Postcards from Abu Dis (1)*

So here I am, blogging “live” from Abu Dis. I’ve settled in a bit, the jet lag is starting to wear off, and I’m getting ready for my first class tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be a case of found rather than lost in translation: I’m speaking in English, and a translator is translating into Arabic for the students, and then back into English for me (and so on). We’re working on acquiring and distributing serviceable Arabic translations of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, Mill’s “On Liberty,” Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and just maybe, Marx’s “British Rule in India.” With the possible exception of the very last reading, I’m pretty confident that translations are out there and can be found–though I suppose that  you’d want more than a vote of “pretty confident” from a professor whose class starts tomorrow morning.

That said, I do wish I had paid more attention in Arabic 101 (as well as Arabic 102 and Arabic 103) in college, but I clearly didn’t learn enough to understand or carry on an ordinary conversation, much less teach a political philosophy seminar. Let that be a lesson for all students everywhere who ask that ridiculous question, “But when will I ever use this stuff that I’m learning?” How about: “What will you do when the unforeseeable occasion arises that demands knowledge you were supposed to have gotten but didn’t?” You’ll plead ignorance, that’s what you’ll do. And you’ll look and feel like a blithering idiot. How’s that for an answer?

How this translation thing will work is anybody’s guess, but I’m game, and I hope the students are, too. I met three of my students the other day–we exchanged enthusiastic smiles at one another for lack of being able to engage in mutually comprehensible discourse–and I’m told that I’ll have a total of between 12 and 15 students in the class. (A colleague at Felician tells me that they’re running summer classes with enrollments as low as 5. Ha!) We’re scheduled for a nice seminar room with a long rectangular table. A few cups of the Arabic coffee I’ve been having lately, and I think I’ll be ready for anything.

I don’t mean to be minimizing the hardships of life under military occupation–at least for people without an American passport like mine–but you could hardly have dreamt up better conditions for philosophical contemplation than the ones I’m currently in. I’m living in a spare but comfortable dorm room on the eighth floor of a four-tower housing complex. I’m the only human occupant of any of the four buildings: it’s like living in a non-scary version of “The Shining” (if that makes any sense). The other occupants include an unending series of pigeons whom the building manager allows to roost where they will–because “they’re guests, too.” Those bloodthirsty Palestinians!

The weather has been clear everyday, with temperatures hovering in the upper 70s and low 80s during the day, and upper 60s at night. A Mediterranean breeze riffles through my open window, and my ears are caressed by the twittering of birds, and the melody of children at play (never thought you’d see me write that, did you). I’ve had nowhere to go today, and apart from a quick trip into town, nothing to do but read, write, and look idly out of my eighth-floor window. It’s like a single person’s version of that old Belinda Carlisle song (if that makes any sense).

I’ve had a whirlwind few days. Last night, Rawan Dajani, one of the many hard-working people who work at AQU’s PR office, took me–of all places–to a reception at the U.S. Consulate in West Jerusalem, where I hobnobbed with the movers and shakers of Jerusalem. The food was good (grape leaves, sushi, hors d’ouevres, Jerusalem-style pizza, Palestinian pastries), but the music was even better (a jazz group from Nazareth), and the company was better than either. We got there too late to hear the departing Consul General’s speech–all I heard was the word “terrorists” as I went through security–but here it is.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I even managed to have a conversation with the Consul General, Michael Ratney. Mr. Ratney and I discussed the complexities of the political situation. It was a productive conversation, and we agreed to re-convene in the near future for further talks. In a highly positive development, he told me–and here I quote directly–that he was “very pleased to meet” me. So I’m happy to report that progress is being made on all fronts, and look forward to continuing conversations with him on matters of mutual concern.

After the reception, Rawan and I visited the controversial Mamilla Cemetary, the opulent Mamilla Mall, and the hard-to-characterize Festival of Light in the Old City of Jerusalem, but I’ll have to save serious discussion of all of that for another post.

Well, except for one thing: I gather from a report on CBS News that there was a protest and some police action in response to the Festival a few days ago, but the only disturbance I managed to encounter that night was sleep disturbance due to jet lag. Incidentally, I find the line of questioning by the interviewer in the CBS video I just linked to rather silly: “Things have been calm in Jerusalem ‘lately,’ so was there anything that precipitated these protests?” The assumption seems to be that protesters are stimulus-response machines who won’t protest unless some proximate event precipitates it. But tensions have been “simmering” here for years, and the underlying problems have gone unresolved, so there’s nothing surprising about protest in East Jerusalem when it does arise.

Anyway, as I said, I’ll save discussion of the politics (and in the case of the Festival, the aesthetics) for later posts. For now, I’ll just say that Rawan and I were there for about an hour last night; it was packed with throngs of Israelis, Arabs, and foreign tourists, but I perceived no tension at all.

So what’s it like here in the West Bank?  I’ve put a photo of my immediate surroundings in the header photos (and I’ll putting more in as I take some), so you’ll see that come round the photo carousel every now and then. I’ve already told you about the weather, and I haven’t had enough meals to tell you about the food, so about sound? What does it sound like in the West Bank?
Here, from a few days’ experience, is what the average evening sounds like in Abu Dis:
7:30 pm: preliminary call to maghrib (evening) prayer followed by call to prayer followed by prayer (VERY LOUD)
8:30 pm: celebratory machine gun fire and fireworks** followed by loud amplified music (yes, every night)
9-10 pm: dog fights and miscellaneous dog howling that echoes throughout the valley
10 pm: night time (isha) call to prayer
11 pm: eerie, reverential silence…until….
12 midnight: roosters crow midnight for half an hour
1 am: cat fights
2 am: dead silence punctuated by random horn blowing and trucks in low gear straining to get up the hill
3 am: cats, roosters, pigeons, donkeys, and occasional dog engage in high volume interspecies call-and-response communication, the cats being the loudest and sounding weirdly human
4 am: morning call to prayer (fajr)
5 am: in direct contradiction of all rooster stereotypes, roosters fail to crow for sunrise
9 am: someone operates a pneumatic drill for an hour
The strangest thing is that I actually slept rather well, and feel totally refreshed.
It’s a rather paradoxical place, this Palestine. More soon.
*I was originally going to call this series “Live from Abu Dis,” but dropped it for two reasons: (a) The blog currently has more Palestinian than American readers, and I’m not sure Palestinian readers would understand the (not all-that-funny) allusion to “Saturday Night Live”; (b) every blog post from anywhere is live, so “Live from Abu Dis” ultimately makes no sense. I almost called it “Postposts from Abu Dis,” but I think you can figure out why I didn’t. So “Postcards” it is. Wish you were here!
**I had originally written “celebratory machine gun fire,” but I discovered last night that they were fireworks. Less dramatic, I realize (June 14).
August 3, 2015: I later discovered that machine gun fire was interspersed with the fireworks (and vice versa).

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