They were a good group, but only half of them made it back.
When the Palestine-Arabic Studies program coordinator at Birzeit University asked me to escort a group of thirty students to the Golan two days before the group was to leave, she gambled that I had the connections and the regional knowledge to lead a successful tour. I was the emergency choice to replace their normal guide, and all they knew about me when they asked was that I had volunteered at the Law Center and spoke a bit of Arabic. They told me the first stop was at the Arabic Studies Center, then left the rest of the trip for me to plan. Had they known I would lose half their students along the way, they might never have asked.
On the way up early Friday morning, I called the Center to verify that they knew we were coming, and the director notified me that they had prepared food for fifty students and surprise of surprises, my group was expected to pay for it. A half hour into my first tour, and I faced a riot in the ranks.
My speech went something like this: "Guys, you know I'm not part of the PAS office that supposedly coordinated this thing, and I personally think it's unfair to oblige you to pay for a lunch you weren't told about. But I hope you will anyway. The Arab Studies Center is ashamed even to ask us to pay, but they're in tough straits. They are fighting to hold onto their culture, and whether you eat or not, you can help them hold on by paying for lunch, even if you don't want to eat." In the end, my group of 30 students paid for 36 lunches, including mine. As I said, a good group.
The Arab Studies Center is located in a village called Majdal-Shams, the Village of the Sun, which clings to Mount Hermon, or Jabal al-Sheikh in Arabic. The village climbs up the side of the mountain, with zoningrestrictions forbidding them from buying or developing on better land (reserved for Israeli settlements). Crazy streets of crowded houses on stilts zig-zag up the mountain, the highest peak in Israel-Palestine, atop which high tech military listening posts compete with the only ski lift in the region.
The director of the Center, Dr. Tayseer, provided a slide show in which he described how the Israelis had occupied Golan and the resulting effects upon the Arab population, noting some ironic stories. Evidently, the Israelis imposed a tax on the rain water that the Arabs collected in their water tanks, but nobody knew who was supposed to pay. Likewise, the Israeli military had twice blown up the bronze statue in the town center, a monument to Arab martyrs, but it was recast three times and now guarded by the locals. The Center treated us to a sequence of Syrian dances by a group of young local girls, then gave us a tour of the town.
We went down to what the Golanis call the "Crying Hill." When the Israelis occupied the Golan, they divided the village of Majdal-Shams in half, with part going to the Syrians and part to the Israelis. The best land was down in the valley between the Crying Hill; now a mine field and barbed wire separates them. Golanis contact their relatives on the other side with megaphones, and an elaborate network of cell phones in Majdal-Shams notifies any family within minutes when their relatives come to call. Most of the people have not visited their families for thirty years. Every now and then, Dr. Tayseer told us, the Israelis run the bomb sirens when the Golani people try to talk to their relatives--just to annoy them.
After listening to the Golanis call out to their relatives for a while, we returned to the Center for lunch. Meanwhile, our bus driver slipped away for a nap, and when I went out to bring him food, he was nowhere to be seen on the one street in the village. Dr. Tayseer asked his assistant to help me search, and after a half hour of wandering down the hill, we found the bus hidden in the shade.
The group wanted to go up to the top of Mt. Hermon and survey the land. We drove up to the ski lodge, up at about 7000', but the Israeli run ski lodge had stopped operating the lift. That's where the Swiss and French students in my group first rebelled--they had come to climb mountains. Still, the rest of the group wanted to see more of the Golan, and I coaxed the alpine contingent to abide by the democratic process, holding us together. But it wasn't to last.
We spent a couple hours at an old crusader castle down below, sneaking in five minutes before closing time and staying for two hours. I talked the agent at the gate into giving us a student discount even though only a few students had identity cards. Actually, even the students who couldn't pay managed to sneak in--after our time in Majdal-Shams, nobody wanted to support the Israeli tourist industry more than they had to.
On the drive down to Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee, the historic center of Jesus' ministry and a mecca for Christian pilgrims, the bus driver quietly whispered the names of the sites we were passing to me, and I pointed them out with my best tour guide voice over the intercom. That was how I convinced the group that I knew what I was talking about while we drove down from the Heights. I hadn't lost anybody yet and was feeling pretty good.
When we stopped in Tiberias, one or two members of the group told me they'd probably end up staying. I tried to convince them to come back, but after all, they'd payed 70 shekels for this trip and had perfect liberty to come and go as they pleased. Tiberias is the party town for the young tourists in Israel, a wealthy town by the Sea of Galilee where a cheap Maccabe beer runs for 5 dollars. Most of the miracles in the New Testament are recorded in this area, and my group wanted to see everything. But at 6pm on a Friday night, with the Sabbath shutdown approaching, I warned them it would not be possible. I gave them two hours to see what they could, as it would still be three hours drive back to Ramallah and that would put us home by eleven. Come eight o'clock, and I was waiting with one friend at the bus. Deserted. A mere trickle of my group came back, and after forty-five minutes of hunting for the lost sheep, we set off for home.
After the weekend, the director of the PAS program asked about my tour. I confessed--I enjoyed every minute of it, but had lost half of them and hoped they'd made it back safely on their own. She laughed at that--the group she'd led two weeks before had deserted her entirely.
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