It’s Inauguration Day in the United States, but just another Friday here in Jerusalem.  At Al-Quds University, it’s the final day of the semester break, so I’ve been squeezing in both preparation and pleasure in anticipation of the return to the university routine.

Earlier this week, I got my dose of Palestinian humor – or, to be more precise, Palestinian humor in its transnational Palestinian-American form.

Amer Zahr

Two of my students, Shadi Salameh and Helda Ereqat, invited me and Maggie to go with them to see Amer Zahr, who grew up in Michigan but who is “from from” Nazareth.  (“The soldier asked me where I’m from.  I said Michigan.  He said, “No, where are you from from?”)  Zahr performed at a cultural center in the Shekh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem above the popular Gallery Café.  The place was packed, and expectations were high.  Zahr performed in English, but with a generous smattering of Arabic and local references.  The good news was that Shadi and Helda scored us seats in the front row.  That was the bad news too, as it made it very easy for Zahr to pick me out as one of the few Americans in the crowd.  He asked me my name, engaged me in conversation, and proceeded to hammer me every few minutes throughout the show every time he wanted to make fun of white Americans.  (This is something of a family tradition.  My late father David also tended to get picked on at these events.  Ask my mother about the time that Penn and Teller called him up on stage!)  Anyway, Zahr was an equal opportunity offender – making fun of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians themselves in equal measure, performing with just enough edge that he could score laughs by apologizing to a woman in a hijab in the front row every time that he used a swear word or mentioned beer.  The routines often skewered Palestinian grandiosity (“Independence Park?  In Ramallah?  Who do they think they’re kidding?”); others, which pinched a little deeper, focused on the humiliations of Tel Aviv airport security (“The guy who strip-searched me? . .  Do you think his mother believes that this is a GOOD job?”).  Zahr even took out an oud and performed a couple of Arabic love songs in literal translation (“The air . . . There’s so much air around us .. . “), to the general hilarity of the crowd who actually knew the lyrics word-for-word in the original.  Of course Zahr’s position was delicate.  He got a lot of points from the crowd in proclaiming his loyalty to Palestine, but as a visitor from the diaspora he doesn’t experience the day-to-day challenges here, and his (English!) routines subtly reflected his awareness of his privilege.  His stage persona aptly captured the light-hearted side of Palestinian pessimism and self-absorption, while at the same time keeping a streak of anger running just below the surface.

Over the course of four days over the break, the students and I worked to clean and re-organize the American Studies library in the Faculty of Arts.  Built over 15 years by Drs. Mohammed and Munther Dajani, the library has thousands of volumes, many of them treasures of American history, literature, philosophy, and political science.  But the library was suffering from lack of attention in recent years.  Books had migrated from their original categories, and miscellaneous donations had begun to give the collection a miscellaneous flavor.  So we went to work.  We shipped hundreds of books about non-American subjects across campus to the library of AQ/Bard College, giving us space to work with and allowing us to re-sort the collection by subject matter – and, to some extent, by course.  (More on my spring 2017 classes in the next post.)   After four days of volunteer labor, I’m pleased to report that the room and shelves are free of dust, we have removed excess furniture, and tomorrow we will replace the horrid orange curtain with professionally-installed room-darkening shades, both to improve the look of room and to enable better-quality projection of power point presentations and films. 

The view from the American Studies classroom window

More importantly, I now know the collection well enough to match books to my students’ interests . . and also to know the gaps in the collection that I need to fill in the coming year.  (No books yet about Barack Obama, for example  . . and believe it or not, not a single book devoted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)  Plus there’s now a little more room to breathe . . so it will be a pleasure to start second semester there.

Yesterday, I took a day away from second-semester preparation to sneak away to the city that Israelis know as Hebron and Palestinians call Khalil.  One of my students, Fadi Abu Shanab lives in a nearby village and works in the city.  I drove down with Fadi’s cousin Sinan Abu Shanab, an AQU graduate whom I have known for many years and who now works with the Our Generation Speaks program at Brandeis.  It was my first visit to Khalil, the largest city on the West Bank and also in many ways the most contentious.  In the international press, Hebron is known as a flashpoint for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of the many settlements around the city and the famous settlement right in the heart of the Old City.  More on that in a minute . . . but Fadi and Sinan were at pains to introduce me to the Palestinian Khalil, a city of energy and tradition, with its own very distinct character within Palestinian society (and outside of the Israeli-Palestinian context).   Khalilis have a very distinct reputation within Palestine: they’re known for their hustling entrepreneurship (opening a shop is a kind of rite of passage), but they are also the butt of many jokes around the region for their thick skin and sometimes their thick-headedness.  Our first stop in the city was to a famous glass-blowing factory with a spectacular shop full of vases, bowls, and tiles.

Outside the glass factory

We visited Fadi’s office – a small technology firm called “Trusted Systems,” which has been serving clients in the region since 1999.  To the extent that Palestine has a start-up culture (ok, that extent is not as great as it might be), it’s centered in Khalil; Fadi represents a younger generation of Palestinians dedicated to building on local ingenuity while making connections across borders.

Fadi Abu Shanab at his office at Trusted Systems.


Later, we went down to the Old City, starting in the thriving hub of the marketplace, with vegetable stalls and clothing stores laden with goods, crowded together, and filled with shopped.  We walked down the narrow street, with walls rising on either side above the stalls.  At a certain point, the open sky above us began to be covered by a wire screen, sometimes draped with large pieces of cloth.  We were entering the borderland between Palestinian Khalil and Israeli Hebron.  We were talking through the Palestinian street below, while the homes of the Israeli settlers hovered on either side above.  The screens served as a minimal barrier to conflict, which have often erupted when Israelis rained projectiles down from above, and sometimes when Palestinians hurled objects from below.  As we proceeded further down the street, the busy stalls began to give way to closed doors, and the street became gradually quieter and quieter.  During the second intifada this whole thoroughfare had been closed to commerce.  The upper end away from the settlement, where we began our walk, has recovered.  But the stores down in the heart of the conflict zone have, by-and-large remained closed.

Passing through a pedestrian checkpoint at the end of the street, we came to the grand structure that houses the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, known in English as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Fadi and Sinan at the window to Sarah’s tomb.

This site, holy to both Muslims and Jews, is shared in a delicate arrangement with entirely separate entrances, separate windows onto the elaborate tombs themselves, and understandably tight security – since this was the site of one of the tragic incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein.  Our visit there was calm; a group of Turkish tourists joined us . .. It must mean something, I suppose, that Khalil can still host any tourists at all.

I then passed through another checkpoint to enter the Jewish settlement itself.  Fadi, holding Palestinian identification was not allowed to pass.  We tried to talk Sinan past the Israeli soldiers on the strength of his American accent in English and the fact that he is a colleague of mine at Brandeis . . . but we failed, so I strolled through the neighborhood settlement on my own.  After the high energy of downtown Khalil, the heart of Jewish Hebron was eerily quiet, long-closed Arab stores boarded over with signs that gave the Jewish version of the history of the city.  A handful of residents came in and out on foot or by car, the men’s kippot, so ordinary a sight in Jerusalem, a bit of a surprise in this environment.  At the end of Shuhada Street, another heavily fortified pedestrian checkpoint brought me suddenly back into a busy automobile roundabout with vendors shouting in Arabic at customers and at each other.

Fadi and Sinan took me to a delicious lunch in the newer part of Khalil, where I sampled several local specialties, including the famous lamb’s neck.  And then I had a chance to spend a few relaxed hours with Fadi’s family in the village of Shuyukh, a few miles outside of the city.  I was full of admiration again for Fadi’s juggling act:  a six-day per week job in Hebron, a family with two children under five, and three Master’s classes in American Studies an hour’s drive or more from home . . . and, like all of my students, in the context of the disruptions of Palestinian daily life on the roadways and in the warp and woof of everyday activities.

And after today . . .the second semester will begin . . with our instant analysis of the inaugural address and proceedings in our class on “Leadership in American Life.”  We shall see . . .