From Jayyous to Jordan

Pamela Olson
18 August 2004

I left off last time hanging out in Azzun looking at the furniture Mohammad was having built for his soon-to-be wife and house. After picking out brass fixtures and checking on the progress on the bed and dresser, we caught a cab back to Jayyous, a small hilltop village near Qalqiliya in the north of the West Bank, and had some tea in his fiancee's parent's parlor with Mohammad, his fiancee, and several nieces-in-law.

Later that night I found another friend named Mohammad walking down Main Street, and he invited me to hang out on his porch. We chatted and watched the sun set along with a volleyball player from Jayyous who had just helped win a West Bank tournament.

I hadn't eaten all day, and he shared some tea and fried corn-meal-and-chicken balls. I went in to wash my hands afterwards, and their house, like many others, was out of water. A younger brother poured water out of a jar for me to wash with. Water is a major problem in Jayyous since its seven water wells were either destroyed or annexed by the Annexation Wall. They can pull water from cisterns if they have them, borrow from their neighbors, or buy it from Azzun if they have the means.

Later we heard and saw a couple of kids running down the road in front of two guys carrying big buckets of water. It took me a while to recognize Ammar and his cousin Fadi. I yelled at them, but they didn't hear. Later Mohammad and I went by their house to chat, and they said they had been taking water to a sister's house.

I liked Fadi a lot. He is a mechanic, and he didn't speak a word of English, but even when he and I were left alone, we found enough to talk about, or at least laugh about. When he was playing with his ten-year-old nephew Mahmoud, he picked him up over his head like a bag of feathers.

The next day I went with Abir to Azzun where she took a final exam, and then into Qalqiliya where she showed off her university building and we had lunch and went shopping. Qalqiliya is a town with the Wall completely surrounding it, and we could see the Wall from the top of her university building, snaking around between the town and its green land.

I was invited back to Mohammad's house for a chicken dinner, and before dinner we checked out the house he was building. On the way we passed a house whose porch seemed like it was on the edge of a cliff. If you put your feet up on the rail, it would be like they were up in infinity. Space spread out down the hill and over the valley to the next hills, greenhouses, citrus trees, and olive trees older than many nations dotted the land, the hills were turning blue in the twilight, lights were blinking on... the sense of space, of ancient newness, of the promise of days together and meals together, was overwhelming, refreshing like a deep breath.

All the views of the Wall from the town are depressing and disturbing, and this was the most extensive. Snaking through this breathtaking space, the fence and the road and the wire piles and the constant flashing armored vehicles, miles from the recognized border, visibly stealing land that friends of mine have deeds to, was a violation worse than just property theft.

Mohammad said, "During university, I had a place on that hill, I'd take tea and study. The wind would blow, the view was very nice..."

"The hill over there, where the Wall is now?"


"They destroyed it?"


Even if they hadn't, I don't imagine it would be much fun looking out on a view of stolen land through razor wire and army Jeeps. He told me his dad worked 12 hours a day seven days a week for years to provide for his kids. He exhausted himself. The land he has, tens of thousands of dollars worth, is not ancestral but was bought with his own money. All of Mohammad’s share is behind the Wall.

It took Mohammad seven months of inquiring at the Israeli settlement of Qedumim for him to get permission to access his land. A brother of his was looking after the land, so not everything had rotted. His permission can be retracted at any time for any reason.

Even for the farmers who can access their land, Israel has prepared another obstacle to their livelihood. They regularly flood the Palestinian market with under-priced vegetables—sometimes as low as 10% of market value—so that farmers can't compete or make a living from their work. Underselling vegetables is an inexpensive and devastating way to destroy the fruits of the honest work of the backbone of the Palestinian population, forcing more and more people to contemplate leaving their homeland to try to make a dignified living in more dignified conditions.

Mohammad told me a story of one farmer who fought for access to his greenhouses, raised and harvested tomatoes all fall, and then had to throw them away because he couldn't make enough money with them to cover the cost of delivering them to the nearest market.

Another devastating and cynical way to destroy the Palestinian economy is by flooding the emerging telecommunications market in Palestine with underpriced, unlicensed, illegal cell phones and coverage.

According to Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank:

    Further compounding the problems facing the Palestinian operators are the dumping practices used by illegal [Israeli] service providers [three out of four of which have American-based companies as majority shareholders]. Palestinians consumers are offered telecom services at less than a third of the cost as consumers living in Israel. This price discrimination and dumping is injurious to... the entire Palestinian communications market. While elsewhere in the world telecommunications have provided a tremendous economic stimulus, Palestinians are hindered from developing this key sector.

    The Israeli practice of dumping products and services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not new. A ferris-wheel currently operating in Ramallah was sold to Palestinians after it did not meet Israeli safety standards. Food products that are expired or near expiration are regularly sold with large discounts into the Palestinian market with no regard to food safety or the rule of law. All of these commercial practices take place with the full knowledge and support of the Israeli government bodies.

    [Meanwhile] President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell continue to repeat the need for economic development in the Palestinian areas [to offer] a way out of the Israeli-created poverty and despair...

    [According to the most recent ‘disengagement’ plan by Sharon,] ‘The water, electricity, sewage and communications infrastructures will be left in place’ [in Gaza after disengagement]. If Israel were really withdrawing their illegal occupation, why would they need to retain control of the communications infrastructure that was supposed to serve the Israeli settlers only?

    These telecommunication operators clearly violate accepted norms of conducting business, they violate international law, and they violate the letter and the spirit of the signed-treaties.

The letter of the ‘disengagement’ plan can be found here.

some excerpts:

    In any future permanent arrangement, there will be no Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it is clear that some parts of Judea and Samaria (including key concentrations of Jewish settlements, civilian communities, security zones and areas in which Israel has a vested interest) will remain part of the State of Israel. [It is clear, in other words, that this ‘disengagement’ plan is a precursor to a massive and permanent annexation of West Bank land.]

    The State of Israel will monitor and supervise the outer envelope on land, will have exclusive control of the Gaza airspace, and will continue its military activity along the Gaza Strip's coastline. [That’s withdrawal? Sounds more like imprisonment]

    3. The State of Israel reserves the basic right to self defense, which includes taking preventive measures as well as the use of force against threats originating in the Gaza Strip. [So, the military will withdraw, but it can go back in any time it chooses]

    Military activity will remain in its current framework in the rest of the West Bank. The State of Israel will, if circumstances allow, consider reducing its activity in Palestinian cities. [So nothing will change, but if circumstances allow, something undefined may change a little bit.]

    All military infrastructure and installations in the Gaza Strip and the northern Samaria region [he means the northern modern West Bank, not the ancient Biblical kingdom] will be dismantled and evacuated, except for those that the State of Israel decides to transfer to an authorized body [transfer to a what? It almost sounded good for a minute].

    The State of Israel stresses that it will not agree to any foreign security presence in Gaza or the West Bank without its consent. [None of those pesky UN guys. Didn’t the US say the UN has lost relevance anyway? Human rights and international law are old hat in the New American Century.]

    As a rule, Israel will enable the continued supply of electricity, water, gas and fuel to the Palestinians, under the existing arrangements and full compensation. [Israel will control Palestine’s electricity, water, gas and fuel... but oh well, if Palestine makes any decision Israel doesn’t like, who really needs electricity and water?]

    The existing arrangements, including the arrangements with regard to water and the electromagnetic area, will remain valid. [The current arrangement in Gaza with regard to water is the Israelis taking the lion’s share and watering their lawns while some Palestinians die of thirst. And the electromagnetic area includes a lot of illegal Israeli phone companies.]

    In general, the economic arrangements that are currently in effect between Israel and the Palestinians will remain valid. These arrangements include, among other things:

    A. The movement of goods between the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria [i.e. the West Bank], Israel and foreign countries.

    B. The monetary regime.

    C. The taxation arrangements and the customs envelope.

    D. Postal and communications arrangements.

    H. The entry of workers into Israel in accordance with the existing criteria.

    [Many of you don’t know about the current monetary regime, postal and communications and taxation and customs and import/export arrangements, etc., but they don’t exactly favor the occupied.]

    In the long run, and in accordance with the Israeli interest in encouraging Palestinian economic independence, The State of Israel aspires to reduce the number of Palestinian workers entering Israel, and eventually to completely stop their entrance. The State of Israel will support the development of employment sources in the Gaza Strip and in the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, by international bodies. [Sweatshops anyone?]

Every instance of the word ‘withdraw’ with regard to Israel’s military presence is followed by the word ‘redeploy’ to the surrounding areas. So in letter it is not a withdrawal at all. Just redeployment.

Mohammad, by chance, happened to be a volunteer for Al Mubadara in Jayyous and was scheduled to call Dr. Barghouthi that night. We spoke to him briefly and he told us some of the news.

I visited another friend later that evening, and while we were taking tea in his parlor, I asked him about the pictures on the wall of a handsome dark-eyed young man. He said it was his older brother who was studying in one of the best universities in one of the most dangerous towns in the West Bank. After his mother left the room, he asked me, "Did you see her face when you asked about my brother?"

"No, not really, why?"

"She is very angry. My brother has not come home for one year. He is a wanted man."


"We don't know. But all of his friends, they have been taken away, arrested, we don't know where they are. My brother can't leave his town. If he goes through a checkpoint, they will take him."

"He can't come home?"

"He can't go anywhere. My mother is very sad. He is her favorite son. It makes her ill, ya'ni, in her heart. She loves him so much. More than me."

"Can you talk to him at least?"

"Yes, I phone him, all the time. But one time I was talking to him on this phone, and a voice broke through. Speaking Hebrew."

"Speaking Hebrew? They were spying on you?" That’s another danger of having a foreign-controlled telecommunications regime on your land.

"Yes. You see I have two phones, yes? Why do I have two phones? I am not a businessman. It is for my brother. I don't give anyone this number."

Another friend of mine had a nephew who had just finished medical school in Tunisia. It was obvious he was the star of the day, sitting in a parlor among about twenty of his relatives in stylish thin-rimmed glasses with an air of benevolent wisdom and almost boyish pride. I tried to speak a little Arabic with him, and he answered in a mixture of English and French. He said he liked Tunisia, and the people were great, but rent was expensive.

On Saturday I said my good-byes to everyone before I took off for Amman the next day and encountered the usual hospitality ‘problem’. Even if you have half a dozen people to see, every house you visit is like a black hole. You are pulled into their circle and begin to forget about other commitments. Trying to leave is like fighting your way out of wet tar.

"No, thank you very much, no really, it was delicious, thanks so much, but I really have to... No, really, I had a lovely time here, everything was great, I just have to... La, really, I'm really sorry, I already told... La, w’allah, humdulillah, shukran kthir, biss mish mumkin, OK?... Yalla, OK, tayyib, one more cup of tea."

I got up very early the next day to try to find my way up north to the Israeli city of Beit Shean where I could get a visa and cross into Jordan. I found a woman at the bus stop outside Jayyous, and she got on the bus to Azzun with me and even paid my shekel fare. She said she was a nurse on her way to work in Qalqiliya.

It occurred to me, as she and the bus driver so kindly helped me figure out a way to get where I needed to go, how often and how utterly, especially during my first time in the Middle East, I had depended on the kindness of strangers to help me get around. By now I almost took it for granted how well any stranger I talked to would treat me, how genuinely they would try to help. In Palestine especially.

It was a somewhat torturous path finding my way up through Jenin and then to the border with Israel in the north, and the soldiers at the border asked what I was doing. I was the only person at the border, and the soldiers were so bored they asked me where I was from, started singing a song about Alabama (close enough), and then looked at every page in my passport, naming off countries. One said, "You like to travel, huh? It is a very good life, I think. Look at us, stuck here all day in the hot sun."

"Two years, right?"

"No, three years! Two years for the girls. It’s not fair. They do the same work we do."

I felt some pity, because they were right in front of me, friendly and human, and sadly wasting prime years of young life. But then again, they could have refused to serve. The Palestinians can’t choose whether or not to be occupied.

When I got a few kilometers outside of the West Bank, my Palestinian Jawwal mobile phone lost all coverage, and I felt a surprising sense of loss. My only connection to a lot of friends was cut.

I shared a taxi to Amman with an Israeli businessman who spoke fluent Arabic and lived in a kibbutz near Jerusalem. He and the Palestinian driver chatted during the drive. I asked the driver where he was from, and he said Beit Shean, just across the border from the northern crossing, an Israeli city now. The Israeli man pulled us over and bought us kunafa along the way.

I asked to be dropped off at the hotel in Downtown Amman where my friend Fayez is the manager. He was the first good friend I made in the Middle East last year when I traveled. With an easy charm and encyclopedic knowledge of the region, he was also kind and patient enough to answer my naïve questions and matter-of-factly tell me stories so shocking to tender American ears that I had to go find out if they were true.

His Palestinian family were refugees in 1948 and again in 1967 when they moved to Amman. His village was destroyed and the ruins are situated near one of the fences around Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. With guests from all over the world not just staying in his hotel but also sharing kunafa and coffee in his office every evening, I consider him the unofficial ambassador of Amman, and an ambassador of the Middle East in general. He welcomed me with the usual warmth, and it was fantastic to see him and catch up.

I called a Jordanian friend whom I had met during my latest stay in California, and her family was exceedingly kind enough to pick me up and give me a place to stay for the next few days. Her father is a Jordanian man who studied in Tennessee in the ‘60’s, when black people still couldn’t sit in the front of the bus, and he had some great stories from those times. He got in a car accident one time, and when he came to, the doctor asked where he was from.

"Jordan," he said.


"No, Jordan."

"What? Georgia?"

"Jor - dan. Jordan."

"Where in Georgia?"

Pause. "Atlanta."

The story reminded me of another one told by a Palestinian friend of mine, now a professor at Stanford, who studied in Georgia many years ago. He said some Christian missionaries, young college girls, once came to his house to tell him the Good News, and he invited them in for tea. They asked where he was from, and he said, "Bethlehem."

Their jaws nearly hit the floor. They acted like he was a celebrity and asked him several questions. Finally he said, "Look, let me tell you about a religion that encompasses both Judaism and Christianity, that..." He went on to describe Islam, not telling them what it was, and by the time they left, they were practically converted.

Another woman followed him around asking to paint him, insisting he must look something like Jesus.

Tanya’s mom is an American woman with roots in Wisconsin who met her husband at university and then moved, sight unseen, to a new life in Jordan. She told me her kids were never interested in politics until they started university in the States. Now her oldest son and Tanya are leaders on their campuses in Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim advocacy. She said they were simply dumbfounded when they got to America and found out what people thought about Arabs and Muslims. One of the more benign but silly questions they got on arrival was, "Do y’all pray to Buddha?"

The first time I left Palestine, I thought telling people about what was going on there would be like shooting ducks. I spent only a few weeks there, and from my own observations it was clear how much our media lies and distorts things, how horrible conditions were for innocent people, and how peace and justice and security were by no means the first concern of the major powers involved. I thought I could just show some pictures, tell some stories, impart some of the horror of what was happening, talk a little about the real live three-dimensional human beings who were suffering for no good reason, give ample evidence of the dishonesty involved in current policies, and people would drop like flies out of the loop of misinformation and propaganda. But I naively underestimated the power of mass misinformation and propaganda.

I think Tanya found, too, that even being a Muslim Arab who didn’t fit a single stereotype was not enough to make much of a dent in a lot of people’s perceptions. People like her keep on trying, though.

I'm back in Ramallah now, very happy to be back, and I have a lot more to write, but I will save it for later.



Next: Amman again

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