Return to Haifa, Return to the Blog

Dear friends and family. I’m back in the Middle East and so is my Middle East blog!

The plan, as it stands, is: spend June volunteering in Jisr al-Zarqa (more on this in a minute), spend July and August studying Hebrew at Haifa University, then spend September to May studying Arabic at the Qasid Institute in Amman. Next summer is still up in the air but will probably see me back in Haifa fore more Hebrew (because somehow I decided that trying to learn one difficult Semitic language wasn’t enough . . .)

I have been trying (with numerous hiccups) to use this first month to conduct preliminary dissertation research. As many (but probably not all) of you know, my dissertation research is on female Palestinian citizens of Israel employed in the Israeli labor force. If this raises a red flag for you, don’t worry, it’s also raised it for my academic adviser. You may be asking yourself (and me): how do you, a white man, expect to do an ethnography of Palestinian women??

This is what I’ve been trying to figure out. Is this possible? Doable? Or do I need to re-think my dissertation project?

Anthropological research, as far as I can tell, still begins with the spaghetti method: throw as much as you can at a wall and see what sticks. With this in mind, I got in contact with a local Palestinian NGO in Israel that works with various other NGOs in the country to see if they could put me in contact with anyone here. I learned that they were starting a summer volunteer program and I applied, thinking that it would be a great way to make contacts. I didn’t realize that I would be their first volunteer ever and that they wouldn’t be entirely quite sure what to do with me.

Initially, they had suggested that I work at a project that works to help Syrian refugees in Greece get mental health treatment. The project does great work but wasn’t really a good way to connect me with my target research population (though if anyone else is interested in volunteering with them, or sending them much-needed funds, they can be found at https://humanitycrew.org/) so I asked them to put me somewhere else.

They suggested that I work with Juha’s Guesthouse, a hostel/community center in Jisr al-Zarqa (http://www.zarqabay.com/). Jisr al-Zarqa is the last remaining coastal Palestinian village in the state of Israel – while other Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed in the 1948 war, Jisr and the nearby village of Fureidis were saved from destruction by members of nearby Jewish settlements that had relied on the residents of these two towns for hired laborers. Both towns’ populations ballooned after 1948 as Palestinian refugees from nearby destroyed villages flooded in.

The hostel, while well-meaning in its project of Jewish-Arab cooperation, and laudable in its willingness to point out the area’s economic inequalities, is frustrating in its unwillingness to acknowledge this ugly part of the region/country’s history. On their tours, they euphemistically state that the coastal areas were “evacuated” during the war, never acknowledging that those “evacuated” were not allowed to return to their homes.

As the state of Israel has developed, Jisr has maintained this sort of symbiotic, subordinate relationship with the neighboring Jewish communities. While the population of Jisr are full Israeli citizens and have the right to vote in Israeli elections and work in the Israeli economy, it remains one of the poorest villages in the entire country, surrounded by some of the wealthiest. To the north is Ma’agan Michael, one of the richest kibbutzes in all of Israel; to the south is Caeserea, one of the richest towns in all of Israel – Benjamin Netanyahu has a mansion there and residents recently built a “landscape wall” to block out the sight and sound of neighboring Jisr; to the east is a highway that is not directly accessible from the village; to the west is the sea which, while beautiful, has had such a drop in fish populations (both from Israeli commercial fishing and, I suspect, from the loss of breeding habitat after the nearby marshes were converted into fish farms by Ma’agan Michael) that Jisr’s fisherman can no longer make a living with their catch (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/jisr-al-zarqa-living-jail-170724144255523.html; http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-s-poorest-village-palestinian-fishermen-forced-give-their-craft-1265040548)

Most of the people I’ve talked to are employed in menial labor in nearby Jewish towns (note that most of Israel remains extremely segregated, no Jews live in Jisr and no Palestinians live in any of the neighboring towns). I’ve met men who install air conditioning, cut sheet metal, cut particle board, drive trucks, and wait tables. All the women I’ve met work as either house cleaners or cleaners in hospital or offices.

This is one of the elements I’m trying to explore while here, how have family dynamics changed as women here have gone to enter the workforce? What kind of experiences have these women had with their employers? How do they feel about working “double shifts” – cleaning others’ houses during the week and their own (often without male help) on the weekend?

So far, the holidays (more on them in another post), have made it hard to settle any firm interviews but now that they’re done, I’m starting to make connections through the workshops that are held in the hostel as well as through some friends I’ve made in town (largely through a local barber whose family I’ve befriended). While I’m worried I won’t be able to get all the interviews I need done in time, thankfully it’s not too far away from Haifa so I can always take a bus down for follow-up interviews during the next two months.

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Adventures in White Privilege

I’ve been of two minds over whether to talk about the occupation in this blog. On the one hand, it’s the sort of politicized topic that inflames passions and may put me at odds with some friends/family who just want to catch up on my confusing life progressions. It also probably won’t change anyone’s preexisting opinion about the issue and it also continues the reduction of the Palestinian people and their lives to that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, it is a reality, albeit one that I have the privilege – unlike my friends, teachers, and fellow Nablus residents – to largely ignore if I so choose. This weekend, however, was a weird one and I felt that I needed to talk about it.

The West Bank is a weird place. In some ways, it feels like many of the other Arab cities and countries I’ve lived in and shares many of both their positive and negative aspects: the cities are full of the kind of vibrant pedestrianism that much of America seems to have lost (even New York doesn’t have quite the same rate of street produce, clothes, and snack providers as Nablus does and its size is much smaller); you can buy fresh bread and eggplant for a song; people can be both incredibly friendly and helpful towards strangers and extremely aggressive and rude towards them (the ratio of decent human being to total asshole seems to remain more or less constant in every place I’ve been from preschool on); there’s a great cafe culture that combines the joys of a hipster coffee shop with that of a dive bar (though I do miss real dive bars . . .); there are gender relations that are a lot more complicated than they are portrayed in the media or even by the participants in the societies themselves; and there are lots of frustrated young people who are depressed about their economic prospects, disappointed that their college degrees haven’t led to adequate employment, and who fantasize about futures elsewhere (ideally in the US but also in Europe) whom I worry will be even more frustrated when they learn, even once they’ve reached America, how hard it is to climb the social ladder in a fundamentally unequal world. This hope for economic emancipation abroad is, thanks to the domination of American media world-wide, linked to an uncomfortable idealization of white America, with a corresponding acquiescence towards American forms of racism (this topic deserves a blog post of its own, but suffice it to say that I’ve heard the n-word used casually in every Middle Eastern country I’ve lived in).

Along with all the problems faced by Tunisians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and Lebanese (who also have some special issues of their own to contend with) of corruption, neoliberalism, and inequality, Palestinians also have to deal with the steady settler colonization of their land and their lack of any substantial form of self-determination. As a foreigner, I only tangentially experience this occupation, often through its notable absence. In some ways, Israel-Palestine feels like NAFTA on steroids: like with the US and Mexico, economic borders are open but labor ones are closed, but unlike with the US and Mexico, Israel controls both sides of the border, making the West Bank more of an economic fiefdom than an international trading partner.

This means that there are numerous Israeli-manufactured products available in the grocery stores here, in most supermarkets you’re as likely to see packaging in Hebrew as you are in Arabic. One of my teachers discussed the anxiety Palestinian companies feel when competing with high-quality Israeli products (a fact which classical economist readers will argue pushes Palestinian producers to improve their products’ quality while those who worry about structural limitations and Israeli industrial subsidies will worry that this sets an impossible standard to match, forcing the closure or devaluation of domestic industries).

I think it’s easy, with the heady talk of “two state solutions” and the building of walls (as well as labor restrictions) to forget how economically integrated the two territories are. If you want to really get sucked into IR number crunching nerddom, I highly recommend checking out MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity (http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/). It shows that Palestine’s top export destination is Israel, with $803 million dollars of annual exports, an amount that is almost ten times that of its next biggest export destination, Jordan ($83.3 million). It also imports $2.86 billion dollars worth of goods from Israel, a number three times that of the next four importers combined (China, $258 million, Turkey, $257 million, Jordan, $165 million, and Egypt, $121 million). It should be noted that this is a very one-sided economic story. While 59% of Palestine’s imports come from Israel and 82% of its exports go there, only 1.3% of Israel’s imports come from Palestine and 4.4% of its exports go there.

I’ve been surprised at how expensive basic goods are here, given how cheap my rent is. In Tunis, it was not uncommon to break a 1 dinar coin (itself worth about 50 cents) when shopping in the market or the corner store. In Nablus, you’d be hard pressed to find anything costing less than 2 shekels (about 60 cents). For that price you can buy a cup of cheap tea in Nablus; in Tunis you’d buy a croissant and a coffee. And yes, Palestinians do use Israeli currency in the West Bank which means that they, like the Greeks, are trapped to a currency they don’t control. It’s also a constant reminder of who is in control, although thankfully the Israeli money has pictures of famous scientists and poets on it rather than political figures (African Americans, of course, still have to look at famous slave owners whenever they want to buy most goods in cash . . .)

It always seems ironic that, for all their dreams of traveling to rich, racist, white economic powerhouses (like the US or Europe), none of my Palestinian friends have talked about dreams of working in Israel. Perhaps it doesn’t seem politically possible (though I wonder if it’s really any easier to get a US visa than it is to get an Israeli work permit) or perhaps they believe that they will be able to live happier, less constrained lives in countries where they are not the historical object of scorn (sort of like all the Tunisians I talked to who had decided to pin their hopes on emigrating to Quebec rather than France because they saw it as less racist and discriminatory towards Francophone Muslim immigrants).

The geographic segmentation of the West Bank is perhaps what most outsiders are familiar with when they think of the occupation, however. It’s always jarring to leave Nablus, a city covered in Palestinian flags, Arabic street signs, and posters of Palestinian leaders and enter a highway guarded by Israeli soldiers and watchtowers, flanked with settler bus stops (many of which will take them to Jerusalem much faster than any Palestinian can go), and dotted with Israeli flags and Hebrew streets signs along the way (in these signs, the Arabic name, always second, is usually a transliteration of the Hebrew rather than the actual Arabic place name – so “al-quds,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem gets written as “اورشليم(oorushaleem) in Arabic). It’s always easy to spot a settlement when traveling between cities, they look like cheap American apartment blocks, the sort of thing you’d find in the exurbs of most major American cities (although they still look better built than the cinder-block standard of most Palestinian towns), and they are always greener than the areas around them (presumably due to high water use, a disparity that has stung in a week where our apartment’s water level dropped to a trickle).

Yet all of this, at least of the white boy outsider, feels more or less separate from the Arab-Palestinian world of Nablus. It’s something that doesn’t seem to breach the city walls much (though rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear some sort of fighter jet fly overhead). This is not the case with Hebron. Hebron has been historically important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims because it is believed that Abraham and his family are buried there.

It has also been a site of ongoing tension. While there had long been a population of Sephardi Jews in the city, the influx of new Zionist immigrants into the city and countryside raised tensions culminating in the Hebron Massacre of 1929 (part of the larger 1929 Western Wall riots in which members of both communities attacked one another in an outpouring of tension between them). Between this and the violence of the 1939 Great Arab Revolt, most of the Jewish community ultimately fled the city. In 1967, following the Israeli capture of the West Bank, the city came under Israeli military control and settlers began moving in. Unlike in the reset of the West Bank, these settlements are in the heart of the city, meaning settlers and Palestinians were living check by jowl. This was even true in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where both Jews and Muslims (Christians too) prayed. On February 14, 1994 a Jewish extremist opened fire on Muslim worshipers during Friday prayers, killing 29. Since then, the tomb is separated by a barrier that allows each side to access Abraham’s cenotaph but not each other (cenotaph, by the way, is one of those fancy SAT words that you inadvertently learn in grad school. It means “empty tomb” because the bodies themselves are buried in a sealed cave below ground. There’s a shaft where you can look down into the cave but you can’t enter it).

All this leaves the city with a prison-like feeling. To enter the tomb, visitors need to go through Israeli-manned security checkpoints. I was told that, as a foreigner, I could visit the Jewish-half of the tomb complex, though not on Saturday (which is when we were there). It was eerie to be able to hear the Jewish worshipers through the partition, an effect similar to hearing the call to prayer while standing with Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, knowing that Muslims would soon be gathering to pray on the other side.

I was glad that non-Muslims were allowed to visit (actually, I was told that there is a Christian worshiping part too, though the internet says otherwise . . .). Besides the quiet joy of being in a spiritually peaceful place (however unfortunately tinged with reminders of violence, including both the aforementioned barriers and poorly-patched bullet holes), it has lovely art-deco-era ceiling frescoes (which remind me of similar European-inspired early-20th-century ceiling work in the Bardo museum in Tunisia), a beautiful marble mihrab (prayer leader niche), and, best of all, an elegantly carved wooden minbar (prayer stairs akin to an Islamic pulpit) built under Salahaddin (who reconquered the city from the crusaders in the 11th century). Having a local friend show us around helped too and we had lots of smiles and greetings from worshipers who were happy for our visit.

In fact, the whole city has this edgy-tension-mixed-with-welcoming-people vibe. In the old city, shop keepers are happy to talk to you about their anti-occupation work and groups of activisty tour groups were not an uncommon site (indeed, I think I saw more white people in 2 hours in Hebron than 2 months in the rest of the West Bank). This all took place on old city streets that sit in the shadow of settler apartments. The road parallel to the main old city road is now occupied by settlers and concrete barriers have been placed at all the major intersections to block traffic. In addition, because the settlers who live above the Palestinian street throw their garbage out the window onto the street below, a fence canopy has been set up to catch the garbage and keep it from falling on the street. One teenager took us up to the roof of his house, one of the last remaining Arab-owned ones on the main strip. He told us that his father had refused to sell the house and his family had been assaulted numerous times, one of them resulting in his pregnant mother miscarrying. Even if one refused to take him at his word, it was hard to ignore the presence of barbed wire, sandbags, and a guard tower on the roof adjacent to his. Across the street we could see a group of Israeli soldiers manning another guard position on the opposite rooftop. This mixture of concrete roadblocks, fences, barbed wire, police checkpoints, and guard towers makes the whole old city feel like it was under siege.

Weirdest of all was the fact that, as foreigners, we were allowed to enter the settlement in the old city. Access to these streets are restricted for Palestinians who don’t still live there (there are still some families living in houses in the closed-off street), though our friend who has an East Jerusalem ID was allowed in as well (there are three types of IDs for Palestinians: Blue for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, Green for those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a separate (white?) card for those from East Jerusalem). Upon entering, the street signs suddenly changed into Hebrew and English, with park benches and trees provided for by rich American donors. Young Jewish children played soccer in a playground while off-duty soldiers lounged on the grass. In other words, it was surreal. It’s weird to see playing children and realize that they will grow up with their only idea of “home” being a colonial enclave, where soldiers and walls are there to protect you rather than arrest you and keep you out, where, someday, the idea of throwing garbage on people in the street below will become perhaps second-nature. I suppose it’s not so different than parts of Saigon, Calcutta, and Batavia 100 years ago, or, more recently, Johannesburg, Derry, and Hyde Park, Chicago (I feel like Americans should win an award for concrete-saving since our walls seem to be just as efficient despite their invisibility . . .)

I posted my general photos of Hebron on Facebook but felt weird showing the pictures of the settlement there. I didn’t really want “likes” or comments on them. I’m going to post them here to give a bit of a sense of the place. I didn’t really feel comfortable taking pictures of people so you’ll have to squint into the margins. Truthfully, I wasn’t really comfortable doing anything there.

On the brighter side of things, I had some of the best hummus in my life in Hebron. It was the only hummus that rivals Abu Shokri’s in Jerusalem. Hebron, come for the conflict, stay for the hummus.

The Day to Day

Life has, more or less, settled into a bit of a routine here. I get up around 8 am and make myself a secret batch of coffee (given that it’s Ramadan) accompanied by fresh pita bread, labneh (thickened yogurt), olive oil, and za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds). In many ways, it’s not that different from my daily bagel-and-cream-cheese routine that I became famous for by the end of my first year in grad school.

Then I walk down the hill and, usually without waiting more than 30 seconds, hop into a shared taxi heading up towards Al-Najah’s New Campus. Taxis are fast and furious in the morning as everyone and their brother seem to also have class at 9. I always feel odd giving the taxi drivers money while they’re zooming down the main street but they seem to be well-practiced at making change, changing lanes, and pulling over for more passengers all at the same time.

All in all, I think I’ve lucked out with my classes. While not quite as rigorous or well-rounded as my Middlebury days, I have happened to have the good luck of attending during the summer, meaning that I’m the only student in my class! It basically means that, for only $300 a month, I get 15 hours a week of private Arabic lessons! (a fact which did not keep my roommate from insisting that the school was over-charging foreigners). It does, however, make for a somewhat lonely existence, and I often wish that I had other foreigners to be learning with, even if, at the end of the day, it’s probably good that I don’t speak too much English outside of class.

In truth, I probably spend more time at home than I should. There’s not much to do during the day besides go shopping for produce and even that doesn’t take that long. I do try to go out at night with my roommate, but sometimes that just leaves me hanging on the fringes trying to pick up on what people are saying. Perhaps I should start carrying around a list of ice breaker questions to stimulate conversation or the like.

On the plus side, I have started volunteering some at a local food pantry. I basically discovered it while walking around the old city and, after staring perplexed at it, was invited in by one of the volunteers there. They basically cook up huge batches of chicken and rice and distribute the food to poor people in the neighborhood. A couple of times, I’ve accompanied groups of youths (who range between middle school to recent college grads) on trips through the neighborhood with an old shopping cart full of different-sized grocery bags full of re-used ice cream tupperware bins full of chicken, rice, yogurt, and ice cream (in the original, not re-used bin, of course). I can imagine it’s a bit of an odd site in the old city seeing this thirty-year old white guy follow a bunch of teenagers and a shopping cart through the town, lugging large bags of yogurt and speaking in broken Arabic along the way. Still, it’s been a good way to meet people, practice my Arabic, explore the city, and do something that’s more altruistic than Arabic homework and Facebook scanning.

A Week (or so) in Nablus

I’ve now finished my first week of classes at al-Najah and have been in Nablus a little over a week. While I had visited the city during my Israel-Palestine travel of late 2011/early 2012, I had only had a brief visit to the city, one which centered on searching for the oldest kanafeh (a gooey goat cheese, syrup, and pastry sweet that the city is famous for) shop in the city and a trip to the Samaritan village (yes, the same ones from the bible) on the top of Mt. Gerizim. It culminated in a tour of the Samaritan museum in which the guide borrowed my friend Terry’s pen, only to never return it, leaving Terry to comment: “guess this one wasn’t such a good Samaritan after all . . .”

Now that I’ve been here for bit of time, I have started to get a bit of the lay of the land. I had chosen to come here to work on my Palestinian Arabic instead of Ramallah or Jerusalem out of the hope that I would find less strong English speakers and thus have a better chance to actually practice my Arabic. After realizing how difficult it was to get good Arabic practice in capitals like Beirut, Amman, and Tunis, or tourist towns like Fez, I longed for the boring but linguistically fruitful life I’d had in Irbid (while Irbid is the second-biggest city in Jordan — unless you count Zarqa, a suburb of , like my stay in Irbid (a city that most you have never heard of, despite it being the second-biggest city in Jordan, because there’s not much to do there as a tourist). However, unlike Irbid, Amman, and Ramallah — new cities that were basically villages until the mid-twentieth century — Nablus has a long history as an important provincial city. For centuries it has played an important role as a trade center between Damascus, Cairo, the Mediterranean, and the Arabian peninsula, serving as a way station not only for goods but also for pilgrims making their way south from the Levant towards Meccca and Medina in the Hijaz. Along with being a trade center, the city has had a long history of olive oil soap production and export. This means that the city has a vibrant (if a bit dilapidated) old city with crumbling mansions and pre-modern factories of soap merchants from days gone by.

While the old city lies nestled between the twin peaks of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (which the Samaritans believe is the true site of the Temple Mount, not Jerusalem, and where most of the remaining community now live), the modern city stretches up the side of both peaks. I live about a mile west of the Old City, in the Rafidia neighborhood on the foothills of Mt Gerezim and go to school at al-Najah’s new campus another one mile further west and up the hill. This means that, at home and, particularly at school, I get a lovely view into the valley below. The moderate elevation also means that, while the summer has been hot, so far it hasn’t been unbearable.

I live in a pretty grungy apartment unit in a pretty grungy building, but have thankfully lucked out and, through the school, got placed with an excellent Palestinian roommate. He’s very friendly and always invites me to hang out with him and his friends yet isn’t very religious so I’m free to eat and drink at home during the day (despite it being Ramadan) including some of the aquavit I bought in the Copenhagen duty free (despite this being an overall fairly conservative Muslim city) — indeed, sometimes he shares in all three with me! He is, like half the men here, named Mohammad and, as such, usually goes by his nickname “Abu Rajah” to differentiate him from the hundreds of other Mohammads around. Hanging out during Ramadan feels a bit like what I imagine hanging out in around tenements in New York must have been like (still be like?) — we basically just sit at his special spot on the corner of the main boulevard and wait for either his friends or the traveling coffee salesman to walk by. Sometimes we go for a walk, up the street until the police barracks, then back down the other way (again, basically waiting to find someone we know to shake hands and catch up with). Occasionally I can convince him and his friends to head to a local cafe that serves good arguileh (hookah) and mint lemonade, though we still inevitably end up back sitting on the low concrete wall under the cypress trees on the main street corner, watching the foot and car traffic go by while they smoke cigarettes and shoot the breeze. All in all, this sort of quite dude life has been a good way for me to practice my Arabic. Most of the young men we hang out with know very little English and are generally happy to put up with my broken Arabic. Sometimes they’ll get off on one subject or another and I’ll struggle to keep up, but then I just sort of stare off and people watch.

Class has been good too. Maybe not the most rigorous Arabic training but, after a year of PhD studies, a school schedule that allows for nap time is a welcome change. Also, the school doesn’t seem to have many foreigners in the summer, so I’ve lucked out and got two classes (3 hours) all to myself! This means that I mostly spend class talking with the professors, asking and answering questions and getting their vocabulary help. I do feel though that I could be putting more effort into my homework, maybe even doing some outside reading and research. So far, though, it has been nice to just slowly readjust to speaking Arabic and living in a somewhat quiet corner of the Middle East again.

Return to the Land of Felafel

After a long hiatus, I am back. Back to the Levant, back to the land of za’atar, fresh pita bread for a song, and a diet largely of yogurt and chickpea products, back to a place where the word for lamb is “kharouf” not “a’loush,” egg is “baydh” not “a’thaam,” and everything is “mneehh.”

I’m also back abroad, far away from family and friends, trying to come to terms with life in a very different place once again.

I’m sort of half-settled in Nablus and so I figured I’d return to my long-lost, usually inconsistent travel blog. I’m going to push myself to write something every Friday but we’ll see if that actually comes true . . .

I left America on Friday the 26th and had a whirlwind tour of Copenhagen on my way to Israel-Palestine. I had about a 20 hour layover with Norwegian airlines, which was just enough time for a little impromptu Camino reunion with Christina and Rikke, my two Danish travel companions from summer 2009. Did I eat a Danish? I did. Did I drink aquavit, despite being told that only old people drink it? Age never stopped me. Did I ride a bike everywhere and look at beautiful old buildings, palaces, and statues of Hans Christian Anderson and the Little Mermaid? Of course. Did I spend half the time longing for socialized medicine and education, fuel-producing trash incinerators, and dedicated bike paths parallel to the street? How could I not??? Denmark’s wonderful and someday I hope to spend more than an afternoon there.

On to Jerusalem, still one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. I often found myself accidentally walking the stations of the cross or almost walking into restricted religious areas before Israeli soldiers had to shoo me away. One can go to the Western Wall (the Kotel) and hear Jewish prayers mix with the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque on the other side of it while church bells peel softly in the distance. One can also see fasting Palestinian men selling T-shirts that say “Chicago Blackhawks” in Hebrew to tourists seemingly oblivious to the levels of irony that laced within the whole spectacle. I saw Hebrew street names crossed out in the Muslim quarter and Arabic street names crossed out in the Jewish quarter. I saw a monk walk down the street in full robes through the middle of nightly Ramadan celebrations. I exchanged knowing looks with the chef at Abu Shukri’s, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant and the best hummus I’ve ever had, over a group of Goth-dressed Brits who had just finished eating there (“these aren’t real people are they?” he asked) — so both pentagram-lovers and Pentecostals seem to be drawn to this place. I saw Israeli soldiers looking extremely bored, albeit often with a nervous undertone, at guard posts throughout the city (including a great moment where I saw one just casually biting into a pink popsicle while trying to maintain an aura of toughness). I spent an evening hanging out with some bored kids working at a juice stand and rekindled my love for lemonade with mint as well as gained a new love for coconut milk with almonds (something that sadly seems to have not crossed the Green Line, since I haven’t found it in Nablus thus far). I befriended both the Palestinian hostel workers fasting during the day and the visiting Orthodox Jewish American preparing to stay up all night praying. I walked a lot, I thought a lot, I listened to a lot of Mahler (I’m reading a chapter about him in my book on 20th century classical music) and This American Life (including re-listening to their great episode about fatness from 2016, reminds me of getting lost in the woods in southern Portugal last summer).

I spent a lot of time sleeping and getting my bearings by sitting on the roof and looking out over the minarets, church steeples, and satellite dishes that dot the city-scape. I did get to do the two things I’d missed out on last time: finish walking the ramparts and enter the Dome of the Rock complex (either the “Haram al-Sharif” or the “Temple Mount” depending on who you’re talking to). Both, needless to say, involved gorgeous views and mass confusion.

It was an especially interesting time to be there given that it was both Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting to commemorate the delivery of the Qur’an) and Shavuot (the Jewish holiday commemorating the delivery of the 10 Commandments) in which some orthodox jews will stay up all night praying to make up for the ancient Israelites who fell asleep while awaiting Moses return from Mount Sinai. At one point, a little after sunset, I walked through the middle of two opposite-moving streams of humanity flowing through the streets of the city — mostly Orthodox Jews heading back from their sunset prayers at the Western Wall crossed paths with Muslims heading towards the Al-Aqsa mosque for their post fast-breaking prayers (al-Isha’a). As always, there seem to be three types of people in Jerusalem: religious locals who walk with determination, clueless tourists who are constantly lost and always get in the way, and Robert, trying to look like he knows what he’s doing and knows where he’s going, yet still basically clueless as all the other foreigners.

Reflections on Living in Tunisia (Part 1)

Hi friends and family,

I’m really sorry I’ve been bad at blogging. I want to say that I’ve had a cool excuse like being too busy doing deep undercover work among Tunisian gas smugglers coming in from Libya. Alas, I’ve just been working. Seems like real life follows you no matter where you go.

However, I figured, as I officially enter the “one month till I leave Tunisia for the foreseeable future” period, that I ought to write a few reflections.

So, after living in Tunisia for close to two years, here are some things I will and won’t miss:

1) Con: You are always French. White=French. No matter how hard you try to speak Arabic (and TUNISIAN Arabic mind you, not some Al-Jazeera formal Arabic or some Beiruti dialect) you will always be French. I can’t count the number of times I have started talking to someone in Arabic, had them assume they’d just misunderstood my French, continued to speak at them in Arabic (literally saying “I don’t speak French, I speak Arabic, please speak to me in Arabic” in Arabic) and have them STILL talk to me in French. “Ala Khater al-istemaar” (because of colonialism) as my roommate would say (or does whenever some random French word or custom is part of Tunisian Arabic).

I think this is best illustrated by my “Who’s on First” Tunisia story. Once, at a local shop, I asked the shopkeeper how much the total was (in Tunisian Arabic, mind you). When he said “neuf” (French for “nine,” as in 900 millemes) I thought he said “nusf” (Arabic for “half,” as in half a dinar or 500 millemes). When I handed him the half dinar piece he looked confused and repeated “neuf” to which I showed him the half dinar and said “nusf” to which he replied “neuf!” to which I returned “nusf!” We went back and forth like this probably three times before he showed nine fingers shouting “NEUF!” to which I responded with a confused “tesa’a?” (Arabic for “nine”) to which he responded “eh, tesa’a” to which I then gave him a “why didn’t you SAY so” look.

2) Pro:(duce) This is a general plus about living in the Arab world (and probably most poorer countries where industrialized agriculture and mega-supermarkets haven’t become the norm yet). There’s always fresh, dirt-cheap, usually delicious, seasonal produce available year-round. I’ve started choosing the local veggie stands at Halfaoine over my old haunt of the Marche Central (istemaar . . .) because it’s closer. Like in farmer’s markets back home, you get to see the pumpkings melt into cauliflowers then into zucchini as the seasons change. Unlike back home, I can buy a kilo of cherry tomatoes for a dinar (aka 50 American cents). I’ve become friends with one of the grain/spice vendors who always greets me with a few green olives to munch on while I order (and his family’s homemade harissa is phenomenal!). There are definitely sights and smells that one must brave to get there (read: cow heads hanging from meat hooks and giant slabs of liver sitting in the sun drawing flies) but it certainly has more energy and vitality than the steril aisles of the Monoprix

3) Pro/Con: Wine. Speaking of Monoprix, most of my time spent in Monoprix is spent buying wine (and, when I feel like spending all my money, soy sauce). Tunisian wine is both very good and very bad, and one of the nice things about living here for so long as been being able to learn which is which. There are a lot of pretty piss poor labels but there a few gold standards that always seem to show up on tables at house parties or on my desk during a post-work day Daily Show watch. My mainstay has been the classily-labeled Chateau Deflour (istemaaaaaaaaaaaaar). Full-bodied, tannony, red, 10 dinars a bottle.

Back (Again) In Tunisia (Part 1: Eid)

My apologies to those who had hoped I’d write more than once every six months. I’ll try my best to do better this time.

My last two months have felt like a geographic ping-pong game, After spending the summer getting back in touch with my parents, home friends , Chinese food, mountains, buying things in English/dollars, and the Pacific Ocean (aka the body of salt water that has waves in it, I’m looking at you Mediterranean!), I embarked on a trans-American travel-a-thon that involved Minnesota weddings, Chicago abortion clinic support dinners, and my first ever trip to New York (aka the great pizza quest). Along the way I saw friends from all parts of my life, be they high school, college, Jordan, Chicago, or Tunis.

I got back to Tunis mid-September after a brief stay with my roommate’s 94-year-old grandmother in Paris. The return came with the usual set of culture-shock and “what am I doing with my life?” moments as well as sheep, lots of sheep. In the run-up to Eid al-Adha, the festival of Abrahamic sacrifice where Muslims travel to Mecca for the Hajj if they can and buy and sacrifice sheep (as well as goats, cows, and even camels!) just like Abraham of old, all of Tunis looked like one giant petting zoo. There were sheep pens all over the city as well as lots of metalworking places selling barbecues, cleavers, and chopping blocks . . . Think of the holiday as some strange mix between going to pick out your holiday pumpkin/Christmas tree and eating your Thanksgiving turkey. The whole town was awash in the sounds of sheep bleating and the smell of sheep poop . . . until suddenly it wasn’t.

From what I’m told, people are expected to eat a third of their sheep, give a third of it to the neighbors, and give a third to the poor. When asked if we did a similar thing with Thanksgiving I explained that many people give money to charities that provide Thanksgiving dinners to the less-fortunate but that we don’t actually tend to invite people off the street to come eat with us (as one of my friends said was normal). Also, many friends have talked about the trauma of getting attached to their new pet sheep in the weeks leading up to Eid, only to have to deal with the shock of watching their new pet have its throat cut by their fathers or uncles. While this may seem a little gruesome for many Americans, there is something nice about actually knowing where your meat comes from. These sheep may have had to hang out in pretty tiny pens pre-sale but were probably fattened out at pasture and not in battery cages like most pigs and chickens in America (though, I’m not sure that the providers of the eggs and milk that I buy at the store fare any better than their American counterparts).  It’s all too easy for us in America to think of meat as some strange blob that comes in a package rather than and actual piece of a dead animal’s body. There’s something nice about being re-connected to that reality, even if it seems a bit unsavory at first.

I actually spent Eid in Djerba and enjoyed how the area we were staying in was like a ghost town that morning, with all the shops closed and just a few people rushing to the mosque, often in (traditional? neo-traditional?) robes, to not be late for the morning’s Eid sermon. I’d like to say that I could hear the sounds of bleating sheep coming to their fate to truly hone in the circle-of-life story I’m trying to paint but the truth is, after an all-night train/bus ride, I was pretty pooped and could sleep through anything as I took my Djerban nap. More on Djerba (and my trip to Marseille) later.

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