Ashley Virgin
Ashley Virgin
Israel/Palestine 2016
VIEW FINAL REPORT
Merhaba! My name is Ashley Virgin, and I am going to live in beautiful Bethlehem, Israel for six months. While in Bethlehem, I will work with WI’AM Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center where I will teach English and arts classes to children. I will also take part in other areas of community development in the city through WI’AM. I am excited to participate in the city and culture of Bethlehem and learn more about the nonviolent conflict resolution and social justice programs that WI’AM sponsors. Read More About Ashley →

Yallah bye

Hello, readers. This is my final blog post.

Continuing what became a common theme in my Lumos experience, forces beyond my control intervened and things did not work out the way I had anticipated. When I left you all three weeks ago, I was embarking on the second half of my internship in Bethlehem. But I did not make it on the plane that night, and consequently, my Lumos experience has come to a close much sooner than I wanted it to.

While boarding, I was pulled out of line and security questioned me about my plans in Israel. I was put in a room by myself, without any of my personal belongings or passport, and strip searched. I was asked to provide security personnel with my passwords to both my phone and laptop. I was then told that I could get on the plane, but I was only given my phone and passport. My laptop, carry on bag, and backpack would be stowed under the plane with the checked luggage. I was not comfortable with this, but I figured it would be okay. However, as I left the room and was walking to board the plane, I was told that my laptop would be held for more searching and that they may have to ship it to me after I landed in Israel. At this point, I was frazzled, scared, and angry at the way I had been treated for the past forty-five minutes. At the prospect of having my privacy further violated and the potential of having my laptop seized, I refused to get on the plane and demanded my belongings back.

I do not claim to know exactly why I was singled out and I do not want to represent anyone unfairly. There are reasons for these rigorous security measures. All I know is my experience, that because of these security measures, I was prevented from returning to work at an organization who promotes only good things: peace, justice, fair treatment, and love. In my opinion, this is counterproductive and only builds up more boundaries and obstacles, physical and emotional, between the Western world, Israelis, and Palestinians.

I have kept this explanation brief for many reasons, mostly personal, but also professional. I feel and know many other things about what happened to me, and, more importantly, what happens to Palestinian people in Israel every day, but I will not go into these here for the sake of time and the purpose of my Lumos blog. (I apologize for being cryptic here, but I don’t know how else to phrase this.)

It took me this long to post again, to wrap up my blog, because I am still processing what happened, everything that happened, and trying to find out what it means to me. And I think this is normal, this is the case for all Lumos recipients after they come home. Last night, I cried in the middle of a coffee shop because I saw something that reminded me of my time in Bethlehem. My boyfriend told me, “You were brave enough to move over there, now you have to be brave enough to let it go.” He’s right, but I should unpack what “letting go” means for me in this instance. My Lumos experience didn’t go the way I thought it would. I was only there for two of the intended six months, and I never thought I was going to break my jaw. But I did get to go to Bethlehem. I made crafts, taught, and played with children; ate falafel pockets; laughed with new friends; floated in the Mediterranean sea; walked along Star Street in the hot sun; watched Netflix while homesick in my apartment; talked to many people from all over the world; and learned, saw, and grew a lot during those two, short months. (I can’t even fathom making a complete list of the things I did and saw while there, or what mark they left on me.) I held on to these experiences when I came back to Nashville, got surgery, and healed from my broken jaw. I wanted so many more experiences, but now I have to let that longing go. Letting go does not mean I will forget my time in Bethlehem or the people, nor that I should let the bad times, the breaking my jaw or being prevented from returning, overshadow and get in the way of remembering my other experiences while there. Letting go means that I accept the whole thing, from start to finish, the good things and the bad, the unexpected events and things I see as unfair, and incorporate it into myself and take it with me into the next chapter in my life.

While my time in Bethlehem is over, Wi’am and the work they do continue. I am excited to keep following them and their work via email and their website. I’m hopeful for the future of Bethlehem and Israel/Palestine. A piece of my heart will always be occupied with this subject. Letting go does not mean giving up.

 

Thank you all for reading.

 

Yallah bye <3

 

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Part 2!

It is surreal to be traveling again. As I write, I’m sitting in the JFK airport with a more than 8-hour layover before my flight to Tel Aviv. Yep, I’m going back!! After more than seven weeks of wires, doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, smoothies, healing, jaw stretching, travel insurance claims submissions, and all things Nashville, I’m finally on my way back to Bethlehem to pick up where I left off. I never thought I would have to make this journey twice, never have to pack, say goodbye to my friends and family, go through TSA body scans and long layovers TWICE, but here I am. It’s amazing the lengths you will go to when you truly feel connected to a place and issue. Palestine is my place and I can’t wait to reunite with my organization, host family, and home away from home.

I was completely “unwired” only a week ago today (They took off the arch bars wrapped around my teeth and along the gum line). I have the okay to finally start chewing anything I want and feel up to, jaw and teeth permitting. Both are a real concern when I eat now. I can open fairly wide, after two weeks of stretching exercises involving stacks of tongue depressors. I’m not back to 100% just yet. My broken teeth are pretty sensitive, too, but nothing a little Sensodyne isn’t able to numb. Except for the most crunchy foods, like chips or hard candy, I can eat just about anything now which is amazing when I think about how much progress that is from an all liquid diet. I’ll get caps and one dental implant when I get back to the US in February.

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Wasn’t joking about those tongue depressors

Oh, I’ve also pushed back my return date. I will be in Bethlehem for three more months, until February 1st. I’ll be ringing in 2017 in Palestine! In total, I’ll only be spending 5 months in Bethlehem and not 6 as I had originally planned. But at this point, I am just happy to have the chance to go back.

I’m ready to transition out of my limbo period in Nashville, but it’s hard to say goodbye again, too. I had a rough time coming home in September. The recovery was lengthy, painful and it really took a toll on my mental status. I was also disappointed and stressed over my internship and Bethlehem, the things I was missing out on, and how I would be able to get back. In my worst times, my Nashvillians were there for me. ~direct address here because I’m emotional, sorry~ You guys took so much care of me over the past two months, both with the jaw and with processing my feelings. Thank you, thank you, a million and one hugs.

I didn’t think it was possible, but I feel even more support and love from you guys in this second leg of my journey than I did the first time I left. Next time you all see me, it will be in a much more celebratory spirit, I promise.

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For Halloween, I dressed up as what everyone back home imagined I looked like when I told them I had broken my jaw. It was a hit.

As cliché as it is to use the phrase, “Home is where the heart is,” it’s all I can think about right now. My heart is in two places now. Leaving Nashville is weighing more heavily on my heart this time than it did the first go around. However, it may only feel that way because I’m no longer masking the homesickness with general traveling anxieties. The first time, I was more nervous about the logistics of traveling alone, relocating outside of the US, and starting my internship. This time, I am much more calm about traveling. I’m coming back to my apartment, my internship, my friends, all familiar now. Now that I’m accustomed to both places, I can process my emotions for both places more clearly. I know what lies ahead and behind me, and both tug at my heart.

So what’s going to happen next? What is Christmas in Bethlehem like? What are my next steps at Wi’am? Start checking back in weekly to follow me on the remainder of my journey.

Fingers crossed I don’t break anything else. :)

XOXO

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R.I.P. MY WIRED JAW September 12th-October 31st, 2016

 

Through the Wire

Tomorrow is the day! My wires come off at 9:30 AM and I’ll be able to open my mouth for the first time in four weeks. I probably won’t be able to open more than a few centimeters at first, but I will be grateful for those few centimeters.  My biggest goal tomorrow is to open my mouth wide enough to brush my teeth and eat scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, and pancakes.

It is only fitting that I take the time to reflect on the the past month of being wired shut. Having your jaw wired shut makes you appreciate food and the complexity of chewing. Unfortunately for most, you don’t know how much you love a body part until it stops working.

*Click play and read on*

As you guys may have been able to tell from a post a few weeks ago covering the food in Bethlehem, I really love food. I love to cook, but I probably love eating even more. Before I broke my jaw, I would go about my day in Bethlehem, chewing pita, shawerma, chicken, kebab, figs, dates, burgers, and so on, without thought for my teeth, jaws, or the sheer miracle that is chewing. In other words, I took my jaw for granted, and I would come to see just how important my jaw had been to me when it was immobilized for the next four weeks.

First, I’ve learned that chewing your food plays an important role in taste. Texture affects taste and subsequently, appetite. When you get your jaw wired shut, you cannot open your mouth, much less chew your food, so everything you eat must be in a liquid form in order for you to consume it. There are only so many liquid things that are actually worth tasting, and thus, worth eating. Some blogs advised me to blend up food (pasta, meats, vegetables, etc) and thin it with chicken or vegetable stock. While this method may work for some people, I quickly found that it did not work for me. One day during week one of my journey, I decided that blending sushi with chicken stock sounded like a good idea. (The painkillers made me do it.) The soupy-yet-lumpy, rice-chunk textured, fish and chicken mush I created was the stuff of nightmares. When you have to rely on something else to “chew” your food for you, you quickly lose your love for food and your appetite.

Food is fuel, we all know this. But until you can’t eat, you take this adage for granted. Over the past month, I have gone through periods of physical and mental exhaustion that tied directly to my all-liquid diet. After my failed foray into blended-food-land, I stuck to smoothies, protein shakes, soups, and juices almost exclusively. (In the last week and a half, I also found that I could suck guacamole and hummus through a gap in my teeth, provided that it’s well-blended. This discovery saved my life and sanity. ) I’ve depended heavily on Carnation Instant Breakfast’s and Boost’s to supplement my diet. Even still, I have struggled to get enough iron and B vitamins, and I have lost about 10 pounds. It took two weeks for my body to finally adjust to this diet and for the hunger pangs to subside. My brain didn’t realize my mouth was wired shut, and so it kept telling me to eat. As punishment for not complying, I was lethargic, weak, and suffered headaches. Still, I pushed myself to be as active as possible, which ended poorly most days. One day, I went to a show with a friend but leaned against the wall for most of it, envying those around me who were standing and dancing. Around the two week mark, my brain finally gave up and I started to function on liquids.

Weeks 3 – 4 have been better in some ways but worse in others. I finally got used to the liquid diet and my energy was back at a stable level, so naturally I wanted to return to normal activities. I started doing yoga again, taking walks and bike rides, and I went out with my friends. But while I had started to look and feel normal again, the outside world had a way of reminding me that I was not normal. For one, when you can’t eat, you suddenly become acutely aware of the omnipresence of food in the US. My sense of smell grew akin to a bloodhound. If I am within a half-mile radius of food, I can smell the intricacies of each ingredient it contains. I can separate the smells of baking bread, meat, seasonings, and other spices like some sort of sad, hungry superhero. (I doubt that this will last after I get to eat again, but it would be cool if it did!)

Eating is also a very social act, such that when you try to avoid food, you limit your options for social activities as well. I’ve gone back and forth between forcing myself to be around food and avoiding it like a virulent disease. I’ve excused myself from friends’ houses because a pizza or Chinese food delivery was expected. I’ve avoided going to parties when I anticipated food would be part of the festivities. My boyfriend told me that I had “starving puppy eyes,” while I watched him eat a chicken wrap. I’ve concluded that it is one-part enjoyable, one-part torturous to watch someone else eat when your jaw is wired shut.

After today, I will probably never drink another smoothie as long as I live. I will never crave a milkshake again, and the taste of chocolate milk will forever remind me of the “Rich Chocolate” flavor of Boost I have drank daily for a month. Although I get unwired tomorrow, my arch bars will not come off for another few weeks. They will replace the wires with rubber bands to hold my mouth closed when I’m not eating or brushing my teeth. During the next few weeks, I’ll have to stick to “soft foods” that don’t require chewing. It’s going to take time and work to rebuild my jaw muscle and the full ability to open my mouth. My teeth also need serious work. When the arch bars come off, I’ll need a cleaning, at least two root canals, and three crowns. I’ll eventually get an implant for the molar they had to pull. I’m experiencing pain in a few other teeth and it’s a possibility that I will lose more teeth. The arch bars have caused my teeth to shift a little to where they aren’t as straight as they were before (so much for the two years of orthodontia work I had as a pre-teen). Finally, I won’t be able to chew “hard foods” (pizza, crusty bread, steak, apples, raw vegetables, chips) for nearly two more months.

It has been so long since I have had solid food that I have practically forgotten what it feels like to chew. (I’m told that this is common, not only do your jaw muscles weaken, but you actually have to relearn how to chew properly.) I encourage you to be mindful during your next meal, take the time to feel yourself chew and notice how well your mouth mixes and separates tastes and textures. A working jaw is a precious commodity. Appreciate your jaws and teeth, as I will for the rest of my life, beginning tomorrow.

And although I have been through a lot of pain and hunger, I have not starved. Right now, 795 million people are starving or are at risk of starvation worldwide (World Hunger Education Service 2016). We should all take the time to think about these people and support programs that work to combat poverty and provide access to food.

World Hunger Education Service

WFP UN World Food Programme

Second Harvest Food Bank

Until next time, habibi’s <3

How to Travel across the Atlantic Ocean with a Broken Jaw

Exactly a week from today, the wires come off, and I will finally be able to open my mouth! Soft foods are in my future! I cannot wait to be able to touch my tongue again. I’ll still have rubber bands keeping my mouth stabilized, and I’m told to expect lots of muscle pain and jaw stretching exercises in order to build back my jaw muscle and open my mouth as wide as I could pre-break. In other words, I’ve still got a ways to go in my recovery process, but being able to open my mouth, even if it’s only a little bit initially, will be an amazing feeling.

To recap my last post, I broke my jaw after fainting in my apartment in Bethlehem. After an entire day spent receiving a diagnosis and medical attention, I decided my best option was to travel back home for surgery. This was the truly difficult part. I traveled alone for nearly 24 hours, on and off three flights, with a broken jaw.

I arrived at the airport at 10 PM, toting one suitcase, a carry on and a backpack, my chin affixed with a large bandage covering stitches. Apparently my appearance made me stand out because a woman from security immediately walked over to me and asked if I would come with her. We walked to a desk where she and another man questioned me for 30 minutes on how I had spent my time in Israel. Looking back now, I am grateful they picked me out of the crowd like this. There was a long line of other people departing Israel behind me, and because they pulled me aside, I skipped the line altogether. But at the time, I was annoyed, in pain, and afraid that they were going to make me miss my flight. After what felt like hours of questioning, during which I told them multiple times that I had a broken jaw, that I was in pain, and that it hurt to talk, I finally received a wheelchair and they let me proceed. I had a representative from AirFrance escort me through the rest of airport security in a wheelchair.

I had a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, another from Paris to Atlanta, and then a final flight to Nashville (Which was my favorite – only about 40 minutes long). I would be traveling for a total of 22 hours, about 16 of which were spent in the air.

People say funny things when they learn you had a nearly 24 hour-long international flight with a broken jaw. The following are a few of them:

Wow, you’re so brave.

I have some friends in Bethlehem who are much more brave than I am.

You must have a high pain tolerance.

Maybe. I’ve never had the opportunity to test it before now.

Did the air pressure change hurt your jaw?

Everything hurt my jaw. Talking, smiling, swallowing, eating, yawning, not moving at all.

What did you eat?

Lucky for me, airplane food is somewhat conducive to not being able to chew. I cut eggs into tiny bites and picked bread into bird-like crumbs. I managed.

Were you able to stand in line/go through security in that pain?

The only good part about being in a wheelchair in the airport is that you get to skip to the front of the lines in security. When I landed in Atlanta, my wheelchair access was the only thing that got me through US customs and to my gate for Nashville during my short 1 ½ hour long layover. I would have missed my flight had it not been for my amazing escort there who rushed me through security. At times, I felt guilty for using the wheelchair and getting to cut line like that, but I reminded myself that I was injured. Even though it wasn’t visible to most people, I was in pain and I needed the assistance.

 Could you sleep at all?

I actually slept quite a bit. The dentist in Bethlehem gave me a prescription for muscle relaxers. While they did not relieve any pain, they did make me drowsy. I was also exhausted from sleep deprivation and the frantic day of doctor visits. I dosed off and on for most of the 10-hour flight from France to Atlanta.

The details of the flight home are fuzzy to me now. (Popping muscle relaxers and Ibuprofen while enduring pain from a  bone broken in two places tends to have that effect.) But I remember getting off the plane in Nashville. I felt relief mixed with crushing disappointment and a lurking sense of culture shock. I felt like I was trudging through jell-o as I made my way down the terminal, past people speaking English and ads for Jack Daniel’s whisky and the Grand Ole Opry.

I’m not supposed to be here. I have both thought and said this many times since I landed in the Nashville airport that day. This sentiment dims or exacerbates depending on the day and what I’m doing at the time, but it’s always there, marking everything I do while I’m here recovering. It is only recently that I’ve recognized that I need to add an amendment to this statement. I’m not supposed to be here, but I am now and I should make the best of it.

I’ve come to learn first hand how an illness or injury can take a toll on a person’s psychological state. I’ve had some low points over the past month since I’ve been home because a) I am ALWAYS hungry, b) I can’t eat anything that I need to chew and liquid food gets boring and is generally not as tasty as food you chew, c) I can’t open my mouth at all which means I haven’t brushed the inside of my teeth or licked my lips in three weeks, and d) I miss Bethlehem and feel like I’m missing so many good things happening at my organization and in town (International Peace week, my English class, the kids, a few festivals, hiking trips, the olive harvest, etc). But over this month, I’ve found ways to vent my anger and sadness. There are lots of things you can still do with a broken jaw. I am grateful that I can talk, even though it’s a little muffled. Once the pain subsided, I started to drive again and go out in public with my friends (which is almost normal except that I try to avoid events where food is involved). I’ve also been reading a lot more and doing yoga almost every day. Even something as silly as going for a drive and singing along through gritted teeth to My Chemical Romance like I did when I was an angst-riddled 8th grader really helps.

Maybe breaking my jaw wasn’t a part of the plan, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in Nashville in September and October. But I’m accepting that this interruption is all a part of my (atypical) Lumos experience. And breaking my jaw is a valuable experience outside of its relation to my travel and internship. Experiences don’t have to be positive to mean something; sometimes, painful times in our lives give us more significance (more lessons, more drive, more “meat,” or whatever you call it) than times that are prosperous, easy or fun.

Next time, I’ll reflect on some of the challenges I’ve faced over the past month with my jaw wired shut and some things I’ve learned about myself through this unintended addition to my Lumos experience.

The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men…

I haven’t written in two weeks. This is only because every time I thought about writing this post, I imagined myself sobbing while typing.

Two weeks ago, I broke my jaw in Bethlehem. Now, I’m back in Nashville with my jaw wired shut. Over the next few posts, I’m going to take you all through what happened in between and where I am now.

 

On the morning of September 9th, I got out of bed around 3 AM to go to the bathroom. While walking, I fainted and fell face first onto the stone floor in my apartment. Bethlehem is replete with stone; there are stone floors, cobblestone streets, stone houses, and so forth. They are historic, they are beautiful, and as my chin, jaw, and teeth found out that night, they are HARD. I came down on my chin, busting it open. When I came to, I saw blood on the floor and felt shards of teeth in my mouth. Luckily, one of my colleagues, Amber, was spending the night with me, sleeping on my living room couch only a few feet away from where I’d fallen. She must have woken from the sound of my body hitting the stone floor because when I came to, she was crouching next to me and helping me up.

I must have been in shock at this point because all I could say to her was, “I don’t know what happened,” and “I broke some of my teeth.” Amber put me back in bed, butterfly bandaged the gnarly gash under my chin, and gave me a bag of frozen broccoli from my freezer to put on my face. “We’ll go to the ER in the morning,” she said. We both thought it wasn’t that bad. I might need stitches for the cut. I would definitely need to get my molars checked out, maybe I would lose a couple teeth but I could get implants. Nothing major. It would all be handled in Bethlehem, or maybe we would have to go to Jerusalem. I could wait to tell my parents, no need to worry them unnecessarily. I would use my travel medical insurance and everything would be fine.

When I woke up about two hours later, there was blood on my pillowcase from my chin. I had what felt like an earache in both ears. I also realized I couldn’t open my mouth more than an inch. I pulled out my phone and started looking up symptoms of a broken jaw. My symptoms were all there, broken teeth, swelling, pain in the ear canal, jaw stiffness or difficulty opening and closing, jaw moving to one side when opening.
I started to cry. I had a broken jaw. This wasn’t going to be fine.
I called my host family. I called my parents. Plans were made. We would go to the hospital when it opened in two hours.

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Me and my broken jaw, right before we left for the hospital that morning. A little swelling, but nothing too gruesome.

My host brother and I went to a hospital in Beit Sahour at 7 AM. They looked at my cut, stitched it up, and took an X-ray of my jaw. The doctor reviewed the X-ray and said that my jaw wasn’t broken. We were elated, but I was still in pain. Maybe it was just bruised? I got a prescription for an antibiotic for the cut.

We went to a dentist next. When I opened as wide as I could to let the dentist look at my molars, I felt my lower jaw pop out of place and to the right a little. The pain was excruciating, and now I could not close my mouth all the way. Not only that, but my bite was completely off centered had my jaws been able to come together. While inspecting my teeth, the dentist said in Arabic to my host brother, “She has such beautiful teeth, and she’s completely wrecked them.” He told me that he had been a dentist for twelve years, but he had never seen anything this bad before. Whatever was wrong with my jaw would have to heal before he would be willing to work on my teeth, the pain would be too much. The dentist believed my jaw was broken. He referred us to an oral surgeon in town who could give us a second opinion about it.

Amber and my host brother came with me to the oral surgeon. The dentist and oral surgeon set me in a chair and again looked in my mouth. After reviewing my X-ray, the surgeon told me that my jaw was indeed broken. I had broken both condyles, and the left side of my jaw was also dislocated – the condyle was not only broken there but had slipped out of its socket, too. It would require wiring my jaw shut, which he scheduled for me the next morning. But nothing could be done about my teeth yet.

Here’s a diagram of the human jaw bone, for reference:

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The condyles are the most frequently broken portion of the jaw, apparently.

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Here’s the CT scan they did for me at Vandy when I got home. See that little hook like thing? That is my left condyle. It is supposed to be attached to the lower part of my jaw and up in that dent. Instead, it is free floating in my muscle. Fun stuff.

At this point, I was sleep-deprived, in pain, and terrified that I was going to lose all of my top molars. I wanted another opinion. I could feel that my teeth were literally split and rubbing against my tongue, starting to cause blisters. If I was going to have to have my jaw wired shut for up to 6 weeks, I was afraid they would get infected if I didn’t get them out beforehand. They were also incredibly painful; I would have gotten them all pulled just to stop the pain. I wanted a second opinion.

We went to Wi’am to wait for a friend of my host family to take us to a Jerusalem ER via his car. All of the staff were there and had heard about my accident. They sat with me and worriedly asked what happened, was I in pain, what did I need, and so on. I reassured them that we would figure this out, and I would be okay.

Around 4 PM, we made it to the hospital in Jerusalem. They did not ask me what was wrong, but instead immediately handed me a form/contract to sign saying that I would have to pay them $1200 USD before being admitted. I would have to pay it up front, and my insurance would reimburse me later. They launched into questions regarding where I was staying. They wanted an Israeli address, which I could not supply. I told them I was living in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. They then began to ask our friend, who was translating for me and had taken me to the hospital, questions directed at him, about where he lived, and so forth. He wasn’t the patient, I was. I have no doubt that the questioning was because he was Palestinian and we were coming from the West Bank.

Frustration, anger, exhaustion, and pain finally culminated at this very moment. We had been seeing doctors all day, trying to figure out what was wrong, and the bad news just kept getting worse. I had been holding it together and trying to stay positive, even making jokes about my broken jaw with my friends as we went from hospital to hospital. But I had finally hit my breaking point (no pun intended). I started to tear up as I realized that I really needed to just go home. I have no doubt that my host family would have taken excellent care of me, made me soup and stayed with me after the surgery. But in that moment, I just wanted to be home. As childish as it is, I really just wanted my mom.

Things moved faster after that. After talking with my host family and friends, they agreed that leaving was the best option. I cried, but my friends found a way to make me laugh, even then, by making jokes about not needing deportation when you can just break foreigner’s jaws to get them to leave. We left the ER and went back to Bethlehem. Amber looked up flights and booked one for 1 AM that night. My host brother and sister helped me hastily pack one of my bags and told me that I could leave the rest of my stuff behind, that this was my apartment and it will still be mine when I came back. They called me a taxi and we hugged. I barely had time to say goodbye to them, but at 9 PM that night, I was in a taxi, staring at the familiar storefront lights trailing by outside my window as I left Bethlehem. It all happened so fast, in the span of 24 hours I had gone from perfectly fine, living, working, and making friends in this city that had become my new home to fleeing my new home as fast as possible, in pain, broken jawed and broken hearted.

I still don’t know why this happened. I used to think that everything happens for a reason, but now I’m not so sure. Sometimes, bad things happen, and there is really no reason for them. What I do have a new appreciation for is how fragile we actually are as humans. Being a healthy 22 year old, this is something I never had to think about before. As upset as I am to have my time in Bethlehem suspended and to have my jaw wired shut, I am blessed that the fall was not worse. I very easily could have broken my skull or neck. As for the fainting, the doctors tested my heart and ran a CT scan, all of which are good. We think that I may have just gotten up from bed too fast or had low blood sugar at the time. I am fortunate to be in good health other than my jaw. I am also truly blessed by my people in Bethlehem, my family, friends, and the staff at Wi’am, who did everything they could to help me that day and get me on the plane to go home. The love and concern they gave that day kept me safe, and the support they continue to show me keeps me positive even in my worst moments. I can’t wait to get back to them and Bethlehem once I heal.

I’ll continue with the story of my flight home, my surgery, what it’s like to have your jaw wired shut and fractured/missing teeth, feelings regarding having your plans interrupted and your life turned upside down, and the misery that is an all-liquid diet in the posts to come. The wires holding my jaw completely shut will (inshallah) come off October 12th. Then I will have rubber bands put in and I’ll be able to have soft foods (Scrambled eggs!!!!! Mashed potatoes that aren’t watered down to liquid form!!!!). Timetable for the rubber band-wiring is still up in the air. So it looks like I will be in Nashville for a month more, maybe longer. It depends on when I heal, if I can get the wires cut off in Bethlehem, and so on, all things I’m in the process of figuring out.

I don’t know when I will be able to chew. I don’t know when I will be back in Bethlehem. But I do know that I will do both again, hopefully soon. Again, inshallah. 

Sakni fi Betlahim

This past Monday, I started my “Spoken Arabic for Foreigners” class at Bethlehem University. I go to class Monday and Wednesday afternoons from 5:00 to 6:30. It’s right after work and the university is even on my route home. The class will run through the end of October. This week, we went over the pronunciation of Arabic letters, but it’s more accurate to say sounds rather than letters. For the purpose of speaking Palestinian Arabic* (“Amiya”), and not writing, reading, or learning Arabic grammar (“Fus-ha”), we use the Roman letters with the addition of symbols for certain sounds unique to Arabic.

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Never thought I’d have another first day of school again!

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This is a picture of a part of my book’s sound chart. Notice that there are three different “G” sounds in Arabic. One is pronounced like the English “G.” The other two are unique to the Arabic language. One is a deep “GHHH,” low in the throat and almost a gargling, rolling of the tongue sound. The other is similar to the English “J.” The hardest to pronounce so far are the dawd, sawd, and haah for the D, S, and H, respectively. Each involves the throat and mouth in a way that the English D, S, and H do not. The S, D, G, H, and T have English equivalent pronunciations, but they also have additional sounds related to them. There is also a throaty, “AYN” sound and a halting “hamze” which have no English equivalents.

If this seems really confusing and difficult to you, that’s because it is! Learning to speak Arabic as an English-only speaker means training your mouth and throat to make sounds it has never had to make before. The only way to learn how to pronounce Arabic words correctly is to practice with and hear them spoken by native Arabic speakers. Luckily for me, people at my organization and my host family are on my side in my quest to learn Arabic. They are very patient and willing to help me study. On Monday night, my host brother spent 15 minutes on teaching me to correctly pronounce the word for midday, duhor (with a dawd and a haah).

I also learned how to say where I’m from. In Arabic, there is no “to be” verb. When you want to say where someone is at currently, you use “fi.” So if I am at work, I say “Ana fi shuGHul.” If I want to tell someone I’m from America, but I live in Bethlehem now, I would say, “Ana min Amerka, bass ana sakni fi Betlahim.”

Despite how tough it is, Arabic is a beautiful language and I’m excited that I’m finally learning it formally.

Now on to an update about work. About four weeks ago, I started meeting with a group of university-age students who want to practice their English. Three of my students are sisters who already know English but wanted more practice with grammar and reading. We meet once a week at the center. I make worksheets and activities that include reading exercises and grammar lessons. After we’re done working on the lessons as a group, we play ESL games, like charades, cards, board games, and Jeopardy. I’m happy to say that we have moved from a student-teacher relationship to a more peer-to-peer dynamic. We laugh, talk about school and life, and wish each other luck in our respective language pursuits. Our meetings have become a time of mutual learning for both parties; I help them with English, and the girls help me learn and practice Arabic!

Over the past few weeks, two interns and I took on the task of completely revamping our organization’s website. With absolutely no experience in website production under our belts and with the assistance of dozens of online tutorials, we taught ourselves how to work WordPress, how to make a staging site, how to edit website code, etc. We worked with the staff to change the color of our logo and edit the website’s content, including the descriptions of our programs. It was a laborious and often tedious process, but the staff and interns worked hard, commiserated in the agony, and bonded over it. At the end of last week, we finally had it all finished and launched it! See our hard work here: www.alaslah.org.

I also FINALLY finished the updated video for Wi’am, now featured on our website’s homepage. Currently I’m in the process of gathering footage of our programs in order to make separate, program-specific videos. While the first video is more of an overview of Wi’am, the next videos will delve into the programs in more detail. These videos will include stories from the people who participate in our programs. Our hope is that these videos will supplement the written content on our blog and website and actually show Wi’am’s mission and activities in conflict transformation.

Speaking of which, what is conflict transformation? If you’ve been reading my blog, I’ve given a bunch of examples of the various ways the conflict affects Palestinian peoples’ lives. Wi’am is a nonprofit community center where women, youth, and children are welcome to participate in clubs, cultivate relationships, locate resources, and celebrate their culture. In this way, while the organization cannot end the conflict, it works to transform the harm it creates into prosperity, community, and success. Essentially, Wi’am works to make lemonade out of lemons, and I have loved contributing to that work.

One more thing before I go. My host sister and I visited Jerusalem today. I love getting lost in the Old City, wandering around the shops, listening to the different languages of people buying and selling, and smelling the spices, incense, and food for sale. We got turned around about four times while trying to find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On one of our detours, we found this cool archway.img_3033

We eventually found the church. Here are some pictures.

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That’s all for now. Salaam!

 

*There are multiple dialects within the Arabic language. Palestinian Arabic is one of the Levantine dialect, versions of which are also spoken in Lebanon and Jordan. Other Arabic dialects include Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Bagdadi, and so on. Modern Standard is the type taught in school (“Fus-ha”), but people also know the dialect of the country they live in. One of my friends told me that the different dialects are almost like completely different languages, such that if you were to speak Palestinian Arabic in Morocco, most people wouldn’t know what you were saying. Did I mention Arabic is a complex language? If you want to read more about dialects of Arabic, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page on the subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Arabic#Examples_of_major_regional_differences

 

Normalization of Suffering

“Normal” is a subjective word; one person’s normal may look different than another’s. In Palestine, “normal” looks a lot different than it does in the States. Normal often means suffering; to suffer is normal.

I was inspired to write this post after a discussion I had with my friends (internationals and Palestinians) a few nights ago. My friends and I talked about something we called the “normalization of suffering” in Palestine. This refers to the day-to-day relations on the ground here that cause suffering, from restrictions to movement and water to poverty and unemployment, and the way these things have become the status quo in Palestine.

It is obviously wrong that Palestinians have fewer rights and opportunities than Israelis. But we contemplated whether or not normalizing this suffering has a bright side to it. We agreed that people must forge some kind of life; being used to human rights violations and living in spite of them is a mechanism for coping and thriving in the face of suffering. However, normalization breeds complacency. If people believe that the current state of affairs are “just the way things are,” they will never have the capacity to imagine that life is any different or that they deserve more than this. Because suffering is ubiquitous here, it becomes the norm, and this normalization maintains the status quo.

Restrictions on travel are one example of the normalization of suffering.

After years of appeals to the Israeli government, one of my friends just received his permit to travel outside of the country. He is 23 years old, and before now, he was barred from ever leaving Israel and the West Bank (not because of something he did, but because he has a Palestinian ID*). Between the six members of his immediate family, they have four different classifications of permits, each with varying degrees of restriction of movement within and outside of Israel. Due to this, all of the members of his family cannot go on a vacation outside of Israel together.

I asked him where he planned to go now that he can leave. He immediately launched into a description of Japan, the major cities there, the food, the culture, and so on. From the way his face lit up as he spoke, I could tell he has been dreaming about going to Japan for years now.

Another one of my friends has complete restriction on exiting the West Bank. A group of us are planning on going to the beach again in Yaffa, Tel Aviv in a week, and I asked him if he wanted to come. He told me he couldn’t and proceeded to explain his permit situation. His explanation was short; with an accepting, wide smile, he told me that it is “okay,” that he will “keep trying” and applying for a travel permit.

To give these stories more perspective, Israel is only a few square miles larger than New Jersey. The West Bank is even smaller, maybe the size of Nashville and its surrounding neighborhoods combined (Brentwood, Bellevue, etc).** I challenge you all to think about what it would be like if you had never left an area the size of New Jersey for your entire life. Now, shrink that area and think about never leaving Nashville for your entire life. Imagine that you wanted to leave, but you were not allowed to leave. This is suffering, and this suffering is normal for many Palestinians.

I will never forget my friend’s smile and the way my other friend talked about Japan. Being kept from traveling is normal here. Like many other Palestinians, my friends have normalized their suffering as a method for coping with it. There is not much else my friends can do about this suffering. But what they can do, what I can do, what we all can do, is talk about it. To never have seen the ocean or to never get to visit a country you’ve longed to see, because of your nationality and a conflict in your country, is a form of suffering that should not be hidden by smiles or complacency. This suffering needs acknowledgement, it needs to be shared with the world. Suffering is not only physical pain or poverty, it is a lack of opportunity and a denial of basic human rights to travel. When we can all recognize this as suffering, point it out and discuss it, change can take place.

Taking all of this into consideration, I’ve settled on the conclusion that the normalization of suffering, while an effective coping mechanism, is ultimately deleterious.

 

*Note: Citizenship is tricky here, many people born in the West Bank or from Palestinian descendance have Palestinian citizenship without Israeli citizenship, even though “Palestine”/the West Bank are not countries. Check out this NY Times article for more on this topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/opinion/not-all-israeli-citizens-are-equal.html?_r=0. The UN has given Palestine “non-member, observer state” status, however. See this article:  http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/01/2013186722389860.html

**Check out this link: http://www.ifitweremyhome.com/compare/US/PS.

Patriarchy, The Perception of the “Foreign Woman,” and Catcalling

When you live anywhere in the world, there are great things about your country, but there are also some not-so-great things. I’ve found many things to love about Palestinian culture in my month here. Between the hospitality, the food, the architecture, the history, and so many of the people I’ve met, I’ve been able to experience many of Palestine’s “perks.” But, as I said, there are some things I don’t love about living here, and the patriarchy is one of them.

From the time I step outside of the door from my host family’s compound in the morning, I feel eyes on me. Most of the time, stares from men (and women) in the streets are of the curious variety; seeing a blonde woman in Bethlehem is a rarity, so I cannot blame those first glances. It’s those lingering stares from men, the snide remarks to friend groups, and the outright cat calling and kissing noises, that really get under my skin. Although the former, curious stare happens more than the latter variety, the latter happens often enough to leave me feeling angry after I get done walking anywhere in public.

I have dealt with cat calling before in America, but not to the degree I face here. When I voiced my frustrations to one of my host brothers, he explained it to me this way: Based on Western media representations, some men believe that foreign women are “loose,” so it’s somewhat acceptable to catcall a foreign woman as opposed to a local woman. I’ve also found that most of the men who harass me are in groups when they do so. In this sense, men catcall as a show of masculinity and as a way to amuse themselves and their friend group. (I’ve had boys, probably no older than eleven or twelve years old, make kissing noises at me! Like, what?!) Another reason they feel entitled to stare or catcall me is that because I am foreign, they assume I have no male relatives here to “defend” my honor (ie. I could tell them I’m being harassed, and they would go to the catcalling man’s family and have a discussion with them/seek reparations and make the catcalling stop). This last assumption is only partially true. My host brothers and some of their friends have all jumped to my defense when I’ve walked with them, scolding men who stare at or harass me. While I’m grateful for their protectiveness, I don’t really enjoy being “defended” in this way either. When you break down the dynamic, it goes a little something like this: I am a woman and as a woman, I am subject to catcalling/staring. (While I base my generalization on a small, non-representative sample, all of the women I talk to, both local and foreign, tell me they have experienced catcalling at some point while in this country.) When I am harassed, my male friends/relatives are the only one’s who can really “set my harassers straight” and make it stop. The whole situation places me, and my fellow local and foreign women, in positions of passivity for our own safety and personhoods.

I’ve found that the best way I can reclaim power in this harassment/defense cycle is to call harassers out myself. My host sister was the first to tell me to do so. She explained that shame is powerful in this culture. The best thing to do, she told me, is to shame men publically by calling them out for what they’re doing, loudly enough for all to hear. Working past my gender socialization in order to be aggressive and call men out in the streets for harassment has been a slow process, but I’ve learned some essential phrases for doing so. Shouting, “Ayb alayk,” or “Shame on you,” seems to work well. Arabic is always more powerful than English, but I find they respond to English if my tone is harsh enough. They also respond to nonverbal gestures; usually, scowling with a raised fist or swinging my hand in their direction in a slapping motion works. Responses vary. Some men just laugh at me or shrug and talk to their friends with a “what did I do?” posture. But the best response is when you see the look of “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have messed with her,” in their eyes and they look away. Even better is when they actually leave, when they are afraid of you.

The biggest thing I want you all to take away from this blog post is that women’s harassment and oppression happens everywhere. Women around the world have to contend with stares, jeers, and harassment from men when they step outside of their doors to go to work, shop, travel, or visit friends and family. For local and foreign women in Palestine, harassment takes on the form of what I just described. There are other forms of oppression that only local women in Palestine face: education and employment discrimination, paternalism in many areas of life, transfer of land ownership to the husband’s family upon marriage, and others. As a foreign woman, I do not face those forms of oppression to the extent that they do. So even though I experience harassment on a daily basis for my gender, I am still in a position of privilege in Palestinian culture.

On Sunday, my friends and I went to Yaffa beach, near Tel Aviv. While my friend and I were in the ocean, a French man approached us and began to ask us where we were from, teasing us about our American accents. That interaction was maybe a little “creepy” but okay. The problem started when he kept coming back to us, even though we clearly had no interest in speaking with him. He asked us more questions about America, referencing “the women there.” Our consensus this time, definitely creepy. We replied in short sentences, and eventually swam away from him. Later, my friend was back on shore and I was in the ocean alone. I was floating on my back with my eyes closed. When I stood up, the man was standing right next to me, staring at me. I tell this story because I want to make this point clear: in every culture, there are men who treat women like objects. The patriarchy just works in different ways in different countries.

 

On that note, here’s a couple pictures of the beach so you can breathe in good air. Look at that water!

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One month in, and I’m still a foreigner

In an effort to convey the reality of international travel, its ups and downs, and specifically the ups and downs of my experience in Bethlehem, I’m going to talk about the main difficulty I’ve had since moving to Bethlehem, and that is, I don’t know how to speak Arabic. Although I’ve picked up a few phrases over the past month, for the most part, I’m still oblivious to most of the speech I hear around me on a daily basis.

I’ve always thought Arabic was a beautiful language, and I have an even deeper appreciation for it now. I find myself mesmerized by the voices of the staff, my host family, and friends when they speak Arabic around me. The language is especially beautiful in songs, which one hears a lot of in Bethlehem. Usually, my daily dose of Arabic language-music sources from a neighbor’s stereo system or the taxi drivers blaring it in their cabs. My friends have also introduced me to a lot of good music. (Listen to this: Mike Massy مايك ماسي – Ghayyer Lawn Ouyounak. I guarantee it’ll make you cry.)

I’m most fascinated by the vocalization and pattern of speech the language requires. For example, while in the Roman alphabet, we have only one “H,” there are two different “H” sounds in Arabic. One is more of a “ha” sound, light and high in the throat, like your panting, and the other is more of a gargling “hkh” sound. There are also two “T” sounds, and like the H’s, one is sharper and the other, softer. Based on the way you say these letters, the entire meaning of the word changes. (There are, interestingly, no equivalents to “V” or “P” in the Arabic alphabet.)

I will repeat what I’m sure many other international, English-only travelers have said before me: the language barrier is very real, and it is painful. Many people here speak some English, but I always feel like I’m imposing when they have to speak to me. If they know English well, they see the blonde hair, and they speak to me in English from the start. When they don’t know English, a lot of tense silence and nonverbal gesturing occurs between the two of us. When I’m with others, they will defer to one of my Arabic speaking friends and completely ignore me. Basically, not knowing Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country turns you into a child. You don’t speak, you’re not spoken to, people talk about you in their native tongue like you’re not there, and when you are spoken to, it’s usually in slow, simple words – even when it’s English.

You take for granted the entire concept of language when you can speak the main language of the country you are in. Growing up in an English speaking country, I’ve never had to contend with a language barrier. This past month has taught me that language is the key to almost every activity of daily life; in order to be friendly, make apologies, ask questions, tell someone how you feel or what you want them to do, you have to speak their language. The inability to do these things when you have always been able to do them in the past is sometimes really rough, psychologically and emotionally. I often feel isolated, rude, and dumb when I am in public in Bethlehem and I cannot respond to someone in his or her native tongue.

Some days, the language barrier hits me harder than others. For example, last week I confronted one of the kids at Wi’am to pick up his trash that he’d thrown on the floor of the computer room. Because I knew he spoke English, I told him, in English, to pick up his trash. I saw the wheels turning in his head as he looked up at me, pausing, he was thinking, “This woman doesn’t know Arabic. I can talk back to her and she won’t know what I said.” And he did just that, he responded to me in Arabic and made no movement to pick up the trash. In an attempt to regain control, I told him, “I understand what you just said to me, I’m going to tell (staff member), and you won’t be able to play in here next week.” I left, but I was so upset that I didn’t tell the staff member. In that moment, I felt so powerless. I thought, how could anyone respect me, kids, shop owners, the staff, when I can’t speak the language?

That day, I was hard on myself for not knowing Arabic. I’ve talked to my friends about it, and they’ve made me feel a little better about not knowing Arabic yet. Even though I don’t know Arabic, the staff and my friends respect me and help me when I need it. I’m lucky to have a supportive group of people around me. There are people in countries all around the world who don’t speak the native language who are not so lucky.

To round out the post with a happy ending, I am starting a Spoken Arabic class at Bethlehem University on September 5th. (The campus rivals Belmont’s in architecture and flowers!) My class start date can’t get here fast enough. Although it has been good to contend with my English-only privilege and recognize how important language truly is, I’m ready to learn some Arabic so I can expand a conversation beyond, “Sabah al Khair, Keef Haluk(ik)? (Good morning, how are you(“-uk” for a guy,” -ik” for a girl)?).

Wish me luck, you guys. Arabic is hard. And I thought I was done with school! :)

 

Here’s some more songs if you’re interested in Arabic music:

Mustafa Amar – El Leila Doub – Bonus: This video is hilarious. This is a funny party song now.

Mohammed Assaf – Ya Halali Ya Mali – This guy won Arab Idol and is now a national sensation in Palestine.

This is Dabke – Dabke is a traditional Palestinian dance tradition that involves a lot of footwork. It’s really cool to watch. This type of song is played a lot at weddings and other celebrations.

Festival, Food, and Hiking

I want to focus on three things that made this past week great.

Festival:

Bethlahem Live Street Festival (Yallah Makloobah) happened this past Thursday through Sunday. This festival occurs annually and features art, workshops, live music, and local vendors in Bethlehem. It’s held on Star Street, which is about two blocks from my apartment; I walk on it every day to get to Wi’am. This street is one of Bethlehem’s oldest streets and it connects one end of the Old City to the other. It used to be a bustling shopping district, but as tourism has taken a dip in recent years, most of the shops have closed down. Today, it is mostly barren; I would estimate I pass only around 10 open shops. But for one weekend a year, the street comes alive again with vendors, local artisans, and musicians. Food, coffee and juice shops,  booksellers, hookah, carpenters and embroiderers, and other businesses lined the sidewalks. It was incredible to see the street’s narrow walls packed with people.

I went to the festival three nights out of the four. The music was my favorite part. I listened to local bands from Bethlehem, but there were others from Ramallah, Japan, and Scotland. Some played traditional Arabic music, but others played folk, R&B and rap, and alternative music.

On Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised (and a little confused) to bare witness to two members from Mumford & Sons play a DJ set! Mumford & Sons has been one of my favorite bands since I was in 10th grade, so when I found out two of the members were going to be in Bethlehem, I was ecstatic. But then, my second and third thoughts were a) Why are they in Bethlehem? and b) Why are they DJ’ing? After listening to their set, my hope is that they stick to actually making music rather than playing it (At one point, they played “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”… Really, M&S?). Regardless, my friends and I danced to it; it may have been the worst DJ set we had ever witnessed, but when Mumford & Sons comes to Bethlehem and plays music for you, you dance to it. The rest of the crowd did not share our views; from the looks on their faces, they were as confused as we were but on top of that, they didn’t know who these guys were. I think M&S could tell that we were some of the few in the audience who were having fun, because at one point, one of them came down to my friend and I and pulled us up on stage! For thirty-odd seconds, I stood onstage, in Bethlehem, next to Mumford & Sons and my friend, and stared out at a crowd of 1,000+ people. (Unfortunately, security made us get down and I have no photographic proof of being onstage. Drat.)

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Strange things happen in this city. Sometimes, those things include having your favorite band play a terrible DJ set and pulling you up on stage in the middle of it.

Food:

Bethlehem has some AMAZING food. I’m not just talking falafel here, either – although if you ever do come to Bethlehem, skip Afteem and instead go to this place on the Main Street called “Falafel Hummus.” Their falafel is fresh.

First, Bethlehem has amazing pizza. One good place is Mundo. They have gigantic pizzas with cheese stuffed crusts (aka “Mundo Stuffed Crust”) that rivals any stuffed-crust in the States. Plus, if you dine in, it boasts one of the greatest views of Beit Sahour. Casa Nova wins second place for pizza. Order the Calamari Pizza (it also has clams!). Remember to get some gelato for dessert.IMG_2501

You Burger is my favorite burger place. The “She Burger,” with garlic aeoli and a fried egg, is my burger of choice, but order the “Us Burger” if you’re extra hungry. It comes with two large beef patties, three slices of cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a “special sauce.” The best part: they deliver until 1 AM, so this is the number one choice for when you are craving fattening food but have reached your limit for walking that day. Best part #2: Onion rings come with the burger!

Now on to more traditional foods:

The best drink here is something called “lemon mint” in English. It is just what it sounds like; you squeeze a bunch of lemons, add a little bit of sugar, and muddle in a handful of fresh mint. What you get is a minty, extremely tart version of lemonade. This is the drink of choice to refresh and hydrate on a hot day. In Bethlehem in August, they are all hot days.

Labneh and Za’atar. There’s really no good way to describe what labneh tastes like. It’s closest to a cream cheese texture-wise, but it’s much saltier and it’s technically yogurt. Za’atar is a thyme and sesame seed seasoning that Palestinians sprinkle on top of just about anything (olive oil, cucumber and tomato salad, straight up on pita, etc). If you mix these two together with a little bit of olive oil, you have yourself one of the greatest dips known to man. At the very least, I walk about four miles a day, but I think I may actually have gained weight simply because of my labneh and za’atar consumption.IMG_2513

Pictured: the incorrect way to eat labneh, it is better to dip/scoop it

Fresh Baba Gnoush. Enough said. Eggplants are gigantic in Bethlehem.

Foul – pronounced “fool” – is a legume that you cook for about an hour, until tender. Best served fresh with salt and pepper. My host sister calls it “Palestinian popcorn.”

Figs. There are two varieties of figs, purple and green. I used to hate figs in the States, but I realize now that is because I had only ever experienced them store-bought or in Fig Newton-form. Fortunately for me, it’s harvesting season for figs. Wi’am has a purple fig tree and my host family has a green fig tree on some of their land. I find something very calming and rewarding in the process of picking, cleaning, and eating figs with your coworkers and friends. Climbing the tree to get to the ripe ones at the tops of the branches is sort of a workout, too.

Cactus fruit. That’s right, cactus have fruit on them, who would have known? Cacti grow little yellow and red buds on top of them; these fruit are as spiny as the cacti themselves. Once washed of their spines and peeled, they have a juicy texture, similar to watermelon. It’s impossible to equate their taste to any other fruit, you’d just have to try it sometime.

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But picking cactus fruit is less calming and more labor intensive than picking figs. It requires special poles with cupping tools on the end. This enables you to reach into the cacti patch, secure the fruit in your cup, and twist to release it from the cactus. You have to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, and gloves to ensure that when you get spines on you, they will mainly embed in your clothes and not your skin. You will inevitably get some in your skin, as well.

Cacti spines come in two forms. The first are the bigger splinters which you can feel as they poke into you. You can usually see these and pull them out of your skin with your fingernails. But then there is the smaller variety, which are actually the worse of the two. These ones can be as small as the head of a ballpoint pen and require tweezers, that is, if you can manage to get them out. Sometimes they get so deeply embedded that you have to leave them be to work themselves out of your body as they please. I had one in my thumb for a full week before it poked itself out enough for me to remove it. I would like to say that the fruit is worth all of the pain involved, but I’m not so sure it is. However, I can say that picking cactus fruit is worth doing, at least once.

Food takes time in Bethlehem. Whether you have to pick it, walk to a store to buy it, or cook it, there really is no such thing as “fast food” here. Most home cooked meals take a couple of hours or more to prepare, but when you take that first bite, you realize it is worth the waiting, picking, chopping, walking, and/or cacti spines in your hands.

Hiking:

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On Sunday, about an hour and a half before sunset, I went hiking with a group of friends at a place called “Al Makhroud.” Al Makhroud is just outside of Beit Jala in Area C, which is Palestinian territory controlled by the Israeli military. It is ten miles of mountains, valleys, and farmland. One of the few green spaces left in the Bethlehem area, there are olive tree groves, gardens, and other foliage. There are also natural steep rock cliffs and old rock walls constructed by farmers who used to live there. In short, Al Makhroud, especially at dusk when we went, is stunning. It was refreshing to get outside of the city for a few hours. It didn’t feel like Bethlehem, it didn’t feel like anywhere else on earth. As we scaled the rocky soil and looked out over the gaping valleys of trees and rock dotted mountains in the distance, I grew aware of how quiet it was there in comparison to the city I’ve been living in for the past three and a half weeks. I felt very small; I felt like that moment in time, our hike there, was so miniscule and insignificant compared to the vastness of the environment, its history, and all of the other people who had walked and lived there over the centuries. Bethlehem has a way of doing that to you.IMG_2773

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My host sister told me about the history of Al Makhroud. The land used to belong to families, and some people in her family had once had land there. When it became Area C, Israel forbid Palestinians from any further building and cultivating. Because of this restriction, many people have left their lands. Today, Al Makhroud is all but abandoned. There are dozens of deserted rock homes scattered along the hillsides. I thought about the injustice of prohibiting people from building on their own land. Suddenly, the silence took on a more somber tone.

Our hike took us up a mountainside and back down into the valley. We climbed a giant boulder and watched the sun dip beneath the mountain. The evening was going so well that we didn’t think about the simple equation of “sunsets = darkness.” As we scaled down the boulder, it became clear that soon it would be very, very dark, and we were about a mile away from the car.IMG_2801

Luckily, one of our friends, Juda, was leading our hike. He knew the shortest way back to the car, but it would require us to, in his words, “go off the path a bit.” My stomach flipped. We were going to be searching for our car, in the mountains, after dark, for an indefinite amount of time, with only the light of our cell phone flashlights. Images of snakes, scorpions, and coyotes came to mind, and I gave my host brother a panicked look. He didn’t look too thrilled at our situation either. The worst part was that it was totally our fault. We had gotten ourselves into this; we had stayed too long on the boulder. Our only way out of the darkness was to stumble around in it and find our way back as quickly as possible. Thankfully, Juda did know his way back, and after a terrifying but adventurous 45 minutes of trudging through the steadily increasing darkness while singing and telling jokes about being eaten by wild animals, we were back on the main trail toward the car. Under a half moon and bright stars, we clapped for Juda and howled in gratitude and celebration.

Hiking in Bethlehem is beautiful. It is a great place to think and experience silence when you’ve all but forgotten its existence. It is not advisable to stay on a boulder to watch the sun set, but if you happen to, it’s the best sunset you’ll ever experience.

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Ma’a salama