20 July 2006

love is not a victory march.

16 July 2006

Erin and I woke up late this morning, and since she was going to try to make it to a meeting at her office to say goodbye, she left before me to catch a train to Haifa. As I was about to leave the apartment, Yehuda told me not to take the train because Erin had just called to say that hers had stopped outside of Haifa and she had to take a cab into the city. As it turns out, a rocket struck the train station that morning, killing eight people. We only knew that the train service had stopped, so I went to the bus station and waited an hour for a bus to Haifa. When it finally arrived, it was packed with people trying to return to Haifa for their belongings and soldiers deployed to the city. When I arrived at the Haifa bus station, I waited another hour and a half for a bus to the city center to meet Erin at the hotel. Unbeknownst to me, another rocket hit the city around the time Erin left her locked office and returned to the hotel to start packing. The bus finally came, and as we drove through the city to the Carmel District atop the mountain, I was struck by how eerily empty the city felt. Shops and restaurants were closed, there was almost no traffic and no pedestrians on the street. I got off at my stop (sadly, even the gelato shop was closed) and walked down the deserted street towards our hotel.

As I approached the mall connected to the hotel, a siren went off. I thought it was an ambulance or something, so I kept walking the last block towards the hotel. In front of me, a car veered off the road and up the sidewalk, and a woman leaped out of the front seat and opened the back door. Two young boys, the oldest not more than eight or nine, were already unbuckled and ready to scurry out the door. The father ran from the driver's side and they all sprinted into the mall. It was closed, but a security guard inside the door unlocked it for them. Still uncertain of what was happening, I followed the family into the mall as we were ushered by security guards into the basement of the hotel. As I ran down the stairs, Erin came out of the hotel lobby and followed me to the basement. She told me it was the bomb siren, and the second once since she arrived. Apparently the sirens can give a one minute warning of an incoming missile. We went down to the bomb shelter to wait out the attack. She called Yehuda to let him know I had arrived - since it took me four hours to make the one hour trip to Haifa and there had already been one attack, Yehuda had been calling Erin constantly to see if I'd made it. If not for that family, I probably would have kept walking down the street until I reached the hotel.

As we sat in the shelter, Erin told me she'd already started packing my things, and Yehuda wanted us to take a taxi back to Tel Aviv as soon as we were finished packing. After maybe twenty minutes in the shelter, we went back upstairs to throw the rest of my stuff into my bag. We had a voucher for some internet time left, so we emailed home to let everyone know we were alright in case the attacks had already appeared on American news. As we sat in the lobby waiting for the reception to call a taxi, the full weight of what'd we'd just done started to hit us. The two girls living in what everyone thought was the safest city in Israel had just waited out a rocket attack in a bomb shelter. I realized that those two boys who ran into the mall ahead of me knew exactly what to do in that situation - their parents didn't have to tell them a thing. They reacted to the sound the way American children respond to ice cream trucks. BF Skinner's theories have been verified, but in the worst way possible. These attacks are part of daily life here - frightening, sure, but not entirely unexpected. The aprtments in Tel Aviv all had bomb proof rooms in them - apparently it's Israeli law. Again, it's amazing how fast things can change here - just last night we were talking about coming back, gong to work, eating our ice cream and shopping at the stores on our street that we hadn't visited yet. Now our city is deserted.

The hotel couldn't find a taxi for us, so the receptionist suggested we just hail one on the street. As we left the building, the only people in the hotel were journalists checking in. The other guests had long since left. Outside, I tried to wave down one of the few passing taxis. A photographer took pictures of us and talked to us about why we were leaving. He asked me to run across the empty road with my bags while waving for a cab, and I chastized him for violating the principle rule of photojournalism - no staging photos. He just laughed. Keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing is the only way to deal with it, so I went along with him. If those pictures turn up anywhere, I'm sorry John Freeman, I tried to preserve the integrity of the field! When we finally found a cab wiling to take us to Tel Aviv (without ripping us off in our desperation, which I found very noble), a French news station camera crew ran up to talk to us about why we were leaving Haifa as we loaded our luggage. So you may or may not see Erin and I under the caption "American students flee Haifa" in a variety of global news outlets.

When we got back to Tel Aviv, the rest of the group had arrived from their various cities. Since we were the first refugees, we managed to keep our private room at our professors' apartment while everyone else crammed into the apartments. The group met at a hotel in the city, where Yehuda broke the news to us about the cancelled program. They moved up the Jordan trip to Monday-Wednesday, and everyone was booked on a flight back to the states on Wednesday night. Heartbroken, we immediately began asking about ways to stay. Since the program will be terminated as of Wednesday, GMU has nothing to do with us after that date, and if we change our plane tickets, they can't do anything or be held responsible for us. Four people kept their tickets (plus the three who already left makes seven of 21 people who left early) and the rest of us immediately got on the phone with Delta to stay. Erin and I, since we couldn't go back to our internships in Haifa, decided we had no interest in going back to America early to hear "I told you so" about going to Israel, booked a flight back from Ireland and planned a backpacking trip through Turkey and Europe as a compromise.

We're going to Jordan early Monday morning - I find it ironic that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief now that I'm leaving Israel for an Arab nation. There's a stigma surrounding every Arab state in the region if you so much as mention traveling to one of them, and now Jordan is a two-day respite from the threat of rocket attacks. While the attacks and time in the shelter were frightening, to say the least, I'm furious with the American media for making this country look like a war zone. CNN and Fox coverage (the only American stations we get here) replay the same attacks over and over, blending the damage in Israel with the airstrikes and evacuations in Lebanon, until it looks like the entire region is in flames. That's absolutely absurd - I'm sitting in Tel Aviv about to go shopping and eat in a restaurant. Those in the group who are living here are still working at their internships (on their own accord, no pressure from GMU). I knew the media was sensationalist, but I never realized how completely over the top it was until I was living in the country dominating every story. I appreciated everyone's concern, but it's frustrating when everyone is getting their information from American media coverage of the conflict with no understanding of the broader situation in the country. If I've gained nothing else from today's experience, I'm fully committed to working in the Middle East and I'm going to be permanently weary of anything I see on an American media outlet.

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