Two Days Without Sirens & Cease-Fire Talks

IDF soldier takes a nap on the bus this morning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IDF soldier napping on the bus this morning

Monday morning I woke up to go to school, heavy with anxiety. It was the first morning I traveled to school by bus since the operations started last week. Sitting on the bus, I found myself looking at my watch; it was 10:40, the same hour in which the sirens went off the day before. I don’t know why, but I was more on edge than I had been in the previous days. I was startled by a woman slamming a window, and an elderly man across from me asked me in Hebrew if I was ok. “Ha-kol beseder, toda” I smiled. I appreciated his concern for me, and was a bit embarrassed that my emotions were so transparent. My exhaustion was getting the better of me.

The hours ticked by. In class, we discussed various scenarios and perspective actors who could be drawn into the current conflict between Israel and Gaza. I found myself distracted. The news reported of cease-fire talks in Egypt, and the hopes of getting something reconciled between Israel and Gaza by the evening. Cease-fire reports seemed so abstract in contrast to the recent photos and accounts spewing from Israel, and Gaza. Could they really come to an agreement?

After class, a few of us met up with our Masters program director for coffee. She offered to hold a roundtable for any discussion and questions, and assured us that there was no need for any of us to evacuate until our embassies instructed us to do so. Some students asked about gas masks, and we were reassured that we really did not need them. The Iron Dome had intercepted most rockets since it’s installation in Tel Aviv, and for the upcoming days, we need only exercise caution, and to make sure that wherever we are, we can move to a place of safety quickly in case any further alarms sound. It was calming to sit with everyone. To know that we all have different anxieties around our current situation, and that we are supported by the staff at Tel Aviv University.

The sun was high and there was a soft breeze moving through the campus, and I really did feel better being there. I went to the library to get some work done and to wait for Felipe and Elisa to finish classes, so we could all go home together. Sitting in the library, I found myself feeling secure, but still waiting. The airspace was filled with the sound of helicopters and planes. It was approaching 24 hours since any sirens had gone off, and I couldn’t believe there would not be any coming.

But no sirens rang out in Tel Aviv, and they didn’t today either. We have been keeping an eye on the news, watching various sources carefully, hoping for a cease-fire agreement. During class today, our professor made it clear that he is here for us if we need anything. In the middle of our lecture, we received word that a rocket landed in a nearby city. Our professor quickly ran out of the room upon hearing the news, wanting to make sure his family members were all accounted for. At one point, a few of my classmates hushed everyone in the room, thinking they heard an alarm. It was only a truck backing up. It is amazing how our ears search for that sound at all hours.

While rockets were launched over other areas of Israel today, Tel Aviv remained in the shadows. In contrast, the wreckage in Gaza is unbelievable. I cannot fathom how civilians will ever be able to rebuild their lives with nowhere else to go. How will people in the south of Israel pick up the pieces and remain there? What can all of these people, on both sides, say to their children? How do they explain this? I fear that these explanations are the very words that perpetuate hate from one generation to another. I hope I am wrong. How can we instill the value of life in young souls who have seen so much destruction?

Sitting at my kitchen table, I feel the earth shake and a hear a noise in the distance. I am sure it is my imagination, until Mira tells me she felt the same thing. I pull up the news on my computer, and open a new tab for Haaretz, an Israeli news publication, right next to my flurry of news sources about today’s cease-fire talks. Haaretz noted breaking news of another rocket to the south of us. So we did feel it. I am hopeful that a cease-fire can be reached, but not sure what it would really mean. Violence here is cyclic, and until resolutions validating the existence and rights of both sides are created, it will remain so.

Sunday: Two Rounds of Sirens

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A young women in her Israeli Forces uniform moving quickly

Last night as Felipe and I readied ourselves for sleep, we talked through our strategies. We made sure our backpacks had a change of clothes, our respective passports, a bottle of water, and our shoes left out. Laying in bed, we were both overcome with exhaustion underlined by an anxiety that did not allow us to immediately succumb to sleep. Would we hear sirens in the night? We made sure our windows were open, the door was unlocked, and talked about having our phones with us at all times the next day as Felipe would be in class and I would likely be home. 

We awoke this morning, both having slept better than the night before. No surprises, no sirens. We got up and went our separate ways, each with what we needed for the day. I picked up my backpack and tightened my sandals remembering how my other pair had hindered me the day before. Mira and I got on our bikes to have a frozen yogurt breakfast with a couple of girlfriends on Rothschild Boulevard so we could sit down and decompress a bit. We arrived at the cafe just as it opened and stood behind two young women in uniform about our age. My heart hung heavy at the sight of them. I wonder what is going through their heads? Are they going in for duty? They both had backpacks. My mind fixated on them, wondering how old they were, how far the were into fulfilling their mandatory military service. I have no idea what their reality consists of, but I am fearful for them. 

Just as I was ordering, the first siren began to sound. The two girls in uniform jumped up and we  followed the young girl who had been working behind the counter moments before. We ran down into an underground parking garage and herded into an elevator hall. I could feel my heart jumping in my chest, though my head was calm. Underground we heard what sounded like two rockets. We later found out they had both been shot down by the Iron Dome, with the only casualty being a car hit by fragmentation. 

After a few minutes, we all resurfaced and called who we needed to to make sure everyone was ok. Felipe called me first, he and Elisa were still at home and made it to the bottom of the stairwell in our building. He said the explosion shook our building and he could see the smoke in the air where the Iron Dome took down a rocket. They were safe and sound.Though I could see in Mira’s face that her adrenalin was still high like mine, we simply picked back up where we had left off. I finished ordering my yogurt, and we all sat down to enjoy our breakfast. Breakfast conversation however, was anything but “normal”. We hypothesized and concocting various scenarios, wondering what the next few weeks will hold. We discussed our collective threshold, feeling that we couldn’t really leave until the school closed, but not knowing for sure what will push each one of us to flee. Our focus is always drawn to the fact that no matter what we are experiencing here, we cannot even imagine the reality of people living in the South of Israel and in Gaza. Our fortune is made up of 1.5 minute sirens, and an extremely expensive and effective piece of military equipment, both entirely absent from the lives of civilians in Gaza. 

Mira and I biked home and tried to get moving on classwork. As we were both coming down from our adrenaline, we found ourselves exhausted. It is so strange having to reconcile with the limits of your body in a state of fear when you feel a sense of calm and assurance in your mind. My friend Emily came over to work on our Afghanistan and Pakistan reports for Tuesday, and we moved at a snail’s pace. The current atmosphere makes it very difficult to get much of anything done. After talking with my mom, Len, and Jeannie for a bit on Skype, Felipe and I got ready to go out to meet our friend Adam for TRX training along the beach. 

As we readied ourselves to leave, we concluded that the rockets had been so early in the day, and that likely there would be more tonight. We closed the windows and pulled down our Israeli-style outdoor metal blinds over them, and brought our backpack with all essentials. How best to run than in my exercise get-up? Walking along the seaside boardwalk, we took in the fairly deserted scene. Only a handful of people were running or biking, and outdoor cafes were significantly less crowded than usual. We got to the park at Gordon Beach, and started our training. About 15 minutes in, the sirens began. Unlike the first time, we made sure to grab our bag and run to the hotel across from the park. We stood under the concrete overhang and waited for what felt like forever tonight. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of light emanating from the rocket-Iron Dome collision. A few moments later, we heard another loud crash that shook the ground. We waited under the overhang for a few more minutes, the sirens stopped, and people dispersed like they always do. We went back to training and watched as a few helicopters crossed the sky. Again my adrenaline pushed through my body, but I kept training, pushing my energy elsewhere, following my breath to calm my body. 

Walking home, Felipe and I talked about standing firm and waiting until the university closed before moving. I went on a short run and we came home to finish laundry. This is becoming “normal” now, even for us. I fear this state of normalcy, knowing that Israelis and Palestinians have had to live with this over the past decades, along with too many other people in the world. No human should ever have to live with bombs flying over their heads in any capacity. How can we fix this? I am finding myself asking a lot of perplexing questions this evening. 

Saturday Night Protests

Photo: Peter King

After sundown last night, life around us resumed. We heard the engines of the buses outside and a few shops opening, signifying the close of Shabbat. We all decided that sitting in the apartment for the evening would be completely unproductive as none of us were able to do homework, and sitting with the news on our computers was making us crazy.

Hearing news of an anti-war protest at the end of Rothschild Boulevard, we decided to go out together and check it out. Making sure to have all travel documents necessary and a good pair of shoes on, we walked down to the protest consisting of what I would guess to be about 150 people or so. Signs raised in the air flashed various slogans in English, Arabic, and Hebrew while people chanted to the beat of drums coming from within the crowd. The demonstration was peaceful, with the largest poster in sight reading “I shall not hate.” Across the intersection, a much smaller counter-protest was forming with two people wearing Israeli flags draped around their shoulders and another man holding a large poster in Hebrew reading “ugly souls.” A few people from the counter-protest yelled “traitor!” in Hebrew at the anti-war protesters.

A couple of us went over to the other side of the street to speak with the man holding the sign reading “ugly souls.” He is a military nurse and is leaving today to serve the Israeli Forces in the South. He felt that the anti-war protesters wanted Israel to give up too much to Palestinians, and that they were traitors for supporting such a cause when other Israelis such as he, are leaving to defend their country and safety.

While I did not get to speak to any protesters on the anti-war side directly, their messages were quite clear. I felt that they only thing they wanted Israel and Hamas alike to “give up” was violence. They feel the current conflict is motivated by hate, and that the subsequent escalation will be a fruitless. One protester held a sign with Gandhi’s famous words “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” I have to say, I cannot agree with this statement more.

About ten of us left the protest and went to get a bite to eat. Though we were laughing and having fun, a certain heaviness looms over everyone right now. Parting for the evening, embraces are stronger, and well all look each other in the eyes and say “stay safe!”

Shabbat Sundown: Third Wave Hits

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While we played frisbee

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After the rockets 

We woke up this morning with a strange sense of relief mixed with a bit of surprise. Felipe, Elisa, Mira, and our friend Nelson who stayed over made breakfast and tried to put the pieces of the news together. Pulling from various sources, we tried to make sense of our surroundings. 

While Shabbat is always quiet, today was especially silent. The streets were bare, and with the exception of a child riding a bicycle outside with his mother, we did not see the usual people around for a Shabbat stroll. By about 14:00, it had been over 24 hours since the last sirens sounded, and we decided we all needed to get out for a bit.

We went across the street to the beach to play a bit of frisbee with an Israeli friend. The air was getting a bit cool and the sky overcast. Usually a fairly crowded place on Shabbat, the beach was relatively bare. We went in the water and played frisbee in a circle for a while, laughing at one another as we dove in the sand. As sunset began, a bit of rain came down. We packed our things up to go home, and the sirens began. 

We all grabbed our towels and bags quickly, and ran to the nearest building. Cars stopped as people frantically ran across the street and just as we crossed, I am quite sure I heard two rockets hit. For sure it was one, but I think there were two in quick succession. They were not as close as the one yesterday.

Once we crowded along the building, we saw another rocket in the sky as the Iron Dome, installed this morning, intercepted it. The rocket dropped out of the sky in mid-route and left a plume of smoke in the air. The people on the ground began to cheer, clapping their hands and yelling. Amidst their jubilation, another rocket hit, and it hit hard. The ground shook and people looked around in alarm as this rocket was clearly the closest we have heard thus far. I don’t think anybody expected to feel a rocket so close. I can’t know if it was the rocket falling that the Iron Dome shot down, or not, but it was the closest thus far. 

After a few minutes, people began to disperse. Some people were experiencing shock, held up by friends around them. Others were laughing nervously, talking quickly in their respective languages about what had happened. Three strikes in three days. The sea side, where we had been minutes before amongst other people trying to retain some sense of normalcy, was deserted.  

All accounted for, Felipe, our two roommates, and a few friends started to walk home towards our apartment. We talked about leaving our door unlocked so we could easily run to the stairwell incase sirens go off tonight. I realized while running today that my sandals only hindered my ability to move quickly, so I am likely better off barefoot in the estimated 1.5 minutes we have from the time the sirens go off to an actual hit. Felipe looked at me, how long can we do this? 

I know that the powers that be are trying to build a cease fire, but I haven no idea when that will be put into place. There is so much anger and hatred fuming from both sides of this conflict, and for as much as we have experienced thus far, I can’t even imagine what the people in Gaza are experiencing. I see their faces through the internet and I know how close they are to us, but their situation is still so far from me. Photos online of homes and apartments blasted in the south of Israel, people morning the dead on both sides, all alike in their grief. One photo depicted two young Israeli women in uniform, one comforting the other. My body broke out in goosebumps. Have I not seen the same young women in their green Israel Forces uniforms around Tel Aviv? Browsing the same boutiques I walk into?

As I sit and write, sirens persist outside my widow colliding with the occasional sound of a helicopter. A few friends have left for the time being, and we have been assured to stand by the U.S. State Department and go about our business here. I recently bought a bike here, so if we stick around this week, I will only ride to school and avoid public transit at all costs. We are looking into flights costs and weighing our options. I will post more as it comes. Lots of love to all, on every side. 

Second Day: Second Siren in Tel Aviv

 

 

Today as I took some chicken out of the oven, sirens filled the air. I looked to Felipe and we both ran wide-eyed into our shelter. More sirens filled the silence around us as we sat in the bunker, waiting, like the night before. I kept thinking of our roommates, both out in the city. Mira was safe at a bike shop, and Elisa at the university. After about a minute and a half, the rocket hit. I don’t know where, but I looked outside to see all of the birds take to the sky.

While I felt calm, I was shaking. My mind immediately went south. I cannot fathom what the people to the south of Tel Aviv are feeling. My heart hurts for the civilians in Gaza who have nowhere to go, and those in the south of Israel who are living in fear. It is absolutely exhausting.

Tonight is particularly windy, and I keep thinking that the wind blowing strongly through the buildings is an alarm. Insha’Allah, we will not witness anything further this evening. While there is an element of fear in the air, you know you must be in Israel because business as usual ensues through many areas of Tel Aviv, regardless of the fact that this is the first time a rocket has touched Tel Aviv since 1991. While there may not be quite as many people out and about, the shuk (market) was full of people buying groceries for Shabbat this evening, and minutes after the second rocket hit today, people were out and about once again.

I will continue to post updates. We each have a small bag packed, our travel documents are near.  Please send your best to the people most impacted by these events. I will not adhere to the propaganda spewing from all sides. Life is life, fire is fire, and hate is hate. Love is powerful, people speak from love, and love is absent in conflict. This is just what I am feeling right now. Tonight I will make dinner with some friends, and we will spend the night together. Best to everyone!

Sufi Sema: The Whirling Dervishes

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Raising his arms to the sky, a placid expression slides over the face of the young Dervish. His white skirt takes to the air, his feet moving rhythmically beneath him. Delicately, he whirls; a circular pattern inscribed in his heart carries him to the sound of the musician’s ney. While his brow glistens, his soul is elsewhere, unaware of the physical labor he endures. He is in the realm of the Sama, a physically active meditation originating among Sufis and practiced by Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. 

Dervishes gather to perform Sama together in a Sema, or worship ceremony through which Dervishes seek to reach the source of all perfection called Kemal. Perfection is sought through abandoning one’s nafs, or egos and personal desires through following the music performed by Sufi musicians and focusing on God. The spinning of one’s body in repetitive circles is symbolic of the planets of the Solar System orbiting around the sun. 

The Sema as explained by Sufis:

In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen’s camel’s hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn  to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, “All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”