Two strangers in a strange land
I recently finished Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neuman’s Babylon by Bus: Or, the true story of two friends who gave up their valuable franchise selling YANKEES SUCK T-shirts at Fenway to find meaning and adventure in Iraq (and to be honest, one thing that appealed to me was the Yankees Suck part) and it is an excellent read; highly entertaining, irreverent, subversive and, I hasten to add, fair-minded. Nobody comes out of the book looking particularly saintly, which I guess you could say is a pretty accurate description of reality here and in Iraq.
Considering that there is a new fresh hell in the Middle East each day, I thought this excerpt was somewhat appropriate:
In the alleys of Nablus’s Old City we got tea from really some friendly guys, talked with them a little, high-fived them all, the walked farther in. Minutes later two Humvees started shooting large-caliber bullets down the street, red tracers slashing the dusk over our heads. We ran and hid behind a dumpster. A few more bursts of gunfire erupted, and then it was dead silent again. The Palestinians we’d been talking to had coolly split up the side streets and away from the Israelis.
Twenty minutes passed before one of us decided it was a good idea to head back to the central square, where the tank had been and the gunfire had come from, because that was the way back to the hotel. As we got back to the city’s center, we spotted two Red Crescent ambulances parked where we had been talking to LLoyd an hour or so earlier. One of the drivers from the ambulance crew said that a seventeen-year-old boy, Naji Sayeef, had been shot dead, bullet wounds to the neck and head. We lied and told the drivers we were journalists (Sara once interned at the Cairo Times) and the guys let us ride along to the site, the Balata refugee camp.
The clinic we pulled up to was riddled with huge bullet holes – from an IDF drive-by. We spent twenty minutes inside and got all of the details on the killings: Supposedly Naji Sayeef was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the IDF soldiers had shot his head off. The bullets exploded his head and his neck. Earlier that day, another Palestinian kid had also been shot, but he’d survived. According to the clinic workers, neither kid was doing anything wrong. With the story told, the two guys in the clinic offered to take us to the camp.
Balata, founded in 1948, was one of the first Palestinian refugee camps. It’s entrance had a huge Hamas banner strung across the road. A huge metal loudspeaker bolted to the exterior on the camp’s mosque was blaring a pissed-off-sounding voice in Arabic. A group of guys with megaphones walked around the corner, yelling Naji’s name and saying all kinds of stuff in Arabic.
We lurked around in the narrow streets, passing Hamas and PFLP graffiti, and ended up at the home of the ambulance driver’s friends. The building was run down. It looked more like a shrunken public-housing project than a refugee camp. Our host was a young man with a beard. Inside, just past the apartment door, was a huge floor-to-ceiling painting of our hosts dead brother, fronted by a pair of crossed AK-47’s. The man told us his brother had been killed several years earlier during the Intifada’s worst fighting, at thirty-one years old. He’d been killed defending the camp’s gates from invading IDF troops. On the opposing wall was a cap-and-gown graduation photograph of his other brother, a lawyer, who was in jail and hadn’t been heard from for a long time. The whole thing had a staged feel, as if the same litany had been told in the same way to many foreign observers before us. Finally we said our goodbyes. Back in the hotel we watched bad Egyptian pop videos on satellite TV in the lobby, trying to register all that he had seen in the past seven or eight hours.
Of course, that is from before they get to Iraq where things go considerably downhill. You’ll particularly enjoy their take on the CPA which makes FEMA under Heckuvajob Brownie look like a model of efficiency.