The language people use when talking about most conflicts in the world is typically value-laden. I feel this is particularly evident with regard to Palestine and Israel. The words people use imply specific understandings of the situation and its history (Check this BBC list of key terms used in reference to the conflict). In my series of posts (potentially five) about my time in Palestine, I will attempt to share what I'm still in the process of learning, remaining as close to the truth as possible. However, I openly write from the position of marginality, as a human being oppressed most consistently by racism and sexism. And because of such positions I stand unapologetically in solidarity with other oppressed people on this planet. Our struggles are unique, yet interwoven, part of much larger historical and contemporary global systems of destructive capitalism, colonialism and enslavement.
The great Zora Neale Hurston told us that “if you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I want to add to the voices of those who make noise and unearth truths that are masked by greed, fear, convenience, and discomfort. Let our lives and stories not be lost in silences.
Intro to the Tall Tales
I met the first person on the journey while on the sherut (shuttle bus) from the Tel Aviv airport to East Jerusalem. He was from Minnesota and had been living in Israel with his family, a wife from Finland who was now Israeli, and their children for over 30 years. He seemed like a really nice guy, broadly-speaking, but his “pro-Israeli” stance was evident almost immediately. He was a tour guide and came hard with the propaganda early. He started talking about various areas of stolen Palestinian territory as being “no man’s land” not long ago. It fit nicely into the false narrative that the land was virtually uninhabited and had but a few uncivilized Arabs wandering around when the European Zionists first started their settler colonialism in the late 19th century. For a more realistic understanding check out these tables of demographics, crops and land ownership before 1947 or the interactive map. If this all sounds like a familiar story to those of you who have followed the history of the Americas, it is. The Americas were also “uninhabited” and had some "savage" indigenous people running about when the European settler colonists worked diligently to commit genocide and claim the territory. Settler colonialism is a helluva drug.
The man from Minnesota told me that the water cisterns on the roofs of houses indicated the houses were owned by Arabs and were there because the water might be cut off. He implied that it would happen because of something these Arabs will have done. He was right about them being homes of Palestinians. But his depiction omitted the horrible realities of the Palestinian struggle for water, the way Israel and illegal Israeli settlers have expropriated the water of those everywhere in what was historically Palestine. He didn't mention that those cisterns are targeted by the Israeli soldiers (IDF) when on their destructive military campaigns against Palestinians. Or that Palestinians have been systematically denied the human right to a source of life, water. Amnesty International provides historical background and details Israel's policies of denial, the restriction of access to water as a means of expulsion, Israeli settlers' attacks on water facilities, and more in their report, TROUBLED WATERS – PALESTINIANS DENIED FAIR ACCESS TO WATER.
As we passed by the apartheid walls, which will come up repeatedly in these posts along with the issue of water, he explained them away by saying, "they are there to protect drivers from the trouble makers. The walls are built around the most dangerous Arab neighborhoods. See, in some neighborhoods parents teach their kids to just go to work and mind their business. But in others they just breed terrorists.” Ohhh, you mean some people are taught to fight against grave injustices like being expelled from their land and homes and being placed into open prisons within their own land?? Guess what homey, people whose home have been occupied should cast stones, loads of them.
After I spoke to this man I found myself calculating: 30+ years (X) who knows how many tours (X) who knows how many people (X) who knows how many countries. That is a whoooole lot of people with which this man has shared such distorted “information” and has then likely been shared with others like a sort of lie epidemic.
A Glimpse of the Old City of East Jerusalem
After being lost and confused with all my friggin' luggage trying to find Damascus Gate, I made my way to the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of East Jerusalem. I walked around for a while. And can I tell you how wrong I was for expecting a sort of arid heat like Cairo? Man, in addition to this exploration being fascinating, it was also hot and moist (I'm jussayin').
That evening I took a cab to the Kenyon Institute for the pre-plenary opening of the International Critical Geography Conference #ICCG2015. As I waited in a bit of traffic for the driver, Fadi, to pull off he spoke to another driver, a brown Palestinian man who looked into the backseat and said in English, “How are you doing today, my color?” It made me chuckle. I was a little early for the event and Fadi and I spoke for about 45 minutes. He told me about his life, and stories of love and the struggles of being someone with no legal right to citizenship trying to move around the world. The situation for Jerusalemites like Fadi is complicated. West Jerusalem was “annexed” by Israel in 1948 and they are slowly but surely eating away at East Jerusalem with settlements and various tactics to expel Palestinians. Those born in Jerusalem have special passports (I’ll discuss the Israeli apartheid pass system in another post in this series). They have to prove once a year that they are still residents. Muslim Jerusalemites end up paying more taxes (due to regular fines) even though they receive fewer services. While they have some benefits because of their distinct status, their existence seems precarious. The details of these injustices are described in the Human Rights Watch report, Separate and Unequal: Israel's Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The very first people I met at the ICCG event were two awesome Canadian geographers who would become my travel companions throughout the trip. It was wonderful to have such bright and lovely women to laugh and cry with every single day (no exaggeration). They walked me towards Damascus Gate where we agreed to meet the following morning to head to Ramallah.
Blackness in Palestine & The African Palestinians
I decided to get some food after separating from the ladies and spoke to the vendor who asked me where I was from. When I responded he said, “You’re from America? I thought Africa.” The next morning I spoke with a sista working at the Austrian Hospice. We’d given one another the “hey, sis, we look the same” face and it turned out that she is from Jerusalem, the daughter of Moroccan and Sudanese parents. She said, "there are a lot of Black people here in Jerusalem." And I had peeped that fact myself during my wandering. There was a much greater number of visible Afro-descendants in Jerusalem than I anticipated, especially outside of Damascus Gate. Most appeared East African although this discussion by Ali Jiddah or his cousin Mahmoud Jiddah, third-generation African Palestinians, makes me realize that some may have a more extensive history in Palestine than I thought.
Traveling while Black for me almost always means having an understanding of how those of African-descent live wherever I may be throughout the diaspora. How local people perceive and treat us during our travels is often connected to their perceptions of or experiences with those with whom they think we share a common culture or phenotype (real or imagined). This article provides some insight into Anti-Black racism, the Arab slave trade and the sorts of challenges those of African descent face in "the Arab world," specifically in Palestine. I met a very sharp young brotha in our hostel in Ramallah, Brennan Cook from Wayne State University, who has been working on his Arabic. I rapped with him a bit about his experiences traveling while Black in the region.
I regret not exploring the African-Palestinian presence in Jerusalem more. I hadn't realize it was such a thing to explore! Checking out African-Palestinian organizations like the Afro-Jerusalemite Society and the African Community Society, and looking into the alternative tours by Ali Jiddah of the African Palestinian community (that was apparently right in the Old City...Grrr!) are must-dos for the next trip. These portraits of Afro-Palestinians in Jerusalem by Andrew Courtney provide a glimpse into what I missed.
Tensions in Jerusalem and the Clash at Al-Aqsa Mosque
The next morning I met a German girl in the Austrian Hospice who was going to Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the world's most sacred Islamic sites, as I was packing up my things. I had a small window of time and decided to roll with her and her travel buddies. As we neared the entrance, I immediately noticed that Muslims were being barred from entering.
And check out this nonsense. We had to go through metal detectors and pass our bags through scanners. There were two white kids from the States in front of me and the guard pulled a KNIFE out of the young guy’s bag. A KNIFE!!! The guard then waved it off and told him to keep it in his bag. WHAT!?!? This kid's white US privilege couldn’t have been scripted any better. My brain quietly exploded.
We passed the Western Wall or Wailing Wall.
Members of the Black Jewish community caught my attention. I wondered about their lives in this place, particularly after reading about their struggles for equality in Israel and adoption of the #BlackLivesMatter battle cry.
We got to the line for Al-Aqsa Mosque which was long and not moving. A European tourist in front of us said, "it’s slow because the Muslims are up to something.” Okay, lady. I can’t wait very long because I have to meet folks for the bus at 11am so I leave before having the opportunity to enter. I quickly went back to the Hospice and went to the roof I didn’t even know provided such a view of Jerusalem.
And off to Ramallah I went. It wasn’t until the next morning that my comrade and homey would sent me a text from the US asking if I was around for this incident. When I said no, his response was, "You literally just missed your first brush with Israeli terror." Without knowing this clash at Al-Aqsa Mosque had even gone down I had already felt relieved to leave East Jerusalem. The place was just overly tense and uncomfortable for me. Then knowing that I had missed this dustup by two hours was but a reminder that I really had no sense of when something could pop off. But that I should be prepared. I coincidentally came upon this video by Al-Jazeera in the last few days which explains the tension in Jerusalem and city's recent history quite nicely.