In Occupied Palestine

“Do Palestinians even want peace?”

I was asked by a secular Israeli on my last night in Tel Aviv. I was struck. And shocked. Not because the questioner seemed ignorant. Because he didn’t. And he isn’t. He’s a very lovely human being, in fact. I was struck, rather, because of the innocence of the question. The simplicity. And the sincere honesty in the asking of it.

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Do Palestinians even want peace?

I spent eleven days in the West Bank. Eleven days of hearing stories of hope, stories of peace. Eleven days of smiles and waves and conversations. Eleven days of hummus and falafel. Eleven days of listening to the most simplest of dreams: to see the sea, to enter Jerusalem, to live without soldiers, to travel across the green line without check-points, to marry whomever they want, to return to the homes of their mother, their father, their grandparents, to live in peace with all Jews, Christians, Samaritans and Moslems.

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Do Palestinians even want peace?

Without a doubt, I say yes. A resounding yes!
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I spent eleven days being continually shocked and amazed at how hopeful a people could be of their future, while existing in the midst of Occupation.
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I spent eleven days re-evaluating what freedom really means and how we are all affected by our own relativity to it.

While scrolling through Facebook (as you do), I found myself looking at photos of friends in South Korea, in Spain, in the US, etc. and thinking- “They are so free!” “They can leave whenever they want!” “They will not be interrogated at the airport!” “What freedom!”
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This is after only eleven days. And I could leave. I had the right to leave. Yet, how it must feel to be born in Palestine, under occupation, and still have such hope for peace. It’s amazing. It’s incredible. Admirable.
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Do Palestinians even want peace?

Anti-Zionism does not equate anti-semitism, just as being Israeli or Jewish shouldn’t automatically equate compliance with Zionism or The Occupation.

Palestinians are not the terrorists our media leads you to believe. They are humans. Doing human things. Living human lives as best they can.

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They study. They go to markets. They have children. They drink tea together. They have friends over. They dance. They live. They laugh. They love. Just like you. And everyday they hope for peace.

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In Jericho

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A short, yet beautiful time in Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world, so they say.
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Jericho feels peaceful. There are no settlers, no soldiers. It’s warm, due to its low altitude and proximity to the Dead Sea.
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There are parks.
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And extremely friendly people, all of whom would like a photo.
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In Hebron

Hebron, to me, is the most obvious site of Apartheid in the West Bank. It’s tense. Very very tense. In so many other places in the West Bank, I heard stories of hope and prayers for peace. In Hebron, however, every corner brings another check point. Another soldier. Another weapon. Another settler-only road. Another barrier to living a simple life.

This is Hebron.
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The old city market that used to be full, but is now empty because side streets have been cut off.
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The settlers have built their homes above this market, and drop their trash down on the Palestinians, forcing them to cover the market to avoid being hit. Some of the Palestinian goods get covered by egg yolk (photo in center) and trash.
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Side streets of the market are now completely shut off. Settlers have been known to enter the markets, knock goods off the shelves, break into Palestinian shops, etc.
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A settler-only road (there are 12km’s of settler-only roads, causing Palestinians to drive 15-20km around, just to go 1-2km away, in some cases), Shuhada Street, where settlers may stroll, but Palestinians are forbidden.
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While on the rooftop of the Christian Peacemaking Teams HQ, we were informed by a teenaged IDF soldier that we were not to be on the roof, but that we could look outside only from the window. This was arbitrary and invented on the spot.
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Front doors that lined this street have been welded shut by the IDF and the citizens are forced to climb neighbor’s rooftops to enter their own homes through the back.
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What used to be the main bus station of Hebron, is now an annexed military compound for the thousands of soldiers “protecting” the few hundred illegal settlers. The old bus station is to the left, but one is not prohibited to take a picture of it directly.
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This is the Ibrahimi Mosque, the site of a 1994 massacre, that left 29 dead, and 125 wounded. The bullet holes are still there.
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Up until a year ago, there was a 3-foot wall down this road (lines of barrier still shown), designating sides- one for settlers, one for Palestinians. Apartheid at it’s finest.
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This is life in Hebron.

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In Bethlehem

It is exceptionally easier than you might think to enter the West Bank. At Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, catch bus #21 (or was it #28?). Done. Now you’re in Bethlehem. What used to be a suburb of Jerusalem, is now on the other side of a giant concrete wall that is more than two times taller than the Berlin Wall.
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In Bethlehem, I…
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saw the supposed exact spot of the birth of baby Jesus at the Church of Nativity,
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walked the halls of Bethlehem University, 
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ate a falafel sandwich in Aida Refugee Camp,
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spoke with Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh (professor, activist, genius) at the first Palestine Museum of Natural History (and watched Majd feed an owl, and saw hedgehogs for the first time),
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strolled along the monstrous Separation Wall,
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ate dinner down the street from gun towers of the Separation Wall, decorating the bullet holes in their windows with Christmas ornaments (how festive!),
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saw the largest illegal settlement in Bethlehem on a hill that used to be forest,
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watched Palestinian Santas protest for peace,
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and watched the Bethlehem community come together at the Shepherd’s Nights Festival.
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Petra Petra, oh Petra

Two days at Petra.  Two contradictory feelings to describe Petra: Incredible. Frustrating.
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Petra is old. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful, spectacular, impressive and all synonyms of the like. If you think you don’t know Petra, you probably know more than you realize. Think Indiana Jones. Petra is also full of bad jokes, which you’ll hear from the locals time and time again, “Welcome to Alaska,” “Take a break (at my cafe), take a Kit-Kat.”

Walking through Petra is like walking back through time. Walking alone as a woman through Petra, is like walking along a misogynistic catwalk.
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After angering the 100th man for refusing a ride on his camel to the monastery, I was rewarded with a really beautiful poem: “You should go back to your country. You’re ugly. You’re old. We have our own women here and we don’t need you. You’re old and ugly and our woman our better than you.” Ah, how sweet. Then I was further rewarded by this very kind camel driver and his burro riding buddies as they rushed past me, knocking me over saying, “that’s what is called an accident.”

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I took a picture of one of them to use as a bartering tool. I’ll delete the photo if you leave me alone. And stop following me. And stop harassing me. Once the deal was struck, he very sweetly shouted after me: “If you take a picture of me again, I’ll crush your fucking skull.” It just doesn’t get sweeter than that, does it?

Luckily, I ran into two guys I had seen on the bus down from Amman. They so kindly allowed me to stay with them for the rest of the day.

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Turning a rough day into a much better one, we met Mohammed, who brewed us multiple Bedouin teas as the sun went down over the monastery in Petra.
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Day two, I hesitantly returned to Petra, accompanied by the lovely Andrew from England.
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We strolled, we drank tea (again with Mohammed), we laughed, we were not bothered. Walking alone and walking with a man, unfortunately, is a world of difference. A difference of safety, a difference of well being.

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The Dead Sea

One of the best choices I have made in my life thus far was renting a car and driving to the Dead Sea. When in Jordan.

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I expected to see a lake. What I found was incredible beauty, amazing views, and that hot hot heat. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, below sea level, and therefore, it’s warm.  Sharp and pointy salt masses lined the Dead Sea Coast.

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Having the freedom of my own transportation, I stopped at multiple points along the cliffy coast; looking down from my lone picnic at the top of a bluff, I scouted out the best spot to climb down and have a float.

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And climbed and floated, I did. And floated and floated.

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Hummus and hummus and hummus

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In Amman, you may eat falafel and hummus for breakfast.

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You’ll definitely be stared at less than Morocco. This is a guarantee.

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Then you may meet a boy who wants to walk around with you. He may or may not sing Brian Adams love songs to you. They’ll definitely be out of tune. Then he might buy you a head scarf and put it on you. You may or may not pretend you have to take a nap and leave him at the Roman Ruins. Maybe. You might even run into him three days later in Petra.

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And then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to spend an evening with an amazing Jordanian couple- the man, a retired cardiologist. The woman, a feminist- a PhD in nursing, comparing domestic abuse in Muslim families in both the US and Jordan, and if/how external environmental factors affect this.

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Disaster in the Desert

Last week I went to the Sahara Desert.

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The trip I thought I was getting:

  1. Transportation from Fez to Rissani
  2. 4×4 to the desert
  3. Desert sunset on camel
  4. Two nights in the desert
  5. Two nights sleeping with Berber families
  6. Two days of riding camels in the Sahara
  7. A couscous picnic lunch with Berbers
  8. Transportation back to Fez

Simple enough.

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The trip I got:

Short version:

A series of misunderstandings lies, blaming, broken promises, lies, creepy camel guides, creepy Czech tourists.

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Long version:

  1. A ten-hour bus ride to Rissani with one stop for food after 8 hours- I realize this sentence makes me sound like a princess. When it comes to food, I have to be a princess. I eat every couple hours, otherwise I get weird, just trust me. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Yousef (the man who set up the trip) who had promised the bus stops every few hours for food.
  2. A 4×4 ride to the desert, and a stop for sunset (a very beautiful sunset)
  3. A rush to put my bag in a hotel room and take only my camera and toothbrush to the desert with me on the camel. This was quite confusing as I said that I was meant to sleep in the desert two nights, and would need my stuff. No, you will not, was my reply.
  4. A dark camel ride to the desert
  5. Tea and chicken tajine made by Aziz and Hamed
  6. Fire and drum circle with Aziz and Hamed
  7. Drum lessons from Aziz and Hamed
  8. Wake up sick in the middle of the night, rush outside the camp to do what my stomach was shouting at me to do. Being that it was a full moon, the desert is a clear landscape. Hamed came out of the camp as well, pacing back and forth by the camels, watched me. Watching and watching me in my private moment. When I finished and came back to the camp, I said “what are you doing?” To which he spoke to me only in Spanish (previously he had spoken to me only in English), and asked if I were ok. I said no and that I felt sick, to which he offered to give me a massage. A special berber stomach massage. No thanks, I said, more than I should have had to. As I went back into my tent, Hamed let me know that he’ll be awake and if I change my mind and want a special berber massage, I could feel free to meet him in his tent. Alone. Again, no thanks.
  9. Next morning, a sunrise and a rush back to the desert hotel
  10. Breakfast and goodbyes to my lovely Australian Morocco travel buddy, Danielle
  11. “Free day” at the hotel entailing being stared at uncomfortably by the creepy Czech, Tomas, and watched by all the men working at the hotel.
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  12. That night, I asked Mubarak- the boss man of the hotel- what time I would be taking the 4×4 back to Rissani the next day to catch my bus back to Fez. Thus began the misunderstanding of the disaster in the desert. Mubarak informed by that I would leave at 9am, as well as pay for my lunch, to which I protested, telling him that Yousef promised that what I had already paid included everything, even lunch. Mubarak laughed. I told him I would pay him, since I knew that his business and that of Yousef was different, but I explained to him all the grandiose lies I had paid for but didn’t experience. Mubarak blamed Yousef. I went to my room. Suddenly Mubarak showed up telling me it was in fact his brother’s fault, and offered to give me one more night for free in the desert, which I could not do due to time. Ten minutes later, Mubarak was back, with Yousef on the phone, repeating what Mubarak had stated- one more night. Again, impossible. So Youssef told me that I must leave to go out to the desert again at that moment (nearly 9pm) to sleep in the desert. Again, I declined. I had wanted to spend a full day in the desert, not two-night time rides by camel. Yousef then stated that he doesn’t like to make promises and not follow through and he would allow me to stay at the Fez hotel for two nights for free, and would return to me the money I had already paid for those nights.
  13. Next morning, 4×4 back to Rissani, met Ismail, brother of Mubarak, who blamed Mubarak for the misunderstanding. They gave me a gift of the hand of Fatima from their shop as an apology.
  14. Ten hours back to Fez (this time prepared with food)
  15. Yousef gets on the bus as we are nearing the bus station in Fez and sits down next to me. He blames me, but says he will pay half of my taxi ride to the airport the following day.
  16. The next day I speak to Yousef who tells me that he will no longer give back the money from the hotel since he’s now paying for half of the taxi ride. This is a difference of about 200 durhams. Also, when he told me the price I would have to pay for the room, it was 120 durhams/night. Suddenly when it was a number he was meant to return, the value of the room was 100 durhams/night. Convenient. The first day when Yousef told me the taxi price to the airport, it was 150 durhams. Suddenly when we were to split the cost of the taxi, it was 150 durhams each. Convenient. When I asked him about the sudden price differences, he was very affronted. He then told me about his five children. His attempts at guilt and manipulation are too familiar. I know these games.
  17. In the end, it’s decided that he will in fact return the 200 durhams from the room, but I will pay for the taxi, which he was to call for me. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of him afterall, I just didn’t want to be taken advantage of myself. Therefore, he was going to return to me 50 durhams, the difference of the room and the taxi. Conveniently, he did not have it on him and said the owner of the hotel would return it to me the next morning. The next morning of course, the owner had no clue what I was talking about, and I was never honored what was promised.
  18. Yousef is very interested in publicity. He is constantly begging for good publicity for his business. This makes sense. However, it is not good publicity for him that I can offer to anyone looking to head to the desert. The opposite, in fact. So if you meet a Yousef who works out of Riad Malak in Fez, please, do not trust him. Do yourself this favor.

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There is a lot more to this story, but as I’ve already gone on too long, I will not include it. Unfortunately, Danielle also had a terrible time upon leaving the desert for Marrakech as well. Her story of course includes, but is not limited to, sexual harassment by employees of the desert hotel, dishonesty, lies and more lies.

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I was not upset with the misunderstanding. I understand that happens. What bothered me was the series of blaming, the blatant lies, the cheating and most of all, the idea that the men who work there seem to think they can get away with anything. Although, I was informed by Yousef after telling him about Hamed’s massage invitation, that many female tourists go to the Sahara looking for love with a Berber boy, and because of that, they assume all tourists are all the same. Yousef told me that because I was strong and said no and put up an obstacle between Hamed and myself, it did not go further. But what if I wasn’t stronger? What if I were more naïve? What if I truly believed he would just give me a massage? What then? Alone in his tent, what then? This travel company sent two girls to the desert with two men who grew up in the desert, expecting to have sex with them. This, more than anything, is what bothers me.

That being said, The Sahara Desert is beautiful, amazing, and incredible.

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To Fez, with hate

Not sure what to say about Fez other than this: I hate it. Fez, to me, is the New Delhi of Morocco. This, however, is not an attempt to sway anyone from visiting. As most travelers know, memories of cities are made up less of the sites you see, and more of the people you meet.

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For me, Fez was a jumble of men who wanted to do disgusting things to me and let me know very vocally. Fez was a city of liars. A city of dishonesty. A city of ugly, dirty, winding roads. And lying. My favorite person was the man at the post office. The one who asked how I was doing. The one who let me cry.

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I hope that My Fez will never be Your Fez, Inshallah.

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Morocco of my dreams

Chefshaouen was the Moroccan city I never knew could exist, the Moroccan city of my dreams.

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With its blue walls, surrounded by a wall of mountains, easy to manage medina, avocado shakes, hamams, kind people, I don’t think I would ever be ready to leave regardless of how many days I spent there. Even the self-proclaimed “Mohammed Big Cock of the Sahara” was charming in his own way.

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Chefshaouen was a place I felt I could genuinely make local friends. Any visitors to Chef would do themselves a favor to stop and have a chat with the lovely Mohammed at his main square café. Mohammed is the most common name in the world. Lovely Mohammed is certainly not the same the as the aforementioned Mohammed.

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One last word about cats- people coexist with cats. They don’t hate them, they don’t shoo them away, they don’t kick them. They live in a beautiful co-existence. They feed them, they pet them, but they don’t name them. They allow them into their shops, their businesses, their restaurants. So much love for the street cat.

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