Thursday, July 13, 2006

That's All, Folks

I'm home. Home, where the grocery store is open 24 hours a day, and where Hizballah can't fire rockets at me.

It's crazy to think that, just over a week ago, I was standing on a mountain near the Lebanese border, and now it's a battle ground. But that's how things go in the Middle East: calm never lasts for long, and peace acts more like an oasis in the desert than anything tangible. War and violence are your constant companions, and the threat of politically explosive events--be it shelling a beach or attacking and kidnapping IDF soldiers--stalks everyone, all the time.

So, yeah, I'm glad to be home.

On a happier note, the re-adjustment process has gone well: I went to Target, Whole Foods, and all my other "I Love America" spots, and I could've sworn that I heard a choir of angels sing as I walked through the door. Amazingly, I'm not craving hummus; however, I do miss hearing the call to prayer. The jet lag is finally wearing off, too, so that makes life easier.

However, now that my year in the Middle East has drawn to a close, it's time to put a wrap on the ol' blog. My life, which had been somewhat exciting while living amidst political turbulence, is about to become alarmingly mundane. My days will consist of the following: wake up, go to class, do homework, go to the gym, go to bed. And, as exciting as the Chronicles of a Starving Grad Student might be--what with all that riveting homework--I doubt my life will make for a particularly good read.

So with that said, I thank you all for reading. Whether you checked in every few months or every week, your attention, comments, and overall presence here has been greatly appreciated. Special thanks also go out to the staff of, who stumbled upon and featured my little slice o' the blogosphere, and made me grin in a thrilled yet self-congratulatory manner for weeks.

And of course, the biggest thanks go out to my parents, who had to cope with the fact that their daughter was going to the Middle East whether they liked it or not. After getting over the initial apprehension, they not only coped, they supported my goals with grace and good humor. And even when I'd gotten stuck in an Arab riot, narrowly missed two bombings in both Tel Aviv and Egypt, and nearly fell off a cliff in Jordan, their support never failed. I owe them the world, and I hope I brought back enough souveniers to start to repay them. :) (I kid, I kid.)

Again, I thank each of you for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed it--or at least been better informed than if I'd tried to send lame "this is what's going on with my life" e-mails every few weeks.

So, to use an Israeli expression, it's time to say "shalom ve lehitraot:" goodbye, and see you later.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ithaka, By C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

I pulled the plane ticket out of the envelope and stared at it. United Flight 29, departing July 31st from Chicago O'Hare and connecting to Tel Aviv through JFK. I realized how long it had been since I'd held an actual ticket before my flight (having become reliant on e-tickets during college), but the dog interrupted my train of thought as she dropped a slobbery tennis ball at my bare feet and gave me a "c'mon, let's go play!" look. I put the ticket back in its envelope, and as the dog bounded out the door in front of me, I envisioned the adventures I was going to have in the coming year.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon-don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitementstirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon-you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

July 31st dawned hot and humid, as it often does in the Chicago suburbs. It was then that the fear, long anticipated but never actually felt, hit me. Upon waking up, I realized that I would be spending the next 12 months on the other end of the world--in a country where I didn't know anyone, had no family, and didn't speak the language. Feeling like there was a Mac truck sitting on my chest, I curled into a ball, pulled my covers up to my chin, and put a pillow over my head. Maybe if I'm really quiet they'll forget I'm here, I thought to myself, only half joking. And then I won't have to go. But I knew that this was something I needed and wanted to do. I knew I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't. I knew I was making the right decision. I got up, and put the last of my belongings in my suitcase before we set out for O'Hare.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind- as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

The plane banked left, and I saw the beach. I was awestruck. I'd studied about Israel and the Middle East for almost 7 years, and was amazed that after years of wanting to visit, I was finally here. A few weeks later, I let the waves of the warm Mediterranean Sea carry me as I gazed in wonder at the Tel Aviv skyline. Sure beats the quarterly budget review I'd be doing if I was in D.C., I thought to myself happily.

But my amazement didn't stop in Tel Aviv: two months later, as the cab I was in entered the outskirts of Amman, I held my breath in anticipation of seeing a city I'd long read about, and always hoped to visit. I was awestruck by the monastery at Petra as I stood in front of a landmark I'd seen a hundred times in National Geographic pictures. From my room in French Hill, I got chills every time I heard the muezzin sing the call to prayer. In April, my palms grew sweaty as we drove into Cairo, and my pulse quickened as I walked into the great temple at Karnak. In each of these cases, I knew that, despite being far away from my family and the fear I'd felt before getting on the plane, it was all worth it. A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but a journey of 10,000 miles begins with the conviction and courage to even get on the plane.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years, so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. I
thaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

There have been moments when this journey has seemed almost interminable. Moments when, feeling overwhelmed by the tasks required of me while learning both Hebrew and Arabic, I've stood in the botanical garden and wondered why I came here at all. Times when all I've wanted is a bacon cheeseburger, to be able to watch Sports Center, or to see my best friend back home. Times when I've been tempted to call the ticket desk at El Al and ask them to put me on the next flight back to JFK. But whenever my journey has seemed insurmountable, I've managed to pull through.

More than that, I've tried to keep the perspective that I shouldn't hurry the journey; the time to return home will come soon enough. I know, despite how hard this year has been at times, that this is what I was supposed to do. It has been good for me. It has given me perspective, made me grow, and enriched my life in ways I never thought possible.

Before I left, I had a feeling that through living abroad for a year, I was going to become the person I want to be: having overcome my fear of being far away from my family for a long stretch of time, having overcome my discomfort with the constant moving and instability that has characterized my life thus far. After going to three high schools and having my driver's license in four different states by the time I graduated from college, I dreaded--despised, actually--the notion of instability and starting over somewhere new. I still don't like it, but I've proven to myself that not only can I start over in a new place and be okay, but I can start over in a country I hadn't seen before I got off the plane and where I couldn't even read the alphabet when I arrived. I know that I'm finally well on my way to being the person I've aspired to become.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

My flight back to America leaves tonight. I know I've changed deeply during the course of the last year, but it's hard to articulate the changes in ways that make sense to other people. I don't know if the changes are strictly internal; if they manifest themselves only in ways that I can see, or if they'll be evident in my behavior as well. I wonder if people from home will be able to see these changes or if I'll get back and just be good ol' Lillian, same as she's ever been. The problem is, I don't want to be same ol' Lillian. I'm not the same person who left the States last year. Ithaka has made me wealthy with all I've gained along the way, and it has been a marvelous journey indeed. However, I'm not sure whether anyone else will understand by now what these Ithakas mean.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Will someone PLEASE put me on the plane?!

T-Minus 7 days and counting...

The Arabic final: looming
The souveniers: purchased
The Israeli Army helicopters: circling overhead
The bags: mostly packed
The Gaza Strip: falling the (expletive) apart
The next week: booked solid
The friends: sad to be parting ways
The Tel Aviv-JFK seat assignment: reserved
All hell: breaking loose
The parents: excited to have me home soon

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Death by Arabic

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Arabic grammar: the other form of global jihad

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would be proud. Osama would probably shed a tear of joy. Their goals of global jihad and killing/slowly driving the infidels insane are coming true in a way they never expected: scores of Western students who are being beaten senseless by Arabic grammar.

I took Modern Standard Arabic I in the States a few summers ago. It was an intensive course, and I worked hard--but I still came out with an A. I'm now taking Literary Arabic, a more grammar-intensive version of the MSA I learned a few years ago, and I think my brain cells are all ready to commit suicide en masse. I have never encountered so many rules--and exceptions to the rules, and other rules that sometimes override the first set of rules, but only under specific circumstances--nor so many verb types. I didn't think languages were allowed to have such ridiculously complicated structures. Why was there no cosmic oversight of language development?! I don't understand how God could be conniving enough to construct something so convoluted. But in fact there was no oversight, and thus, the Arabic language came into being.
And so did the giant verb chart. And so did the broken plurals. (Every singluar noun has a plural that is constructed with different vowel patterns, thus yielding a totally different word.) And then I became enamored with the Middle East, and realized that I needed to learn these Godforsaken semitic languages. My mother was totally right in asking me why I couldn't have fallen in love with English Literature; at least that wouldn't involve difficult languages and living in politically turbulent countries. I'm fine with the politically turbulent countries bit, but Arabic may prove to cause the demise of many a so-called infidel: as we prepare for our final next week, all the grammar rules may actually carry on al-Zarqawi's legacy by making us, at the very least, cry our eyes out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

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A few weeks ago, I felt ambivalent about leaving Israel and coming home.

Not anymore.

I’m ready to go. I’m ready to be on American soil, ready to be surrounded by all that is familiar. Ready for blueberry Eggo waffles, pork products, and a bed with a mattress that doesn’t make my neck ache.

I think that mostly, though, I’m ready the rest of my life to begin. In the three years since I finished college, I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life, what my preferences and requirements are for both my career and my personal space, and have turned into the adult I always hoped I’d become.

When I look back on what my life was like on graduation day 2003, I’m shocked by how much has changed since then. Three years ago, I was in the midst of an existential crisis of sorts, unsure whether I would be able to hack it in Washington. I didn’t know what field I wanted to be in, whether or not it would be safe to admit my DNC affiliations if I chose the defense and security route, or whether or not I’d even be able to land a job. So what did I do? Chickened out, moved to Philly so I could be near my boyfriend at the time (what can I say, he was one of the only stable things in my life at that point), and wound up interning at a fabulous PR firm for 6 months.

Granted, although this little detour wasn’t exactly a good idea, it wound up being just what I needed. I loved the firm where I was interning, but I hated being away from Washington, and I knew that I belonged inside the Beltway. So that spring, I landed a job in D.C., packed my bags, kissed my suddenly-turned-long-distance boyfriend goodbye in the parking lot of my apartment building, and hopped on I-95.

I was terrified of my first “real world” job: I was responsible for far more than I’d ever had to manage before, my boss was relying on me to make sure his day ran smoothly, and I had no idea—at all—how I was supposed to navigate the complex web of relationships, rivalries, and power plays that characterize life in Washington. Holy s***, I remember thinking to myself, hands shaking as I tried to keep track of interview requests, budget forms, and my boss’s scheduling preferences, I can’t even keep my own life together. How the hell am I going to pull off doing this for someone else?!

To top it all off, my boyfriend and I, together for almost two years by that point, were on the rocks. Things bottomed out that July, when, after months of panic attacks that came on whenever I felt like I’d screwed something up at work, coupled with months of tense not-quite-fighting-just-bickering-over-inane-crap with my boyfriend, he finally called it quits. Feeling like I’d been punched in the gut, I decided to take some vacation time. Work was killing me, and without the support of my boyfriend, I needed to take some time to regroup. I went home for a week, during which time my dad asked the question that I now mark as one of the major turning points in my personal development: why do you care so much?

“Lillian,” he said, re-filling my cosmo at our traditional father-daughter happy hour, “you work hard. You do your best, and you give 110% to your job, your studies, and your relationships. Why do you care so much when someone doesn’t like it? So you make a mistake or two at work. Big deal! So your boyfriend breaks up with you when you didn’t have the chutzpah to break up with him. Big deal! I’ve always wondered why doing your best can’t be good enough for you. I’ve always wondered why you’ve never said ‘this is who I am, and you can take it or leave it.’ I’ve always wondered why you have to judge yourself and your success based on what other people think.”

I sat, staring into the pink swirl of my martini glass, looking down at the lemon rind at the bottom as I chewed on what he’d just said. “Um, I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I never thought of it that way.”

“Well, I wish you would,” he said as he pinky-stirred the ice in the Johnnie Walker Red Label he was nursing. “I hate seeing you beat yourself up over what everybody else thinks. In the words of Popeye, I yam what I yam. You are what you are. And if somebody else doesn’t like it, it’s still okay.”

I spent the next year thinking about what he said, and taught myself to embrace it. Why should it matter if someone else doesn’t like me, doesn’t think my work is up to par, doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life with me? It shouldn’t. From that evening forward, I did a lot of thinking and a lot of changing. I came back to Washington with a different attitude, and finally began to carry with me the belief that, take it or leave it, this is who I am. If you take it, great; if not, it’s okay too. Either way, I’m still fabulous.

As I thought more and pushed myself with each new discovery of a feeling or thought pattern, I began to realize that this mentality of needing approval from people other than myself had affected every aspect of my life: my career, my relationships with others, and, most importantly, my relationship with myself. I realized how much I’d started to need other people, particularly boyfriends, for both approval and shelter from real life. And I realized how much I needed to disabuse myself of that notion.

I instituted a no-boyfriends-until-I-figure-myself-out policy, wrote prolifically in my journal, created an excel chart of all my ex-boyfriends and what I’d learned from each experience (no lie, it’s further proof of my supreme nerdiness), and started digging deeply into my own psyche. I swallowed my pride and, for the first time in my life, ventured into the self-help/relationships section of Border’s. Granted, I donned a baseball cap and pulled it down over my eyes—so the pride wasn’t totally swallowed—but that’s not the point.

I knew that the number one thing I needed to do was to spend a substantial amount of time away from relationships. I needed to get over my ex, obviously, but I also needed to push my boundaries and learn how to manage life by myself. As I continued managing life in D.C., which was far from easy, I began to gain more and more confidence in myself, and knew that I was evolving into the person I’d always hoped to be, but hadn’t known how to become: self-aware, unapologetic, and happy with who she is.

One of the things I knew I’d always wanted to do—but was too scared to ever consider doing alone—was to live abroad. And not just live abroad, but to throw myself into the hardest situation I could think of and see if I could come out alive on the other end. I knew, back in the day of almost constant boyfriends, that it would take more than I had in me at that point in my life. But as I grew stronger and more self-assured, I began to think more about it. If I could do this, I reasoned to myself, I’d be advancing both my career and my personal development. If I survive it, I’ll know what I’m really made of. If I succeed, I’ll finally be the person I want to be.

And so the following spring, when I was faced with either grad school in Chicago or a year in Israel—a country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t have any family or friends, and had never visited before—I knew what my decision would be.

No one was particularly thrilled with my decision, and I had a lot of explaining to do. But I knew that, as scared as I was, I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t do this. When July of last year rolled around, I boarded a plane to Tel Aviv, and off to the Holy Land I went.

I’m now looking back on this experience as it draws to a close, and I’m thrilled by the view. I was right. In coming here, I conquered my fear of the unknown, scary world that seemed so insurmountable just three years ago. In learning Hebrew and going from illiteracy to full conversations and three-page essays, I’ve proven to myself that I really can succeed in any situation. In being away from my family and my entire support network for a full year, I’ve proven that I can rely solely on myself, and that I’ll excel when I do so. I’ve finally become the Me I always envisioned.

And now, I’m ready to come home and put that finally fully-evolved Me to work in America. Professionally, I’ve built a strong foundation for the credentials I’ll need to become a Middle East expert, and will begin bolstering my security policy credentials in the fall when I start graduate school. But I’ve also developed the personal skills I’ll need to live the life I want, and now I’m ready for the next phase of my life to begin.

Now that I’ve done this, I know that in two weeks when I board the plane back to the United States, I’ll be ready for whatever awaits me on the other side.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Here We Go Again

Timing is a funny thing. Yesterday, while I was talking with my friend Heidi, we got to the topic of the Intifada (a common topic in this part of the world). She was saying that, having lived here for a few years, she's seen how quickly the relative calm, and the peace negotiations that accompany it, can be shattered by one act of violence. Hopefully it won't happen again anytime soon, she said, and we both murmured "insh'allah," Arabic for God willing, before we went back to complaining about the rigors of Hebrew class.

A few hours later, I got back from shabbat dinner with my friends and hopped online to check my e-mail. The Washington Post Web page came up bearing the headline "Israeli Fire Kills 7 Beachgoers." Hmmm, I thought. This can't be good. However, the headline seemed, sadly, pretty mundane for a day in the Middle East. Everybody's killing everybody else all the time, and although you can't deny the tragedy of human loss, it's hard to not be desensitized after a while.

However, the more ominous information was buried deeper inside the article: that Hamas has called off its fragile 15-month cease-fire with Israel, and has publicly stated that Hamas-sponsored suicide attacks on Israel, the hallmark of the Intifada, will resume. In short: the war is back on, effective immediately.

There are many different levels to this, and all are hard to explain. The first and most obvious is the security issue: although Islamic Jihad has carried out suicide bombings during the cease-fire, theirs have not been as frequent, tightly coordinated, or deadly as Hamas'. During the Intifada, Hamas carried out a bombing almost once a week, and each one had victims in the double digits. Busses, restaurants, shopping centers, Hebrew University: any civilian target was fair game. According to their statement, snipets of which were quoted in the New York Times, "'The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again and the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage...The resistance groups ... will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong and unique response.'"

Gulp. Luggage or coffin? I'll pick luggage, thanks.

That part is terrifying: knowing that all bets are off; that no place is truly safe, and they're all being cased as potential targets. It's the "unique" that gets me. I know how to avoid good suicide bombing targets: no crowds, no busses, no restaurants or stores without security checking bags at the door. Even that is far from foolproof, and who knows what these guys have up their sleeves now. People tend to assume that terrorists are crazy, easily influenced, and not the brightest crayons in the box. It's not true. They know exactly what they're doing, and if some degree of creativity--something unprecedented in the counter-terrorism world--is coming into the picture, we're going to have a problem. Either way, creative tactics or not, we're going to have a problem.

Aside from the obvious fear, though, what really gets to me is that this whole shelling incident was an accident. The IDF was in no way aiming for the beach; speculation is that it was either a misguided shell or a dud that landed and exploded on the beach. Regardless of what caused the accident, the fact remains that it was an accident. Not a deliberate killing, not a targeted assassination, not a provocation.

However, that's how bad relations are between the Israelis and the Palestinians: despite an immediate apology, suspension of operations, opening of an investigation into what went wrong, and offers of medical aid from Israel, the distrust and hatred brewing between Arab and Jew are strong enough to override the obvious. On the Palestinian end, it looks like an open act of war and a deliberate targeting of civilians: because in their eyes, that's what the Israelis do. On the Israeli end, the Palestinian reaction looks like a deliberate attempt to misconstrue evidence and use it as an excuse to attack Israel. Because in their eyes, that's what the Palestinians do. Both sides are too wrapped up in their fury to bother with pragmatism and restraint, and so it all will begin again soon: the bombings, the reprisals, the polemics, calls for revenge, and vitriol from both sides.

The call of the muezzin woke me up this morning, as he called the faithful into morning prayer. I normally love hearing the call to prayer; it sounds beautiful, and I normally use it as a chance to offer my own thanks to the Man Upstairs. (I figure that, hey, it's all going to the same guy.) But this morning it gave me chills because I knew that along with the call to prayer there was going to be a call to arms, and another call to revenge. I usually can go back to sleep after hearing the muezzin, but not today. I laid awake for another hour, my heart pounding as I formulated my "make it home alive" strategy. Hamas has given me the choice of my luggage or my coffin, and I'm going to make damn sure it's choice A.