Saturday, July 22, 2006

Naked in Baghdad

After a somewhat restless sleep due to the warm nights, I woke up this morning to a fantastically sunny day. I did my weekend sunny day morning ritual of sitting in my fatboy, with a glass of water or juice and a good book. The choice of book this morning was "Naked in Baghdad" by Anne Garrrels. She is a radio reporter for NPR who was sent to Iraq during the build up to US invasion. It is not so much a book of politics, however in any conversation about Iraq, politics are entirely unavoidable, but rather it is a book of people and chornicles her life and experiences being a reporter in Baghdad. It is about the women, the children, the families, the government, the oppression, the fear and uncertainty that the people there face. I have just now into the first few days of the war itself and with everything happening now in Lebanon and Israel, it takes on even a more personal tone for me.

While growing up, places like Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait and Israel were always "over there", places whose names I knew but really didn't think much about and they really didn't have any impact on my life at all. In past years, I have spent quite a lot of time in Israel, and have a lot of friends from all over the Middle East. My first trip to Israel was over Christmas in 1996. I went to stay with my friend Eli in Tel Aviv and decided to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Eli, being Jewish, was not able to join me. As we all boarded the bus in Tel Aviv, we were told that due to the escalating violence in Hebron and other parts of the occupied territories, that we would first go to Jerusalem and then changes to busses that would better protect us in the event of an attack. In Israel, most tour busses are like busses in any other countries, but busses that go into Palestinian Territory are completely different. The windows are covered with a steel grid that looks womething like a chain link fence and looks more like what prisoners in the US would be transported in as opposed to regular people just taking the bus. We were told what to do if the bus should be attacked by rocks, or gunfire and also told that in the event they deemed the whole situation too dangerous, we would turn around and head back to Tel Aviv. The atmosphere on the bus got quite tense as we started climbing the mountain into Jerusalem, wondering what the night would hold for us all. Soon, nobody was talking and we all just waited and hoped for the best. When we got to Jerusalem, we were told that we would be able to remain on our current bus into Bethlehem. As we crossed the border, the scenery changed almost instantly. Bombed out building, everything in shades of brown and grey. There were piles of rubble and a few burned out cars and buildings. We got to Manger Square (even Bethlehem is not above the kitsch marketing when it comes to tourism) and we were all totally and completely unprepared for what we saw. I had imagined it to be a very quiet, reverent event, lots of praying and perhaps people even looking for a miracle to occur. Instead it was a party. There were bands and singers and games and kiosks selling falafel and Old Milwaukee beer. There were people dancing and singing and kissing and hugging and all of this was taking place under the watchful eye of the armed Palestinian soldiers standing on the rooftops, ready for action should the need arise. On big video screens, the scene from inside the Church of the Nativity was played without sound and there was Yassar Arafat about 100 meters away. It was odd to think of someone I had grown up seeing on television and hearing about was here, in the same place I was, celebrating Christmas. Midnight soon arrived and the first person to wish me a Happy Christmas was a Palestinian soldier with his weapon hanging off his shoulder. It was one of the most special and amazing Christmases of my life...

I remember the first time terrorism really became real to me. It was long before 9/11. I was watching CNN when all of a sudden, breaking news showed a bomb blast at a little cafe in Tel Aviv by the name of Apropos. That was cafe was right around the corner from where I used to stay and I spent many mornings and evenings sitting on that very terrace with great friends having a great time. I have always known of the dangers, and even when seeing uzi-clad soldiers walking along the beach, the real intensity of the situation never really registered. I had seen buildings in Tel Aviv which had been damaged during the Gulf War, the rusted tanks and jeeps that litter the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and had seen the thick layers of candle wax and the massive amounts of "peace" graffitti at Ytzak Rabin Square, where he was assasinated, but somehow it was all of a time long ago, a news story, a situation I could not in any way relate to or understand.

Suddenly, watching CNN that day, I saw a place I knew. A place I had just been weeks before. I searched the screen for faces of friends that lived there in the area. I wondered if they were hurt or possibly dead. I was glued to the television hoping to see them, even just one of them but it was all a blur. Phone lines were overloaded and all there was to do was wait. None of my friends were hurt physically, but I have learned over the years that every bomb, regardless of where it goes off, takes a toll on everyone. I was back in Tel Aviv a short time afterward, and went for a glass of wine at Apropos. There on the ground was the dark smudge left by the bomb blast, and life was going on as normal all around, as though it had never happened. I have never come close to anything like that and once again my experience was based on memories and a news story while sitting the comfort of my living room, made real by the people I knew and the times I had spent sitting in that same place. I asked friends of mine how they deal with it, the constant fear, wondering when and where it will happen next. They told me they couldn't let themselves think too long about it or they would go mad. Once again I find myself worrying for friends and watching the news for faces or places I recognize and once again I wonder where it will all end.

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