Friday, April 11, 2014

The choices of Mr. Sam Bahour

Ramallah is a city of surprises.  Barbed wire fences enclose massive refugee settlements on the outskirts while swanky cafes and restaurants boasting nouvelle Palestinian cuisine hug the hillsides and mountaintops.  Yasir Arafat’s tomb is a marble shrine with a reflecting pool behind it -- just above the street where Israeli forces besieged his headquarters for a month 12 years ago.  

How resilient human beings may be.

Sam  Bahour is a good example. The Youngstown, Ohio native now lives in Ramallah with his family. A hybrid American like so many of us, Sam was born to a Palestinian Muslim father and a Lebanese Maronite Christian mom.  Mother’s milk was concern for the homelands; he was weaned from American news coverage of the region to the reality of on-the-ground experiences beginning in 1987. As Americans, he and the interested personal and business colleagues who came with him were free to move from the Golan to Gaza. There were none of the checkpoints and walls that cripple crossover and contact today.  An IT professional he was particularly interested in opportunities for telecommunications as laid out by the Oslo accords.

“Read it,” he told our delegation from TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy and the Esalen Institute’s AbrahamicFamily Reunion project. “Olso stipulates (in an annex or appendix) a separate and independent telecommunications network” for the Palestinian territories,” Sam told us. That promise grabbed his attention and he set to work building one.  But he soon found out that the right to create a separate and independent network did not mean a right to the frequencies required for telecommunications to function. Frequencies were and are the purview of the Israeli government. Application process? A nightmare. Essential equipment? Waylaid at Israeli ports for two years.

Technology isn’t Sam’s only nightmare. When he came as a US citizen on an Israeli tourist visa he had to leave every three months, turn around, get a new visa and come back. This not only to maintain his economic development enterprise, but also to be with his family. Because he married a local Palestinian woman. 

After 15 years of three-month visas the Israeli government finally stamped “last permit” into his passport. Now it was time to get residency. Details of that pursuit I’ll save for a documentary film. Suffice it to say that finally he got his Palestinian ID – a guarantee as much as anything is guaranteed in this world to remain with his family. But the trade off is a new set of obstacles.

The Palestinian ID comes from the Israeli military. With it Sam can’t fly in or out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. His access to Jerusalem is restricted, meaning he can’t drive there any more. Like all residents of the occupied territories he had to leave his car at checkpoints and walk through a maze of gates, sometimes waiting hours on lines (see my April 4 blog), and take taxis on the other side. This makes regular business meetings difficult if not impossible.

He pulls his wallet out for show and tell: on any given day he needs to present up to five documents to go anywhere, conduct business, and validate his presence. That’s a tough row to hoe for an American accustomed to First Amendment rights.

“You can see the wall, the lines, the checkpoints, the soldiers,” he told us in an airy café atop a Ramallah hill.  During the evenings this place hosts poets and philosophers -- a wanna-be French Left Bank and New York’s Greenwich Village. “But you can’t see the restricted airwaves, aquifers, and administration.”

Ramallah is a town of visible dual and triple narratives; people finding, defining and fighting for identities; a town that’s hamstrung by past and present realities that yearns for a future it is just beginning to taste.

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