What makes our suffering more worthy?

When I was younger, the Haggadah we used at Passover had a farcical play in the back, jocularly re-enacting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We used to perform it every year around the Seder table as our version of telling the story of Passover. There is one line from the play that has stuck with me through all these years, a line my sister and I quote to each other throughout the year, and one that seems particularly relevant as I look back at what I’ve just written:

“Woe to us, we are in trouble.”

Tonight marks the beginning of 192 hours of abstention from bread, leavening (except eggs), inflation (except beans), and alcohol (except wine, rum, tequila…oh hell, get me a beer). Why? So we can remember when we were slaves in Egypt. So we can pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. So we can make our lives marginally uncomfortable for a while, to remember our history and to prevent us from experiencing it again.

Though noble enough in origin – as my father says, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – this holiday feels in a way self-righteous. Most haggadot (the Passover dinner-service guidebook) will, at least now, mention the hardships facing minority groups in other areas of the world. I’ve seen mention of Southeast Asia and the USSR, and in the 90s we were into the African dictators and Eastern Europe. Feminist haggadot often mention inequality for women in different parts of the world, and I think we have one in our house discussing sex slaves. These days particularly leftist haggadot will even mention Palestine.

But the buck stops here. We acknowledge the suffering of others; we hope and we pray that these people will experience freedom, justice, and liberty, just as we were freed from Egypt and wandered around the desert (independently!, mind you) for forty years. Hooray for us, now go find your own Moses.

We are so focused on preventing our own history from repeating itself, though, that we cannot see when we are inflicting terrible collective damage on other people. We – and all minorities – are and must be survivalist. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if we don’t protect our clan, surely we will meet our demise. Thus we may only in good faith marry among ourselves, live in homogeneous communities, pray only for the health and welfare of our own kind, and while we wish well upon others, there is always the unspoken addendum to “may you be free”: “but not as free as we.”

Perhaps it is time for us to stop worrying about ourselves to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps it is time for us to give money to a charitable yet non-Jewish organization (like a Catholic or even secular hospital, for instance). Perhaps we ought to recognize that behaving with the clear and direct intention of simply preventing our own history from repeating itself will inevitably mean we, or others, will inflict the same hardships on other minorities, and we have set ourselves up only to be complicit spectators or active perpetrators of similar crimes.

Why do we, as people who have suffered, not hear the same cries for help, not recognize new histories moving down the same paths as ours once did, not step in and speak out? Half-drunk around the dinner table two nights a year is not enough.

With its spiritual and ideological focus on freedom, Passover is a time not to talk about our hopes for others, these fluid fragments of ideas, but to act on them. To actually believe in what we say, without addenda, and to put our idle words – all people will be free – into action.

I believe in “next year in Jerusalem,” but I also believe in next year in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Amman, in Jeddah, in Cairo, in Manama, in Gaza City, in Tunis, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Paris, in Havana, in Augusta and Madison, in Tokyo, in Naypyidaw, Burma, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and throughout the world. We deserve freedom no more and no less than anyone else, and if we are going to spend 8 days a year saying it, we’d best start spending 365 days a year believing it.

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Story time: Your guns are bigger than their guns

A warning: this post is going to read much like those really annoying posts that go blahblahblahPICTUREblahblahblahPICTUREblahblahblahPICTUREblahblahblahTRAVELING IS AWESOME. But I won’t do exactly that, partly because I don’t think down-sizing pictures to fit within that format does them any justice, and partly because this epic tale needs to be told in some vaguely interesting way even though nothing could do it justice.

The story begins at 11:30 on a Thursday night, boarding a bus along with fifty other younguns – civilian and soldier – headed for a party party weekend down in the beach oasis of Eilat, or headed to Sinai to break loose in the scorching Egyptian sun. My assigned seat (what?!) was the aisle, next to a tall, dark, and handsome Air Force officer. With a machine gun. Fine, because it stayed between him and the window. I was stoked about the aisle seat until the bus had more passengers than seats, and aisle next to me was apparently prime sleeping-on-the-floor space. Not just anyone slept their, either, but an Army kid and his machine gun were bumping against my leg all night. AND he was watching Inglourious Basterds on his iPod but kept turning so I couldn’t even watch with him. Insult to injury, damnit.

Getting to Eilat, I grab a taxi to the Taba border. The taxi driver quickly discovers I don’t speak Hebrew, only English, and immediately asks if I speak French – and we speak French all the way to Egypt.

After paying some bizarre fees (98 shekels to get out of Israel), explaining my possession of two passports to the Egyptian border guards (how did they know?), and being proposed to (ahlan wa sahlan to the Middle East, eh?) I get a bus/minibus/van/shared taxi with a bunch of Israelis anxious to begin their vacations outside the Promised Land. We pay 75 Egyptian pounds to some guy in a kiosk, drive recklessly for hours over desert, between sun and sand and salt, variously passing by Bedouin villages, Hilton-type resorts, and kitchy sea-side “camps” and “wellness retreats”. When we eventually reach Dahab, about 2 hours and 100 LE later, I find I have to walk the last few blocks because my taxi driver was lazy, my room isn’t ready, and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Ah, well, could be worse.

We change into our bikinis and hit the beach. [I must interject here simply to say that, if nothing else, the Sinai peninsula is a place of stark contrast: abject Middle Eastern poverty playing host to international jet-setting affluence, donkeys on the streets and scuba divers in the sea, resorts fit for a king and cities of half-built buildings.] We find lounge chairs and settle in with our beverages: Nescafe, mango juice, liter upon liter of water. And sunblock. Important point: I DID use sunblock, of course, being concerned primarily with areas-of-concern I, like always, neglected the backs of my legs. So after three or four hours of lounging, swimming, photographing, and napping, my lobster-red thighs were pointed out to me. I should learn to use a timer like in Gidget.

I must also acknowledge my own negligence and stupidity: after being shown the error of my ways, I still didn’t put any on, and snorkeling for another two hours only made things worse. But it’s okay, because the snorkeling was awesome. I saw a fish with feathers, a fish with spikes, a swordfish-y fish, a fish with a horn and a grumpy face, a giant fish, lots of pretty tiny fish, and an octopus. And the water is beautiful and the reef is beautiful and the sky is beautiful and now I see why people love Sinai. * Sigh * … A delicious, decadent dinner at a discount, walking and talking and merry-making along the shore, Egyptians grow better weed than Israelis, one of those things like a night to remember.

We get on a bus, asleep in an instant, and next thing we know we’re at the border. In line. In the sun. With various levels of sunburn, hangovers, dehydration, and anxiety for our border crossing. Luckily – magically – it was uneventful and VICTORY! my visa is bueno again. Taxi, bus station, Jerusalem! Sleep, not long enough. Bus, bus, old city! Meander, weave, wander, here we are in East Jerusalem. Cross a street and board a van to Ramallah. Palestine, here we come!

Crossing the line is a shock to the senses. You leave the area defined as part of Israel and enter the area defined as Occupied Territories and it becomes drier, dustier, more haggard and depressing. A sign warns people (Israelis?) that they are not permitted to bring their cars here for repairs. But in Ramallah we can speak again, Arabic everywhere. We circle the streets and are directed towards the parking-garage-cum-bus-station where we find a taxi going to Taybeh (and on it – surprise – a friend from Haifa!).

Taybeh is delicious and amazing, good food and drink and people and music (Golani reggae!) and dancing (dabka!), a hilltop village overlooking…everything. The best of vibes, it makes me miss everything about music festivals and communities and all those things that I just haven’t had in so long. A fabulous place, and they make good beer so who can complain? And then, and then…the stomach ache. And it gets worse. And worse. But we leave, because we have to, because we have to get back to Haifa. The car ride makes it worse, emergency stop at a hotel in Ramallah, walk to the parking-garage-bus-station and stop – nausea – turn around and puke in a trash can. (Can I make one recommendation; if you are feeling ill, definitely drink Arabic coffee before you puke because then your puke at least tastes really good, relatively speaking.) Our taxi driver (God bless him) bought me some tea which I sipped, I napped, and we got to the checkpoint. So much traffic! So much paranoia and fear! But our taxi was all internationals so…luckily we got right through. I dropped my passport in front of the soldier and told him I was sick and he said he could tell. Nice guy, really. Too bad he’s a soldier at a West Bank checkpoint.

Let me just summarize: in one day, I went to a beer festival in Palestine, puked in a trash can in Ramallah, and survived an infamous Israeli checkpoint. Still the pinnacle of my life to date. Because it was amazing, and it makes me badass.

So we get back to Jerusalem, I am feverish and can barely walk, we get to the bus station only to find that there are no more buses to Haifa, and if we take the bus to Tel Aviv we’ll miss the last bus from there to Haifa, so after much angst and debate and death wishes (on my part) we decide to stay at a friend’s house. (Much love.) I can barely sleep because I’m feverish but at least no longer expelling the entirety of my innards from my system, but in the morning – as it turns out – a compadre, too, has come down the same exact case of food poisoning as I have. Poor girl. So we straggle as a team to the bus stop (5:30 am), get on the next bus from J’lem to Haifa (6:30), and straggle home (9:00).

Then, we sleep. And here we are.

On a bus to never-ever land

At some point, I should probably get over my fear of public transportation. I spent the last half-hour checking and re-checking the bus schedules from here to the central bus station in Haifa, because my bus to Eilat leaves from there at 11:30 and I can’t miss it. This fear stems from some absurd constant internal struggle between my American-ness, needing things to be on time and structured and predictable, with wanting to live and thrive in the carefree, time-free Middle East.

I will, of course, blame this anal-retentiveness on the fact that I do, in fact, need to get to Eilat because I do, in fact, need to cross the border because my visa does, in fact, expire tomorrow. Then I get to travel partway across Sinai to hang out on the beach for 24 hours…and then cross the border back again. Get your answers ready! The interrogation is coming.

While obsessively obsessing over my as-yet-imagined public transportation woes, I’ve been reflecting on the last three months (of which visa #1 consisted). I’ve thought about on my achievements and my failures, where I was in June and where I am now in September-almost-October, on life here, my opinions, how I see things like politics and the world and religion and language, if I’ve changed. I wonder if visa #2 will bring further changes. I can’t really imagine what they’d be. I feel like I have reached a place of contentment and acceptance and resolve, though not necessarily happiness. I understand better than I ever have before the true nature of this conflict and my place within it. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fiery language of two sides, but it takes a more hands-on experience to realize that this dichotomy and its frame isn’t the only problem and for most people, especially most people like me, our place isn’t on one of these two sides. It’s somewhere else.

And in 10 hours, my place is nowhere except on a bus out of this mindf*%&. Only to turn around and come right on back. Hallelujah.

Mister Abdullah

Abudi, a man I know through hours spent sitting on my computer in one particular cafe, spun us a yarn. His tale of woe: Egypt is a terrible place, full of terrible people.

When you go to the casino in Egypt they don’t stamp your passport, rather a piece of paper. Abudi lost his piece of paper. When he tried to leave Egypt, this was a big problem. Where is his piece of paper? Maybe he left it in the hotel, or the casino. He was with a group of friends; they came together, they left together. What is the problem? It seemed absurd. But they wouldn’t let him cross. After an hour of waiting, he capitulated. Better to reward corruption than subject oneself to hassle. He had either 200 shekels or 10. He went with 10. And all of a sudden, home free. For ten shekels.

Only ten shekels, and they were willing to look the other way in this egregious border crossing faux pas? After making such a big deal out of how terrible it was that he lost his stamp? Yes. “Because they are poor, poor people.”

To demonstrate: Abudi went to a hotel in Egypt, and he gave room service a $5 tip. Five dollars. Simply not an outrageous amount. But it worked like magic; from that moment on (hands in prayer position in front of his chest) it was “yes Mr. Abdullah, yes Mr. Abdullah, as you like Mr. Abdullah.” “Stop calling me Mr., I am not Mr. Abdullah! I am just Abdullah.”

Abudi went to a hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh. Sharm el-Sheikh is an eight hour bus ride away from anything. Abudi gets to his hotel and all he wants to do is shower and sleep. As soon as he gets out of the shower, he hears a knock on the door. It’s hotel security. “You need to come with us, you need to leave.” “But why? Can’t I just sleep, maybe just two hours, then I’ll leave?” “No, you need to leave right away. Get your things.” “Give me just an hour, I just arrived, I am exhausted – then I will leave.” “You cannot be here, you need to leave now. We will give you your money back.” “Why?” “Because this hotel is owned by a Saudi sheikh. He does not allow Israeli Arabs in his hotel.” Abudi had to find a new hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, because his money was not good enough for the Saudis. To them, he is treated as a Jew would be. Are Jews not allowed in the hotels of the Saudi sheikh? No. Shekels are not worthy of the Saudi sheikh’s hotel.

“In Israel, we are second class citizens. In the Arab World, we are second class citizens. I would rather be a second class citizen here, it is better. I will never go to Egypt again.”