Archive for the ‘By Sarah Saffian’ Category


May 2, 2010

Thoughts upon returning home (for this writer, home = Brooklyn, New York, United States):

As I did my damndest to leave all expectation at the border, I was surprised to discover the difference between Jerusalem and Fes for me: while both cities were impactful and fascinating, I experienced Jerusalem intellectually and Fes emotionally. Jerusalem ignited my mind, while Fes moved me to tears. Cerebral versus sensual. Head versus heart.

Re. the beginner’s mind:
Kaz: “finding ease in the chaos”
Gary: “finding joy in the humility”
Ognjen: “decolonizing our idea of a strange place”
Eddin: “how are we different from tourists, if at all?”
Carol: “If I hosted someone from Morocco in Illinois, what would I show her?”

Borrowing again from Susan Orlean:
“To be honest, I view all stories as journeys. Journeys are the essential text of the human experience—the journey from birth to death, from innocence to wisdom, from ignorance to knowledge, from where we start to where we end. There is almost no piece of important writing…that isn’t explicitly or implicitly the story of a journey.”

My first stop back in Brooklyn was to our local independent bookstore, seeking a Moroccan cookbook. I chose a lovely little volume with colorful photos, simply called Tagine, by Ghillie Basan. I then headed to the best Middle Eastern grocery store in town, Sahadi’s, on Atlantic Avenue, to purchase ingredients like fresh ginger, saffron, cracked green olives, preserved lemons (for which I thanked the salesperson in Arabic: shokran). But my favorite ingredient: the recipe called for the “freshly squeezed juice of one lemon,” and I realized that I had one from Aziz Bousfiha’s organic garden still in my suitcase (don’t tell the folks at JFK customs). Plucked from a tree in Fes, and, perhaps 30 hours later, squeezed into a chicken tagine in Brooklyn.

We’ll get back to Jerusalem and Fes, and reunite with our new, far-flung friends, one day—insha’Allah, g-d willing. Meantime, some storytelling of the non-verbal variety (click on the photo to access the whole album). Salaam!



Immersion Journalism: More on the hidden and the open

April 25, 2010

So, as it turned out, dropping trou at the Tel Aviv airport was nothing compared to what happened next. Yesterday we went to a women’s hammam, public bathhouse, with local Muslim women. Mounia, a relatively modern young lady—recently divorced, fluent in English, which she teaches to high school students—and two of her close friends brought three of us to a neighborhood place, nothing fancy, the real deal—that is, for Fes natives, not for tourists. I was grateful and honored for a peek inside this intimate space. Like the musician friends at the barbecue at Said’s house back in East Jerusalem (was that really only five days earlier? what is it about travel that both contracts and expands time, so that the trip flies by and it also feels as if we’ve been here forever?)—these women were doing what they’d do anyway on a Saturday afternoon, and we were lucky enough to be there for it. But no fly on the wall here: while I wasn’t impacting the situation around me much, I was fully participating. I was less obtrusive, in fact, than if I’d stood on the side, fully clothed, notebook in hand, and merely observed.

Mounia told me that women tend to go to the bathhouse once a week, for 10 dirham (a little over a dollar) a visit. Older women often go in the morning, to cleanse themselves before visiting the mosque. The hammam is a wild, playful (if with others) or businesslike (if alone) affair, not at all the serene, spa-like atmosphere you might expect. I myself went in with no expectations, eager for my beginner’s mind to be surprised. Mind-blowing was more like it.

What struck me most, of course, was the utter lack of self-consciousness among these women from such an extremely modest culture. Mounia and her cronies stripped off their many layers with impressive swiftness and assurance, their nudity frank, a non-issue; here, in this safe, all-female space, there was a complete physical freedom, a luxury they didn’t experience the outside. I, by contrast, am completely comfortable walking down the street in Brooklyn in the summertime wearing a tank top and shorts (even passing New York Muslim women in their full hijab and pitying them in the heat), but here, told to strip down to my underwear in front of women I’d just met, felt initially shy, accustomed as I am to private ablutions. But the women’s warmth and humor quickly put me at ease. In this hidden place, a woman could at last be open.

We sat on the floor in a large tiled room, buckets of hot water and plastic scoops lined up before us. I looked around at the other women there: young and old, toned and flabby, some with perky breast buds, others with pendulous bosoms swaying near their waists. One pregnant woman sat and shaved herself. Another woman brushed her teeth. Another had brought her little son (Mounia explained that the cut-off age for male children in hammams is around six) and daughter (who was totally nude), and another an infant, wailing as water was poured over him, his squirming body slippery pink. Mounia and friends proceded to wash us—again, not gentle Swedish-massage style but vigorously, like women cleaning the walls or windows, or clothing on a ribbed washboard. Slathered with a traditional soap called beldi, made from virgin black olive oil, to prepare the skin for exfoliation. Then scrubbed with a rough sandpapery mitten—arms, legs, stomach, face—and feet with a pumice stone. Shampooed and brushed roughly with a prickly comb, head yanked back from the force of it. Massaged all over with henna mud. And scoops upon scoops of hot water, the last round with flower petals—rose, bergamot—all coming suddenly, without warning, in a crazy cascade. A hammam is not for relaxation, it’s to get clean, and to embrace community. Through all the scrubbing, we chatted, laughed, connected in the most natural female way, the bizarre (to me) situation rapidly growing less so. It was intimate, but really in no way sensual, but rather matter-of-fact. And out of that lack of elusiveness, that straightforward revelation, that laid-bare-ness—external and internal, literal and figurative—came the freedom.

After patting ourselves dry, I dressed quickly in my jeans and shirt I’d bought that morning in the souk (my luggage still at large), and then watched Mounia dress more slowly, for all the layers. First her underwear and bra. Then white cotton leggings and a black and white striped long-sleeved t-shirt. Then her shalwar kameez, tunic top and matching pants. Then her hooded, ankle-length jalaba. Last, her head scarf; she went to the one mirror in the place and wrapped it carefully around her head. I’d seen this woman naked, her long black hair wet and unraveled as she expertly flicked the scoop of water to rinse out her shampoo, and now she was covered again, hair and body restored to their usual invisibility, ready to leave this women’s sanctuary and head back into the outer world.

The rest of the afternoon, my skin felt firm and supple, and softer than it ever had before. Internally, I felt great affection for Mounia, a perhaps inordinate closeness considering the short time we’d spent together. She seemed to feel the same. After gathering with many other female friends and relatives at one of their apartments for sweet mint tea, where her mother was making bergamot orange water from scratch, it was time to say goodbye. “Please return. You are always welcome here,” she said after we’d exchanged e-mails, both of us getting teary-eyed (as I am now again, writing this, so touched by her warmhearted generosity, opening her hidden world to us, sharing with us in this way). “Please know that you always have a sister here.”

This morning, my bath alone in my private bathroom in the riad, despite the Argan oil I added to the water, was very uninteresting and a bit lonely by comparison.


April 24, 2010

Holy Allah in a pita pocket, is it hard to leave Israel. Not just because it’s fascinating and after a mere three days you’re yearning to soak up more. I mean it’s literally tough to get out of the country. Security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was a surreal, two-and-a-half hour experience. Every single item, in both my to-be-checked suitcase and my carry-on bags was removed, handled, scrutinized, and swabbed with a wand. (I would have folded with greater care had I known another set of eyes would bear witness to my exploding luggage.) Unfortunately, the side pocket where I’d shoved my laundry was an area of especial interest, earning about four go-throughs. Then there was the body check, in a private curtained booth. My personal security woman (who was very young, and businesslike, but quite pleasant throughout our time together) passed the wand over me thoroughly, then patted me down, then ran her plastic-gloved fingers through my hair, and then finally, in order to confirm that it was indeed just my metal zipper and not some intimately stashed bomb or drugs setting the wand screeching, politely asked me to pull down my jeans. Hey, she didn’t even take me out for a drink first.

The irony: After all that painstaking attention paid to my belongings, they failed to arrive in Morocco along with me. But the next morning, as I sat to a breakfast spread in Fes—the name refers to a pickaxe of silver and gold that the founder of the city used to trace its outlines, back in the 8th century—sipping strong coffee and gazing up at the skylight and tiles and intricate stone latticework and painted wood carvings adorning the atrium of the riad, all at once, incongruously and wonderfully, Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got the World on a String” softly piped in. (Of all the gin joints in the world…no wait, that was Humphrey Bogart. And Casablanca. But still, Frank somehow was an oddly appropriate petit dejeuner accompaniment.)

Soon after, we hit the medina in Fes el Bali, winding down several of the labyrinthine 9,500 alleyways. Fes is to Marrakech what Jerusalem is to Tel Aviv—soul versus glitz. The multilingual street signs now featured French instead of Hebrew, along with the Arabic and English. With the smell of cloves and cumin singing in my nostrils, the taste of chickpea cake on my tongue, calls of “Balak!” warning of donkeys trying to pass ringing through the air, babouches and kélims beckoning (“I have a very romantic price,” lured one tout), and hands of Fatima everywhere doing their part to ward off evil spirits, I found myself blissed out nearly to tears. And the lost luggage was forgotten, or at least, forgiven. I would buy some Argan oil and camomile/lavender essential oil to keep me smelling fresh and feeling moisturized until my toiletries found their way to me.

From writer and traveler Susan Orlean:
“I love the jolt you get from travel. I love the freshness and surprise of being in a new place, the way it makes even the ordinary things seem extraordinary and strange. It makes me feel extra-alive.”

(Point of interest: While I longed to photograph the people, most don’t want their picture taken, because they believe that it steals their soul; you have to request permission first. I asked one elderly man standing in a doorway, the afternoon slant of yellow sunlight hitting his face, and he waved his hand and shook his head—calmly, as if he’d been asked this before, but firmly. Similar to the buildings being so ornate on the inside, but plain on the outside—because the spirit is considered more important than the appearance.)

(Also: The last photo below is called a “harem window”—women can look out without being seen. More on the hiddenness of women in my next post.)

Yella, allons-y—let’s go.


Hand of Fatima—closed, like an olive branch, Tunisian influence

Shrine to Moulay Idriss (great-grandson of Prophet Mohammed and founder of Fes)

Variations on captivity: cages, walls, and seams

April 21, 2010

Issa Feij, Said Murad

In a conversation with musician Said Murad and his dear friend Issa Feij, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, it was suggested that the Israeli/Palestinian divide was akin to looking at each other like animals in the zoo. “Yes,” Said responded, “but we’re animals outside the zoo.” So the bars are up, but it’s being outside of them that’s captivity. Or is it? Do the barriers keep others out or trap those within?

Issa, a Palestinian who grew up in the Old City back when there were no settlements there (now there are three in his parents’ neighborhood), has a different kind of wall, an emotional one that he erects himself, a wall of deflection, in order to preserve his spirit. “I don’t want to think about what I lost. I try to avoid the bad things happening in Jerusalem,” he said cheerfully, but with a weary sadness around his eyes, one lanky leg entwined around the other. “I look somewhere else—it could be music, it could be writing.” When asked if he has Jewish friends, he said, “of course,” and mentioned that he once had an Israeli girlfriend. “It wasn’t about politics,” he stressed, “it was about us.”

Amal Alqasem

Contrastingly, Amal Alqasem, president of the Women’s Forum of Sheikh Jarrah, activist for Palestinian rights, Bulgarian-educated economics professor, mother of four who walks tall in her pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes, has no such wall of avoidance—unable to look somewhere else, because the wall of conflict is too concrete. She meets it head-on daily in her fractured neighborhood, where Israelis claiming that the land is rightfully theirs evict Palestinian families, who then live in tents directly outside their former homes—in their adversaries’ faces, no actual wall separating them while the metaphorical wall looms large—as “a symbol of residence, refusing the decision of the Israeli government.” Her organization offers Palestinian women legal advice, courses in administrative planning and current politics, media training—to “support the personality of the woman.”

Amal’s house, where she was born in 1960, where a bomb exploded seven years later, where both her parents died, and where eviction could come at any moment, is, simply and crucially, “my home.” And Jerusalem is her home. But since the second Intifada of 2000-2001, it hasn’t been the home of her husband, a Ramallah native who is therefore forbidden to reside in Jerusalem. They could live as a family in Ramallah, but for reasons both practical (schools, health care, identification card) and of principle, Amal makes the personal sacrifice of living apart, with weekend visits, in order to maintain her claim to Jerusalem. “I was born here. I played here,” she insists, her voice accelerating angrily, the embroidered Palestinian flag pendant around her neck bouncing. “But now, we are under occupation, from head to leg. It is not a life.”

Walking distance but a world away from Sheikh Jarrah is the Museum on the Seam. The “socio-political contemporary art museum” is currently featuring “HomeLess Home,” showcasing the work of artists—photographers, sculptors, videographers—from all over the world, including Israel and Palestine. The piece that most struck me was Israeli videographer Guli Silberstein’s “Excerpt,” a clip from a news segment, slowed down and magnified, of a Palestinian family just evicted from their home, seeking shelter behind a wall—this time an actual rather than a metaphysical wall, to protect not just the spirit, but the body, as well—in their street-turned-battlefield. Hauntingly, and to the distorted tune of gunfire, we see a young boy running toward the camera and first smiling as he’s swept up into his father’s arms, then beginning to scream—slowly, silently—as his father tenderly covers his mouth.

Museum on the Seam

Curator Raphie Etgar invited 20 Palestinian artists to participate in the exhibition but just five are, and on the condition that the museum obtain their work through indirect means—local work was sold and shipped to European collectors, only to be bought and transported back, in a sort of art laundering maneuver—for fear of being ostracized by their Palestinian artist communities. But I wonder if the artists who declined the invitation shared that with their communities, to point out both the prestige of the invitation and their sense of honor in declining it? What does Issa, for instance, think of the Museum on the Seam, and would he have participated? (I’ve asked, and will post an update.) The museum got its name from sitting right on the dividing line between the two Jerusalems. But doesn’t a seam, unlike bars of a cage or a wall, connect disparate pieces—as with fabric—rather than dividing them?

Postscript: At a dinner party in Ramallah—a word, I’ve noticed, said always with a strong, lingering emphasis on the second syllable, the “L” suspended as the tip of the tongue caresses the palate—I looked around and realized that everyone present, except for three of us visiting from the U.S. and Canada, was a man. Where are the women? I wondered. I thought of Amal, her fortitude and courage, her desire for her younger daughter, ten-year-old Aliza—named after the determined queen of Tunis—to be a doctor. I thought of Amal’s fire. After dinner, stopped at the checkpoint back into Jerusalem, we encountered a different sort of woman: a girl, really, still in her teens, pretty and fresh. Her high ponytail of sleek brown hair swayed as she strolled up to our car, her eyes bright, her air casual, even playful. She glanced over our passports, passed them back through the window, smirked, and sauntered away, permitting us entry into the Holy City. A normal girl, except for the fatigues sitting low on slim hips and the M-16 diagonally strapped across her narrow frame. Nazmi Ju’beh’s checkpoint story came to mind, him pitying the soldier standing in the rain outside his car. Was this pretty, gun-slinging teenager in power? Keeping others out, or keeping herself captive? “When you feel safe,” Said had observed, “you’re open. When you feel threatened, you’re closed.”

Amal's daughter Aliza in front of a Palestinian house post-eviction


April 20, 2010

Yesterday in Jerusalem, with artist Sary Zananiri’s words “tabula rasa of the external” as my guide—beginner’s mind, fly on the wall—I watched and I listened. But is observing without expectation possible? And is it possible not to impact what you’re observing?

During our walking tour of the Old City with Dr. Nazmi Ju’beh, a delightful and astute professor, archeologist, and director of the architectural conservationist organization Riwaq, we talked a lot about identity. Nazmi, a 55-year-old Jerusalem native, has no passport. Though he was born here, because he is Palestinian he is a resident, not a citizen. “We’re equal in taxation, but not in rights,” he explained as he walked and smoked, keen brown eyes gentle but flashing. “I’m many identities: Palestinian, Mediterranean, Muslim. Don’t force me into just one.”

Israeli soldier (left) and Hassidim (right) at the Dome of the Rock

Evidence of the mosaic often used as a metaphor to describe Jerusalem, and its people, was everywhere. During a stop for coffee at hospice run by Austrian nuns, the midday Muslim prayer was blast over loudspeakers from mosques all over the city. Nazmi, the sixth of 11 children and himself the father of two grown daughters and a son, is a product of his hybrid environment. “I was born in the middle of Jerusalem to a Muslim family, growing up with Armenian and Christian neighbors,” he said by way of illustrating how the so-called Quarters of the Old City—Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian—are in fact not as segregated as all that.

But regarding the emotional and psychological “line” between Israelis and Palestinians, Nazmi said, smiling and nodding, “you can’t see it, but you can feel it.” He told a story of approaching a checkpoint from Ramallah into Jerusalem one recent rainy night. “There I was, comfortable in my car, listening to classical music and smoking a cigarette, and through the window I saw an Israeli soldier: eighteen years old, carrying an M-16, rain streaking down his face, shaking—from the cold? from fear?—and, I thought, crying. I was the ‘occupied’ and he was the ‘occupier,’ and yet. I couldn’t help but see my son in him. And after I drove through the checkpoint, I pulled over, and I cried, too.”

Nazmi referred to what he called “the problem of my belonging.” But in stories like this and throughout the day, greeting friends around every cobblestoned corner, strolling into his brother’s spice shop,

Nazmi and his brother at the spice shop

he was firmly and confidently planted in a personal, social, and cultural identity—despite his hybridity, his lack of country. Same with the Palestinians gathered last night at the home of musician Said Murad, director of the Sabreen Association for Artistic Development. A barbecue seemed strangely fitting on Israeli Independence Day to this American—strangely because, as one Palestinian young woman said archly, “the Palestinians have a different name for the day—the word is Arabic for ‘catastrophe.’” Nonetheless, the mood at Said’s was lively and festive. Over succulent lamb burgers, salad garnished with fragrant basil, and plenty of Tzora red wine, and as Said and his friends played their ouds and drums and sang in the backyard,

Said (far right) and friends

the identity of this community was vibrantly intact. There was no problem of their belonging. And with “Ahlan!” that all-purpose phrase of welcome warmly ringing through the air, we outsiders were invited to belong, for an evening, too. But unlike the Old City—tainted by the self-conscious awareness of being watched, with its countless stalls hawking cheap commemorative wares (the world is clearly divided into people who want their leather satchel to be stamped with “Jerusalem” and people who don’t) paving the teeming tourists’ way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—here, in a backyard in an East Jerusalem home, life went on, easily and honestly, just as it would have if we hadn’t been there.

From the psychic friends network dept

April 18, 2010

Just as I’m en route to this marketplace des idées, I receive from a friend/fellow writer a link to an article about the unfortunate tendency of some folks to try to “relate” to everything new they encounter—or, more troublingly, to try to make the strange new things relate to them. I find it curious when tourists—as opposed to travelers, and herein lies the distinction—search for what’s familiar in a foreign place, or endeavor to make the place fit their idea of what’s “right.”

This article reminds me to strive mightily to be a traveler along this adventure—revving up my “beginner’s mind,” that is, not letting prejudgment and expectation obscure my powers of in-the-moment observation; or put another way, doing my damndest to emulate Lillian Ross, once described by Irving Wallace as “one of the most creative innocent bystanders of our time.”

My favorite bit of the article, from naturalist Edward Abbey: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there…We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”

Looking forward to being present

April 16, 2010

In yoga class this morning, my last before heading out tomorrow, the dharma talk was about the Buddhist principles of impermanence and egolessness. My teacher and dear friend read this apt observation from Pema Chodron: “Every moment is unique, unknown, and completely fresh.” Making that my mantra for the Souk Ukaz.