What’s in a Name? March 5, 2003.

Lightning. Barak in Hebrew, Sana in Arabic. Lightning. Illumination. Light. Something powerful, strong, perhaps unstoppable. Godly. Heavenly. Frightening. Awe-inspiring. Radiant. Playful. Beautiful. Natural. Necessary. A meaningful and beautiful name, in Hebrew, in Arabic, in any language. My two closest friends here share the same name.

Barak lives in the oldest part of Tel Aviv, Neve Tzedek. It was the first Jewish town in modern-day history, established in 1887. A stone’s throw away from Jaffa and the beach. Some of the man-holes still say “Palestine” on them. It’s becoming a trendy part of Tel Aviv to live in: close to downtown and the multi-cultural and ethnic areas, with old style market street stalls, cool cafes, hip restaurants and lots of new-age shops selling candles and hemp clothing. Barak likes to take his camera everywhere he goes. We were sitting having dinner in one of these trendy places at 1am and throughout the conversation he’d pick up his camera and shoot: the waiter, the kitchen, the cat, the group of four girls sitting next to us. His place is adorned with some of his pictures: ordinary nightlife in Tel Aviv, his friends, silly poses of himself at the beach, his ex girlfriends. He’s got lots of CD’s, LP’s and books; a computer with a DSL line hooked-up which fulfills his addiction to the Internet; three full shelves of alcohol in the kitchen; posters of alternative Israeli bands; a few political banners from the days he would go to anti-war demonstrations. He’s got a full head of curly hair that he’s recently bleached, wears trendy navy blue glasses and likes to wear yellow. He’s got multiple jobs, when he’s strapped for cash he works at the hippest café on Sheinkin Street in the hippie part of Tel Aviv waiting tables; otherwise he writes articles for the weekend edition of Israel’s biggest newspaper on movies, concerts and art exhibits; and he writes longer in-depth cultural and sometimes political articles for a new magazine called 42degrees, for which he also takes pictures. But photography is his hobby, perhaps only surpassed by his obsession with women. He’s had a slew of girlfriends, although seems to still be attached to his French girlfriend of one and a half years - the longest relationship he’s ever been in. Barak’s name suits him, he is full of energy, vibrant, popular, restless and likeable. In many ways he’s an ordinary 27 year-old.

His parents live in a small quaint village a half hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. He visits his mother every Friday night for Shabbat dinner, where he and his three brothers spend the night - his fourth brother lives in the U.S. Barak usually gets there with his car, but since its headlights have burnt out he gets there with his scooter. His grandparents came here after escaping the Nazist regime in Poland, his grandfather was 20 at the time, and never got used to speaking Hebrew. Barak is attached to the Hebrew language, claiming he wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world because he wouldn’t be able to express himself as well in another language. Part of the reason he broke up with his French girlfriend is because he found it increasingly hard to communicate with her in English. He likes to write and he speaks non-stop. He lived in New York for a year and is thinking about going to Minneapolis next week for an alternative art exhibit.

Barak is not sure what he wants to do when he “grows up.” Perhaps be a photographer, pursue a career in writing. Or maybe just continue doing what he does, a jack of all trades, hopping from one interest and job to another. He’s not sure he wants to get married as he can’t imagine being monogamous the rest of his life. He likes his freedom.

Sana is 26. A busty young woman with intensely dark black hair with a shade of navy and big black eyes; she dons a beautiful smile. She lives in Dahiet el Barid, a former commuter town half way between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It’s not quite the “Occupied Territories,” sometimes referred to as Israel and sometimes as the Territories depending on the bureaucratic needs of the Israeli government - when it comes to Israel’s mapping of the larger Jerusalem area, Dahie (as it’s commonly referred to) is considered part of Israel; when it comes to utilities like electricity, water, sewage and roads, Dahie is considered part of the Palestinian Territories, flanked by barbed wire fences, military outposts and checkpoints. Sana has no decorations on her walls; although I recently got her a calendar of Palestinian art. She has no CD’s, a computer without a phone line, the only six books she has at home are three volumes of the Quran and three volumes of poetry by Gibran Khalil Gibran. She has no hobbies, and has few friends that she keeps in touch with. For the past three months she’s been waiting for her “tassrih” (permit) to be able to move around the Territories and go to Ramallah for example, less than 10 kilometers away, and see some of her friends; or go to Jenin where her parents live. Sana is lucky by many standards, she works for an NGO a five-minute walk away that builds computer and Internet centers in the Northern villages of the West Bank; she’s closely escaped getting killed by bullets whizzing through her water bottle on the way back home from school one day during the First Intifada; she was able to get through University in five years, not being subjected to closings and checkpoints during the times of the Peace Process; she was stuck at home for 40 days of curfew during the Second Intifada.

Unlike Barak, Sana’s never been to the U.S. (or Berlin or Paris or Budapest), and can’t even jokingly talk about flying to Minneapolis for a week. She’s imprisoned in Dahie; although once she gets her “tassrih” she will be able to pass the checkpoints and go to Ramallah or Jenin. She still won’t be able to visit Jerusalem, let alone Tel Aviv. Sana spends most of her time either at work or at home, having little opportunity to move around and hang out at trendy places. There are no trendy places in the area in any way; only some street-side grocers, and stores that sell everything from colorful plastic trays to sweat-shirts. There are three “restaurants” in the area, grilling their kabobs and roasted chickens on the street, with a small seating area where usually only men hang out. There are no movie theaters, no bookstores, no cultural centers, no cafes. There is a new gym that’s been open for a couple of weeks now, and she’s thinking about checking it out and perhaps subscribing to it, an alternative to work or home.

Sana is inherently an energetic and vibrant woman, and if she’s in a good mood she’ll talk all night. But most of the time she’s quiet, bored, perhaps a little depressed. Being so is not part of her nature, but rather this state of mind has been imposed on her by the situation around her. Although proud to be a Palestinian, she is burdened by it as well. In many ways. Firstly, she recognizes that she lives in a conservative society, one in which she can’t have boyfriends the way Barak has girlfriends. She can’t go out to have dinner at 1am, or really at any other time of the day. She doesn’t drink alcohol and has never had a lover. She does have political posters hidden away under her bed, remnants of her university days. She used to be politically active then, but has given up being interested in politics since she feels that it is useless and hopeless to change the facts of Israeli oppression against the Palestinians. She’s not only imprisoned by the conservatism around her, but by the very fact of Israeli Occupation. There are no movie theaters here for example, not because Palestinians wouldn’t like to go to the movies, but because the economic means to sustain a theater are practically impossible. Hobbies are difficult to pursue because one has to spend income on food and basic necessities, not paintbrushes, paper, film or cameras. She doesn’t have any friends because those she used to know live a few checkpoints away. She’s internalized her boredom and depression from the weeks she lived under curfew or the days she was too scared to go out into the streets because of the shooting going on. Besides, where would she go?

Sana’s family lives in Jenin, in the North of the West Bank. It’s perhaps 50 kilometers away, if that. But the journey can take up to two or three days, with multiple checkpoints to pass, and days to wait for curfews to be lifted. Her mother’s family lives “on the other side” (as in the other side of the Green Line, within Israel). On a clear day one can see “the other side” from Jenin, but can’t go there. Sana’s grandparents can also be considered lucky, not having been thrown out of their homes fifty-five years ago and eventually having gained Israeli citizenship.

Sana doesn’t like to talk much about her future. Sometimes feeling like having dreams makes her more depressed, realizing that much stands in her way to achieve them. She can’t imagine living elsewhere either, not so much because of her attachment to Arabic, but her sense of Palestinianness. She can’t give up on belonging to this land and thinks that wherever she may move to in the future, she will always return here to her home. She’d like to meet an open-minded man and get married. She’d like to have kids, but wonders if it would be fair to bring children into the world of Palestinian reality, not wanting her children to experience the same hardships she’s had. She would want her children to be free and not be scared of dreaming.

One evening I was telling Barak that one of my Palestinian friends shared his name in common. He was excited by the fact and wanted to know more about her. Was she anything like him? Did she share some of the same thoughts? Did she have similar experiences? Was she in touch with her body? Another evening I told Sana about Barak and what a cool place he lived in. She looked at me and asked me who had lived there before, who had lived there 100 years ago, perhaps a Palestinian family that had been evicted to make room for Jewish immigrants like Barak’s grandparents?

Barak and Sana share a name, but they share little else. History and politics has allowed Barak to live up to the beauty of his name, whereas it has stripped Sana of such hope. In the opposing and contrasting worlds of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, there is very little in common, if anything at all. Even two people, with the same name, similar age and a friend in common, live in completely different worlds.


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