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Sam Kestenbaum
Sam Kestenbaum
Sam Kestenbaum lives and works in Ramallah, the cultural capital of the Palestinian West Bank.

“I find myself looking back” — Personal stories from Palestine


by: on March 24th, 2012 | 8 Comments »

In America, they called him Mike. He lived in midtown Manhattan. He used to have a long ponytail, he tells me, a neatly shaven beard and he dressed fashionably.

Here in Palestine, they call him Hisham.

He wears a neat black coat and thin wire-rim glasses. Hisham is in his fifties now and has wispy gray hair. He was born and raised in Ramallah, he tells me, but moved to America in his twenties.

I meet Hisham at the local coffee shop. It’s a crowded popular spot in the center of Ramallah. The ceilings are high and the air is thick with smoke.

The seasons are in transition. The spring is coming, but some days are still freezing. Sheets of icy, cold rain fall outside, flooding the streets. The old men who frequent the shop wear heavy coats and scarves wrapped around their heads. The low bubbling sound of the water pipe fills the room.

Hisham speaks English with an American accent and swears every other word. He misses America, he tells me. “Probably meeting me in this cafe,” he waves his hand around the room, “you wouldn’t think that I lived in America. I probably look really Palestinian, like I’ve never left this place. But I loved that country,” he says.


Stories on the Wall: Refugees in Ramallah


by: on January 25th, 2012 | 7 Comments »

Outside of my apartment is a small, crowded neighborhood called Qaddura. Mostly refugees live here. It’s not officially recognized as a refugee camp by the United Nations – which means it doesn’t receive direct financial support from the organization – but it still feels like one.

The streets are narrow and the walls of buildings are covered in graffiti. There are paintings of machine guns and flags.

Nationalist slogans have been spray painted in Arabic and English. “Free Palestine,” someone has scrawled in Arabic and “All forms of resistance are patriotism.”

There are around 4,500 residents here and 500 families. Almost half of the people who live here are under 18 and the unemployment rate is at 80%. This is a relatively small refugee camp — nothing compared to the other crowded, sprawling West Bank camps of Balata, Tulkarem, Jenin or Dheisheh.


Death in Nabi Saleh: Mourning for Mustafa Tamimi


by: on December 15th, 2011 | 9 Comments »

Mustafa Tamimi's funeral, Nabi Saleh (Photo by Sam Kestenbaum)

On the day of Mustafa Tamimi’s funeral, the sky is blue and clear. It’s the first week of December and the air is cool. Families cry and hold each other. Old men stand around in leather jackets, smoking cigarettes and shaking hands, their faces drawn. Tamimi’s body is covered in a sheet, laid on a board and hoisted on shoulders. He’s then paraded around the village’s narrow streets. The crowd gathered here – friends, family and supporters – is in the hundreds.

Mustafa Tamimi was from Nabi Saleh, a small village of 550, north of Ramallah. One week ago, he was shot in the head with a teargas canister. An Israeli soldier fired the shot at Tamimi, who was among a group of other Palestinian and international protestors. The shot was fired from inside an armored military jeep and at close range. Tamimi immediately crumpled to the ground.


Freed prisoners and repentance in Palestine-Israel


by: on October 28th, 2011 | 7 Comments »

In downtown Ramallah it may look like business is thriving, but it isn't.

For Thaer, this past month has been hard. He works in downtown Ramallah, in one of the tall, maze-like shopping centers here. The building is five stories high and it has a creaky elevator. Thaer tells me business has been bad.

“Everything is slow in Ramallah these days,” he says. “You might be fooled if you looked at the city because it looks busy.” But Thaer says that he’s been struggling to bring home the money that his family needs.

He and his wife Rula have two daughters together. They live on the outskirts of Ramallah, next to a big, domed mosque and not far from Jerusalem. From his roof, you can see Israel’s Security Wall.

Over lunch, Thaer tells me that his wife is pregnant. She smiles and nods from across the table. Because of health complications from past pregnancies, she’s going to need regular checkups from the doctor, Thaer tells me. She may also need surgery.

Rula has cooked lamb and rice for lunch. She’s also prepared a spinach soup, served with warm bread. After we’ve eaten, washed our hands and sat down for tea, Thaer tells me something else.

“I may go work for Israel,” he says quietly and nods. “I’ve applied for my permit and I should know in a few weeks whether it has been approved. The money will be a lot better there.”

We sip our tea. “I have a clean record. The Israelis can look at everything I’ve done. There has been no political involvement,” he tells me. Thaer moved to Ramallah from his hometown, a small, poor village to the north.


Ramadan, Tish B’Av and Eid al-Fitr in Palestine and Israel


by: on September 4th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

Tish B'Av at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall is busy during Tish B'av.

1. “What are you doing here?”

On the last night of Ramadan – the month-long fast observed by Muslims – I pass through the Jordanian-Israeli border at a crossing called the Allenby Bridge. This is the only border crossing open to West Bank Palestinians. It is the only way Palestinians can come and go from their country. This border is patrolled and controlled by Israel.

I am here to renew my visa. But most of the crowd is made up of Palestinian families wheeling enormous suitcases and coming to Palestine for the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that immediately follows Ramadan.

At the border, I’m quickly pulled aside by Israeli security. Because I live in the Palestinian West Bank and write – for this website and others – about Palestinians, Israelis, the conflict and the occupation, I’m regularly questioned.

Though I was surprised the first few times, now I’m used to this, to being pulled aside, interrogated and asked to wait.

“Where are you going?” one Israeli official asks me. “Why are you coming to Israel?”

“I’m going to Ramallah,” I say. “That’s where I live.”

He nods and squints at my passport.

“Samuel?” he frowns. “Are you Jewish?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “I am.”

He pauses.

“What are you doing here?”

The official leafs through my passport and makes a quick phone call. An armed guard appears behind me. “We’re going to ask you some questions.” The guard presses me forward, through a set of doors and to a row of chairs. He doesn’t say anything. I take a seat next to a Palestinian father and his two daughters, who have also been set aside for questioning.

The family next to me – and most of the crowd here – are Muslims. They’re fasting, waiting for sundown to eat, drink and smoke their cigarettes. There are no windows inside and no one can see the sun set, but people glance at their watches. One man unpacks a woven prayer mat and slings it over his shoulder. It’s almost time to pray.


“I have to rediscover who I am” — Exiles in Palestine and Israel


by: on August 8th, 2011 | Comments Off

Friday mornings are quiet in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank. Most of the shops are closed; the market is quiet. This is a holy day for Muslims, jummu’ah, and most people take the morning off from work to pray. The muezzin’s call to prayer, the adhan, from the central mosque rings through the streets.

“God is the greatest,” he calls. “I bear witness that there is no God except the One God.”

On Friday, the local imam also makes his weekly sermon; this is also played through a loudspeaker. One section of the Qu’ran that is typically read on Fridays is Surat al-Ghashiya.

In it, God is speaking to Mohammad: “They do not look at the camel – how it was created; at the sky – how it is raised; and at the mountains – how they are erected, nor at the earth – how it is spread out,” God says, “Remind them. All you can do is be a reminder.”

The imam’s voice rises and falls, sometimes distorting over the loudspeaker. After prayer ends, I get a call from a Palestinian friend, Nabil.

“I’m finished at the mosque,” he says. “Come over for lunch when you’re ready. Do you remember where I live?”

Ramallah is perched on the top of a series of rocky hills, and made up of smaller villages and towns. Nabil lives with his wife and children in one of the outlying neighborhoods of Ramallah, a short drive from the center of the city. I take a small public bus there, full of old men, also returning from prayer.

Nabil’s home is in an old, crumbling six-storey apartment complex. He greets me on the street and leads me upstairs to the third floor. Inside, his apartment is crowded with couches, chairs and bookcases.

Nabil takes me by the arm and gives me a quick tour.

There are souvenirs from his family’s recent trip to Mecca, framed portraits, and piles of kid’s toys. On one wall, there is a poster of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and one of Dora the Explorer. His two daughters are playing on the floor when I arrive but stand up to greet me.


Strangers in the Desert: Remembering Abraham in Hebron


by: on July 5th, 2011 | 5 Comments »

The biggest city in the West Bank is 19 miles south of Jerusalem, nestled in the center of four hills near the Judean Mountains. The city is called a few different names. In Arabic, it’s al-Khalil; in Hebrew it’s Hevron. Most English speakers call it Hebron.

The words share a common Semitic root, which means “friend.”

The “friend” that the city is named after is Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Old Testament tells how Abraham came from Ur and passed through these hills.

He admired them and purchased a plot of land from a man living here. When he died, he decided, he wanted to be buried – along with his family – in this green, fertile country.

Local traditions teach that Abraham is entombed, alongside his wife, in a cave, deep below the center of the city. Other patriarchs are buried here, Abraham’s descendents: Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Muslim tradition teaches that Mohammad stopped here on his night journey to Jerusalem, Jewish mysticism teaches that the cave leads to the Garden of Eden (and that you can actually smell the fragrant garden from the mouth of the cave), and there are Christians who believe that John the Baptist was born here, too.

Today Hebron is known for different reasons.

The city is in the West Bank and is split in two. It’s still a Palestinian city, but a group of Israeli settlers lives in the center of the city, their homes surrounded by concrete blockades, barbed wire and heavily armed soldiers.

In the West Bank, sun-baked hills spread into the distance, rocky and dotted with low, gnarled olive trees. To the east is the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, to the south is the desert. To the west are Israel and the shores of the Mediterranean.


Remembering the Revolution: A View from Cairo


by: on May 28th, 2011 | 4 Comments »

Cairo is covered in celebratory graffiti. “Freedom,” is spray-painted on a brick wall downtown, alongside the image of two hands breaking a chain. “We Rule Egypt,” is scrawled near a grade school and “Enjoy the Revolution” is stenciled in big block letters in Midan Tahrir, Liberation Square. “No to Mubarak,” someone else wrote, “Free Egypt,” “God Bless Egypt,” and “Justice.”

The revolution is fresh in the city’s memory.

At night, the air is cool and the now-historic Tahrir Square is busy; it feels like a street party. You can have your face painted the colors of the Egyptian flag. There’s chanting, singing and a constant chorus of car horns, the steady rumble of the Cairo night. Sweet coffee, fresh popcorn and salted peanuts are for sale. Couples walk arm in arm and families roll out blankets to picnic.

“We’re proud to be Egyptians now,” Omar, a young Egyptian student tells me. He’s tall, wiry, and speaks English well. “Really, really proud. You saw what our country did, right?”

It’s past midnight and Omar is with a group of classmates. Omar is studying to be a pharmacist and his three friends are studying to be engineers. All four of them attend the University of Cairo, not far from here.

“We made history; we took control of the country.” Omar tells me. He gets a faraway look in his eyes when he speaks about the revolution. His voice softens.


Our Stories Overlap: Passover in Palestine


by: on May 2nd, 2011 | 4 Comments »

Two days before the start of Passover, I get stuck at the Israeli border. I’m re-entering the country from a weekend trip. It’s early in the morning, but already hot and there’s no breeze.

“Please sit outside and keep waiting,” an Israeli guard tells me. “Thank you.” She speaks with a thick accent and smiles. I’ve already been waiting two hours.

I wonder why I’ve been stopped. I’m not part of any activist groups. I don’t go to demonstrations or protests. I don’t think I’m a security threat. I haven’t hurt anyone.

An Israeli border check.

I’m waved inside and motioned to sit down on a plastic chair. A phone is put in my hand and a voice comes through the receiver. It’s an official, someone’s superior. The line crackles; he sounds far away.

“How long have you been in Israel?” he asks.

“Around three months,” I say.

“We know you’ve been to the West Bank. Is that right?”

“Yes,” I say. “I have.”

I feel like this was the wrong answer. There’s a long pause.

“What is your relationship with the Arab?”


Doves on the Rooftop: A View from the West Bank


by: on April 13th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

Doves fly over the Israeli Separation Wall in a graffiti art piece near the military checkpoint in Qalandia.

Abu keeps rabbits on the roof of his family’s home. There are five of them and they’re brown, white and black. He tosses them a handful of yesterday’s pita and they scamper underfoot, nibbling on the edges of the bread.

“You see the fat one?” he points, “She’s the mother. The first one I owned.”

Downstairs, Abu lives with his wife and his newborn daughter. They stay on the third floor; his father and mother live on the second and his two brothers live on the first floor. Abu also has two sisters who live in Jerusalem.

It’s early in the morning, but the sun is bright. I shade my eyes with my hand to look into the light. Abu wants to show me the view from the roof. Ramallah, he explains, is behind us.

“And you see that building?” Abu says, stretching his arm out and pointing to the west. The building that he’s pointing to looks like it’s on the same block, but it isn’t. It’s in another city. “That’s my sister’s house. That’s Jerusalem.”

He takes me by the arm, to the edge of the roof. “And right there is the Israeli wall,” he points down.