Friday, May 20, 2005

Rafah--attempting an overview

Depending on your perspective, Rafah is a hotbed of terrorists, a poverty-stricken patch of urban sprawl on the border of the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the frequent target of a cruel occupying army, or maybe just some strange-sounding place you've never heard of.

In fact, until the current intifada erupted in 2001, "old Rafah," an inhabited city since before the Roman Empire, and its much more recent crowded refugee camps, was home to some 140,000 men, women, and children, and a busy collection of thriving neighborhoods, shops, small, medium, and large houses. On the outskirts, farms and olive groves were side by side with residential neighborhoods. In the last four years, there have been drastic changes, few of them good.

But I had never heard of Rafah four years ago. On September 11, 2001, I watched the smoke billow from the World Trade Center about a mile from my home and went shopping--despite the eye-stinging smoke--because I knew food deliveries and really, all public tranport and vehicular traffic was going to be a mess for a while.One stop took me to a convenience store run by a nice 40-ish guy with an accent. I knew he was a naturalized citizen; we talked politics occasionally, and I found myself explaining the Electoral College to him during the election cliffhanger of 2000. He might have been Hispanic, but, really, who knew? Who cared?

That awful day, I heard another customer asking him if his family was safe. Safe? They were somewhere in Brooklyn--why wouldn`t they be safe? Well, it turned out my storekeeper friend and his family are Palestinian Americans.

As the months passed, I realized hand-wringing and viewing-with-alarm and occasional vague nice thoughts wouldn`t cut it anymore. Not when Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans were getting a very rough time; not when conflict erupted in the West Bank and Gaza by October and steadily worsened.By the turn of the year, I`d found the Arab-American Institute and eventually, through them, several charities helping Palestinian children. Pretty soon, I was sponsoring a little girl--figured that was easy and practical: send a small check monthly, get a translated letter once in a blue moon, decide you`d done your bit for beleaguered humanity. I picked her out almost on a whim from the organization`s website--she`d been waiting for a sponsor for months. Oh, yes, she was from Rafah--which at that point I couldn`t have found on a map.

All these logical calculations were soon blown to shreds by reality, and by the charity's remarkable college student liaison in Rafah, Mohammed. Reports and letters from "my" little girl, and her whole family, were frequent. Mohammed proved to be a faithful e-mailer. An English major, writing to an editorial consultant--we discovered we had plenty to discuss. I thought I`d help a victim. Instead, I discovered friends.

So while I've never been closer to Rafah than my keyboard, or the telephone, I've been privileged to get a unique picture--idiosyncratic, perhaps, but authentic--of daily life in this besieged Palestinian town. The mainstream media tends to rely on fast labels and easy soundbites, but I'd like you to get to know some of the men, women, and children of this place--partly in the middle of nowhere, partly in the spotlight, caught in the cross-hairs--and in spite of everything, beautiful.

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