Monday, May 24, 2010


Posted by Harriet Malinowitz
May 23, 2010
I am writing this way after the fact; my trip to Palestine was April 27-May 6, but I had no time then (nor have I had any time since, flying back into the intensity of end-of-semester work) to sit down and write about it in any way that would feel meaningful to me. Hopefully, the most salient thoughts and memories will remain with me. And to facilitate matters, I’m going to do this in several installments.
First: the main purpose of my trip was to attend the Sumud and the Wall conference at Bethlehem University, April 30-May 2, where I was to give a paper. (More on that in due course, in a future installment.) It was a crazy time for me to be going: the end of the semester is chaotic, and because I’d have to be back for grading, meetings, etc., I couldn’t take more than a week. Even that was stretching it, especially because as of this year I have administrative responsibilities directing the Writing Center as well. But less than a week seemed insane, and I felt a huge need to go. Nobody at work has complained—not even the Provost who generously funded my flight. She’s great. Always has been. And a bunch of six wonderful Writing Center tutors—grad students in English—who I’ve been training all semester to lead student writing groups valiantly led my final classes. Praise be to all of them.
As always, given the far-flung nature of people in my life that I’m emotionally close to despite their utter lack of geographical proximity, I tried to creatively construct this trip to incorporate meetings with some old human relations. First, I flew Turkish Airlines, which promised to give me a seven-hour layover in Istanbul, where I could meet one of my all-time most beloved ex-grad students, Handan, for a brief visit between flights. We planned this carefully, but alas, my flight was delayed three hours. Nonetheless, Handan and her brother, Farooq, stayed informed and were there to whisk me into the Old City for a whirlwind visit to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia before whisking me back for my connecting flight. The best part, of course, was just getting to talk to them in the car. I hadn’t seen Handan in four years, since she’d left LIU to go back to Istanbul, though we’ve emailed lots and lots over those years. (The worst part was looking out the window at the lovely shops we passed with gorgeous Turkish rugs and ceramics, and not being able to browse through them. Heartbreak!)
I have to take a detour from the main purpose of this blog to say something about Handan and one important thing she’s taught me. She is a very spiritual Muslim—albeit in her own special way, which includes having lots of gay friends, a love of American literature (especially Paul Auster), a penchant for attending NYC poetry slams, and a tendency to include some rather profane language in her own fabulous writing. She also has terrific politics and a very complicated, sometimes tormented way of looking at things, so that, even though I am quite blatantly an American Jewish lesbian atheist, it has always seemed quite natural to relate to each other as kindred spirits. (She is now 30, and is totally the daughter I would have wanted if I’d ever wanted to have kids. Unfortunately, you can’t have them fully grown, or it would be delightful.)
But back to that thing I learned from her: as some of the readers of this blog may know, though others may not, Turkey is not only a secular country, but is in many ways one that is rather coercively, repressively so. (This despite the election of the Muslim government that supposedly spelled doom for “Western values” and “freedom” there last year.) Handan—who bursts with far-ranging intellectual curiosity as well as literary acumen and creative passion—after getting her M.F.A. in creative writing at LIU in Brooklyn, hoped to go on for a Ph.D. But back in Turkey, in order to enter a university or get many sorts of jobs—especially interesting ones—one is required to remove one’s headscarf. This she refused to do. This is, sadly, also the state of affairs for many other bright, motivated, ambitious young women there. (Turkey is almost as bad as France at this juncture. The fact that much of this is justified in the name of “feminism” is especially infuriating. Of course, it’s considered perfectly fine to leave non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian feminists unconsulted on the matter—which makes sense, since many consider “Muslim feminist” to be an oxymoron, though it most definitely is not. But as with so many things in this world, ignorance tends to triumph over rationality, rationalizations over genuine explanations, and the pseudo-progressive over the carefully thought-out, reflected-upon progressive.)
Ironically—or perhaps not—Handan experienced her two years in New York as liberating, a hiatus from anti-headscarf and anti-religious discrimination. I do remember her telling me, with some amusement, when she lived here, that she was aware that, for many people, she functioned as a metaphor for conservatism. I’m sure that was true (though, knowing her, I also found it rather hilarious). At the same time, she is one of those people I think of as a true New Yorker—that is, that very intense sort that doesn’t really fit in anywhere else, and that revels in the sheer multiplicity of ways of being that exist, and are accepted in, and often manage to crazily meld together in, New York. She’s written some gorgeous stuff since then about NYC, and the ways that it is so radically different from the rest of the US—“a republic of its own.” (I totally agree. This is why I always feel that New York City is my “homeland.”) Still, there were family pressures to return to Istanbul, as well as an attachment to the familiarity of “home,” however much one may feel alienated from many of its elements. So back she went, back into the contradictions of life there. (There were, of course, contradictions to life here, too: NYC may be wonderful, but it is also very easy to feel lonely and unanchored and invisible in it). I think many of my expat NY people who have moved on to other places experience a visit with me as a fleeting interlude of New Yorkiness—the New Yorkiness that is always inside them, too, but that they have to keep mostly on the back burner as they live their lives in places like northern Michigan, southern California, Bogota—at least, that’s sort of what they convey.
Anyway, we did talk about this as we dashed into town and back. Farooq was also interested in my imminent trip to Palestine, and my views about the realities there. Handan wrote to me afterward that he was very surprised to hear an American espouse such ideas; he too, apparently, has strong feelings about Palestine. I think he was also a little startled at my carrying on—in my loudmouthed, New York Jewish way—about the stupidity of the headscarf laws, and the ways they completely misinterpret and skew the notion of “separation of church (or whatever) and state”—especially considering my rather flagrantly atheistic identity. But Handan seemed to feel it was good for him, since he’s not much of a traveler, and needs more direct contact with people beyond the Bosphorus. And she said he smiled more than he usually does, so that’s good.
Back at the airport, security was nothing special until I got to the gate for the flight to Tel Aviv. It seemed to be a specially outfitted gate, with its own rites of passage. That was where I first got the questions about the purpose of my trip (“To visit relatives in Israel!” I said perkily), how long I’d been in Istanbul (“Two hours!”), whether I’d been in Israel before (“Oh, yes!”), etc. As with all security gates, you had to empty your water bottle before going through, but unlike most security gates, there was no water on the other side to be had during your wait to board. Apparently, keeping the passengers thirsty is a worthwhile trade-off when weighed against the dangers of the anti-Israel potions one might concoct using the Turkish water supply.
Entering Israel, I found that all my well-rehearsed explanations for things were unneeded; I was just waved right through. I had emailed to myself my conference paper and all conference materials—as the conference organizers had advised against taking any of this through immigration and customs at Ben Gurion Airport, and against letting it be known in any way that I’d be visiting the West Bank—though they also acknowledged that “tourism” was a lame explanation for why one would fly there for just a few days—and I’d bought a concise guide to Hebrew to accompany my concise guide to Arabic (I’d slacked off with the latter and wanted to be able to practice on the flight over). However, I did have a bag bulging with children’s clothes that Noura (some of you know Noura, who teaches Arabic and lives in Kingston) had asked me to bring to East Jerusalem or the West Bank (this had been slashed by security back in NY, and arrived taped-up), and a planned story about how my US Jewish relatives had left this stuff for years in my attic at home, and now wanted me to bring it for the littlest relatives in Israel…..I even thought about what the little Israelis might be named, in case anybody asked, and had made inquiries about relatives I hadn’t seen in decades but now had under-five grandchildren. But thankfully, nobody asked me anything, as I’m not good at that sort of thing.
I was greeted quite rudely by the group taxi driver at the airport—I think you’re supposed to find this rudeness part of the Sabra charm—and after the taxi filled up, we drove to West Jerusalem (all the stops were in West Jerusalem) over roads that I found unrecognizable. (I’d last been there in 1984.) Despite all the well-worn truisms about globalization, it’s still always a shock to see how much of the world looks just like the place you’ve left. Once in Jerusalem, it did look more Jerusalemy—the white, chiseled limestone buildings, the hills—and finally, I was dropped at my cousin’s house.



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