Abbel Boy

Pamela Olson
5 July 2004

It is so strange to be sitting in an office in front of a computer eating a chicken sandwich and drinking fresh carrot juice with a multi-lingual Palestinian woman (fluent in French, Arabic, and English, passable in Spanish) chatting like in any other office, typing up a report about, for example, a family that was gunned down in their home at midnight in a Palestinian town where friends of mine live by the army of a country where other friends of mine live. One report last week said Israeli soldiers in Nablus shot and killed two sons and shot their father in the head in front of their mother and sister.

Every day, it's like a normal day at work, and then a report comes in about another family killed, another operation or incursion or ambulance attacked or curfew instated or checkpoint closed or parcel of productive land destroyed, and your stomach turns to water. Last week another nine-year-old kid was shot and killed at a peaceful protest in Gaza, and I doubt the mainstream news even reported it. Things like this have become commonplace.

While Muzna and I were typing up reports one day last week, two guys showed up, a reporter and a photographer. The photographer walked in like a tall beam of sunshine, a half-Palestinian half-Catalonian from Barcelona, effortlessly charming in a friendly, smiling, confident way, and in possession of a passionate devotion to human rights, animal rights, and Spanish soccer. Seemed like the type for whom women just fell at his feet.

He came in and all the women fell at his feet. Muzna suggested that if he really wanted to learn Arabic, he should get himself a Palestinian girlfriend, and I had to make an effort not to stutter. Later we and some others went out for drinks at a place called Sangria's with a gorgeous outdoor patio and garden. Most folks ordered a very decent Palestinian beer called Taybeh, and I had some Turkish coffee and a nargila.

Someone asked what a nargila was last time I wrote. It is a tall ornate hookah, sheesha, water bong, usually filled with flavored tobacco. My favorite flavor is warad (rose), but grape and mint and raspberry and mango are also nice. It's one of my favorite things about the Middle East, time together sitting around on a porch talking, usually about politics, and laughing and enjoying each other's company with no concept of time whatever, taking turns blowing smoke rings and making coffee and tea while people come and go and goats wander up the stairs and cats come and sit in your lap and someone comes by with some leftover desserts and the sun sets and al-Jazeera or CNN comes on, and everyone rolls their eyes because they are lying as usual, or at best telling half the truth, and people who come randomly by sometimes end up becoming great friends... That's a short definition of nargila.

Anyway, we were hanging out on the patio of Sangria's when a happy birthday song came on the loudspeakers and two cakes came out with fireworks spewing fire out on top. The birthday party had gotten enough cake for everyone on the patio and the waiters passed it around. When Muzna said, "La, shukran," (no thanks), and the waiter asked, "Lehsh?" (why?), I laughed out loud.

Alex, the Canadian journalist, told Mushir the Spanishtinian heartthrob to tell his story of crossing into Israel. Mushir laughed and said, "Ah yes, the girl at the border control, she ask me, 'What will your address be in Ramallah?' I said, 'Why, you want to come visit me?' She turn very red, and she try to answer me in Spanish, then she try to answer me in English, then she start cursing in Hebrew."

We all laughed and he said, "But it is not so funny, because then they give me only two weeks in Israel." Normally tourists get three months. So he'll have to go back to Jordan and renew soon. I almost don't blame the poor girl.

After drinks I followed Alex and Mushir and a law student named Omar to their apartment to watch the Portugal/Holland soccer game. Omar is an itriguing person to me because he is so thoroughly American and yet has a certain understanding of things because he has close family in the Middle East. He turned down an amazingly lucrative summer job in the States for a $500-a-month stint in Palestine. I am not sure how he holds so many ideas, some of which seem contradictory to me, in his head at once. I think I will learn a lot talking to him.

He works for the economic arm of the Palestinian Authority and is pretty disappointed with it. The PA, from most accounts I've heard, is weak and disorganized and dishonest and generally lacks solidarity with the Palestinian people. Many Palestinians are more upset with the PA, which was installed by and is dependent on Israel, than with Israel itself. Many feel betrayed and ill-represented. And yet maybe 1/3 of the West Bank population is dependent on it for their livelihood, and Palestinian citizens have little to fall back on politically except the fundamentalist party Hamas. Somebody told me about half of Palestinians identify with neither Hamas nor Fateh (the dominant party in the PA). I hope al-Mubadara can be a viable Third Front, and I hope its call for democratic elections will be honored, but we will see. I have a lot to learn.

While we were watching the game, Omar jokingly asked Mushir if he would like anything, "like maybe some abbel boy?" Mushir laughed, and Omar explained that they had dinner one time with a girl who had been in the West Bank a little too long, and she asked a waiter, "May I have some apple pie?"

The waiter looked at her, confused, and the girl said, "Sorry, some abbel boy, please?"

The waiter smiled, relieved, and said, "Oh yes, abbel boy! Right away."

The next night, when I was studying my Egyptian Arabic textbook, the Palestinian girl I live with said that all Arabs understand Egyptian standard Arabic, but almost no one speaks it. "And by the way, all our books are written in Egypt, published in Lebanon, and read in Iraq." I laughed but she said, "No, I'm serious, it's been true for 200 years. All the thinkers are in Egypt, but they have never had democracy. So everything gets published in Beirut, but they are all too busy to read. In Iraq everyone is so smart, so that's where they read the books."

I wondered how much reading Iraqis have done lately.

There was another expat party on Thursday night at my house, and I was talking to an American guy who has lived in Palestine for more than five years. He lived in Gaza City for about two years, and he said the US Agency for International Development spent tons of time and US taxpayer money to build several wells for the Gazans--our tax money given to the government's business partners. Fair enough if it provides the Gazans with much-needed water.

But then Israel came and destroyed all the wells, with weapons paid for by US tax dollars to the government's defense contractor business partners. And then the first well-building business partners got another fat tax-funded deal to rebuild the wells.

I was reminded of Milo Minderbinder, the black market mastermind in Catch-22, bombing his men with their own planes, making a large profit from it, and calmly explaining to everyone why it was in their best interest and done, after all, in the sacred and inviolable name of Free Enterprise.

The American guy said, "I've seen so much stuff, I didn't think I could get angry anymore. But the wall makes me very angry."

Halfway through the party an Israeli Jeep showed up and cut off our access to the main road, and it stayed there for hours and hours. My Palestinian housemate ushered us all into the house like it was a thunderstorm or something. And, like in a thunderstorm, we kept hearing explosions every twenty minutes or so and vainly made guesses as to how far away they were and what kind of damage they might have done.

A French diplomat and a German guy were playing bottle caps, and I talked to an Irish guy who got sick of being rich in Geneva and is working now for al-Haq, a human rights NGO. He and the Swedish girl both said that the UN pays well, but you have to have connections to get hired.

The next day at work I found out the explosions were part of an Israeli incursion, with six people arrested and several doors blown down and at least two people injured, including one child. Arafat's compound was surrounded again. I believe two houses were demolished. Three of those arrested are from Tulkarm and work for the Palestinian Red Crescent. All six were taken to unknown places. Details are sketchy, because a curfew was in place, and to be a witness would have been dangerous.

Walking around looking at the strong, beautiful stone houses in my neighborhood the other day, I was thinking that if someone were even to think about destroying them, for any reason, I don't know how my anger could be contained. My Palestinian housemate later told me she was a victim of the very first home demolition in Ramallah. She used to live in a very nice five-story flat, and one night Israelis came and found a wanted man, killed him (extrajudicial assassination, illegal by the Geneva Conventions), threw everyone out of their apartments, including families with young children, without letting them bring anything out with them, and dynamited it before their eyes as an act of collective punishment (also illegal by international law). My housemate lost her father when she was 13, and her portrait of her father was destroyed, as well as her book, clothes, CDs, furniture, personal effects... she said she could not count what she lost.

She grew up in Gaza City, and her family is made up of wealthy Communists. (Wealthy Gaza Communists--triple oxymoron? I have yet to meet a truth that was not stranger than fiction.) She was hit with a bullet the first time when she was six years old. During the first Intifada in 1987, Israeli soldiers were shooting at youths who were throwing rocks. She was on her way home and was caught in the crossfire, and a bullet grazed her ankle, and then a stone hit her in almost the same place.

She said Israeli soldiers came into her home all the time when she was young, and she saw her father being beaten more than once, and sometimes her father or brothers were taken away and put in prison. I wonder why a family of Gaza Communists was so dangerous to the security of Israel.

I told her Ronan's story from southern Lebanon about the four prisoners being killed by an Israeli soldier, including a child. She told me one time she and her friends were playing in the road when they were about 7 or 8 years old, and some Israeli soldiers were on a rooftop nearby. The soldiers started pointing at the kids and laughing, and then one pointed his gun and shot one of the children in the cheek. Another soldier shot another kid in the eye. She said each time they aimed she could not tell whom they were aiming at. She said with a weak smile, "They were playing a game, who could shoot a kid in the eye."

She said the worst thing she saw lately was that one of the American torturers in Abu Ghraib was a pregnant woman. "How can she do that when she was in that time of life that is most... I mean could she not think ahead and think that someone might do that to her child someday?"

When the Al-Aqsa mosque compound was stormed by Ariel Sharon in September 2000, the spark that lit the powder keg of the Second Intifada, my housemate was on her way to a party in West Jerusalem, but because of the craziness she decided not to go. A Communist friend of hers phoned and said he was going to go check out the protest. He wasn't religious or anything, he was just angry that the country that had oppressed his people so long was now spitting in their eye, and excited to be part of a big passionate group of people. The next they heard of him was that he had been shot and killed at the protest.

She said, "I have never lived anywhere else, and I was six years old during the first Intifada and I was just learning what the world was about. I thought it was always about soldiers and beatings and killings and checkpoints. I don't know what normal is." She's hoping to study for a masters in finance in France soon, and I can't imagine what a relief it will be. Despite it all she still wants to raise kids here in Palestine. She doesn't want them to see what she has seen, but at the same time she says her experiences have made her stronger, and she wants to stay with her homeland.

She and I went to see Mystic River at the Cinematheque, and on the way back yet another Israeli Jeep was blocking our path, and teenaged boys were running toward it with stones. She turned me around and said, "Don't go that way, ugh, I hate it when they do that. Don't they know some of the Israeli soldiers are not right in the head? They get scared and they just shoot."

Last night a group of us went to a club called The Orthodox to watch the Portugal/Greece game. There was a small but vocal group of Greece supporters, and they were very happy at the end. The guy sitting beside me was from Nablus, works in Jericho, will study in Missouri next year, and said he hates to leave Palestine and is only going away for a time because of the situation. He doesn't want to study here now because it is too hard just getting around, and with checkpoint and curfews and everything else, serious study would be very stressful if not impossible. (My housemate lost a year of study because of some problems with her Israeli-issued documents.) But he definitely plans to come back to his homeland to live. I asked what he thought of Dr. Barghouthi, and he said, "Like most Palestinians I think he is a very good man."

An international film festival is coming to town next week, and I hope to catch some good movies. There's one about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries that looks good. My housemate, like me, enjoys long walks around town, so I am looking forward to exploring the area with her. We're thinking of walking the 20 km to Bir Zeit at some point and catching a cab back.

Today I showed Dr. Barghouthi our new web page design, and he is happy with it. Insha'Allah we can get it up and running soon.

I hope you all are staying well and look forward to seeing you again.


"Few of us can surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that The State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."

    ~Arthur Miller

Next: Che Guevara Burning

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