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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