Monday, August 29, 2011

Where has the time gone?

Here goes a little recap. LIFE Program ended mid July and I decided my work in Israel was not done. While at the time the decision to stay long term seemed too daunting, I compromised with one extra month. Four weeks later and I’m left wondering where the time has gone. What exactly did I do for one month in Tel Aviv with no job and no real commitments?

Yehudah ha Levi street-- you can almost see my apartment from here.

1. African Refugee Development Center: Along with continuing my work with Tov Lada’at, I picked up some office hours at one of the largest organizations working with refugees in Tel Aviv, doing just about the same Higher Education work. Among other roles, I met daily with asylum seekers who were interested in pursuing higher education, and then tried to connect them with the right school or program. While I loved meeting new people, it became frustrating work when I realized there were so few options for the refugee community. Language restrictions paired with an inability to get student visas, refugees and asylum seekers are barred from most Israeli Universities. This became particularly upsetting when day after day I met with motivated, qualified candidates (some of whom already had bachelor’s degrees) who were scrubbing toilets or street cleaning for a living because it’s the only place they could be hired. Not only is the Israeli government denying the universal right of education, I think it is also missing out on a huge opportunity. This community turns to violence and drugs because they are bored, they don’t have any goals to work towards; Israeli policies don’t afford them a right to a future. I think that creating a cadre of university-educated people will not only reduce rates of violence in South Tel Aviv but also decrease the community’s dependence on outside organizations. It is like an investment—this elite group will go on to build self-sustaining organizations for its own community; I already see this happening with Tov Lada’at fellows who have started their own youth programs, art clubs, and English courses. And not to mention, these people will eventually return to their home countries (they all want to) as pro-Israel advocates in areas of the world where that is rare, like South Sudan.           

Despite the frustrations with the job itself, I worked with a group of fun, interesting people from all over the world including Eritrea, Italy, England, and France. Almost like a mini-UN. While it was only a mere few weeks we had together, I guess something about having similar world views and dealing with the same daily frustrations, positioned us to be instant friends. My last night in Tel Aviv just so happened to fall of Tisha B’av, a Jewish holiday that requires all businesses, restaurants, and bars to close. I think we found the only place open in all of Tel Aviv—an Eritrean restaurant built into someone’s home. It was the perfectly appropriate send-off party—drinking Eritrean beers while listening to traditional music and eating injera with my hands, all in the presence of great company.

2. Two trips up to the Misgav. Over the course of my five months in Israel I became close with a few people from an area in Northern Israel called Misgav. It is considered a peripheral area made up of small villages, and just so happens to be (at least in my opinion) the most beautiful place in all of Israel. It is mountainous and green and raises people to be the outdoorsy, laid-back type. My friends and I joked that something must be in the air because everyone we met from Misgav is incredibly kind, welcoming, and self-sufficient, while still valuing their family and home. On two separate trips to this area I got to eat authentic warm hummus in an Arab village, take care of baby olive trees in Nurit’s family’s orchard, have dinner overlooking what seemed like all of Israel, see the fabulous rock star Yeuhdit Ravitz perform for all of Misgav, and participate in a Shira V’nabira. Literally meaning: singing and beers. This is a common party in Israel based on a kibbutz tradition where youth get together to drink beers and sing Israeli songs. Except the Misgav version of this party was pimped out. A group of friends arranged it to be a huge spectacle equipped with a stage and live band, hundreds of beers, boiled corn, watermelon and salty cheese (I highly suggest this combo—deelish!), couches, tables, and a huge projection screen with the lyrics. Think giant group karaoke. It was a blast until I realized that Hebrew songs get a little old when you don’t know how to sing them. One of the most entertaining parts of the night though was watching the guys—all retired soldiers from elite units in the Israeli army—break down and put away the whole set-up as if it were an army drill on efficiency. I could not imagine my American friends putting the effort into, nonetheless even knowing how, to throw a party like this.

Shira V'nabira held in Yuvalim, Misgav.

Nurit, her father Arik Raz, who founded the Misgav, and I on their olive orchard.

Look closely: I made friends with a grasshopper.

3. Making new friends. I’ve enjoyed my last month in Tel Aviv particularly because I have been able to spend time with new friends. One of the guys I worked with from Darfur happened to work on my daily walking path from my house to work. One of my new routines became to stop in at his coffee shop a couple evenings a week to say hi. The only problem is that in many African cultures, it is customary to feed the guest. So I couldn’t visit without Guy (the Darfuri) practically shoving iced coffees and homemade meals down my throat. No matter how small the gesture, it was comforting to know I would run into someone I knew everyday on the street. It felt grounding somehow. As if the amount of people you know (and could thus potentially run into) is an indicator of your adjustment to a new place.

I was able to connect with some distant relatives—sharing some lovely Friday night dinners in an actual home and spending quality time with cousins my age.  Not to mention, learn how to cook the shakshuka, the Israeli staple made of tomatoes and eggs.

Mmmm... shakshuka!
And finally, because I was in Tel Aviv, I could more easily meet up with Tov Lada’at  fellows. One of the students, Dighe, took me to a friend’s wedding where I experienced Eritrean marriage customs first hand. The couple rented a giant room in South Tel Aviv. And while it wasn’t a looker from the outside, let me tell you, those Eritreans know how to party. I got there before the bride and groom came, which is typical. We ate traditional Eritrean food and drank beers until the happy couple made their grand entrance to Eritrean party music, sparklers, and confetti.  Everyone was on the dance floor clapping and dancing around the couple. People throw money at the newlyweds and do this dance where you lift your shoulder up and down at another person and then roll onto each other’s backs. She wore a white princess gown and he wore a suit, just like any wedding we’ve seen before. They even had bridesmaids and groomsmen in correlating outfits. After a few beers (I was retiring early compared to everyone else), some more dancing, and saturated with cultural observation, I left Dighe to party the night away with his friends.

The Tov Lada'at Family at our closing ceremony for the year.

4. Ramallah. That’s right, Ramallah.  I crossed over to the forbidden side! I hope you just read that with sarcasm because when I spent the day there, riding buses and touring the streets, there was not one moment I felt unsafe or threatened. It made me reflect on how the West Bank has been framed for me by certain medias and in certain Jewish contexts. It is made out to be something scary, forbidden, “the place we don’t speak of” (granted, Israelis are not allowed in). But in all reality, the West Bank, and Ramallah specifically, is a bustling city filled with restaurants, coffee shops, universities, and everyday people.

The center of the city.
Michelle, Daniel, and Phil by some typical hookah smokers.

Michelle, her brother, Phil, and I left from Damascus gate in the old city and took one of the green buses operated by the Palestinian authority to Ramallah.  We crossed the border, past the concrete wall and border patrol, got off in the middle of the city, and immediately went to find authentic Arab hummus and shwarma. After wandering around the busy streets with giant food babies we happened upon a “Stars and Bucks” for delicious coffee beverages and then walked to pay our respects to Yasser Arafat’s grave. There wasn’t a whole lot to see in Ramallah in terms of tourism, but it was interesting how a place only an hour away from West Jerusalem could feel like a world away. It reminded me a lot of Amman, Jordan with the heavy traffic, sidewalks jammed with pedestrians, and streets lined with coffee shops, bakeries, and markets.  On the way back home we reached the fortress of a checkpoint, and just like everyone else on the bus, were forced to get out, wait in line, show our identification to an IDF soldier, and reload the bus. It was then I understood the inconvenience and frustration Palestinians might feel about these security measures. On the way there Michelle and I started speaking with the Palestinian woman sitting next to us about issues like these. We chatted for a while and finally asked about relations with Israel. Michelle said something along the lines of, “And things with Israel are ok?” The woman pointed to the concrete wall shooting high above our bus and laughed, “You call this ok?”

Yasser Arafat's grave.

The checkpoint coming back in Israel from the West Bank.

5. Taking Tel Aviv by storm. Tel Aviv is a party city. With the beach bum attitude, girls in small clothes, and ample amount of bars and restaurants, I like to think it’s similar to Miami in vibe and attitude. This of course means that it is almost impossible to avoid temptation, especially if you have a strong case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It just doesn’t feel right to come home before midnight when you can constantly see and hear people exploring the city’s nightlife.  It’s been a blast to see what Tel Aviv has to offer but I think it’s probably good for my health and liver, that I came home when I did.

On another Tel Avivi note, Rotschild street is on fire. Not literally, just figuratively-- with hundreds of people and their tents. Thousands of people all over Israel have been rallying together to protest high costs of living and limited state benefits by pitching tents in the central public space of their city. I was fortunate enough to live right next to Israel’s largest protest on Rothschild Street, the busiest avenue in Tel Aviv. It is a sight to see. For at least ten long blocks, hundreds of tents line the pedestrian walkway.  There are signs and posters everywhere, tents are painted with messages, and community organizers host nightly discussions where groups of people sit in a circle and discuss an aspect of the protests. The street is absolutely alive with the spirit of protest; it is like nothing I’ve seen before. And because this is the Israeli form of protest, just plain tents and posters don’t do. There are dance parties, live music performances every few blocks, tee-pees,  movie screenings, street theater,  food, and people everywhere either sitting on couches or beds in the middle of the walkway with their friends.
Rothschild avenue, although this picture was taken during a lull in the day.
In the evening this place is teeming with people.

A double decker!

The Israelis I’ve spoken to about the protest are ecstatic about the movement, they have never seen their own countrymen organize and rally around a domestic cause with such vigor and with such numbers. Many say that it is a cause almost everyone can agree on--unlike the country’s highly polarized political problems.  I saw this first hand during a city-wide rally when an estimated 300,000 people marched in the streets. Seas of people took over Tel Aviv’s busiest avenues. There were kids and families, college students, and the elderly chanting and playing music together. It felt like Tel Aviv was literally busting at the seams because people were everywhere—on their balconies, sitting on top of streetlights, and taking pictures atop tall recycling structures. The energy was palpable.

I had a profound moment one evening while watching the documentary made about Barak Obama’s 2008 election campaign called “By the People” amongst the Israeli protesters. The movie highlights how Obama inspired activism in a place where it has been dead for a while-- American youth. Walking back home from the movie, weaving in and out of people camped out for their cause, I began to feel envious. Where did that fervor and excitement go that we had on the dawn of his inauguration? I began to wish I had a cause I felt that passionate about. I wondered even if I could ever feel that passionate about a cause.

Now just to turn the tables for a minute, I couldn’t help but notice a small glitch in the system, a paradox, if you will. Actual homeless people were sleeping on uncomfortable public benches right next to the self-made “homeless” protesters.. The people who are taking to the streets in mass, fighting for access to fair prices, are the same people turning a blind eye to street cleaners from Eritrea who survived political repression only to come to Israel to be treated like sub-humans. There is something profoundly wrong with the image of young activists, happily building tents, playing music, and throwing dance parties next to a man without an actual home, sleeping on a bench or in a public park. While I whole-heartedly support the protests, I guess I just wish people could look around a little more and consider how everyone could benefit from major reforms, even the homeless.

Whew. That one was a doozie. One novella later, and I’ve told you (if you are still reading) the highlights of my last month in Israel. Not to mention the fundraising campaign I’ve been working on putting together for Tov Lada’at:

The Tov Lada'at Sponsor a Student Campaign- props to my cousin Shir for designing this add.

In short though, the month was an absolute whirlwind of laughs and struggles, working hard and playing hard.  I’ve been back several weeks now and am slowly adjusting my new Baltimore lifestyle. I can’t tell you how my time in Israel has changed me (because I don’t know myself), but as the plane pulled away and I couldn’t help but hold back the tears, I knew that something about that stubborn little place will always be with me.

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