The odds of them actually inflicting any harm on a soldier in riot gear or an armored vehicle is so small that I cannot understand their willingness to risk injury, arrest or even death to accomplish this.  I want to understand but right now it makes my head hurt just trying to rationalize this behavior.  The adults do not even try to stop them.  When a rock hits a vehicle, everyone cheers.  Nevermind that as soon as it happens, the soldiers open the doors, jump out and start firing rubber bullets at them.

At some point, the IDF seemed to leave.  They vanished from the streets which only made me fear what was coming next.  Some vehicles were still down on the road and we could hear shots in the distance but no soldiers were visible.  The shabab seemed to have expected this and they immediately began constructing a road block at the main entrance to the village, right next to the house we were in.  I sat on the roof and watched them turn over dumpsters and push them into the center to block the road.  Then they began piling rocks and so I knew what was coming.  We didn't have to wait long.  A caravan of military vehicles (maybe 6 or 7 of them) came speeding in from the other direction.  They tried to run the roadblock, which eventually they were able to get over or around, but they were pelted by stones while doing so.  I don't even remember the soldiers firing at that point.  It seemed like this must happen every Friday.  Maybe it does.  They only raced away while everyone cheered.  I don't get it.  What was the purpose of almost 8 hours of occupying this village?

I have so much more to say about this but I'm still trying to get my thoughts in order.  It's actually Saturday as I'm writing this because no one was allowed in or out of the village until after nightfall and I didn't make it back to Bethlehem until very late and I was completely spent.  I slept right through the call to prayer this morning and it's quite loud where I am.

This story is not finished but I know some people wanted to hear something of it soon.

Updated: Now that I’m home in Kansas City and have had time to watch the video footage and really think about what I experienced, I have a theory about Nabi Saleh. Neither side accomplished anything the day I was there and this has been happening every Friday for almost 18 months. So…..what is the point? When you watch the videos, it’s mostly of the soldiers throwing stun grenades and shooting tear gas. You rarely see any of the villagers or activists. It looks like a training video. It looks like they are simulating warfare in an abandoned town. I think maybe the IDF uses places like Nabi Saleh to train for combat. If you watch closely, you see several of the soldiers struggle with their weapons, like maybe they’re new at this. Are they practicing on the villagers of Nabi Saleh? I’m afraid so.

Updated 12/09/2011: I am sad to report that today's demonstrations ended in the death of Mustafa Tamimi, 28 years old.

From the Electronic Intifada "Friday, 9 December marked the second year since the tiny village began its weekly demonstrations protesting the expropriation of their land for the neighboring illegal settlement of Halamish, and the confiscation of the village’s main water supply, the Kaws Spring. It also marked the 24th anniversary of the first intifada. Fittingly, it seemed only natural the Israeli army would react with more violence than usual. But never did we expect someone to be killed. It’s too awful to think about. Nabi Saleh has a population of around 500 people. Everyone knows everyone in this tight-knit community, so when one gets killed, a big part of us dies also.
Mustafa, 28 years old, was critically injured after Israeli soldiers fired a tear gas canister at his face, and died at a hospital after his treatment was delayed by the occupation forces who had invaded the village to repress the weekly demonstration."

Updated 12/11/2011:   It wasn't enough to kill Mustafa.  Today at his funeral, his family and friends were assaulted with tear gas and skunk water, courtesy of the world's most moral Army.
Funeral of Mustafa Tamimi Ends in More IOF Violence and Savagery

Saturday, September 10th

I spent most of today with Kasem.  Never in my life have I done anything to deserve the honor of having such a friend.  I've never known anyone so selfless.  I am constantly amazed at his faith, his strength and his unshakeable optimism in the face of such oppression.  He is without a doubt one of the best people I have ever known and I wish everyone could know the joy of having such a friend.  He has his own story but I will not write such a personal account here as I don't think he would want me to.  What he has shared with me I am content to keep to myself.

He brought his son to meet me this morning.  It was a wonderful surprise and I was truly touched that he wanted us to meet.  We drove outside of Bethlehem to view the existing settlements and survey the land that would be confiscated for the new ones.  He took me to see the multi-million dollar "Settler only" highway.  He laughs at the ridiculousness of the Occupation while my heart breaks.  I cannot help but be strong around him for how can I cry over the injustices done to him when he does not.  He just shakes it off, thanks God for what he does have and moves on.  My amazement grows.

He wanted to know all about what happened in Nabi Saleh yesterday and I hesitated to tell him because his son is only ten years old and knows enough English to understand.  He just encouraged me to tell the story anyway.  He doesn't want his children sheltered from the truth.  He says even the youngest ones already know.

We traveled to Hebron and set out on foot because he wanted me to walk through the invisible boundary between Hebron 1 and Hebron 2 so I could "feel it".  It is so bizarre.  One minute it's so crowded I'm in fear of losing track of him or his son and the next minute we're practically alone.  It's a ghost town.  So many people are afraid to cross into H2.  The shopkeepers sit alone in the front of their stores while maybe 200 feet away are all the customers they used to have, giving their business to the shops fortunate enough to be on the "right" side of this invisible boundary.

A man overheard Kasem telling me about the nets strung above the streets to protect people from the trash and stones thrown down from the Israeli settlers living above.  He invited us to climb up to his roof for a better view.  All around his rooftop, the Israeli flags were flying from all the settler residences and he and his family are stuck right in the middle.  He's been offered two million shekels to leave his home but he refuses to do it.  Kasem points out the bullet holes in his family's water tanks.  Apparently, the settlers get bored and use them for target practice.

We went back inside with his family to have tea.  We sat on the children's beds underneath metal shutters that have been welded shut from the outside.  They have no windows.  There's a small opening directly above the youngest child's bed and the father tells us settlers shoved a snake through it one night to scare the children.  We're shown a video of a family member being evicted from his shop, beaten and arrested.  Next we find out they have a six year old boy who is currently in a hospital in Jordan.  Two years ago, settlers threw acid in his face causing him to permanently lose his sight at the age of four.  I don't know what to say.  Two more foreigners wander in to sit with us and listen to the stories.  Kasem nudges me and points to a framed photo of Saddam Hussein hanging on the wall.  It's surreal.

After thanking our hosts we head to the Ibrahimi mosque.  We have to go through several check points to get inside the mosque.  When the soldiers see I'm American, they simply ask me if I'm carrying any weapons and take my word for it when I say no.  They check Kasem's ID, asking him a thousand questions and I want to throw up.  When we finally get inside, Kasem helps me get ready.  Shoes off, robes on.  I've never been inside a mosque before and let's face it, I'm a bumbling idiot.  I wander around inside trying to be invisible while he and his son pray.  I watched them for awhile but it began to seem intrusive and disrespectful so I slipped away and waited for them at the door.

There's alot more to tell here about the restrictions they had inside this mosque that I didn't but it's so disgusting and depressing I cannot even get into now.  When we left, it was pretty obvious my spirits were back in the gutter so we went to have lunch at King of Falafel.  Kasem said it would make me happy again and it did.

He dropped me back at the college and we made plans to travel to Jerusalem together on Monday.  I already miss him.

Monday, September 12th, Jerusalem

This morning I said good-bye to Bethlehem.  Kasem met me at the college so we could travel to Jerusalem together.  I didn't have to, but he wanted me to depart the city via the walk-through checkpoint with him so I could see what he and other Palestinians go through every day.  I'm glad he shows me these things.  Imagine waiting in the only open checkout lane at Target, 50 people in front of you, 50 people behind you and endless cashiers just standing around having coffee and talking instead of opening up the other registers.  Sorry, it's late, I'm tired and that's the best analogy I can come up with.  They only let one person through the gate at a time.  I attempted to take pictures and only managed to get two before Kasem told me to stop it before I got in trouble. 

Palestinians are not allowed to transport certain things out of Bethlehem.  You know, really dangerous, terrorist-y things like iPads and saplings.  When Kasem takes a tour group out of Bethlehem, he leaves any electronics he's carrying with the group (who can carry anything out they want), he goes through the Palestinian checkpoint and then meets up with them on the other side. Seriously, today someone was not allowed to take a sapling olive tree out.  It sat in the corner, lonely and sad.  Kasem said no one would bother it and the owner would pick it up when he came back through the checkpoint.  WTF?

All of our belongings went through the scanner while we went through the metal detectors.  The scanner was labeled "Rapiscan".  You should have heard me trying to explain the irony of that to my friend.  The last part of the checkpoint was an ID check.  As soon as the soldiers saw I was carrying an American passport they just waved me through.  No one even looked at it.  I stood aside and waited for my friend.  Kasem's ID's were scrutinized, as was the document he carried that showed he had permission to travel to Jerusalem.  (Of course you already know both of these items that he is forced to carry are stamped with a menorah and the Star of David.)  The last insult came as I saw all the Palestinians behind me being fingerprinted.  It doesn't always happen, Kasem said.  It really depends on the mood of the soldier checking the IDs, but again I say WTF?  How does this exist in today's world??? At that point I really wanted to ask Kasem what the Arabic equivalent for "douche-bag" is but I think I embarrass him enough already.

In Jerusalem, he finally let me treat him to lunch.  He's very sneaky with the money & he pays for things when he thinks I'm not looking.  Afterwards, we walked around the Old City.  We visited the usual sites while waiting for the mosque to open.  I missed this part in 2008 because of my injury.  We waited in line behind a Russian tour group.  Not surprisingly, I discovered Kasem speaks Russian too as he started whispering to me a translation of what the guide was saying.  "They are talking about us now" (us being the Palestinians) "Let the brainwashing begin".  I still don't get how he can laugh at this.  It could have been the heat or the fact that we both forgot to bring water but we stood in line and giggled like school kids as we listened to this guide go on and on and on.

Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are beautiful and peaceful.  While we walked around, I couldn't help but think of my Muslim friends who can never come here.  Who am I to be here in their place?  It makes your heart feel heavy and sad.  We sat in the shade of one of the beautiful trees to talk.  He pointed out that we could see Al Makassed from where we were sitting.  For those of you that don't already know, Al Makassed Islamic Charity Hospital is where I had surgery in 2008.  We talked again about the surgeon Kasem had taken me to because he had been the one who'd operated on his brother in 1991 when he'd been shot four times by Israeli soldiers and had almost died.  Again, there is so much more to this story but I will not share it here.  It's very personal and it makes me incredibly happy that he trusted me with it.

Kasem left me at the hostel in the afternoon and headed back home.  It's so sad here.  I'd wanted to cry all day but hadn't allowed myself to because it upsets him.  I felt exhausted.  I wandered around the souk for awhile until I got tired of people staring at me.  One man said to me "Americans are the best.  We love Americans best when they are sleeping!".  I don't know if it was a threat or a cleaver comment on how most of us have our heads stuck in the sand.  It's not like I'm wearing a t-shirt that says I LOVE USA.  How do people know?  I could be Canadian or British.  I started back towards the hostel only to be stopped again when two young men yelled to me "Are you with us or with them?  Which one?  Us or them?".  I asked which one they were & they said Palestinian.  I didn't say anything because I realized at that moment they had seen my bracelet and my paranoid mind said they were trying to trick me.  Not ten feet away there were armed soldiers who could hear everything we said.  I told them I wasn't going to answer their questions.  I came back to my room, took off the bracelet and cried my eyes out.  I don't like it here.  It's not like being in the West Bank.  I can't tell who is my friend and who is my enemy.  I'm too depressed to even leave the room again so for dinner I ate the chocolate bar Kasem brought me this morning.

He just texted me to say he is going with me to Nablus tomorrow.  He's meeting me in the morning.  I don't think he likes me going places by myself.  He thinks I'll get into trouble.  Probably because he knows I can't keep my mouth shut.

Jerusalem is the saddest place on earth.

Tuesday, September 13th

As it turned out, Kasem was unable to go to Nablus with me today.  He came to the hostel this morning and said he could only go with me as far as Ramallah as he had an important meeting in Jerusalem at noon.  The company he works for had just found out that Israel is planning massive closures in anticipation of protests and violence leading up to the Palestinian UN bid.  They expect these new restrictions to take effect on the 19th.  This means he will most likely lose his permission to travel to Jerusalem which of course is a big deal when you're a guide.  He and the rest of the Palestinian guides will now have to scramble to make contingency plans so they won't lose their business.  Imagine flying all the way to the Holy Land only to be told by your guide that he can take you anywhere but Jerusalem.  Everyone wants to go to Jerusalem.  If the Palestinian guides can't take them and Israeli guides can, who do you think they'll hire?  As with everything else, he just let's this roll off his back and my amazement grows.

To travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah, you must pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint.  It's a site that has seen much violence but this morning was very quiet.  We sat in the back of the bus and crossed without incident.  Kasem explained to me how Israel does not care who goes out.  They only care about who comes in.  He told me on his way back to Jerusalem he'd be forced to exit the bus at Qalandiya and queue up with the rest of the Palestinians to pass the checkpoint via the walk-through.  He said when I came back later today I should stay on the bus, only the Palestinians had to get out.

During the ride to Ramallah, I told him about my experiences in the souk yesterday.  He assured me my instincts had been right about the two men asking me who's side I was on.  He said the Old City is crawling with young settlers who dress and act like Palestinians to spy on people in the souk.  They carry concealed weapons and he said if it was quiet enough, I could hear the static from the walkie-talkies hidden under their shirts.  He said there had been one in the shop we'd stopped to buy water at yesterday.  He'd kind of rushed me out of the shop and at the time I didn't know why.  Kasem said the man had been staring at us because he saw that we were together.  I didn't even notice.  I have so much to learn.

We arrived in Ramallah and I asked him to take me to Yasser Arafat's tomb before he left me.  He took me to The Mukataa and we paid our respects.  There is a lone PA soldier that stands guard over the tomb.  It's very solemn and it made me sad.

Kasem put me on a bus to Nablus, gave me one last lecture about what to do and what not to do and left.  The ride to Nablus was long and HOT.  Along the way I counted the miniature white cities dotting the hillsides.  Settlement freeze, my ass.

The bus dropped me at Balata Refugee Camp and I spent the next half hour fighting hysterics as I suddenly found my situation unbelievably funny.  I'd been left along side a dirt road, surrounded by demolished buildings with not a soul in sight.  Exactly how was I supposed to summon a bus when I was ready to leave?  It only got funnier to me when a few minutes later, I came upon a herd of goats with a lone shepherd.  I'm sure he thought I was insane, the only white person for miles, laughing so hard tears are streaming down my dusty face.  

I eventually found my way into the camp and found it teeming with people, vendors in the streets and children skipping home from school.  Everyone said "Hallo" when they saw me.  Children asked my name and then asked me to take their pictures.  They recognize digital cameras and they love to see their pictures as soon as you've taken them.  

As always, even though everyone seems pleasant and passive, I start to feel like I'm intruding so I just put the camera away and walked.  And walked.  And walked.  SPF 100 did nothing to protect me today.

I wandered a short way into Nablus but the time was getting late and I had promised Kasem I would get myself back to Jerusalem before nightfall.  I changed buses in Ramallah after spending another half hour or so looking around the city.  (I like Ramallah.  I could see myself living there.......)  

As expected, the bus stopped just short of Qalandiya and some of the passengers exited.  I sat in my seat and patiently waited.  Then more people exited.  They kept exiting.  To my horror, I realized I was the only person left on the bus.  Easily one of the biggest freak-out moments of my life.  On impulse I decided to exit, too.  How am I supposed to write about this stuff if I don't experience it myself, right?  I followed the crowd toward the corrals and took my place in the queue.  I was sure I was going to get in trouble for this but I figured I'd just play dumb and tell the soldiers I didn't know I was supposed to stay on the bus.  It was hotter than hell.  

There were probably a hundred people crammed into what I now call the cattle chute and they weren't letting anybody through.  The air-conditioned buses were all waiting for us on the other side of the checkpoint.  I looked around for the cameras I knew were there.  I pretended like I was texting someone and quickly snapped a couple of pictures.  

It got hotter and more crowded and when they finally decided to start letting people through, there was a stampede.  Apparently, they unlock the turnstile for 5 seconds at a time and as many people as possible try to cram themselves through.  I thought I was going to die.  Faces are being smashed into the bars as everyone's shoving their way through trying to be the next person out.  I kept thinking to myself, "If I ever get out of this alive Kasem's going to kill me".  I don't blame them for their behavior.  They have jobs to get to, lives to live and they're forced to go through this shit several times a day, every day.  I tried to be aggressive and finally made it through the turnstile after several failed attempts.  Once through, all belongings go through the scanner and you go through the metal detector.  I watched the people in front of me place their IDs face down on a scanner so the soldiers behind the glass could read them.  When it was my turn, I slapped my passport down and immediately heard "YOU WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO GET OFF THE BUS!!!".  They asked to see my visa stamp from Ben Gurion and then waved me through.  I boarded the buses with everyone else and made it safely back to Jerusalem.

I'm about to head up to the roof to attempt some more night-time pictures of the Dome of the Rock.  It's incredibly noisy and hard to sleep here but I do feel a little better about being in the Old City tonight.  Mohammed from Chicago works downstairs at the front desk.  He's very religious.  There is no alcohol allowed in this hostel and unmarried couples cannot stay in the same room.  He listens to the Koran at all times.  I'm not sure why but it makes me feel safe.  Good night.

Wednesday, September 14th

I can't believe I'm packing.  It feels like I just got here and at the same time, it feels like I've been here for months.  I'm exhausted.
Another disappointment today as Kasem contacted me this morning to say he could not meet me for "reasons beyond his control".  He won't say over the phone what it is so I'm left to imagine it's something horrible.  He said he'd see me tomorrow before I left so whatever it is, it must be temporary.  Probably some 20 year old punk in a bad mood wouldn't let him in or out of some place.  I don't think I'll ever come back to Jerusalem.  There are too many restrictions here and the streets are full of spies.  I'll keep to the West Bank where I can trust people.  Where I can be close to my friends and far away from the insanity of this place.  I said my good-byes to the Old City today.  I even walked through the Jewish Quarter again and took some pictures.  If I keep my sunglasses on and my head down at all times no one bothers me.  It doesn't however stop them from staring.

Once again my spirit was in the gutter because I wouldn't see my friend today.  I really had no desire to do anything else.  After wandering inside the city walls for awhile and taking pictures, I left through Damascus Gate and walked to St. George's Guesthouse.  This was my place of convalescence in 2008.  After I was released from the hospital, I stayed three more days at St. George's until I was allowed to fly home.  My group had gone on without me and I was left in the care of Father Bob and the staff at the guesthouse.  Every day I hopped, crawled or was carried out to the garden so I could sit in the December sunshine.  It's such a beautiful place.  Even Mordechai Vanunu took refuge here upon his release from prison in 2004 after serving 18 years (11 of them in solitary confinement) for revealing details of Israel's nuclear weapons program to the British press.  It's been a sanctuary for many and it was one for me, too.  Someone was always checking up on me, Father Bob, Alfred the gate-keeper (as I called him) or one of the other guests.  If Alfred took a break for coffee, he brought me a coffee.  If he stopped for lunch, he brought me some of whatever he was having.  Orange juice, cookies, hummus, anything he had for himself he brought the same for me.  He's a very sweet man and always kept me company.  The night I left he was too sad to say good-bye to me so he wrote me a letter & gave it to Sarah.  I still have it.

St. George's looks alot different today but it still feels the same.  The same manager was at the front desk and he remembered me.  I'm pretty sure everyone that had to carry me at some point remembers me : )  He told me that Father Bob had gone back to the US two weeks ago and that someone would be replacing him soon.  I asked about Alfred and was told he didn't work in the guesthouse anymore, only inside the church.  A little disappointed, I wandered out to the garden to sit in the sun for awhile and it felt like I had never left. That first experience in Palestine was extremely emotional and ultimately life changing and while I sat in St. George's garden today I felt all of those emotions again.  I had a nice little cry and when I got up to leave, I found Alfred standing in the doorway waiting for me.  He was so excited to see me.  He's such a funny guy.

We caught up as much as was possible since his English is about as good as my Arabic.  He just kept shaking my hand, laughing and pointing at my leg.  I gave him a small token of my appreciation.  (Aztec bark from Annedore's)  He loves it.
I spent the rest of the day taking pictures and then came back to the hostel lobby to edit them.  Mohammed from Chicago came over to talk to me because he said I looked too serious sitting there.  He said this hotel is a family business and he came here to run it for only one year and then he's going back to the States.  When I made my reservations here, I knew this was a Muslim hostel but I had no idea it would be so conservative.  It doesn't matter though.  Mohammed has made me feel very welcome here and if I was ever coming back to the Old City, I would stay here again.
My plan for the rest of the evening is to edit photos and cry as much as possible.  I figure the more tears I shed today, the easier tomorrow will be.  It's going to be hard enough to say good-bye to Palestine.  It's going to rip my heart in two to say good-bye to Kasem again

If those fuckers try to keep him away from here tomorrow there's going to be hell to pay.

September 15th - 16th

My last morning in Palestine.  I showered and packed very early, not sure what the day would bring.  I had breakfast on the roof and waited anxiously to hear from Kasem.  I couldn't decide what would be worse, seeing him & having to say good-bye or not seeing him at all.  At 9:15, he arrived at the hostel.  His hold up yesterday was personal, not what I had assumed.  He could only stay for a couple of hours so we spent that time huddled in the lobby, conspirators once again, discussing the Occupation and the future of Palestine.  He doesn't think the UN bid is a good idea.  He believes Israel will use the PA's actions to justify further annexation of the West Bank.  As for the upcoming closures, he has made arrangements with his colleagues that hold Israeli IDs to take over his groups when/where he is unable to travel. 
I never run out of questions and thankfully, he doesn't seem to tire of answering them.  He does have some safety concerns over what I've been posting and has asked me to leave out personal details and use only his first name when these blogs are made available to the general public.  I try to think of one single thing he's actually said or done that could be considered illegal and I can't think of any.  He hasn't broken any laws.  The truth is, Israel would punish him for simply sharing the truth with an outsider.

Our time was short today and all too soon we had to say good-bye.  I'd already warned him there would be tears and that he'd just have to suck it up.  It was the hardest part of my journey.  We made our promises, embraced and he left.  An unbearable feeling of loss came over me and I sat down and cried.  I couldn't hide in my room anymore since I'd checked out so I established my place of mourning in the lobby of Hashimi Hotel.  Employees and guests came and went but no one bothered me.  I just sat in the corner and cried, for my friend, for myself and for Palestine.

When I recovered, I asked Mohammed if I could stay in the lobby and work for a few hours as it was too early to go to the airport and I had no desire to do anything else.  He was very accommodating.  I'd been writing and editing my photos for about an hour when Kasem texted me to say he was home and that he already missed me.  This of course, made me start crying all over again.  I needed something to do so I offered to take pictures of the hotel for their website.  When I was finished, Mohammed and I talked about my visit and what I'd been doing here.  He has some friends from the US that are also in Palestine now doing something similar.  They are seeking to educate mainstream America on Islam.  He's sending me their contact information so we may work together in the future.

I left for Tel Aviv around five.  Security was brutal.  I don't understand why it's so much harder to get out of this country than it is to get in.  It makes no sense.  It was slightly less hideous than my last exit but I still spent two and half hours answering questions and having my luggage picked apart piece by piece.  I was pulled out of line three times and sent for further questioning.  I lied, of course.  They're very good at asking the same questions over and over, slightly changed, in an effort to trip you up.  They're so adept at it that even when you're not lying, they can make you doubt yourself.  They want to know every place you've been and every person you've talked to.  Your luggage is ransacked and as soon as you've repacked, someone else is there asking to go through it again.  It's exhausting and nerve-wracking.  Not only did they question me about this visit but also about 2008.  Same questions, same answers, same results:  more questions.  When they were finally done with me & I got to my gate, I just sat and stared at the wall until it was time to board.  And lucky me, I got to spend 12 hours on a flight with a very large and very loud "Birthright Israel" group.  Bastards.

I am home now.  I'm exhausted, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I spent this evening catching up on all the reports from today's demonstrations in Nabi Saleh.  The military was much more aggressive today.  Several people were overcome by tear gas and one person was arrested.  It's hard to believe I was just there and now I'm thousands of miles away.  I feel slightly out of step with everyone and everything around me.  I wonder how long it will take me to adjust this time.  I still have a lot of photos to edit and blogs to redact so they can be published.  I fear I'll have a lot of speaking engagements soon.  I hope I'll be past all the crying before they start.

My new goal is to return to the West Bank in May.  That seems like a very long time.  For now, I must sleep.  It may be days before I wake up.

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