Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Friday, August 27, 2010

How did I get from Istanbul to Iraq--081710-Istanbul, Turkey & Erbil, Iraq

It is the first time I make such a trip by bus. I am used to travel but the longest I've been in a bus is 10 hours. Well, actually, I made a long trip from Turkey to Romania, that took 22 hours, but it was by train and I had a bed. We got to the bus station like 10 minutes before the bus was supposed to depart to Iraq(10:00). I think this is the Middle East, so is acceptable and also I think Turkish time is like Puertorican time, when you specify a time, it means one hour later, so I was able to catch the bus. The trip from Turkey to Iraq takes approximately 30 hours. We departed from Istanbul at about 11:00. I was really nervous because I didn't know how to expect and because I have no knowledge of Turkish or Kurdish. I was assigned a travel partner, Merivan, a Kurdish guy that was traveling also to Erbil, so he took care of me all the trip. There is always people that take care of me wherever I go!

Getting out of Turkey on the way to Iraq, we made a number of stops. I lost the count! Ones for eating, smoking, WC. Being on the road, you can notice the transition when we move to the Kurdish part of Turkey, the infrastructure is less, and more countryside, less developed. A little bit similar to what you see in Israel when you move from West to East Jerusalem. You can tell where the government is spending the money and where it doesn't.

We got to the Turkey-Iraq frontier, almost 24 hours later at 09:00 and it took us 1 hour and 40 minute to pass the Turkish customs. There was a long line of trucks full of cement and other materials. We were on a different line, cars, taxis and buses only. You could see the drivers running from one side to the other, passport in hand. The Turkish people in the bus got off to buy a stamp. I was scared because I didn't check if I needed a visa to enter Iraq, I started to become anxious but after all they stamped my passport with no problem. I always do it at some point (mess it!), like in Egypt last week.

Once stamped in Turkey, it was the Iraqi customs. The Iraqis took all of our passports and we entered a big waiting room, with very comfy leather seats, TV and air conditioning. I started to like Iraq. The room was full of people, mostly men. They were calling names of people from different counters. The customs officer looked at my passport and then looked at me, then he showed it to another officer and then said something and looked at me again. I didn't know what that meant. Another officer called me, he had beautiful olive green eyes and he asks me where I am going, I tell him to Erbil, and he asks me what was my job and I tell him I'm a student. What is my address, I don't know, I'm visiting my Kurdish friends, he smiles and he stamped my passport. They only gave me a visa for 10 days. All together like half an hour. I love Iraq.

In Turkey the temperature is very hot but is humid. You feel sweaty all the time, like Puerto Rico. Iraq is dry, the air feels dry (very uncomfortable for me). On top of that the AC broke in our bus. We still have 2 or 3 hours to get to Erbil, and if we keep stopping we will never get there. This people smoke and eat a lot, so they stop everytime. Can we please stop stopping!

Eventually, we made it around 16:00. My friend came to pick me up and gave me a tour of Erbil, the capital city of Kurdistan. According to wikipedia a city of little more than a million people, with a large majority being Kurds and a small minority of Assyrians. My friend Alan is one of them. Actually he lives in Ankawa, a suburb od Erbil with a predominantly Assyrian/Chaldean population. Legend says Ankawa was founded in the second century by Saint Thomas the Apostle. It is one of the oldest Christian settlements in Iraq, a land that has deep roots for several Christian denominations, including Chaldeans and Assyrians.

The citadel that was built about 7000 years and now is nominated for the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. He explained that there are two main roads that circle the citadel, one is the 60 meter street and the other is the 100 meter road, while the city kept growing it kept expanding around the citadel. We passed by the bazaar or market and because we were in Ramadan, the restaurants have a curtain, to not show the food to be respectful of the Muslim fating for the holy month of Ramadan. That way through respect, tolerance is promoted and coexistence emerges. I think that this is the key to the successful coexistence here in the Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ramadan the Turkish experience......Istambul, Turkey--081310

This is my first experience of Ramadan in a Muslim country, Turkey! I cam the day Ramadan starting. I am staying with a Kurdish family in Istanbul. The first two days I was taking it easy. I didn't do anything touristic, just relaxing and spending some time with the family. I did my hair and later went for a walk on the neighborhood. We passed by the bazaar and got some makeup and two shirts. The girls at the store were really cute and were teaching me some Turkish. We went out at night for a walk and to meet Mehmet, one of our friends from school.

The second night we went to another cafe where they had live music. The third day we went out from the house earlier and we took a bus and the driver ran over a guy that was crossing to try to catch the bus. It was a terrible, the guy was caught up in between the bus. Thank God that Mahir started screaming to the bus driver to stop the bus otherwise the driver would have driven over the man's body. Everyone went off the bus and people including me were in shock. I was so nervous that I started crying. Mahir saw everything and he said that it was the guy's fault for trying to cross the street when the bus was turning and the bus hit him and he was caught in between the front and back of the bus. After that shocking experience, I was paranoid about crossing the street the rest of the day. After this we caught a ferry to the Asia continent...The views were really beautiful!!!

When we were going back to the house, had a second incident with a different bus. The driver hit another bus and the two drivers wanted to fight. This was in the Asian part of Turkey. After these two experiences, I started to reflect on the meaning of Ramadan nowadays! People fast for more than 15 hours in the hot summer weather, and they still have to do the things they do regularly, but except that they can't eat or drink. For me it is not practical nor healthy. Is ok if you are staying home, resting and praying but if you have to work and be outside under the sun at 35دC, it can be dangerous for you and for the people around you. You are tired and your mood is not good because you are hungry and thirsty; you get even violent. That takes away the holiness out of the whole fasting purpose. Mahir was telling me that he read that the prophet fasted only for the last years of his life and that it was never during the summer.

Ramadan is supposed to be a means to control your desires, by fasting you become stronger in spirit. By fasting you also feel weak and vulnerable and it helps you appreciate the things that you have. But not drinking water in a weather that is extremely hot is never going to make you stronger. Then at the end of the 15 hour fasting you eat so much, that you feel completely full, so I don't understand why you have to put your body and even your health at risk for 15 hours daily for a whole month. Well don't get me wrong, I do get the point, but what I say is that is too risky and after all people keep smoking, drinking and doing the same things and not changing their behavior. So, Ramadan, as has also become Lent and Easter in modern times, have become something cultural but without a real life changing effect, a in modern Christian tradition. A month where you do some sacrifice, give up something for a short period of time, but at the end you really don't change the bad behaviors which should be the ultimate goal, to have a definitive transforming effect.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Some reflections on the way from Istanbul to Iraq--081610--Istanbul, Turkey -Erbil, Iraq

On the way to Iraqi-Kurdistan from Istanbul, with a long trip ahead of me. I don’t know what to think, what to say, what to do, what to write……Thirty hours to go, and enough to think and reflect about the past month and a half that I have been here. Sometimes I that that it has been worthless, that all this time have passed and I don’t see or perceive anything new, but what were my expectations? My expectations were to see, to feel, to hear, to smell and to live the Arab-Israeli conflict.

To that respect, what can I say? I have lived here for 5 weeks, deep into the struggle. The first week was full of lectures, and meetings, with people and organizations that work on a daily basis with different aspects of the conflict. I met professors, students, Palestinians, Israelis, soldiers and civil society all of them experimenting the conflict from a different perspective. In addition I traveled around the country, (both of them) and was able to see how, day by day, some live the conflict while others pretend to live as it didn’t exist. But it does, how to negate it? I DID see it and nobody can say otherwise, nobody can tell me that what I saw was a product of my imagination.

• I saw how a whole village was demolished and how over 300 Bedouins from the Negev saw their homes destroyed.
• I saw how in Jerusalem, certain areas are more developed while others suffer from lack of infrastructure.
• I heard how Israeli citizens that don’t support its country’s racists policies nor the occupation are marginalized professionally and in all aspects of social life and I saw how others that had “served their country” still carry the permanent wounds on their bodies.
• I saw how movement is restricted by means of checkpoints, roadblocks and random policies, including making it hard for tourists who want to visit religious places in the Palestinian territories to prevent the economical development that comes with tourism.
• I heard how Palestinian students are prevented from studying certain careers that are critical for the development of a country and the health of its citizens. How they are detained under administrative detention to prevent their professional development and opportunities to go abroad and most of all their future contribution to their nation.
• I heard how the occupation and militarization affect the physical and mental health of pregnant women. How hard is for a pregnant woman to manage pregnancy under the occupation and the long term effect that it has on the newborn’s health.
• I saw how occupation affect psychologically the children that live in the refugee camps, how they grow with feelings of hate towards the only israelis they get to know during their lives: the Israeli soldiers.

From my part I can say that it was harder than I thought. The physical conditions, the isolation of being all the time working in the farm, far from the ‘real world” made it hard for me to adapt to the new environment. Working long hours not only physically but mentally, didn’t help. It has been tiring and to tell the truth a little frustrating. I thought I would enjoy more, but must of the times I was so tired and I didn’t have the energy of writing or analyzing what was happening around me. I didn’t even have the time to read the news. What I knew was because either I was going through it or one of my fellow interns told me about what they were working in their organizations.

I still have a lot to process, analyze and re-analyze. I have many stories, pictures and most of all experiences. I felt frustrated, first, because, there is no clear path to solve this conflict. Everyone seems to have their own interpretations of what is the conflict. Many seem to coincide in that the occupation is the only problem and that the end to the occupation will be the end of the conflict. But is it worth only to end the occupation if many of the discriminatory policies against Palestinians are coming from the pseudo-democracy called Israel which is discriminating against is 1.2 million Arab citizens? They are discriminated in terms of employment, education, property, amongst others. Even discriminated when they have to choose who to marry with and live for the rest of their lives.

Others argue that the solution lies in the creation of two-states. This is un-realistic! If the two states are going to be defined with the facts on the ground that the Israeli state has created this is not a sustainable and definite solution either. It could be by name, but it will not promote the safety of the Israeli citizens. The situation on the ground is that Israel controls the infrastructure, the borders and the access to water of Palestinians. It has placed strategically half a million of its citizens, armed, within the Palestinian territories, and it has not been for lack of space inside Israel and it utilizes for its benefit the natural resources located in Palestinian land. As Dr. Shenhav said, the two state solution is immoral and it perpetrates Jewish supremacy. In the partition plan, the Jews were granted 55% and the Arabs 45% of the land, today the ratio is 82% to 18% so what kind of a two-state solution is this? This 18% is controlled by Israeli military, there is no territorial continuity and is divided into 4 cantons which are ruled municipally but not on political sovereignty. There is no justice element in this solution.

The one-bi-national-state option with Israelis and Palestinians living in a democracy, not only a Jewish democracy but one that represents its true demography seems to be an alternative, but is not one that is widely accepted because it represents a threat to what is now the state of Israel, and what it was created for: a safe haven for the Jewish people. The fear of a bi-national state comes when we take into consideration the Palestinians of the occupied territories (4M) and the ones living in Israel (1.2M), this will represent 50% of the population. It has been demonstrated that the Palestinians growing rate is higher than the Jewish and that eventually the Palestinians will become the demographic majority which will mean that the Jews will become the minority in a short time. I think that no Jew is in a position of accepting this as a solution and they prefer to maintain the Palestinians at the other side of the wall and that way they feel safer. Then we are back to the beginning of the problem. Can somebody help me?? Someone has a better idea?

Well, I still have three months for more analysis, more conversations and more experiences; therefore I don’t want to be frustrated anymore, I want to be positive. I have come to understand a little the Israeli perspective, but that does not justify the oppression, the racism and the violence with which Palestinians are treated. No violent regime is sustainable; it is a vicious circle that creates more violence, more hate and intolerance. This is not the way to solve this or any other conflict. I’m not saying that either part is better than the other, because both parts have done horrible things. I want to be a little idealist and think that it could help if we present both actors like the human beings they represent, with no part being less human than the other. It is easy to dehumanize the other side because that way we can justify our actions. Sometimes I think that this is the root cause of this conflict that we always want to present the other part as less human. Palestinians are terrorists and we cannot have any mercy with them, either they are children or women or old people. Then horrible things happen, like the 1500 Palestinians killed during operation Cast Lead. Or when the IDF took a boat in international waters and this resulted in the killing of civilians and the eyes of the world look at Israel with an accusing eye and we generalize and make all Israelis accountable for this atrocity and the international community accuses Israel of state terrorism. None of this helps to solve the conflict, but it creates more tension. If we humanize both parts and if we looked at the things we have in common, like the desire to co-exist and to recognize and respect the right of the other to live in peace, don’t you think that things will be different?

From Ramallah to Eilat to Taba..Welcome to Egypt- Ramallah, W.B. –Eilat, Israel- Taba, Sinai Peninsula 080510

Yesterday was the last day of our internship, we met at Ramallah and had a meeting with journalists that work here in Palestine covering the Is/Pal conflict from the Palestinian perspective. We talked about the role of the media in this conflict and how the media shapes or determines what news is and what is not. To the question if there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza they said that from their perception of how things look in the ground, supermarkets are full of food and chocolate and other supplies. If that is an indicator of a humanitarian crisis, then to their eyes there was no humanitarian crisis, but they left it clear that they are not the ones to determine that, they are just there and they describe the situation as they see it on the ground. They say they have free access to Gaza and they have been only prevented in cases of war, like last operation Cast Lead. They were clear that they only cover demonstrations and peace initiatives from either Palestinian or Israeli side based on numbers; they talked about the specific case of Sheikh Jarrah and the weekly demos because they have had numbers. From the Israeli perspective of the left initiatives he they said that they don’t pay attention at all the small initiatives because it can mislead the public. They said that people could think that this is what the whole population is leaning to, when in fact the reality is that the majority of the people in Israel, looking at the parliament composition is leaning to the right.

After the end of the day, we went back to Jerusalem through the Qalandia checkpoint, a checkpoint famous for its crowds of people, traffic and confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. It was my first time through the Qalandia checkpoint, but I was ok because I was with the people from my group. We got into one of the buses and there was a big line to cross. When it was our turn, the soldiers went into the bus to check everyone. Reda, one of my friends, who is French-Moroccan, was nervous because he didn’t get a stamp at the airport, which could mean he can get into trouble when the soldiers come to check everyone’s passport. They do this often at the airport, so people don’t get easily into the West bank due to the security checks, he thought it was his last day on the country, because he might get deported or something like that. We all got through all right, including Reda….Then after we crossed, we had to change buses, not sure why, but here again, all complicated to the Palestinians or any one who dares to cross to and from the West Bank. We went into Jerusalem to the guys’ (Yuri and Jordan, two Jewish students from my internship) apartment in East Jerusalem. It was around 7pm which means it took us more than one hour to get from Ramallah to Jerusalem. I was supposed to get into a bus to Eilat at midnight to cross into Egypt. The guys ordered shawarma and then I went to take a so needed nap! When I woke up, it was time to get going to the bus station, my friend Mathilde had bought the tickets, she was going to Petra with some other friends and I was going to Egypt. Me and Justin walked into the bus station. He said it was a 40 minute walk and I was all the time complaining that if we were not in time I was going to kill him. Finally we got there like 15 minutes before the bus started to board. We got in, and there were more people than seats in the bus. There were three people laying in the floor, including one soldier with his big gun in his lap. It looked so funny to see the soldier, most probably tired and trying to get home, just laying there in the floor. We tried to sleep, in the back of the bus, but it was really uncomfortable, we were trying to get on top of one another trying to find a comfortable position to fall asleep, it never happened, when we did, the bus stopped for a break. We looked like a domino set, one on top of each other, legs, hands and heads. We got there at 4 am in the morning and there were no more bus service to the border, the taxis were expensive, and the drivers very rude. I started to walk away from the bus station to get another taxi hopefully less expensive, but in the end it was more or less the same, I saved 7 shekels (about $2). Finally, on the border I went through like in 2 minutes, I couldn’t believe that my friends were 2 hours on the customs, being questioned about their trip, but I just went though in 2 minutes. That is why I made the decision to make the trip though the land border crossing. It was safer and less stressful. Well, after I passed, I had still to go through the Egyptian security, in which the customs officer made me take uot my computer from my bag and he asked me to turn on my computer, and I thought, oh no, they changed the Israeli customs into the Egyptian border, so when I was turning on my computer, he said ok, YOU CAN GO! Crazy….But that’s not all. I had a small problem and that was that my Egyptian re-entry visa was expired, I knew it but I forgot. When I left Egypt I got a re-entry visa at the border, this is just to avoid going into the consulate to get another entry visa, what I forgot was that the visa was only valid for one month and my stay in Israel was of 1 month 5 days……So, I tried to get away with it and put an 8 into the date in the re-entry visa (a little bit of corruption) meaning August 29 instead of July 29. The Egyptian officer stamped my visa and then realized that there was something wrong. He said that I could not go to Cairo, that I needed to go back to Eilat, Israel (thank you) to get a new visa…..and he CANCELED my stamp. He gave me a 15-day Sinai only visa, but banned me to go to Cairo….. Thank you Egyptian custom officer I liked the Israeli custom better. Well, I was too tired to complain, so I will attempt to go to Cairo unnoticed or see what else I can do but I’m not going back through Israeli customs to get an Egyptian visa, no way. These Egyptians are crazy, every country gives a 3-month multiple entry visa, I don’t have money for this……the best is to come, an Egyptian looking puertorican trying to pass Egyptian security to make it into Cairo……(here: mission impossible music!)

Going back a little bit: Recount of the Dead Sea, Jericho and the Unholy city.... July 16-17

On the weekend, after an intense week working at the summer camp, and despite the really hot weather, we decided to explore Jericho, Ariha in Arabic. The city is believed to be the world’s oldest city and at 250 m below the sea level, it is also the lowest city in the world. It is located in the middle of the Jordan desert. As we moved south from Bethlehem, we saw the landscape changing from the white limestone rock, to the golden mountains. It is brutally hot. This is the city that at the blast of Joshua’s trumpet, its walls tumbled down. The taxi left us at the city center, the new city, and we took another taxi to the old city, 4 km away. Despite of Paolo’s insistence on walking, I manage to negotiate with him to climb the Mount of Temptations to the monastery. We climbed to the monastery that now lies on the edge of the cliff, where is believed that is where the devil tempted Jesus. I hiked the hill at mid-morning, when it was very hot. I stopped a couple of times to take a rest. After almost one hour, and once up there, at the entrance of the monastery, there were two Muslim women that told us that the monastery was closed. They started laughing and so we did! There was a man that opened the gate and we entered in a group of 7 people. The monk there gave each of us a glass of cold water and showed us around the monastery. We went into a room full of beautiful icons and upstairs a small chapel with a balcony that overlooked the whole city of Jericho. I stayed there quiet and prayerfully for a couple of minutes, then the monk started to make a sign that it was time to move on and finish our visit because of the other visitors that were waiting outside. On the way down, we lost the way for some time but we were able to find it again. A small road that led into a water spring. We finally got down and back into the new city for a snack and we met Abu Omar, a taxi driver that offered some help since he had met some of the other student interns from our program that had come the day before. He was very friendly and offered to take us to the Dead Sea. He also showed us a cheap hotel and even went with us to take a look at the place. After taking some supplies, mostly water, we headed to the Dead Sea. The weather was really hot as we drove there. We got into Kalia beach in the West Bank side of the Dead Sea. There, we paid 40 NIS to get into the beach. The view of the Dead Sea and the mountains on the Jordan side was amazing. A very colorful landscape, taking into consideration that we were in the desert, water, mountains and a well place infrastructure with showers, gazebos and even music and a shop. I noticed that all visitors were foreigners. At he beach entrance, there were instructions on how to get into the sea and the do’s and don’ts to getting into the water. Showers with a high water pressure made me think about the water tanks on top of Palestinian houses. I think I saw one single Palestinian family in this private beach complex.

So, I was there by the Dead Sea, eight times the concentration of regular sea water. People walking around with dark green mud all over their bodies, they looked like aliens. So, I went into the sea, just to have the experience. I was very hesitant because all the things I leaned about how contaminated the Jordan River is, which is the water supply to the Dead Sea. It was really hard to walk in since the bottom of the sea is mud and it is uneven, you immediately sink, it feels as if you were about to be swallowed by it. SO I decided to sit and I felt the effect, almost immediately you are floating. You really sit and float. The water feels slippery over your body and kind of oily. The sensation is amazing, but is nothing like swimming on the Caribbean. After a couple of minutes, I had enough. At one point I got water into my mouth and the taste is awful, is like a mixture of salt and oil and is bitter. You cannot really stay that much, is hot and oily and not so refreshing. The cool thing is the floating. I went out and had my body washed of all this salt. Feeling guilty of spending that much water, that was anyway taken away from the Palestinians, which I guess are not allowed in, I’m not sure if we are in Area C (under Israeli military control).

Besides us in the gazebo, there was a couple from Kazakhstan. They asked me to look up after their stuff while they went on the water. On the speakers, they were playing some meringue music from a Puerto Rican singer, Elvis Crespo. Suddenly, I had a thought of how we are exploiting the Palestinian resources, specifically, the water. How much water is spent for tourist to take a bath on the Dead Sea. The lady from Kazakhstan said something that I didn’t understand only after she smiled. She said good bye Casto Rico. I smiled and said good bye. Later, I went one more time into the water, and got some of the mud over my face. Abu Omar picked us up and took us to a near by town called Azariya to take the bus back to Jerusalem. We bought some cactus fruits from a boy selling them in the street. He peeled one and showed me how to eat them without getting the thorns, eventually I did get them all over my fingers anyway. So, we took bus 36 to Jerusalem and stopped at a checkpoint, where we had to get of f and show our passports. They asked Paolo what he was doing and he surprised replied; I’m on holidays the soldier then asked him if it was a nice country!!!! He took my passport and started to pass the pages without looking for anything specifically and then he gave it back to me and we went into th bus again and went to the Damascus Gate. We slept on the roof of the Petra Hostel. It was the best sleep I had since I been here, together with Ramallah!

We woke up around 07:30 to the sound of the church bells. It felt just right to be in Jerusalem. Being here, and doing what I’m doing, even though sometimes I think I’m crazy. Just leaving everything, deferring my semester and living in a Palestinian farm with no water, or electricity, even though we do have solar panels which produce the necessary electricity to run the farm. Well, back to being in Jerusalem; we just walked down the alleys of the Christian quarter, on our way to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, looking for a mass. We eventually found an Italian one, at 10 am, which inside the church is 09:00, I’m not sure exactly why it is one hour before. After mass, we went walked around the holy city for the afternoon and we climbed into the Mount of Olives and on the top we had a beautiful view of the Old city on the one side, and a view of the Separation wall on the other side. This are the kind of things that make you wonder, if it is a Holy City, when you have this wonderful views and you feel you are in a really holy place, and when you look to the side, you see soldiers and the clear signs of occupation right before your eyes, civilian men talking on walkie-talkies in Hebrew mingled with the tourist in the streets in the old city. Jewish men with the kippas entering a house with the Israeli flag, in the middle of the Muslim quarter. On top of the Mount of Olives if you look well, you can see the wall a few kilometers from the old city. It really hurts to see all this things at once, it is confusing, and it bothers me that people walk the way of Jesus and not even stop to ask the right questions, they visit the places they feel comfortable visiting and don’t see the reality of the “Holy Land”. How can a place with so much injustice, segregation and racism can be called a Holy land. How come in the name of religion could we justify such atrocities as house demolitions, whole families being evicted and sleeping in front of their houses? Let’s call it what it is, Inequality and injustice land, unholy land???.