Saturday, April 17, 2010

Palestinians in Jordan: Refugee camps and one spectacular view

I’m finally finished with a nice, long research paper (in Arabic!) and some trip planning, alhamdullilah. Eight days of classes left.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I had the unbelievable opportunity to visit three Palestinian refugee camps in and around Amman in the company of top officials at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which oversees education, health care, social services and other aid to millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (thanks, Uncle Frank!). UNRWA mainly dispenses services to Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 who live in the aforementioned areas, a third of whom reside in 58 refugee camps.

Jordan treats its refugees very well relative to other host governments: those who fled to the West or East Banks of the Jordan River in 1948 and/or to the East Bank in 1967 enjoy full citizenship and rights here; as a result, about 50 to 70 percent of Jordan’s population consists of ethnic Palestinians. While Jordan is home to about 40 percent of Palestinian refugees (1.9 million), only 17 percent of Palestinians here live in the country’s 13 camps.

In a very official-looking, white UN van flanked by two white UN SUVs, our group of about six headed out to south Amman camp that I think was founded in 1967 (I forgot its name, but upon Googling, it appears that it might have been Wihdat, described below). There, we saw a dark, crumbling secondary school in which hundreds of girls studied in tiny classrooms so packed that the teachers often couldn’t walk through the aisles. A rented accommodation, the school was typical of many UNRWA facilities in which landlords are unwilling to address the poor state of the building they rent. While we were in the school’s small computer lab, a (really gutsy) girl jumped up in front of us and launched into a speech about how much she appreciated the school and how she was worried because she had heard UNRWA was cutting programs (not true).

Next, we vanned it over to nearby Wihdat (or maybe just somewhere in the same camp), a massive ’48 camp that is home to a one-year-old girls elementary school that sat in shocking contrast to the old facility we had just visited. The German government-funded school, owned by UNRWA, featured a science club, handrails alongside the stairs, a troop of singing girls serving coffee and snacks and – most noticeably – a ton of light. The site visit was meant to show us the difference between UNRWA-owned and rented facilities.

We got a different taste of the problems UNRWA faces in Jordan after a 30-minute drive south of Amman, at Al-Talibiyah Camp near Amman’s international airport. Wide, open farmland all of the sudden ends at the densely populated area surrounding the camp; the camp itself, founded in 1967, houses about 8,000 refugees in even tighter accommodations. We learned from a long presentation on the camp’s surprisingly advanced and professional urban development program that the camp’s isolated location is perhaps the greatest challenge to increasing its stagnant level of business.

Most Talibiyah refugees camp from Beersheba, now in southern Israel, and Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Interestingly, many camps consist largely of refugees from a certain city or area; it’s like large chunks of cities picked up and transported themselves to various locales around Jordan, and have now been calling Jordanian cities and camps home for decades.

Touring two homes among the hundreds of living accommodations arranged on a military-barracks style grid with narrow alleys gave me my first glimpse into life in camp “shelters,” UNRWA’s apt label for the pathetic, falling-apart buildings that serve as housing for so many refugees. The homes featured corrugated, collapsing roofing; dripping water by exposed wiring; very little natural sunlight; lack of ventilation; and very little privacy.

A UNRWA official asked me if the day’s trip had brought me to “my first camps.” It had, but talking with him and the other officials opened my eyes to how well off the people in these camps were relative to those in places like Lebanon or Gaza. Jordan’s camps looked like other low-income sections of the country – the two in Amman just blended in with the rest of the neighborhoods – save for the fact that they were much more densely packed. But in Lebanon, the officials said, some camps are so cramped and built-up that you can walk through them without seeing any natural sunlight. They told me that Palestinians there are institutionally discriminated against, too, with around 72 professions blocked to them because they are prohibited from joining the professional unions.

The whole day was way more educational and interesting than classes (which I got out of), and I feel very lucky to have gone with such experienced and knowledgeable people. Sorry no photos accompany this post – it wouldn’t have been appropriate to take pictures.

Luckily, I did take tons of photos where I went the next day: Umm Qais, a beautiful, ruin-filled area located in the hills in the northwest corner of Jordan, right on the border with Israel and the Golan Heights. Palestinians come from all over Jordan to check out the view into their former homeland; Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee are extremely close and clearly visible. The place also has really cool bathrooms.

Restaurant with the best view in Jordan.

Checking out the Sea of Galilee with binoculars.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ali Baba and the Egyptian hagglers

Sunset over the Nile River.

I’m terribly sorry for the lack of new posts – I’ve had a busy few weeks, with spring break in Egypt and then a weeklong retreat in northern Jordan with my program. Egypt and Amman with my parents was excellent. Our basic itinerary follows:

Thursday, March 25: Ben flies to Cairo in the evening.

Friday, March 26: Coptic Cairo with Areebah and Flannery (from my program in Jordan), then train to Alexandria (2.5 hours) to meet Mike from Tufts and play backgammon with his Egyptian friends.

Saturday, March 27: Explore Alexandria, eat some of the best fish of my life, drink the unquestionably best mango juice of my life, etc. Train back to Cairo.

Aforementioned best fish of my life.

Mike and I wandered the alleys of Alexandria – one of his favorite Egyptian pastimes – and discovered a bunch of cool random stuff.

Colorful Alexandria.

Sunday, March 28: Explore Islamic Cairo, including walking through maybe eight mosques or so and wandering around random neighborhoods and then Khan al-Khalili, the tourist bazaar. Parents arrive. Switch from hostel in Downtown Cairo to a hotel that provides toilet paper (!) and a fully functional shower. Luxury! Watch a very underwhelming, but still cool, sound-and-light show at the Pyramids of Giza.

Monday, March 29: Pyramids of Giza (Great Pyramid, Sphinx, etc.), Pyramids of Saqqara (Step Pyramid) and Memphis (big statue of Ramses II, among other stuff). Overall, an epic day. Oh wait, then we went to a seder in Cairo. Egypt, the sequel. More on that at a later point.

Scarier than Cairo traffic.

Tuesday, March 30: Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo, Khan al-Khalili market, some other sites/activities I can’t remember offhand. Fly to Aswan, in southern Egypt (actually called Upper Egypt because of the flow of the Nile).

Wednesday, March 31: Happy Birthday, Dad! After sleeping on a cot of wooden planks, taxi with my parents to our Nile cruise ship. Using the ship as a base, tour the Unfinished Obelisk, which is exactly what it sounds like; the Aswan High Dam, otherwise known as the lamest tourist site ever; and Philae Island and its Nubian temple, significantly less lame. Birthday celebration for my dad at dinner.

Believe it or not, he’s actually dancing here. I think.

Thursday, April 1: Set sail at 3 a.m. down (or rather, up) the Nile. Stop at the Temple of Horus in Edfu and the Temple of Kom Ombo in Kom Ombo.

Friday, April 2: Luxor’s West and East Banks, including the Valley of the Kings and a bunch of tombs and monuments. Luxor and Karnak Temples. Very cool, but very hot. As our guide spoke, it was really clear that she was just translating from Arabic to English in her mind as she went on. On top of that, she’d constantly insert the word, “Whyyyy?” into sentences whenever she was explaining anything.

Saturday, April 3: All tombed- and templed-out. Instead, checked out Luxor’s tourist market, but first got taken by an enterprising horse-cart driver to a “new market” that was basically his friends’ store. Played backgammon in the real market. Saw the fancy Winter Palace hotel. Took a felucca (little passenger sailboat) ride on the Nile, then chilled on the cruise ship’s deck. Fly to Amman via Cairo.

The mercury hovered around 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit during our visit. Coincidentally, approximately 90 percent of horse-cart drivers and felucca captains we encountered tried to win us over with the joke, “Welcome to Alaska! Want a ride?” Their horses all seemed to be named “Ferrari” or “Rolls-Royce,” too…

Sunday, April 4: Arrive at hotel in Amman at 3 a.m. Tour the city: the Citadel, Hashem’s restaurant, Roman Amphitheater, the souk and Rainbow Street. Buy Dad a birthday present: a Jordanian keffiyeh (headdress).

Monday, April 5: Showed my parents the University of Jordan campus. Then we ate lunch with my host family! My parents met my host grandparents and extended host family (think the normal amount of food we eat, only doubled). Then, my mom and dad taxied down to Petra while I stayed in Amman.

Tuesday, April 6: I went to classes while my parents checked out Petra. They came back to Amman, where we ate dinner at an Iraqi restaurant; the main dish, grilled fish, took an hour to cook. Parents return home.

At the ruins of the Citadel, atop Jebel Qal’a (Citadel Hill).

The best part of Egypt, aside from the pyramids and ancient wonders and seeing my parents and stuff, was learning how to bargain for everything. Haggling is a way of life there, and every single quoted price is negotiable. It wasn’t uncommon for a shopkeeper to tell us a price around 200 Egyptian pounds (about $36.50) and for us to get it down to something like 40. Another time, a kid told me three little Pharaonic figurines (say that five times fast) cost 500, but he eventually dropped it down to 40. Many Western tourists hate the constant struggle and lengthy process that accompanies nearly every purchase in Egypt, with the uncertain time commitment and the ever-present, creeping feeling that, no matter what, you’re still getting ripped off. But I absolutely loved it, and speaking Arabic undoubtedly helped a ton.

Without further ado, I present to you my tried-and-true Six Easy Steps for Paying What You Want (Kinda) in Egypt:

  1. Research the price beforehand. Consult Lonely Planet guidebook and ask disinterested observers. It’s often difficult to trust anyone, though, considering everyone seems to have a friend or a cousin who is a taxi driver or shop owner to whom they want to send you and your money.
  2. Ask the shop owner the price. Shop owner tells you something like 150, but you know the price is 35. Look incredulous. Call the price/shop/shop owner some combination of “expensive,” “crazy” and “wrong.” Act like the owner put you off, start to look off into the distance for other stores, other crappy Pyramid figurines, other stuffed camels, etc. Smile on the inside as the shop owner tries to regain your interest by rapidly slashing the price, first to 140, then to 130 and then to 120.
  3. Talk to the merchant about the product, ask him his name, ask where he’s from, ask about his kids, ask about his health, ask about his uncle’s health, ask about his uncle’s son’s wife’s health, say some stereotypical Egyptian Arabic phrase, make a joke about your own “foreign” Arabic accent, etc. Then tell the guy you only want to pay 25. “HAHAHA!” Man laughs in your face you to try to phase you, you ignore it and he cringes on the inside because he knows he’s found a formidable opponent.
  4. He drops the price a few more times, maybe down to 80. Keep looking around, saying you want the “Egyptian price” and that you might actually peace out, go get some tea or something and then maybe return. Shop owner asks you for new price, you say 30. He laughs, you don’t care, he drops the price to 70. “Final price! I only make commission of 5. Good quality. You won’t find this price anywhere else – ask anyone.” Lies, all lies.
  5. Start walking away. Bloodbath begins, with the price slashed left and right. Shop owner follows you through the market, with you refusing to budge, except maybe up to 35. He goes, “Ok, 45, final price.” You’re adamant, “Halaas, enough, 35.” He says, “Forty – that’s it.” Turn, walk away, say your price one more time. Hear the defeated, deflated shop owner mutter, “Maashi, ok, 35, yalla.”
  6. Afterward, don’t ask anyone else the real price. You don’t want to hear someone say, “Oh yeah, I got that for only 5 pounds. Idiot.”

Despite employing the Six Steps, I’m sure we got ripped off a lot anyway – it was almost unavoidable. Having said that (Curb reference!), once when I haggled with a shop owner for some scarves, he called me Ali Baba the thief afterward. Another time, the owner of the felucca boat on the Nile complained after we finalized a price that I was a hard bargainer. Egypt was lucky we didn’t stick around for longer.

Egypt in general was absolutely wonderful – thanks, Mom and Dad, for an awesome time! The crowdedness of Cairo was simultaneously overwhelming and enthralling, while the city’s dirty, trash-covered streets and the country’s general disorganization made me yearn for the relative orderliness of Jordan. Egypt’s different Arabic dialect also made things frustrating at times. The difference between Jordanian and Egyptian Arabic is somewhat more extreme than the difference between American and British English, as not only the accent and some random words change but so do a large number of key, everyday words and phrases.

Showing my mom and dad around Amman was great, too. It was nice to be in an environment I knew well – plus, from the second I set foot in the Amman airport I understood way more spoken Arabic.

See below for more photos; even more will be up soon on Facebook, inshallah.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Ferrari the horse leads our carriage on the wrong side of the road, on the way to the Temple of Kom Ombo.

Small part of Karnak Temple, Luxor.

A man performing the traditional dance of the whirling dervishes.

The West Bank. No, not that West Bank. The West Bank of the Nile.