topics: malfoof (food), Yasir Arafat, HISTORY (Gaza), Alexander the Great, rules of the road, refugee camps, environment, Palestinian daily life; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 10, 1997

Breakfast and Lunch: Breakfast and lunch were combined today as we packed in as many calories as we could for a long day of meetings and presentations. Corinne ventured out with Emad and loaded up with many different kinds of goodies. There was a spicy sort of flat bread, a meat-filled pastry, a cheese-filled pastry, and, perhaps our favorite, a spinach-filled pastry.

Dinner: For dinner we headed back to Pizza Land for another wonderful meal of salad and pizza. We were very fortunate that the owner, Mr. Samir H. Saqqa, one of our sponsors during our visit to Gaza, stayed open extra late for us since we did not arrive until well after tonight's Chat 'n' Debate was over. By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant with our many new friends, it was 3 a.m. and we were more than ready for bed.

Food of the Day: Malfoof

During one of the pauses we had during our visits today, our friend Samer Abu-Ghazaleh of MECo. introduced us to his family. He also shared with us another of Palestine's traditional dishes (one of many that his mother excels in making): malfoof. Malfoof is made with cabbage leaves, rice, and meat. The cabbage leaves are steamed until they are very flexible, filled with rice and meat, and then rolled up. Malfoof literally means "roll-up." We can attest to the tastiness of these roll-ups.

Word of the Day: Keit har lak? — "How are you?"

Like salam, Keit har lak? click to hear an audio clip is used when people meet. It means, "How are you?"

Person of the Day: Yasir Arafat

If any one person has come to be identified with the struggle for Palestinian independence, it is Yasir Arafat. The controversial leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and, since April 2, 1989, the chief executive of the Palestinian National Authority, Arafat's image is found everywhere throughout Gaza, in posters, billboards click to view a photograph, hanging in restaurants, on key chains, etc. Everywhere.

Born in Jerusalem in 1929, Arafat attended Cairo University in Egypt, where he began his political career as president of the Union of Palestinian Students. In 1948, when the State of Israel was established and approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, Arafat decided to devote his life to securing a permanent homeland for his people.

In 1959, after joining the Egyptian army and studying guerrilla tactics, Arafat helped organize al-Fatah, the largest of the Palestinian guerrilla groups. By 1969, he had become the leader of the PLO, a position that he still holds today. The well-known PLO is a large organization that was made famous in the 1970s as an international terrorist organization. However, in 1988, in two landmark documents, Arafat declared that the PLO would renounce all forms of terrorism and affirmed "the rights of all parties concerned in the Middle East conflict to exist in peace and security, including the state of Palestine, Israel and their neighbors."

Today, somewhat weakened by age and illness, Arafat still battles for a just peace for his people. His struggle has grown more difficult recently as the peace talks have stalled — the result of changing politics in Israel and several suicide bombings, some of which have been attributed to extreme factions of the former PLO.

Place of the Day: Gaza City

During our stay here in the Gaza Strip, we have been centered in Gaza City, a city with a long and illustrious past. Unfortunately, Gaza's recent history has resulted in the destruction of much evidence of the ancient underpinnings of this vibrant, amazing city. As the residents struggle to build housing for the swelling numbers of refugees that have arrived since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, historic sites have literally been buried. However, while much of the construction in the Gaza Strip is new, Gaza City has always been and will continue to be an important part of the Middle East.

Gaza was one of the greatest trade centers of Biblical Palestine. (It was in Gaza that long-haired Samson, blinded by the Philistines, pulled down the temple [Judges 16: 21-31].) Yes, Gaza flourished long before the Christian era, figuring prominently in the histories of Babylon, Egypt, and Persia. We have even heard that in the Temple of Amun at Karnak in Upper (southern) Egypt, there is a 3,500-year-old inscription reporting that the city of Gaza was "thriving." This comes as no surprise since it was such a strategically important town. Centered on the main trade route between Damascus (gateway to Persia and the rest of Asia) and Cairo (gateway to Egypt and the rest of Africa), Gaza was the last provisioning point before entering the Sinai desert or the first relief when coming out.

We have been given conflicting information about the origins of the name of 'Aza, or Gaza. Is it from an old Arabic verb meaning "to attack," from an Arabic word meaning "prize" or "treasure," or from a Hebrew word meaning "strong"? Regardless, it is a "prize" that has "strongly" stood its ground in its fair share of "attacks."

Alexander the Great laid siege to Gaza for two months during his conquest of the area. After Alexander, control passed to the Romans (who called it Constantia), when it became one of the greatest centers of Hellenic (ancient Greek/Egyptian blend) culture, rivaling ancient Antioch (in present-day Turkey), Alexandria, and even Athens. After the Romans came the Arabs, then the Crusaders, then the Mamluks, and finally the Ottomans. Throughout this period, Gaza almost always prospered (one visitor in 1660 even compared Gaza to Paris!). Gaza was the base from which Napoleon replenished his supplies before beginning his Egyptian campaign. After Napoleon's defeat, control of the area again passed to the Ottoman Turks and then to the British. When the British withdrew from the Middle East, Egypt made Gaza its main military base. The area of land that it held after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war became the Gaza Strip.

Today, Gaza is again bustling. Palestinian limited self-rule since 1994 has brought some money in and aided in the process of rebuilding, transforming parts of the city into a modern metropolis. During the preceding 50 years, while construction in Gaza was an uncontrolled attempt to provide housing for its rapidly expanding refugee population, much of the construction that is going on now is planned. Foreign aid has also helped to a limited extent. Occasionally though, we saw the results of misapplied aid: beautiful children's playgrounds kept closed (except, apparently, when foreign dignitaries visit).

Tech Fact of the Day: Hisssssssssing

One of the cultural differences we have noticed in our travels thus far through North Africa and the Middle East, is that everyone hisses here. Whereas in the United States and Europe, people usually whistle or yell to get someone's attention, here people hiss. For example, if you are walking down the road and a wagon or cart approaches from behind, you are likely to hear the driver hiss. This is his warning to get out of the way before you are run over. The louder and more insistent the hiss, the faster you had better move.

During the earliest days of our trip, as we were biking along, we would hear this hissing and look down at our wheels to see if maybe there was an air leak. (We almost lost andrEa this way. As a lumbering cartload of carrots bore down upon her, the driver was hissing madly, and andrEa unknowingly examined her tires. There was no disaster. But if there had been, everyone thought that it would have been a fitting accident for a vegetarian.)

Padraic was one of the first of our group to connect hissing with alert and he quickly became our expert hisser. Now, when we enter a town, we put Padraic in front. As his hisses to cut a path through the crowds, the rest of the team pedals safely behind. Padraic has become so good at this that, as a step in raising a little more food money, we have considered renting him out as a "hissing horn" to be placed on large carts and wagons.

Group Dispatch, December 10

picture of Anthony

As the BikeAbout crew roused itself out of its much needed slumber and attempted to finish several dispatches, our compatriots at Diwan el Shabab were preparing another full day's worth of visits and meetings. On our schedule today included a quick visit to the Jabalia refugee camp and then another set of simultaneous presentations. Afterwards, we were to have a brief break and then set up for our usual Wednesday night Chat 'n' Debate, also from two different locations and in the company of two different groups of Palestinians. Thanks to our tireless friends at MECo. and Diwan el Shabab everything was set.

Once we had loaded ourselves into the DIA "boat" (a huge Citroen station wagon that could easily seat eight strangers but was no problem for ten very good friends), we were off. As we drove to the Jabalia refugee camp, located just to the north of Gaza City, we all remarked how Gaza City never seemed to end (see our Place of the Day). We would have been hard pressed to tell where the city ended and the "suburbs" began. Much of the Gaza Strip is this way. Given the population increase in Gaza, land is at a real premium.

The Jabalia refugee camp was the first refugee camp that we visited in the Gaza Strip. As we have previously learned, the Gaza Strip was formed in 1948 as a result of the Arab-Israeli War when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were moved to the area. Today the population is centered around three main cities (Rafah, Khan Younis, and Gaza City), or in eight refugee camps (Rafah, Khan Younis, Deir el-Balah, Maghazi, Nuseirat, Bureij, Shati (Beach), and Jabalia). The refugee camps were built and designed as temporary shelters for the people displaced as a result of the conflict. What was a temporary situation in 1948 quickly developed into something permanent.

What are Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza like? When they were first opened, they were neatly ordered rows of cement and tin structures. As established, these centers were designed as temporary homes for a predetermined number of refugees living in a humane and sanitary fashion. The question we must ask ourselves today, though, is what happens when you add five, six, or seven times the number of people the camps were designed to hold, and then keep them there longer than anyone thought would be necessary? The answer is Jabalia . . . and the seven other camps in Gaza (as well as the 20 camps in the West Bank, the ten in Syria, the 11 in Lebanon, and the ten in Jordan). As of June 30, 1997, there were a total of 3,417,688 registered Palestinian refugees, 1,117,567 of whom live in camps.

Traveling around the camp in Jabalia, it was impossible for an untrained eye to identify any of the original neatly ordered structures that had once been the basis for the camp. We saw photos of the original design, but were baffled by the present-day reality: a mass of buildings constructed out of cement block, tin, cardboard, old tires, and whatever else could be spared. click to view a photograph Until recently, the Israeli's prohibited the construction of buildings of more than one story, so space is at a premium. Thus, functional streets look like back alleys that are often only a shoulder's width wide. click to view a photograph Most of the streets and alleys are not paved click to view a photograph (resulting in what one person called "a dust bowl in the summer and a mud bowl in the winter") and raw sewage is held in open-air "lakes" and "lagoons" in the middle of the living area and where houses are pushed right up to the edges. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

The camp then is a maze of unpaved and uneven narrow streets and small houses. Living conditions are cramped — often six, seven, or eight people share the same room (in the Gaza Strip, more than one person out of every three people lives in a refugee camp) and sanitary conditions leave a lot to be desired. While the years of violence that grew out of the Intifada are never to be condoned, it is not hard to imagine why the Palestinian movement began on a muddy crossroads in this camp.

Yet life in Jabalia is bustling. click to view a photograph The raucous markets that we have come to expect in cities are just as alive and colorful here as they were in Cairo. And people are doing what happens all around the world — trying to get by, making the best of an impossible situation. click to view a photograph

When talking to Palestinians, the most common complaint we hear centers around their feelings of lost dignity. Forced to live in the squalor of refugee camps and crumbling cities, and for a long time prevented by Israeli restrictions — on, for example, construction and well-digging — from improving their living conditions, many of the Palestinians we talked to wished that they could be allowed to live their lives as human beings.

Similarly, foremost in everyone's mind is the loss of dignity as a result of border closings. We have already written about this, but it warrants repetition because of the number of times it is repeated to us. The Gaza Strip is entirely enclosed by an imposing fence. No one may cross that fence without passing through Israeli security. What hurts Palestinians most is that the large majority of them do not have the right to cross that fence, do not have the right to go where they want, work where they want, live with the same rights as others. Even the lucky few who have received permission to work in Israel are at the mercy of politics. When, for any number of reasons, the border with Israel is closed, the effect on the entire area can be devastating. At one time, 80,000 Palestinians were working in Israel every day. Now, because of previous terrorist activity that may have originated from either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, the numbers of workers allowed to cross into Israel has been drastically reduced. While 80,000 workers may not seem like a large number, remember that each worker usually supports eight or more family members. Eighty thousand workers denied access to work can have an effect on over half a million people, or half the population of the Gaza Strip!

Leaving the camp, the group split, with Ethan and andrEa staying in Jabalia at the Ithad Shabab Al Istiqlal (or the Jabalia Independent Youth Union) click to view a photograph, where they discovered posters on display in English and Arabic of the BikeAbout slogan (!) click to view a photograph, while Corinne and Anthony traveled to one of the only mixed (both men and women attend) universities in the Gaza Strip: Al Ahzad. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

After presenting BikeAbout and talking about its mission, the two teams opened the floors, as always, to anyone who wanted to share. And, as before, the many questions we were asked — about life on the road, life in America and Austria, conditions in other Mediterranean countries, and, of course, our impressions about Middle Eastern politics and Palestine — were neither easily nor quickly answered. One of the hardest we faced was "Why does the U.S. government give so much money to Israel while we struggle with unpaved roads, a lack of housing, overwhelming unemployment, and a sewage system that overflows whenever it rains?" But the most powerful question we constantly face is the one we find most disarming. As we explained how we were going to be continuing our trip around the Mediterranean in the next few days, someone in the audience always asks, "Your trip sounds amazing, I would love to come with you. Can you tell me why I cannot?"

When our discussions finally came to an end, it was dark and rainy outside, and the drive back through the streets of Jabalia left us quiet and pensive. Looking out at the enormous growing puddles turning the streets into impassable stretches of mud, our thoughts turned to the next task at hand: how to communicate what we have seen, what we were seeing, into material that people could understand on the chat 'n' debate that was scheduled for that evening. We paused briefly at the Diwan to jot down some notes and take a break from the action, but by 7:30 things were already picking up. Once again, the group would be split into two groups; Corinne and Anthony would remain at the Diwan to host the chat with a group of Palestinian youth there, while andrEa and Ethan would move to the offices of the PC-World Corporation, another of our local sponsors, and moderate the chat on that end. click to view a photograph

The two groups' experiences were very different. While Ethan and andrEa spoke with a calm group of experienced young businessmen, Anthony and Corinne were working at a vocal round table of students and other young people. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Nevertheless, questions asked by non-Palestinian friends participating in the chat evoked interested responses in both groups.

After the chat, both groups converged on Pizza Land click to view a photograph, where we enjoyed a rollicking meal with, in addition to BikeAbout and the expanded Diwan team (Emad, Eric, Jean-Charles, and Mohamed Elamin), the owners of Pizza Land and PC-World, and some of their acquaintances. Over salads and pizza, and to the thumping rhythm of all the best pop music from the Arab world (including "Kamanana" and "Nar"!), we talked and laughed late into the night.

The events had been more in a series of eye-opening and moving days, full of friendship, frank exchange, and a dialogue out of which everyone learned something. What have we learned? It is that the freedom that we take for granted as we cycle across borders will no longer be taken for granted. Every time we ride our bikes across a border, we will think about our friends in the Gaza Strip who are restricted to a stretch of land approximately 40 km (25 mi) long and only 6 km (4 mi) wide. It is sobering to think that the vast majority of the population of the Gaza Strip under the age of 30 has never left the Gaza Strip. We hope that the situation in the Gaza Strip (and all of Palestine and throughout the Middle East) improves and that all Palestinians regain their dignity.

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