A Different Kind of Fear

Risk is inescapable. It’s something we all recognize, but something we rarely think about. The presence of risk in every facet of life is something that I’ve used–rather successfully–to pacify my “I really could get bombed at any moment” fears whenever they begin to boil up.

But then, this week, I realized: this is a totally different sort of risk, and a different kind of fear that accompanies it. When I left the States, I reasoned to myself that, yes, the Middle East is turbulent, and Israel is under a constant security threat. But after living in D.C., where terrorist warnings abound, and working within blocks of the World Bank, IMF, and the White House, I convinced myself that the threat in the Middle East wouldn’t be that different.

But this week, I realized how weak my line of reasoning really has been. Maybe this is what 9 months in the Middle East will do to you, but the fact is, my logic had holes in it the size of Saudi Arabia. We worried about terrorism in D.C., and I used to only get on the last car of the Metro as part of my safety strategy: if a terrorist wanted to maximize casualties, they’d bomb a middle car–not an end car where half the force of an explosion would move outward into the tunnel and take out a few rats. I always felt better using this line of reasoning, and within seconds, I’d be engrossed in my WaPo Express and would forget about the idea of bombings altogether.

But here’s the key difference: in the Middle East, the things you worry about actually happen, and they happen frequently. In America, I knew that although we were attacked once, nothing has happened in the intervening four and a half years. The threat warnings that have come out since then have, thank God, not materialized. As a result, we worry mostly about threats that might become a reality, and keep our fingers crossed that they won’t. But over here, the things you worry about aren’t just threats that might become real. They’re threats that have become real many times before, will become real many times again, and serve as constant reminders of how vulnerable you really are.

And then you realize that despite the attempts at providing security at various coffee shops, restaurants, and busses, nearly every place you go has been bombed before, and will probably be bombed again. Your heart jumps into your throat, and you just hope and pray that you won’t be there when it happens. Because, sadly, it will happen.

I’ve been lucky; I was in Jordan 3 weeks before the hotel bombings in Amman, I’ve walked though Tel Aviv days before shwarma stands I’ve passed have been bombed, and just got back from Egypt 2 days ago. Each time something has happened, I’ve told myself that although the threat exists here, I’m just as likely to get hit by a bus in Washington as I am to be in a bombing in the Middle East. But that’s not the case. I can do things to avoid being hit by a bus, but no one here has any knowledge of or control over the time, place, or scope of the attacks that we know are coming our way.

Once I realized this, I realized that this is a fear far different from the twinges I used to get in D.C. whenever someone said the words “blast radius” and “World Bank.” This is a fear that eats at you; a fear that doesn’t go away despite recitation of statistics and the reminders to oneself that the probablility of being in an attack are comparatively small. Because the fact is, there will be more attacks. Whether or not I’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time is a complete crapshoot.

So then the question becomes, how does one manage this fear? My immediate inclination is to curl up in my room for the next two months, but I know that won’t do any good. No place is truly safe; as secure as I feel on campus, our cafeteria was blown apart 4 years ago in a suicide bombing that killed almost a dozen people. I’ve realized, though, that as scary as it is, I have to maintain a balance between not being lulled into a false sense of security and not letting the fear of an attack dictate my life. I have to be cautious, alert, and always on my toes–but I refuse to let the terrorists win. It’s impossible to not be afraid. But it is possible to continue living my daily life, taking busses and doing homework at coffee shops, while using that fear to be vigilantly watching my surroundings. Because at the end of the day, it’s still a crapshoot–but if I take myself out of the game because I’m afraid, then the bad guys have already won.

Approaching the Home Stretch

It occurred to me last night, sitting in a cab looking up at the full moon as the warm night air blew in and totally did a number on my hair, that I only have two and a half months left here. Now, I always get all nostalgic and introspective when I’m about to turn a corner in my life. I think it started when I was a little kid, because I remember waxing poetic about the end of fifth grade. (And somehow, I don’t think anybody wanted to hear me getting all philosophic on the jungle gym. God, I was ridiculous.)

But the corner looming in my future, waiting to be turned, is big. Way bigger than starting junior high (and hopefully it won’t involve as many annoying fights and awkward slow dances). I’ll be returning from a year abroad to both start a new phase of my life–grad school–while trying to fit my new reality into the rubric of my old life. This year has been amazing. It’s been hard. It’s been enriching. Most of all, though, it’s making me into a very different person.

There’s so much still to be done, too. I have to start carrying my camera with me everywhere, because every time I leave campus, there’s an amazing photo opportunity that I wish like hell I could capture. And I gots to do s’more traveling. I leave for Egypt tomorrow morning, and can’t wait. I’ll have plenty of time to get all nostalgic and contemplative when I’m sitting in an Egyptian sherut, hurtling across the Sinai en route to Cairo. And, hell, did I ever think I’d actually see the Pyramids or the Valley of the Kings? Nope. If that doesn’t get me all think-y and profound (I can’t help it. My mother has a Ph.D. in Philosophy. It’s genetic.), nothing will. We’ll see what sort of deep thoughts I come up with while I bake under the North African sun.

Democracy, It’s A-Marchin’

There’s never a boring time to be in the Middle East. But there sure are times that are more exciting than others: take the last 9 months as a case in point. Since I got here, Israel has pulled out of the Gaza Strip, Sharon broke away from Likud and sent shock waves through the Israeli political system before falling into a coma, Hamas has come to power in the Palestinian Territories, and Israel has held its third election in the last five years.

Not too shabby.

However, despite predictions for an earth-shattering election last week, the Israeli elections were rather mundane. If anything, it was the lead-up to the actual event that got my blood pumping. Despite being easily amused by all things political (which, I know, totally negates the heart palpitations that fire up whenever I’m near political events), the election campaigns added one to my list of random “wait, did that really just happen?” moments when I met Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor Party. There I was, doing my homework in a cafe downtown, when a security entourage and bunch of cameras came in. Enter Peretz, who made the rounds, but skipped me because I’m pretty clearly not Israeli (as evidenced by my ability to wear clothes that actually a) fit, and b) match). Taking matters into my own hands, I got up, walked over, and said “My name’s Lillian, and even though I’m from America, if I was Israeli I’d vote for you. Good luck,” in was was probably abhorrent Hebrew. God, I love politics.

The thing was, most Israelis weren’t excited about the elections. At all. They were bored. The prevailing emotion was, well, apathy. We even translated an article in my Hebrew class that discussed how thoroughly un-amused Israelis were about the upcoming election. They basically feel that all politicians are corrupt, and that it’s not worth making a choice when none of your options are any good. Nonetheless, they have a higher voter turnout percentage than the States could ever hope for, so despite their disillusionment with politics, hey, at least they still vote.

However, there were two big surprises from the elections. The first was Likud’s implosion at the hands of Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), a bordering-on-extremist right-wing group that advocates transfering sections of Israel with Arab majorities to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank (a plan whose legality is dubious). The second was the election of the Pensioners, an elderly-persons rights group headed by, no lie, the first director of the Mossad. Man used to assassinate people for a living. He captured Adolf Eichmann. Now he’s a cute little old guy who wants to make sure octogenarians get good pensions. I just want to give him a hug.

Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s ad-hoc replacement who was acting Prime Minister before being elected into office last week, now must form a coalition government, and will most likely try to form one that supports Kadima’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. As always, forming the coalition will be tricky business, and really, I don’t envy the man at all. Does he get to take breaks to watch Daily Show episodes that he downloaded onto iTunes? I think not. On the other hand, he doesn’t have to spend hours drilling Arabic and Hebrew verb conjugations. Sigh.