Growing up I remember hearing stories about the segregation in the United States between “colored” people and “white” people: the separate bathrooms, drinking fountains and businesses. And the divide of hate, lynchings and discrimination that accompanied it.
In my youthful naïveté, I remember taking a look around and breathing a sigh of relief that this kind of thing no longer exists. I remember going to the Holocaust Museum, and after walking through all the sad stories and gut-wrenching horrors, reading the sign that said “Never Again!” and feeling the same relief.
Well, since then I have learned that these things still do in fact exist. I’ve read the horror stories, seen pictures and video, but nothing prepared me for actually seeing with my own eyes.
"It was a most beautiful experience and my first time spinning fire there!"
The night before going to Hebron I had heard stories about how some Palestinians who live in the Old City have actually built cages around their homes to protect themselves from an aggressive Colonizer population.
Hebron is surrounded by at least 17 Jewish-only settlements, and the city itself is quartered up into Jewish and Palestinian zones. In fact, there were places we were walking where one side of the street was for Palestinians and, divided by a small barricade, the other was Jewish-only.
As we approached the Old City, a couple of things became apparent. The streets weren’t as bustling as they are in the newly built city center where Arab shops sell locally made items and produce to passersby. There is more barbed wire, cameras and towers where soldiers look down upon the population from rooftops and watchtowers.
We walked past a closed-off zone that led to a corridor of Israeli flags and marked a settlement gated off from a Palestinian area. This was the beginning of the Old City of Hebron. In this particular area, there had been a school for Palestinian children. The children were harassed daily by the settler population, and eventually the school shut down.
The Palestinian population has steadily been pushed out of the Old City and forced to build a new city center a few blocks down. In the Old City of Hebron there is a Jewish-only settler population of about 600, many of them Jews who have emigrated to the country from the United States. Each settler is armed with an M-16, and the Israeli-soldier-to- settler ratio is 4-1.
"What if they found out I was an Arab? Would I get attacked? Would the soldiers arrest and/or interrogate me? "
There are 3,000 Israeli soldiers there to “protect” the 600 Jews colonizing the area. The Jewish settlers of Hebron are particularly known for being aggressive, and because they live in such close quarters the harassment and segregation is more stark and ongoing than other places in the West Bank. The settlers have been known to parade into the Old City chanting anti-Arab songs, carrying their guns around their chests.
A good example of this harassment is the story of Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born physician who has been memorialized in one of the settlements. According to Lonely Planet: Israel and the Palestinian Territories, during the Jewish Holiday of Purim and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Goldstein went into the Ibrahim Mosque wearing the garb of a soldier. This mosque is heavily guarded still today, and so the soldiers do rounds in the mosques throughout the day.
We had to go through metal detectors before entering. And then each woman in the group was given a long gown with a head covering to finally enter the Mosque.
On this day, our tour guide told us as we stood in the mosque upon the very place in which he stood, Goldstein aimed his gun at Muslims who where kneeling down in prayer with their heads on the ground. He killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed. Eventually he was tackled and killed in the mosque.
When you look around at the mosque you can see places where the bullets hit the marble pillars and walls. The building has been broken up into a separate synagogue with shared walls. It houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, supposedly the resting places for Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives.
Non-Jews are not allowed in the synagogue. And the strangest part of it is that you can peek through the cracks of doors and see the synagogue on the other side of the wall. They are so close to each other yet seemingly worlds away.
"Then the soldiers said no Arabs are allowed to enter here, even if they are Christian."
As we made our way through the city we came upon the entrance of a Jewish settlement. It was a most surreal experience. Happy Klezmer music blasted in the background from a local restaurant, creating a paradoxical backdrop to the downtrodden, barbed-wire city we had just walked through.
The soldiers immediately began to question our tour guide and Vivien, a fellow Palestinian-American living in Los Angeles. They were the obvious-looking Arabs in the group.
The soldiers asked Vivien what her religion is. She said she does not have one. They were not very happy with this answer. They asked them if there were any Muslims in the group, and there weren’t.
Then the soldiers said no Arabs are allowed to enter here, even if they are Christian. They said it very nonchalantly, and Vivien came back to the group to let us know what they said. Everyone stood in solidarity with Vivien and our tour guide and decided not to go in.
I had a bit of a different experience. The thing is, while I am Palestinian, most Arabs, and it seems Israelis, can’t really tell by looking at me. I think the way I dress throws a lot of people off, and I can sort of walk around incognito. So the soldiers weren’t trying to hold me back.
"When you look around at the mosque you can see places where the bullets hit the marble pillars and walls."
I had a very strong inclination to go inside. One, because I am an Arab, and I guess you could say my inner rebel wanted to go inside for that very reason. Second, I wanted to see this place, this racist, discriminatory place reminiscent of the places I had heard about growing up. I wanted to know it from the inside out, to understand it. What is it? Why is it here? What inside me mirrors this?
I had such a craving to go inside. At the same time I also felt an intense fear. What if they found out I was an Arab? Would I get attacked? Would the soldiers arrest and/or interrogate me? Or was this all just irrational fear rearing its head again?
I was very conflicted as I stood at this crossroads of division and understanding. In the end I decided not to go inside, and we moved up the road. We came across a part of the town that seemed to have been recently abandoned. There were broken windows, partly demolished homes, huge holes in walls inside and outside of stores and houses. There were groups of young soldiers walking around, but they didn’t really look threatening.
I didn’t really understand what was going on there, perhaps a recently evacuated Palestinian part of town being prepared for more Jewish-only housing.
After all of this, we made our way to a children’s community center where we would do a short workshop and perform. The children were excited and intrigued with this group of internationals who were working and performing for them. There is so much angst and excitement in them because of the trauma, and it can be a bit overwhelming at times.
"There are 3,000 Israeli soldiers there to “protect” the 600 Jews colonizing the area."
So amid the screaming and fighting and childlike playfulness of the group we managed to spin some poi, climb ladders, play guitars and accordions, walk on stilts and have some fun with the kids.
Then our first performance!!!!! It was a most beautiful experience and my first time spinning fire there! And it all happened perfectly. Throughout our performance we played accordions, guitars, tambourines and things, and fire spinning was the grand finale.
When the Muslim call to prayer occurred, though, we had to stop playing our music, because Hebron is a very conservative place. So we stopped, but this is when the fire lit up! And what a call to prayer it was. The crowd immediately settled down, and everyone was mesmerized.
I ate fire, and I and two other women in the group spun poi to the call to prayer. It was an ancient ritual attempting to burn away hate, division and walls. The alchemy that turns bullets into bubbles, bombs into beats and walls into bridges. It was pure majik!
That is all for now. I am a bit behind on my blogging. It is taking me a minute to digest what I see here, but I do know that I have missed this land, and it has missed me. And I am so ecstatic to be here and incredibly blessed to have this opportunity to bring more love, acceptance and fire to this holy land within us all.
Deema Dabis can be reached at . Visit her Web blog or the Olive Tree Circus Web page.