Thursday, March 12, 2009

To Gaza

I just got back from Gaza. I was part of a delegation of women of about 60 under the supervision of the United National Relief and Works Agency. Mom and Dad, I'm sorry you had to find out this way. I didn't tell you before because I thought you'd worry. I tried to call you yesterday morning and afternoon your time too, but you didn't answer. In any case, I assure you next time I'll tell you if you want. I felt safe there the whole time, and I went with the full support of the director of the California Education Abroad Program, the Director of the Arabic Language Institute, and all my teachers. I spent a month carefully researching the details and weighing my options and then I decided to go. For more information on my reasoning and feelings towards the trip, here is the letter that I carried to meetings with my teachers as explanation, as well as my application essays to the delegation. It is all a lot to digest right now, for me it was one of the biggest experiences of my life, emotional, intense, amazing. There are no words, yet now I have to write about what I saw, I have to write about it, do something, because it is beyond inexcusable that some part of our American politics has become more important than our values and respect for human life and international law. What I'll try to do then, is first give a summary of what we did and saw. And then work on some more posts over the next few days, telling stories and feelings and specific and important moments. Also, check out more of my pictures here. I know some of this is controversial, and trust me I plan to try and learn as much as I can, from all sides of the issue. But also, please.. there are some things that cannot be controversial, some things are just wrong.. Please, Bear with me as I muddle through this, I know it is long, but I really want everybody to read it, so take it slow. Here is what happened:

Day 1, Friday March 6:
The delegation met early in the morning in downtown Cairo. We were quite the group, about 60 and mostly women. Among us were famous author/activist Alice Walker, activist and co-founder of Code Pink and Global Exchange Medea Benjamin, Ann Wright an activist most famous for her 2003 resignation from the State Department in opposition to the Iraq War, and Cindy and Craig Corrie, founders of the Rachel Corrie Foundation and parents of Rachel Corrie who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. We were also joined by reporters from Democracy Now, journalists, photographers, senior citizens, writers, bloggers, and then students, among them me. The trip was organized by CodePink, and then by UNRWA once we were in Gaza. At first I was nervous about going on a CodePink trip because they are known to be so crazy and I'm not sure I agree with all their politics, or at least tactics, in America. After my research however, I decided to go, and off we went. We took a bus to Al Arish, a town on the Mediterranean coast just a few miles away from the Rafah border. We really weren't sure if we'd get through the border. Gaza is effectively the largest prison in the world, blockaded by Israel from all sides, except for the Rafah border side, where Egypt enforces the blockade. People had been waiting to get in for weeks and weeks, journalists and aid workers.. tons of people. In the evening we had a meeting and Cindy Corrie spoke and it is just so moving to hear her, everytime she speaks I want to cry. She lost her daughter and now here she is speaking so eloquently and doing so much and helping so many people. She and her Husband are truly amazing. In the meeting we also met with Egyptian activists, and planned to camp at the border in protest the next morning.

Day 2, Saturday March 7:
We woke up early. I woke up at three in the morning, throwing up. My first food poisoning in Egypt, and at all times the day I am supposed to try and go to Gaza! I threw up until about seven, and then shakily boarded vans to the border. The night before Code Pink had met with the Egyptian Red Crescent, and it turned out they facilitated our getting through the border. What is crucial here is that this should NOT be read as a sign of Egypt softening the blockade. Rather, it was a political move. It was better press for Egypt to let us in quietly, than tohave a large group of mostly foreigners protesting at the border. In light of this, we staged a small protest event outside the gates before passing through the border. We sang some songs and held signs. I mostly watched because I felt so sick! Then we began the long process of getting through the Egyptian side. I played my guitar (my uncle's old guitar from the sixties!) as we waited. When we got through to the Palestinian side, all of a sudden everyone was so friendly! The mayor of Rafah greeted us and thanked us and there were television cameras everywhere. We heard bombs though, we heard Israel dropping bombs on the tunnels, just as we sat there getting our passports stamped. When that was finished, we boarded a bus to drive from Rafah to Gaza City where we were met by Jacqueline Paul, UN Operations support officer for UNRWA in Gaza. After a briefing from her, I met my host family. I stayed with a beautiful young woman named Iman (pictured) and her family in the Beit Lahia area of Gaza. Once we got to her house I crashed pretty fast as I was still not feeling very well and so tired from the day!

Day 3, Sunday March 8, International Women's Day:
In the morning I awoke refreshed and Iman made us an AMAZING breakfast. Falafel and Hommus and Khobz (bread) and all this other stuff I forget the name of now. With that, we were off to start the day. Just driving through the streets of Gaza is an experience in itself. Jadaria (graffiti and murals) is everywhere, commemorating the name of someone who died, celebrating the names of a recently married couple, or pushing a political parties agenda. Shops are boarded up, turn the corner and a building is in rubble, the next and children are playing on the sidewalk, and old man selling vegetables. The group met at Al Quds Hotel in Gaza City, before splitting up to go to different CBOS (UNRWA's community based organizations) to celebrate international women's day. I boarded a van to Rafah and went to an amazing organization called Banat Al-Mustaqbul with three other delegates (the name means something like women/daughters of the future). The road to Rafah went along the beach, the beautiful, beautiful topaz coast- you could have been in California. Except if you try to swim, fish, paddle a boat, anything.. anything that takes you more than 100 metres off the beach, you will be shot in cold blood by Israeli's enforcing the seige. Even just to swim close to shore in that beautiful water is difficult- there is white phosphorus in it. It almost seems ironic how Gaza has some of the most beautiful geography and people I have ever met in my entire life, yet the worst human rights violations are happening there, unimaginable violence. It is beyond what any of us can imagine, being privileged by some sick randomness of our birth. Even now after seeing everything, experiencing, I know I cannot even begin to comprehend the violence of which I witnessed only remnants. With these thoughts in mind, we arrived at Banat Al-Mustaqbul. We entered the room and little girls handed us flowers. They were all dressed up for our arrival. Then almost fifty women were waiting seated. Others were cooking, they'd hung banners too. We kissed almost everyone. I quickly learned that instead of one on each cheek like in Egypt, you should do one on the first cheek and then two on the next. I was just so moved, so honored, embarrassed even to be greeted with such reverence and thanks and pomp and circumstance. We were showed to the garden and fed delicious turkey kebabs off the spit and fresh flat bread hot of the stones from the fire. Then we were shown back to where everyone was assembled. We had discussion (pictured) and the arabic was moving so fast, so many stories. Everyone wanted to touch me or talk to me, some were shy but still suddenly all the eyes were on me. "How do you celebrate Women's day in America? What do you think of Fatah? Where is your family? Do you have any brothers? Do you have any sisters? What do you think of our celebration here? What do you think of Palestine? What do you think about what you see here? Do you need any more tea? Want to hear about our unemployment here? Will you promise to come back next year to celebrate women's day again with us? Can we get you anything? Can we help you!?!" Let me tell you, I am not one of those people who is easily moved. I was moved. Can you imagine all those questions? Me just in awe, trying to find some way to respond, and in Arabic! And can you imagine, they were asking how they could help me!!! These women, who lose their sons in the tunnels who go there since there is no work. Who got married at 16 and 18 even though they didn't want to, but they needed the money. Who work and work for their families, to lose them to bullets, to poverty. They served me tea that day. Then they put on a play. The acting was amazing and the audience just watched me to see if I enjoyed it. "Did you like the play? How did you find the play?" Of course it was amazing, I couldn't believe the acting talent first of all.. The play was about a family who was trying to marry off their daughter but then she ended up going for university. It was fast Arabic so I didn't get all the details, but I got the idea, the heart. It was so funny.. they played the men characters too! So Amazing. After the play we ate again, this huge lunch! And then it was over. Everyone when home, whatever that might mean, and we boarded the bus, and I just want to go back, I don't know. In the evening we had a huge dinner and met some members of ISM. They told us about white phosphorus, which will eat all the way to the bone, and cannot be washed off with water- people have to dig it out of their skin with spoons. They told us stories about medical workers in the last conflict which ended January 2009. These are people who just went straight into total war zones, pulling bodies out, arms torn off, legs eaten up by white phosphorus, children shot in the back. They thought maybe they had some measure of protection, but then Medical workers, ambulances and hospitals started to be targeted. But they kept on working. I met these people, and I was speechless. They told stories of a little boy who was killed, then his funeral was bombed. A family was eating chocolate at a storefront to celebrate a birthday, and they found them there, their limbs shredded off. After dinner we went back to Iman's house for the night. Her beautiful house and beautiful families, but no windows- it would shatter in the bombings. No electricity oftentimes- Isreal just shuts it off whenever they feel like it. I didn't fall asleep quickly that night.

Day 4, Monday March 9, Mawlid (The Prophet's Birthday):
In the morning we met at Sharek Youth Forum. The workers there showed us pictures the children had drawn in crayon- tanks and flowers and bodies and families. Then we went for a walk in the Jabalia area. Little lanes and children playing and buildings in ruins. After that we had lunch with John Ging, a former member of the Irish army now peace builder who is head of UNRWA in Gaza. After lunch we broke up into small group discussions with local domestic violence workers to talk about issues of Domestic Violence in Gaza, women's empowerment and all that. All these things were so interesting, but this post is getting so long, I'm trying to be briefer! After those meetings, we walked downtown a bit. We passed a jail that was bombed, inmates dying trapped in their cells. The UN building was bombed, as well as the hospital, and schools. We got ice cream so sweet and sticky; mine was apricot and strawberry. Before dinner we had a meeting with psychologists who talked about the psychological and emotional effects of the war. Another man from Jabalia named Ahmed Abdullah spoke, and I'd like to take a whole post later to write what he told us- his life story. In any case, importantly it was becoming clear at this point, how much Palestinians want peace, of course. I never heard a single anti-semitic comment while I was there, everyone said Israel could exist, they just want dignity for themselves, safety for their families too. After dinner, Iman took us to her friend's wedding. It had been scheduled for the day we arrived, but since Iman had to meet us, her friend postponed the entire wedding so Iman could attend. We walked into a HUGE hall with hundreds and hundreds of women and children. I asked Iman later what all the men were doing during this time and she said, "just sitting" :-) We wove our way through the crowds and tables up to the front stage, where a small group of young girls and woman were dancing, the bride the center piece in a gaudy white dress. We were seated in the front row! And then we were pulled up to dance. And there was me in front of hundreds of people wearing my jeans and dancing with the bride and Iman and clapping and my face actually hurt from smiling. I remember just being on stage being like.. my face hurts from smiling, my face hurts from smiling right now. After leaving the wedding we got tea in a huge hotel cafe on the water. It's crazy how happy we were a lot of the time on the trip, how generous everyone was, and smiling. I remember overhearing one of the girls talking about this... about how yes, gazans seem so happy, but of course there is pain underneath, deep pain. It is just easier to be happy, you have. to.

Day 5, Tuesday March 10:
In the morning I was part of a small group visiting Al Quds hospital to deliver some baskets. Our delegation brought in 1000 baskets filled with mawlid candy, toothpaste, shampoo, and other items. Of course at first the plan was to try and bring in a ton of essential items, but after talking with Gazans the leaders of code pink decided to bring in items especially for woman, so they could be women, wash their hair, and we could show our solidarity and gesture of sisterhood. In the hospital we saw bullet holes in the walls and whole floors rendered unnoperational by the bombings. We visited patients in their beds and distributed the baskets. After that we met with the labor committee in Gaza city to talk about issues of unemployment in Gaza and unions and a lot of things. The discussion was heated and emotional, people talking about their lives. After the meeting we boarded vans again and headed for north gaza. It was emotional. Tents set up on rumble. Mosques blackened, in shambles. This area had been behind the Isreali line. People were trapped there for over 20 days, trapped in bullets and bombings..hell. We drove up to the American International School in Gaza. Looking at it, the sheer destruction, many of our group just started crying. We picked up children's toys, binders and school workbooks amongst the rubble. Their charred stationary: The American International School in Gaza, Candidate for accreditation by the Middle States Association for colleges and schools. Well now it is a mountain of twisted war and concrete. The school's doorman was shot. The Israeli's occupied it then destroyed it. It is on high ground, the beautiful mediterranean in the distance. Shattered glass covered the ground. A piece of rocket here and there. Of course it was made in America. America provides all the weapons to Israel that come down on these people, on the AMERICAN international school! This type of destruction, there are just some things that are just wrong... destroying schools and hospitals, shooting children in the back as they are running away, targeting civilians, bombing the homes of people who already have nearly nothing.. While we were staring into the rubble, a Palestinian who was with us said, "No one in your administration has said this is wrong?" And it's true. All the utter destruction, and not one person from our American government has yet said this is wrong, No one has spoken against this, Obama has said nothing! Yet there is no doubt that this is wrong. You know what Hillary Clinton said about the settlements in West Bank on her recent visit there?! She said they were "unhelpful". UNHELPFUL!?!?!?! We all have blood on our hands. Right now. There are people in tents, packed in tents, with beautiful eyes, children whose beautiful eyes saw their entire family murdered, people who are just trying to hold on to some dignity. Who are trapped in an occupied land. We simply cannot sit still and be silent while this continues. From the school we could see Israel in the distance, the town just as perfect as could be. The power plant on their land was smoking, the one that provides all the electricity to gaza, that they control. Across from the school an old man was planting an orchard of orange trees. His trees had been forty years old, and the tanks has destroyed them, run right through them instead of just using the road. And yet he was planting again, little saplings in brown earth, not defeated and hopeful. Yet it will be four or five years before they will even bear fruit again. We left the school and drove up to a village of tents. I was welcomed inside one with a couple others from our group. The women told us their story. How leaflets were dropped from the sky warning them to leave their houses, then they ran from the house but then instead of bombing the houses the planes aimed for the running people instead. They told us about hot balloons dropped, filled with some type of hot poison. They lost everything. They live in a tent that says rotary international outside sleeping with ten other people. One of the women is just sticking in my mind still, she was so beautiful and holding her baby and she just seemed so peaceful while telling us how they were running amongst the bodies of their family dead on the ground, about how her daughter can't sleep at night and is scared now whenever she sees anyone with a gun. They all thanked us, asking if us to please please go back to our countries and let the world know the truth. Some of Galloway's crew, which had finally gotten in the night before, arrived while we were there to distribute some aid. We gave some blankets which is of course not enough, it's pittance, it's nothing, and left. In the afternoon we met with a group from PARC, an agricultural organization. They talked a lot about problems in the agricultural sector, including the dead zones and how if farmers try and go there to plow their fields, they are shot dead. We met a woman from the Simboni family, a big family but not so much anymore.. 29 people her family died, and 60 were injured. They all were trapped in a big house, for 17 days, family members dying before their eyes. The woman was holding a little girl on her lap. One of our group asked, "So we are to understand that this girl saw everything?" And the reply was yes. This little girl who was before our eyes, had seen family after family member murdered before her eyes. After that a small group of us, just four or so, went to a meeting with woman journalists. We met the only woman photojournalist in gaza, who was just amazing, so young and brave and dreaming big, pushing her way into field, taking pictures of things that no human being should even have to witness. After that before dinner we met with a member of Hamas which I could go on and on and I just want to know more about Hamas, who won the Democratic elections but then the world said no they wouldn't accept it, and this lady from Hamas, which America calls a terrorist organization, but actually started as a way to to provide social services, she was just saying how Hamas wants peace and diplomacy. In dinner that night we reflected in a big group on the trip, delegates stood up crying just saying everything, and then we went home. Iman bought us a huge cake and we ate it sitting on the floor, I played guitar and man Bob Dylan gets new meaning after being in Gaza: "How many years can a mountain exist
Before its washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before theyre allowed to be free?
Yes and how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesnt see?"

Day 6, Wednesday March 10:
In the morning we met early to head back to Cairo. Goodbyes were hard. After all, while we were so lucky to be able to come and then go, all our new friends from Gaza can't. They are trapped there as I write, in their own homeland. I wrote Iman two letters, one in English and one in Arabic, and I gave her one of my bracelets. There were hugs all around. And then we were off. At the Palestinian border station, they offered to carry all our bags for us. They gave us water, and pins of the Palestinian flags. They dragged in more chairs for us, from outside. One member of our delegation, Abdullah, a Palestinian studying in Cairo, had come to Gaza with our delegation after not seeing his family for three years. His dad was at the gate, and they hugged and then he waved as we drove into the station, him waving goodbye to his son who he wouldn't be able to see until who knows when. We got through the Palestinian pretty quickly but we knew Egypt would take awhile. As soon as we got there it was much more militaristic of course, people yelling and counting and doing the same thing over and over. We waited for hours. Eventually we got through, except for Abdullah. They were not going to let him out of Gaza, saying his passport was expired. The delegation waited as negotiations continued. I met George Galloway, whose caravan was also leaving. After many hours, it was clear that Abdullah wouldn't be allowed back into Egypt. They promised if he got the right paperwork from Ramallah, they would let him back in a week. But who knows. It's Egypt. It is a military dictatorship, they can do what they want. Some people were saying that we can't protest what happened to Abdullah because he didn't have his paperwork in order, but here's the thing: He tried. He already applied for a passport from Ramallah. He has a good passport issued in Gaza, but because that is from Hamas, it is not recognized. He tried to get a visa from Egypt, three times, and he couldn't. My visa was expired, and I just went to the Mugama and got in renewed, in one hour, easy. I am American. And he is Palestinian, that's it. We have friends at AUC who are Palestinian, and they get a student visa, but the moment they graduate they have to go back. That's it. Our friend Abdullah, he took a risk coming back to Gaza, he knew that he might not get out again. He made a choice between safely continuing his studies in Egypt, and seeing his family who he hadn't seen in three years. And the point is, that is a choice no human being should have to make. When our delegation eventually drove off into the desert, away from the border crossing, that is when I cried for the first time. We drove through the night and back into Cairo, a bustling city, and here I am now just six hours away from it all. It seems further. Even you all in America, don't think you are so far away. We cannot be silent.

15 comments:

Kim said...

Beautiful blog Ali. You do a great job of capturing the experience.

Kim

Amal Sedky said...

Awesome blogging, Ali. Your writing is enviously vivid. Can't wait for your next post. Amal

Mark Glenesk said...

Ali,
I appreciate the time you have taken to share this stirring and thoughtful entry. What a Trip; physically and emotionally. I am struck by so much of what you say in the blog and in your letter to your professors. Your blog comments strike a loud note: "I never heard a single anti-semitic comment while I was there,..", and..."America provides all the weapons to Israel that come down on these people, on the AMERICAN international school!.

Thank you Iman, all the caring people associated with United Nation's Relief and Works Agency(UNRWA).

Wrapping you with a seriously HUGE hug,
Dad.

Stella said...

Dear Ali; What a brave and awe inspiring young lady you are - and no doubt you will say that those Gazans are the brave ones, and indeed they are. I am so moved to see an American being interested in the atrocities that have been carried out to the Palestinian people by the Israeli army/government by means of US supplied weapons. When the 'war' first started I had some small sympathy for Israel who were coming under bombardment from rockets from Palestine, as I didnt really understand the situation at that time, but as I have read and seen reported on TV more of what the true picture is, I cannot help but feel that instead of the Jewish nation learning human compassion from the dreadful experiences during the 2nd WW, they instead learnt to be as bad as those who had been persecuting them. I in no way support Hamas or any of those groups similar, but the ordinary people of Palestine need worldwide support. Like you say, they are living in the largest prison in the world, being stopped from bringing in essential supplies from the outside world. It is my understanding that though official egypt control the border, it is in fact Israel that controls the Egyptian border, as Egypt/Mubarak is fearful of allowing Israel to draw them into any conflict, thus giving Israel the excuse it needs to target Egypt again. At least that seems to be the thinking of many egyptians as to why stronger action has not been taken by eygpt against israel. Well Ali, keep up the good work and keep blogging. I enjoy your posts so much and as your father has shown by his post, your parents are rightly very proud of you, as indeed I am - enen though we are strangers. All the very best; Stella x

Anonymous said...

Ali... wow. All I can say, right now, is that your experiences are having a deep impact on me.

Thank you for writing.

Conor

Anonymous said...

Awesome blog ! One I wish all Ameridns will read.

Hannah said...

Hey Ali,

Thank you so much for this amazing post. Your writing is so clear and vivid, anyone could (and should) read this post. I've been reading the accounts of Galloway's trip, and this was way more interesting and genuine.

Also, isn't banat al-mustaqbul "daughters of the future"? It probably has 10 meanings, everything does in Arabic.

I look forward to seeing you when you get back, stay safe!

-Hannah min al-saff al-arabiya

Jane said...

Thank you for writing all this, Ali.
I thought especially that your comment:
"It is beyond what any of us can imagine, being privileged by some sick randomness of our birth."
was very powerful. Could have been me or you that ended up having to live under such horrendous occupation. Having been born in a safe place where we can live normal free lives, it is our duty to help those born into captivity, by no fault of their own.
Thank you Ali for caring about the Palestinians. When you get back to USA, please tell your congress people all about it. The badly need to be educated!
Jane, Hannah's Mum.

ismellolives said...

Ali, can I just say that I love you? I haven't read your entire post yet but the first few paragraphs were enough to make me feel heartened with your experience.

So much love and respect to all those people out there standing by Palestinians despite all the propaganda and lies.

alia (I share the first three letters of your name! :D)

Erin said...

Hi Ali, You don't know me, I'm Erin and I'm from Ireland. I have been popping in on you blog lately due to my love of Egypt, and my new want to learn Arabic! Amazing Blog!
You are such an inspiration, this post has moved me so much that towards the end I had tears dwelling in my eyes! You make your experience come Alive!
The world is a better place with someone like you in it!
Keep up the good work...
Erin

Anonymous said...

I like the picture of you standing next to the american international school.

Imar

MAZIN said...

Impressive !, thanks Alot Ali for highlighting on Palestinian life and for your Sympathy and Support you are welcome anytime ,
even if You want to Draw Jedariaa :)))
Warm Regards
Mazin

Aunt Julie said...

Dearest Ali,
I am proud to know you. I so admire you for your courage in looking into the lives of others. Thank you so much for this account of your Gaza trip. It's an important story for Americans to hear. It seems like the kind of thing that no one can fully understand without travelling there. Except that we readers CAN gain an understanding, an insight, a compassion when we read a frank and heartfelt and personal account such as yours. Thank you again.

Stay safe, and lots of love to you.
-Aunt Julie

Ryan said...

Hi Ali...my name is Ryan and I am a sophomore at Sonoma State..I am trying to get together a support group so those going to Gaza for the early 2010 march can share their experiences..I started a group on myspace and the URL is groups.myspace.com/gazasupport. It would be much appreciated if you could help get the word out and even join yourself lol...but anyways thank you for all that you're doing. -Ryan

Anonymous said...

Feminazis,gays,leftie-loonies et al...you all lurvvvve Islam.
In your blind hatred for all things 'western' you have sided with a force that hates all things western.
Pity they don't subscribe to your PC views too...
'Useful idiots' indeed..