Category Archives: Travelogue

Yoga in the Refugee Camps

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Wall next to Aida camp seperates Bethlehem from Jerusalem

When we came to do teacher trainings in the West Bank, offering a yoga class in the Bethlehem refugee camps was hastily arranged to give us some diversity in teaching experience and exposure to what has become a dominant part of the Palestinian’s modern history. Unlike the tented refugee camps I have seen in Kabul, these camps are part of the city with permanent buildings that were established as part of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The women’s class was held at Dheisheh camp in a large room with a worn Persian carpet and the promised yoga class grew from fifteen to forty women, as the word spread. Most of them had heard yoga was good for stress relief and relaxation but had never taken a class. The spectrum ranged from women in their sixties to a serious curly haired two year old who followed her mother along with every pose. The shoes and hijab came off and we started with warm ups as women started groaning and laughing about the pain in their shoulders, necks and lower back.

An hour and half later, they eagerly shared their experiences, their health concerns and asked when the next class was. Even Nahed, who set up the class for us, was surprised by the level of interest and spontaneously offered to teach one class a week.

With the success of the class at Dheisheh, Maha set up a class in a health clinic at Tulkarem refugee camp with invitations to psycho-social counselors at Refugee Camp Nur Shams, a nearby camp. It was our first trip into the countryside filled with olive trees and terraced gardens in between several new Jewish settlements along the way. At Tulkarem, we were enthusiastically greeted by Bashar who had taken our men’s yoga training in Ramallah. He proudly gave us a tour of the clinic newly opened and funded by the United Arab Emirates. He asked if we could each teach a class at the same time so with a coin toss, Rama taught the men’s class including four doctors, a dentist and counselors. I taught a group of twenty-five collected by Tahani who had taken the women’t training. She  brought many of her colleagues from Nur Shams – nurses, women’s health counselors as well as the woman director of the clinic. Everyone was in full dress so chair yoga it was, starting with breathing, joint work, a few standing poses and ending with lion’s pose. The women collapsed with laughter so no final meditation instead they put on Arabic music using a phone and a few began to dance. Afterwards, I found Rama holding court in a large office space with a captive audience of doctors and counselors extolling the therapeutic benefits of yoga on blood pressure, help balance the endocrine system, improve chronic lung conditions and the list went on. It had been a long day with only tea, juice and Arabic Twinkies to sustain us so we made our farewells and got back into a taxi for the two hour drive back to Bethlehem.

Maha told us later that once the word got out, she was fielding phone calls from five more refugee camps requesting for us to come and teach. What we were most struck by was the openness of the students and their great desire to improve their condition. When they heard yoga could help them with stress through relaxation, improve their health and even bring a sense of inner peace – everyone was at attention. It is perhaps those in the refugee camps that are experiencing the deepest sense of need in the midst of crowded and impoverished conditions with no apparent political resolution in sight.

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View from the clinic window

Starting in Bethlehem  when the class was done, I asked if anyone wanted to train to be a yoga teacher so that there could be regular yoga classes in the camps. A handful of people would step forward and say they wanted to learn yoga to be teachers.

We leave with a list of potential teachers and plans for future trainings – some might take place in the camps themselves.  There is excitement building, everyone has taken a few steps forward and is focused on what is possible and sharing everything they can remember with their families. And Tahani and Bashar are now teaching breathing exercises to their clients!

Peace,
Sraddha

 

 

Speed Sisters

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Saturday we attended the free showing of a new documentary called Speed Sisters in the theatre in the Red Crescent government building in Ramallah. One of Maha’s friends Amber Fares, a young women from Toronto with Lebanese roots, spent five years making the film. It was a packed house filled with both Palestinians and ex-pats. The Swedish counsel was there as one of the sponsors for the evening and spoke about the importance of supporting equality for women. The Sundance Institute was acknowledged as one one of the supporters and contributors to the film. And the four of the five women drivers were introduced to an enthusiastic and cheering younger crowd.

One of the great things about travel is the surprises and unplanned events that seem divinely arranged. For example, I didn’t ever think I would be seeing a film in the West Bank about the first all-women car racing team in the Middle East. On the streets of Ramallah, one might see everything from the most conservatively dressed woman where only the eyes show to young modern girls dressed in the tightest of jeans. In the midst of great restriction both culturally and politically, the desire for freedom of expression shows in this engaging documentary about the lives of these five extraordinary Palestinian women through the pursuit of their passion for racing cars. These women are mechanical, resourceful, vibrant, and determined to be the best at what they do. Their cars don’t always cooperate. They face challenges in breaking the traditional stereotypes of what women can and can’t do with their families. It is an inspiring, humorous and empowering picture that transcends borders and cultures.

Speed Sisters is making its way to film festivals internationally. For more read this in depth review from Toronto’s Film magazine. Maybe we can get it for the Sedona Film Festival next year!

Peace,
Sraddha

Tadasana at the Checkpoint(s)

Ramallah to Bethlehem via Jerusalem (21 miles) takes 2 hours

Ramallah to Bethlehem via Jerusalem (21 miles) takes 2 hours

The morning after the first day of the training, some students mentioned that they were practicing their breathing and Tadasana – Mountain pose – while waiting in line at the checkpoints. They said it helped them focus and feel peace in spite of their tiredness and frustration at the long wait.

Crowded checkpoints between towns – with irregular hours – are a daily fact of life on the West Bank and can turn a thirty-minute drive into a two hour trip, each way.  For many Palestinians, this is just part of their daily commute.

Nahed, one of the first Palestinian pioneers of yoga, lives in Bethlehem and invited us to come and teach children’s yoga at the Al Rowwad Cultural Center in the Aida refugee camp. Almost 15 years ago I gave up teaching a children’s yoga class called the Magic Kingdom after I got tied to a pole one class with yoga straps. This week in the West Bank has been giving me practice in adapting at a moment’s notice and simply saying Yes.

Nahed (Center) translating English to Arabic

Nahed (Center) translating English to Arabic

So we left Ramallah at 9:30am to take a taxi to Qalendia, the checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Then we waited in line, passed security and caught a taxi in East Jerusalem to Bethlehem checkpoint, passed security again, and walked to Nahed’s house. From there she took us to the children, mostly around 8-10 years old. Alice and I took turns leading the kids through poses and games for an hour. They finished up by having a few highly flexible girls come forward and show Lotus and Wheel while a boy did a somersault on the floor.  Afterward we had a brief chat with the director of the center who spoke simply and eloquently about his hopes for the future for the children. We admired the work he is doing and he replied,  “We don’t have the luxury of despair.”

Peace,
Sraddha

“Shwaa Shwaa” – Slowly Slowly

7 Centers W. Bank group PicWe have jokingly called this workshop “Yoga in the Harem” as no men are allowed in the studio without women wearing their hijab. The cultural traditions are being challenged by the younger ones who have found a way to wear a head scarf and cover their arms with a long sleeve wrap and still get away with tight jeans or leggings without wearing the traditional  black dress. There are a couple of young women, with exposure to the West, who have dispensed entirely with tradition and dress as they like. Not until the men leave, do the women make the dramatic change into their yoga clothes. Every morning, there is much conferring over the day’s logistics with Mohammed and Rob and then they have to leave for us to start. While this is normal for Mohammed, Rob admits to feeling excluded and left out of the fun.

This first 4-day training at Farashe was for a group of Palestinian women who plan to share yoga through physical education, regular yoga classes or with clients from the refugee camps. In the morning from 9-12pm Rama and I shared about breathing, asana technique and how to practice yoga from a relaxed place with breath. In the afternoon, Suzanne taught yoga practices for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based upon a protocol developed for veterans. Our overall focus was to use yoga asana, pranayama and meditation so the practitioners can find relief from physical and mental tension through relaxation. shwaa  shwaa is  Arabic Turkish slang for “slowly, slowly” and became the most used phrase of the week as the students learn to slow down, breathe and move from the inside out ….and by end would always get a laugh. It was the first and most useful Arabic phrase for us next to shukran – thank you – which we heard many times throughout the week.

Rama W. BankAt the completion of the workshop, there was a round of gift giving. Rama’s compliment of Majeda and her yoga shirt the first day, garnered a similar shirt for all four of us on the last day. It is custom in the Middle East that if someone admires your shirt, you give it to them. Thank you Rama….

After forty minutes of  hugs, kisses on the cheek and queries as to when we were coming back, everyone made it as far as the doorway and the farewells started all over again. Rama said in her family it is called the “Lebanese good bye”.

Peace,
Sraddha

The Joy of Middle Eastern Food

Spices outside of Saleh Khalaf, an organic market

I have been focused on teaching and negotiating a few related logistics and have not had the luxury of writing.  Yesterday, someone started a fire in the dumpster below the window which made Pranayama difficult, with all the smoke. No one seemed particularly concerned except for us. Today, we ended  a little early because there was no water in the bathroom for the plumbing. Again, it didn’t bother anyone except the students didn’t want to go home. They  were having a great time sharing and chatting while learning yoga – so open-hearted with lots of laughing. And of course lunch is great social affair although we are never sure when it will arrive. Enshallah.  There is a knock at the door and bags with trays of food are left like a gift. Simple vegetarian fare – rice with okra or beans in a tomato sauce or grape leaves or mujadarah(rice with lentils and carmelized onions) with the traditional tomato cucumber salad. We have had to adapt our usual rules around yoga. Here the day starts with Arabic coffee, rarely  is anyone’s stomach empty while doing yoga and the day ends with sweets!

Peace,
Sraddha

Great Market with the best Feta cheese!

Great Market with the best Feta Cheese!

Peace,

Sraddha

Welcome to Ramallah

A Room with a View

A Room with a View

Entry into Israel and the West Bank has been very easy – no interviews at the airport and we were not stopped at the checkpoint into Ramallah.  More recently there has been a greater ease of movement for some.  The “Wall” that has been built around the West Bank and Gaza has apparently given Israel a greater sense of protection.

Ramallah has become a metropolitan and diverse city – a kind of oasis of stability and normalcy in an otherwise chaotic region, surrounded by new Jewish settlements and smaller Palestinian villages. Apparently money is being invested into the city by Palestinians that live in the United States and Europe. There is a mix of modern commercial buildings with a traditional middle eastern city center and bustling marketplace as taxis and cars maneuver freely – no rules seem to apply. Ramallah feels safe filled with many young people and families shopping with their children.

Part of our group is staying at the Royal Court hotel while Rama and I are staying in an apartment. After getting everyone settled in their respective rooms, we reconvened at an Arabic restaurant for a welcome dinner.  My first drink order turned out to be from the hookah menu by mistake. Who would not be attracted to the flavors of double apple, watermelon mint, lime mint or mango? We turned the ordering over to Mohammed and were served plates of hummus, babaganoush, arugula salad,local pickles and olives, turkish salad  with a rustic nan and pitta bread.

Maha has been our primary contact person as she is the director of Farashe (Butterfly in Arabic) Yoga center, our sponsor for yoga trainings and workshops. She works for UNRWA ( United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in serving Palestinian refugee camps as her main job. Right before our arrival she was told she was being sent to attend a conference at the Hague in Amsterdam leaving Rama and I in charge of her beautiful apartment for a week.  On a hilltop, it  is in the traditional yellow stone buildings with white ceramic tile floors, an open living room and kitchen and three bedrooms with a balcony facing the Mediterranean. There is a minaret on the first hill across and the call to prayer starts at sunrise all around the city which rouses the neighborhood dogs, mourning doves and a rooster.

imageOur morning starts with a honk from the taxi driver waiting to take us to Farashe yoga studio at 8:30am. The yoga studio is a room on the second floor of a building near the center of town.The women arrive – ages 18 to 55 – wearing the hijab, traditional head scarves and black abaya the dress “cloak” and drinking arabic coffee. Only after the men, Rob and Mohammed (studio coordinator) leave, do the clothes come off and they transform into yoga students wearing a variety of sweat pants, leggings, and short sleeved tops with sparkles and the scarves come off.  We have a different translator each day that is also a yoga teacher although there are a couple of students that understand and speak English. This group of students are coming Bethlehem (1-2 hours away) Nablus ( 2-3 hours) and Ramallah. Miraculously, the students have not been stopped at checkpoints the first couple days of yoga training – something everyone has noted. It is God’s
will!

On the corner is an shop with live chickens, roosters and eggs. While down the street, there imageis a wonderful juice shop which in addition to carrot, apple, pear, orange and grapefruit also offers papaya, guava, strawberry, bananas and date juice. The owner speaks excellent English credited to the twenty eight trips he has made to the US to visit his daughter and other relatives. In fact, English is often the foreign language studied in schools. The students completing high school take both completion exams as well as  a series of seven exams given by the government as a part of graduation. Several of our students have spoken about the stress of these exams that begin at the end of May each year affecting the entire family as they help their children study and prepare. What yoga practice can I do to help my daughter – she is so stressed! And the discussion on yoga begins….

 

Shalom from Jerusalem!

Here are some pictures of the streetwise and savvy cats of Old Jerusalem. Hunters and scavengers extraordinaire, they patrol the cobblestone streets…

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survey their surroundings from the tops of olive trees …

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and manage all the garbage cans and dumpsters.

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Photo credit: Famous Cats of Jerusalem. For more pics go to: http://www.famouscatsofjerusalem.com/index.html

Jerusalem during Sabbath

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We are here in Jerusalem! All of us exhausted as we haven’t slept for 24 hours. After a nap we felt rejuvenated enough to walk through the Jaffa gate into Old Jerusalem to have dinner at the Armenian Tavern.  Afterwards we followed hundreds of orthodox Jewish families with babies and skipping children dressed up for Sabbath thru the circuitous streets to pray at the Wailing Wall.  A very exhilarating evening of walking over 2000 year old temple stones, shiny and polished from all the footsteps that have traversed these roads!  Tomorrow I hope to go out with my Nikon in the am and take early rise pictures and start my album called the Temple Cats of Jerusalem. (There are many wandering cats here!) This is a great city – everyone should visit it one day!

Peace,
Sraddha

Here are some more photos of the old city:

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Shopping in the old city

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Temple on the Mount

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Architecture of Old City Jerusalem

Travel Light…

Our bags are heavy. To Rama’s credit they are mostly filled with gifts – books for the Palestinian teachers. This is why she wanted to take a taxi to the hotel in Newark that I had booked before our flight to Tel Aviv. At the taxi stand, an African-American cab driver yelled, “Who’s going to Irvington?” and we stepped forward. What hotel? I told her the American Value Inn. Her eyebrows lifted. “That ain’t the hotel for you. Really?!” I told her that we had an international flight the next day and just needed a bed for the night. She pulled aside the man taking money in the taxi line. In a barely-concealed whisper, she said to him, “You know where they are staying?!” Then I heard mumbling as they conferred. I heard the word whores and more mumbling. She came back shaking her head as she hoisted our bags into the trunk.

My heart sank as we sat in the back seat. Maybe my overzealous budgeting had landed the Queen of yoga and I into a hotel for prostitution. I told Rama Rama at Hotel NJ 2015that the driver didn’t think women like us belonged at the hotel where we were staying. Here I was grateful for Rama’s adaptability and sense of adventure. She asked the driver lightly, “Where do you think we should be staying? The cab driver answered without hesitation, “The Ramada or the Wyndham near the airport (big pause) they are nicer and they have a  restaurant.”

We finally arrived at the now infamous hotel and the driver asked us where we were traveling to as she hauled our bags out of the trunk. I said we were going to the West Bank to teach yoga teachers. She wished us a good trip and told us to have fun.

Inside, an Indian desk clerk was behind a security glass window booking a room for man who looked like a construction worker. A Chinese woman wandered by with a bowl of rice. We startled a pretty African-American woman with a Louis Vuitton bag in the (locked) computer room as we looked for take out menus. We then dragged our bags to the ancient elevator that creaked its way to the second floor and made our way to room 208. I held my breath as we opened the door. And I was relieved! The room was really quite decent. Clean comfortable beds, a relatively new carpet with a wide screen TV.  Someone was really taking care of this place!

I bet the cab driver had never stayed at the hotel. I bet she heard things and saw the neighborhood – near the Projects, the low income housing in Irvington. As I looked out the window, I saw a small town in New Jersey with brick buildings, wrought iron fences around homes and parks. It seemed an economically depressed area filled with immigrants in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The hotel was protected by locks and steel bars on the lower windows, but inside people were friendly and well-intentioned. It was reminder of the power of stereotypes that fall away in the presence of having real experiences with real people.

The next morning Rama commented that there was a lot of activity and noise going on in the room above us from 1-3AM and she wondered what they were doing. I told her I had no idea as I slept peacefully through it all….

Movies watched on the airplane

One Hundred Foot Journey
A displaced Indian family moves to France and opens an eatery across the steet from a Michelin-starred French restaurant run by chilly Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

Prepare to be hungry for Indian or French food afterward depending on your taste!

Diplomacy
A historical drama that depicts the relationship between Dietrich von Cholitz, the German military governor of occupied Paris and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling based on a true story. Directed by Volker Schlondorff

Intelligent, character driven story in a riveting war drama

Our reading for the 10 hour flight to Tel Aviv….

Reading Material Phoenix to NJ

Peace,
Sraddha

 

 

Be the light…

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Rama and I are en route! We will be teaching a yoga Teacher Training in the West Bank. Here is the message on my Yogi tea bag from the flight. Stay tuned for updates about our adventure…

Peace,
Sraddha