Tuesday, March 27, 2007

East Bank

I arrived in Jordan hoping to find a "warm" peace between Jordan and Israel; what I found was at times as cold as the snow that blanketed Amman's many hills.

Many Israelis hold affection for the late King Hussein, and respect for the incumbent King Abdullah II. I can't say I found much similar sentiment from Jordanians toward Israel. While I encountered considerable warmth as an American, and acceptance as a Jew, the general sentiment toward Israel was antagonistic.

Jordanians I met on a minibus to Madaba said, "In America, there are good people and bad people, but in Israel, there are only bad people."

I scoffed at them, and asked how many Israelis they knew. Not a single one, they answered. I did find a few Jordanians who replied to me in Hebrew when I mentioned I was a Jew. A friend's father surprised his own son as he conversed with me in Hebrew, thanks to his days studying in Jerusalem. He said he held warm affection for Israel. The range of feelings I witnessed could hardly be classified as black and white.

If peace is the absence of war, the treaty between Israel and Jordan is holding firmly, and there remain substantial ties between the countries. "We have a peace treaty since 1994, 12 solid years of peace. It is stable and important for both peoples and both sides, and helps bring stability to the region," says Lironne Bar-Sadeh, the deputy head of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Amman.

Since the peace treaty was signed in October 1994, links have expanded on many levels. In areas such as agriculture, the environment and business, there have been solid developments and considerable cooperation. Between Israel and Jordan, there are 13 Qualified Industrial Zones that host more than 50 factories, allowing Jordan to export goods duty-free to the American market. These symbols of cooperation boost Jordanian trade and employment.
Israel and Jordan have many common interests, notably regarding water. They share resources at the Dead Sea, and cooperate on the Red-Dead plan in an effort to preserve this common treasure. And MASHAV - the Foreign Ministry's development arm, is bringing a group of Jordanians to Israel for a workshop on water conservation and desalination.

Meanwhile, there are creative ideas for increased cooperation such as a shared airport that would allow tourists to land in Aqaba and take a train to Eilat. Another proposal being discussed relates to the shmita year, in which the Land of Israel is supposed to lie fallow, to allow the import of produce from Jordan.

Around 20 Israeli NGOs work with their Jordanian counterparts on areas ranging from the environment, cultural and sport exchanges, medical projects and empowerment for women; at least a half-dozen of these NGOs are involved in intimate people-to-people exchanges.
While I was in Jordan, I visited with many campers from Seeds of Peace, which I worked for as a counselor last summer. The camp brings together teenagers from across the region, as well as from India and Pakistan. They learn that the other side is not the monster they've been brought up to believe.

These Jordanians spending time with their neighbors from the other side of the Jordan River, were a wellspring of hope. Their words and sentiments were proof of the power of dialogue and the hope of better relations between neighbors. As personal connections slowly increase between Israelis and Jordanians, as well as ties on governmental and nongovernmental levels, we can hope for a more robust peace to slowly build.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Dubai- where Disneyland meets the Desert

Amid the swirling sands sweeping across the Gulf, I arrived to the United Arab Emirates. I found a kingdom of black gold shining above the golden desert. Awash in petrodollars, the Emirates is an oasis of avarice and opulence. Like Israel, the Emirates have also "made the desert bloom." Palmyra lines the roads, and there are lush green areas to picnic and play, under the ever-expanding skylines. Meanwhile, it is a cultural mosaic with people from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia, coming to shop, work and live out their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Dubai was unlike any city I have ever visited. It is a strange Middle Eastern combination of Miami glitz and Las Vegas surrealness; Disneyworld meets the desert. While I was in Dubai, I visited the Mall of the Emirates, a posh shopping mall where you can actually go skiing on a mountain of snow. Yes, you can ski in the middle of the desert. With its lavish stores, the Mall of the Emirates could make Rodeo Drive blush. Walking through the mall, I was as surprised by the shoppers as the stores they were patronizing.

Although many women were in veils and abbayas (cloaks), I started to pay attention to what is beneath them. When I stopped focusing on the black, I started noticing all the sequins that adorn the veils and abbayas. Veils with colorful patterns that sparkled, and even ones with fox-fur lining.

I noticed the mascara shading the eyes peeking out from behind the slits. I saw the fancy watches and jewels that adorned the wrists of these guardians of modesty. All the fancy high-heels and painted toes that treaded just below the black crape. Designer sunglasses sitting on top of veils, and designer hand bags that lay tucked under the arms. I even passed by a lingerie store, and saw these black veiled ladies shopping for lace and silk. Perhaps we have been focusing too long on the veils to notice the fashionistas hiding just beneath. There were teen girls with tons of makeup on their faces, wearing designer jeans and shoes, covered just slightly by veils that were more like cloaks than anything else. They were climbing the artificial rock-wall in the Mall's arcade area, and screaming from the heights of the indoor roller coasters.
Meanwhile, the super chic sheikhs treaded around in their impeccable white dishdashas (robe dress-shirts), with designer high-end sunglasses just below their keffiyahs and headdresses. Wires of the latest mobile phones wrapped out of their robes, or sat in wrapped around their fingers like prayer beads; a far different kind of call to prayer.

While I was in Sharjah, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Washington, DC, speaking to Congress and the White House about the Saudi Peace Plan. I decided to gauge people's feelings to this peace plan and the idea that if peace was agreed upon, Israelis could flock to the Emirates' multitude of shopping malls. I first spoke with a Bahraini man named Muhammad, who was staying at my hostel and visiting his daughter studying in Sharjah. His feelings were that with the resolution of the Palestinian question as outlined under the Saudi plan, he would have no issue or problem with Bahrain or any of the Arab states having ties with Israel. He stated, "Palestine is a symbol to the Arabs, and without coming to an agreement for a Palestinian state, it is not possible to move forward. But if the Palestinians have their own state, I have no issue with Israel."

A few days later, I was in Abu Dhabi, at the ritzy Marina Mall. I was sitting in Starbucks, sipping a cup of coffee next to a traditionally-dressed Arab man named Abdulrahman from Abu Dhabi. I spoke to him about the Saudi plan, and his views were diametrically opposed to my previous interview. He stated that it was not possible for peace between Israel and the Arabs. "The Saudi plan will fail like all the other plans before it because the Jews in Israel will never agree to a real peace. They will never allow a fully independent, viable Palestinian state with full sovereignty. There will never be a true peace," he commented. He said even if there was an agreement on the Saudi plan, which he didn't think possible, and even with normalization of relations between the Emirates and Israel, he didn't want Israelis coming to shop the mall we were now sitting in.

He went on to lecture me about the nature of the Jews, and "informed" me that the Jews of Europe were really descended from Gypsies. The look on his face was priceless when he then asked my religion, and I replied that I was Jewish. With that said, he went on to state that he wasn't an anti-Semite because he too was a Semite and that Jews but not Israelis were welcome in the Gulf, and shouldn't feel uneasy. Gee, thanks for the welcome.

When I was back in Dubai, I spoke with my fellow residents of the youth hostel. Speaking with a Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian, I discussed the Saudi plan with this veritable "Arab League." The general consensus of the group was that the Saudi plan is a way forward for all sides. While no one had any affinity for Israel whatsoever, no one had any qualms about their own respective countries having ties with Israel if the Palestinian question was resolved. No one was championing the destruction of Israel, or the Palestinian "right-of-return," but all felt strongly that peace and normalization with Israel centered on a Palestinian state.

As an American Jew in the Emirates, I really felt no problems. Granted it helps I speak some Arabic owing to studying in Morocco and learning the language in college. People were shocked first that an American spoke some Arabic, and doubly shocked when they asked my religion and I replied "ana Yehudi." Sadly, I can't say it would have been as easy if I was an Israeli. But with all my discussions with various people about the Saudi plan, and what the region would look like in its wake, over time things could possibly be different. I'm sure the naysayers, who "know the Arabs," will deride this piece as sheer naiveté, but how well can you really know the Arabs if you have never seen them skiing or shopping with reckless abandon.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Pulling away the veil over Pakistan: Kite-flying, lattes and suicide bombers

With great apprehension, I crossed the border from India into Pakistan, and made my way into Lahore. I quickly realized my fears and worries were misplaced, and my preconceived notions of what Pakistan would be like were quickly dispelled. Pakistan was utterly iconoclastic.

I expected to find essentially a "Muslim India," some combination of Saudi Arabia and India. Rather, most women were dressed either in Western style, or in a vivid display of colored and floral pattern veils and robes. While some were in black, eye-slits only veils, most guarded their modesty in a rainbow of colored ones that loosely covered their hair. Meanwhile, while some Pakistani men looked straight out of the Taliban, others looked straight out of a Pakistani GQ.

Lahore is an utterly cosmopolitan city, with all the trappings of Western life, including McDonald's, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts and even a Pizzeria Uno. Lahore also has a very developed cafe culture, with locals sipping lattes all hours of the night.

"Fortune favors the bold," as Jules Verne wrote in Around the World in 80 Days; this applied to my arrival in Lahore, as I came just in time for Basant, a huge spring kite-flying festival that Lahore celebrates with utter glee.

People fly kites, shoot fireworks and party royally. The night was aglow with lights and kites. Music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftops across the city. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of celebratory gunfire filled the air.

An Afghan introduced himself to me, and said he hated President Bush. I found similar attitudes among native Pakistanis. A cab driver named Tariq said, "I hate President Bush, but President Clinton was good. Maybe Clinton's wife will be the next president, and things will be better between America and Pakistan."

Next I visited Rawalpindi, the twin city of Pakistan's capital Islamabad. While I was there, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Islamabad for a meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf.

In the Western press, the meeting was characterized as Cheney pressuring Musharaf to do more in the war on terror. But every Pakistani I met said it was really related to Iran - US designs to attack it and demands for Pakistani support for such a strike.

Pakistanis I spoke with were uniformly critical of the war on terror and America's invasion of Iraq. One questioned how America could have blundered so badly in Iraq as to turn Saddam Hussein into a symbolic martyr. Moreover, when it came to 9/11, I heard conspiracy after conspiracy theory even from the most educated of Pakistanis.

On a night train from Multan to Karachi, I shared my sleeper berth with a Pakistani couple. We spent the ride discussing the relationship between the Islamic world and the West. They expressed their frustration that the West seems to think that all Muslims are terrorists. "There are fanatics in Christianity and Judaism too, but it seems that the media only wants to portray Muslims as terrorists," they said practically in unison.

The security situation in Pakistan was always looming in the background during my travels. As I was visiting Islamabad, two suicide bombers attacked the airport and a luxury hotel - far enough away from where I was wandering that I had no idea. I found out about the attacks the following day, noting also that four more suicide bombers in the cell were still on the loose.  Later in my travels, while I was visiting Multan and planning a day trip to another city, a bombing took place against an anti-corruption judge, and the police cordoned off the city, with no one allowed in or out.

With that said, the Pakistanis have an attitude that I would characterize as utterly Israeli when it comes to their security situation: they go about their daily lives and don't bother dwelling on the insecurities that exist within their society.

When the issue of Israel came up, I heard many different viewpoints. A Pakistani named Jad asked, "What does Israel matter to Pakistan? Has either country ever fired a shot at the other?" Others were more focused on the Palestinian issue - not questioning Israel's right to exist, but wanting to see the Palestinian issue resolved in a "just" manner.

I'm sure I could have found far more extreme opinions, but I spent a lot of time guarding my own identity and refraining from engaging in political discussions with people other than those I knew or with whom I felt more comfortable. The most ironic thing I heard from the Pakistanis is that they thought Israel to be a very dangerous country in which to live, based on what they saw on TV. I replied that there had been far more bombings in Pakistan during the two weeks I was there than in the last few months in Israel.

I found Pakistanis themselves critical of the situation in their own country. People said it seemed the only institution that really functioned was the army. Meanwhile, they spoke resignedly about the corruption that plagues their society.

Pakistan is a fascinating yet complicated place, filled with unbelievable hospitality and utter contradictions. The images we see of Pakistan are always of the little madrassas in the tribal areas, or anti-American/anti-Israel rallies, and never things like the Basant celebration or the cosmopolitan life of Lahore.

This wandering Jew had a fascinating two weeks there. And in a closing note, I would like to mention that my trip through Pakistan was conducted in honor and in the memory of Daniel Pearl, who will always remind me that "I am Jewish."