First impressions of Hebron

I arrived in Hebron, shaken from what seemed to be a horrifying 2-hour ride through narrow roads that hugged the crevices of Palestine’s rolling hills.

I was immediately received by my Arab host family. I felt embarrassed that I did not know a single phrase in Arabic besides “Salaam alaykum.” As my coordinator translated Arabic for me, I was constantly asked this one question: “Where are you from?  Sin-neh?” As it turns out, not a lot of Asians travel to this part of the world, and I felt the burden of trying to represent the entire 1 billion plus people that comprise China.

Palestine is beautiful.  As I looked from the roof of Rafat’s house, I saw the gently rolling hills that continue onward from the landscape.  Colourful homemade kites dot the blue heavenly canvas.  But again, beneath the seemingly calm weather, there is the constant reminder of the occupation. Watchtowers, fences, barricades dot the landscape.

Of course, a day cannot end without shisha, chai, and Arab coffee.  I’m living the good life in Palestine.

Haifa – real coexistence?

The demographic war was apparent from the very moment I got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport.

I could easily have been with that group of Asians cornered and sent to a special interrogation room, or that African, who was being questioned about his citizenship and true purpose in Israel. Instead, my double-identifier as a Canadian and a “pseudo-fervent Christian pilgrim” gave me all the privileges a foreigner could wish for in Israel. With these simple identifications, I was exempt from the interrogation received by other less fortunate sojourners.

As I strolled onto the train to Haifa, I was immediately reminded of Israel’s reality – its existence is premised on occupation.  Soldiers in their early twenties touted guns and donned Ray Bans, with almost a look of pride – or perhaps nonchalance – over their actions in defending Israel from the barbarous Arabs.

How this image contrasts with my first impressions of Haifa, a city that is seemingly characterized by a certain kind of rhythmic calmness. Some would attribute it to coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, one would not find the usual markers of colonialism and feud in this port city.  I saw Jews and Arabs working side by side, with Shaloms and Salaam alaykums passed to each other.

But how wrong I was. These impressions were facades of a larger storm underneath the friendly exchanges.  In fact, the everyday “normalcy” should be contextualized within the larger structural conflict. It is inherently power-laden, where one side has the power to dictate the terms of negotiation, while the other has to yield to the externally-defined parameters for engagement.

This is apparent in how Arabs of 1948 Palestine talk about their everyday lives. “We survive and try to live each day as normally as possible.” These words are spoken so that they can cope with their realities. Arabs know they are not in a position in power to openly fight back. They cannot openly criticize the state and oppress every symbol – whether it is the Israeli flag, or the national anthem, or the fact that Hebrew gains primacy over Arabic in their everyday lives – that tries to wipe out their narratives of the place.

Oh yes, they do not forget their connection with the land. As one man in the Wadi pointed out a pre-colonial building to me – “It’s my home” – I realized that the Israeli government cannot erase the memory of the Palestinians, whether they are inside the 1948 borders or not. Atrocities cannot be erased by mere renaming of cities and districts, house demolitions, symbolic and empty peacemaking gestures, and suppression of speech.

Alas, I want to end on a happy note.

I’m staying with a mixed family in Haifa. The wife is Jewish, while the husband is Arab. Their story is one of real coexistence – one of compassion, empathy, and true understanding.

I thank God for the opportunity to witness such love amidst the oppression.

Looking down from the Ivory Tower

4 years in the ivory tower

I often forget who/what the numbers in World Bank and UNDP reports refer to.  It takes constant reminders that behind these numbers are faces that describe a developing country.

Today, I had a great talk with a friend about the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.  The true realities of these individuals – from a first-person account – are often not reflected in the analytical and technical ways through which we, from the heights of our Ivory Tower, study issues of (under)development, conflict, and politics, to name a few.

We are privileged in looking, critiquing, analyzing, and judging the world from a place of comfort, security, and ease.  From our Ivory Tower, we can never truly understand the pain, the suffering, the urgency, and the hopelessness these individuals on the other side of the world are experiencing every day.

Would this kind of setting – one of comfort and detachment – allow us to approach crucial issues such as developmental aid and foreign military policies in a constructive and effective manner?

That is for you to decide.  But for me, I’m going back to the place where I can hear people’s personal narratives of their daily struggles.

Meaningless History

Conventional thought is that people identify a place by its history.  That association between history and place is constructed through social processes, and is ingrained into the collective consciousness.  People seek their identity in places by super-imposing their interpretations and narratives on a piece of land or structure.

Rem Koolhaas seems to think that history is no longer relevant in conceptualizing the built environment, because history only functions to inflate already overly-occupied and exhausted city centers.  In Koolhaas’ own words:

“To the extent that history finds its deposit in architecture, present human quantities will inevitably burst and deplete previous substance.   Identity conceived as this form of sharing the past is a losing proposition: not only is there – in a stable model of continuous population expansion – proportionally less and less to share, but history also has an invidious half-life – as it is more abused, it becomes less significant – to the point where its diminishing handouts become insulting.  This thinning is exacerbated by the constantly increasing mass of tourists, an avalanche that, in a perpetual quest for ‘character,’ grinds successful identities down to meaningless dust.”

To keep city centers alive is the “thinning” out of the place’s history, and this is particular poignant in Jerusalem.  The Old City, as the center of all that defines Jerusalem – politics, religion, history, culture, ethnic identity – is over-saturated with benign and non-denominational religious icons, gaudy souvenirs that call for the pious and atheist alike, touristic re-packaging of religious rituals (or what’s left of it), holy sites desacralized under the weight of tourists, ostentatious proclamation of a place’s importance through mammoth structures…the list goes on.

There is also a “hyper-local”/”hyper-global” element to Jerusalem.  The “hyper-local” is felt in the religious going-abouts of the Orthodox Jews, the hawking of the store keepers on Jerusalem’s treasures, and the centuries-old relics that are fervently guarded by nuns and monks.  The “hyper-global” is felt in the amalgamation of global services that cater to the transient religious pilgrim, the universally-understood signage that direct tourists – regardless of nationality – to common points of interest, and the collection of international institutions that demand a piece of Jerusalem’s history.

Will Jerusalem someday implode under the immensity of its tangential contradictions?

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