Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Handful of Dirt, That's All I Ask

Arabs are generally curious about why a young foreigner is learning Arabic.  The problem is that the place where I hope to use my Arabic is often called “Disneyland” by foreigners in Syria. 

The Israel-Palestine issue (hereon referred to as Disneyland) is a difficult issue for Syrians to talk about.  Even if you establish your disgust with the policies of Israel, the conversation is difficult if not impossible.  Israel stole part of Syria, and had settlers move into a part of Syria called the Golan Heights (see previous post).  Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees are in Syria, in between the Palestinian community and the Syrian community.  The government doesn't allow Israel to be discussed because they don't recognize the means through which Israel was born, or how it continues to retain its land and its power.  Thus, for various reasons and because of individual's experiences, Syrians don't like to talk about Disneyland. 

I recently found myself sitting with two young Palestinian-Syrians.  Each of them was studying English Literature at the University of Damascus.  Each of them had read far more Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot than I ever have, quite impressive cause it's confusing enough to me, a native speaker.  As my flatmate, myself, and these young Palestinians laughed, talked, and shared proverbs and idioms in English and Arabic, the conversation eventually came to the forbidden, “Sam, why are you learning Arabic.”

I tried to brush it off, because you know, I am just studying spoken Arabic, not classical Arabic like my flatmate.  And, it's just for my work, you know, for my work I need to improve my spoken Arabic. 

“Really, well what's your work?” 

I turned to my flatmate and gave him a nervous smile.  Shoot, I don't know how to get around it this time, and these people seem really cool, maybe it won't be such a big deal. 

“I live and work in Palestine, in the West Bank.” 

I got blank stares.  “What do you do there?”

I began to explain the work, which felt like the hugest episode of preaching to the choir in history.  Well, there are problems with the settlers, oh yeah, you know, that's why your mom and dad got kicked out of their house and their homeland when they were five.

Then it dawned on me.  I am an IDIOT.  It's not a big deal to talk about this because Disneyland is a sensitive issue for the government and thus for Syrians.  This is a big deal for an ENTIRELY different reason. 

I have been to Palestine, and I can travel there freely, whenever the hell I want.  But Jameela and Khalid, the Palestinian-Syrians who I was speaking with, have never been to Palestine.  They can't go.  Israel won't let Palestinians return to their homes, to the land where generation after generation of Jameela and Khalid's family lived.  I am such an idiot.  For a moment, I wished I had never been to Palestine.  I wished I could have gone back in time and heard them talk about how they wish they could go see the village their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were born.  I wished I had never been to Palestine.  If they can't go, I shouldn't be able go. 

I offered some cheap apology about how I wish they could go see the place of their heritage and their family.  I bumbled over it being a tragedy that I am allowed to go, but they are not. 

In the middle of my apology, Khalid developed a serious expression over his face.  “Are you coming back to Syria after you go back to Palestine?”  I wasn't sure of the intention of his question. 

“Yeah, I hope to come back for some language study sometime next year.”

Khalid leaned forward, getting as close to me as possible.

“Sam, please go to my village just outside of Haifa.  Bring me back something.  A rock, a handful of dirt, anything.  Please, I am very serious about this.”

The weight and significance of his request hit me immediately. 

Khalid pulled out his flash drive and showed me pictures of his village and his family in Palestine.  The photos were black and white and had been scanned onto a computer.  The first photo showed his grandmother, uncle, and father sitting outside of their home in Palestine.  As I scrolled through the pictures, I came upon the pictures of the village that someone had taken in 1987, almost 40 years after the Nakba of 1948.  The landscape was stunningly green.  Olive tree orchards surrounded by tall green grass, all sitting in a valley surrounded by rolling hills.  Khalid pointed to a pile of stones in the photo.  “Here is one of the homes, they were all destroyed when my family had to leave.”

- - - - -

This is a sensitive issue for a lot of reasons.  But it doesn't stem from some oppressive regime which hates Israel and wants all Jews to burn in the fire of Allah.  Come on, think harder than that. 

This is a sensitive, crazy, terrible issue because it involves a lot of real people.  Real people like Khalid and Jameela, who have never seen their homes or the land of their ancestors.  Real people like Khalid and Jameela's parents, who were born in Palestine and left for Syria when they were young kids, confused wondering why they had to leave, yet never have been able to return. 

- - - - -

Later in the evening, Khalid told me of his plans to attend a university in Europe on a scholarship from the Palestinian Authority to get a masters degree in English Literature.  Khalid said that the biggest benefit of that would be that he might get a European passport, so that he could visit his homeland.  But the tragedy of the situation is that if his passport plan doesn't work, all he will get is a few rocks and a handful of dirt, brought to him by a North American.  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Dispossessed People, A Destroyed Village, And Vivid Memories


My first day trip away from Damascus was to a place called Quneitra.  Quneitra is in an area called the Golan Heights.  The Golan Heights includes a section of land that comprises the border between Syria and Israel.  In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel annexed territory from Palestine, and also annexed the Golan Heights from Syria.  Israel wanted a buffer zone to protect against attacks from Syria.  Following the Yom Kippur War on 1973, a delicate arrangement was arranged between Israel and Syria, brokered by the U.S. In which Israel agreed to relinquish 450 square kilometers of the annexed territory.   

Enter, Quneitra.  Quneitra was the administrative capital of this region of Syria, the Golan Heights.   Israel's decision to relinquish a swath of the annexed territory back to Syria was not without consequence for the Syrian's of Quneitra.  As Israel withdrew from the 450 sq km, they destroyed everything in their path.  First, they evacuated 37,000 Syrians, and then they systematically and effectively wiped Quneitra off the map.

Quneitra is now a ghost town.  Banks, museums, shops and homes are at ground level, reduced to fist-sized chunks of concrete intermixed with mangled rebar.  Larger buildings such as mosques, schools, and hospitals have been shelled heavily with pockmarks scarring the remaining pillars and walls.   

The Golan is a particularly green and lush area, especially by Middle East standards.  The day I visited Quneitra, the wind was quite strong and light rain was being whipped around by the rain.  Fog sat on the horizon, limiting visibility.  Among the calm and quiet and beauty of the landscape, were scenes of the most destruction and desolation that I have ever seen. 

After traveling through the center of the town and traversing the barren staircase that once provided access to the 4 stories of the Quneitra hospital, we headed closer to the border between the UN controlled zone, and the rest of the Golan, which Israel now occupies and controls.  Looking out on the horizon, into the annexed Golan, you could see houses and cultivated fields.  I asked our driver if Syrians still live in the homes that we could see in the distance.  He assured us that many Syrians still live in the Golan, but family or friends who want to visit must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior.  Many young people leave the Golan for many years to finish school and then return to live with their families.  These Syrians who travel back and forth in the territories, face Israeli and UN troops and are made to cross many checkpoints after applying for numerous required permits.  But after talking about the Syrians, our driver reminded us that Israeli settlers also live in the Golan.  The settlers came in 1981, solidifying Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights.   

Continuing down the road to the border gate, I saw a sign in the distance.  I squinted and made out a sign which stopped me dead in my tracks...  

“Welcome to Israel” 

There were also Israeli flags dotting the barbwire fence which demarcated the border.  It felt so unfair.  I didn't know what to say or do.   

One of the other people with us, asked our driver, “Is that Israel over there?”

“No, it's Syria.  It's all Syria.” 

Getting back in the car, my eyes were glued to the window of the van, to see once more the destruction and devastation that was brought upon Quneitra.  As I talked with the driver on the way back, I found that he was from Quneitra. 

“Wow I didn't know.  Do you remember 1967?  Do you remember 1973?  Do you remember it all?”

“Of course.  I remember it all.  I remember everything.  It's hard to forget.”