August 28, 2013
In Ramallah, I lose my voice. It is the second time in my life this had happened. The first time I was getting our stolen laptops back in Guatemala, but I’ll leave that story for later. Suffice it to say this time around, it wasn’t a surprise. When I first arrived at the Cesar Hotel in Central Ramallah the evening before our TechCamp training would be held from August 28 – 29, the manager of the hotel was smoking as he showed us all the rooms we would be using. I tried to stay on the opposite end of the smoke or would duck to avoid it, at times stumbling on chairs or tables like a klutz. I looked up apologetically and he looked at me confused. But by the end of the evening, the cough started – the annoying cough that serves as a warning of the eventual closing of passages. Not a cough I like to get. I took out what little I had in my inhaler and did what I could to buy myself some time. I sat in one end of the empty room hoping my body would adapt by tomorrow’s event which would fill the room with some one-hundred people. I asked the hotel manager if smoking was allowed in the building. He looked at me as if I’d just asked him if goats flew in his country.
“Everyone smokes inside here,” one of the Techcamp organizers whispered in my ear. “It’s terrible.” It hadn’t been a problem for me the first Techcamp because it was an all-women attended training and the fact was, I noticed during breaks and meal times, that very few women smoked. So I took my breaks after everyone had finished and tried to find spots in the hotel where no one would be liesurely having their smoke. I ducked to the bathroom as often as possible. Fate, I knew, was inevitable.
We’d had a great event launch with the U.S. Consul General and the representative of Jawwal telecom, the company helping to organize the event, making opening remarks at the slick Jawwal headquarters that could easily have been a building in Palo Alto. Nate Smith from Mapbox and I kept the corners of the formidable table warm, front and center to a large audience of men and women – some of whom I recognized from the year before. I designated myself the Techcamp elder since this would technically be my seventh Techcamp, including the one I organized in Guatemala. I could easily channel Noel Dickover, long-time MC and resident master pumpkin carver at Techcamps, at any given point in the training agenda.
The first day was hectic, full of excitement and beautifully marched on like the first day of school. During coffee breaks the huge plumes of smoke would follow and torment me.
By the beginning of the second day of trainings I was, however, croaking out sentences, and couldn’t help to MC the event. I was depending on my translator to mind read since she couldn’t understand me and neither could anyone else for that matter. On the third day my voice was gone completely and I was writing all my sentences out on my reporter’s notebooks. My handwriting was sloppy and the fact that anyone could read what I wrote was a miracle. But I didn’t care, I was inspired. Ramallah inspired me. It inspired me the first time and it was inspiring me again. There was a hunger by participants to learn and an ability to grasp complex concepts that challenged me to connect things with the participants that I normally wouldn’t be able to do.
During my session on authorship and storytelling, I asked the group what they wanted to learn, that I was here for them and so I would teach them whatever they needed to do their work. But one after the other said: Teach me to tell a good story, how to make people watch, read and tell stories. You don’t want to learn Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo? No, they said, we want to tell our stories. We want to tell people how difficult it is for us here. And that’s when I started to understand. Israelis didn’t know how Palestinians lived their day to day lives anymore than Palestinians knew Israeli lives.
During the break I sat next to a working reporter in Palestine and I asked him about his life here. I wanted to know more, to understand.
“Life here is very difficult,” he said in a very slow, sad voice. “We work hard for another country in a country that is not ours. We pay our taxes to the people who repress us, we are the only people who do this in the world.” We continued to talk and he told me about the religious conflicts between the countries, about the U.S. and how they supplied funds to the Israelis, how they were at fault for suppying the guns, the funding and growing the rift. It was a difficult conversation and the entire time I just listened, asked more questions. When I thought I had asked all my questions, there would be more. How can anyone truly know how someone else lives their lives? Did Israelis really care any more than your typical Palestinian how the other half lived? Where could you even begin to create empathy?
The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity, with groups dedicating their entire days to matching technology solutions to particular problems that they had brainstormed the day before. I gave up on trying to speak and simply wrote out all my sentences. Our group was creating an online crowdfunded campaign to buy 15,000 backpacks (with school materials) for Palestinian children going back to school on August 2014. It was a good, concrete goal and so we set about developing both an online and offline strategy for fundraising $50,000. By the of the day all the different groups presented their action steps and various stages of project development, including a game using online an mapping platform, video tutorials on how to use video in your work and ways to move from “Clicktavism to Activism”. By 5:30 in the evening even the group picture was done and everyone headed out quickly to beat the weekend rush hour (Fridays were a holiday that people used to go home).
In the evening the international trainers ventured out to the handful of bars and cafes that foreigners made the rounds at. At La Vie Café there was talk among the foreigners that Ramallah was an artificial economy created from all the nonprofits that were based out of the city. It was like Oz with the looming threat of chaos – now there was Syria. No one wanted to talk about, too much was happening too quickly.
Just one week ago Israeli soldiers shot and killed three young Palestinians in the Ramallah district of the central West Bank. “The Israeli army claimed the Palestinians were about to throw Molotov cocktails at soldiers and settlers in the Bet El settlement.” This resulted in the suspension of the fourth round of direct peace talks with Israel in protest of these three killings. The plot thickened.
Later at Lawain a few locals mentioned that much of the night life had been cancelled in Ramallah due to these deaths. The mood was somber before the DJ started spinning tracks from Spotify, which he complained required too much bandwidth. At midnight the music began to play for a handful of people on the modest dance floor which included Americans, other foreigners from Jordan and South Africa, gay folks, locals, you name it, it was diverse bunch. By two in the morning, the bar was packed.
In the smokey bar, I stood at the end of the counter waving my notepad at the bartender. I scribbled to him: “Whiskey, please, no ice, just whiskey.” He nodded and disappeared behind the bar.