This post is part of the series Shoshana in Palestine, which tells the story of Shoshana Austerlitz, the pseudonym for an American Jew™ interloper in Palestine. It is an ostensible Jewish parody on unexamined privilege, benevolent Orientalism, and Jewish-American megalomania.
Shoshana? Yes. Where are you? On the bus.
Shoshana, the Hero, loves riding the bus. Any bus. A bus in motion holds great promise. Trucks, trains, buses and planes. Shoshana loves transit; Shoshana loves to move. And groove.
Tonight she’s riding the 218 bus from the Arab bus station (called “the Arab bus station”) by Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to Ramallah. Why? To answer that question, we must return to a small shtetl in Moravia in 1846. Just kidding, to answer that question let us return to Shoshana when last we met her… . “Today Shoshana is visiting the Hagana museum in central Tel Aviv…” That’s right. Recently, she took an informal one-woman antizionist walking tour of the pre-1948 Israeli paramilitary museums of Tel Aviv, and tonight she’s taking an orientalist bus journey to Party Town, Ramallah City…
They don’t call it Palestine Party Town for Nothing, Shoshana chortles to herself, too loudly, as she smirks out the window of the bus as it rolls up Sheikh Jarrah. Shoshana, a small white Ashkenazi American woman-child, has an unbecoming habit of too-roughly intaking her breath when she chortles.
Heh heh heh.
But that doesn’t stop her from passing, on occasion, as an “appealing young woman.” Maybe there is something appealing about her, maybe it’s her bewitching combination of authentic expression of emotion and slime.
It’s dark and warm on this summer night. A heavy, blanket crush of people gather outside the Arab buses, squashed and pacing with humor and a great range of gesticulation: older women and older men, laden with groceries, commiserate, while young people jump over barricades and curl in and out; it’s a melee of repeated action and frustration and release, and in truth, Shoshana loves it. She loves being a part of The Scene, rushing and breathing like a sea anemone in a pot of honey. She likes feeling like she… belongs. (but Jews, don’t get too comfortable in Palestine…)
Huddled masses–Palestinians, like Jews–yearn to breathe free and get home already so they can eat dinner or go out on the town, Shoshana yawns, imagining herself browbeating a faceless crowd of Zionists, like the Israeli woman who gasped at her the other day “Wow, you really live in East Jerusalem? With the Falestinians? Aren’t you afraid, as a woman?”
Suddenly, as Shoshana was lounging against a pole by the bus, hands reached out to push her–an obvious foreigner in a too-tight T-shirt listening to N.E.R.D a bit loud on her phone–forward, guiding her past the people ahead of her, past the people waiting behind the barricades, all the way to the tip of the front of the line. She looked back at the older Palestinian men and young Palestinian women who’d budged her in front of them and they explained with neutral faces: Go, go, go.
Says Shoshana: it was like I was Jesus. They pushed me up so I could get on the bus first… I was shocked, grateful, embarrassed… so I smiled sheepishly and the men liked that so they pushed me more, like I was ice skating, like i was on a conveyer belt, past all the other annoyed people who’d been waiting longer, yet they all assented to me being forcibly pushed in front of them…. The bus driver smiled at me. Was it hospitality? Extreme, unnecessary (to the selfish Western individualist) courtesy in the face of duress? Courtesy as resistance? Courtesy as survival tactic? Courtesy as strategy philosophically and emotionally? To not get hurt and imbue oneself with positive feelings in the face of a negative social landscape (no funding for Palestinian buses, roads, infrastructure; overcrowding; no citizenship status for Jerusalem Palestinians)? It all potentially makes sense, but still I felt guilty, but also like a god, just the kind of god who has to earn her keep. Responsibility? How interesting to be a foreign white woman in Palestine.
It was at this point that Shoshana met Murad, a young man with sparkling eyes and a clear, crunchy voice that made her think of toast.
“This seat taken?”
It’s easy for me to meet people on public transit, Shoshana ruminates. East Jerusalem is, in many ways, pretty conservative, and the combination of that enabling patriarchal chivalry, as well as my novelty as a foreigner make me circumstantially interesting (it’s the same basic mixture with different proportions as in any culture, region, era).
It may also be explained by her rubbernecking Americanism, how she is never blasé; her eyes popping up and down, taking in a vista like every day is a miraculous adventure, which it can be if that’s your cold, analytical framework for making friends and recruiting comrades, for example, on the bus, where Shoshana always looks lost even though she is an intrepid reconnoiterer, and this little-lamb-lost-ness (which is also just female socialization survival skills like learning a new language or how to escape fast if you’re pinned in a corner) bestows morally complicated “perks” that are uncomfortable and convenient.
Shoshana thinks: I am an Exciting Outsider and that is contextual, lucky and has nothing to do with me personally. Still, “everyone” wants to get to know “me” in this external situation that is internally riveting and moving even if I feel external to it … though I twirl like a goon at its center!
On the bus, Murad wants to talk; Shoshana wants to talk too…
She’s American; he’s Palestinian from the North (with Israeli citizenship). They’re neither of them West Bankers. Yet both of them, on Thursday night, the last night of the work week in Palestine/Israel, have chosen this road to party down.
“I’m not from Jerusalem, I’m from Nazareth”
“Wait, do you know Yara? She studied in Romania, and she likes coffee”
“Yara! Of course I know Yara!”
“No, no, Muslim Yara”
But… small-town Palestine; everyone knows each other and the chain extends and expands in an internecine snowball.
Through their errors and enthusiasm, they are now the two of them Friends.
But first they’ve just gotta get through this checkpoint: Qalandia, where they jump out of the bus to find a servees (shared taxi) to Ramallah.
“We Arabs are so disorganized,” Arab Murad shakes his head as they cross out of the extremely packed and noisy, dark night turnstiles at Qalandia checkpoint from Jerusalem to Ramallah, full of hollering and distress.
“No way! How is that Arabs’ fault?” Shoshana, a Jew shakes her head with equal vigor. “All the checkpoints were built by Israel! Plus, Jews in crowds are the worst! Today, on the tram in Jerusalem I wanted to die… this Orthodox man had his headphone cords in his mouth, just like chomping on them with glassy eyes and a kippa like… a cow! A big, unseeing cow! And the secular people! And, and—” Shoshana sputters– But it’s not about the particular bus or checkpoint, religion or degree of religiosity. Wherever Shoshana feels an amorphous sense of entrapment and fear is marked by that amorphous sense of entrapment and fear. That’s the way it goes: external, impersonal places are imbued with internal, personalized sensations and associations, nothing random; all dreams reified and calcified in places, people, ideologies….
Like little mice, Shoshana and Murad scurry through the labyrinth until….
Exiting Qalandia, there’s only one tiny turnstile operating and it keeps closing with a BANG and locking in its passers-through with a CRASH. The slew of Palestinians (and the odd foreigner; crossing this checkpoint would be illegal for Israeli Jewish civilians) struggle to get through while Israeli soldiers, like cartoon villains, watch.
Then, Murad and Shoshana hop into a careening cab from Qalandia to the center of Ramallah. “Wow, I’m surprised how well my Israeli internet works in the West Bank!” Shoshana guffaws, with questioning eyes. “Of course, mine too. We’re surrounded by a lot of settlements” Murad explains. Despite myself and to my advantage, I am connecting to the Israeli grid, Shoshana thinks. Duh.
“It’s good that you have an Israeli phone. The Palestinian internet is shit!” says Murad
“Yea, but that’s hardly Palestinians’ fault! Israel doesn’t allow them (read: you) to have 3G or 4G or whatever in the West Bank, right?” says Shoshana.
Murad responds with a seen-it-all non-response, keeping his gaze on the road ahead.
Together, Murad and Shoshana speak joyous ill of “their own” people without venom and with the infrastructural goal of connecting across national-religious lines! Or at least that’s Shoshana’s interpretation.
Anyway, how do we determine who constitutes “one’s own” people? What properties will guide that search? (besides what the dominant ideology preaches and claims is the prime marker of identity?) Are Shoshana’s “own” people the Jews? The Americans? The women? The Ausländers ‘n intellects? The thirty somethings who still think it’s 1999? Because Shoshana in Ramallah is about to party hard with her new friend Murad, a Palestinian Muslim from outside Nazareth–in what way does that NOT make him one of “her” people, and she one of “his”? Since they both love to party, how does that NOT make them ONE? (Shoshana’s worldview, being sophisticatedly unsophisticated, has a hard time with boundaries: international, interpersonal, personal space, Self & Other.)
At best, Shoshana likes to think her people are those she admires ideologically (rather than those similar ethnically or racially.) Critics!–but not cynics–the ones who bemoan their own: These are Shoshana’s people. Mid-century American, New York-centric ideas of Jewishness led her to believe that such self-criticism was a “Jewish” trait; perhaps it is just a component of being great.
“We’ll go to Radio; I have to meet someone” says Murad.
“I love Radio!” says Shoshana.
“You know, actually, there’s someone there I like a lot… romantically.”
“Yes! Tell me! Can I tell you about my crushes actually?”
“Yes, of course!”
And so Murad talks to the driver in Arabic while Shoshana talks to Murad in English about her latest crush: a kanafe man in Jaffa. He had spiky hair and physicality that looked like he could jam with her. She liked the way he leaned down on the countertop to talk to her and threw his head in his hands and laughed—she was lost in the frisson! the spark! He had mischievous eyes, birdlike, percolating, informal and sexy and weird. Shoshana is so into that. “Shalom Shoshana!” he yelled to her whenever she passed by the store. “I’m not Israeli!” Shoshana retorted, hard-heartedly, because hard-hearted is how she flirts when she is enticed and afraid. “Ma?” (“what” in Hebrew) he jabbed. “La!” (“No” in Arabic) she retorted. What sparks they created. But even though Shoshana spent a whole month in Jaffa, she never once had any Jewish-Palestinian children. Oh well.
On to Ramallah!
Shoshana and Murad enter the city, past Am’ari camp, past the statues, past Ramallah kanafe stores open late (Shoshana’s subjective Ramallah reference points).
It feels 100 times better over here, Shoshana thought.
Shoshana and Murad bust out of the cab and dart up to al-Masyoun to get a sandwich before the club.
True, it’s more conservative here than Jaffa (I have to cover more; no shorts, no tank top) but being outside of direct Israeli authority feels… bigger! Even in a city as small as Ramallah, I feel calmer, like I can fucking BREATHE. It feels like a personalized insult carnival in Israel. Here I feel relaxed and capable in a storm. Also I’m just passing through so I get to reap the excitement and avoid the everyday hassle. Damn tourist.
It even smells better in Ramallah, redolent perhaps of how much fun Shoshana and Murad are about to have.
Lights! Music! Young people reclining against walls cinematically! Inside, at the bar, a person Shoshana knows! And then another! And friends beget friends… They don’t call it Palestine Party Town for Nothing, Shoshana repeats to herself self-righteously. It’s like New Years every Thursday in Palestine. The sparkly Gatsbyan puddle of new friends settles in the garden, and then to the dance floor and back to the bar. Joining the party: A Canadian and a Swede; a whole bunch of exhausted genteel partiers from Nablus. Murad pays Shoshana’s entrance fee and drink and then another. Arab culture, he says. Who else we got? Pretty girl. Mmm hmm. Someone’s cousin. What’s up, let’s talk about Turkey. The Canadian drunkenly talks to all the Palestinians about oppression and to Shoshana about relationships with Palestinian men. They are ridiculous. They dawdle, they gleam.
Drink drink smoke smoke, outside in the garden bar:
Nablus guy: “It’s collective punishment… take my cousin, for example. He never had anything to do with politics but his permit application was rejected”
Other Nablus guy: “If anyone—your brother, your grandfather—did something, you’re screwed for it!”
Nablus guy: “I have been rejected five times to enter Jerusalem…”
Other Nablus guy: “I’m sorry to say that there’s a lack of knowledge…”
Canadian girl: “They physically separated you… Palestinians in the West Bank, from Jerusalem, from Gaza…”
Nablus guy: “Ok, like, I came tonight from Nablus. If I drove any faster, I’d get a ticket from the Israeli police, it’s ridiculous! it’s 17 percent.”
Canadian girl: “And in Gaza, those people are really suffering!”
Nablus guy: “It’s all Israel and America. No offense, Shoshana”
Shoshana: “No, no…”
Other Nablus guy: “No one can do anything but I’m hoping in my lifetime…”
Canadian girl: “The Romans fell too! I’m hoping with all my heart…”
Nablus guy: “We all hope, inshallah”
The music is awesome but Murad prefers techno and doesn’t dance. They relocate to a new place, more dancing. Damn, Other Nablus Guy is sexy. She removes Nablus Guy’s hands from her waist. I love this place, with all its particulars and problems. Says the brown Canadian to white Shoshana, “do they pull you off at the checkpoints too?” Shoshana is truly shocked: “What? No. Sometimes they don’t even ask for my passport.” And then she remembers “Oh yea, white people.” (Also being visibly and name-apparently Jewish).
On the dance floor and up in the top, all the men mock/seriously perform what look to Shoshana like female-coded belly dance moves and it is all very raucous and adorable. They’re all drunk and clap to the music and dancing and, man, there are limited stories in this life but the multiple iterations on The Party with “good vibes” e.g. people, music, light and energy in contravention of Israeli oppression still compel: The subjective prisms! reciprocal mirrors! multiple views and frames constructing and interpreting… The Party.
The Party as resistance! The Party as survival tactic! The Party as… evaluated and hagiographized by eager-eyed foreigners, popping in and out like so many weeds. Heaven.
Who wouldn’t love this scene? (many) Who wouldn’t appreciate its potential for shared joy? (people who don’t like parties, still) Check out these faces, these arm swivels; check out these up-and-down comings-and-goings: from the bar to the dance floor to who knows what secret lair. Dancing and swaying, all rapture and light. Shoshana and the Canadian will never see each other again but tonight they are TIGHT and giggly. She shares arak with someone, not sure who, a foreigner but from WHERE. Murad goes back to Jerusalem. Do the Nablus guys go back to Nablus? Who knows. Shoshana is staying. Forever. (but Jews, don’t get too comfortable in Palestine. Look at what happened the last time that happened)
She walks down to Ramallah Tahta.
Out of a car window: “Are you drunk like us?”
Me: “I mean, probably. It’s Thursday”
Dudes: “You want a shot?”
Shots shots shots shots !
From the windowwwww
to The Wall…
(To THE WALL ?)
“I’m the queen of Ramallah!” the Jewish-American says.
What are the politics of people who want to be in other people’s parties, and traditions? Dancing and singing without knowing the lyrics or language but soaking it all up anyway, under the spotlights like lush, overcooked doves? What do these foreigners in Ramallah love so much to keep them here, the foreigners at the party (here: the white American and Swede, the brown Canadian, the debonair black woman at a circle table in the back of the second bar. Shoshana’s screen memory has her with a rose behind her ear, writing a letter). Is it simply love of humanitarian development programming and combating injustice or is something more? Is it the attitude, the rebellion, the having of a common enemy? They love it enough to be here at 5 a.m. but why.
In the daytime, Shoshana ambles toward the bus to Jerusalem, forgetting that it doesn’t run on Friday… no matter. She takes a servees to the checkpoint instead. She knows where she’s going because Ramallah is small but a little, quizzical boy of about 11 keeps pace with her, clearly wanting to talk, so through a series of gesticulations and smiles, Shoshana’s phantom Palestinian ghost son leads her to the nonexistent buses.
Gruff and sweet and friendly, they talk to each other without understanding, with few words to connect them like “manara” and “taxi.”
Beyond the non-running buses, the servees to Qalandia: A man shows Shoshana photos of his brother with his American wife in Buffalo, New York. “It’s really beautiful up there!” she says and he mis-hears her as saying that his sister-in-law is really beautiful to which he puts his hand to his heart, saying “thank you, thank you” so Shoshana doesn’t correct him. After all, the sister-in-law is beautiful and we are all beautiful and SOMEDAY we will achieve peace (the fall of Zionism, the rise of parties).
Post-Ramallah, back at the ranch:
Shoshana plops into a beaten-up leather couch in the center of West Jerusalem; playing board games; drinking whiskey; eating delicious little kousa mahshi.
“So how are your new friends in Ramallah?” – Karim, Palestinian citizen of Israel.
“They’re really cool! They have great pop culture references” – Shoshana, American “activist” on holiday.
“Can they come here?” – Lisa, Bolivian in Israel
“No. Well, one of them is an Israeli citizen and a few are Jerusalem residents… but not the rest” – Shoshana
“Can you guys go there?” – Lisa, to Karim
“Yea.. but Karim hasn’t since 2005” – Shoshana, Jewsplaining Karim’s political situation
“Not my scene” – Karim
“Ram-al-lah” – Khaled, also Palestinian citizen of Israel, singsong-teasing.
“I thought it was great but… I prefer Jerusalem” – Shoshana
“Of course” – Karim
“Shoshana, do you work? What are you doing here?” – Khaled
“Um” – Shoshana
“Just make aliyah already” – Karim
“No! you didn’t have a choice* … but … I can’t. I mean, I don’t know anymore what my ethics are but that’s one step too far” – insensitive/judgmental/ashamed Shoshana, the Hero
Drink drink smoke smoke:
“Just make aliyah” – Karim
“Ram-al-lah” – Khaled
* Israeli citizenship was given to a small percentage of Palestinians post-1948 who stayed in what became Israel (not East Jerusalem, Gaza or the West Bank)