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The Swing of Things

Nikki Hodgson | Posted June 20th, 2011 | Middle East

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A slight breeze ruffles the stagnant summer air that has settled heavily into our office space. I found a powdered mix of Oregon Chai sitting neglected on a dusty shelf in the market across the street and I am happy to relish the creature comfort of sipping out of a normal-sized mug. The minuscule cups of Arabic coffee are perfect for a social gathering, but I am habituated to the American ritual of sitting down to work with a gargantuan mug of coffee…or in this case Oregon Chai. I’ll take what I can get.

Bethlehem/Beit Sahour
Bethlehem/Beit Sahour

Saturday morning and not many people are in the office. The Palestinian weekend is often split in order to accommodate both Muslims and Christians. Last night there was a big party on the rooftop of a colleague’s house. Palestinians, French, Italians, Spanish, Irish, British, Mexicans and Americans buzz excitedly, the rising crescendo of conversation throws words down onto the street and passerby’s catch snippets of dialogue: “referendum” “revolution” “civil resistance” “checkpoint” and “soldier.” We are a motley crew of global citizens, but we all have a passion for politics and peace. It’s what brought us stumbling into this place. And now we reinforce those ideals over an array of Palestinian salads and Taybeh beer.

The past week has found me quietly stepping into the swing of things. I know the toll this place can take on a person’s well-being and I give myself more space than necessary, careful to allow myself the chance to process the overwhelming frustration I feel while going through checkpoints and to cry the tears I choke back in public.

Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint
Rachel's Crossing Checkpoint

I rise every morning at 5:00 a.m. to go for my daily run through the hills of Beit Sahour. The desert hills, the scrubby vegetation, the roosters crowing, and the donkeys leaning lazily against wooden posts are the only witnesses to my morning ritual. I release my fury by sprinting up hills. In the evening I sit quietly on the roof of my apartment building and scan myself for any unprocessed emotion.  Exasperated by the leering and heckling of Palestinian boys? Disgusted by the disgraceful behavior of a rude soldier? Shocked by the extreme hatred of a settler? Grateful for the hug of a friend? Or maybe just irritated by the incessant cigarette smoke.

For me, actively processing these emotions is a necessary part of thriving here. It is too exhausting to passively ride the waves of buried frustration or to be swept away by the sudden tsunamis of fury and sadness.

The normal stress of living in a different country is compounded by the fact that internationals (particularly Americans) often arrive armed only with optimism and an innocent faith in a non-existent justice system. We arrive here eager to help, but ill-equipped to process life under an oppressive military rule. Some adapt, some can’t wait to get out, and some fall to pieces.

Me? I run, write, and reach out. Those are my “three R’s” to maintaining my peace of mind. I know I will have my days of crumpling sadness and impassioned frustration, but this time I am prepared and will not be caught off-guard. Sometimes it’s enough just to slip into the air-conditioned haven of CaféSima in Bethlehem. Chocolate cupcakes, iced lattes and sympathetic conversation can work wonders.


Other times I indulge in some outrageously expensive American import (Arizona Green Tea, anyone?) and spend the evening trying to load Golden Girls on YouTube. If it gets really bad, I retain the option to retreat to Tel Aviv (The Bubble) or Eilat. Two Israeli cities so (psychologically) far removed from the conflict that if it weren’t for the occasional sight of a soldier casually slinging an M-16 over his shoulder as he boards a bus, life would feel almost normal.

Fellow: Nikki Hodgson



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