Monday, July 31, 2006

A Little Tense

Things are getting a little tense here since the Qana bombings. Yesterday we went to Jafer's, a grocery store over in Beit Hanina, a neighborhood on the Palestinian side of town. I like the drive over there, because unlike Jerusalem, which has a sort of European feel to it, Beit Hanina feels more middle eastern. There is a bridge you cross under and suddenly you are in the Middle East. Plus, Jafer's is one just of my favorite places to shop because they carry a lot of western goods and are generally pretty nice. They seem to have a more western idea of customer service, meaning that they don't yell at you for shopping there. If you have shopped on the west side of town, you know how nice that is!

The place is normally packed, and most of the cars in front have diplomatic plates. But yesterday, the store was virtually empty, with lots of empty parking spaces in front. The owners of the store were friendly but seemed a little tense, and even I was a bit ill at ease. It is the first time I have ever been nervous there.

There are demonstrations scheduled for 7 pm in front of the main part of the consulate tonight, and we have all been advised not to have our cars there. The demonstrators are supposed to be left-wing activists, protesting the war I imagine. More demonstrations are on tap for tomorrow, this time from the settlers marking the one year anniversary of the pullout from Gaza, coupled with the Jewish holiday mourning the destruction of the first and second temples. In the meantime, I have noticed an increase in the police and IDF presence around town, something they always do when they are on high alert.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Forgotten Victims of War

Yesterday, a friend from work and I drove to Herziliya to look at dogs. He had been wanting a dog, and these puppies had been abandoned or surrendered by folks up north fleeing the fighting. The trip itself was an adventure...we kept getting lost and having to turn the heater on in his car to keep it from over-heating. But finally we managed to find the place, and he ended up taking two home with him, one a little chocolate ball that is about 5 weeks old and another blonde puppy about 3 or 4 months old.

Last night, while he was taking them outside, he apparently locked his keys and cell phone in his apartment. So he tells me he was outside in shorts and a t-shirt for FOUR HOURS waiting for mobile patrol to come by. Did I mention it is cold in the desert at night? He and the puppies huddled in a corner trying to stay warm. They probably wondered if this is what passes in America for a rescue! But he did finally get back in.

He rewarded their valor this morning by spending $300 at the pet shop on them. So now they love him. I am sure the pet shop owner does too!

The Crazy Guy Across the Street

I think I mentioned the guy who lives across the street from me, the one who thinks he is invisible if he has his prayer shawl on his head. He likes to walk around with his staff (looks like a curtain rod with a sharpened point on one end and an amulet of some sort on the other.

In a way, I feel for him. He is a retired music teacher and he lives in a run-down shack in a neighborhood that used to be filled with run-down shacks. But as Jerusalem has sprawled out into the areas that used to be just across the green line into the West Bank, expensive neighborhoods have cropped up around homes like his. And now he thinks we are all part of shin bet, here to spy on him. I'd feel for him more if he didn't follow me around pointing his staff at me.

He was out this morning, without his prayer shawl (which is how I was able to see him) but with his staff. I went into the little field that is between my building and his house (the Queen of England owns it...seriously) to let Noostie do her business. He came to the entrance and waved the staff at me, but I turned away and ignored him. So he walked across the street and started ranting at the Palestinian guys who do our building maintenance. He was yelling in Arabic (I had no idea he spoke Arabic)...I don't know much Arabic myself, but I do know "shu hatha" (what's this) and allah (God). He was waving the staff and asking if they knew what it was, and then telling them God spoke to him through it. Here's another word I know in Arabic: majznun. It means crazy.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

It's Saturday!

And I'm not at work! I have discovered that it is really important to your sanity to have a day off, completely off. And it is better to have two. Can't tell you how nice it is to putz around the apartment, and to spend quality time with my dog.

Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) is really quiet here. There is no traffic (a real rarity here and one not to take for granted because Israeli drivers are nuts), so you can drive whereever you want quickly (the city is not that big but the traffic means it takes me 30 minutes or more to go three miles to work). An Israeli in the states once told me that because this place is constantly at war or under the threat of suicide bombers, people have learned to live for today. I thought that sounded like a nice sentiment, but I have discovered that what it really means is "it is all about me." So if "I" need to need to go to the 24 hour store but there is no parking in front of it, I stop my car in the middle of the lane of traffic in front of the store and go in. Never mind that this means that everyone else will be backed up because I have blocked traffic, because it is all about me. And the police will not do a thing about it, because that would be an inconvenience to them to have to deal with it, and it is all about them. In fact, the only thing the police here do when there is no terrorism to deal with is turn off perfectly good traffic lights and direct traffic because they are bored. And that makes traffic worse. Don't get me wrong, the police are awesome at dealing with potential is just that there has been the hudna (the quiet) for most of the time I have been here, so they ave been bored alot (I suggested they do police work to find the person who robbed my apartment April 13 of last year, but taking fingerprints and such is really not what they do).

Another fun thing on shabbat is the shabbat elevator. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to work on the sabbath, and that includes "making a fire." Causing a change in electricity is considered making a fire, and so lights that are on at sundown Friday when the shabbat horn sounds stay on until sundown Saturday, and lights that are off stay off. It also means that you can not press the button on the elevator, but you can ride an elevator that is already in use. So they have the elevators programmed to run continiously and to stop on every floor. Riding one is an exercize in patience, especially if you live on the top floor! My building fortunately has two elevators, and only one is programmed for shabbat. But the programming sometimes screws with the other elevator. And people get stuck in it. But they won't come fix it because they don't work on shabbat, and when it isn't shabbat and the shabbat elevator isn't on, the other works fine.

I got stuck in it last year about this time for about 30 minutes. It shuttered to a stop at the 4th floor, and then when I repushed my button, went to my floor but wouldn't open! Thankfully, our folks will work on shabbat, so our GSO (who is awesome) sent our maintenance folks (who are also awesome) over to get me and Noostie (my dog) out of the elevator. I will admit that the experience taught me that I am not nearly as claustrophobic as I thought, though it was a bit unnerving that the elevator, while not letting me out, never actually stopped going up and down! I was on the phone nnuch of the time with Joe, one of our marines at the time, who heard I was in the elevator and called to check on me. We really have some good folks here.

So finally I get to enjoy a shabbat...I can putz around the apartment with my dog...maybe I will open the sliding glass door and enjoy the quiet. I think I'll stay off the elevator though...I did hear the alarm that people push when they are stuck in it last night (and no, the person isn't still in there)!

Friday, July 28, 2006

You always listen for the second siren and the helicopters

There was a shooting tonight in Jerusalem, actually not to far from where we live. Apparently a Palestinian youth shot and slightly injured two border police in the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood.

We knew something was up because we heard a bunch of sirens, and I saw several heading towards Nof Zion, a new settlement just down the road. I have been watching the settlement go up over the last year. When I got here, all you saw was an odd curve to the wall/separation barrier just down the road from the Prominade and the UN Government House. Now there are apartments there and a pretty substantial checkpoint. What I didn't know was that the settlement is practically in an Arab neighborhood, Jabel Mukaber. I knew another Arab neighborhood, Abu Tor, was nearby.

Anyway, soon I saw the helicopter out with its search light going around that area (I can see part of it from my balcony) and I saw flashing lights going all along the barrier. Finally I found the story about the shooting online. They killed the Palestinian shooter, but were still looking for accomplices. I imagine they still are, since I still hear the helicopters.

There will never be peace here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jesus and the Air Marshal

Last night we went to dinner at Azniv's place over on the east side. Azniv is a good friend from work, and the dinner was to celebrate her birthday and to introduce her fiance', who is finally back in town. He seems like an incredibly nice guy. I am glad to see her with someone decent. She is a great person who deserves to be happy.

The last time I had dinner at Azniv's, I was duty officer (meaning I had to carry around a phone and take all emergency after-hours calls), and I got the call from Washington instructing me to find Jesus.

His parents were worried.

I wasn't surprised to get the call. Jerusalem Syndrome is pretty common. Practically everyone comes here on a mission, most of them super religious. And it isn't a far leap to then decide that you personally have a mission from God. Next step, you are a prophet, a Queen from ancient times reborn, or even God. Mary once got a call about a guy who went to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall), got overcome with religion, took off all his clothes except for his prayer shawl, which he wore on his head, and ran around the city. The cops said that because he was large, and because it was raining, he was "slippery," so they couldn't catch him. So for a few days, we were searching for crazy naked American guy. Naked except for the prayer shawl. Of course, if he is like the guy across the street from me, he becomes invisible when he puts his prayer shawl on his head, so maybe that is why they couldn't find him.

So back to Jesus. Seems he stopped taking his meds, saved his money and hopped a plane to Jerusalem to warn everyone that hell was about to take over earth. Sadly, the people in the Old City didn't believe him. In fact, they mostly mocked him. I found him in a hotel near the Jaffa Gate, sad like those who are failing in their missions from God often are. He was sad because no one was listening to him. I asked him if he would be willing to come into the ACS section on Monday because his parents wanted to help him come home.

The next morning, I get a call from the Air Marshal, a guy who says he is in immediate danger and is requesting emergency sanctuary in the consulate. I ask him to tell me what the problem is. He says he has signed a non-disclosure agreement and that he can not tell me what is wrong. He tells me to tap into the CIA mainframe and I can get the whole story. I said, "Sir, we are separate agencies. I don't work for the CIA." I took his number and told him I would contact ACS and see what we could do. When I called him back, he said, "I assume you spoke with the people at the agency about my case." I said, "Sir, I am helping you because you are an American in need of help. I have not and will not contact the CIA. We are separate agencies."

The Air Marshal (who also left his meds behind...notice a theme here?) came in that night and told us how he was a duel US-Israeli national sent here by his grandfather to join the Israeli Army to make him a man. He said he grandfather thought he was gay, which he assured us over and over and over that he was not (even as he tried to walk the ARSO into the bathroom with him!). The army rejected him, and not because of his sexual orientation, regardless of what it is. Gays serve openly in the IDF. Anyway, he says that Mossad agents follow him around and torture him, and that the last time he was on a plane, they had a Mossad agent sit next to him. As he got off the plane, he screamed "I know who you are, you Mossad b*stard!" And now they are torturing him for blowing the guys cover. I feel for the poor guy he was screaming at, no doubt some poor sap in the wrong seat at the wrong time.

Jesus came in on Monday morning as instructed. My collegue in ACS told me to come see him. I asked which one he was and she said, "oh you'll know." She was right...long hair, slight beard, sad expression. I asked how he was doing and he said not good. He was afraid hell would not let him leave Jerusalem. I told him we would do everything we could to get him out.

Hell turned out to be Ben Gurion Airport, where security succeeded in making Jesus cry before we got him and the Air Marshal on the plane and back to the states. I can imagine what that flight must have been like. I heard later that the Air Marshal turned up in Hermisillo, no doubt to be with his "Mexican concubine" that he told us all about. Apparently he is no longer an "Air Marshal," but wears full body armor 24/7 and has received an "attractive offer" to be an orthodox Greek monk. So I hear they are now calling him the "bulletproof monk."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Interesting Link

Here is an interesting story NPR did about life in the Foreign Service.

Days like this...

...are why I came here. As you probably have seen in the news today, the Secretary of State was in Jerusalem. We are a pretty small post, so whenever there is a visit, most of us have to work on it. This is my fourth in a year and a half, and the last three have been as site officer at Palestinian President Abbas's headquarters, the Muqataa. So that was how I spent my day.

Most of the work on the day of the visit is comprised of hours of waiting intersperced with minutes of chaos. Ours went off well I think, and as usual, the Palestinians were fabulous hosts. Palestinians understand hospitality. So they prepared a fabulous lunch for everyone involved. You should be warned never to come here if your goal is to lose weight!

So while I am definitely tired, I got to spend the day doing my small part in assisting people who are trying to negotiate a peace. How cool is that? Oh, and to top it off, we got a letter today from the Ambassador in charge of consular affairs thanking us for our hard work on getting the folks out of Gaza...all in all, not a bad day!

Monday, July 24, 2006

To my friends in Beirut

For all the folks posted to Beirut, especially Julie, you have both my admiration and my sincerest sympathy right now. To be fair, you have had it (my admiration and sympathy that is) for a good two weeks, what with the bombings and evacuating thousands of American citizens (what do you mean four consular officers can't handle 25,000 people in the blink of an eye? What do you mean America can't just barge its way in and save them? And of course, do it for free!)

But to be in the middle of all of that and then have the Secretary pop in...I am afraid my little head would pop off! My hat is off to you!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Folding and the Fourth

I just folded the American flag t-shirt that I like to wear on the 4th of July (I washed it pretty is the whole folding on non-work clothes that I am less timely with!). One of the cool things about being overseas is that people congratulate you on the 4th, like it is your very own personal accomplishment. You have to be at least a little (and more likely a lot) patriotic to do this job (it helps if you are insane as well...luckily I have that base covered too!), so it is kind of a nice feeling to be congratulated on the fourth.

Next 4th, insha'allah, I will be back in the U.S. True, I won't be congratulated on the day, but I also won't have to wear a business suit in 90 degree heat and make small talk with lots of non-Americans while eating fingerfoods that don't come anywhere close to the hotdogs and hamburgers that should be consumed on the 4th as God intended!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Evacuating Amcits from Gaza

Our morning yesterday started REALLY early as we all met at the consulate in Jerusalem at 4:30 am to head to the Erez Crossing, one of the northern exits from the Gaza Strip. Our plan was to evacuate some 117 Americans from Gaza and take them across the country to the Allenby Bridge, the border crossing with Jordan. The trip to Erez took about 2 hours, and included two officers from American Citizen Services, the consular chief, three members of our local staff, and a whole passle of security guys. We took a couple vans and a couple armored vehicles. The buses, arranged though a local travel agency.

We arrived at Erez at about 6 am. The place was eerily quiet. I am told that during the last evacuation, you could hear gunfire and bombs, and that the place was covered with IDF soldiers and their very angry looking-dogs. But not yesterday. I think I heard an Israeli drone flying overhead once, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. By about 7:30, the first Americans appeared at the gate that marked the end of their treck through the crossing. That gate is pictured below (the small sign says in arabic that you are not allowed to take photos, but I can't read Arabic so I figured it didn't apply to me!) The IDF allowed one family at a time to come out, be checked in by our staff, checked off by the IDF and handed their permits to exit the country. Each family was then escorted to the bus. Once the luggage arrived and was piled up behind the buses, one family member was allowed off to claim their luggage and load it onto the bus. At no time were any of the Americans allowed to go anywhere unescorted. I even went with them to the bathroom. It was very clear to us that while these people held American passports, the IDF considered them Palestinian and it was better not to give the impression that we did not have the situation under control.

The situtation was a sad one. While I question the wisdom of taking your summer vacation in the hot garden spot of Gaza, especially since we had been warning people not to go there for a year and a half, I understand that people wanted to see family. One guy I met was one his way to see his fiance', who because theirs is a traditional muslim semi-arranged engagement, has only seen her a total of 19 days in the 3 years they have been engaged (though he assures me that they spend lots of money on phone bills!). He was convinced to stop in Gaza for two days for a family wedding. He was trapped there for more than a month, and because his finace' is in Beirut, he now can't go see her. Each person I talked to spoke of the endless bombings, of sonic booms that were wrecking the foundations of their homes, and of garbage piling up in the streets because the municipalities can't get fuel for the garbage trucks. One father told me he had tried to convince his sons that the noises they heard were fireworks or thunder. Another father fretted, looking anxiously at the soldiers as his young sons darted to the soda machine and were fishing shekels out of their pockets to get a drink. "They don't understand. They're Americans. But this isn't America. There are rules here and if you don't follow them, there will be trouble."

In the end, 104 Americans showed up at the crossing and we were able to take 103 with us. The final American, a 17-year-old girl, couldn't leave because she didn't have her passport. Her father, against the advise of the ACS section, had the pasport sent to him by courier instead of letting our staff bring it, and the courier never arrived. Sadly, there was nothing we could do. But at least we got out another 103, gave them food and water and got them to Jordan, where ACS folks from the Embassy in Amman accompanied them into Amman and one step closer to home.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Starting a Blog

I'd been wanting to start a blog for a while and never got around to it. Now it seems like a good forum to let you know not only what I am up to, but that I am safe. So here goes nothing.
I have been serving here in Jerusalem, for almost a year and a half. The city is a beautiful place to visit and a stressful place to live. In my job as a vice consul, I basically tell applicants for visas to visit the U.S. whether or not they can go. It is a stressful job in a place where you live and breathe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 24/7, mainly because it highlights the disparities between the populations. Quite simply, most Israelis qualify for visas and most Palestinians don't. It isn't fair, but it is life.
Lately, it has been more stressful as we all watch the news. The events of the past week on the Lebanon border and the past month in Gaza has put everyone just a little more on edge. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel any more in danger here in Jerusalem now than I did two months ago. There are neither clouds nor war planes in the skies over Jerusalem. But I did go to Gaza yesterday to help evacuate Americans who were vacationing there (not sure of the wisdom of choosing the hot garden spot of Gaza for your vacation, especially since we have been saying for a year and a half not to go there at all, but different strokes I guess). It was quiet there, no gunfire or bombs exploding and only the occassional drone overhead, but you could see how the fighting had worn on the faces of the people we got out. And we only got out a drop in the bucket compared with the number of people who live there. Gaza is the most populated place per cubic meter on the planet.
At some point I will have to go back and relive some of the cool things I have gotten to do since I came here, like going to Rome, Istanbul and Petra. I have seen Caesaria, the Galilee and the Dead Sea. I have met the Secretary of State and the First Lady (I have pics to prove it!). I have had the highs of passing my PhD exams (did you know that ABD, short for All But Dissertation, also means slave in Arabic?) and the lows of having my apartment here robbed and sitting by my grandmother's hospital bed for 3 weeks fearing that the pneumonia she got after lung cancer sugery would be the thing that took her from me after lung cancer itself could not (thankfully, it didn't). It has been an interesting ride so far...I should have written about it sooner.