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Sora friedman

September 11 in the West Bank
(written on September 16 by Sora Friedman)

I arrived in Ramallah on Monday afternoon, September 10, my first trip to
the Middle East. My work there with
World Learning is a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International
Development to provide support to Birzeit-
University, the leading Palestinian university. Through the project, we
are upgrading the school's financial
management system so that it can track budgets, expenditures, costs,
etc., according to generally accepted
accounting procedures, to receive clean audits. The ultimate goal is for
the university to continue its service as
one of Palestine's leading non-governmental organizations.

Tuesday was a busy day. Meetings started at 8 a.m. and continued non-stop
until 4 p.m. I was taken back to my
hotel for a break before our evening meetings began, and turned on the
television as I prepared for a nap. The
first plane had just hit in New York, and I couldn't understand what I
was seeing. As I continued to watch, the
second plane hit. I had seen it approach, and I assumed that it was a
small military plane going in to assess
damage. When it didn't show up on the other side of the building, but was
replaced by another explosion, the
horror started to sink in. I called my husband and left a message for him
at work about what had happened and
asked him to call his daughter Kait, who goes to college in
Manhattan. She had just begun an internship downtown
somewhere, and I was praying that she was not directly affected.

By that time, I was supposed to be downstairs to prepare for my evening
meeting. My colleague Somida Al-Abbas
was already there, and we both agreed that the meeting could not take
place. In fact, the lobby television was on
and everyone was glued to his or her place. As I sat down, they
immediately turned the channel to an
English-language station and inquired about my family. I told them about
Kait, and they were quick to reassure me
that surely she was safe. Comments were made about the sick irony of how
concerned my family had been about
my travel to the Mid-east while in fact, the worst was taking place at
home. Meanwhile, the consultants with
whom we were supposed to meet had arrived. After shaking my hand and
expressing their concern, they sat with
us. Shortly thereafter my project counterpart, Birzeit Vice-president for
Finance and Administration Carmela
Armanious also arrived. It was only when I saw her concerned face that I
started to cry. Carmela's daughter had
left three weeks earlier to start college in Indiana. She gave me a hug
and sat down with us.

Now, you have to understand that everyone in the Middle East carries a
cell phone, even more so than in the
United States. As suicide bombs go off in Tel Aviv, as Arabs are delayed
at checkpoints, as there is a constant
state of tension no matter where you are, perhaps the only sense of
security comes from knowing that you have
instant access to family in case of emergency. So one of my strongest
impressions is everyone offering me their
cell phones, as the land lines to the States were not getting
through. People called my husband and mother
repeatedly for me, and the hotel receptionist was on alert to immediately
pass along any calls from the States.
Unfortunately, it took several hours until my husband was able to contact
me, but by then, he had heard from
Maggie, my younger stepdaughter. Maggie had received an e-mail from Kait
saying that she was OK.

For the next four hours, we sat glued to the television in the lobby as
reality began to sink in. As Palestinian hotel
guests entered the reception area, they came and shook my hand,
expressing their concern and support and
inquiring as to my family's safety. Carmela invited me to stay at her
home so that I would not be alone, and one
person who runs a hospital offered me transport to Tel Aviv via
ambulance, the only way to get through the
checkpoints quickly. The university president called four times that
evening to insure that I was OK; others offered
food and drink. Mostly, it was comforting not to be alone; I would have
gone crazy if I were.

As we watched, discussion turned to who could have done such a thing and
the event's effects on the Mid-east.
My colleagues understood immediately that this would affect them in
several ways. As the media began to focus
on possible Muslim/Arab/Mid-east connections, they knew that they could
be scapegoated. They understood that
any momentum for the peace process would be lost as the world's eyes
focused on New York. They also feared
that Israel might take advantage of the situation and clamp down on the
Palestinians. That fear was confirmed the
next night with increased fighting in Jenin, a town in the north. Mostly,
they continuously expressed concern for
me and my family and disgust at the action itself.

That night, CNN showed shots of Palestinians celebrating the attack on
the United States in the streets. At one
point, they said it took place in Nablus; at another, in Ramallah. My
hotel was about five blocks from Ramallah's
city center, and I had kept my balcony door slightly open for some fresh
air. Never did I hear people yelling or
clapping, or horns honking.

It is hard for me to express just how kind, caring, and supportive the
Palestinians were to me. I think I would have
broken down with concern and sorrow had I been alone, but in fact, I was
never alone. The president of the
university continued to call, and the vice-president came by the hotel to
sit with me. When we went out for a
brief walk or cup of coffee, total strangers came up to me to express
their concern and to inquire about my family.
And yes, by this time my colleagues knew that I am Jewish. It did not
matter to them.

Wednesday afternoon was the only time that I considered leaving Ramallah
early. By then, information about the
hijackers was being released and I wondered if there would be any
anti-American sentiment. However, the streets
remained quiet and I decided that I was better off staying where I
was. Somida and I reorganized some meetings
for Wednesday night, and although conversation never strayed far from the
events in New York, it actually felt
good to focus on work for a while.

I left Ramallah Thursday morning as originally planned. I had to walk
through the dusty checkpoints, crowded with
Palestinians and guarded by young Israelis with automatic weapons. I knew
that my U.S. passport was a shield
from the Israelis, and I felt my Palestinian colleagues were a shield
against any anti-American sentiment that might
have come up. In fact, I never saw any or heard any.

Back in Tel Aviv, I continue to be concerned about safety, as was the
case before Tuesday's events. How sad to
be in such a magical place and not be able to explore. Thought I feel
safe in the hotel, I have not left it since
Thursday except to go to the airport twice to try to get a flight
home. Even an apparent paradise feels like jail
when all you want is to be home.

I had hoped to leave on Thursday's flight, but it was cancelled after a
10-hour wait in the airport. One interesting
thing did happen there, though. With luck, I had been bumped up to first
class, and so, I was able to spend those
hours in the first-class lounge. While in line, I learned that former
Senator Frank Lautenberg (from New Jersey) was
also on the flight after meeting with Sharon and Peres about regional
politics. About 1 a.m. or so, I noticed that
his aides were elsewhere so I went to him, stuck out my hand, and
introduced myself. I asked if he was in Israel
working on the peace process and he confirmed that he was. I told him
that I had been in Ramallah on Tuesday
and that he needed to know about my experience there. He looked at me and
invited me to sit with him for a few
minutes. We found a private spot and he listened as I relayed how
Palestinian colleagues and strangers showed me
kindness and support during those sad days. He asked about the project,
World Learning and Birzeit University, and
Palestinians' perspectives in general about what had happened. I tried to
convey the sentiments of my colleagues
as impartially as possible. At the end of the talk, I told him there was
one other thing that he should know--that
my colleagues knew that I am Jewish. He smiled and wished the project

The past few days have seen random violence and verbal attacks against
Muslims/Arabs/Mid-east countries. It is
very clear to me that the acts of a few do not represent the will of the
many. Did Tim McVeigh speak for the
entire United States? Perhaps the acts of these few Palestinians who
helped me do not speak for the many either.
All I know is that in my time of crisis, they were the ones who were
there for me. When they could have whisked
me back to Tel Aviv, they invited me to stay so that they could look
after me themselves and keep me company.
If Palestinians who deeply love their land and heritage can show such
genuine support and friendship to this Jewish
girl, then I will not lose hope that others also can look beyond
religious or political labels and reach out for peace.

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