As the evening call to prayer reverberated through the hills surrounding Ramallah last night, the kids of Kochav Yaakov were clamoring down the empty streets on plastic trikes, their kippas barely hanging onto their heads.
On any other Thursday afternoon, the hi-tech entrepreneurs, and accountants, and investors who live in this Israeli settlement would be driving the 20-30 minutes home from their jobs in central Jerusalem, or 45 minutes for those who work Tel Aviv. But yesterday was the first day of Sukkot, when Jewish families commemorate the transient dwellings of their ancestors and the fall harvest.
Part of the tradition of this happy holiday is welcoming guests, or ushpizin, into one’s sukka, a temporary structure often consisting of a bamboo roof and white fabric sides. So I tagged along with dozens of American immigrants in Kochav Yaakov on a “sukka hop,” in which members of the community go from one sukka to the next, snacking on light refreshments and sharing thoughts on the Torah.
This year’s hop was the most well attended, said organizer Lisa Bar-Leib, who brought the tradition with her from America a decade ago. The mother of two is part of the American contingent here, which makes up about 10 percent of the diverse community of 550 families, including Jews from France, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spanish-speaking countries, as well as native Israelis.
Not everyone is interested in hopping. Some are more intent on studying Jewish teachings than sukka-hopping.
“My husband doesn’t hop, he learns,” says one young mother a bit apologetically, balancing her newborn baby on her hip.
A family event
Kids seem to far outnumber adults, creating a blur of wild hair and smudged cheeks as they scamper everywhere, making off to a corner of the sukka with a plastic bowl of kosher treats.
Subsidized daycare is available for about 1,000 shekels a month ($285) and babies as young as three months are accepted, so many of the mothers work right through their children’s early years. The bus to Jerusalem is also subsidized; it only costs 3.30 shekels – less than $1, and about half of what I pay for a 10-minute bus ride from one Jerusalem neighborhood to another. Housing is also relatively cheap; young families who were living in cramped, decrepit apartments in Jerusalem can afford a big, beautiful home with outstanding views here.
To accommodate burgeoning families with as many as 10 children, as well as new immigrants who have chosen the Kochav Yaakov (Star of Jacob) settlement to be their home for its affordability, wholesome lifestyle, open-minded people, and proximity to Jerusalem, a new bloc of homes was just built near the entrance. The new houses are part of a steady expansion of Israeli settlements across the West Bank, where the number of Israelis has more than doubled since the Oslo peace accords were signed 20 years ago. (Editor's note: The original version mistranslated Kochav Yaakov.)
Arabs and nonArab neighbors
Most families here are religious and at least somewhat ideological: Many see this area as part of greater Israel that God promised to them centuries ago. But they do not appear to be blind to the presence of their Arab neighbors, who shop at the same supermarket, guard the gate to their community, and help build new homes.
One young mother of three said, as I recall (I wasn’t allowed to take notes due to religious restrictions on the holiday), that she doesn’t mind Arabs – the only problem is figuring out which ones might want to kill her or her family, she says. When she was grocery shopping last fall, a distraught woman got off her cellphone and told her that a bus had just been bombed in Tel Aviv; she recalls looking around at the Arabs in the aisles and wondering if any of them had similar intentions.
There have been incidents in the past 20 to 30 years where Arab contractors or employees, even those with close relationships to their Jewish bosses – even those whose families had invited each other over for meals – later murdered them. While that's a tiny number, those stories are seared into memory for Jews.
But now this mother of three has Arabs working on her house, and it’s the first time she’s really gotten to have in-depth conversations with them. One told her in Hebrew, how he and his two wives all live in one house and and "thank God we all get along." Another said that life has been better for Arabs since Israel was established, and he hoped there would never be a Palestinian state – though she wasn’t entirely confident he felt free to say what he really thinks. It's been an eye opening opportunity for her.
As the stars come out
After three hours of sukka-hopping and meeting so many Sarahs and Chavas that I couldn’t keep everyone straight, I walked out of the final sukka and into the pleasant evening air, with a full moon rising over the mountains of Jordan in the distance.
As I walked out of the gated yard to my car, I heard one of the guards say “assalamu alaykum” – Arabic for “peace be upon you.” Then he asked me, in Hebrew, if I knew when the holiday ended.
Right about now, I told him. Right as the stars come out.
Mention the word matchmaker, and many people will think of Yenta of Fiddler on the Roof fame, the nosy villager who tried to push Tevye’s poor daughters to marry men who were drunkards and three or four times their age.
Nobody could be more different from Daniella Rudoff, who is passionate about helping people build strong marriages on the right foundation.
"I’m not your typical matchmaker.... They’re thinking Fiddler on the Roof, and I’m not,” says the effervescent Ms. Rudoff, a consummate networker, both in person and on social media. After clients meet with her, she says, “They come out with a smile and they friend me on Facebook and they 'like' what I post.”
The role of matchmaker in Jewish communities, once an essential part of preserving the social fabric if not the very existence of shtetels across Eastern Europe, has evolved tremendously. While the Yenta model has a certain stigma attached to it, matchmaking today is increasingly modern and enjoys a relatively wide acceptance in Jewish communities.
The options range from online Jewish dating websites such as sawyouatsinai.com, which uses matchmakers to help clients find a suitable partner, to individuals who cater to particular sectors of Jewish society, such as converts or those who became religiously observant later in life.
“It’s not just for losers and the stigma that used to be associated with it,” says Gavi Lewy-Newman, a 20-something modern Orthodox Jew from New Jersey who became an Israeli citizen last year. “It’s kind of like getting a personal trainer in finding someone who will be fitting to you.”
Ms. Lewy-Newman, who now lives in Jerusalem, has been out on a number of dates through Saw You At Sinai, a combination matchmaker and Jewish online dating service that is free for those in Israel (in America the subscription costs $11 to $19 per month).
While some matchmakers still work on a volunteer basis, for many it is a full-time job with significant compensation. The 5-year-old organization B’Yachad (Together), for example, has a network of nearly 200 matchmakers. It charges 600 shekels ($170) per client and a bonus of 8,000 shekels per couple ($2,260) for matches that result in marriage.
For Rudoff, who works independent of any larger service or website, it is more than matching resumes and then hurrying a couple toward the chuppah. She emphasizes individual, face-to-face meetings that enable her to really get to know her clients, and offers dating mentoring to support budding relationships.
"I try to stay away from, 'She's wearing a skirt, he's wearing pants, let's set them up,' " says Rudoff. And her clients appreciate that.
“Thanks so much for the advice, not just about finding a guy, but about being the best person I can be,” a client of hers told her recently.
Not all matchmaking is so pleasant. In fact, one website, “End the Madness” was created to help correct prevalent matchmaking approaches, including undue attention to superficial religious customs rather than the essential qualities that make for a strong marriage.
“All sorts of arbitrary external practices have become divisive ‘standards’ by which the Jewish nation has splintered, each tiny faction holy unto itself,” with people’s religious worth – and marriage eligibility – based on things like tablecloths used on the Jewish Sabbath or the style of a man’s jacket, according to the website, which offers a code of conduct for matchmakers. “The dating “scene” is replete with this insanity.”
Rudoff is mindful of the religious and political divisions in Israeli society, and the tendency for singles to seek out those with similar views. But she is also happy to be as open as her clients are to going out of outside the box of a certain level of religious observance.
And, she adds, she never pressures a couple for a second date if the first one was rocky. Her background is in mentoring Jewish couples to build successful marriages, and she only got into the matchmaking business after launching her website, “Marriage Architect” a year and a half ago.
"I’m not interested in having a couple get married if it’s not a good idea. I need to see that there are foundations in this marriage for me to put my stamp of approval on it,” says Rudoff, who has seven children with her husband of 17 years. “The real reason I’m doing this is because I want people to be happy. I want them to have strong foundations, to be happy together."
As fresh graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., R. Blaize Wallace and Mustafa Khalifeh could have taken highly lucrative positions in the business world.
Instead, they are launching a start-up from a few spare desks at Jordan’s Oasis500 accelerator. Their idea, which won the $50,000 grand prize in social enterprise at Harvard Business School’s New Ventures competition this spring, aims to help low-income citizens save up for large purchases – such as a washing machine, which could free up women’s time and thus advance opportunities for women in the developing world.
So why Jordan? Well, it is Mr. Khalifeh’s home country, where he helped found three companies before going to Sloan, but he also made a convincing sales pitch to Mr. Wallace and their two other partners, Hoda Eydgahi and Manoah Koletty. Living expenses are relatively cheap, there’s a high concentration of talent and a burgeoning entrepreneurial community, and Jordan is small enough to test new ideas; the mobile giant Zain also launches its pilot projects here.
“The entrepreneurial environment here was a huge part of why we came,” says Wallace, a lanky Californian who previously worked in venture capital in Brazil and for a start-up in San Francisco. “We could have started in a dozen countries.”
In 2011, the Middle East had less access to financial services than sub-Saharan Africa, he says, making it a ripe market for their company, called Bluelight.
For the most part, banks in Jordan have minimum balance requirements that are beyond the means of low-income people. Credit-card penetration is around 2 to 3 percent, and while informal savings initiatives exist, there are perpetual problems with someone running off with the collective pot of money, while fees for more official savings programs can be as high as 30 percent. Those who manage to stuff a bit of cash under their mattresses the old-fashioned way often get asked by friends or family to help out and feel badly saying no.
The “save-to-buy” service, which will enter a second pilot phase later this month, enables clients to create an online account via microfinance institutions, and then add as little or as much to the account at a time via a wide network of locations in Jordan that accept cash deposits. They also have the option of signing up for an account for a specific vendor, giving them access to bonus savings from their favorite appliance or electronics store, for example.
In addition to winning big prizes at both Harvard and MIT, the idea has also captured the attention of potential users. One woman from a low-income neighborhood in east Amman who participated in a focus group said it sounded too good to be true. Then the moderator told her that in fact there is an actual company getting ready to launch.
Khalifeh says there is a specific focus on women, both to help them better manage household finances and free up their time – and opportunities.
“It’s a universal fact by now that they’re the responsible ones in the household,” he says. “We also see this as a women empowerment tool.”
As a Christian, she faced even more persecution than the average Iraqi. But while roughly half of Iraq’s estimated 1 million Christians fled the country, she stayed put for a decade – until this summer.
Three weeks ago, Ms. Yousef finally left her country for good, taking refuge in Amman with her teenage daughter and elderly mother. Among her extended family of about 60 relatives, only one remains in Iraq.
Her story could not be independently verified by the Monitor but it is consistent with the accounts of other Iraqi Christian refugees, illustrating the persistent threat faced by one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, distinct but not disconnected from the widespread suffering of Iraqis of all backgrounds.
Yousef says her uncle was kidnapped and then killed after three days, targeted because he was a Christian. The perpetrators called her family to collect his body, then began threatening her.
“Within 24 hours, you will leave your job, leave your house. If you don’t leave in 24 hours we’re going to blow up your house,” Yousef recalls them telling her over the phone. So she quit her job as a stewardess with Iraqi Air, her employer for 13 years, left her house, and moved in with an aunt.
She finally resolved to leave Iraq, but the day of her departure her sister called from Syria, where more than 300,000 Iraqi Christians have taken refuge. She told Yousef that her husband had traveled back to Iraq and was kidnapped on arrival; her sister begged her to stay and seek his release.
She stayed, but they never heard from him.
Yousef’s daughter, Lorita, found herself the only Christian in her class of 40 at school. She was required to sit through Islamic religious instruction that denigrated Christianity.
They couldn't find comfort in church because they were too scared to attend after the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq killed at least 58 worshippers at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad in 2010.
“We don’t go to church in Baghdad, of course not,” says Yousef. “Then they will kill us in the church.”
But despite not being able to attend church, she has maintained a strong faith and credits God with helping her get Lorita out of Iraq safely.
“The most important thing is that God helped me with was to save my daughter,” says Yousef, who hopes they will be able to join her sister in Australia. “She’s the most important thing in my life.”
It may be surprising that a sleek new website selling designer hijabs to Muslim women around the world is run by two US-born Christians.
But Fouad Jeryes and Amy Kyleen Lute were both drawn to Amman’s burgeoning entrepreneurial scene, and knew a good market opportunity when they saw one.
An increasing number of ventures have sought to capitalize on high internet penetration in the Arab world by creating online marketplaces such as souq.com or MarkaVIP. But they tend to sell mainly Western brands, which are either unappealing or unaffordable for many Muslims, says Mr. Jeryes, who is Jordanian.
“But if you look around, what women are wearing are not these clothes. They don’t identify, most of them at least, with Hugo Boss and Chanel,” he says, so he looked for another kind of product to sell. “I thought we needed something that was easy to store, ship, buy, manufacture … and cost-effective. And everything pointed toward one item – hijab.”
So in January the team launched Hijabik.com, where a fashionable Muslim lady anywhere in the world can order silk head scarves from Turkey or beautifully embroidered pieces from Jordan with a click of a carefully manicured finger.
The high-quality photos, including zoomed-in images, as well as attractive models instead of mannequins, set it apart from other online hijab stores and earned it significant attention. The company’s Facebook page, where customers can order products without ever visiting the main website – “In the Arab world, a lot of people think that Facebook is the Internet,” says Jeryes – has garnered more than 145,000 likes.
Monthly visits to their main website are in the thousands, with surprisingly high traffic from Japan, and growing interest from the US as well. American Muslim women appreciate the opportunity to shop for hijabs more discreetly, since there is still a stigma attached with hijab shopping in person, says Ms. Lute, Hijabik’s CEO, who speaks Arabic and engages with any and every Muslim woman she can find to ask about their hijab shopping habits, tastes, and challenges. She and her staff – two full-timers and two part-timers – are also looking to aggregate more Islamic fashion news, since there is no such thing as an Elle magazine for conservative Muslim women, she says.
For Jeryes and Lute, there are plenty of challenges forging into this relatively untapped market. A huge percentage of citizens in the world don’t have banking accounts or credit cards – in Egypt, for example, it’s as high as 90 percent. So when someone calls up from Tunisia and wants to buy a hijab but doesn’t have an account, they have to turn her down.
But there is plenty of support for solving such challenges in Amman. “We’ve had so much support along the way…. I could call the CEO of almost any tech company in Amman and get a [response] tomorrow,” says Lute. “That’s been a huge thing for us.”
They’re also good problem-solvers themselves. Jeryes is creating a new payment platform that would allow the 85 percent of customers who prefer to pay in cash to do so through an online platform that will be linked up with local convenience stores. Pay there in the morning, and the company is immediately notified and can deliver your product as soon as that afternoon.
That would advance the company well beyond its early days, when Jeryes himself would do the deliveries. One day he showed up in a suit after a business meeting and greeted a customer at her door, “Mabrouk (congratulations). Here’s your order from Hijabik. That will be 19 JD ($27),” he recalls saying. To his great surprise, the woman took her 1 JD (Jordanian dinar) change and with a flourish tucked it in his jacket pocket. “I never in my life thought I’d get tipped!”
“We always joke that this is the only JD that has not been reinvested in the company,” says Lute.
Saly Emad el-Moullen is a Syrian refugee herself, but she has found new purpose in Jordan by helping with an Oxfam project that seeks to give children of a stake in their temporary home through art.
In this camp of 120,000, children make up roughly half the population. Although 30,000 of them are school-age, only 6,000 or so are in school. A third school is being constructed, but there are will still be far too few classrooms for so many little faces which, despite the tragedies of war, still show an eager spark of curiosity.
On a recent day Ms. El-Moullen oversaw a group of youngsters painting tiles for the bathrooms they and their families use.
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
“It’s amazing…. I feel like I’m doing something for my country, something good,” says El-Moullen as kids run up with their completed tiles and she carefully marks them for the men’s or women’s bathroom, depending on the child’s gender.
A graduate of Damascus University who studied statistics, El-Moullen was working at a a kindergarten in Damascus before she left 11 months ago for Jordan.
It was hard for her to see her countrymen suffering in a refugee camp, but Oxfam social coordinator Jeff Silverman told her to be strong. “I used to always cry,” she says.
But now she doesn’t seem to stop smiling as her eyes following the kids running around their tiles laid out on the ground.
“And here I am, I stopped crying," she says.
An amateur video showing a Syrian father being reunited with a young son he thought had died in a chemical weapons attack has captured the hearts of people around the world, getting more than 2 million views on YouTube since being posted on Aug. 25.
In the video, first highlighted in the Western media by The Washington Post’s Max Fisher, a young boy is brought to the arms of his sobbing father, who is so overcome with emotion that the crowd of men around him have to hold him up.
Once inside, however, he holds the boy on his lap and reassures him, holding him tight and kissing his cheeks. "Don't be upset,” he says, according to a translation by The New York Times. “I am beside you, my darling. I am beside you."
The source of the video is unclear, and Western media were careful to note that they could not independently verify it. But numerous reports say it was shot in Zamalka or East Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, in the area where Syrian rebels reported a devastating chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21, triggering intensified discussion in Washington about a potential US strike.
Twitter is bursting with comments about the video, mostly in Arabic, but also English and Spanish. As Negar Mortazavi, a Tehran native living in Washington put it, “Beautiful People Ugly War.”
Even journalists, so often calloused by the demands of covering war-riven countries, showed a softer side in calling attention to the video, so different from the thousands that have depicted – often graphically – the fighting that has killed more than 100,000 since March 2011.
Jared Keller of Al Jazeera America perhaps said it most concisely: "Heartwarming."
As President Obama weighs a strike on Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in a battle between the Assad regime and armed rebels, many in the region are bracing for a conflagration that could spread well beyond the country's borders.
But another kind of spillover is worth considering: the effect of an overwhelming conflict on a region struggling to uphold human rights and the rule of law independent of nationality, religion, or political affiliation.
Amira Hass, who covers Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Haaretz, argued yesterday that ranking atrocities or injustices sometimes obscures individual rights and government responsibility.
"There are those who say [widow Nahil] Rajbi’s fear of being deported from her home in the Old City of Jerusalem is dwarfed by the suffering of the million Syrian children who have become refugees. Some would even go so far as to say that the history of Israeli domination over the Palestinians is dwarfed by the incomprehensible slaughter taking place in the region," she wrote. “According to that logic, men can tell the women in Israel and Italy not to complain about gender discrimination because their sisters in Africa still suffer the practice of female genital mutilation, while in India, the selective abortion of female fetuses is still widespread. Westernized Jews can tell Arab-Jews and Sephardi Jews that they should stop complaining because they’re doing far better than residents of favelas in Brazil.”
"Ranking injustices, atrocities and discrimination on a scale of horrors is just one more technique employed by those in power to retain their power, to justify their excessive privileges and to belittle any public or civil struggle for equality," she added.
Ms. Hass is known for her passionate defense of the Palestinian cause, which causes some to discount her journalism as advocacy. But she has raised an important question here that goes well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Is justice a bell curve in which you get a passing grade as long as you’re doing better than the F students? Or does one atrocity – however great – excuse ignoring other injustices?
RECOMMENDED: Syria's refugee crisis
Take Egypt, where a potent mixture of anger, resentment, and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood has led some to cheer the Egyptian security forces’ killing of more than 600 people protesting the military’s deposing of President Mohamed Morsi last month.
Perhaps compared to Syria, the scale seems minor, but it is still worth considering what is driving both the killing and the public acceptance of such actions. One important factor is the almost mindless infatuation with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Sisi that has caused many people to disregard or even condone such actions against the Brotherhood, as we wrote about last month.
To be sure, it can be hard to see the humanity amid such turmoil. Sarah Birke recently wrote a poignant account for the New York Review of Books of how much Damascus has changed just in the past year, which is well worth reading.
But if Hass is right that the scales of justice weigh each individual equally and independently of all else, then there are many individuals in this troubled region that have recognized even small injustices and endeavored to tilt the scales toward the good – whether it is giving voice to a minority pianist in the contested city of Jerusalem, providing young Egyptians a more nuanced political view along with a paycheck, or building up civil society in a part of Yemen where guns, money, and pedigrees rather than ideas have traditionally held sway.
It would be unfortunate if Syria's tragedy was used to excuse injustice elsewhere in the region, as Hass seems to suggest – or, conversely, overshadow the progress of individuals or countries.
If you walk down the Street of the Prophets toward the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City, turn onto Ethiopia Street, and step into the Kidane Meheret church, you may hear the sounds of pianist, composer, and devout nun Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù.
A descendant of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in 1923, Sister Guebrù received early piano training in Switzerland and became one of the first classical musicians to emerge from her country.
Although she has recorded a handful of albums throughout her life and made her home inside Jerusalem's Ethiopian Monastery for the past 30 years, few Israelis knew she existed, let alone lived in their midst. The concert provided the Israeli audience with just one poignant example of the diverse personalities and communities that live here, often unnoticed and sometimes suppressed.
Her works were performed on an Israeli stage for the first time Tuesday night, as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s second annual Sacred Music Festival. Entitled “A tribute concert to the legendary composer that lives at the Ethiopian Monastery in Jerusalem,” it was made possible by Israeli pianist and sound artist Maya Duneitz, who tracked Guebrù down eight years ago after becoming enthralled by one of her albums.
Ms. Duneitz, the musical director of a project to transcribe and perform Guebrù's music, worked with Guebrù over the past two years to create sheet music for 12 of her compositions, which until then had only existed as Guebrù’s penciled scribbles. She also collaborated with Israeli academic and paper artist Meytal Ofer from the Jerusalem Season of Culture to publish a collection of essays on Guebrù's life and work, Ethiopian music, and the history of the Christian Ethiopian community in Jerusalem. The book is published in English, Hebrew, and Amharic along with the sheet music, which has never before been published anywhere in the world.
Guebrù, now 90 years old, sat quietly in the front row of the West Jerusalem YMCA’s Moorish concert hall as Ms. Duneitz and various other Israeli, Ethiopian, and Ethiopian-Israeli musicians performed her compositions, along with a few Christian Ethiopian prayers and folksong, combining both the sacred and the secular. While there were hopes that she herself would take to the stage, Guebrù remained humbly in her seat.
In this contested and divided city dominated by ethnic, religious and nationalist politics, the little-known life and culture of a musician and devout nun was given robust voice. It was a rare moment of recognition for the other and a reminder that Jerusalem can be a place that acknowledges the rich diversity of cultures and faiths, and that respects the distinct identity and lifestyles of those who live here.
Amid anger toward US policies across the Middle East, there is at least one corner of this tumultuous region where America is being praised.
Drive 15 minutes south from Bethlehem, turning off on a winding road with olive groves and open fields, and you’ll find Rafideh. The village has just welcomed one of their sons home after 23 years in prison, thanks to a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
“When Kerry’s wife entered the hospital, we asked God for her to get better because he is a mediator,” says Khaled Asakreh, basking in his newfound freedom at a luncheon held in his honor this week. “We all believe that the USA plays a very great role.”
Mr. Asakreh was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for his fatal stabbing of Annie Ley, a French tourist dining at the Bethlehem hotel where he worked toward the tail end of the Palestinian intifada.
Many Israelis consider him and the 25 other prisoners who were released a week ago to be terrorists. All were jailed for murder or attempted murder, and most of the victims were Israeli Jews. Some say it will take a generation or more before Israelis will be able to accept the idea of making peace with people who have committed such brutal crimes, still seared on the national consciousness.
But Asakreh says he is a different man now.
“I have changed completely,” says Asakreh, speaking in Arabic with his nephew translating. “I have a new vision, that the solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] doesn’t come in violent ways.”
Asakreh was 18 years old when he went to jail, and bounced around from one Israeli facility to another. For a little over two years, he lived in a cell next to Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian prisoner sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela.
Dr. Barghouti was jailed with five life sentences for his involvement in the second intifada. He has since espoused civil disobedience in protest of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Fluent in Hebrew, he taught his fellow prisoners the Israelis’ language and served as a role model.
“He was like a father to all the prisoners,” says Asakreh, whose own parents died while he was in prison.
His family built him a house in expectation of his release. As a veteran prisoner he has been collecting a monthly salary of 8,000 shekels ($2,250) from the Palestinian Authority, which will continue for life. Now, he is looking for a wife, and trying to put the past behind him.
In his first week out of prison, Asakreh still put his clothes under the bed when he went to sleep, woke up early, and stood in line for breakfast – part of a routine he had grown accustomed to during 23 years in prison.
But no one has recorded his voice, asked for his fingerprints, taken his mug shot, or examined him naked, which he says was part of the prison routine.
Now he can freely use a cellphone, unlike the days when prisoners waited for relatives to smuggle phones into jail by hiding them in grape leaves stuffed with rice. Visitors would also conceal small, tightly folded letters in empty caplets of drugs – all tactics the Israeli prison authorities caught on to.
Though visits were infrequent, and restricted to close relatives such as siblings or parents, a prisoner organization helped educate him and other political prisoners so that they could better advocate on behalf of the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom.
“I consider myself as a leader in peaceful ways, not in violent ways,” says Asakreh, who is enthusiastic about the peace talks now under way. “I am completely optimistic … all Palestinians are very optimistic, if both sides are serious.”