Archive for January, 2009

Starhawk’s comments on Gaza

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

We spent the today at Petra, but we’ll tell you about the fabulous monuments tomorrow, after our second day here. Today, we’d like to look again at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to occupy our thoughts as we travel through Jordan.

A friend of ours forwarded this letter to us, and it has helped us understand a possible reason for the Israeli perspective on these attacks. We’ve been trying to understand how Israelis could have a 91% approval rating for the attacks, given their free press and the horrific civilian casualties we’re seeing in the news. We have been reading (a left-leaning Israeli newspaper) occasionally, and it seems to have reasonably balanced coverage.

We have always been taught that the power of stories to shape national consciousness is strong, and this may be one more example.

Dear friends,

All day I’ve been thinking about Gaza, listening to reports on NPR, following the news on the internet when I can spare a moment. I’ve been thinking about the friends I made there four years ago, and wondering how they are faring, and imagining their terror as the bombs fall on that giant, open-air prison.

The Israeli ambassador speaks movingly of the terror felt by Israeli children as Hamas rockets explode in the night. I agree with him—that no child should have her sleep menaced by rocket fire, or wake in the night fearing death.

But I can’t help but remember one night on the Rafah border, sleeping in a house close to the line, watching the children dive for cover as bullets thudded into the walls. There was a shell-hole in the back room they liked to jump through into the garden, which at that time still held fruit trees and chickens. Their mother fed me eggs, and their grandmother stuffed oranges into my pockets with the shy pride every gardener shares.

That house is gone, now, along with all of its neighbors. Those children wake in the night, every night of their lives, in terror. I don’t know if they have survived the hunger, the lack of medical supplies, the bombs. I only know that they are children, too.

I’ve ridden on busses in Israel. I understand that gnawing fear, the squirrely feeling in the pit or your stomach, how you eye your fellow passengers wondering if any of them are too thick around the middle. Could that portly fellow be wearing a suicide belt, or just too many late night snacks of hummus? That’s no way to live.

But I’ve also walked the pock-marked streets of Rafah, where every house bears the scars of Israeli snipers, where tanks prowled the border every night, where children played in the rubble, sometimes under fire, and this was all four years ago, when things were much, much better there.

And I just don’t get it. I mean, I get why suicide bombs and homemade rockets that kill innocent civilians are wrong. I just don’t get why bombs from F16s that kill far more innocent civilians are right. Why a kid from the ghetto who shoots a cop is a criminal, but a pilot who bombs a police station from the air is a hero.

Is it a distance thing? Does the air or the altitude confer a purifying effect? Or is it a matter of scale? Individual murder is vile, but mass murder, carried out by a state as an aspect of national policy, that’s a fine and noble thing?

I don’t get how my own people can be doing this. Or rather, I do get it. I am a Jew, by birth and upbringing, born six years after the Holocaust ended, raised on the myth and hope of Israel. The myth goes like this:

“For two thousand years we wandered in exile, homeless and persecuted, nearly destroyed utterly by the Nazis. But out of that suffering was born one good thing—the homeland that we have come back to, our own land at last, where we can be safe, and proud, and strong.”

That’s a powerful story, a moving story. There’s only one problem with it—it leaves the Palestinians out. It has to leave them out, for if we were to admit that the homeland belonged to another people, well, that spoils the story.

The result is a kind of psychic blind spot where the Palestinians are concerned. If you are truly invested in Israel as the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, then you can’t let the Palestinians be real to you. It’s like you can’t really focus on them. Golda Meir said, “The Palestinians, who are they? They don’t exist.” We hear, “There is no partner for peace,” “There is no one to talk to.”

And so Israel, a modern state with high standards of hygiene, a state rooted in a religion that requires washing your hands before you eat and regular, ritual baths, builds settlements that don’t bother to construct sewage treatment plants. They just dump raw sewage onto the Palestinian fields across the fence, somewhat like a spaceship ejecting its wastes into the void. I am truly not making this up—I’ve seen it, smelled it, and it’s a known though shameful fact. But if the Palestinians aren’t really real—who are they? They don’t exist!—then the land they inhabit becomes a kind of void in the psyche, and it isn’t really real, either. At times, in those border villages, walking the fencelines of settlements, you feel like you have slipped into a science fiction movie, where parallel universes exist in the same space, but in different strands of reality, that never touch.

When I was on the West Bank, during Israeli incursions the Israeli military would often take over a Palestinian house to billet their soldiers. Many times, they would simply lock the family who owned it into one room, and keep them there, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—parents, grandparents, kids and all. I’ve sat with a family, singing to the children while soldiers trashed their house, and I’ve been detained by a group of soldiers playing cards in the kitchen with a family locked in the other room. (I got out of that one—but that’s another story.)

It’s a kind of uneasy feeling, having something locked away in a room in your house that you can’t look at. Ever caught a mouse in a glue trap? And you can’t bear to watch it suffer, so you leave the room and close the door and don’t come back until it’s really, really dead.

Like a horrific fractal, the locked room repeats on different scales. The Israelis have built a wall to lock away the West Bank. And Gaza itself is one huge, locked room. Close the borders, keep food and medical supplies and necessities from getting through, and perhaps they will just quietly fade out of existence and stop spoiling our story.

“All we want is a return to calm,” the Israeli ambassador says. “All we want is peace.”

One way to get peace is to exterminate what threatens you. In fact, that may be the prime directive of the last few thousand years.

But attempts to exterminate pests breed resistance, whether you’re dealing with insects or bacteria or people. The more insecticides you pour on a field, the more pests you have to deal with—because insecticides are always more potent at killing the beneficial bugs than the pesky ones.

The harshness, the crackdowns, the border closings, the checkpoints, the assassinations, the incursions, the building of settlements deep into Palestinian territory, all the daily frustrations and humiliations of occupation, have been breeding the conditions for Hamas, or something like it, to thrive. If Israel truly wants peace, there’s a more subtle, a more intelligent and more effective strategy to pursue than simply trying to kill the enemy and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity.

It’s this—instead of killing what threatens you, feed what you want to grow. Consider in what conditions peace can thrive, and create them, just as you would prepare the bed for the crops you want to plant. Find those among your opponents who also want peace, and support them. Make alliances. Offer your enemies incentives to change, and reward your friends.

Of course, to follow such a strategy, you must actually see and know your enemy. If they are nothing to you but cartoon characters of terrorists, you will not be able to tell one from another, to discern the religious fanatic from the guy muttering under his breath, “F-ing Hammas, they closed the cinema again!”

And you must be willing to give something up. No one gets peace if your basic bargaining position is, “I get everything I want, and you eat my shit.” You might get a temporary victory, but it will never be a peaceful one.

To know and see the enemy, you must let them into the story. They must become real to you, nuanced, distinctive as individuals.

But when we let the Palestinians into the story, it changes. Oh, how painfully it changes! For there is no way to tell a new story, one that includes both peoples of the land, without starting like this:

“In our yearning for a homeland, in our attempts as a threatened and traumatized people to find safety and power, we have done a great wrong to another people, and now we must atone.”

Just try saying it. If you, like me, were raised on that other story, just try this one out. Say it three times. It hurts, yes, but it might also bring a great, liberating sense of relief with it.

And if you’re not Jewish, if you’re American, if you’re white, if you’re German, if you’re a thousand other things, really, if you’re a human being, there’s probably some version of that story that is true for you.

Out of our own great need and fear and pain, we have often done great harm, and we are called to atone. To atone is to be at one—to stop drawing a circle that includes our tribe and excludes the other, and start drawing a larger circle that takes everyone in.

How do we atone? Open your eyes. Look into the face of the enemy, and see a human being, flawed, distinct, unique and precious. Stop killing. Start talking. Compost the shit and the rot and feed the olive trees.

Act. Cross the line. There are Israelis who do it all the time, joining with Palestinians on the West Bank to protest the wall, watching at checkpoints, refusing to serve in the occupying army, standing for peace. Thousands have demonstrated this week in Tel Aviv.

There are Palestinians who advocate nonviolent resistance, who have organized their villages to protest the wall, who face tear gas, beatings, arrests, rubber bullets and real bullets to make their stand.

There are internationals who have put themselves on the line—like the boatload of human rights activists, journalists and doctors on board the Dignity, the ship from the Free Gaza movement that was rammed and fired on by the Israeli navy yesterday as it attempted to reach Gaza with humanitarian aid.

Maybe we can’t all do that. But we can all write a letter, make a phone call, send an email. We can make the Palestinian people visible to us, and to the world. When we do so, we make a world that is safer for every child.

Please feel free to repost this. In fact, send it to someone you think will disagree with it.

Starhawk is a U.S. journalist and peace activist. For more, see

Thinking further about this, this national founding mythos may also help to explain Canadian treatment of our native population over the centuries. We like to think we’re doing better now, with progress on land claims and the apology for residential schools, but conditions on many Canadian reserves continue to be horrific, so there’s more work to do.

Little Petra, a castle and stark vistas everywhere

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Today we decided to take advantage of the rental car and check out some of the less touristed (and free) sites in the area. Our first stop was Siq al-Berid (a.k.a. Little Petra) – a short 350 m long valley with some beautiful facades and cave dwellings.

Upon arrival, a Bedouin guide at the entrance mentioned that the police might not permit us to enter, as in the night last night someone had snuck in and dug a large hole looking for gold. He offered to take us in another way. Since we were not interested in a guided walk, we decided to take our chances. There were four or five men with a pickup and tools, but no-one who looked like a police officer. We walked past them and around the hole with no-one stopping us and entered the Siq. It was like stepping through into a different world – a narrow valley with caves and carved facades everywhere, and not another soul. We were absolutely alone – and remained that way for almost two hours.

We explored the various nooks and crannies, surprisingly many for a valley so short. Scott climbed every staircase he could, while Becky remained on solid ground. At the end of the valley, there was a staircase up and out. We climbed it and entered a valley behind the Siq. There were footprints and pathways, but again, not a person in site. We walked for 15 minutes and then found a quiet place to sit and meditate for a while. While we were sitting, we could hear a Muezzin sing the call to prayer and some Arabic singing off in the distance. It was completely peaceful.

On returning to our car, we saw a couple of other tourists and a person selling tea – the only people we saw until we got back to the car. We were very glad for the peace and quiet, since we expect Petra to be quite crowded with tourists.

After seeing Little Petra, we headed up to Al Shawbek. Our guidebook mentioned that it was a small agricultural town with better produce and better prices than Wadi Moussa, but Scott mostly wanted to see castle, built by the Crusaders starting in 1115. We stopped to look at produce and get some groceries – which we found to be just as expensive as Wadi Moussa (where we pay a huge tourist price for basic groceries). The produce was quite mediocre, not nearly as good as in Aleppo, or even Aqaba. Oh well.

The castle at Al Shawbek is spectacular. It covers an entire hill, with stunning views of the stark landscape. This time of year, all the land is brown – making it difficult to imagine what it would look like during the growing season. It was the first castle built by the Crusaders in Transjordan and was rebuilt by the Mamlukes and Ottomans at various times. The castle is an interesting mix of ruins and reconstruction. We really enjoyed the feel of the castle and imagined what it was like living there – with the various alleyways and rooms. We found a staircase that apparently leads to an escape route at the base of the hill, but had left our headlamps behind, so we could not get beyond a couple of flights before it was complete darkness. Becky ranks this castle as one of the best on our journey – and the added bonus was that there was no fee to see it!

Scott continues to be fascinated by the Tourist Police. They are always very friendly and welcoming, and we see them almost everywhere we go. Today at Al Shawbek castle we were greeted by Ali and his sidekick, who wanted to ensure we were having a good time in Jordan, and that we had a good visit to the castle. We’ve seen a separate group of police for tourists in other places, but never as prevalent as here in Jordan.

After Al Shawbek, we drove up to the small town of Dana at the top of the Dana Nature Reserve. The town is perched on the cliffs looking down into a valley that leads to the desert floor of the Rift Valley along the Israel/Jordan border. The views in the morning must be just spectacular. Again, at this time of year everything is stark – brown and dark green with very few signs of life. The Dana Guesthouse is a beautiful place to stay, with interesting architecture and balconies in each room with views of the sunrise and sunset. Surprisingly, there were no guests – we had been told the nine rooms are full almost year-round. Unfortunately, at 60JD per night it is well out of our price range. It is one of the most advanced places in Jordan for ecological awareness, and even has recycling! The hiking within the reserve is supposed to be fantastic, but would likely be better in spring when everything is greener.

Walking in the desert

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

We picked up a rental car this morning and began our exploration of south western Jordan. We began with a quick drive towards the Saudi border – about 40 km from Aqaba. Along the way, we saw the various southern beaches – for the most part they were abandoned at this time of year, only the occasional tent or VW campervan.

After being turned around by a security guard (we were approaching an industrial area just before the border) we followed the “truck route” which bypasses Aqaba. We were amazed at just how long and steep the hills were. In most cases the trucks were only able to go 10-15 km/hr both up or down the hills. The scenery was awe-inspiring in a desolate kind of way. There was very little vegetation and the few small bits of scrub had black plastic bags stuck to them, blowing in the wind. We stopped to take a picture of the river bed and the hills in the distance.

Airplanes and full moon

Airplanes and full moon

Our drive then took us to Wadi Rum, a protected desert area where there are several small Bedouin communities. The majority of the Bedouin make their money from tourism. It was an odd feeling arriving, as you were not at all pestered by touts. We had to actively try and figure out what the different options were for tours – but were not feeling inspired about the tourist experience. After talking to one of the people at the tourist cooperative, we learned that we could drive to Rum village with our rental car. Camels could be hired directly at Rum village, if that is what we wished to do.

We got to Rum village and decided to start with a walk in the desert. We walked for about half an hour, and Becky was ready for a rest. We sat upon a rock in reflection for a few minutes, and then Scott went on a longer walk (about an hour), while Becky sat and watched the world go by. While Becky was resting on a rock, and Scott was walking the Call to Prayer sounded. The echo was amazing – a full 10 seconds. It was an incredibly beautiful sound made all the more intense by the sight of the desert and surrounding sandstone mountains.

Then came the airplanes. Five propeller-driven stunt planes flew up and down the Wadi for 45 minutes. Scott found them annoying as he tried to contemplate the silence of the desert, but Becky was entertained by them. It was like having her over private air show. At one point, the moon began to rise between two mountains, and the airplanes flew past doing their aerobatics. All-in-all, it was a beautiful way to spend a peaceful afternoon. Had Becky not been recovering, we would have enjoyed spending a night in the desert in one of the rustic Bedouin tents. Perhaps that is an adventure for another time.

Scott returning from his walk in the desert

Scott returning from his walk in the desert

In the end, we skipped the camel ride, as it was getting close to sunset and we did not want to do too much of the drive to Petra in the dark – about 85 km away. The drive to Petra involved climbing many long hills through the desert mountain landscape. Petra is on the King’s Highway, which runs along the upper ridge of the Shara mountains in the south of Jordan. While it was still light we could see the mountains rolling down into valleys far below. We are looking forward to driving the rest of the King’s Highway and enjoying further amazing scenery. It would have been really neat – but very challenging – to cycle the highway. The roads are
steep and many stretches are completely desolate.

Spectacular rock formations in Wadi Rum

Spectacular rock formations in Wadi Rum

Aqaba Reflections

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

It is difficult to believe that we have been in Aqaba for a full week. Even so, we both feel that we barely got a chance to see Aqaba. Most of our time was spent taking care of basic life needs like eating and resting. We did spend a fair bit of time on the Internet trying to develop a more comprehensive picture of the situation in Israel and Gaza.

Sunset over Aqaba

Sunset over Aqaba

Aqaba is a modern tourist town. It feels much more “Western” than any place we have been since we left the United States. It is filled with western fast food outlets – MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Quiznos. It also has a bunch of Jordanian fast food outlets serving kabobs, falafel, and freeze squeezed juices. We tried out the Quiznos (one of our favourite sandwich places back home) but were not impressed. The bread is not the same, and “beef bacon” and “turkey ham” just don’t cut it! We can sadly attest that MacDonald’s hamburgers are the same here as anywhere else we have tried them.

There were several Internet cafes in Aqaba, but we found the best Internet to be the free wireless access provided by MacDonalds. As a result, we spent two or more hours each day camped out in the MacDonalds gathering news reports and following world events. (No, this did not mean we ate meals at McDonalds every day, but the JD .29 ($.50 CAD) ice cream cone was very tempting)

Movenpick Resort (just a bit out of our price range)

Movenpick Resort (just a bit out of our price range)

The prices in Aqaba (and Jordan in general) seem to be similar to what we would pay in Canada. Accommodation is slightly less expensive because there are a lot of options for low to mid-range hotels. Most of the low to mid-range hotels are run by entrepreneurial Egyptians. The hotel we stayed at in Aqaba was Egyptian owned and the breakfast bar / coffee shop was owned by a Bengali family. The businesses were run only by the men of the family – including the housekeeping services within the hotel. They were very friendly and helpful, always willing to provide a cup of hot water when we requested it.

The window to our very spacious hotel room (there is enough room beside the Queen size bed for us to store bikes and setup up our tent if we had them), opens onto a back street. There are several garbage bins where the occasional person and many feral cats spend the day picking through the stuff. Aqaba is a very clean city, with people in electric green uniforms spend their days picking up any trash that makes its way onto the sidewalks or streets, although they don’t pick it up if it is in gardens or shubs! As night approaches, the feral cats get into a fight over some choice bits of scrap in the garbage bin – the growling and screams can get intense at times. Then sometime between 10 pm and 2 am the garbage trucks come and collect the days trash, from which point it is silent until morning and the bins start to refill.

Continuous pollution measurement - looks good!

Continuous pollution measurement - looks good!

Walking around the streets in Aqaba took a little bit of re-acclimatizing. We were both immediately shocked when the cars actually stopped at the cross walk. In Aleppo, at first it felt like we took our life into our hands every time we wanted to cross the street – it was a game you played with the various cars and trucks on the road – how close can the car come without hitting the pedestrian (or can I make the pedestrian jump!). That said, we never saw a collision and felt quite safe in Aleppo after we got accustomed to it. Aqaba was very civilized from a traffic perspective, which gives us much more confidence with renting a car and driving here.

A quick update

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

We have been totally negligent on updating the blog these last few days. We are still in Aqaba, Jordan, and it has been a long week. We are just now starting to make plans to see some of the highlights of Jordan before returning to Syria. Our time has been occupied with doctor visits, a hospital visit, and following the events in Gaza.

A short summary of Becky’s health crisis:
• Becky develops a fever and sinus infection, which after 2 days doesn’t improve on its own.
• Becky sees a doctor, who gives her many medications and insists she needs injections. This after not taking any sort of patient history, and doing a perfunctory examination. The examination consisted of “say aaahhh”, feeling her sinuses and listening to her chest. No questions about medical history, allergies, chronic conditions, current medications or anything!
• At the second visit, Becky is improving, but the doctor gives her two injections rather than just the one.
• At the third visit, Becky is much improved, but the doctor changes the injection to a different medicine.
• Becky has an allergic reaction to the medicine causing shortness of breath (asthma attacks that don’t immediately improve).
• At the forth visit, the doctor dismisses the shortness of breath and wants to give her a second injection of that same medicine that caused the reaction – Becky refuses the treatment and we pay the doctor and decide never to return to his office.
• Becky goes to the emergency room at the hospital to get here breathing under control. The doctor there seems much more competent, explaining that an allergic reaction is reasonable and giving some new medication to get her asthma under control.
• Becky is finally on the mend (we hope).

So far, we are under-impressed with the medical treatment in Jordan. Although Jordan is in general much more modern than Syria, its medical system seems to be 20 years behind the treatment we received in Syria. The Christian hospital we went to in Aleppo was very clean, well staffed and professional. The only surprise in Syria was that they allowed smoking in the hallways.

Entering the grounds of the hospital in Jordan required going through a military security checkpoint. The guard asked if we had a camera and said we would have to leave it at the security desk. Becky explained and showed him the picture of the medication she needed to show the doctor, so the soldier said it was OK as long as we did not take any pictures. We followed the signs for emergency and saw a sign for reception that had no one at it. It seemed rather chaotic and disorganized to us, but that might be attributed to our lack of Arabic. After being polite Canadians and waiting for 5 minutes, Becky insisted that Scott start being more assertive and figure out what we needed to do. This led us to the actual emergency room and then to accounting to pay and get paperwork before we could see the doctor.

The hospital itself was an interesting mix of military personnel and civilian staff. The nurses uniforms included full Muslim headscarves (in white), which in combination with formal military uniforms gave an impression of cleanliness and sterility; however, the bed linens were clearly not changed between patients. Becky sat on the bed but would not even consider lying down, as there were a number of small drips of random blood on the bed sheet. There was no use of disposable paper bed linings although one of the beds did have a plastic sheet over it (which was filthy). On a positive note, there was no smoking permitted inside the part of the hospital that we saw.

We are now planning on renting a car in Aqaba for 4-5 days, so that we can see Wadi Rum, Petra, the Dead Sea and the various other sites between here and Amman while stopping where we want to. We will return the car in Amman – fortunately, many companies allow you to do one way rentals for free or a very low fee. We have discovered that Internet quotes for rental cars are outrageous, but when you walk in and get a quote they are more reasonable ($40-60 USD per day).

We hope to post some more reflections on Aqaba soon!