Category Archives: The View From Here

The View From Here features the writing of Joanna Chen, based out of Israel’s Ella Valley.

Swans and Seagulls

By Joanna Chen

It’s raining on our first morning in Ireland but my daughter and I struggle into Dublin city for a little exploration. Armed with an umbrella, bundled in jackets, scarves, and boots, we wander through Grafton Street, Dublin’s main drag of high-end stores. People with rustling carrier bags bump up against us; I feel trapped, and long for an escape route. As a child I was fascinated by Lucy’s adventures in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, how she escaped the pressures of war-torn England by traversing the fur coats and entering the wardrobe through to the other side. Here’s the rain, the gloom of existence, and I am about to enter my own wardrobe of escape.    Continue reading


By Joanna Chen

The last time I drove up this hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem was just over five years ago. In front of me was an Israeli army truck with six beautiful olive trees strapped to it, their trucks thick and gnarled, the dull leaves trembling as the truck lurched up the hill in heavy traffic. I could not take my eyes off those trees, which must have been 60 years old at least. They were not chopped up, but whole and beautiful and vibrant. From where had they been ripped up so meticulously, and where they being taken to so carefully, I wondered.  Continue reading

Finding Home in an Arabic Class in Israel

By Joanna Chen

I’m sitting in my studio at The Virginia Center for The Creative Arts in Amherst, writing about Jaffa, Israel, where I recently took a course in Arabic. It’s part of a memoir set mostly in Israel, where I now live. A text message pops up on my cell phone from my daughter, Jasmine. I’m OK, don’t worry, the message says. I’m immediately worried.  I check the wires and discover there have been three attacks in Israel today. One was in Jaffa, I learn.

With horror I watch a video on my laptop of a man running down a familiar street just off Jaffa, close to the promenade.  He’s stabbed a number of people, including an American tourist who later dies of his wounds. Someone, probably a bystander, is screaming in Hebrew: “Give it to him, give it to him.” I imagine the face attached to this voice, and I shudder. Pools of blood gather on the sidewalk, and the perpetrator, a Palestinian in his 20s, is bludgeoned and then shot dead near a fish restaurant on the beach front where I have eaten many times with my family on calmer days.

Back in January, when I told friends I was starting an Arabic course, eyebrows were raised. There had been a spate of violence around Israel and a renewed atmosphere of mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians had flared up. I began the course.

Perhaps this was the reason why there was plenty of parking the day I arrived in Jaffa for the first class. The flea market, where the course took place, was eerily empty for a Friday morning. Storekeepers were setting out their wares: Formica-topped tables from the 70s, incomplete sets of silverware, rocking chairs with flowery cushions and painted armrests. The corner coffee shop was empty. A barista stood at the counter, watching the street.

A feeling of dread filled the air as I walked toward the studio, nestled in a side-street of the market.  Our teacher, a jolly woman named Sahar, laughed nervously. “The easy parking is the upside of what has been a horrible week,” she says in Hebrew, her eyes twinkling, panning her new students. That particular week really was horrible, with a spate of knifings carried out by Palestinians in their teens. They were shot on the spot by Israeli security personnel. An innocent Eritrean man was lynched by a seething mob in the central bus station of Beersheba after a shooting attack.

I sat down on a stiff-backed chair with the other participants. There was labaneh and pitta bread and little cookies set out on the table beside us, an offering of goodwill from Elbahar, the NGO that offers this course as a way of both reaching out to Israeli Jews and raising money for small businesses run by the women of Jaffa. The door to the studio was open, and Sahar asked if we’d feel safer if the door was locked. Without waiting for an answer, she crossed over the room and locked it.

Jaffa is one of the few areas in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together. Parts of it, like the flea market, feel like fragile oases of peace in a country where peace hovers but never seems to land. Yet this fact is deceptive. In 1948, many of the Arab population fled in boats to Gaza, never to see their homes again.

Today, much of Jaffa is undergoing gentrification and the remaining Arab residents are making way for yuppie Jewish families. So, if you can afford the rocketing price of realty there, it might be hip to live in Jaffa, it might be cool to retain the softly arching windows and the original floor mosaics as you renovate the crumbling structure of a house that overlooks the Mediterranean, but let’s at least acknowledge the underlying social and political map of this area.

Arabic is spoken by almost 25 percent of the Israeli population; Hebrew reigns supreme.  Some months ago, a member of the Israeli parliament tried to pass a bill degrading the status of Arabic to a “special” language. That was when I decided it was about time I sit down and learn Arabic systematically.

While working as a foreign journalist, I picked up a sprinkling of Arabic, enough to show willing, to say please and thank you, but little more than that. I also learnt the word for journalist, sahafiyeh, a word I used at check points when entering and exiting the West Bank. When Sahar begins by asking us what our professions are, I raise my hand confidently and say: Ana sahafiyeh. The truth is, I’m not really a journalist anymore, but I didn’t know the word for writer or translator. I knew to say marhabah when entering a Palestinian house and could hold a very simple conversation. Beyond that, I was lost without an interpreter by my side. Now, in Jaffa, was my chance to learn those words.

We laughed a lot in that first class. There was a film producer, three lawyers, a retired scientist, a young woman who works for Oxfam and another who works in high-tech. There was also a woman rabbi, but Sahar explained there is no word for that in Arabic. It simply doesn’t exist.

One of the first questions Sahar taught us was Wen inte saken? Where do you live? A question that has always been difficult for me to answer. I was born in England but have lived in the Middle East for more than thirty years. I moved to Israel as a teenager, a move orchestrated by my parents that I have struggled with for years. It’s also a question that resonates for many here in Israel, a country that was founded by immigrants fleeing their motherlands but today largely resents new immigrants.

Almost all Arabic names (and Hebrew ones too) have a meaning. Sahar, for example, means dawn.  Our teacher explained that there are three different  words in Arabic for dawn: sahar, meaning a few minutes before dawn; fajer, meaning a few minutes before lights breaks on the horizon, and duha, a little after the sun rises in the sky.  I turn these subtle interpretations over in my mind and think of Nasser Rabah, a poet in Gaza who I met on Facebook a year and a half ago, as Israel was bombing his city. I have translated some of his poems with the help of a friend from DC. Rabbah’s words are important and brave. I want to understand them, I want to hear his voice.

Once a week for 12 weeks, we learned how to string simple sentences together, hesitantly at first, then more confidently as the weeks went by.  During the break at noon, the call to prayer from nearby mosques would ring out through the market at the same time as the Jewish population prepared for the Sabbath, buying challah and other items at one of the nearby grocery stores.

At each class, Sahar wrote conjugations on a blackboard propped up on a plastic chair, then erased the words and wrote more. She wrote in Hebrew script, using the “nikudut’ system of diacritical signs to represent vowels.  I found myself taking notes in English, writing the words with English letters and then, in a weird twist, copying the Hebrew dots and dashes underneath the English letters.

We learned the lilting songs of Fairuz from Lebanon, expressing the yearning for a home that has been taken away, and there were numerous love songs, mostly sung by men. Some of the songs sounded like Zionist pioneer songs, with rousing choruses; others reminded me of Red Army Choir music, with heavily orchestrated sections. We listened to Egyptian singer Dalida’s Helwa Ya Baladi, in which she sings of “memories of the past, remember my beautiful homeland?” and I think back today on my own homeland, which will always be England.

In one of the final classes, someone brought a song by a Jewish singer whose family came from Morocco. Although sung in Arabic, it had a note of familiarity, a Hebrew flavour I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the Hebrew intonation. After class, I listened again while waiting for the bus back to my daughter’s apartment in North Tel Aviv. Then I listened to a song in Arabic and Hebrew, Layla Layla, sung by a Bedouin singer, produced by an Israeli with Arabic roots, and I liked that too.

I sat on the bus as it weaved through the seedy neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. I looked at the Arabs and Jews, my fellow travellers, clutching shopping bags, staring out of the windows. On journeys like these, I occasionally catch words of Arabic I learnt back in that class, mundane words that take on new meaning as I turn them over in my mind. Amal, hope, dayman, always. Bet, home. My home, bayti. It’s almost the same for Hebrew as it is for Arabic. Surely that means something.

When a Tree Falls

By Joanna Chen

I land in Dulles Airport after a blizzard. A thick layer of snow covers the Lincoln Memorial; the Reflecting Pool glistens with ice. The driver of the shuttle bus notices me taking photos through the window with my iPhone and offers to stop for a minute so I can get a good shot. I start explaining that I’m not interested in the tourist sites; my best photos are the blurry ones in which trees, people, buildings, seem to move, when their outlines are smudged across the frame, when there is something suggestive, something left to the imagination, but the driver has already pulled up to the curb so I snap a couple of photos obediently and say thank you. He seems happy, nods and pulls out again into a road that is strangely empty. It’s President’s Day and the recent storm has kept people indoors. Everything is clean and bright.

I last visited DC during the cherry blossom season. The streets were swarming with people back then; we walked down Capitol Hill to the tidal basin at 7 a.m and blossoms the color of silken ballet slippers greeted us. But now the roads are deserted and the shuttle bus makes its way up to the National Mall, sleet thrashing at the windscreen of the van.

I get out at Union Station. This is almost the last leg of a journey that began 13 hours earlier in Oxford, UK, as I descended the creaking wooden stairs leading from the bedroom after parting from my daughter. She lay in bed, the fragrance of sleep hanging in the air. I leaned over her, kissed her forehead, smoothed a tendril of hair away from her brow and murmured in a low voice: See you in six weeks. That was it. As my cousin drove me early morning to Heathrow, the sun rose pinkly and I looked out at the bare trees that lined the country roads and tried to imagine we were headed north towards Yorkshire, to my brother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery that lies on the edge of the main burial grounds of Leeds. There had been no time to go there on this trip to England. It’s more important to be with the living than the dead, I had reasoned. There were cousins to catch up with, there was my Auntie Sheila’s 90th birthday to share. But I missed Yorkshire, I missed the rough diamond quality it has about it, the lack of varnish, the absence of fine tuning. What you see is what you get.

VCCA Day 1

I think about this as I settle down into my seat on the train whose final destination is New Orleans but that will stop for me at Lynchburg, Virginia. I peer out the window as the train moves off. The snow has stopped falling and pristine white illuminates the branches of the trees as we head out. I have been watching the trees closely and they are holding out their arms to me, stretching out their spindly fingers. About half an hour from Lynchburg, the train creaks to a halt. The electricity cuts and we sit in semi-darkness, illuminated only by flimsy, flickering emergency lights. An Amtrak worker with a peaked cap walks through the carriage, informing passengers that a tree has fallen onto the tracks. A baby begins crying and his frazzled mom tells him “night-night” in a sharp voice, over and over. His name is Damian and he won’t stop crying. I’m tired and cranky too. The woman next to me, her hefty body wedged into the seat, spilling over into mine, begins snoring loudly. I shift towards the window, peer out into the night but see nothing. The Amtrak worker moves slowly up the darkened carriage, head down, vacuuming the dingy floor carpeting.

I try to imagine the tree, but I do not even know which trees grow here, whether they are tall and thin, or thick and gnarled, and I wonder how long the tree has been growing until the exact, precise moment of toppling.

After an hour of sitting like this, jammed against the window, I make my way through to the dining carriage. It smells of pot noodles and stale coffee. There is no one behind the counter and I stand there, contemplating the candy bars and bags of popcorn on sale. A large woman with beehive hair dyed blonde, wearing a dark blue Amtrak apron, looks up at me from the next carriage, flashes a smile, and gets up heavily. She lumbers over to me and puts her head to one side. She has twinkly blue eyes and earrings that hang from her lobes like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Her nails are red.

“What can I do for you, my love?” she says, and my heart misses a beat. Her accent with its rough edges and gruff tone is unmistakeably from Yorkshire. I would know it anywhere, even in the middle of the night on a train headed for New Orleans. She is one of mine. “Tea?” I say stupidly as if I am asking her if tea is the right choice, fumbling in my wallet for two dollars. “Tip it out, tip it out,” she says, pointing to the wallet. Her hand hovers closes over mine in a surprising gesture of intimacy, then pushes it away and begins shifting through the coins as though she were examining shells on a beach. There are shekels from Israel, pennies, and pounds from England, and two dimes my dad gave me the night before I left Israel. For luck, he had said, tossing them across the table at me. I remove a 10 dollar note and place it into her hand. “Ta very much, love,” she says. I drop the tea bag she hands me into the paper cup. “Not like that,” she says, and drops another tea bag into the cup, then zaps it in the microwave for a few seconds. “Nice and strong, the way we like it in Yorkshire,” she winks at me again and snaps the plastic cover on the cup. I consider telling her that I’ve lived away from England for more than 30 years and I like my tea weak nowadays, but I don’t want to break the magic between us and so say nothing.

“What’s a Yorkshire lass doing on a train bound for New Orleans?” I ask her as she leans her weight against the counter top. She laughs throatily and tells me she’s been in the US for more than 30 years and doesn’t miss Yorkshire in the least. She tells me she can get anything she wants from England: vacuum-packed spotted dick, Marmite, Thornton’s fudge toffee. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad anymore about not squeezing Yorkshire into my visit. I have it right here in the flesh.

I return to my seat. I lean back and sip the ridiculously strong tea until the train lurches forward again. By now, it’s almost 3 a.m. The tree trunk has been removed. We continue on through the darkness, and at the next stop I get off. Cora and Charles, who run a taxi service and have been waiting for me in the freezing cold for the past three hours, take me to my final destination, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Cora holds out her hand to steady me as I get out the van. They lead me gently up the stairs to my room, open the door, place my luggage by the bed. Below my window, a deer moves across the snow-drenched yard, lifts her head to the night, listening.

Waiting for Nuha

By Joanna Chen

I’m waiting for my friend Nuha at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. A favored haunt of foreign journalists, I clocked up many hours sitting in the leafy center courtyard over iced tea when I worked for Newsweek.

The American Colony, nestling in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, has always been an oasis of tranquility in a city that is anything but tranquil. Built in the late 19th century, it has hosted countless peace negotiations and secret talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Lawrence of Arabia met here with American reporters, and John le Carré, is one of many writers who have stayed here. Mostly, the hotel buzzes with UN officials and foreign diplomats. Today, it’s quiet. The only occupied room in this sprawling stone building is the lobby, where guests lounge in chintzy armchairs near the lit fireplace. A loud voice booms out across the room. An Israeli sitting with a Palestinian, closing a business deal. They speak in Hebrew and from time to time the Palestinian makes a phone call on his cell phone, murmuring into the phone in Arabic. They lean towards each other, the Israeli in a blue shirt, unbuttoned at the top, the Palestinian in a moss-green sweater. Across from them is a group of American journalists drinking coffee out of tiny ceramic cups, and a woman in an ethnic poncho wanders up and down the pink flagstones, her heels clicking on the polished surface.

I settle in to a high-backed armchair and order tea. Nuha will be late because she’s working with journalists and you can never tell how long an assignment will take. My tea arrives in a little white pot, mint leaves floating in the steaming water. I take out my laptop and begin writing.

The meeting between the two businessmen comes to an end and the Israeli rises to his feet and asks where he should pay. The Palestinian says, forget it, I’ll pay. The Israeli laughs uncomfortably, and they shake hands. The American Colony was a pickup point back in my Newsweek days. I would sit here, making phone calls, waiting for people to show. From here we would travel to the West Bank, to illegal settler outposts and Palestinian villages. It is from here that Nuha and I set out to visit a Palestinian woman fresh out of jail for attempting to carry out a suicide bombing, and it is from here that we set out to visit a little girl from Tul Karem who captured our hearts.

Nuha Musleh worked with Newsweek for years, functioning beautifully as an interpreter and fixer, setting up appointments and guiding us through all our interviews on the Palestinian side. We often traveled to the West Bank with Mustapha, a burly, laughing taxi driver, who owned an immaculate Mercedes and drove like a maniac along the narrow roads of the West Bank, sounding his horn, Arabic music blasting from the stereo system. I would invariably get a headache on the way home.

It was also here that I met Mike Hastings, an American journalist, who stayed at the Colony before his first trip to Baghdad, on assignment with Newsweek in 2007. It was here, in the dim bar in the basement of the Colony, that he told me about Andi Parhamovich, his girlfriend, asking me whether I thought he should marry Andy, or did I think it was it a ridiculous idea. It’s a ridiculous idea and you should do it, I said, and we clinked glasses and hugged, and I left him that night at the Colony not knowing that, a few weeks after he arrived in Baghdad, Andi would be killed when her car was ambushed by Sunni insurgents.

It was here I met Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistle-blower, after his release from prison. We met on a hot day in 2004 in the dining room that faces the small swimming pool at the rear end of the hotel. His back was to the pool, and as he talked I watched people jumping in and out of the pool, applying sun cream to glistening bodies, sipping cool drinks. Vanunu had nothing to say. In fact, he was forbidden to speak to journalists. So why did I meet him? I was curious to see him, and disappointed at this slight, short man with skin the color of cigarette smoke, a soft voice and eyes that darted about the room throughout our half-hour conversation.

A Frenchman circles the lobby. Black pants, sleek black coat, Ray-Ban glasses positioned on his bald head, hands in pockets. Perhaps he’s a security guard for a high-profile guest. There are plenty of them staying here.

A young guy sits the other side of the fireplace, tapping away on a sleek laptop, perfectly white sneakers on his feet and a tailored jacket. He’s a pastor, he says, here on a twelve-day mission.

Nuha bursts into the lobby in a pink wool coat and black hat. Underneath, she’s wearing a red dress and around her neck is a heavy Palestinian necklace. The colors and styles clash, but Nuha knows how to carry it off. We embrace and it’s real, not kisses evaporating into the air but a warm, long hug. It’s been a long time.

At 2 p.m. we’re already sitting in the dining room, the same place I had sat with Vanunu. We munch on bread dipped in thick olive oil, we eat lentil soup, we laugh and chatter together. Less than a mile away, at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, a combined knife and gun attack begins. One of the Israeli guards, a 19-year-old woman, is killed in the attack. Two more are wounded. The three Palestinian perpetrators are shot dead at the scene.

For an hour, Nuha and I leave our cell phones in our bags. She talks about the art gallery she and her husband own in Ramallah, and about her mother, who has been sick. I ask her how she manages to keep running on the treadmill of journalism, and she shrugs her shoulders and smiles. I tell her how I took my son yesterday to see the so-called separation barrier that Israel continues to build around the Palestinian territories, and how I made him get out of the car so he could see for himself how a wall, however high it is, cannot hide the other side.

For one hour, neither of us check our messages, or the wires for breaking news. For one hour, we are two friends sitting together across a table. We worked together for over a decade and I trust her completely. I like to think that nothing will separate us.

Half an hour later, Nuha and I say goodbye in the American Colony’s parking lot and I head for home, happy to slip out of Jerusalem before the rush hour. But the roads are heavily congested in East Jerusalem. I make a U-turn and hit even more traffic heading for the Old City. An ambulance flits by, and then three police cars, their sirens shrieking. I switch on the car radio and hear about the attack.


More or Less Insane

By Joanna Chen

My cousin and his wife are visiting us. It’s been a long time since Steven and I played hide and seek together, growing up in London. When I moved to Israel as a teenager, the connection between us was severed, or so I thought. The few times I saw him over the years on trips to England, we hardly talked. He was a stranger, grown tall, with a gruff voice and a retiring manner. Neither of us could break through the barrier of years on those brief trips, and I don’t believe we really tried. Then last year I visited England on two occasions, and saw him both times. I laughingly told him I would put up curtains in the guest room if he came to Israel. A few days after returning home, his wife, Sue, sent me an email: We’re coming she said, the flights are booked. I was surprised that they would visit after so many years.

By email we discussed the places they would like to see on their trip: The Old City of Jerusalem; Jaffa; the Dead Sea; a number of churches. We made plans. I hung pretty chintz curtains with pink flowers in the guest room. I put matching sheets on the bed and emptied the closet of towels and linen. I wanted it to be perfect. It had been so long.

The day before their arrival, the tension began building in Israel again. There were sporadic knifings, talk of a third Intifada, rumours of a new blast of hatred. For once, I studiously blocked all this out of my mind. I wanted their visit to be a happy one. I wanted to show them that people can live side by side in peace, despite their differences. I even considered a visit to my friend in Ramallah if things calmed down. But they did not.

On the contrary, the day they arrive in Israel there is another knifing attack in the Old City as they drive to us from the airport. I stop listening to the news as their car draws up outside our house. We hug, we drink tea and eat maple syrup cake together. Sue has a thousand questions to ask about life in Israel. My partner, an historian, answers her patiently while I bustle around with the tea things. The beginning of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem” rings in my ears as I place a pot of tea on the kitchen table, for she sums up so perfectly how I feel:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

This is what I have been doing for a long time: attempting to keep my life together while everything collapses around me. I want to tell my cousin and his wife to go see everything, but I can’t. I want them safe and it doesn’t feel safe here right now. I explain to them that my life is here but I wonder if it really is. I was sent to live in Israel against my will and I have lived through two Intifadas. I have raised three children here. I have worried about them as buses explode and people are attacked. I have sheltered them while others have watched their homes razed to the ground or buried their sons and daughters. I have tiptoed around the blood and the revenge for so long. I am living on a volcano when I could be living back in England, and who knows how my life might have turned out there. My mother used to laugh when I accused her of ruining my life by bringing me here, telling me that I would never have met my partner or given birth to my beautiful children. This is true, but it is not enough to justify what I am doing here, so many years later.

I cannot explain this to my cousin, so instead I say that that there are good people, Palestinians and Jews, who long for a different life, far removed from the penetrating violence and hatred.

But we avoid politics that first afternoon. We have a lot of catching up to do. I left England suddenly, at16, sent to a boarding school in Israel after the death of my only brother, Andrew, in a traffic accident. The trauma and the abrupt move from everything I had ever known wiped my slate of childhood memories clean. I remember precious little. As we sit around the kitchen table, Steven disappears for a moment and returns with a small stack of photos. He moves the tea things to the side and lays the photos out on the table as if he’s handing out playing cards.

These family photos from my childhood stun me for a moment. I buy time, rearranging them in two neat rows with my fingertips. There are photos of us when we were children, Andrew and Steven and myself in various poses sitting in the back garden of his house in London, bundled up in sweaters and raincoats. I’ve never seen these photos before and they stir something deep within me. There’s my brother, smiling a cheeky grin, standing above my father, who is pointing at something in the distance. There are also photos I have never seen of my brother’s bar mitzvah — Andrew wearing a yarmulke, reading a speech, his head tilted to one side, and one of me at dinner wearing an embroidered waistcoat and matching skirt. Suddenly, I remember that outfit — the material was heavy and stiff and a bit scratchy on my skin. I remember running my fingers over its rough texture. Perhaps Steven holds a key to my memories. He is close to me in age, and he remembers.

On their third day, Steven and Sue go to Jerusalem. It’s raining and I rummage through the closet looking for umbrellas. It’s been a long, hot summer and it takes me a while to find the umbrellas, shoved to the back of the closet. The Google map they consult early that morning suggests that the quickest route to Jerusalem is through the tunnels that divide Israel from the West Bank. The road winds through a Palestinian village on the one side, and an ultra-orthodox Jewish town on the other side. This is a road I take regularly, to avoid the heavy traffic snaking up to Jerusalem on the main highway. But I say, No, it’s not safe for you there. We find an alternative route and they leave, umbrellas in hand.

All day, I worry about my cousin and his wife. While they are in the Old City, there’s another stabbing, and they are told by patrolling policemen to avoid the Muslim areas. Instead, they go to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sue is Christian and she lights a candle in the church and prays. I would have lit one too if I had been there. Later, I don’t ask her what she prayed for. I think I know.

We join them early evening in the open-air market of Mahaneh Yehuda for dinner. I am terrified something will happen; I feel protective, responsible. The market is crowded with people on their way home from work, haggling for vegetables and fruit that gleam under bare light bulbs. Nothing happens, we eat dinner and then buy a few spices, crimson sumac and lemony za’atar, from one of the few stalls still open. The night sky deepens and I breathe a sigh of relief as we reach home.

We spend a morning walking the gentle hills near our home. It’s late morning. The ground is dotted with bushes of wild oregano. Carob trees grow on one side of the path and pale fields stretch out further than we can see. A lone gazelle appears on one of the higher slopes, and the dog shoots off, barking and wagging her tail. We visit the nearby church, Bet Jamal, and the nun who welcomes us at the church gate tells Sue that she will be back to visit again.

The next day, we drive down to Masada together. We get a late start, and the sun is already shining fiercely as we begin the ascent, armed with bottles of water and hats. The fortress, constructed by the Judean King Herod, was the last stand of the Jewish revolt during the Roman Empire. Today, it’s a protected site of UNESCO and a symbol of Zionism to Jews. For me, it’s simply a physical challenge. I twisted my ankle a few weeks before, and it throbs unpleasantly as I climb the steep incline. But I’m stubborn and we make it to the top, my partner and cousin pulling me up the last few steps. At the top, hordes of tourists with selfie sticks and iPhones are snapping photos and posing in front of the ruins. It feels like business as usual up here.

I watch the ravens circling the cable car station. I think of the Jewish zealots, here at the top of the mountain all those years ago, looking down at the drop below, willing to kill for their beliefs, willing to hurl themselves off the top rather than fall in the hands of the Romans. I think of Palestinians and Jews today. They are desperate, and the fanatics among them are willing to give their lives here, and to take the lives of others. I think about what’s happening down below in this country I live in and I shiver, despite the immense heat. I blink in the bright sunlight and return to Rukeyser’s words:

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves.

After that, we climb back into the car and make our way to the Dead Sea, twinkling brightly along the receding coast. My daughter is worried about the sink holes and asks what it must be like when such a hole opens out like a gigantic mouth. It’s like the end of the world, I say, and then stop myself. We’re on vacation today and I turn the music up a notch.

We park the car and make our way down to the Dead Sea, each of us carrying a towel. By now, it’s late afternoon. We step together into the shallow sea, taking care not to slip on the mud, then lie back and let the waters lull us. We float for a while. The memories Steven has shared with me surface in my mind, and I long for more. Later, I sit in a deck chair and listen to the laughter around me as people from all over the world cover themselves with mud, and then lean back into the warm, oily water. It’s a rare sound, this laughter, ringing out over the water. We stay a couple of hours and then leave, as the day cools down and dusk falls.

When Women Wage Peace

By Joanna Chen

My friend and I arrive late at the protest tent of Women Wage Peace in Jerusalem. Temperatures are soaring; a car bursts into flames on the main highway, forcing us into a huge traffic jam that snakes up the steep incline into Jerusalem. No matter. The women at the open-air tent are happy to see us. We are offered water in plastic cups and I am handed a blue cloth necklace with the words “I’m fasting” written on it in Hebrew. I take a step back, shake my head. No, I’m not fasting.

The day before, I opened an email from Women Wage Peace, reminding me that I had signed up. I’d promised a friend that I would go along with her to a protest meeting and she had handed in my name. Now I was faced with a questionnaire and a request to explain in two or three sentences why I had agreed to join. I was unable to fill this out because, quite simply, I did not know. I had great excuses —  too much work, the unbearable heatwave. The truth is, I didn’t want to go. The ongoing stalemate in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians has led me to believe that I will not change anything by denying myself food.

Women Wage Peace was formed a year ago in response to the so-called Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Over two thousand Palestinians were killed back then and thousands more were injured. There were also Israeli losses; both sides suffered deep trauma.

That summer, Israeli warplanes rumbled above my house in the Ella Valley with frightening regularity, night and day, en route for Gaza. I grew to dread that sound. That was when I went to visit the nuns of Bet Jamal, a short drive from my house, and asked in desperation what I should do. How could I continue living in a country full of such animosity? “Be here,” said the nun who opened the door to me.

One year later, I present myself at the Women Wage Peace tent. I visit on Day 35 of Operation Protective Fast, and there are 15 more to go, mirroring the number of days of last year’s war. I’m wearing a white T-shirt, as instructed in the email. I am handed a turquoise ribbon, which I obediently pin to my T-shirt. Now I am one of them, a group of woman of all ages and professions, mostly Jewish but not exclusively so. Over the past year, over 14 thousand women have joined the organization, and many women drop by the tent to express solidarity. Everyone is united in a desire to reach a viable peace solution, regardless of their political affinities. A group of Palestinian women visited earlier in the week from Bethlehem, as did one brave woman from Hebron.

Women Wage Peace 3

This gathering is not a solution to the extreme hatred on both sides, but it is a show of strength and determination. These days, surely this counts for something. Last week, a 16-year old Jewish girl was killed at Jerusalem’s gay parade by an ultra-religious extremist. A few hours later, a Palestinian baby and his father died in a fired started by Jewish settlers.

One of the organizers of, Lili Weisberger, has startling eyes the color of the ribbons we all wear. She patiently explains to passersby the power that women have when they club together.. “They did it in Liberia,” she says, referring to the successful peace campaign carried out by Nobel prize winner Leymah Gbowee, “and we can do it here.” After a few hours in her company, I begin to believe her.

The tent is just a few steps from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence, a heavily-guarded building patrolled by stern-looking men with Ray-Ban shades and wires hooked around their ears. From time to time they inspect the tent, poking around in the trash can and examining the gasoline can that powers the modest generator. Next to the tent is a small family sitting around on cheap plastic chairs, protesting the fact that their son was put into a foster home by the authorities. The woman wears a leopard-skin dress with lacy shoulders. She asks one of the hunger strikers what she thinks of the dress. Very nice, she answers, smiling palely.

Every time the road is closed to allow Netanyahu access in and out of his residence, we all leap up, grab flags and posters stuck to boards and stand in a long line. Hunger and oppressive heat are forgotten for a moment. Perhaps Netanyahu will see us. Perhaps he will stop and exchange a few words with us. After the cavalcade disappears, the sirens and the flashing lights, things return to normal. We ease back into our chairs, pass water around from a polystyrene cooler, check our cell phones, check how long has passed. From time to time, motorists honk as they drive by, and we wave. Two men in a sports car cruise by the tent, roll down their windows, and yell at us to get back into the kitchen. Come talk to us, one of the women responds.

Twice a day, there is a ceremony. Those who have completed the fast remove their turquoise necklaces and hand them off, like a rite of passage, to the next in line. Every day, more women join.

Women Wage Peace 2

The next morning, we stand in a circle, holding hands and singing in English and Hebrew. I’ve never been the touchy-feely type, and feel vaguely embarrassed by this. What the hell, I tell myself, after a moment’s hesitation. I join in. After the singing, we sit in a circle and each woman explains why she has come to the tent. I listen. One woman relates her feelings of isolation and how she wants to share her feelings with others. Dorit Noy, a 75-year old great-grandmother from Eilat in southern Israel, has traveled six hours on a bus to fast here for the second time. She says enough of her family has fought in wars for her lifetime. Solly, who lives close to the border with Gaza, tells how she sat in shelters the whole of last summer and how no child should have to do that, whatever her religion or nationality. I am also asked to speak, to explain why I have come. The microphone is handed to me and I think for a moment. I’ve come to show support, I say, and I mean it.

Later, I go to the nearby café to do some work and wait for my friend

to finish her fast. Back in 2002, this café, then called Moment, was the site of a suicide bombing that left 11 people dead and more than 50 injured. I order a coffee. The women who are fasting have been given permission to use the restrooms here, and every so often a woman in white with a turquoise necklace passes my table. I feel guilty sitting here, drinking coffee. I gulp it down quickly. After an hour, I wander further down the busy thoroughfare, ironically named Gaza Street. It’s blazing hot out and people move along the sidewalk languidly. I watch them, wondering how long it will take for the next outbreak of violence to begin. I turn and walk back to the protest tent. Like I said, it’s the least I can do.

The Road to Jericho

By Joanna Chen

Photograph by Joanna Chen. All rights reserved. 

Today we go to Jericho, Raz and I. It’s a brilliant summer’s day, and the garden twinkles. Grapes are ripening on the vine that grows to the side of the house. They’re pale purple and hard to the touch. I pop one in my mouth anyway and make a face as the sour juice hits the roof of my mouth.

We drive from our home in the Ella Valley, following the lead of our car’s GPS. Barely one hour later the landscape surprises; fields of melon and dull green slopes are exchanged for pale gray earth, an equally pale sky, and the arid air of the Judean desert.

The GPS guides us off the main sweep of road that leads steeply down towards the Dead Sea. I falter for a moment, wondering if this is a good idea. I know the way and have been to Jericho several times, never leaving the main road. But it’s the weekend and we’re willing to give it a go. For a moment I feel as if I’m on vacation and very far from home.

I drive. The road becomes bumpy and dusty. There are numerous potholes and part of the road isn’t really a road at all, more like a dirt track. I drive slowly through the twists and downwards plunges. Jerusalem, just 20 miles from Jericho, is about 2000 feet above sea level. But the level drops sharply to just under one thousand feet below sea level at Jericho. Donkeys plod along the side of the road and a couple of people wander down on foot. They look like they know where they’re going.

After some time, we reach St. George’s Monastery, a building that literally hangs off the side of the wadi. It dates back to the fourth century when a group of monks settled in what was then a cave, hoping to experience seclusion in the desert like the prophet Elijah did before them. Today, Greek Orthodox monks inhabit the monastery, but they are nowhere to be seen.

What we do see is a coach parked outside, glinting in the bright light. A stream of tourists wearing baseball hats and big sunglasses tumble out. Two camels, suitably festooned for the tourists with bright red saddles and gold baubles, stand with their owner, chewing lazily. I stop the car and roll down the window.

“Is this the way to Jericho?” I ask the driver, who’s leaning against the coach lighting a cigarette. I’m beginning to wonder if the GPS works down here. “Yes,” he says, then shakes his head. “Don’t go that way unless you know how to drive.” I laugh. I know how to drive. “Turn back,” he says, pointing up the hill from where we just came.

But we continue. There’s a rule in my family from when I was a kid: never turn back unless you’ve forgotten your passport or your makeup. Only then can you turn back. I have my British passport, and I’m not wearing any makeup.

Raz is Israeli-born and does not have a foreign passport. Israelis are forbidden entrance to Jericho, located in area A, but we have friends there, and the stalemate political situation is not going to stop us. We both glance back.

Our hosts, Nuha and Khader, tell us by phone the day before that there will be no problems at the checkpoint. For the last few weeks rules have been relaxed, they say, and cars enter and exit Jericho freely. When I worked as a foreign journalist for Newsweek I would cross these checkpoints regularly. I became accustomed to the long line of cars, the knock on the car, the slow lowering of the window, the handing over of documents, the hand waving us on.

I am British by birth and can enter Jericho using my British passport. I am also Israeli, having been automatically given Israeli citizenship when I was sent here by my parents at the age of 16. At the time, I had no wish to be in Israel. I am Jewish, and it is, apparently, my right — although I am aware of the injustice. There are Palestinians who are denied entry and who are split from their loved ones despite the fact that they were born here or their families lived here for generations. Judge me for this right to live where I want and where others cannot — the least I can do is offer the hand of friendship where it’s taken. In the Gospel of Luke, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan (traditionally located within this desert landscape), a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Martin Luther King, accompanied by his wife, traveled this same road to Jericho from Jerusalem in 1959. He mentions it in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, recasting the parable into modern terms, underlining the importance of extending friendship to others, even those we do not know. How can we even recognize our neighbors if we do not visit them? The Palestinians are my neighbors and I want to know them, however twisted the road may be.

So, we wave goodbye to the coach driver, shaking his head at us, and manoeuvre around the tourists, who are now buying bottles of water and trinkets. It’s noon by now and the sun beats down on us. I turn the air conditioning up a notch.

We quickly discover what the coach driver was talking about. The road narrows, and below there is a sheer drop into Wadi Kelt. There are more potholes than road; the GPS says we have two and a half miles to go until Jericho. Raz, who knows his stuff, tells me that this is the old road taken to Jericho by the Romans. Wadi Kelt is rumoured to be the Valley of the Shadow of Death from Psalm 23. When Raz was a student, he used to hike there regularly, even staying overnight in sleeping bags with friends. Back then it was regarded as safe territory for everyone. But in 1993, just before the Oslo Agreements, three Israeli hikers were murdered down in the ravine, an incident that put an end to this idyll.

A donkey wanders along up the hill, sure-footed and confident, carrying a small boy on his back. The boy waves to us and Raz waves back. I keep both hands firmly on the steering wheel, as if this will keep us from plunging over the side of the wadi.

We already know we won’t be taking this road on our return. We travel down the steep track slowly, painfully, from west to east, into the continuing wilderness. Occasionally I glance down into the ravine and feel vaguely dizzy. I can drive, I remind myself. We both fall silent in the car, concentrating on staying the course.

We pass a flock of sheep, watched over by a shepherd. He sits on a rock, gazing ahead at the cloudless sky. I wonder what he’s looking for. We pass a couple of broken-down dwellings and a small estate of houses under construction, deserted as if someone decided to stop building suddenly. A few minutes later, we enter a narrow alley of houses huddled together, and a small convenience store with rolls of toilet paper and bottles of Sprite stacked outside. Finally, we hit a main road with street lighting and a gas station and I recognize where we are: already inside Jericho.

From afar we see the checkpoint leading off from the main road. A long line of cars snakes along. Had we entered through the checkpoint, Raz would have been turned away. We have arrived and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Ahead of us lies a beautiful day with our gracious friends. They meet us at the gas station and lead the way to their home on the other side of Jericho. We pass through the center of town, buzzing with life. Once again I am struck by how close it is to where we live, but so very different. We’ll talk poetry, politics, and we’ll crack jokes about Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll take the easy road home.

Translating and Tweeting

By Joanna Chen

I’m in the lotus position above Iceland. I have two seats to myself and one more whenever the guy next to me totters down the aisle for another whiskey on the rocks. Whenever he does this, I stretch my legs out onto his seat as well. Sometimes I go stand at the back of the plane, where the airline attendants are snacking on potato chips and laughing together. They adjust their smiles as I come towards them. I’d like a cup of tea, I say. The tea is handed to me in a plastic cup and I continue to stand there, moving from one leg to the other, stretching as unobtrusively as I can. Do you need the bathroom? The flight attendant asks me brightly, and I shake my head and obediently return to my seat.

My legs crave movement but the rest of me loves this limbo, this hovering above the sea, this island that is me, surrounded by whimpering babies and businessmen in open-necked shirts popping peanuts and watching movies on their personal screens. I love watching other peoples’ movies as they flicker in the darkness, without knowing what the actors are saying but trying to guess. I love these poems I am translating, scattered on the empty seat beside me, their Hebrew syllables easing into English, shaking off the heavy “r” at the back of the throat, the gutturals.

I am heading to New York. I will try to shake off the jet lag and then fly on to Vermont for the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. I think of home longingly. I think how the leaves fell from the trees yesterday all at once, as if they were in a hurry to fall before I left, to show me that they are truly sorry I am going.

I lingered at home until dusk. I listened to the birds that visit the valley where I live in early summer, calling to each other, settling for the night. By the time I left, the old wooden table on the front porch was covered in leaves of green and yellow. I considered brushing them off but decided against it. There was no point. The leaves would continue to fall after I left.

The man in my row offers to buy me a drink and I smile and say no, thank you. He shrugs, orders himself another one and ignores me for the rest of the flight. Later, he switches places with a woman sitting further down the plane. I can’t work out if she’s his wife; he brings her over, points to the seat and shrugs his shoulders in my direction again. Her head is covered with a pale scarf and she wears an enormous amount of mascara on her eyelashes. She stares at the screen in front of her, at the icon of an airplane moving across the globe on a yellow line that turns green when the distance is covered. Under the airplane is a vast sea, indicated by the kind of blue you see on the balmiest of days at the beach. The woman reaches out long, tapering fingers to the screen and plays with the picture until it becomes a twirling globe and the airplane is flying on top of the globe, against an inky sky scattered with stars.

She manipulates the screen again and the landscape moves, revealing green furrows and what appear to be deserts; we’re flying over Kazakhstan. She draws the globe together with her fingers and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran crowd in together at one end of the globe. She moves around the globe, this time very quickly, as if she is afraid to lose something. Japan, North Korea, and the East China Sea become visible, their names floating in an indigo crater. Our eyes meet for a second across the empty seat. She keeps turning the globe this way and that, her fingers hovering over Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and I imagine the people of Bolivia looking up for a moment at the sky, wondering who is moving it. The globe spins, and the woman leans forward, minimizing the distance we are traveling so that Amman appears on one side and New York on the other, divided by a short yellow line. We are almost there.

I sleep badly on my first night in New York. The next day I head out with my friend, Ali, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I linger over an E. E. Cummings abstract painting, “Noise Number 13,” at the swirling colors and conical shapes that appear to expand and contract, a visual depiction of sound. I didn’t know E. E. Cummings painted. I think of the woman on the plane, expanding her own boundaries. Later Ali and I stand on the terrace and look down at people moving like ants along the High Line and I watch the trees, green against the drab, vibrant metropolis, swaying eloquently in the wind.

I sleep badly (again) and fly to Vermont the next day. On the drive up there from the airport, I sit in the front seat clutching my bag. The driver tells us there are bears in the woods. “If you see a bear,” he says, “don’t move. Just freeze.” “One person was killed by a bear in the woods,” the guy in the back chimes in, winking at me. I peer out of the window at the dark spruce trees. The road winds up to the mountain and I’m filled with foreboding. A whole week ahead of me and there are bears in the woods.

The next morning, still jet lagged and unable to sleep, I check out the schedule and decide to join what is listed on the handout as a bird walk. I go down at 6:30am to the entrance of the Bread Loaf Inn. It’s raining a little and mist rests lightly over the mountain. A small crowd is gathered under the yellow porch. I’m the only translator here on this first walk; everyone else is from the parallel Orion Environmentalists Writers’ Conference. They’re sipping coffee in biodegradable cups and chatting together. Some have binoculars around their necks. The packet I received prior to coming to the conference said to bring a jacket. I‘m here for the translators’ conference and here is my first error in translation: I brought a blazer, not a jacket; I’m British. I begin blessing my friend, Ali, for lending me something more subtle as we cross over the meadow in a long line, the damp squelching under our feet. I am also wearing her boots. We walk to the middle of the meadow. We are looking for migratory birds that pass through this area in the month of June. And then, the sentence that resonates for me throughout the conference: “Let’s see what we can hear,” Orion conference co-director, Chip Blake, says, cocking his head to one side and placing a hand to his ear. Everyone follows suit. “Hear that?” Chip asks. Everyone nods. I hear nothing. All I can hear is the wind and the faint sound of water gurgling along down below in the woods. “Anyone know what that is?” Chip asks. We stand there. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” he explains. He repeats this on every morning walk and the answer is always the same; it really is a red-eyed vireo. The idea of seeing what can be heard, like E. E. Cummings’s synesthetic painting, breaks through boundaries, translating sound into a visual dimension. And these beautiful bird walks, that open every single morning at the conference, become the real gateway for me to the act of translation. These are the woods of Robert Frost and his words echo in my ears as I take these walks:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These walks into the woods of Vermont are all about translation. They reveal how the sparrow marks its territory between trees by squawking, how the hairy kingfisher’s notes pierce through the wind in the treetops, undecipherable by human ears. It’s the difference between a jacket and a blazer. It’s the thin, high call of the waxwing, and the witchety-witch call of the yellow-rumped warbler, whose young form what are known as punk flocks, before drifting southward. Week-old punks, but not the punks I know, up here on the mountain. It’s the winter wren, whose loud voice carries above the rushing water, close to where it nests in winter. I saw very few of these birds with my own eyes, although Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator and Bread Loaf faculty member, hands me his binoculars on the fourth day so I can see an eastern kingfisher dive-bombing a crow. Like translation, bird-watching demands close reading.

Later that day, in Johnston’s lecture on The Quest for a Voice, I think less about the role of the translator striving to capture the authorial voice, and more about those birds, traversing continents, flying in on the weather system, dropping onto Bread Loaf Mountain as if they are standing on the platform in a subway, waiting for a fast train, as one of the people on these walks remarked. I want to know where they are going and how they talk to each other.

We translators talk to each other a lot. We discuss the lure of language prisms. We critique translations from unfamiliar languages: Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and my own Hebrew, among other languages. We listen not just for meaning but for tone, pitch, rhythm, and texture. You cannot see it but you can hear it if you listen, and look, carefully.

In the middle of the week, we all walk over to Robert Frost’s farm for a long and delicious picnic. On the way, a translator friend and I take a detour to Frost’s cabin, where we peek through the windows. Turning to leave, we catch a yellow-striped ribbon snake slipping lazily through the grass. On the last day, I listen to Alison Hawthorne Deming talking about the importance of place in our writing and how everything comes down to animals, plants, and rocks. I understand how all these translate into feelings and rhythms, how the snake has its own unhurried language. Up here in the mountains of Vermont, there is time to learn other methods of communicative translation. For this, after all, is what translation is all about. It’s about migration to other worlds and other cultures, to the hidden lives of others.

The conference ends. The networking is over, the barn socials are over, the walks and readings too. My notebook is full of email addresses; my head is full of ideas. I’m still not sleeping properly, and rise early to take a final walk, this time on my own. I help myself to coffee and exit the Inn, crossing the road to the meadow where we went on the first day. I want to reenter the woods we visited and feel the soft, dense ground under my borrowed rain boots. I begin walking across the meadow and there it is, just ahead of me, a tiny bird with gray, black and white markings. It rises into the air, chirping like Morse code, and I lift up my head and follow with my eyes as it flies across the meadow and beyond. Finally, a red-eyed vireo.

The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life. Continue reading