The Alternative Information Center, as its website describes, is an “internationally oriented, progressive, joint Palestinian-Israeli activist organization. It is engaged in the dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism and critical analysis of the Palestinian and Israeli societies and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” and operates with the “awareness that local struggle must be practically and analytically situated within the framework of the global justice struggle.”
I visited the AIC in Beit Sahour several times when I lived in Ramallah during the summer of 2008. On Tuesday and Saturday nights the AIC hosts speakers or films that present a rarely-heard perspective in the conflict’s raging cacophony. Patrick, Paul, and I walked down the tall hill from our flat to a quiet alley off Suq Al-sha’ab, the center of Beit Sahour. The dim rooms sat slightly underground and burrowed back into parlors beneath low ceilings. A man walked down the stairs to the bar in the corner alcove. He welcomed us warmly, introducing himself as Steve from Wales, “which is the smallest and poorest country in Britain, rather like the Arkansas of the UK.” He invited us into an adjoining room with a small window opening to the entrance hallway. “Boycott Israel” and “Olive Tree Campaign: Keep Hope Alive” posters on the stone walls filled in the spaces not taken by wooden bookshelves. I scanned the diverse titles, ranging from books about the conflict to geography, from Edward Said to Norman Maclean’s rhythmic A River Runs Through It. Patrick, Paul, and I sat down at a large table in middle of the room.
Steve sat in a small corner with his long bony legs crossed. He had shaggy curly hair that was pulled away from his hawkish face and wispy goatee. He had dark crescent moons beneath the rims of his eyes. As we talked he rolled dozens of cigarettes, pausing his speech to lick and seal the paper and take a sip of Taybeh beer. Every now and then he gazed into the red ashes of his cigarette like he was looking for something he could never find because it kept disappearing in the flame. He came to Palestine six years ago, barely twenty years old, and married a Palestinian Christian girl from Beit Jala.
“My wife is very different from most Beit Jala Christians,” he explained in a thick Welsh accent. “Most Beit Jala Christians are very sectarian and condemning of their Muslim neighbors, which is a bit strange because they find themselves as a two percent minority in the Bethlehem area.” He paused his speech to blow into the end of his cigarette until it glowed, wiping away the gray ash that fell on his knees. “If you ever find yourself as two percent of any population the first rule is to keep your head down. You don’t stand up on a pedestal and say ‘You are alllll bastards!’”
Steve and his wife started a permaculture farm called Bustan Qaraaqa, the Tortoise Garden. They wanted to instigate a green movement in Palestine that would engage problems like food insecurity and environmental deprivation. The Palestinian Territories don’t have the resources for ecological welfare, which means recycling is nonexistent. Trash is dumped into large metal containers by roadsides and burned. Bustan Qaraaqa experiments with simple and inexpensive projects for sustainable living. He told us he was now preparing to move back home in order to create an eco-village in the rural farmland of Wales. He hopes to form connections with the farm he started here and with other similar places around the world to encourage and promote equitable and holistic farming.
“I’m a bit nervous about going back to my consumerist homeland,” he said, taking a larger sip from his glass of Taybeh beer. “This is where shopping centers are in buildings like B-52 hangars in complexes as big as the West Bank, where the good citizens go and push their carts with their heads cocked to one side, their eyes glazed over as the sweet music places like some Orwellian nightmare.”
He shivered and some of the ashes from his fifteenth cigarette fell to the stone floor and he took another sip of beer.
We told him some of our stories and he marveled that three graduates of a conservative Christian university in Arkansas were sitting with him in Palestine. Sometimes, I said, closed environments can be the most fertile places for radical transformation because once you start questioning one thing then everything is open to being reinterpreted. In such places you start to question because often the opposite is encouraged. And the conversion becomes more real because the initial desire for conversion has come from deep inside.
“You’ve made a point there, you have,” said Steve nodding. “Here you’ve got all these liberal hippie kids who grow up in the most open environments and they spit out platitudes about justice, but then they do nothing about it and are actually just as close-minded and hateful as the people they criticize. There’s nothing pushing them to be genuine.”
Our conversation diverged on a hundred little paths and we talked about the plight of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, the fact that the world’s headquarters for child sex-trafficking is Tel Aviv, and the complete history of the Texas comedian Bill Hicks. Before I left on this trip for the Middle East my family and I spent two weeks driving around the North American Midwest. Steve readily agreed when I pointed out that the way American Indians were forcefully moved and partitioned is eerily similar to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, almost like there’s a thinktank across the ocean and shady politicians in nice suits meet in Washington coffee ships and say “Oh that worked splendidly over here, you should give it a go where you are!”
The voices in the next room were getting louder as more people gathered around the small bar. Whatever activity that was scheduled for the night was about to start. Steve drained his glass and lit another cigarette.
“You know, you can find a worse example of anything happening here in Palestine somewhere else. Anything. Water crisis: somewhere else there is a far more severe shortage. Other places have more volatile social and religious conflicts. More land has been stolen in other parts of the world. And there are even worse military occupations than Israel’s.”
He leaned forward. “But the interesting thing about Palestine is that everything, all of those things, can be found right here, like it’s a microcosm of the entire world’s disasters.”
The air above Steve’s head was hazy as another puff of smoke assembled in the growing cloud. Paul held his chin and stared quietly at the table’s cracked surface. Patrick slowly nodded as he processed the conversation. Steve methodically rolled another cigarette and the dark crescent moons under his eyes began to grow as the room darkened and the shadows connected across his gaunt features.
“It’s a funny place here,” he said softly.
“To say the least.”