Jerusalem, Jerusalem…

Jerusalem, March 3, 2013

I’ve spent the past 30-ish hours in the breezy Middle Eastern air, and I still have a hard time believing I’m here. I love the weather, the food (every meal is served with warm, fluffy pitas with creamy hummus – which is actually pronounced with a defined “kh” sound from the back of your throat instead of a “h” – and ten different other types of dips), and the people who return my clumsy “Assalam alaykum” with a friendly smile, but I very soon realize that there is so much more to this land than the beautiful things I love.

The first realization lies in the very title of this long rambling post – the name of the city I am in. If somebody mentions “Jerusalem” now, it would mean little to me until I know where exactly he/she is referring to. The “Jerusalem” chock full of religious sites that people think about is the Old City. It is a maze of alleys and cobblestone streets connected together by equally small pathways and half-closed gates that always seem to lead to longer alleys of colorful cashmere scarves, black and white keffiyeh, fruit stands with plump oranges and bananas, churches, synagogues, and mosques. Yet “Jerusalem” also includes East and West Jerusalem, the two separate sides where Israelis and Palestinians live. “Jerusalem” also includes Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, highway roads that are not open to Palestinians, and modern silver trams that are actually built illegally in Palestinian area. Jerusalem is not a corpus separatum under international control, yet it does not belong to a country, either.

The second realization came when I saw the living evidences of what I read in Al Jazeera and Mondoweiss about Palestinians’ deteriorating living conditions. We met Eid, the leader of a group of Bedouin people living less than half an hour away from the center of the Old City, in his place, a big, open hut on a steep hill right off a highway. The hut was propped standing with some wooden sticks and covered on three sides with fabric, surrounded by houses poorly built without any proper tin roofs and mostly protected by heavy blue fabrics on most sides. We talked for what seemed like forever about how they were forced out of their lands, how they came here, how they struggled to make a living out of their withering flocks, how their children had to walk about 20km every day to school, and how all the girls dropped out at an early age because they did not have the energy to walk to school and back. Where they lived barely had running water, so at the beginning, they used to drill holes in the pipes taking water to the settlements, and use the leaked water. Now, even with a water meter, their water use was still restricted. As for education, they tried to build a school for the children in the hope that more could pursue an education, and the project has been working well so far. We visited the school – a clump of newly-built small classrooms with bright painting on the walls and doors. The school stood out in the whole area as the most stable and lively structure – amidst roofless huts, grassless ground and black water tanks, the cemented classrooms with their purple doors seemed to contain all hope and liveliness. The barefooted children, aged approximately from four to ten, smiled brightly at our cameras and were happy to resume their game of chasing each other around the playground after waving hello to us. I could not help but wonder if they grow up knowing that they are living under occupation, and that their parents are fighting every day for the most basic needs such as food and water.

I had expected these images before I came, but still felt extremely uncomfortable when I saw firsthand the living conditions of Palestinian refugees. It’s not that I haven’t seen poverty or struggle for education before – an hour away from my home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, there are people who have to survive with less than 2 USD a day, and there are children drowned when they try to cross flooding rivers to get to school. It’s knowing that the Bedouin people are denied access to better living conditions that makes me unnerved. Eid said that he only wanted to have lands for his flocks of goats and camels, as well as a good education for his children. Those seem like simple and reasonable wishes, don’t they?

After we came back to our hotel and had dinner (chicken, rice, and vegetable cooked upside down, molded in a big metal pot and served with tart yogurt, and of course more pita with humus), we sat together to debrief what we had experienced so far. In the food-induced coma and the unrelenting sleepiness, I was struck with another big realization. When I pieced together what Angela, an Israeli woman working for the Israel Committee against House Demolition, and Orna, our kind host in the first day, had said, the contrast took me aback. While Orna trusted that the Israeli army was moral and only trained to do what they needed to protect their country, Angela was jaded with the “morality” of the same army because she believed they used defense as an excuse to force violence upon other people. While Orna was confident that Israeli textbooks did not teach children to hate, Angela believed that Israeli children were immensely influenced by the “us vs. them” mentality that they grew up learning from the textbooks. Yet the contrast between what they said is less shocking for me than the realization that they were both telling the truths – not the widely accepted truths, but the truths from their points of view. How do we even begin to reconcile different truths from people of the same “side”?

The word “Jerusalem” feels like a reminiscence of a far, faraway past, when empires were redrawing the world map through bloody conquers, and religious waves were rousing different communities to make changes and to stand up for what they believed in. The well-worn cobblestone streets and thousand years of history wrapped in every brick definitely do not belie that nostalgia. Yet Jerusalem today is also very modern and relevant, with conflicts seeping through every walk of life and dividing the city population in half, as well as visible signs of struggle only twenty minutes away from the city center. We are leaving Jerusalem for a kibbutz in the north now, but I really can’t wait to come back and peel off more layers of this beautiful yet complex city.

I feel like it still is too early to say that I’ve had the epiphanies of my life, but what I got to see so far has certainly pushed me far out of my comfort zone. It’s only the second day – so I am looking forward to more good food, great weather, and incredible stories of liveliness and persistence to survive in the harshest conditions.

Until then,
Thinh.

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