Archive for February, 2012

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Volunteering Because You Can

February 28, 2012

As a child, I could tell you a lot about fjords and olive trees, even though I had never seen either one.  This is because I grew up around a lot of Norwegians and Palestinians.  The Norwegians were my

Tromsø

neighbors and classmates in Minnesota, the Palestinians our family friends, part of the handful of Arabs that we knew who gathered together for special occasions.  I didn’t think of Norway and Palestine together beyond my childhood.  One was all about snow and Nobel peace, and one was all about sunshine and the opposite of peace.

But this past year I went to Tromsø, Norway for a magazine article, and I discovered an unexpected link:  It turns out that this small Arctic Circle city, gateway to polar bears and reindeer, is the sister city of Gaza.

One of the few constant refrains I grew up with was, “If you forget your people, then who else will remember them when they need help?”

The answer to that question for many people from troubled lands is apparently Norway. Volunteering, whether abroad or at home, seems to be as much a part of Norwegian culture as waffles and jam.

In Tromsø, I met over hot chocolate with Knut Borud, the current secretary of the board of the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship group.  Like all the other board members on the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship Committee, he is 100 percent Norwegian.  He has lived in Norway all his life, a married high school teacher with teenage children.  He shrugs when you ask him why he has been involved with helping the Palestinians since the 1980s, visiting twice.  “There is something wrong there,” he explains simply, with that Scandinavian calmness.   “In 2001, we formalized our efforts to help when our mayor visited Gaza and signed the sister city pact. Contact has become more and more difficult as the situation has gotten worse but we continue.”

Knut teaches video production to high school students, and one of the Gaza Tromsø group’s projects is helping Gazans film their own stories.  One young woman, Nehal Afana, a cinematographer in training, was even brought to Tromsø to learn about developing a film art center for youth in Gaza, like the Tvibit Filmhouse in Tromsø for aspiring local artists.

“Yalla To Gaza” is a film made by  Gazan director Ashraf Mashharawi and features Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Tromsø native.   Along with fellow Norwegian Dr. Erik Fosse, were the only two foreign doctors allowed into Gaza during the 2008 bombardment.

In the video, Dr. Mads talks about the dignity of the people of Gaza, but sitting above the Arctic Cirlce, listening to Knut talk about a place so far away, a place for which he has no obligation to help, I thought equally of the dignity of Norway and all people who help others just because they have the freedom to do so.

http://vimeo.com/11712883 (Yallah to Gaza)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJndfs4Ctt8  (Nefal’s story)

And for a look at the magazine article that took to Tromsø, the home of the northernmost mosque in the world: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201201/ramadan.in.the.farthest.north.htm

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Beyond 100 Goats

February 9, 2012

Abu Khalil has 100 goats, twelve children, three wives, and few good teeth.  When he hosts people in his main tent, he dons the gold colored bisht (robe), a sign of celebration and status among the Bedu (or Bedouins).

beyond 100 goats

I met Abu Khalil’s family earlier this month while accompanying a visiting American friend on a trip to Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, set in a remote, wind chilling mountainous area with a spectacular other worldly landscape.  The ecolodge depends on American and European tourists.  Urban Jordanians do not have the Lawrence of Arabia romanticism of the Bedu that Westerners have.  However, while Westerners love an invitation to a Bedu tent, the language barrier makes it mostly a case of excessive smiling and nodding at each other.  I fell somewhere in the middle—an unexpected translator for the Westerners, and more importantly to the Bedu, someone they could talk to about the rest of the Arab world, a world which they rarely come in contact with.   They see more Westerners than other Arabs, to whom an ecolodge, the idea of going on vacation in a place without electricity seems like a punch line to a joke.

The ecolodge was built to preserve the fragile environment—and bring work opportunities to the local Bedu.  In return, the Bedu have modified their activities in order to meet the goals of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).  They no longer hunt the cherished but endangered wild rabbits or ibexes to prevent them from extinction.  The Bedu understand extinction, including the possible extinction of their own way of life, something they are both fear and are drawn to.

Abu Khalil married his two main wives in the same year, 1990, but not the same day.  (There was an earlier wife, but he divorced her, and a younger wife who lives in a nearby village).  He is “almost 60” and the wives put their age at 42, although had they not told you, you would put them much closer to his age.  There are reasons for that –brutal winds, sun, poor health care.  But those affect both men and women.

In the pink dawn, after fajer prayers, we watched his wives climbing the mountains, each with her share of the 100 goats, taking them out to feed. Suleiman, at 20 one of the older sons, the next in line to get married, and a guide at the lodge, explains, “My mothers take care of the goats, make the milk, ghee, and jameed (the Bedu’s beloved dried yogurt), feed their kids, weave the goat hairs for the tent, wash the clothes…”

“So what do the men do then?” you ask.

He thinks on this. “Make sure the women are doing all these things,” he jokes, and then quickly adds, “The men go to town to take care of any business, work in the army or police maybe.”

So it’s not hard to understand why in families with only one wife, which is in fact the norm, kids run around in clothes and hair weighed down in dirt, faces with splotches of mud on them, and noses running freely for days.

When you sit with Abu Khalil’s women, the two wives and their teenage daughters, in their part of the tent (tents are divided into thirds for men, women, and livestock), around a fire where they boil tea with sage and a dentist-defying amount of sugar, they are all welcoming, smiling through wind burned lips.  Hospitality is the truest cliché of their culture. They ask all about you, not uttering one complaint about men or goats or each other.

They don’t have TV or the Internet, and they have almost no contact with non-Bedu, outside of what they study in their rudimentary school and now in meeting the guests at the ecolodge.

When they find out you live in Abu Dhabi, they ask you what the people are like there. They don’t mean all the Abu Dhabi expats like yourself—they mean their fellow Bedu.  A son had joked earlier about his donkey being the Bedouin Mercedes.  You can’t bring yourself to tell them that the Bedu of Abu Dhabi have real Mercedes, new, shiny ones—and all sorts of other shiny things.   “It’s nice,” you say.  “But too hot.”

That’s when the randomness of national borders strikes you.  These Bedu, like most Bedu, trace their roots to Saudi Arabia.  But Bedu are nomadic and when oil struck, fate was determined by what side of the post-colonial border you had set up tent.  The fortress houses, cars, designer watches, maids, and drivers of the Persian Gulf have left the Jordanian Bedu in the dust, somewhat literally.  Or so you think with your Abu Dhabi eyes.

Then you ask Abu Khalil’s daughter, who just turned 14, what she’d like to do when she finishes school.  “Keep having a healthy life and family,” she shrugs.  She does not say “in another place.”  When prodded about moving to the city, she fidgets.  Yes, there is another world out there.  Yet, she, like everyone else here, is at home nomadic, no upgraded Mercedes of any kind required, a place where not seeing across the border means this is all that life is—aside from visitors who remind you it isn’t.