29 December 2006

my absent god.

Meet my new hero, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. Check out more interviews and a Q and A in Virginia on Youtube.
My other newfound hero is the eloquent Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. Although he gets on a bit of an anti-Islam tirade at the end, which distracts from the "Christian nation" theme, his section on comprehensive sex ed, HIV/AIDS, the HPV vaccine, and the religious right's objections thereto won my heart. I think it's all well and good if your faith gives your life meaning, but I think many people forget that that's their life, not necessarily everyone else's. If said faith leads you to selectively deny people information that could save their life, then you've lost all right to preach moral superiority over my heathen life. And let's not get me started on the hypocrisy present in much of the American religious right - if you can't practice what you preach, then don't judge my life as a consolation. My actions reflect my values, and I'm quite content with that.

Lest I sound as judgmental as those who frustrate me to no end, let me clarify that the vast majority of my anger is directed solely at the "extremists" to which Harris addresses his letter. I don't take issue with religion and god on the individual level - I don't see the point, but then I'm sure many don't see the point in not believing in a god or afterlife. But if it inspires you to do good and help others, I'm not one to judge intentions. Truce.

But when religion has been elevated to the point where challenging its basic tenets is inherently wrong, we're dangerously limiting ourselves as a society. For a long time, I called myself an agnostic so I "at least believed in something," since the notion of atheism is difficult to swallow. Then I realized the absurdity of lying about my beliefs so as not to frighten others. I wouldn't lie about my political or social views, and I think my readiness to hide my atheism illustrates just how pervasive religion has become. Rest assured, I do believe in something - love, passion, helping others, and leaving this world somehow a better place, even if only for one person, for my having lived in it.

On to happier thoughts - Merry Christmas (ahh, the irony cuts like a knife) and a Happy New Year. I actually kept my resolution last year (vegetarianism), for the first time in my life, so now I'm excited by the potential laid out before me for the coming year. What to resolve?

My care package to a group stationed in Iraq arrived, and I got a thank you email on Christmas from the soldier who distributed it to everyone. It warmed my heart in a way the commericalism of the holiday season just can't - turns out I was the first college woman to send anything. Best Christmas present ever - thanks AnySoldier.com! Everyone else should go send a package, especially all you crazy liberals out there who supposedly hate the troops. Changing the world, one person at a time.

15 December 2006

and this too shall pass.

So here I am, in my last few days in Gainesville and at UF, and I'm not quite sure what to think. I love this town and the people I've met here - to me, this is home. So many people are talking about going "home for the holidays," and I just don't feel that. I haven't spent more than a few weeks at a time in Orlando since I moved to Gainesville, and now it just feels like a vacation destination. Time flies - it seems like just yesterday I was a high school graduate getting lost in New York, shopping for towels and dishes, and excitedly taking every flier at the study abroad fair. I never imagined that three years later, I'd have traveled on four continents and fallen in love with the Middle East. If I've learned anything in the past few years, I've given up on five year plans - I end up trashing them in a few months anyway. From here on out, I'm following my heart and seeing where I end up. Feel free to visit.

On the topic of foreign countries, check this out - it's an interactive world map that identifies every country for you. Then, play the game and identify them as quickly as you can - my record is 96. It's like crack for nerds - you'll be addicted after a round or two.

Since my Peace Corps service won't start for a while, check out Blogger's latest featured writer, Aaron, who's currently working on technology education in Togo. For those interested in redecorating their houses, I'm definitely getting one of these as soon as I live with running water. If you'd rather save the world, the Reitz Scholars at the University of Florida are participating in Relay for Life again, and although I won't be there to walk with the team, I'd appreciate anyone's help in fundraising (proceeds go to cancer research). Click here to donate!

"It's funny, you work so hard, you do everything you can to get away from a place, and when you finally get your chance to leave, you find a reason to stay." - Ethan Hawke in Gattaca.
ps. i love you.

09 December 2006

best weekend ever.

I take back what I said about not liking children. Apparently I just didn't know the right ones. Everyone should go volunteer at Camp Boggy Creek. Right now. Download the application and submit it today. If you're not in the greater southeastern United States, sew a bear or make a quilt or afghan for the kids. So how did heartless Jessica end up at a kid's camp? After Matt told me about his amazing time at camp, I was inspired. He's generally pretty bright, so when I enrolled in Exceptional People and had to fulfill my service hours, I figured this was as good a time as any to see if all the hype was true.

It was. This place is incredible. The kids are amazing. Someone said that all world leaders should come to camp and experience the "Boggy spirit," and speaking as a cynic who loves the Middle East dearly, I agree. It was the most positive, supportive, and flat-out inspiring 48 hours I've ever witnessed. Dozens of kids playing together, no fighting, no teasing, just pure love and encouragement. You'd see a couple of kids playing a game together, and another one would want to play, so they'd pass the ball over or give up their ping pong paddle, no questions asked, no whining. There's a talent show on the last day, and I've never seen people, let alone kids, cheer for each other like that. If someone forgot the words to their song or missed a step for their dance number, the entire crowd would cheer them on. Everyone got a "standing O." Silly cheers and songs, and even the parents and grandparents were getting into the dances. Seriously, it's pretty much the most inspiring place on earth.

I was a "family pal," which meant I was paired up with a camper and his family (in this case, mom and younger sister) all weekend, playing with the kids while their mom could have some time off and bond with the other parents. This was heart weekend, so all the kids had some sort of heart condition (but you wouldn't know it playing with them!). Even shooting myself at the archery range couldn't bring me down. We made and decorated cakes in honor of the 10th anniversary of camp, then ate them for breakfast on Sunday. Even a breakfast of frosting couldn't disrupt the spirit of camp! We had quite a few gator cakes, which more than made up for going to the big dance instead of watching the Gators dominate the SEC championship. There's not much cuter than kids doing the Gator chomp! And who doesn't love decorating cakes? I watched one kid make this gorgeous double layer cake, and the look of pride on his face when everyone told him how delicious it was was absolutely priceless.

After meals, the camp directors read the thank you notes left by campers, families, and volunteers - a misty-eyed experience even for heartless me. It makes you realize just how much we take for granted, how little effort it takes to make someone's day, and how great it feels to be appreciated. To sum up how amazing Boggy Creek is, while my camper and I were walking down to the pool we talked about camp and life. Paraphrasing, he said that he doesn't really mind having a heart condition because it means he gets to come to camp, but he hates that people pity him because he's "a normal kid" just like everyone else. Honestly! Like watching Hotel Rwanda, if you go to camp and aren't moved, you have no heart.

29 November 2006

here i dreamt i was a soldier.

Yours truly has officially been nominated for Peace Corps service. Things are still subject to change, and I have to be medically cleared for service, but if all goes according to plan, I'll be working on an HIV/AIDS education and prevention program somewhere in non-French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa (country to be determined). This is pretty much my dream program, and it finally feels like my life plans are falling into place. If you have any questions or doubts about why I want to do this, go watch the documentary A Closer Walk, then talk to me.

On the topic of foreign countries, I booked a plane ticket today. I'm really going to Jordan (and as many other countries as possible) and not coming back to America until August 13. Side note: I find it rather morbid that I need to prove that my insurance will cover "repatriation of remains" in the event I meet a gruesome fate overseas. Practical, sure, but it certainly conjures up some unpleasant scenarios.

In the meantime, I'll get a slight international fix with a pre-Christmas cruise with five of my favorite people in the world. Six over-achieving, ambitious, overextended college students set loose in international waters fresh from final exams. MTV's Real World, are you watching?

And for your daily dose of community service, I just discovered a less cliched and more practical way to "support the troops" than putting a yellow ribbon on your bumper. Any Soldier distributes care packages and letters to troops overseas, focusing on those who don't get mail from loved ones back home. Snacks and letters beat the pants off magnetic ribbons anyday. I'm putting one together with the girls on my floor as a holiday/service themed program so we can all go home for the holidays with a warm, fuzzy respect for those who can't.

22 November 2006

breaking news: condoms cause diseases.


The Onion is hilarious. What I wouldn't give for America's new deputy assistant secretary of population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services to be an ironically funny Onion story, but sadly, it's reality.

16 November 2006

all politics is local.

While similar iniatives were shot down across the United States, South Africa, not historically regarded as a nation on the cutting edge of civil liberties, recently legalized same-sex unions, making it the first nation in Africa to do so. A provision allows religious leaders to refuse to perform ceremonies in the event of moral objections, and there is a concern that the move does not represent the will of the majority, but I say go South Africa! On that topic, my Peace Corps interview is next week. If things go according to plan, I'll be somewhere in East or Southern Africa when the World Cup comes to South Africa in 2010. Who wants to join me?

In other news, go watch season 7 of The West Wing. In addition to a young, female, Arabic-speaking top tier national security advisor working in the White House, a moderate pro-choice and eco-friendly California Senator runs as the Republican candidate for President and gets in trouble with the right for not attending church (swoon). He's not an Austrian body builder, but he is named Arnold. Is this our future? I can only hope - I'd love to see a win-win Presidential race in 2008.

13 November 2006

a perfect sonnet or one foolish line.

Pictured at left: one of the BBC.com's amateur pictures of the week. The echidna and platypus have always held a special place in my heart - something about freakish egg-laying mammals just speaks to me. Since Justin revived This British Life two months after actually moving to England (and removed me from his links as punishment for inactivity) and even Swamp Pundette returned, I felt compelled to at least make a brief appearance. Rest assured, I will be be back, albeit slightly less prolifically (brevity is the soul of wit, after all), once I relocate to Jordan in January, but in the meantime, rest assured I still have plenty to say.

At long last, the website from my May photojournalism trip to Berlin is up and running with the articles and photos from all of the students on the trip. Check out some fabulous student photography and journalism about my favorite city in the world.

In other news, the Middle East is as chaotic as ever, Joe Lieberman won reelection in Connecticut as an Independent, Donald Rumsfeld stepped down as Secretary of Defense, and Democrats now hold a majority in the House and Senate. I don't forsee a dramatic change in Iraq policy, but I'm feeling good about the squelching of a wave of conservative social policies. California and Oregon defeated parental notification amendments and South Dakota struck down its controversial abortion ban. Gay marriage bans did not fare as well, but you can't win them all, right? Perhaps even more exciting, Florida passed its amendment making it more difficult to amend its constitution, which could mean an end to pig and high speed rail amendments. Democracy at its finest!

...someone has a secret.

10 September 2006

must be strangely exciting to watch the stoic squirm.

In Arabic recently, I discovered that I was unable to say that I sold my ticket to the football game, but had no trouble discussing Iranian President Ahmadinejad's challenging Bush to a foreign policy debate, as well as the generally sorry state of US-Iranian relations, Iran's nuclear program, and the United Nations' (and the American veto's) role in said program. I know I'm studying this language in hopes of a career in diplomacy, but seriously, this seems a bit absurd.

While indulging my recent fixation with the BBC, I stumbled across this interesting, but disturbing, article on the border "tourism" that has developed in Israel as curious citizens come to visit the site of the recent war. Perhaps a bit morbid, but I can accept the curiosity. What's heartbreaking are the interviews with the citizens of the area and their conceptions of themselves and those on the other side. I've asked who are we to abandon hope for peace just because it will take hard work, but this makes me wonder if I really am as naive as I've been told. I hope not.

Secret of the Week:

Slowly but surely. You don't know it, but thank you.

06 September 2006

life is easier when it's just a blur.


My burning desire to play the cello is topped only by my secret dream to be some brilliant, dark-haired, successful man's trophy wife. Shhh, don't tell anyone - it doesn't really befit my "liberated woman" image.

Speaking of liberated women, the BBC is conducting an online panel Q & A with residents of Haifa (to follow a similar event with Lebanese citizens last week) where readers worldwide can ask questions about living through the war. "Hmm, that's interesting," I thought. "I wonder what sort of people they'll be interviewing." Scrolling down the bios, I was feeling pretty satisfied with the variety - men, women, Arabs and Jews, etc. Then I got to the last woman, Liz Halevy-Berger, who works as a counselor at a rape crisis center in Haifa. The same Rape Crisis Center in the basement of the Haifa Feminist Center, whose ground floor houses Isha L'Isha's offices. I sat in meetings with this woman. I probably met her unnamed colleague whose apartment was hit by a rocket. I don't even know what to think anymore, except that something has to change, and soon.

While I'm still preserving that illusion of liberation, it seems global warming is now taking aim at a treasured European pastime - the summer holiday. Is nothing sacred? And you laugh at my idealistic attempts to save the planet...if not for the trees, then at least for your beach vacation!

29 August 2006

the difference in the shades.

As always, school and saving the world have swallowed my life. I'm taking Exceptional People, a special education class about people with disabilities and relating to them, as well as anyone else different than you in some way. I haven't been this excited about a class since I started Arabic two years ago. Hands on assignments to illustrate firsthand life with disabilities - after the dark restaurant in Paris, I can't wait. Part of the class is a 20-hour volunteer requirement with a person or people different than you in some way. Going along with my renewed determination to read the texts and understand the major world religions, I think I'm going to try to volunteer with a Gainesville Christian church's youth group or something similar. I can't think of a group different than me that I'm more uncomfortable with, and that's the whole point of the exercise. Stepping (more like leaping) outside my box. Thoughts? Anyone involved with a church willing to take on an nonbelieving volunteer for a semester?

In other news, it's an eventful time in reproductive choice:

The Florida legislature cut funding for Life Management Skills (LMS) classes in high school (hence dropping it from graduation requirements) to focus more on FCAT subjects. Among other things, LMS included "health" (aka. sex education). Sex ed will now be included in the one credit of physical education required for graduation, placing the sexual health of Florida's high schoolers in the hands of the state's ever-so-competent PE teachers. Speaking as a FL high school graduate, I'm scared. We've all seen the sex ed scene in Mean Girls: "Don't have sex. You'll get chlamydia and die. Now everyone take a rubber." Except Florida isn't so big on the "everyone take a rubber" part. *sigh*

In brighter news, the FDA has approved the first of two HPV vaccines. It's expensive at the moment, but with HPV affecting an estimated 20 million people in the United States alone (many without symptoms) and several aggressive varieties linked to cervical cancer in women, this is a huge breakthough.

And most exciting of all, the FDA finally (after three long years and a few false alarms) approved emergency contraception (EC, or Plan-B) for over-the-counter sale to women and men over 18. While the age restriction is a disappointment, since the FDA and other researchers have recommended it for women under 16 as well, the fact that it will soon be available without a prescription is a major step towards preventing unintended pregnancies and hence abortions. Since it is a time sensitive medication (effective within 5 days of unprotected intercourse, but the sooner the better), this will mean women no longer have to wait for a doctor's visit during office hours for a prescription. It should be available over-the-counter by the end of the year, but education campaigns are already underway, so spread the good news.

22 August 2006

close to home.

It's been a month since I left Israel, and things don't appear to be smoothing out anytime soon. With Lebanon dominating the news of late, the situation in Gaza has fallen by the wayside. Not so today - the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council joined the growing list of Palestinian leaders arrested by the IDF. I met this man in Ramallah. I have his business card in my wallet. I didn't particularly like or agree with him, but just having met him makes this all seem so much more real.

There have been some interesting developments in the field of reproductive rights and sex education in Florida - details coming soon!

18 August 2006

pandora's other box.

I know I've completely stopped posting anything from my own head, but I'm drowning in RA training for the next week. I'd like to continue blogging (less frequently and less prolifically than I did this summer, however!) during the semester, but we'll see how that goes. This may become "Jessica's forays into the frightening and bewildering world of organized religion" as curiosity gets the best of me and I grow disgusted with my own ignorance.

In the meantime, the Music Genome Project's Pandora may very well be the greatest music website ever (as well as the best named). Just type in the name of your favorite band or artist, and it creates a playlist of songs by other artists with similar qualities. You can approve or reject the songs it picks, further shaping your station, and also add more artists to expand the playlist. Aside from talented friends (scroll down to listen), this is my new favorite way to expand my (admittedly narrow) musical horizons.

15 August 2006

europe - thy name is cowardice.

Hooray for discourse and the first amendment. Here's an editorial by Mathias Dapfner, CEO of Axel Springer AG, a major German publisher, on everyone's favorite cocktail party coversation starter, the "war on terror." For your reading pleasure...

***

A few days ago Henry Broder wrote in Welt am Sonntag, "Europe - your family name is appeasement." It's a phrase you can't get out of your head because it's so terribly true.

Appeasement cost millions of Jews and non-Jews their lives, as England and France, allies at the time, negotiated and hesitated too long before they noticed that Hitler had to be fought, not bound to toothless agreements.

Appeasement legitimized and stabilized Communism in the Soviet Union, then East Germany, then all the rest of Eastern Europe, where for decades, inhuman suppressive, murderous governments were glorified as the ideologically correct alternative to all other possibilities.

Appeasement crippled Europe when genocide ran rampant in Kosovo, and even though we had absolute proof of ongoing mass-murder, we Europeans debated and debated and debated, and were still debating when finally the Americans had to come from halfway around the world, into Europe yet again, and do our work for us.

Rather than protecting democracy in the Middle East, European Appeasement, camouflaged behind the fuzzy word "equidistance," now countenances suicide bombings in Israel by fundamentalist Palestinians.

Appeasement generates a mentality that allows Europe to ignore nearly 500,000 victims of Saddam's torture and murder machinery and, motivated by the self-righteousness of the peace movement, has the gall to issue bad grades to George Bush... Even as it is uncovered that the loudest critics of the American action in Iraq made illicit billions, no, TENS of billions, in the corrupt U.N. Oil-for-Food program.

And now we are faced with a particularly grotesque form of appeasement. How is Germany reacting to the escalating violence by Islamic Fundamentalists in Holland and elsewhere? By suggesting that we really should have a "Muslim Holiday" in Germany?

I wish I were joking, but I am not. A substantial fraction of our (German) Government, and if the polls are to be believed, the German people, actually believe that creating an Official State "Muslim Holiday" will somehow spare us from the wrath of the fanatical Islamists. One cannot help but recall Britain's Neville Chamberlain waving the laughable treaty signed by Adolph Hitler and declaring European "Peace in our time".

What else has to happen before the European public and its political leadership get it? There is a sort of crusade underway, an especially perfidious crusade consisting of systematic attacks by fanatic Muslims, focused on civilians, directed against our free, open Western societies, and intent upon Western Civilization's utter destruction.

It is a conflict that will most likely last longer than any of the great military conflicts of the last century - a conflict conducted by an enemy that cannot be tamed by "tolerance" and "accommodation" but is actually spurred on by such gestures, which have proven to be, and will always be taken by the Islamists for signs of weakness. Only two recent American Presidents had the courage needed for Anti-appeasement: Reagan and Bush.

His American critics may quibble over the details, but we Europeans know the truth. We saw it first hand: Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War, freeing half of the German people from nearly 50 years of terror and virtual slavery. And Bush, supported only by the Social Democrat Blair, acting on moral conviction, recognized the danger in the Islamic War against Democracy. His place in history will have to be evaluated after a number of years have passed.

In the meantime, Europe sits back with charismatic self-confidence in the multicultural corner, instead of defending liberal society's values and being an attractive center of power on the same playing field as the true great powers, America and China.

On the contrary - we Europeans present ourselves, in contrast to those "arrogant Americans", as the World Champions of "tolerance", which even (Germany's Interior Minister) Otto Schily justifiably criticizes. Why? Because we're so moral? I fear it's more because we're so materialistic, so devoid of a moral compass.

For his policies, Bush risks the fall of the dollar, huge amounts of additional national debt, and a massive and persistent burden on the American economy - because unlike almost all of Europe, Bush realizes what is at stake - literally everything.

While we criticize the "capitalistic robber barons" of America because they seem too sure of their priorities, we timidly defend our Social Welfare systems. Stay out of it! It could get expensive! We'd rather discuss reducing our 35-hour workweek or our dental coverage, or our 4 weeks of paid vacation... Or listen to TV pastors preach about the need to "reach out to terrorists. To understand and forgive".

These days, Europe reminds me of an old woman who, with shaking hands, frantically hides her last pieces of jewelry when she notices a robber breaking into a neighbor's house.

Appeasement?

Europe, thy name is Cowardice.

14 August 2006

strike one against germany.

As you well know, I love Germany. My love for Berlin introduced me to another Jessica who also loves Berlin, so much, in fact, that she moved there to teach English. And, coincidently, is also a Hoosier by birth. She's quite witty, so now that my life has resumed relative normalcy in Gainesville, if you need a "living abroad vicariously" fix, I highly recommend her blog.

I fell in love with Berlin because I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Apparently, the Germans also have a monopoly on some uniquely outdated and inconvenient, but utterly hilarious, toilet technology. I suggest you read it where people won't stare at you for laughing at your computer.

And for my classier readers, who believe toilet humor is beneath them, Matt has unleashed his inner Nietzsche. Then strike a balance with the intellectual humor of McSweeney's. Then stop fooling around online and do something productive.

13 August 2006

happy just because i found out i am really no one.

Seven weeks ago, I boarded a plane in Orlando, confident in who I was, where I was going, and what I believed. I had studied abroad or traveled in two dozen countries before landing in Israel and Palestine, and felt rather jaded to the "life-changing" effects of time in another country. I knew I would learn an absurd amount of information in a short time about one of history's most complex conflicts, but I felt sure such knowledge would not send my personal five-year plan into the trash can, leaving me questioning many of the principles I thought were carved in stone. I would spend my time in Haifa experiencing the Israeli-Palestinian feminist movement, drafting a powerful personal statement that would send me to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, and adding to the growing list of reasons the State Department would be foolish not to hire me one day. To everyone who told me I was crazy for going to a "dangerous" place like Israel, I would illustrate firsthand the idiocy of their close-minded and uninformed views.

Instead, I heard an air-raid siren, saw the inside of a bomb shelter, and evacuated from a city that had just begun to feel like home. Idealistic hopes for a peaceful solution collapsed in the face of a polarized reality, leaving me more determined but less hopeful than ever. My Jewish friends at home labeled me stupid and naive for ever believing the "terrorist" Arabs would settle for anything but Israel's complete obliteration. The Arab student community at the University of Florida labeled me an Islamaphobic, racist supporter of Israeli and American human rights violations, and rejected my study of a language I have grown to love as Orientalist. In the span of a week, I found myself suddenly unwelcome in the region I wanted to dedicate my life to bettering.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), my love of travel is rivaled only by my stubbornness. Stubborn, perhaps, but not close-minded. I walked away from Israel with a newfound love for the people of a nation whose policies I despised, and a frustration with the nation whose cause I supported wholeheartedly. I arrived in Israel a staunch Palestinian sympathizer. Initially put off by everyone's "are you Jewish?" inquiry within the first five minutes of introduction, I later realized no one really cared, they just wanted to know. The Israeli people welcomed me as an ally, always curious about my interest in their country and supportive of my intentions, a reaction I never expected given my vocal criticisms of their government. While my disdain for Israeli policy has not changed, I gained a new sympathy for the often precarious position in which Israel finds itself.

Simultaneously, I have grown to view the Palestinians not as innocent victims, but as an example of heartbreaking complacency and lost potential. The Palestinian people are the most educated in the Arab world, and yet promising young people feel they have no other options besides martyrdom as a suicide bomber. The territories are awash in wasted potential, and it angers me that they are willing to sit back and let a generation of young people fall victim to extremism. While the Israeli government needs to reexamine its policies, the Palestinians need to take a long, hard look at their own society before peace will ever be possible. My simultaneous support for and frustration with both sides of this conflict has angered and bewildered those who take sides, but I maintain that such neutrality is vital to a sustainable peace. I would rather see peace than victory for either side, and no amount of mudslinging will deter me from that cause.

Most disappointing about my time in Israel has been the overwhelming polarization of this conflict. People found me interesting (in a racist or positive way) precisely because I refused to choose a side. Even in my experience at an Israeli feminist peace organization, full of women far more critical of their government than I was, a sense of "us versus them" still pervaded the office. At the end of the day, the power dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians prevented the two from working together as genuine equals, much to my disappointment. Everyone in Haifa was proud to tell us about how well Jews and Arabs coexisted in their city, but not without first clarifying their own origins. If no one really cares what side you come from, then why does everyone ask?

Even in the peace movement, and most alarmingly in the general population, I felt a sense of hopelessness in regards to an eventual settlement. While a handful of people dedicate their lives to working for peace, thousands of others have resigned themselves to a life of conflict. Border crossings and security checks are a way of life. Everything can change in the blink of an eye, but only in the narrow scope of conflict. That possibility of sudden change does not appear to extend to a sudden peace, much to my dismay. The day I returned to Haifa to gather my belongings, the two young boys I followed into the shelter knew exactly what to do and where to go before their mother even opened their car door. War and conflict are a way of life in Israel, and while the population's determination to keep living is positive in a way, it also represents a greater acceptance of a state of violence as the norm. If war is accepted as a way of life, the transition to peace is that much more difficult.

As I learned firsthand how quickly everything can change, I realized how much of my life has been spent planning for the future instead of living in the moment. Little things we planned to do in Haifa like the good beach or the cable car up to Stella Maris never happened because we said we could just go tomorrow. I have always been a successful procrastinator, but Israel illustrated the chances I may very well be abandoning by putting them off for another day. On a deeper level, I realized that silence my emotions for fear that possible rejection will hurt more than uncertainty. Sitting in a bomb shelter on a beautiful afternoon made me realize (forgive the cliché) that tomorrow is never guaranteed. I am realizing that knowledge, however painful, is far more productive than silence in the long run. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have new resolve to plan less and live more.

Israel left me pondering (and ultimately rejecting) my five year plan in favor of a less prestigious, but hopefully more socially useful one. I know I will not change the world, but at least I will have gone down fighting. But I realized that I wanted someone to notice my fight and remember my name, and that is obscenely selfish and arrogant. I wanted to go to Oxford partially for the quality of education, but partially for the prestige that comes with the name. But prestigious names alone should not garner respect - I should not be worth a damn to anyone until I have made a positive impact. Working in Israel showed me that I am more useful on the ground in the Middle East than holed up in a library in England.

I have always been fascinated by religion, predominantly because I never understood its appeal. While in the midst of a conflict in which religion plays such a dominant role, I found myself simultaneously grateful for my atheism and longing for my most religious friends. Observing how religion is distorted and exploited in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made me desperate to talk to someone resolute in their faith, yet accepting of those who think differently. Indeed, upon returning, the first people I really spoke to about my experience were my two most conservative, devoutly Christian friends. While we joked about my empty sinner's life and their reliance on religion as a crutch, their unwavering support and love for me gives me hope that my heart is in the right place and I may actually one day be welcomed as part of a sustainable peace in the region. I expected to walk away from this internship with an even greater disregard for organized religion, but instead find myself profoundly curious. I want to know what gives millions of people hope and guidance, yet can be distorted so badly to encourage violence and hatred. I want to read the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah to understand these faiths in their true form. I may never believe, but that does not mean I cannot understand.

***

And that's the end of obscenely long posts, I promise. From now on, short and sweet, and only very seldomly related to the Middle East. For those who have been here since the beginning, I'll have you know you read 50 single spaced pages of my thoughts in six weeks - mazeltov/mabrook! Thanks for reading, and please don't quit now!

09 August 2006

from a woman artist in beirut.

I know I've said I'm fed up with this conflict, but my temper's cooled now that I'm back on the other side of the pond. I'm posting this for people to hear a perspective that's probably not on the news. It was sent to me by an Arab woman I worked with at Isha. I don't know the precise date of the letter, but I received it on 19 July 2006. I don't agree with everything Zena says nor do I take it as gospel truth, but I believe her voice deserves to be heard. I don't believe everyone in the United States and Israel want to wipe out Lebanon, and for those who believe that is the case, then I offer myself as evidence to the contrary. In her words, "how are we ever going to reach an understanding through violence?"

***
 
I have started coughing, but I don't know why. I am not sick. I don't have a cold. I think it's a reaction I'm having to stress. My body feels weak. My mouth is always dry, no matter how much water I drink. And I'm afraid to drink too much water because I don't want it to run out!

Last night was probably the most frightful night I have ever experienced in my whole entire life. I was so tired and exhausted... have not slept in days. When there is finally a quiet moment, the tension in my stomach and heart prevents me from falling asleep.

Last night we counted at least 15 bombs falling into Dahiyeh (Beirut Suburbs).. and these were just the ones we heard. At some point during the night, I said to myself that if I didn't at least try to get some sleep that I was going to go crazy from fatigue; and that that was what was going to kill me. Haven¹t been able to eat either, so am losing physical strength. It¹s all psychological at this point. I know I have to be strong, and I will be, but I can't deny what I¹m going through. And I think it's important that people hear about the downside as well as the bravery. So many of us are already working hard to fix things, we are running around Beirut trying to get food and water and medicine to people, we are doing things online, etc, but it doesn't mean we are not scared, sick or tired.

So, last night amidst the worst shelling we've had so far, I realized that I was not afraid of the noise anymore; how quickly you get used to it. I realized what was hurting the most was the "UNKNOWN". What is going to happen tomorrow? When will this all end? How are we going to start re-building again? Are the refugees going to be ok? How are the people in the south? And why punish a whole country? What is the real plan behind all of this? How much worse is it going to get?

My husband and I have been housing foreign "refugees" helping them to find their way out of the country. Two managed to leave this morning, a German and Swiss. The other two are British and American. The craziest thing is that out of all people, the American embassy has been the LEAST helpful to its citizens here. The phone line to the embassy has been practically out of service. My friend, Amanda, (whom I just met a few days ago, by the way) had to hire a cab to take her to the embassy (which is a ride out of Beirut) and all they could tell her was that they didn¹t know what they were going to do and to keep checking the website. Only thing she has gotten on the website is that she now knows that there is going to be an evacuation (5 days later), but when it happens, she is going to have to pay for it! Yes, they are saying to their citizens that they are going to bill them for their ride out!  Can you believe that?!

Trying to evacuate people has put me under stress. The question is what am I to do if I had the opportunity to leave? Would I leave? What do I do with my friends? My family? My art studio? I have a British passport; I could be evacuated with my husband. But what would happen to my best friend Maya? She has a very rare and bad case of cancer. I have been taking care of her since she was diagnosed a few months ago and I know that my care for her is what has helped her do so well. Her type of cancer is "untreatable", but ironically, the day the shelling started, her doctor told us her tumors had shrunk! Unbelievable- a true miracle. I can't leave Maya!

What about art work in my studio? What about all my brushes and paints and glitter and books! All my books! Again- the crazy things that cross your mind.

What about our photo albums? All our family pictures? The memories...

What about the doodles I drew on my balcony a few summers ago when I was suffering from a bad break up?

What about all the love letters I have saved? Letters that document my youth that I wanted to some day give to my daughter.

What about my other best friend? My dog, Tampopo? My beautiful Jack Russell Terrier who has never let me down. Who has always been a source of purity and compassion... Who has eyes of an angel... Dogs are not allowed to evacuate. My American friend Christine is going to have to leave her dog with me; a black pug named Baousi (means Kiss in Arabic). She is heartbroken! She almost didn't want to evacuate. She went to so many embassies to try and register with them and see if they would take her dog. Don't worry Christine, I will take great care of Baousi.

My sister has been volunteering to help the refugees who are being sheltered in public schools. Right now they are calling on Lebanese citizens to help out with money, medicine, food, water, blankets and mattresses. She has been going to people and asking for money and then going out to buy medicines for refugees- her own initiative! My mom has joined in, too. A friend has put together a website for accepting donations:

http://atrissi.com/helplebanon/

Biggest cynical statement of the day:
Israel has told people to evacuate from the south because they are going to annihilate the south of Lebanon. However, the people can not leave because all the roads have been destroyed/blocked. And yesterday when people did try and leave, the Israelis opened fire on them! A massacre is happening!

Update on the attacks, as of yesterday:
- Israelis have been bombing the south of Lebanon with phosphorus and other chemical bombs.
- Israelis have bombed all ports along the coastline of Lebanon.
- Israelis have bombed all our local army radars and some outposts
- Israelis have bombed/attacked the fire fighting brigade and the Search and Rescue Brigade in the South. Innocent civilian lives were lost. It was a massacre- the buildings were also housing refugees.
- Israelis have continued to bomb the suburb of Beirut, Dahiyeh & Haret Hreik
- Israelis have now killed over 100 civilians and there are several hundreds wounded and they continue to bomb the south
- Israelis have started hitting roads that lead to the mountains. They hit a main one leading to the Shouf.
-Israelis have hit a gas plant in the mountains

... I can't keep up with what they have hit.

-Israel has begun to target Lebanese army outposts. They have killed Lebanese soldiers. They are no longer just targeting Hizuballah. They mean to kill all of Lebanon.

The reality:

Israel is trying to bring Lebanon to its knees. Israel is trying to destroy Lebanon and the Lebanese spirit. Israel is trying to turn Lebanese against each other. Israel is trying to turn us into animals scrounging for food, water and shelter. Israel and the United States of America are trying to drag Syria and Iran into this too. They are using Lebanon as bait. Lebanon is stuck in the middle. The Americans and Israelis are trying to launch a regional war!!

Please help in any way you can. Please pass on the message, this email- reprint if you wish. Please tell people what is going on. Please put pressure on your respective governments to step in and do something.

Lebanon is a peaceful country. We are the only country in the region in which people of all religions co-exist peacefully.

It is unbelievable how biased the news is. They are not reporting the real damage being caused. They don¹t report that the Israelis are killing innocent civilians. It seems from this end that all they are focusing on is G8!

Are the Israeli & US government really just trying to wipe us all out? Well, you can tell them that I'm not leaving. And there are many of us who are not leaving. We love Lebanon. We love what we have spent our lives building.

Tell them about people like me.. who build culture and tolerance. Who work for peace and understanding. Who work to educate. Who work to promote love and compassion. There are thousands like me here. What about us?

Tell them about people like me, that despite all of this, I have still not learnt to hate. They can take everything from me, but not my dignity. Not my morals and beliefs. They will never never break my spirit.

Tell the Israeli citizens what their government is doing to us. Tell them that violence begets violence. Remind them that Lebanon is their neighbor and that co-existence is possible. How are we going to ever reach an understanding through violence? We were so close... We were so close...

Please stop this brutality!

Still with love,
Zena el-Khalil

By the way, did I mention Maya's tumors are getting smaller?
Did I mention there was a wedding across the street yesterday?

Don't know how much longer this email will still be up for, but in case of an emergency, there is always ziggydoodle@yahoo.com

***
Here's a provoking article from UF grad Josh Gellers offering another viewpoint. Hooray for discourse and my favorite leadership value - controversy with civility!

07 August 2006

if wishing made it so.



If you've never seen Postsecret, then shame on you. You should be compulsively checking it every Sunday for new secrets like the rest of us. Funny, sick, moving, heartbreaking - everything. Like I did this week, I guarantee you'll find something taken straight from your own heart.

Stop reading my blog and go look, right now.

05 August 2006

the long road home.

like a ten minute dream in the passenger seat
while the world is flyiing by
i haven't been gone very long
but it feels like a lifetime

So here I am in Galway, Ireland at 2 AM, staying awake to catch a bus to the airport in two hours. Sitting at the Claddagh (riverside) in Galway, drinking cider in the mist tonight with Joey, Erin and I realized how absurd the past three weeks of our lives have been. We should have been sitting in the Tel Aviv airport waiting for a flight to Atlanta, and instead, we're a continent away in one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen after wandering across five countries. This summer has been life changing in so many ways, some of which I don't fully understand yet. Do I want to go to graduate school next fall? Is this really what I want to study? Is this who I want to be? I'm not sure I know anymore, but I think I like the uncertainty.

If this adventure has taught me anything, it's to plan less and live more. I've never had so much fun as when we walked off a plane or train into a random city, uncertain where we'd sleep that night or what country we'd be in the next day. Looking back on the things I wish I'd done in Haifa before we had to leave, I don't want that feeling ever again. I put things off believing in the certainty of tomorrow and next week, and I realize now more than ever how quickly things can change. While I'd rather have finished out my time in Israel and Palestine, I think I needed this time to decompress while wandering across Europe. So, I'd like to extend special thanks to everyone who made this trip the absurd adventure it turned out to be:

Conor Oberst for writing brilliantly introspective music that composed the soundtrack (and entry titles) for this trip. Hakan, Ersin, Murat, and nameless Greek chemistry student (and mother) for giving us places to sleep, breakfast, and showing us firsthand the generosity of strangers. David, Alli, and Joey for being amazing and studying/working across Europe, and for being willing to take in random refugees (and even give up their beds, unwilingly in some cases). And finally, thank you to those back in the states who supported me unconditionally through all of the chaos and are making the trip back the one I've looked forward to most in all of my travels. I've never really felt ties to a particular place, instead believing that "home is where you lay your hat," but you have made coming back to Gainesville feel like coming home.

i don't know where i am
i don't know where i've been
but i know where i want to go
and so i thought i'd let you know
yeah these things take forever
i especially am slow
but i realized that i need you
and i wondered if i could

(happy birthday to Caitlin, Matt, and Christine!)

03 August 2006

there are many things that i would like to say to you.

...but i don't know how
because maybe you're gonna be the one that saves me.

I apologize for the tone and hostility in that last post. I was angry (still am) and wanted someone to know without having to take it out on someone in particular. I'm not giving up on the Middle East or Arabic, but I am staying out of the UF Administration-Nakba '48/Arabic Cultural Association/Students for a Humane Society confrontation. Thank you to everyone who offered an opinion on the matter - it didn't go unheard, no matter how much it may seem so.

In happier news, our trip to the Aran Islands was as breathtaking as we'd imagined it would be (the pictures are slowly but surely being posted - entertain yourself with Paris in the meantime). After carefully loading up extra jackets, raingear, a change of clothes, and even putting on socks and close-toed shoes, we arrived on the island to be greeted by one of the most beautiful days I've ever seen, not just in Ireland, but worldwide. Cool, blue but cloudy skies to dim the sun, and a gorgeous ocean breeze made for ideal biking weather. We rented bikes and set out to explore the largest of the Aran Islands. With more bikes than people on the island, we weren't the only ones. It works out splendidly, since you can leave your bike anywhere, go hiking for an hour, and come back to find it untouched. Everyone already has one, so there's no theft problem. We hiked up to the lighthouse and fort on the highest part of the island, where we ate a picnic lunch and got carried away with macro photography and wildflowers. We biked onward to the fort ruins on the edge of a cliff (they have a name, but it's Irish and complicated, and I can't remember, spell, or pronounce it) and hiked up there to lay on the cliffs and peek over the edge. A few tourists blow off every year, so everyone crawls to the edge to avoid being "that" person. It's frightening, but stunningly beautiful. I'm loving Ireland more every day - hard to believe tomorrow is my last full day before I fly back to reality in the states.

we must look into a crystal ball and only see the past.

Why do I even bother torturing myself like this? No one wants my input anyway, so maybe I should just shut my mouth and throw in the towel. I'm too critical to ever work for my own government, far too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause for the Israelis, and the fact that I'd even consider the preceding two options makes me an unwelcome racist in the Arab world. Is it really so absurd that I could support both the Israeli and Palestinian people but disagree with their governments (and my own)? Hezbollah's a terrorist organization, yes, and the Lebanese government has failed miserably at curtailing their influence in the country, but Lebanese civilians shouldn't have to pay with their lives. Likewise for Israeli citizens and the actions of the Israeli military, and likewise for Palestinian civilians. I care more about a peaceful solution than seeing someone "win," and if that's offensive, then so be it. I can't demonize entire peoples in justification of some greater moral cause. Everyone's been victimized, and everyone's done something wrong - it's time to stop trying to even the score and move on.

Why is it radical that I value human life, particularly civilian, regardless of their ethnicity or religion? What's wrong with believing that anything but killing each other is a better idea? (Has it worked yet? Am I the only one who thinks that should mean something?) Maybe I'm stupid and naive for believing peace is possible and that anything I do could make an impact, but I'd much rather be stupid than hopeless, and I'm sorry if my idealism is offensive or disappointing. If no one believes a solution is possible, then why do we kid ourselves even pretending to try? If I wasn't so damn stubborn, I'd be tempted to just quit now. But you know full well I won't, so if you'll respect my right to cling to a shred of idealism, then I'll respect your right to (respectfully) consider me a moron. Agreed?

Maybe I'll just go back to art and become a photographer with a penchant for provacative imagery. That way I can disappoint, offend, anger, and garner your disrespect without ever having to open my mouth. Would that make you happy?
...

Since the controversy at UF apparently isn't even about me, then I'm staying out of it. I'm not defending or protesting UF administration's policies in an argument I'm not sure I fully understand. Just count me as a silent pawn in this one. One of my favorite people has suggested a month-long vow of silence. I'm tempted... Your thoughts?
...

In other news, Ireland is beautiful, and has delicious drinks that aren't Guinness. And is very "green," in both the nature and eco-friendly sense of the word. I think I'm in love.

02 August 2006

a day at the races.

Ireland is everything I imagined it would be. On the bus from the Shannon airport to Galway on Tuesday, we drove through the Irish countryside, which looks exactly like every stereotype about the country. Chilly winds and overcast skies threatening rain, greenery everywhere, quaint little houses with picket fences and wrought iron gates, flower beds and manicured hedges, and more pubs than even a seasoned Gator would know what to do with. Joey met us in Eyre Square, just outside the bus station, so we didn't even have an opportunity to get lost in Galway. He took us out to his flat in the Galway suburbs (which are as adorable as the rest of Ireland), where we met his two roommates and a handful of the other random people rotating in and out of the place. Over a homemade dinner of curried vegetables and rice, we watched an episode of the Simpsons that couldn't have been more appropriate for our trip. Subliminal navy recruiting, war in the Middle East, and, as Homer said, "phrases that don't really mean anything, like 'blah blah blah' or 'give peace a chance.'" Ahh, j'adore irony. After dinner, we headed back into Galway to visit one of the ubiquitous pubs in the city, where I was pleased to discover that Ireland has far better beverages to offer than Guiness. Bulmer's is a delicious Irish cider, and Kupperberg is a more flavorful Swedish version of alcoholic cider. Both are highly recommended, and considering this comes from the girl who hates beer, that's a pretty special endorsement.

Joey had a half-day at his laser lab on Wednesday (don't even ask me to explain what's going on there), so we met him for lunch at Food for Thought, a fairtrade and vegetarian-friendly cafe in Galway. For those Gators out there, imagine if Maude's served a full menu and was more socially conscious than hipster. As luck would have it, Erin and I are here just in time for the annual Galway Races, so we took the bus out to the racetrack for a little cultural immersion. Like any good Irish person or cheap college student, we stopped by the convenience store to pick up a six pack of Bulmer's for the afternoon. At the track, we encountered complete chaos. Apparently these races are a bigger deal than we ever imagined. Enroute to the entrance, countless families of white-trash Irish (or "knackers," to use the parlance of the region) sold toys, drinks, and candy to race goers. The races are a socially universal event - everyone goes, but the upper classes get decked out in suits for the men and dresses and hats for the women to sit in the grandstands, while the lower classes hang around the fence on the outside to avoid paying admission. We went with the cheap option and grabbed a section of fence with no idea what to expect. Jumbotrons allow racegoers to follow the action since we weren't sitting near the starting gate. Countless bookies set up shop around the grounds to take bets, and everyone from young boys to mothers to old men bets on their favorite horses. We decided not to partake, but instead sat in amusement when everyone cheered on their horse. Without money on the races, it was more of a cultural experiment than anything else, but it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement when the horses raced by our section of fence. On the bus ride back, we were entertained by a group of very drunk, very excited Irish youth celebrating their victories. I love this country. One of Joey's coworkers is leaving next week, so we're checking out another pub tonight for his going-away party. Tomorrow we're taking a ferry out to the Aran Islands in the Galway Bay - I'm finally going to see those gorgeous Irish cliffs.

01 August 2006

but the devil's in the details.

It's been five years since I was in Paris, and in that half-decade (I feel old!), I'd forgotten how much I loved this city. It's refreshing to revisit a city - no pressure to see all the tourist sights, and more time to just wander the streets in search of something interesting. David arranged a random carpool from Saarbrucken with a French man going to Paris for the weekend. For 20 euro each, it beat the pants off the train ticket, and we got to take a leisurely drive through the beautiful French countryside and bond with a real live French baker. Our driver consumed a liter of beer enroute, and his ash blew back at me every time he lit a cigarette, but I'll just chalk it up to cultural experience. We ended up in Paris around 5, and met up at the Pompidou center with the lovely Allison, who was the next in a series of amazing friends willing to take in a couple of wandering refugees. She greeted us with a bottle of wine, a slab of brie, and a fresh baguette, and led us to the Champs de Mars to watch the sun set by the Eiffel Tower (see absurd numbers of pictures). We spent the evening exploring the area around the Latin Quarter and St. Michel before cramming all four of us into her two twin beds (well, four until Erin shoved Alli off their mattress onto the floor). I'm not sure how I'm going to adjust to having an entire bed to myself once I get back!

Sunday morning, David, Erin, and I went to the Pompidou Center. The building itself is an atrocity of modern architecture, but I think that was the intention. The pipes run on the outside of the building, color-coded depending on what they're used for. The escalators are enclosed in a tube system along one side of the building, giving the entire museum an industrial hamster cage aura. The hideous building conceals some beautiful modern art, however. David and I got lost in an enormous exhibit on video and multimedia art, some beautiful, some strange, but all fascinating. Our personal favorite was a stunning photo montage of different couples' intimacy - just thinking of the mechanics of allowing your photographer friend to stand in the corner during the most private moments of your life made the work incredible, not to mention the beautiful photography. The work made me want to give up this whole "saving the world" fixation and become a starving artist. At least I have a backup plan.

After the musuem, the brililant luck that Erin and I seem to bring with us everywhere caught up to us in the form of a torrential downpour. We all waited it out in Norte Dame, then stopped at a nearby cafe for hot chocolate. David's the only one who's never been to Paris, so we took him to the Lourve to at least see the pyramid and the massive building since we didn't have enough time to go inside. Since the rain had finally stopped, we went across the river to walk through the gardens and carnival to the former site of the guillotine. We caught the Metro (the first public transport system I ever encountered, and one that will always hold a special place in my heart!) back to Alli's apartment to change before our dinner to celebrate Alli's last night in Paris.

Another student in Alli's program discovered a restaurant called Dans le Noir? (in the dark) and recommended we eat there. The restaurant is pitch black and you're served by blind waiters to create an entirely new sensory experience. When you arrive, you order your food before ever entering the dining room. An a la carte menu is available, but most people pick the three course surprise menu - that's the entire point of the restaurant (not a food allergy friendly sort of place). You leave your bag and anything that lights up (watches, phones, etc) in lockers, then you're led into the room in a chain with a waiter holding the hand of the person in front, and everyone else following suit with hands on shoulders. The entrance is a winding hallway with three layers of curtains, so absolutely no light creeps into the dining room. The waiter takes each person one by one to their chair, and you feel your way into your seat and explore your table. With no light in the room, there's no adjustment to the darkness, so you truly can't see a thing. You can hear the voices of the neighboring tables to gauge the size of the room and the placement of other people, but other than that, we were completely lost. The waiter brought us our surprise wine, but left us to pour it ourselves. Fortunately, they don't use stemmed wine glasses, but it's still difficult to gauge what you're pouring. We stuck our fingers in the glasses to make sure we didn't flood the table with red wine. A simple thing like passing the bottle to the next person became a complicated process, as did finding a place to set the bottle so we wouldn't spill it and would be able to find it again.

The waiter first brought our salad course, and we all proceeded to feel and taste the food to determine what it was (cauliflower, sprouts, and some other sort of grassy vegetable with melon). Using a fork in the dark is nearly impossible, so I ended up just eating with my hands. Others shoveled food onto the fork with their fingers. We also had bread, so we had to navigate our hands across the table to reach the basket without disturbing the wine or other people's food. Take a sip of your drink, and you need your other hand to make sure you're putting it back onto the table and not someone's lap. It's interesting to realize the things that don't change even without sight - we all still found ourselves looking towards each other when talking and making the same facial expression we would if we could see. After the salad came the entree, which proved even harder to identify and eat with silverware. Alli and I had the seafood menu while David and Erin had the meat, so when I gave David a bite of mine, we had to feel each other's faces and hands to make sure no one got stabbed in the face with a fork. I never realized how dependent I was on my eyes, especially considering the horrible state of my vision. Chocolate mousse came last, which proved the easiest to eat in the dark (or we just had more practice by then). Everything tasted so much more intense without the ability to see it. We had to depend on the flavor to identify our food, so we paid much closer attention to the sensation. Nothing we ate was particularly spiced or seasoned, but still was the most flavorful meal we'd ever had. We felt entirely helpless sitting there, knowing we probably couldn't even find the door on our own. The waiter spoke only French, so we had to discern what he was saying while Alli attempted to translate what bits she understood, which added an additional sensation of helplessness to the entire process. Overall, it was one of the most sensual experiences of my life.

The restaurant holds monthly blind date events, which we all agreed would be a fascinating experience. When meeting someone for the first time, like our hosts in Turkey, we identify ourselves visually - send a picture, wear a certain shirt, describe our height, hair, eyes, etc. I can't imagine what it would be like to meet someone and not be able to recognize them in a crowd afterwards. It'd be a true blind date though - the ability to meet someone and bond with them without the pretenses of physcial attraction. Especially as Americans - we're not a touching kind of people outside of romantic relationships. But in that restaurant, we had to hold each other's hands and touch each other in a way we never had before. It was mentally overwhelming - we walked back into the lighted lobby, blinded by the dim lighting, and left the restaurant in a sort of daze. The restaurant keeps a guestbook, and quite a few guests have left messages in Braille - I suppose the restaurant is a way for a blind person to show their friends their life firsthand. Again, one of the most sensual things I've ever done, and everyone should try it. There's also a branch in London and Brussels, and an unrelated but similar restaurant in Berlin. Go now. After dinner, we wandered around the city, celebrating our vision by experimenting with photographing the stunning lights in Paris.

The next morning, David went back to work in Saarbrucken and Alli left for the airport while Erin and I cleaned her apartment and mailed the keys back to the landlord after we moved into our hotel for our last night in Paris. We bought a baguette, cheese, and a bottle of wine from a Tunisian shop owner and sat in the plaza outside the Pompidou Center to people watch over lunch. We met a guy working in an internet cafe, and as we explained how we came to visit Paris, he told us he had been in Lebanon at the same time, visiting a friend in Beirut. It felt strange to meet someone with an empathetic reaction, not just one based on headlines, and since his experience was far scarier than ours (I'd take rockets over airstrikes anyday), it put into perspective how much worse things could have been. Beirut was my first choice for this summer - I wonder where I'd be right now if UF allowed credits to transfer from there.

We then wandered towards Montmartre, the artsy neighborhood I remembered from my last trip to Paris, shopping along the way. We never found the square with artists displaying their wares that I remembered (perhaps it's only on certain days?), but we stumbled onto the Sacre Couer and stopped for coffee and pigeon-feeding with leftover baguette on the grassy hill leading up to the basilica. We took the long way back home past the Moulin Rouge and another windmill, the Montmartre cemetery, and other random Parisian streets before our last edible meal of native foods, since we're flying to Ireland tomorrow and Joey already warned us that the Irish drink far better than they cook. Our last country of the trip (unless we make it to North Ireland) - it's hard to believe we'll be back in the states in a few days.

are you who you say that you are?

When Erin and I stumbled off our night train from Istanbul in Thessaloniki, Greece, we quickly discovered that Germany was at least two days away by train. Not anticipating this little snafu, we left our luggage at the train station and spent a hour hunting down Thessaloniki's only internet cafe to find a cheap flight to somewhere. A few miles later, we booked a last minute flight the next day to Stuttgart, Germany, only a two hour train from Saarbrucken. Since we didn't get in touch with David's family in Thessaloniki, we set out to find the beach and figure out a place to sleep later. Another lost mile or two, a wrong bus, and an amusing round of charades at Ikea (yes, Ikea is a major bus hub in Thessaloniki), we found ourselves at the less-than-beautiful city beach. At the time, we didn't know about the "other" beach, so we plopped down in some lounge chairs and ordered margaritas (is there anything else to drink on a beach?). We had a cultural learning experience with our server when we taught him about the wonders of frozen drinks, but without a blender, it was only trivia for him. After a gorgeous sunset (see pictures, the only ones I took in Greece), we wandered further down the beach to find dinner. Attracted by a row of tables sitting right on the water's edge, we stopped at a random restaurant. Our waiter struck up a conversation with us, and when he asked us where we were sleeping (a common question in the Mediterranean countries, we've found), we told him we'd probably just sleep on the beach. He promised to come and visit us when he got off work, and we thought that was that.

Two hours later, freezing in some lounge chairs, he came by with some juice for us and stayed to chat. Between the mosquitoes and the cold, Erin and I silently decided to work our magic and get a warm bed for the night. We talked about our studies, and it turns out he's a chemistry major. Like Hakan and Ersin in Turkey, he's stretching out his studies and planning to go for a PhD to avoid the military. Seems compulsory military service isn't so popular with those who have to serve. After our friend (whose name we never did catch) went to great lengths to explain that he didn't live with his mother, he told us that since Zeus was the god of hospitality, it was un-Greek of him to leave us out in the cold, and invited us back to his flat to sleep on his floor. When we walked in the door, who do we find sitting at the kitchen table, patiently waiting for her son to come home, but mother herself. Greek hospitality meant that Erin and I shared the (twin) bed while our host slept on the floor, and mother changed the sheets while we took hot showers. The ridiculousness of our trip just keeps creeping up on us no matter where we go. The next morning, mother brought us obscene amounts of food for breakfast (encouraging us to take the leftovers with us) and even offered us a pair of (tiny) shoes as a parting gift when we left to catch the bus back to the train station to claim our bags and go to the airport. Absurdism at its best.

After another bus mishap and a taxi ride, we made it to the airport in time to find out that our Germany flight had been delayed an hour and a half. We landed in Stuttgart around 730, and I walked off the plane to be greeted by my beloved four-sided German trashcans in the baggage claim area. I love this country. The Deutsche Bahn representative, after explaining he only spoke "a little" English, fluently described our path to Saarbrucken and sold us the ticket including the S-bahn to the train station and our change in Munich. J'adore German efficiency. David met us at the train station and took us back to his flat with - wait for it - hot water, a flushing toilet, and a drain in the shower. Pure heaven. After a few beers (I'm beginning to realize I was too quick to judge German beer), we went to bed. We woke up the next morning to breakfast (score another for Greek hospitality!) and left to mail the 12 kg box we'd been hauling around since the Turkish DHL wanted to charge us 260 euro to send it home, then wandered down Bahnhofstrasse (Train Station street, formerly Adolf Hitler Blvd) to find a cheap lunch.

After lunch, we went to Saarbrucken University to see David's lab since it was "bring girls to the engineering school" day. Even though it was in English, we still had no idea what was happening. David tried valiantly to explain, and as near as I can figure, it has something to do with the deterioration of spark plugs and some graphs with pretty colors. Aahh, how I love the useless simplicity of my liberal arts degree! I love that I have so many revoltingly brilliant friends, I just wish I understood what they were doing. That night, we went out with some of David's coworkers for one guy's going-away party. Half the group was Argentinian, so Erin and I were finally surrounded by a foreign language we could understand. We can communicate in four languages between us, but sadly none of them have been useful yet. We've been feeling painfully monolingual American of late, so the Spanish evening was refreshing. David spent the night telling us about how much fun we would have had at his family's house near the pretty beach in Thessaloniki, where we would have had a big bed and lots of food, had we only called them. Since there's no internet, David's brother didn't get my email until the day we left, and I felt strange calling a family I'd never met to ask for a place to sleep. Somehow it was less embarrassing to flirt our way into a random apartment...go figure! Regardless, Greece was beautiful, now I have a reason to come back, and I'm pleased to discover that I love other parts of Germany as much as Berlin. We're spending the weekend in Paris, a city I've been dying to return to since I visited in high school.

30 July 2006

debris it covers everything but still i am in love with this life.

Sitting on a Turkish sleeper train (a surprisingly luxurious one, I might add, albeit slow) riding through rural Turkey enroute to Thessaloniki, Greece, I finally had the opportunity to mentally find some closure to my Israel/Palestine trip. Someone we met in Istanbul thought Erin and I were "brave" for coming to Turkey on a whim with no place to stay, no Turkish, and no idea what we were doing, and it made me realize how quickly everything happened in the last week.

I've been writing so much about the conflict and violence and the huge issues surrounding anyone's time in Israel and Palestine, but the "devil's in the details," and now that I'm not there anymore, I'm noticing little things. I'll never fit in in Israel - I don't drink coffee (much to the dismay of the waiters at breakfast every morning!), I don't chain smoke, and I drive rather cautiously without using my horn. I enjoy excessive amounts of ice in my drinks. I'm a gun control advocate alarmed by the presence of automatic rifles in shopping malls. Even when I have a cell phone, I rarely use it. Compulsory military service and I would never get along. I'm not comfortable asking someone's religion before their name, and I'm not sure I really care enough about their religion to ask.

But I love the desert, the mountains, and the ocean, and knowing any one of them is only a few hours away. I love that people here find it interesting that I don't believe in god and still came to the holy land. I miss the hibiscus the size of dinner plates on Hanassi Avenue in Haifa. I love that I was welcomed as an American in Ramallah and Haifa alike. I love the Chinese restaurant playing "Silent Night" in Chinese in June. I love how everyone in Haifa was so proud that Arabs and Jews live together peacefully in their city. I love that even though everyone asks, no one really cares about my religion. I love the olive oil and I think I might even miss hummus soon. I love that my being here has made those back home aware of what's happening in the region. In short, I love that I was embraced in Israel and Palestine as a student, volunteer, and colleague without anyone questioning my intentions, and I can't wait to come back.

28 July 2006

you may think i'm an open book but you don't know what page to turn to, do you?

Since I was featured on the UF website last month, it's been brought to my attention that I have become the subject of a campaign by the Arab student associations to have the "racist" spotlight removed. By featuring an American student studying Arabic who wants to work for the American government, it seems UF is implicitly supporting western insensitivity towards the Arab world, Islamaphobia, and perpetuating the stereotype of the Arabic speaking terrorist. Think what you want about me, but please don't pass judgment on my passions based on a 250-word profile I didn't write. Read this, ask me to clarify, call me when I'm back in the states and I'll be more than happy to sit down and answer any question you might have, and then I can fully respect your right to label me however you feel is justified. But frankly, I'm hurt that people have been so quick to write off an outsider's interest in their language and culture, and more stubbornly committed than ever before to understanding this region.

Soundbite response: I study Arabic because I don't agree with what my government is doing in the Middle East and I want to change it.

Long answer: I was crushed to hear that I've been labelled a racist because I don't look like the culture I study. I resent the implication that my intentions are some how dishonorable simply because I'm an outsider. I'll readily admit I don't know everything about the Arab world and very little about the Islamic faith (an ignorance not limited to Islam, but closer linked to my distaste for organized religion in general), but I only began studying the language two years ago. I'm twenty-one years old - I'm not finished learning yet. I wasn't born with an intimate understanding of the Arab world, but I'm fascinated by it and want to understand everything I can. I have an admittedly "western" view of the Middle East, but I can't help that I was born in the United States, and I'm doing everything I can to learn about this region, including visiting it whenever possible. I love the language and culture of a people who, until now, have always welcomed me into their homes as their own and encouraged my study of their language.

I opposed American intervention in Iraq in 2003, but I think that's become a moot point. The United States is enmeshed in post-war Iraq, like it or not, and the debate must shift to how to help the Iraqi people rebuild their nation on their own terms. I don't want an American-friendly puppet government in Iraq, I want sustainable democracy regardless of who wins. As I've said about the election of Hamas in Palestine, democracy means the people elect their own government, not necessarily the one America would like best. I want to be part of reconstruction Iraq to be the American who asks, "what do you want your country's future to look like, and how can I help make that a reality?" rather than says, "here's my solution, make it work." I want to be the advisor in policy debates who says, "Islam is not a violent faith. Arab doesn't equal terrorist. No, all Arabs don't hate the United States, and we'd do far better to look at the Arab world as an ally and not as a threat." What happens in reconstruction Iraq will determine the future of American policy in the Middle East. I want to play a role in ensuring that such policies make a positive impact on the people of the region, rather than foster growing tensions and resentment.

I'm appalled by the assumption that because I want to work for my government, I must agree with its every policy. I by no means hate the United States, but instead love my country so much I believe it can be better. The fact that I can here, in a public forum, openly criticize my government is, for me, the most beautiful thing about American democracy. The United States is arguably the most powerful nation in history, and I want to see it be a force for good. Power shouldn't flow from the barrel of a gun, and I would much rather see my country respected than feared, resented, or hated. The United States government has actively carried out or supported/condoned unpardonable actions in the Middle East, but how will that ever change unless those who disagree with those policies become part of the decision-making system? All of the activism and demonstrations against American foreign policy will come to naught without a sympathetic ear within the government willing to work for change. My country's foreign policy has to be based on cultural understanding in the Arab world, and at the root of that understanding lies the ability to communicate in someone's native language.

I was embraced as an ally by peace activists (Israeli and Palestinian alike) in Haifa and Ramallah, and while I bore more than my share of criticism for American policy in the region, everyone was always quick to distinguish me from my government. The women I met during my two weeks with Isha L'Isha welcomed the opportunity to hear an American outsider's perspective on the conflict, and encouraged me to continue my studies and work within my government some day to facilitate their efforts at home. Much of their time is spent lobbying Knesset and PLC members, and they recognize the value of a kindred spirit on the inside. I'm hurt that my fellow Americans of Arabic origin are unwilling or unable to accept that someone outside their culture could want to drastically overhaul American policy in the Middle East. I don't think so much of myself that I believe I'll change the world overnight, but I'm content in knowing that I'll have at least gone down trying to change a status quo I don't believe has to last forever just because it's lasted this long. Americans are criticized for stereotyping the Arab countries and Muslims as terrorists, but isn't the same thing happening in reverse when my interest in the region is characterized as racist just because I'm not Arab?

My "Arabic is the new Russian" quote garnered much of the initial backlash, but I stand by it. The United States has found itself, for better or worse, intimately involved in the Middle East but with a drastic shortage of language and regional specialists. Much like the early years of the Cold War, the American government, particularly the intelligence community, finds itself trying to conduct foreign relations with a region it doesn't understand in languages it can't speak. American diplomacy in the Middle East cannot be successful in such a one-sided fashion. The intelligence community cannot address terrorism coming from Islamic extremists without also understanding "real" Islam and the Arabic language. I study Arabic to be that person who has an academic background in a region grossly misunderstood in the United States. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Arabic is the "language of terrorism (just as Russian was never the language of impending nuclear disaster)," but instead belive it is a fascinating language with a rich and beautiful history. I'm enthralled by the language and the culture, and I fall more in love with it with each country I visit. I began studying Arabic because I was interested in the region and it was the only Middle Eastern language offered at UF beyond an introductory level (a problem in and of itself, but I'll save that for another day), not because of any assumption about its links to terrorism. There are those within the government who do hold that view, I'll concede, but how will they ever learn otherwise without exposure to the beauty of Arab culture?

Being in Haifa during the current fighting between Israel and Lebanon has only left me more committed to seeing an end to violence in the region. No one deserves to die because of their religious or ethnic (or anything else, for that matter) background, period. I don't want to see us divide ourselves on religious or political lines to the point where we cannot see past an adjective to begin to understand one another. If I'm wrong, then educate me - please don't take the easy way out and just label me a racist. I'm not claiming to have all of the answers, just a lot of ideas. If you'll join me, then I welcome anyone's input on how to build a sustainable peace in one of the most fascinating and culturally rich regions of the world.

Salaam.

27 July 2006

freedom yells, it don't cry.

20 - 21 July 2006

Crossing the border back into Israel after the Jordan trip gave me a taste of real border security, and the humiliation that comes from the power dynamic contained therein. As we waited in line to go through the metal detectors (shortly after passing through those on the Jordanian side, which apparently weren't good enough), a distinctly Arab-looking family (husband, wife, and three kids, the oldest maybe 12) was pulled out of line and into a separate room for additional searching and questioning. It took our group over an hour to get all the way through security and passport control, and the family was still in the questioning room. They had Israeli passports, too - they weren't Jordanians or Palestinians trying to enter on a visa, they were Israeli citizens returning home. I can't even imagine what it must feel like to know your own government doesn't trust you because of your ethnic background.

After I went through the metal detector (without beeping) and showed the security guard my passport, he saw that I had the exit paper instead of my passport stamped, so he sent me to a bench outside the questioning rooms, keeping my passport. I waited maybe ten minutes until two female security guards came over with my passport and took me into a private room for "additional security screening." They told me to take off everything removable and proceeded to conduct a metal detector wand scan while questioning me about my time in Israel and Jordan and lack of stamp. I had just passed through the metal detector successfully, and in a linen skirt and thin t-shirt, I didn't even have a pocket to hide something in. The only thing metal on my person was the hook-and-eye closure on the back of my bra. Because I didn't have a stamp, it meant that I had visited or planned to visit the Arab world, and thus warranted extra scrutiny. It was humiliating to sit there as though I had done something wrong, my passport carelessly in some security guard's pocket as he talked about me with his colleagues. Anyone who's traveled understands the helplessness and virtual nudity you feel when your passport leaves your control, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to endure that repeatedly at checkpoints all over the West Bank.

At passport control, I was further interrogated about my missing stamp, and I explained that I was planning to study in the Middle East the following year and didn't want to have to buy a new passport. I wanted to add "and if everyone could just get along, we wouldn't have this problem." The four times I asked not to have my passport stamped, the guard always complied, but not without first making me feel like a criminal for wanting to visit Syria or Lebanon. I'm equally annoyed at Syria and Lebanon for not recognizing the stamp - it seems like such a petty battle to fight in the grand scheme of things. I could have easily been visiting the West Bank and had my passport stamped when I flew into Tel Aviv, and I still wouldn't be welcome in a fellow Arab nation.

After artfully packing 18 kilos of books and such into my carry-on suitcase on Thursday, Erin and I went to the post office to ship it home so we wouldn't have to drag it across Europe. Per standard policy in Israel, as we walked up to the door the security guard approached us to search the bag. As he strained to lift it onto the table and took one look at the mess crammed inside, he asked for my identification. When he saw my American driver's license, he gave the bag a cursory wave with the wand and let us pass. While this attitude is horribly racist, I've never been so glad for my pasty white skin. Had Erin and I looked less "American" or had IDs from a less-friendly country, we would have been there for an hour while he tore through our bag the way he did the purse of the Arab woman who entered after us.

At the airport, we encountered a similar conveniently racist sentiment. After luggage is scanned through the x-ray machine, airport security staff searches each bag by hand. Seeing our American passports, they quickly went through Erin's open shoulder bags and my carry-on, but when they saw the outline of a two-foot metal vase inside my tightly packed hiking backpack, the guard just asked me if it was a vase and let us pass. They were opening shampoo bottles, unfolding socks, and digging through every nook and cranny of the suitcases of other passengers, but mine went unopened. Aside from the blatant racism present, this is also a ridiculously large security risk to take. For all the security measures being taken at Ben Gurion, it seems just plain dangerous to slack on searches in a consistently predictable manner.

i never dreamed this life was possible.

Adding to Friedman's analysis of Turkey, I've seen men pushing strollers and carrying groceries. A thriving and open gay culture existing side by side with devout Islam. Murat, our host for Sunday and Monday night, owns the Sugar Club Cafe, a proudly gay cafe on Istaklal Avenue, a famous shopping and nightlife district in Istanbul. He was quite the change from Ersin and Hakan the nights before, who were clearly uncomfortable with the entire notion of homosexuality. Hakan wandered around Istaklal trying to find the cafe because he didn't want to ask someone and have them think he was gay. After he called Murat to take us to his house on Sunday, he hung up the phone surprised that he "didn't sound gay." I think we gave him his first real interaction with a gay man, and it was less traumatic than he expected. Turkey's not perfect, but I think it's coping just fine. It's a mixture of old and new, east and west, in a way reminiscent of Morocco but much more pronounced.

Erin and I spent Sunday on a boat floating through the Bosphorus, then headed back to Istaklal for dinner at one of the ubiquitous rooftop terrace restaurants before meeting Murat at Sugar Club to catch a cab back to his flat on the edge of town. Murat and Hakan both live bachelor lives in their parents' old apartments, but in the most unexpectedly opposite ways possible. Murat's flat was barren, with crumbling unpainted cement walls, a broken lock, and floors that hadn't seen a broom or mop since he first moved into the place. The toilet was broken, so we flushed by filling a bucket from the shower. The shower was a faucet on the wall of the laundry room with no drain, so we washed our hair over the sink to avoid flooding the apartment. Hakan's place, conversely, was adorably decorated with a floral wallpaper border halfway up dividing two lovely shades of pink walls. Tables had lace tablecloths, windows had matching curtains, and the flowers were not only alive, but thriving. The living room still had family pictures of Hakan and his sister as children on the shelves. The shower not only had a drain, but a curtain and a rug as well. Erin and I joked that only the differing numbers of products in the two bathrooms convinced us Murat was really the gay host. The entire experience just adds to the absurdism that was our weekend in Istanbul.

Monday we slept late and wandered down to the Old Bazaar, converted from the Sultan's former massive stable complex. Each stable has been converted to a shop, and similar goods are grouped together. The place feels more like a mall, with doors on each store, upscale jewelry and clothes, and every shop accepting credit cards, so we left it in favor of the crowded chaos of the nearby Spice Bazaar. You can't use your Visa, but fresh spices and teas in every flavor make up for the inconvenience. We made it to the famous Blue Mosque just in time for the call to prayer, so it was closed to visitors until everyone finished. Once we finally made it inside, it was worth the wait. Every inch of the walls are covered with intricate blue tiling (hence the name) and the ceiling is painted in a similar fashion. Soft rugs cover the entire floor (you leave your shoes outside) and only a few pillars break up the massive space inside. Women pray separately in divided areas along the edges of the main floor, and interestingly, they were still there when visitors were allowed to enter. The men had all finished, but I'm not sure if men start before the women or that since visitors can't enter the women's areas anyway, they don't wait for them to finish. Either way, I was intrigued.

We got lost trying to find a Turkish bath before giving up and having dinner on Istaklal once again. We stopped at a cafe afterwards for dessert, and were having a great time people watching from the balcony until Erin noticed a painting on the wall. It had several scenes from Istanbul, but the panel in the corner was of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Our waiter noticed us staring at it, and laughed and said it was Istanbul. We asked about the 9/11 panel, and he smiled and said that was New York. He wouldn't elaborate on why it was on the wall, and feeling rather nauseated, we quickly left. We weren't sure what to make of it, but both left feeling furious that anyone would make light or even revel in a nation's tragedy. It was a rather disappointing end to a beautiful day in the city. Regardless, I'm still in love with Istanbul and excited about coming back here one day and exploring more of the country.