diary of a substitute teacher #1

don’t cry.    do.    not.    cry.
the laughter crescendos as i struggle to keep composure.  “who threw that?” i ask pointlessly to the horde.  the paper balls have been hitting my back and head every time i turn around to write on the board.  there is absolutely no way for me to tell who’s been throwing them.  it’s probable that it’s multiple students.  i look around the classroom.  it looks like a war zone.  for some reason, the students have been finding crayons and meticulously dissecting them onto the floor.  then they’ve been mashing their remains with their feet so that bits of crayon are now spliced into the very essence of the tile.  i don’t even know where the crayons keep coming from.  do they bring them with them?  are they stashed in their backpacks just for this purpose?  the worksheets i was supposed to have us work on as a group have been transformed into paper airplanes that are now stuck in various corners of the room.  some have penises drawn on them.  others are simply demonically colored head to tail in effortful lead pencil.
i try to convey as much seriousness and severity as i can while asking them calmly but forcefully to be quiet.  it does nothing to change the smiles on their face.  the problem with this game is that the madder i get, the funnier they think it is.  i am tempted to give up, but i know that as bad as it is right now, it can and will get worse if i sit down.
i know this because of the one day i decided to give up.  the students were screaming over me and ignoring me completely.  i knew i had no control and the support staff couldn’t get the kids quiet either, so i wrote a message on the board that said “please pick up your assignment on the table below.  work quietly.  if you have any questions, come up to my desk and ask me quietly.”  i sat down at the teacher’s desk and opened my book.  the volume level rose.  i defiantly stared at my book and refused to be phased.  people started screaming, “hey!  what are we supposed to be doing? teacher!  teacher!  TEACHER!”  i pointed to the board to indicate that i would only respond to people who came up to my desk to ask me questions.  without turning their heads and attempting to read the board, they just gave me a scandalized look, like i had just asked them to shove their faces in a toilet.  i put my head down and looked at my book.  then I felt the wind of a large stick hurled at my direction that hit the window behind me.
“is you gonna cry?” a student asks excitedly.  i snap back into the present.  at least they are only throwing paper balls.  at least they’re not trying to physically harm me.  at least – “AAAH!” a female student screams.  she is holding her face.  “BITCH!”  She screams as she hurls herself at another student.
Shit.
i dive into the middle of the two girls who have remarkable strength for the age of 12.  the other students are ecstatic for the most part, except the two or three “good students” who are resting their heads on their hands and looking exceedingly depressed.  the students around me have taken sides.  they’re laughing full bodied laughs, as if everything is funny.  The whole world is funny.  Nothing is ever serious, and the more serious people want them to be, the funnier it is.  the girls are impressively yelling at one another, puffing up their chests and cocking their heads from side to side.  it’s really quite a production.  i’m standing between and telling the girl who initially jumped at the other girl to sit down.  i’m standing confidently but i have no idea how this is going to end or what i’m going to do if she swings at me.  “leave the class!” i finally scream.  “NOW!”
the volume subsides a bit as i march to the door and open it.  i point outside.  “OUT I SAID!”  the thing is, i have a pretty scary screaming voice when i want to use it.  the kids are caught off guard.  the student runs out of the door mumbling something about how i can’t tell her what to do.
the thing about yelling is that it has shock value.  but the more you use it, the weaker the power becomes.  you must reserve yelling only for moments of true crisis.  so at this moment i feel momentarily relieved but also fearful, because i know that i’ve just used my secret weapon, and it won’t be possible to use it again and have it work during this class day.  as i shut the door, i feel a paperball hit the back of my head.
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a lovely song for you all…

these badasses, fireflyforest crossed my path when i was on tour with my band, antioquia.  i think their album deserves a grammy, honestly.  the instrumentation is exquisite, the execution and production totally professional, yet innocent.  this album, these artists, offer, they don’t demand.  there’s a humility and a playfulness that is heartbreaking.  this song in particular gets me every time.  enjoy.

 

Leaving Palestine

i thought my last diary entry would have been the end but… a brief last one to close things up.

just quickly.. more fun facts innocently omitted from the birthright tour!  remember sderot?  it was built on the palestinian village of najd.  the palestinians were driven out of that village and into gaza.  so when you form a mental image of gazans brutally firing rockets on the people of sderot, add to your mental image that they used to be the people of sderot.

aaah, and now here i am in the pleasantly civilized town of binyamina, just outside of tel aviv.  it’s pleasant and eery.  here i am in a house that wouldn’t be out of place in my parents’ neighborhood in western massachusetts.  i can take hot showers and do laundry.  the streets are paved and nice (so in that way maybe it’s more developed than my parents’ town…).  and just yesterday, just a few miles away, i was in one of the more impoverished places on earth.  what makes that even more weird is the idea that my host, mazin, can’t legally travel here and experience what i’m experiencing right now.
so i’ll just tell you about our fun adventure leaving bethlehem.  joshua wanted to go through the walking checkpoint and catch the bus on the other side of the wall.  when we had dropped off elliott and brett there had been no line and no problems so we didn’t expect much of a hassle.  within a few minutes we were questioning our decision.  see, we could have gone through the bus checkpoint, which is easier with bags because you don’t have to go through turnstiles or x-ray machines.  on the bus checkpoint, sometimes they make all the palestinians get off the bus and search them but white people are usually left alone.  in the walking checkpoint, we’re all in the same boat.  so we walked through the first concrete ramp and showed our passport to the first soldier who waved us through as soon as he saw that our passports were blue.  he didn’t even look at our picture.  but as we turned the corner to the next serpentine walkway leading to a turnstile we saw a big crowd gathered.  we heard an amplified israeli soldier’s voice screaming, literally screaming at people.  we asked someone what she was saying and they rolled their eyes and said, “she’s yelling, ‘back! back!’ like we’re dogs.”  it was a shock.  i’ve never been spoken to by an authority figure like that before.  i couldn’t imagine being treated that way in the usa.  i guess maybe people in poor communities have experienced cops talking to them like this, but even i find it hard to believe that it’s the norm.  people in the usa have an expectation of a very basic level of respect, which is completely absent in palestine.  the soldiers do not feel obliged to be polite or respectful in any way.  more people showed up behind us and we were shoved into the horde.  we couldn’t figure out why no one was moving.  someone told us that they had closed the checkpoint.  ‘what do you mean?  for how long?’ i asked.  again, they shrugged and rolled their eyes.  above us a soldier was on a second story holding the biggest, craziest gun i’ve seen yet, just looking at us.  some palestinians were waving at him and trying to ask him what was going on.  he didn’t respond.  we waited that way for maybe 10 or 15 minutes until slowly people started moving through the turnstile.  after every 2 or 3 people the turnstile would buzz and stop moving, sometimes with people inside the turnstile and they would just have to wait like that for a few minutes until they were allowed through.  we waited in that line for about 35 minutes and just when we were a few people from the turnstile the israeli soldier who had been barking and screaming this whole time screamed some more stuff, and we observed everyone around us collapse with sighs and shrugs and start turning around.  ‘what’s going on?’ we asked someone.  ‘they closed this turnstile. we have to go to the other one now.’  i ran up to the now-abandoned turnstile and yelled, ‘slichah!  excuse me!  can you tell me what’s going on?’  no response.  a few of the palestinians laughed at me, charmed and amused.  so now that everyone had moved, we were at the back of the line whereas before we were at the front of the line.  joshua said to me, ‘screw it, let’s just go get the bus.’  i said i wanted to stay and see how this panned out.  after another 40 minutes or so, we made it to the next turnstile.  when it was my turn to go in the turnstile froze and buzzed as i was going through so that i was caught inside of it.  i’m so glad i’m not claustrophobic, cause it would have totally freaked me out.  it was like being in a tiny cage with my suitcase.  i banged on the turnstile but nothing happened.  by the way, this wasn’t the kind of turnstile that just has one bar at your waste that you turn.  it’s a series of horizontal metal bars that you push like a revolving door so that when you’re in there you’re completely caged, head to toe.  so that was fun.  it only lasted maybe two minutes.  then we were through the hard part.  we got our bags x-rayed and were on our way.  the whole process took about an hour and 20 minutes.  not bad by local standards.
well, i think i’m going to leave this little diary here, folks.  it’s been a really important adventure, and i thank you guys so much for sharing it with me.  writing this diary has helped make it real.  looking forward to seeing all of you when i return!
much love,
*rachel*

palestine day 3

some things about yesterday…

something i forgot to mention about abraham’s tomb: On February 25th, 1994, an American-Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire inside the then-muslim mosque of abraham’s tomb (or the cave of the patriarchs) and killed 29 worshippers while wounding 125.  After he ran out of ammunition he was apparently beaten to death by survivors.  This set off riots throughout the west bank, and 19 more palestinians were killed within 48 hours by the IDF.  At this point, even though Goldstein was condemned by the Orthodox Rabbinical institute as well as the Israeli government, the mosque was closed for several months and then re-opened with half of the building (which included the grand main entrance) sectioned off as a synagogue, something the palestinians think of as a slap in the face.  this was the mosque i talked about yesterday, where only non-palestinians can enter on the jewish side.  i realized after i re-read the explanation that it must seem really weird that there would be a synagogue in a mosque.  and it is!  really fucking weird.  so… yeah, the explanation is even weirder than the present reality.  so it goes here in the holy land.
last night we skyped with mazin, who, like his wife, seems to have unlimited energy and patience.  we asked him about his position on the “one state solution.”  basically he believes that the settlers have made a two-state solution impossible.  they’re here and they’re not going anywhere and there’s 600,000 of them so at this point, everyone might as well try to live together.
mazin is a hopeful guy.  i like his optimism.  i don’t share it, but i like it.  today we heard another lecture from him on the roof of bethlehem university, a lovely campus, by the way, with women making up about 75% of the student body.  why?  because the men are either more mobile and able to leave, or less mobile and in jail.  as we looked out on bethlehem, so much of what we had learned the past few days sank in better.  we could see the odd, squiggling path of the wall, and the surrounding hills dotted with olive trees.  it’s a pattern you don’t see in very many cities.  a bustling, overpopulated city, surrounded completely by hillside, and then more bustling city on the hilltops.  basically the population of bethlehem has been choked by the wall, leaving a relaxing amount of hillside for the israeli settlements.  we all walked inside and picked mazin’s brain a bit more.  he pointed out that the three biggest sources of revenue for the israeli government (1. security and military exports  2. international aid and 3. the captive market of the palestinians) are all dependent on conflict.  so there is a vested interest in the conflict continuing.  however, he believes that this is unsustainable.  israelis are getting fed up and leaving.  he pointed out that many israelis have european passports and are leaving en masse.  the country with the largest percentage israeli population growth is germany, ironically enough.  so he believes that peace is inevitable because as the israeli government starts to see that the israeli population is leaving and doesn’t like living with conflict, they will seek a resolution.  i pointed out that though it’s not sustainable, it seems to me like a game of chicken, where the israeli government is banking on the palestinians getting fed up and leaving faster than the israelis do.  i should really keep my pessimism to myself.
it was time to say bye to brett and elliott.  jessie said we needed to walk them through the ‘walking’ checkpoint to get a sense of what it was like.  it’s a pretty impressive structure, with multiple hallways and two different times when you have to show your passport.  that is, usually.  i actually didn’t have my passport and i just showed my state id and they didn’t seem that interested.  i think to get the real experience you need to travel with a palestinian.  but still, i could imagine what the compound must be like if it were crowded, which it is every morning, apparently.  there were four or five long hallways with roofs and bright fluorescent lights, making you feel like you were in a slaughterhouse.  everything was metal and cement.  when you walked through the metal detectors, you couldn’t see the israeli soldiers but they could see you, from behind thick glass and with cameras.  there was very little interaction with them.
when we left the checkpoint we went to aid camp.  aid (pronounced ah-eed) camp is a refugee camp in bethlehem, which, like most of the refugee camps in the west bank, has existed since 1948, on rented land.  so there are generations of people living there going to UN-run schools and essentially living in limbo.  apparently the people in these camps originally lived in tents from about 1948 until the late 50s when buildings were finally constructed for them.  but even now, the architecture is so unsound that if an earthquake were to strike (which is due to happen any day now, since this region is supposed to get them every 80 years and it’s been almost 100 since the last one) the buildings would topple immediately.  we were told that there was a clash going on at the entrance to aid, so jessie said we needed to enter from the back entrance.  we tried the front entrance first just to see what was going on and their were israeli soldiers at the entrance telling us we couldn’t go in.  keep in mind that this is supposedly ‘area a’ which means ‘under palestinian military control.’  anyway, jessie told the soldiers ‘we need to go in there.’  the soldiers just shook their heads and told us to leave.  josh yelled ‘what happened?’ and a soldier answered ‘kids threw rocks.’
we circled the camp and arrived at the back entrance to go meet the organizer of Alrowwad, a community center for children and women in aid camp and throughout the west bank.  they do incredible stuff there, including children’s theatre productions, dance classes, fitness classes for women, photography and video classes, sewing and vocational training, all kinds of shit.  the organizer believes in what he calls ‘beautiful resistance.’  the idea of teaching children to express themselves through art and also project a different image of palestine to the world.  so they tour with their theatre and dance troupe and have many international volunteers and funders.
my ulterior motive in meeting the people at this organization was to find out what i can do to help.  i had already begun my egocentric fantasies of starting some kind of songwriting program here, or maybe bringing volunteers from the bay to start a girls rock camp.  but as i listened to this guy speak i realized that this culture is so rich, and so different from my own.  better to help fundraise so that palestinians can be the ones teaching these workshops than to come with my own music and expect palestinians to connect to it.  so my brain switched gears and started scheming for ways to fundraise or organize support for the people at this organization, who are palestinian, to continue doing what they’re doing.  i was in the midst of this organization fantasies as we walked down the stairs and was jolted back to reality when we opened the door and took our first breath and our lungs were filled with tear gas. it was the first time i’d ever experienced it, and though it was a mild dose it immediately burnt my throat all the way down to my chest.  apparently it’s common for the children of the camp, more out of boredom than anything else, to throw stones at the watch tower, which has no one in it.  whenever that happens, the soldiers come down into the camp with riot gear and get super pissed.  so that had been happening the whole time we were talking about children’s theatre on the second floor of this building.  we quickly covered our faces and ran to the car.  jessie got us out of there pretty quick and we made our way back to their home.
after dinner, joshua and i went to smoke some of that amazing fresh hookah and drink some taybeh (palestinian beer.)  we spoke a little to ashtaf, a security guard who had popped up at the felafel restaurant we frequented.  i told him i wanted to come back, to volunteer in some way, maybe teach music.  he said, in quite a friendly way, ‘do you think it’s good for you to teach here?’  i asked him what he thought.  he said, ‘no i don’t think it’s good.’  why not?  ‘many people come here to help, it’s not good.’  i interpreted this to mean that when people from outside come out of charity to ‘help’ it creates dependency.  palestinians need to help themselves, essentially.  well i don’t know.  i’m perplexed.  on the one hand, i feel like horrible shit is happening in my name and i, as a jew, have an obligation to do something.  on the other hand, i’m not a palestinian, so to act like i know what’s good for palestinians is ridiculous.  so i think i know where my place is in all of this.  i think that i need to help people that go on birthright go to palestine.  i have various ideas about how to make this happen, and i think there’s support to help make it happen here, but i wont’ get into the meat of my plans here.  the point is, sometimes the best ways to help a cause are not necessarily the most dramatic or heroic.  maybe i don’t need to come back to palestine to do my part.  maybe my time in palestine was exactly enough to teach me what i needed to learn.  but the fact that i saw this place for myself means that now i have to do something.  there’s no choice anymore.
thanks so much for reading.  for all my birthright buddies, thank you for sharing this experience with me even though you couldn’t be here physically.  it means a lot.  i can’t wait to continue to process everything we went through back in the bay.  love you all!

palestine diary day 2

thanks for all the positive feedback everyone!  i will keep writing.  we were up til 2am last night, everyone trying desperately to record what they’d been through during the day because we all knew it was way too much to just remember.  elliot and brett were struggling with whether to post their pictures and opinions on facebook, wondering if they would offend their new israeli friends, or start an online conflict that they weren’t up for.  i think they ended up going for it.

i think we’re all struggling with the reality of what we witnessed yesterday.  i’m the only one awake right now, but my stomach hurts and i’m shivering a lot.  did i mention it’s freezing?  no one has real heaters here.  ok, enough rambling.  since you’re all dying for more, here’s something i left out about yesterday.
we learned something awful.  remember yad vashem?  i know that i told some of you guys how troubling i found the holocaust museum.  the way it opened up to a view of jerusalem at the end like israel itself was some kind of happy ending, rather than a violent occupation, really bothered me.  it left me feeling depressed about humanity, about our ability to learn from the past, about the fact that it’s so fucking hard to take pain and turn it into beauty instead of just more pain.  but the irony that i saw in that view of jerusalem was only half the picture.  if you had looked closer, and known what you were looking at at that overlook at the holocaust museum, you would have seen the ruins of deir yassin, the site of a famous massacre during which the israeli military slaughtered at least 107 palestinians, including women and children, according to wikipedia.  now here’s the thing, as i’m looking up information about this, the accounts vary quite a bit.  even the sources for the wikipedia article claim that the villagers fired first and that this was a battle not a massacre.  on the other hand, pro-palestinian sources say that it was a peaceful village and that 250 palestinians were killed.  here’s a blog that provides eye-witness testimony from both palestinians and zionist soldiers.  the testimony includes descriptions of pregnant women who were bayonetted, and other horrific crimes.  personally, i believe that it makes no sense that the villagers would have fired on the powerful israeli army.  that would have been absurdly stupid.  clearly they were outnumbered and overpowered.  meanwhile, this was a village right next to jerusalem, a territory that israel wanted, and furthermore, the israelis wanted to freak palestinians out and get them to leave as quickly as possible.  but you can make up your own mind.  in any case, a tour guide was fired from yad vashem four years ago for comparing the massacre to the holocaust on his tour.
a bit more about jessie and mazin, our hosts.  mazin qumsiyeh is a well-known activist and writer, as well as a molecular geneticist at birzeit university in ramallah.  everyone in town knows who he is.  jessie is his chinese-american wife.  they have lived in beit sahour for four years now.  though we’re not getting a chance to spend any time with mazin, one can get a pretty good idea of what kind of person he is just based on his incredible home.  downstairs there are grapefruit trees, fig trees, orange, lemon, and olive trees.  mazin and jessie make their own olive oil and preserve their own olives, which are incredible.  they used to have a pet bat named stella, but she escaped during the storm.  in the basement they have a pet hedgehog.  on the front porch, a squeaky mattress provides shelter for a small, shivery shitzu-type mut and his 5 feline buddies.  they’re always cuddling together.  further into the basement are the beginnings of mazin’s museum of palestinian natural history.  he has maybe hundreds of specimens, all labeled, including many stuffed birds and preserved lizards, butterflies, and snakes.  all of which mazin stuffed or preserved himself.  jessie says that animals are his real passion.
jessie is a bad-ass.  this little chinese woman will walk up to anyone and start a conversation with them.  she’ll knock on any door.  and that approach seems to work well here, because everyone has welcomed us with open arms.  people are so eager to share.  they have so much bottled up inside of them that they’ve been waiting to tell some american jews.  this morning we went to see another bad-ass woman who is completely self-sufficient from her half acre or so of land.  she has figs, vegetables, olives, an orchard, chickens, goats, grapes, and herbs.  she makes her own wine, olive oil, and wheat, and slaughters her own meat.  after she gave us a tour of her garden, she served us some of her house wine and cookies.  then she proceeded to talk emotionally about the conflict for maybe an hour, until jessie finally tactfully told  her we had to be moving on.  she was so passionate.  ‘everyone living here is a survivor,’ she said.  ‘we are in jail.’  she was one of several people we’ve met so far that advocated for a one-state solution, a topic that jessie promised to talk to us about tomorrow morning.  we’re all too tired to take in anything else at this point.
when we left her house, we went to hebron, a bustling military metropolis that made bethlehem look like a sunday picnic. words can’t describe how surreal this experience was.  it was trippy.  hebron is a city divided into palestinian control (h1) and israeli control (h2).  the israeli section is about 20% of the city and includes about 500 Jewish settlers and 3,000 soldiers to protect those 500 settlers.  we started our little adventure in h1, looking for a bathroom.  jessie led us inside a mall where we ended up at the orange cafe, a little hookah bar and coffee shop.  the owner and his 5 year old brother were there, serving us and making conversation.  jessie invited the owner, named wissam to come and sit with us.  we communicated only through jessie’s arabic.  i don’t know what we got across, but whatever it was, wissam decided that he had to take us somewhere.  we couldn’t figure out where we were going, but he took us outside and suddenly another man showed up.  ‘hello, my name is abdullah.  i’m a tour guide here and i am leading a group from oxford. would you like to come?’  we said yes and eagerly followed him as he led us to the entrance of h2.  he warned us not to say that we were jewish and then we were off through the checkpoint, basically a two-way metal detector.  once in h2, it was like walking into a nightmare.  it was a complete ghost town.  this area that used to be the main commercial area of hebron was now completely shut down.  during the second intifada in 2001 it was ordered that all of the shops be closed and certain buildings were annexed to the jewish settlement.  abdullah took us to the roof of a building that is officially israeli property.  basically, the israelis are allowed to go on the roofs of any building, and the palestinians who own the homes are not allowed up on the roof.  this is because of the strategic position of this part of hebron.  you can see everything from these roofs, and if you wanted to shoot someone, there really wouldn’t be a better position.
pro-israeli graffiti and signs were everywhere.  ‘free israel’ was stenciled on the walls encircling the settlement.  signs that said ‘give us back our land’ hung from military outposts.  israeli soldiers were at every corner, holding their m-16s and chatting.  the only cars allowed in this part of hebron are israeli cars.  so cars full of settlers would come barreling down the road constantly.  this is really hard to explain, but the streets are cut off, seemingly at random points and declared just for israelis, so frequently abdullah would say, ‘ok you guys go along this road and i will meet you over there,’ and then disappear up some steep staircase.  along these roads we saw a building that used to be a palestinian school, which is now a synagogue.  further into h2 we came to the tomb of abraham, a massive mosque, half of which has been occupied now as a synagogue for the settlers.  the palestinians are not allowed to enter on the jewish side and the jews are not allowed to enter on the muslim side.  we walked into the jewish side and i felt profoundly disturbed.  guns were all throughout the synagogue as orthodox men bowed back and forth in prayer.  as i exited, fireworks were going off, which continued to be alarming, even when i knew that it was fireworks and not gunfire.  i looked out at the street.  almost every window was broken.  every shop closed.  facades of storefronts were twisted and knotted.  and jewish settlers were smiling and laughing as they walked confidently down the street.  one of the few palestinian shops was putting everything inside quickly because they heard there would be a settler demonstration and they didn’t want anything damaged.  we went to see what the settler rally was all about and an australian jewish settler came up to jessie and asked what we were doing here.  jessie asked what the rally was all about.  apparently a palestinian building had been taken by the israelis, and the palestinians were contesting it, and now it was occupied only by the military.  the settlers were rallying because they thought they should have the building.  this rally of maybe 60 people was surrounded by several armored cars, police cars with their lights going off, and maybe 30 soldiers.  i started feeling sick as we walked by them.  jessie was laughing.  not sure what about.
when the tour was over we insisted on buying abdullah and wissam dinner, so they took us to a traditional restaurant where i sampled stuffed baby pigeon.  it was pretty much what you’d expect, but i couldn’t eat much beyond yogurt and rice.  during dinner, elliot and brett asked abdullah about violence that he had witnessed.  turns out he’s been shot five times.  also he volunteers with ambulances when demonstrations break out.  he said the last time there was tension he didn’t sleep for 7 days because the injured just kept coming to the hospital.  he said that soon he will go to japan to participate in a conference that japan is hosting which includes israeli students and palestinian students and gives them a space to talk about the conflict.  i asked if he was hopeful and he smiled.  he said that he has done many things like this before and that israelis always start with the holocaust.  he said he believes that the holocaust happened (though he’s not sure it was really 6 million jews…) and he feels for the jewish people but he believes that the holocaust has absolutely nothing to do with him or his people so he doesn’t want to talk about it.  he said that when he says this, the israelis have walked out of the room.
as we drove home, brett told us that one of the guys from oxford on the tour had a really problem with the fact that we had been on birthright.  he said it was all bullshit and he would never participate in something like that.  we all talked about it and came to the conclusion that it was essential that we saw israel first.  if we had just come here, it would have made less sense, we would have no conception of how the israelis even think about this.  i can’t think of a better way that i could have taken this trip.  maybe if i had more time in palestine, that would be good, but really we’ve managed to pack in quite a bit.  tomorrow will be my last day.  i know i’ll be back.  i hope that some of the people reading this, if you ever decide to come back to israel, will seek out the opportunity to see what’s going on over here.  you can read about it, but it’s really not the same.  my perspective is changed forever.

palestine diary day 1

my mind is blown.  i’m going to impose on all of you a little diary of my experience in the west bank since even i, the skeptic, feel like some unlearning is already taking place.

first myth unlearned – anyone can go to the west bank.  when hagai said that he would be arrested for going to area a cities, it was completely untrue.  there are signs that say ‘no israelis’ outside of ramallah, but apparently they are meaningless.  there are many israeli activists that enter those areas all the time with no consequences.  they volunteer to be arrested during protests because they know that nothing will happen to them.  they are let go immediately, whereas the palestinians might face 3 months in prison.
last night we showed up at damascus gate, which is the gate into the muslim quarter of the old city, to get a bus to bethlehem and discovered that we’d missed it.  a palestinian came up and offered us a ride and said ‘no checkpoint.  no problem.  30 minutes.’  my companions were a little nervous but i had no weird vibes so we went for it, and immediately we were best buddies with this guy.  he taught us some arabic.  shuckron means thank-you.  lazeez means delicious.  anyway, we were super nervous about crossing the border.  would we get questioned?  harrassed?  would i have to lie about the fact that we were jews going to see activists?  the checkpoint was nothing.  it was like a parking garage exit.  no one looked at our passports or asked us any questions.  the driver just flashed an id and was waved through.  meanwhile on the other side, people trying to enter jerusalem were lined up way down the street.  jessie said that in the morning, at the “walking” checkpoint where you can walk across the border, there are thousands of palestinians that either have work permits or permits to receive medical care in jerusalem.  there are layers of turnstiles that they must go through, and the israelis only let three people in at once.  sometimes, according to jessie, the soldiers will decide that it’s time for a coffee break, and sit and drink coffee for up to an hour while people wait.  the process takes hours and hours.
why would israelis be told that they can’t travel to the west bank?  jessie believes it’s because ‘conflict ends when you meet people.’  so better to have israelis believe that all palestinians want them dead and that it’s dangerous for them to travel there and meet them than have them go and actually talk to palestinians about what it’s like to live in the occupied territories.
our ‘toto, we’re not in israel anymore’ moment came when we realized how much arabs love their christmas lights.  everywhere, ‘merry christmas’ and ‘noel’ signs flashed in the best 50’s colors.  massive christmas trees loomed with nativity scene photo ops everywhere.  our driver asked us, ‘you get out? i wait for your friend?’  we hopped out at the church of nativity and elliott was in heaven, taking pictures like crazy.  when jessie showed up we went to an amazing restaurant called the grotto.  it’s built on a cave that’s over a hundred years old where they’ve set up a bit of a museum complete with our favorite bedoin coffee grinder and cushions, traditional palestinian outfits and hookah.  they have a gorgeous wood-fired oven that goes deep inside the wall where they make their pita bread fresh.  they let us go right up to the oven and smell.  it was so strong that it almost, almost, overpowered the intense hookah smoke that filled the restaurant like a steam in a sweat lodge.  they showed us how they make the hookah.  they carve out an apple and stuff it with lemon, mint and the shisha.  it is maybe the best smell i’ve experienced on the trip yet.
there are settlements everywhere.  it’s just incredible.  right next to where we are staying in beit sahour, just northeast of bethlehem, there is a settlement with over 10,000 people.  i wish i could show you guys this map, maybe i’ll figure out a way to do it.  this map that jessie showed us this morning is just covered with settlements.  she estimated around 600,000 settlers living in the west bank.  moreover, the settlements are connected by israeli-controlled roads that cut up the land, making transportation easy for settlers and inconvenient for palestinians.  meanwhile, the palestinian roads are so bad that we actually got a flat tire today.  jessie said that you always need new tires and brakes here.
damn.  this is so hard.  today was sooooo hard to explain to you guys.  but i’m trying.  maybe you’ve stopped reading by now, but whatever, i just want to share as much as i can.  we drove up to a hill in beit sahour overlooking har homah, a settlement with 13,000 people.  the wall between israel and palestine is not always a wall.  sometimes it is a fence.  and that’s what it was in this area, following us on the dirt path up a hill.  the hillside is gorgeous.  terraced olive groves are sectioned off with ancient walls, serving as platforms for bedouin shepherds and their flocks.  but then there’s a massive fucking settlement, looming like mordor, with a menacing fence going straight through peoples’ neighborhoods, cutting up the hillside like a ripped piece of paper.  am i going overboard with the analogies?  i’m just trying to keep you interested.  listen, it was trippy, this settlement.  i’ve honestly never seen architecture that looked more out of place or more evil.  this settlement came into existence after they kicked palestinians off the land saying that now the land was a “nature preserve.”  but instead of protecting the acres of forest, they built a settlement.  and the sounds of construction are constant.  they are expanding all the time, even when they don’t have people to live in the houses.  some wealthy jews and americans just see it as an investment opportunity.  ironically, palestinians are the construction workers.  the unemployment is so bad that there is no other work, so palestinians get contracted to build the houses in the settlements.
we went to downtown bethlehem after that.  we saw the church of nativity, ate falafel, blah blah blah.  then we went to al walaja, a palestinian village, where home demolitions have been frequent.  most of it, mainly the agricultural parts have been annexed to israel in a series of confusing and violent expansions of jerusalem’s borders.  you will not find this village name on an israeli map, nor will you see any sign for it, even within palestine.  we sat in the living room of a man named atta while his wife served us sugary spice tea and za’atar on home-baked pita (or “palestinian pizza”, as our host called it). meanwhile, he showed us maps and told us all about what’s happened to his village.  his house is under constant threat of demolition, and recently, the israelis have taken his olive trees and annexed them to the israeli side in yet another move of the wall.  in his case, he believes that the wall will be an electric fence.  as of now he has to pay 2,000 sheckles a month in “fines.”  the fines are for his house not being demolished.  if he doesn’t pay it he goes to jail for at least 5 months and the fine doubles.  he knows because he has a friend who refused to pay and ended up in jail for 6 months.  he has built and rebuilt many houses of friends, a process that requires knocking on doors and raising funds 5 or 20 sheckles at a time.  and then he’s seen those same houses demolished again.  by the way, when we showed up, his israeli friend was there helping him with his computer.  before we left he showed us a letter written by abdul, his charming 11-year old son, asking the local village council to be more accountable about providing electricity to the school.  he said that maybe abdul would be the next leader of the village and bring about change.  i asked abdul if he accepted, and he just smiled and nodded like he answered that question long ago and many times since.
the wall is the most moving, disturbing, beautiful, hopeful, horrific thing i’ve ever seen.  the graffiti is massive and mystical.  there are pieces with walls within walls, fantasy scenes where peace triumphs and the wall topples.  pieces about liberation and accountability.  pieces urging the on-lookers to free their minds if not their land.  the wall encircles a refugee camp that has existed since 1948 which means that it’s really a city run by the UN.  Scenes of the beach decorate the exterior.
the land here is sacred.  straight up.  it’s the most floristically bio-diverse area per hectare in the world.  more bio-diverse than the amazon or any rainforest.  it’s because the plants are small, apparently, and because the humidity changes are so steep on the land.  we learned this from a guy named Tom who runs a permaculture farm in bethlehem.  he’s an australian and he teaches locals how to farm with limited water (oh yeah, did i mention that they don’t have 24 hour access to water?) in the desert.  this land is home to 6 varieties of oak trees and 5 varieties of pistachio.  19 native trees altogether.  there’s very few of them though, because the oldest remains of any human civilization are here, and the trees have taken a beating.  jericho has ruins that are 8,000 years old.  in a cave in bethlehem they found the oldest representation of two people making love, an 11,000 sculpture called the ain sakhri lovers.  and they have evidence of settled people living in bethlehem 23,000 years ago.  sacred, i’m telling you.  today we were walking on some ruins by the side of the road that we were told later could be thousands of years old.  we saw a cave below some stairs that might have been a tomb.  apparently these ruins are everywhere.  this land is just pulsing with depth and mystery.
ok guys.  i know i’ve written too much and overwhelmed you, and i also now understand why my activist friends who’ve been to palestine wrote way too much to me.  i can’t help it.  this place is unbelievable.  everything that i’ve read makes 10 times more sense than it did before i got here.i’ll write more tomorrow.

in defense of… female orcs

this is bullshit

geladriel

ok, enough!  i can’t take it, not in one day.  first i see the hobbit, a movie which has exactly one named female character, then i look at juxtapoz’s “best of 2012” display featuring bic pen illustrations by juan francisco casas and i see the portrait that you can observe above.  funny, right?  isn’t it edgy?  i mean, it pushes the envelope, right?  because you see, it’s a pretty woman, half-naked, with a bag over her head.  deep, right?  it’s offensive and dirty, and yet, it’s well done.  isn’t that just radical?  doesn’t it just make you want to study art history and third-wave feminism all at once just to begin to even digest it?

1) juxtapoz, god damn it.  this is bullshit.

i used to like juxtapoz back when it was all about graffiti and cutting edge art.  now every single fucking issue has disturbing masogonistic art in it.  every issue.  women only appear in that magazine as sex objects, usually reduced to parts of their bodies, sometimes portrayed as the victims of violence or ridicule.  and pretty much only one body type.  the portrait above was done entirely in bic pen.  so juxtapoz encourages us to “focus on the skill involved,” but how can i, when half of the magazine is mid-coital naked women?  what is this?  erotica? it’s not even that.  it’s porn passing as art, stupid porn at that.  and i’m tired of being expected to be impressed.  apologies are in order.

2) why is there only one woman with a speaking part in all of the hobbit?

what, there’s no women in middle earth?  no female orcs?  how do they reproduce exactly?  do they spawn from each other’s weird orc and dwarf genitalia?  are female elves relegated to playing the flute for guests?  ok, fine, so no women are on the journey with them, well what about flashbacks?  there’s no dwarf queen to speak of?  and of cooooooourse there’s no female wizard!  i mean, that would be unthinkable, right?  an old, wise, and awesomely powerful, woman?  who ever heard of such a thing.  even in fantasy, that’s really pushing it.  and sure, you could blame all of this on tolkien.  he wrote the story and it’s a classic so no messing with a classic.  except, they did mess with it!  they totally freakin’ messed with it!

according to this article, which cites 19 differences between the novel and the movie, geladrial (the only female character in the film, played by cate blanchett), wasn’t originally in the hobbit at all.  the producers actually thought they needed to add a female presence to the movie to get people to watch it.  well, good for them, but why stop there?  after all, they were also willing to change the main character, thorin from a fat, greedy, insolent, and inexperienced leader into a dashing, noble, and completely virtuous king.  the pale orc, his arch-nemesis, barely played a role in the book, so pretty much all the details about him were made up.  also radagast, the animal-loving, mushroom-munching, brown wizard doesn’t appear at all in the book.  so clearly hollywood is willing to insert characters, embellish characters, change characters, etc… for the sake of saving the box office.  geladriel was inserted because most people don’t like watching a bunch of smelly dudes for two and a half hours.  they need some beauty.  but beauty isn’t the only thing women are capable of, and i believe, that’s not all people want to see women do.

an interesting part of bilbo’s history was that his mother might have been part-faerie.  when gandalf reminds bilbo that he is “a took,” he’s referring to bilbo’s mother, belladonna.  from the article in the beast, “while the mixing of hobbit and fairy blood in bilbo is never confirmed, it is his mother’s remaining influence that is said to give bilbo his increased spark for adventure.”  wouldn’t it have been fun if the producers had decided to expand on this mysterious little nugget of information for the film?  what a perfect way to explore an interesting female character!  but no, they actually left this detail out completely.

my point is, if you’re willing to modernize the story a bit, then you should also take into account the fact that women deserve better.  they deserve to be portrayed truthfully, even in fantasy.  and that means showing them strong, showing them conflicted, showing them fat, showing them short, showing them fighting, showing them gross, showing them wise, etc… i actually don’t think anyone would be amazed or offended.  and who knows? maybe if more film-makers made it a point to have a larger and more truthful female presence in their films, the consistent income inequalities and difference in opportunities between men and women would shrink as a result.

3) women have a place in fantasy too

it’s really, really important that women occupy space in the fantasy realm.  it’s ironic, given all the fantasizing that men do about women all day, that they have such a hard time finding roles for them in fantasy art.  but look guys, women do more than get naked or look beautiful.  and if you don’t know what else it is that they do, maybe you should get some more female friends.  i don’t believe that artists should think purely about being politically correct, but i do think that if you look at a huge amount of your work, and find that it consistently neglects the role of women, or provides a consistently damaging portrayal of women as mere sex objects, or pure providers of moral guidance, then you need to rethink your attitudes and maybe consciously start confronting those attitudes in your art.  better yet, collaborate with women!  women have great ideas about how women should fit into your story, or your art!  the sooner women are truly capable of anything in our imaginations, the sooner little girls will start to believe that they are truly capable of anything in reality.

in defense of… pretentiousness

i hear it so often… “i just love that song’s lack of pretentiousness!”  people say it as a way of justifying their delight in a stupid song.  usually it’s enjoyable, digestible music that doesn’t push any buttons or ruffle any feathers.  well i say pooey to that.  ruffle my feathers, damn it!  give me something to puzzle over.  i want pretentiousness over frivolity any day!  why?  because

1) people who get offended by art are insecure and need to get over it

i know i know.  some art is pretentious because it “looks down” on its audience.  it acts “superior” and “snobby,” its meaning dancing around you like a cat toy that you’ll never catch.  ok but here’s the thing:  though it may seem like that’s what is happening, art is in fact, inanimate.  and very, very rarely were the intentions of the artist to actually make you feel like an idiot.  the artist is almost always trying to express something personal to you, whether they were on the mark or off it.  however, just suppose for a second that the artist did want you to feel like an idiot.  that wouldn’t hurt your feelings unless somewhere deep down you worried that you might actually be one, right?  so listen, you’re not an idiot, but if you continue to listen to dumbed-down music just because it doesn’t ignite your fears that you might not be quite so culturally sophisticated after all, then you’re kind of sealing your own fate.

2) art should be risky business

it’s totally legit to write a song with the goal of making someone shake their booty really hard on the dance floor.  that’s just great.  but there’s plenty of music out there already doing that.  what about a song that makes you want to bang your head against the wall, or a song that makes you want to climb a tree and hang upside down, or maybe even a song that makes you want to end war and plant gardens?  we need that kind of stuff, and art, like nothing else, has the ability to inspire people to act.  however, to do that, art must take risks, and one reason why artists sometimes don’t take risks is a fear of coming across as pretentious.  we have to accept their unintended pretentiousness with ease if we are going to encourage artists to be risky, and risk is what we need!

3) cool is over-rated

cool is amazing!  cool is great!  cool is rad!  but it isn’t everything!  one thing that’s going on when someone says a song is “pretentious” is that the song wasn’t quite cool enough to make them sit through it.  it didn’t press all their little neon, sunglassed buttons enough to keep them interested.  we need to let go of those buttons, because ultimately, those buttons put art in a box and dictate how we are supposed to enjoy not only art, but also life.  cool is a shortcut to our limbic system, a magic bullet designed to fill our penetrate quickly and fill our brains with pleasure-shrapnel.  but its effects can also be short-lived and superficial.  if a piece of art doesn’t press those cool buttons, then it often takes you a second to figure out how to digest it.  it isn’t prepackaged for you like a christmas present.  the process of perceiving it can then be a lot more active, which in turn might even spark your creativity, or just wake you up and remember that you’re alive.

4) the world needs pretension

perhaps a reason that pretension bothers people is that it signals that the artist believes they are more than a mere mortal.  perhaps the artist thinks that they are amazing, genius, “god’s gift to music,” whatever.  i think, isn’t that a better thing to believe than the former?  granted, it’s obnoxious when someone’s belief that they are brilliant includes a belief that you are not, but i think that the embedded offense is usually not there, but rather a projection born of insecurity (see point 1).  what would the world be like if we all believed we were brilliant and weren’t afraid to make art that showed everyone just how brilliant we were?  i like the idea of that world much better than one where everyone’s falling over themselves to appear unengaged and average.

so you know what, guys?  bring it on.  i can take it.  show me something absolutely amazing, and i won’t call you pretentious, i’ll call you brave!

and while i’m at it, here are some of my favorite pretentious videos.

Songstresses

Songstresses

from left: gabby la la, rachel (aka lark for the purposes of this blog), micropixie (aka neshma friend), and drea roemer what an incredible night!  neshma (micropixie) threw the whole thing in her micromuseum, a special little nook full of … Continue reading

hi

hi everyone!  i’m really excited about this wordpress page.  i think i’ll upgrade it soon to a .com but for now this will do.  i’ll try to post as much interesting stuff as i can so that you keep reading it.  and eventually that will make me famous.  and if stuff isn’t interesting enough, you can tell me, or you can post your own interesting stuff.  that could be cool.  enjoy!