Rite of passage

Letter from an American masters student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

STUDENTS FROM the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School tour Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (photo credit: JESSICA GLASNER)
STUDENTS FROM the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School tour Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: JESSICA GLASNER)
We never get security warnings. No “snow days” for incomings. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem issued a single statement over the past few weeks to my masters program students, stating that the best way to avoid riots was to stay away from Palestinian enclaves.
Funny; in the States, if Mexico were to barrage San Diego with a thousand rockets, it’s safe to say that school would be canceled.
Maybe I was becoming a little bit Israeli.
Maybe this was hazing by conflagration. I was joining a people accustomed to sirens wailing at all hours, rocks hurled at buses and pipe bombs planted at city gates. The miracle was that my parents decided to let me stick it out (not like I would have listened if they had demanded I go back to Los Angeles).
My initiation started two Thursdays ago when I arrived at Sylvia’s apartment for dinner. Sylvia is seventy-something, a Holocaust survivor, a nurse who spent 17 years working in Rwanda, her second genocide experience. Within minutes of walking through the door, the creepy wail of the siren cut the calm of her living room stacked with German, Dutch and English books on African art. I couldn’t believe it; rockets from Gaza? In Jerusalem? I followed Sylvia like a puppy into the bomb shelter and sat down. I heard myself making small talk about the day. I wasn’t anxious, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me, if I should be worried.
And then: a deep thud and explosion.
Sylvia popped to her feet.
“It’s all over,” she assured me, and went to use the bathroom while I protested that we were supposed to wait 10 minutes until the all-clear siren sounded.
“Nonsense!” Sylvia barked in a heavy Dutch accent.
I followed her to her dining room and she served fondue carried in her suitcase all the way from Switzerland. Then a text hit my iPhone from a classmate: “I bet you heard that one!” Very funny. He’s Canadian. A Canadian comedian.
Later that night, Palestinian young men from the neighboring village rioted outside so loudly that I could hear them a good three miles away. They shot fireworks at the police for hours. No sleep for me. Not much blinking, either. School was still not canceled.
Sunday rolled around and I was off to school. Class that day was the first of a special travel course that is the highlight of my graduate studies. In the class, Hebrew University international graduate students are taken on a six-part tour of Jerusalem throughout the summer semester. Timing, timing, timing.
Four kidnappings, four murders, only children, Jews and Palestinians. Disgusting.
Awful. Sinful. And now, Sunday morning, July 13, 2014, at 2:30 p.m. outside the Rothberg International School, I’m in a van with a driver named Muhammad and a security guard named Eli armed with an automatic weapon – both about the same age, both stressed out. This was an ironic wrinkle in time.
I took quick stock of my classmates, familiar faces one year into our program.
They ranged from the heart of China to Kyrgyzstan to Moscow to Canada. We are studying the conflict together. Each speaks either Arabic or Hebrew, but we only speak in English to each other.
First stop: Lifta, a village abandoned by Palestinians in 1948 sitting in a steep valley on the edge of Jerusalem.
The village is like a national park, a memorial to past conflict and our inability to erase the past. Long abandoned opulent mansions have disintegrated, and are covered with moss and graffiti. A spring in the village center is a communal mikve for the ultra-religious and a swimming hole for the Palestinians. Some of the original owners are still alive and want their property back, but for now, homeless crazies and religious squatters have taken up residence. I wonder, as we creep about the ruins following our guide, if we can hear rocket sirens from so low in the valley.
Our guide next takes us to the Museum on the Seam. I am hot and tired. I learn that several artists from surrounding Arab nations have been brought to trial for showing their art in Israel in this museum.
I start to gear up in the mini-van to the American Colony Hotel. I have to give a presentation about the history of the hotel. In its legendary verdant courtyard I talk about the hymn-singing founders, the white sheet of surrender to the Ottomans, the Oslo Accords, the secrets, scandals and intrigues that took place within earshot of our gathering.
But our guide is in a hurry. We are losing time and the sun is going down. We have two more stops before dark, when Ramadan ends and when the rioting begins.
I ask myself, what trip to east Jerusalem would be complete without a visit to the grave of Shimon Hatzadik? It is a picture of hyper-modesty. Separate accommodations for men and women. I am feeling awkward in my knee-length skirt and T-shirt, but no one says anything. I’m relieved to get back in the van and leave a place where the devoutly religious people won’t fight for the nation they love. It’s confusing. As we leave, an old rabbi who has studied under the same tent for over 25 years outside the grave gives us a copy of a book he just finished writing to take back to the library.
We reach our final destination a block away from the tomb: Sheikh Jarrah. It’s a neighborhood fraught with complex tension.
In the early 20th century, the once upscale estates were home to the Husseinis and the Nashashibis. The Jews who bought the homes in the 1920s and ‘30s fled after 1948, and Palestinians reoccupied the neighborhood. Ever since Jerusalem was unified in the 1960s, an ongoing legal battle between the Jewish families who fled in 1948 and the current Palestinian residents have left the neighborhood as a microcosm of the conflict. Police randomly evict the Palestinians, super-religious Jewish families are moving back in. They both hate each other. Neighborhood block parties are a definite no.
The homes are ill-kept, shoddy structures.
But the biggest, healthiest fig trees you have ever seen hang over the road laden with green fruit not quite ripe, while the pavement is covered with rotting leaves and figs from the last harvest. I can smell raw sewage in the air. Barefoot children dart between the fences and in and around our little group. They are used to onlookers, gawkers.
Our lecturer for the spot, a Palestinian who lives in one of the homes, arrives in flip-flops and a T-shirt. He is about 50, but looks much older. A little girl is tugging on his arm, trying to get his attention.
Muhammad, our driver, is leaning against the bus with Eli and his automatic weapon, waiting, listening, watching.
The Palestinian waits while Benny, a religious Jew from Canada and one of my friends at university, completes his presentation, worth 25 percent of his grade.
Benny makes his closing remarks and turns the moment over to the Palestinian. The man takes a deep breath and holds up a stack of faded pictures of Palestinian revolutionaries who have visited his house and joined his weekly protest against Israel, against getting evicted from his home. His voice is rough, it cracks with emotion and years of heavy smoking.
He tells us the cousin of the murdered Palestinian boy Muhammad Abu Khdeir visited just last week; he is passionate, near frenzied. He zeroes in on Benny, begins to yell that “he and his people have it all wrong!” The guide steps in and reminds the man to address the whole class, that Benny was just turning in his homework.
Meanwhile, I am leaning against the stone wall. I want one of those figs, but they are all green. A sedan pulls up. An ultra-religious Jewish family emerges and enters a house across the street. The Palestinian “lecturer” gestures and bellows, “THIS is what I have to put up with, neighbors like THAT!” The family ignores the lot of us. We are irrelevant.
Then something startling happens. It is etched in my firmware. An enormous, beautiful black Arabian stallion trots into full view. An old giant of a man, a Palestinian, rides the horse with a young girl clutching his back. She can’t be more than five years old. She is wearing a brightly colored floral dress. A ring of flowers crowns her long, thick, jet-black hair. The horse is preening, agitated and proud.
The rider stops directly in front of our group. Eli stiffens. His right hand reaches for his rifle.
The old man on the horse raises a clenched fist high in the air. He reveals a broad, toothless smile and yells out a volley of Arabic phrases. Our Palestinian homeowner lecturer keeps lecturing us, oblivious to the gap-mouthed Arab knight and his maiden. One lectures, the other, fist high, yells. The little girl sits disinterestedly and pats the horse’s rump. Meanwhile, a little old lady sneaks out from behind a fence, a scarf crudely thrown over her hair, and begins harvesting the green figs. Young Palestinian boys are running through the street; I fear someone will get hurt.
In a heartbeat, the show is over. I’m back in the van. Shell shock. Culture shock.
When I come to my senses, I am at my bus stop waiting for a short ride home. The sun has nearly set. I hear fireworks and machine-gun fire. It is not an uncommon sound; Palestinians celebrate with violent noise. I shudder and pray the bus shows up quickly so I don’t have to stand in Wadi Joz alone for too long.
I sleep soundly that night. My micro-apartment is a converted bomb shelter.
This, at least, gives my mom and dad a little reassurance. My little cave, which has at times felt claustrophobic, is now a den of tranquility and safety in this Middle Eastern quagmire of angry Gazan rockets, kidnappings and murder.
The next morning, despite more rockets and sirens in the night, I’m back in class at Hebrew University. Life carries on in Jerusalem.
An understanding of the conflict is tough to come by unless you live through some of it, right? My colleagues share the experience. Katya, from Kyrgyzstan, explains she moved out of east Jerusalem because the riots had been keeping her up at night. Stefan, from Russia, shuffles into the classroom, slides into the seat next to me, takes some of my sliced turkey and munches, telling me how tired he is from the tour.
Someone asks if Benny is all right after the verbal attack by the Palestinian in Sheikh Jarrah. He nods and says the pro-Palestinian kids in Toronto were exponentially more hostile, which makes me shudder on the inside.
We wait for our professor quietly after that. I just eat my sliced turkey and dream about those figs. My mother loves figs. She would die to have a tree like that in our yard in Southern California.
In just over a week I’m beginning to acclimatize to the risk and violence. This morning, a pipe bomb was found near the gate of my town, the gate I travel through two, three times a day. In Ashkelon, where rockets fall every 20 minutes, the residents can’t sleep. Some have fled to Jerusalem to sit it out. I’m listening to fireworks or machine gun fire right now, I can’t tell which. My landlord shakes his head and laments sadly that he does not understand Hamas at all.
Then when my parents call we tend to talk about other things, about figs, family issues, my dog. When I talk about my life this past week it sounds like I made it up. Sitting through a rocket attack with a Holocaust survivor is grad school for real.
This class makes me ask myself if I should be afraid – then it hides the answer for the end. I hold onto the hope that a time is coming when there will be peace, when brothers can live together in unity, a time when terror no longer exists. Imagining is empty, however, and I will do better to pray.
On this rocky desert soil, I will pray that the end will come swiftly, that the world will judge right and wrong, and that children in Sheikh Jarrah will one day eat figs together, crowned with flowers, with no warhorses threatening to trample them under their mighty hooves.
The writer is a graduate student at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University of Jerusalem pursuing her masters in Israeli politics and society.