it doesn’t matter where the bomb came from

It doesn’t matter where the bomb came from. It was dropped from a precision-guided drone. It boarded a bus strapped to a guy’s chest under his clothes. Either way, you approach afterward, it is surreally silent, despite the wailing sirens and the moans and calls for help. You get closer, the world becomes more topsy-turvy, the buildings and street don’t look like normal. They’re shredded and pockmarked by shrapnel. Closer still, and you see trickles of blood running down the sidewalk. Over there, is a severed forearm. Elsewhere, indeterminate flesh. It doesn’t matter who bombed you when that was your arm, your flesh. It doesn’t matter whether they wanted to kill you, or just considered you acceptable “collateral damage”, when they killed you.

Stop it. Stop blowing people up. Stop saying it’s justified. Stop saying your way is more moral than theirs, or at least tell that to the people we blew up.

the way I remember Jerusalem

In the morning we stood inside Bethlehem’s checkpoint and looked
through the bars at Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood
metastasizing over the hill.
That night I walked down Derech Aza, the road to Gaza,
a street I last saw scarred with shrapel, strewn with flesh,
the twisted carcass of the bus askew.
And tonight it is cafes and flowers ovespilling their boxes and children shouting before bed,
the way I remember

Why Beer Sheva isn’t Zichron Yaakov

The roiling waters are clear as glass as we swim in the sea below Zichron Yaakov. Later, we hike and jog back up to that white city on a hill, we shower the salt from our skin, and as the sun vanishes over the ocean horizon, we head out in search of dinner.

The streets are quiet and tree-lined, and each yard is planted with flowers. There are no dumpsters overflowing with garbage and rangy cats, as there are in Beer Sheva. Parents speak gently to their children in Hebrew as they push them down the streets in their strollers. Signs over businesses and historical sites reference the Baron Rothchild, the original founder and patron of this town, a hundred or so years ago.

My friend keeps asking, why couldn’t Beer Sheva be more like Zichron?

Because, I think, of the quiet current of money and privilege that run through this town. Can’t you feel it, smell it, taste it, behind the well-paved streets, the collected garbage, the pretty single-family homes, all surrounded by vineyards on a bluff above the mediterranean?

Beer Sheva, like the river named after it, is made from what washes up when it has nowhere left to go, and it peters out here. The Beer Sheva river was running two weeks ago, a muddy slurry of whatever garbage and pollution has collected between the Hebron hills and here. It never reaches the sea.

A Bedouin man once told me the Bedouin like to say that the strongest tribes chose the wildness of the desert, and the weaker ones settled in the fertile valleys, but he believed the opposite was true: the most vulnerably tribes were pushed into the wastelands, the harshest places.

That’s still what’s happening. Waves after waves of Jewish immigrants were settled here when they had no resources to go elsewhere. First the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, then later the immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.

Beer Sheva, and the Negev, is the story of Nanu, who cleans floors at the hospital, and proudly moved her family from the absorption center by the railroad tracks, to schuna tet, a newer neighborhood. She insists on washing the mugs I used for tea and coffee working late on my Autism research project, even though that’s not her job. She lost half of her family on the long march from Ethiopia to Sudan to come here.

It’s the story of Sara and Jazi, and their daughters, how their grandfather was exiled to Jordan in 1948 by the Israelis and never allowed to return. It’s the story of how their family has worked to improve the education in their village, culminating in many students coming in on Saturdays, their only free day, for extra english lessons.

It’s the story of a medical resident stumbling through her morning report after a sleepless night, her headscarf pinned tightly over her scrubs, struggling with the Hebrew words that usually flow so easily, and it’s the story of her Russian and American attending physicians, carefully listening to the story of an old woman admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.

This place grows on you.

Holot again

I was at Holot again yesterday, with a group of volunteers, helping asylum seekers fill out refugee status documents (RSDs). The process was demoralizing. We sat at the picnic tables with the lattice pretend-roofs, and when it started to drizzle we had no shelter for our papers. The first man I interviewed fled Eritrea because he did not want to serve indefinitely in the army. “If it were for three years, four years, I would do it,” he said. “In Eritrea, it’s until you are forty or fifty, we don’t know when it ends.” I asked him what would happen if he went back to Eritrea. He said they would put him in jail. Would there be a trial? No. Would they beat him? Of course. Would they feed him? Yes, just enough to keep him alive, maybe a piece of pita twice a day. At the end, I shook his hand and wished him good luck. Many countries consider this indefinite service grounds for asylum, Israel does not.  His application will be rejected. The second man I interviewed was from Darfur. I asked him if he would go home. He said his village was completely destroyed by the Janjaweed. Some of his family is in displaced person camps in Sudan. He has a brother in Australia, and another brother in Belgium, both of whom have recognized status as refugees. I write this all down. Jamal, a middle-aged inmate/asylum seeker who dutifully translates for us, was sitting there bored, but now he interrupted me for the first time. “And what do you think of that,” he asked me, “that his brothers have asylum and he doesn’t?” “What is different between him and his brothers, that he is in prison here in Israel?” “Nothing,” I said.


Outside the prison camp
Issa’s name becomes my password
my secret handshake.
I don’t know these men. I reach out
shake hands, my name is Sarah.
Yael adds “she took care of Issa,
the Issa who was shot
crossing the border.”
They shake my hand again, as friends.
(If anyone took care of him
it was Yael.) They all know Issa,
or at least who Issa is
except one man, confused
who knows a few too many men
shot crossing the border,
not that far from here.

Trust, submissiveness, and ingrained hierarchies: more adventures in feeling cervices

[Nb.  One last Nepal post, originally posted on our class blog]

The patient lay back, anxious, her feet in the stirrups as we crowded into the examination room. Looking at her, I told the doctor “no, it’s ok,” meaning, I didn’t need to do a pelvic exam on her. But the words “its ok,” whether spoken in English or Nepali “tik-tsa” are decidedly affirmative, as is shaking one’s head from side to side, and a pair of re-sterilized gloves were held out to me with tongs. No one asked the patient if this was okay with her, and the patients never argue with doctors. Not knowing what to say, I suited up and examined her. She had a nabothian cyst, a benign but tender lump on her cervix caused by blocked mucosal glands.
The doctor sends her home with ceftriaxone and azithromycin. Wait, what? Now we’re treating Gonorrhea/Chlamydia? The doctor, who is in fact a medical officer, which means he has completed medical school and internship but no residency, explains that the clinic lacks the ability to test for STDs, so when in doubt, he prefers to treat. Also, patients have a tendency not to come back for follow ups, especially if they believe that nothing was done the first time.
It’s an interesting combination: the abject submissiveness in the clinic, and the disinterest in following instructions such as “come back if you feel worse.” It’s not trust, I realize, that makes patients so passive, just ingrained hierarchies.
I take a moment to imagine what this clinic would be like if it were part of a more egalitarian society, and I have a bit more appreciation for the feisty Israeli patients who regularly have to be shooed out from behind the nurses stations and from inside the doctors’ workrooms, and even for the angriest American patients, screaming and screaming in the Harlem ED until police are called, aware of where they fall in the deeply unequal American hierarchies, and unwilling to tolerate it.

Times of Israel: This Year in Prison: A Passover Seder in Holot

Just in time for Pesach, I have a new blog post up at TimesofIsrael.

like the matza that didn’t have time to rise, I didn’t have time to edit it as carefully as I would have liked, but please hop on over for a look and then help me share these stories.

chag sameach!

[reposted below with permission]

The entrance almost made it look like a place you’d go on purpose: if not for vacation, then for school or a conference or something. Cheerful blue letters on fresh terracotta spelled out the vaguely euphamistic מרכז שהייה חולות, “Holot staying center,” and above it were written the words “prison services,” and flags fluttered in the breeze in front of the barbed wire. Across the road from us was Saharonim prison, and beyond that, the Negev sands stretched on endlessly.

I had come with a van full of asylum seekers and activists for a Passover seder with the inmates of Holot. Buses carrying similar groups had already arrived from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We were there for the Refugee Freedom Seder at Holot. A coalition of activists has held Refugee Seders for years in Tel Aviv together with Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, and this year, an additional event was held with the inmates of Holot Prison (let’s drop the euphamisms). The irony, and deep painfulness, of celebrating freedom from slavery in Egypt with people who had fled massacres and forced labor, crossed the Sinai and survived the torture camps there, only to reach the promised land and be imprisoned once more, was not lost on us.

The seder was scheduled to take place between the thrice-daily mandatory roll-calls that control the prisoners movements. I was introduced to A, a young man who had recently spoken at Ben Gurion University, where I study medicine. He described how much of each day was lost to roll-calls- they wait in line for an hour at 6 AM, at 1 PM, and again at 10 PM, to be signed in. Three hours a day of waiting in line.  He had applied for permission to miss a roll-call to speak at the university, but permission had been refused.

“The first time, I get a warning,” he told us. “If it happens again, they will send me to Saharonim Prison.” The biology student was concerned that she had put him at risk, but A insisted that it was worth it. “We need people to hear our stories.” He told me how he was from Nyala in Darfur, and had fled to Egypt. When they began shooting the Sudanese in Egypt, he fled to Israel. He told us how the government-sponsored killings in Darfur had never quite stopped, but they had started again in earnest. He wants to go home, he told us, but he will not do so until Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is dead. “Then it will be safe,” he told us.

Food was served and the seder began. Matzot were distributed, as dry and cracked as the desert sands. A rabbi spoke about the biblical commandment to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our friend A got up to speak, and told us our own story. “For four-hundred years you were slaves in the land of Egypt. And then God brought you out, and you wandered for forty years in the Sinai desert. We have walked the same paths that your people walked. And even now there are still Eritreans imprisoned in the Sinai”

An African activist from Berlin told us another part of our history, how 60 or 70 years ago, Jews were fleeing from murder and oppression and seeking refuge. Addressing the inmates, he said about us Jews “I feel they have forgotten what happened to them.”

Later, I spoke with R, another inmate. He has been in one prison or another since the moment he crossed into Israel. The only exception was the asylum seekers’ protest march in the bitter cold last winter, where he briefly saw Jerusalem before being returned to jail. His brother made it to England where he was granted asylum and will be resuming his studies, but R made it to Israel and has been granted prison. R wants to get an education and have a family, but he can’t imagine he will be allowed to have these things. He cannot understand why I live in Israel voluntarily; to him it is one more bitter and oppressive place.

The sun beat down on us and there was no shade to be found, just a few inadequate pieces of wooden lattice. The doors to the toilets were broken and flapped open and closed in the breeze. When we left- when we had the privilege to leave this depressing place, I thought about how easy it is to forget things. To forget how Pharoah said “come, let us deal wisely with them, for they are a demographic threat and a cancer in our body.” To forget that God said “Do not oppress the stranger; for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”