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We Just Want to Live Here: An Unlikely Teenage Friendship in the Two jerusalems

We Just Want to Live Here: An Unlikely Teenage Friendship in the Two jerusalems

3.0 1
by Amal Rifa'i, Odelia Ainbinder, Sylke Tempel

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Palestinian Amal Rifa'i and Israeli Odelia Ainbinder are two teenage girls who live in the same city, yet worlds apart. They met on a student exchange program to Switzerland. Weeks after they returned, the latest, violent Intifada broke out in the fall of 2000.

But two years later, Middle East correspondent Sylke Tempel encouraged Amal and Odelia to develop their


Palestinian Amal Rifa'i and Israeli Odelia Ainbinder are two teenage girls who live in the same city, yet worlds apart. They met on a student exchange program to Switzerland. Weeks after they returned, the latest, violent Intifada broke out in the fall of 2000.

But two years later, Middle East correspondent Sylke Tempel encouraged Amal and Odelia to develop their friendship by facilitating an exchange of their deepest feelings through letters. In their letters, Amal and Odelia discuss the Intifada, their families, traditions, suicide bombers, and military service. They write frankly of their anger, frustrations, and fear, but also of their hopes and dreams for a brighter future.

Together, Amal and Odelia give us a renewed sense of hope for peace in the Middle East, in We Just Want To Live Here.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Profoundly moving....The conflict between Jews and Arabs has been described in countless books and argued in unending polemics, but here, in the letters between these two eighteen-year-old women, an Arab and a Jew, is the heartbreaking essence of the quarrel.... In these letters (an idea brilliantly conceived and carried through by Sylke Tempel) Amal and Odelia educate each other..... This is the book for anyone who wants to feel and understand the emotions on both sides. It will become a classic.” —Arthur Hertzberg, author of A Jew in America: My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity
Publishers Weekly
The two authors, now 18, met in Switzerland during an exchange program in 2000, and returned to a Jerusalem soon gripped by the second intifada. After falling out of touch, they exchanged the letters collected in this book from August to November of 2002, cycling through anguish, accusation, artifice, allowance, appreciation-all of the beginnings of real friendship. The book proves to be that rarest of contexts-a place for young women of the Middle East to discuss politics with openness and mutual respect. 6 maps. (Sept. 12) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Amal (an 18-year-old Palestinian girl) and Odelia (an 18-year-old Israeli girl) both live in Jerusalem, not far from each other. But their lives are completely different. They had met in Switzerland in a program that attempted to help Palestinians and Israeli teenagers become friends, but the Intifada began soon after their return to Jerusalem and it seemed impossible to find any common ground for continuing their friendship. Sylke Tempel, with her background as a journalist, facilitated the two young women's correspondence, encouraging them to honestly address their feelings about the differences separating them. This book is mainly a compilation of their exchange of letters. The young women are each thoughtful and articulate; each is proud of her heritage. While they get to a place when they can listen to the other, they don't understand how to solve the great dilemmas that they face. Odelia is from a more liberal background than many other Israelis, and Amal is from a more privileged Arab family than most Palestinians, so they each represent perhaps the best shot at reconciliation; and still it seems almost impossible. YAs with an interest in the current events in Israel will want to read this. KLIATT Codes: JSA;Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, St. Martin's, Griffin, 154p.,
— Claire Rosser

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We Just Want to Live Here

A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager â" Unlikely Friendship

By Amal Rifa'i, Odelia Ainbinder, Sylke Tempel

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Amal Rifa'i and Odelia Ainbinder with Sylke Tempel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-31894-9




Jewish New Year, Kfar Saba, September 7, 2002

Dear Amal,

I am sitting in my new room in Kfar Saba, a little town located some ten kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv. It's in the middle of the night and I am very tired but I am also very happy because this is the beginning of my new life. I finished school. I moved out of my parents' home in Jerusalem where I grew up and I am beginning a year of "community service." This is a voluntary year of doing social work before being drafted for the obligatory army service. My choice was to do community service in my youth movement Shomer HaZair. This is a socialist-Zionist youth movement that has existed in Israel and Europe and all over the world for ninety years already. Like most of these youth movements, it really doesn't play that big a role anymore in present-day Israel because youth movements are not cool, I suppose. You have to be an idealist to work for a youth movement. You have to think about your life, and the situation we are in. Most kids don't want to do that. They want instant answers. Like some-body who prefers to heat something up in a microwave instead of taking the effort to cook. Our youth movement is in bad shape. We haven't gotten a lot of kids who come to our activities; we have to work really hard on recruiting more.

This year I am going to be a kommunar, which means that I am in charge of a facility in Petach Tikva together with two other girls and a guy. We are responsible for the activities there and for the kids who look at us like "big bosses," turning to us when there's a problem. I am really excited that I chose to do that. I know it might sound somewhat strange and lots of people don't believe in it because it doesn't seem to be very realistic, but I believe in the chance that we can make the world a better place. In my youth movement, we want to teach the kids we are working with values like tolerance and freedom of thought. We want to motivate them not to look for easy answers.

Shomer HaZair owns an apartment in Kfar Saba for the people doing community service; fifteen of us will live on a commune. Of course, with a unique living situation we will have troubles and problems from time to time, but we will overcome them. We have already had long and often very intense discussions. It is so extraordinary that I am experiencing a socialist lifestyle, as in earlier days. During this year we have a shared economy and are supposed to share everything.

My long-term ambition is to become an actress. Actually, I am already an actress. I played leading roles in some performances staged by our school, but I want to become a professional actress. And when I say I am an actress, I mean one is born with the calling, in my opinion at least. That has nothing to do with what I am doing right now. My dream is just to be on stage every night, even if I might only get the minimum wage. I don't care. It is also my goal to become a well-known actress who reaches a wide audience.

What I wonder: Do you, Amal, have all of the opportunities I have or do you find it more difficult, because you are kind of a stranger in your own country?

Thinking about future plans involves the simple question: Do I have a future in this country? Or what is the future of this country? And I can't think of living somewhere else, at least not forever. Israel is my home. Which once again makes me think of you and how you feel about living in a place where you, at the same time, might feel so out of place in a country called Israel under a flag with the Star of David on it, which is a totally foreign symbol to you. I, of course, feel at home here. We practice my religion (I am Jewish). Hebrew is my language, and everybody around me speaks Hebrew. Would you feel better being in another place, or if you were living in a Palestinian state? I guess you would. How do you feel about this place? How would I feel if somebody took over Israel and told me: "OK, from now on this is a Christian country, we have changed the flag, our national symbol is the cross and the official language is — let's say — English." I guess that's what the Palestinians might feel. I wonder if you would prefer to stay here under such circumstances. Suppose the situation goes on forever — and I feel it might go on for some more years — perhaps you might go somewhere else?

I would like to go all over the world and live in other places, such as London. I always would come back and I always would feel at home here. Do you feel at home or do you feel a little bit out of place? On the one hand it is, or it was, your land and your home, at least in my opinion. But it is definitely also my country, a country that has changed completely for you. We have a language spoken that is not yours and a flag foreign to you, even though you live only five minutes from where I grew up. Could you distance yourself from everything Israeli and ask: "Am I only a Palestinian?" But you would still live only five minutes from where I, an Israeli, grew up.

For the moment, I want to make this the best year of my life. I would love to conclude it with great results by recruiting lots of new kids into the movement to make it stronger, to learn how we can live together in a socialist way as much as possible. Then, to finish with my army service and hopefully to do something meaningful there, like participate in an educational program. There are language-training programs for Russianspeaking soldiers, for example. And then to travel as all Israelis do after the army. I would like to go to South America, come back to Israel, and try to get into one of the best acting schools, preferably in London or New York. New York sounds a bit too scary, too big, too American. I only "know" it from the movies and therefore I think of New York as a Hollywood cliché right out of Batman — a crime-ridden, capitalistic "Gotham City." But London sounds wonderful. I have been there twice already, alone, and it's really a great place. If neither school works out, I will just go to Tel Aviv and hopefully keep on living my life without having to think about whether I should take a stupid bus or not because I could die in a suicide attack.

I would love to live in a world where I would not have to answer my little six-year-old brother's questions about this political situation. I don't have the slightest clue how to answer him when he asks me, "Are all Arabs bad?" I tell him, "Well, Oded, our parents sent you to a mixed Arab-Jewish kindergarten, and now to a mixed Arab-Jewish school. Do you think that all the Arabs in your class are bad?" Thank God, my mother has to put up with my brother's questions most of the time. If I have kids one day — and I suppose I will, and I suppose the situation will not have changed much — I would not have the slightest idea about what to tell a six-year-old about HaMatzav — the situation.

This is my dream for the future. I want a normal life, not in the sense of "ordinary" with a nine-to-five job and a house in the suburbs. Of course, I want my life to be exciting, but not in a way that is "abnormal" or "too interesting" in this country. Not in the sense that today I was walking down the street and, oops, something blew up next to me. I definitely don't want my life to be "interesting" in that sense.

I guess that your plans for the future are different. I think you hope for a country for yourself. I don't know what I'd be doing in your place. If I were the same person but in your place, I might have the same dreams, but they would take on a whole different meaning. I suppose in Muslim culture no one encourages a young girl to go study in a foreign place like London. A more conservative, traditional family would probably consider a daughter with dreams like that to be rebellious.

I try to state my opinions because I think that is very important. And you should also try to state yours all the time, even if it is quite scary for us sometimes to hear what the "other side" thinks. If you say you don't have an opinion, you're a liar. If you don't state it, you're a coward. Recently, I came across a quote by Socrates that I really like: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I like the process of criticizing, examining one's life situation. To me, this process is a way of being sensitive to your surroundings, your environment. I also like just to approach life with this attitude: If bad things happen, well, then, I will deal with them, as I have to deal with the political situation we in the younger generation are thrown into. Writing this book means dealing with this situation. It is probably even some sort of therapy for me. Odelia


September 15, 2002

Dear Odelia,

This might sound somewhat unusual: I have always dreamt about becoming a police investigator because I love to get to the bottom of things. That is, however, only a dream, which cannot come true. There are Arab police officers, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who mainly live in northern Israel. But I am not a citizen, and it's not easy for an Arab girl to leave her home and live somewhere else where nobody knows her, or where she doesn't have relatives.

I finished school with the Israeli Bagrut (high school diploma). Actually, this school is the only one that offers the option of an Israeli high school degree. (Arab students in East Jerusalem or the West Bank use the Jordanian school curriculum. Palestinians from Gaza follow the Egyptian curriculum.) I chose the Bagrut because that would prepare me better for a professional career in Israel; therefore, I traveled a long distance just to attend this school. With a Jordanian high school degree, I would have had trouble getting into an Israeli university because preference is given to students with an Israeli high school degree. If I wanted to study at an Arab university in either the West Bank or in an Arab country, I would have problems getting there because of the Intifada and the ongoing closures. Or I would have trouble finding a job afterwards. I know plenty of people who could hang their nicely framed school certificates on their living-room walls, but had to make a living from cleaning or working in the kitchen of an Israeli restaurant.

Even with the Israeli high school degree, it is not that easy to get into an Israeli university. You have to pass a very difficult psychometric test (intelligence and ability test). Only with good grades can you get into the really attractive departments like law or medicine. I was an excellent student at my school. But I couldn't score high enough on the psychometric test. Israeli kids are prepared for a whole year at their schools. At our school we could take an extra ten-day preparatory course that cost some 2,000 NIS (about $500 US). Ten days is just not long enough to earn high enough marks to get into the really attractive university departments. And our parents can't afford to pay for a special course as rigorous as the one the Israeli kids get. In our tradition, a family's father tries to build a house for his grown-up sons so they can marry, have a family, and move into their own home. A father of grown-up sons has to pay for their houses, or at least an apartment, for their weddings, which are really big celebrations, and for the education of all of his children — sons and daughters. How much else can a father shoulder?

I would have loved to study the law. I am a hard worker. I have lots of energy, and also, I am a fan of Ally McBeal on the TV show. She is clever and witty. But I am barred from attending the law faculty because of my low grades on the psychometric test. So my mother told me to study special education in an Israeli college here in Jerusalem, which a lot of Arab girls attend, meaning I will work with handicapped children. Well, I love children, and I have a lot of patience with them. With a college degree, I still might get into Hebrew University and pursue the profession I really want.

A few months ago, I met this friend of a friend at a wedding. I loved him at first glance. He is kind, intelligent, and has a really good character. In July, he proposed to me, meaning that he came to our house and told my father that he wanted to marry me. I did not intend to marry early, nor did my father intend this for me. He always told me to get a good education first. But, according to our traditions, we marry soon after we get engaged. Besides, we want to avoid gossip. Officially, our neighborhood is part of the big city of Jerusalem. But it is rather like a little village. Most of the people there belong to two or three big clans. They all know each other, and they care about what the others are doing.

My daddy will pay for my studies even though I will be married and my education is not really his responsibility anymore. But I will also work to pay for the tuition, which is some 12,000 NIS a year (about $3,000 U.S.) and my husband will support me. He had dreamt about studying, but then he also wanted to build a home for himself. Being married will mean a lot of new responsibilities for me.

I had thought about studying somewhere else — in Jordan, for example — and getting away from our little village for a while. My father would have liked me to study in Jordan; we have relatives there. But my mother insisted that I stay here because I would have a better chance of getting a job. And now I cannot leave my fiance behind, anyway. Living in a place other than your hometown isn't that easy. I am also wary of new things. I even hate to go to downtown East Jerusalem. The boys constantly harass you —"Give me your telephone number" here, "Hey, Darling, you're beautiful" there. No young guy would dare do this in our village. People are very conservative; they would beat the guts out of anyone who didn't show sufficient respect to somebody's daughter or sister. Nobody ever harassed me in Bethlehem or Ra-mallah, or in other places under Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian police would not allow it. They probably would give those guys serious trouble. Sometimes, however, the people in our village keep their eyes open a bit too much.

I also want to have an exciting life. I want to do something that gives my life meaning. Should I decide to live in this country, then I certainly will not move away from my village. But my fiance and I thought about living somewhere abroad, at least for some time. He wanted to become a journalist or writer, but he didn't do well on the psychometric test either. At the moment, he earns money as a construction worker. He gives me a lot of books to read; he himself reads Arabic and Hebrew fluently. I often read his writing. I like his stuff very much; he is bright and has good ideas. But I am afraid he is losing his ambitions, all the dreams he once had. I don't want this to happen to me. But there are so many restrictions and regulations.

Sometimes I compare our situation to that of the Israelis. I see them running around with their guns; I see their nice neighborhoods, with those clean playgrounds and well-paved streets. They are so privileged.

My brother visited some of the Palestinian refugee camps — even before the Intifada when it was easier to get into those places. The kids showed him their paintings: Mainly, they painted guns. This is their reality. They hardly ever see Israeli civilians, only soldiers with guns. They grabbed stones and then told him, "We don't have guns like the Israelis, but we have stones and we want to throw them at the Israeli occupiers." This is how they grow up, and what they think of even when they are still very young. They don't play with dolls or cars; they don't think of their studies. They want to become fighters when they're older. They don't have a future.

Often I am very jealous of the Israelis. They have so many more opportunities; they are richer and can send their children to universities or even abroad. I cannot live like them. Everywhere I look, there are restrictions. It is as if somebody told me, "This is your place. Don't leave it." Nobody tells the Israelis what to do.

This is my land, but not my country. Like everybody else among my family and friends, I try to ignore the Israeli reality around me. If I didn't, I would feel as if it were choking me. We don't speak about politics outside our home. My father is afraid that he could get arrested for it. He is our only breadwinner. Who would then take care of our family? You see what happened to Marwan Bargouthy, the Fatah leader in the West Bank: He said the plain truth and now he sits in an Israeli jail. I admire him a lot. Speaking my own mind is not so easy. My father tells me to shut up. He is worried because he knows that I have a furious temper and a big mouth. He knows that I have trouble seeing everything that's going on around me, and not speaking out. But it is dangerous. I don't even talk to my friends about politics.


Excerpted from We Just Want to Live Here by Amal Rifa'i, Odelia Ainbinder, Sylke Tempel. Copyright © 2003 Amal Rifa'i and Odelia Ainbinder with Sylke Tempel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Amal Rifa'i, an eighteen-year-old Palestinian, plans to study special education in an Israeli college.

Odelia Ainbinder, an eighteen-year-old Israeli, has started a year of community service with a socialist-Zionist movement. She will soon begin her mandatory military service.

Sylke Tempel, is a Middle East correspondent reporting from Israel. She teaches at the Berlin branch of Stanford University.

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We Just Want to Live Here: An Unlikely Teenage Friendship in the Two jerusalems 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I haven't read it yet but my mom says it looked iteresting so yeah