Maysa Baransi-Siniora, the Palestinian co-director of Radio All For Peace, has no doubt about where she belongs. She grew up in England and her husband is a U.S. citizen, but she prefers to live in East Jerusalem and hang out in Ramallah. Now if Hamas and Fatah would just stop fighting, she would throw a big party in honor of the third anniversary of her coexistence project.
Last September, 5-year-old Loures (pronounced Loor) brought apples and honey to share with her classmates at the Lycee Francais. The teachers were taken aback. At the French school in Jerusalem, a secular institution where most of the students are Palestinian, they weren't accustomed to celebrating the Jewish New Year. But "for Louri, it doesn't matter which religion God belongs to, a holiday is a holiday," explains her mother, Maysa Baransi-Siniora, co-director of Radio All For Peace.
"She also doesn't understand why three religions are necessary," says Baransi-Siniora. I told her - There was the first prophet, Moses, and people didn't listen to him and then God took the second prophet, Jesus, and he wasn't listened to either, and then God took the third prophet, Mohammed, and people don't listen to him. But God is the same God."
Baransi-Siniora adds: "At school now they're always asking her, 'Are you a Christian or a Muslim?' It never used to be this way. So Louri came and asked me what she is. I told her - You're Christian but you ought to ask everyone who asks you why it matters to them at all. Everyone's God is the same God."
Loures got used to celebrating Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays at the Jewish-Arab pre-school she attended. At home she celebrates the Christian holidays. Some, like Christmas, she celebrates twice - once on the Catholic date with her father's family, the Sinioras (her father, Simon Siniora, is the son of journalist Hana Siniora), and once with her mother's family, the Greek Orthodox Baransis, who mostly live in the Galilee. At home Louri speaks Arabic, Hebrew, French and a little English. Her parents were both educated in English - she in a boarding school in England and he in Atlanta, Georgia.
A multilingual theme also characterizes the life of Baransi-Siniora, 30, who, with Shimon Malka of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in Givat Haviva, runs Radio All For Peace. An Israeli-Palestinian station with studios in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and a transmitter in Ramallah, it broadcasts in both Hebrew and Arabic (at 107.2 FM and on the Web site: www.allforpeace.org). The programming includes interviews, music, current events, culture, language study and more. The purpose of the station is to provide a platform for alternative voices and to promote coexistence, peace, mutual respect, pluralism and social justice.
When the station was founded, in 2004, Baransi-Siniora thought that it needn't be political. "But we quickly saw it was impossible to do Jewish-Palestinian radio without getting into politics," she says. "So we started to broadcast news, too, and our goal is to strengthen the news department as much as possible. We've already had some scoops, but I want to become a source of information that neither side can do without."
Maybe it would be helpful to increase awareness of the station's existence?
"We've been around for three years now and we feel that we've really developed a lot in this time, that we're already having an effect. And we really wanted to celebrate this; we wanted to throw a huge party that would take place in Tel Aviv and Ramallah simultaneously. But just when we thought about it, the battles between Hamas and Fatah started and we decided to postpone the parties to better times."
Baransi-Siniora is the radio co-director on behalf of the Palestinian Biladi-Jerusalem Times organization headed by Hana Siniora (a collaboration between the organization and the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in Givat Haviva led to establishment of the station). The station is funded mainly by the European Union, and by donations from the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, the Rich Foundation, Swiss Friends of Givat Haviva and others.
"The language issue is very problematic. Each time you lose half the listeners. When you're broadcasting in Arabic you lose the Israeli listeners and when you broadcast in Hebrew, the Palestinian listeners leave.
"Those who listen to us are mainly the most convinced or the most extremely opposed," she says. "I also want to reach the people in the middle, who are unsure, who don't know, who are still forming an opinion. We deal with things that no other radio station does. Palestinian politics, for example. There is no strong Palestinian radio station and we deal with current events, analysis, criticism. We have the courage to voice criticism that television interviewers won't express. We also interview everyone - Hamas, PLO, Hezbollah. Our door is open to everyone. At first, people didn't want to interview with us because we were new. Now everyone wants to."
How did the people around you react to this project?
"At first, the Palestinians accused me of 'collaborating' and looked at me askance. But I said to them - Don't you buy Osem-brand food? Don't you buy Israeli-made products because they're better than ours? So, after 50 years, we could also learn from Israel how to do radio the right way. We should learn from Israel to do well the things that they can do. And besides, how else will there be a solution to the situation? It all starts with communication."
Unlike her father-in-law, Hana Siniora, who she says has long despaired of the chance that "something good could still happen here in the region or that there's anything to look for here," she believes that wisdom will eventually triumph over foolishness and that the will to live will triumph over the will to kill. She is here out of choice. After all, she could easily obtain American citizenship and she feels at home in England, New York and in Europe (she also speaks French and Spanish). But she feels just as much at home in Ramallah.
'The land of the enemy'
Ten minutes after we pass the checkpoints into Ramallah and have just arrived in the city, her car cell phone rings. It's her father, asking how she could already be in Ramallah for 10 minutes, accompanied by an unknown woman in a red coat, without dropping in to visit him. "Ramallah may be a city of 200,000 people, but everyone still knows everything about everyone," she explains.
So we go to visit her father in his huge office building in the city center. He gazes at her proudly as he strokes her hair. "This is the best place in the world," declares the woman who travels abroad at least twice month to raise funds for the station, lecture on Israel-Palestine relations or visit her husband's family in Atlanta.
"I really love to travel. I love Rome, and I also love New York. But lately the security checks at the airport have been totally getting on my nerves," she says in the perfect Hebrew that she acquired at age 20 in an ulpan (intensive Hebrew course).
"It doesn't make any difference that I have a blue ID card and an Israeli passport. There are always body searches and questions that can drive you mad. One time I got so fed up with the questions that I said to the security person, after having explained to him a million times that I was traveling to a conference for the radio station, 'You know what, forget everything I told you before. The truth is that I'm traveling to a rendezvous with my lover - Is that okay with you?' And he said 'yes' and gave me back my passport right away."
Maysa's proud father, Said Baransi, is a wealthy businessman, the owner of a big communications company, BCI. The firm also has a large branch in Jordan, which is run by Maysa's 29-year-old brother, Labib. Like her brother, Maysa, too, has a degree in electronic engineering.
Violet, Maysa's mother, trained as a teacher but now owns a clothing shop in East Jerusalem. "Mostly she sells clothes from Sapin. I used to go with her to Spain a lot to bring back clothes," says Maysa. She has another two siblings - Fadi, 26, an engineer who lives in Ramallah, and Tamer, 18, a high school student.
The Baransis live in a relatively new neighborhood in Ramallah. The two-story houses have yards front and back, the design inspired by British row houses - massive, elegant wooden doors, Belgian windows and wooden shutters. The house overlooks a view of hills dotted with olive trees and valleys that, on a clear day like the one on which I visited, reveal a strip of blue sea beyond.
In the back yard, there's a pergola under which to relax on summer days, and the spacious, two-story living room features a glass ceiling through which one can watch fluffy clouds drifting slowly across the blue sky. The luscious aromas wafting from the kitchen (domain of the family's long-time cook) and the softness of the white leather armchairs make it hard for me to remember that I'm sitting in Ramallah, in the "land of the enemy."
But the thing is, it's not at all scary in Ramallah. At least not when you're going around town with Maysa, daughter of one of the city's most popular families and a popular figure in her own right. We pass by half-full coffee shops, and glance into stores on the main street. The traffic is relatively light for a city of this size. Maysa clucks sadly whenever we see groups of devout Muslim women in traditional dress.
"You didn't used to see this here, but it's becoming more common all the time," she says. "It's not only a problem in Ramallah. It's even more noticeable in other places, like Jerusalem. But it's a problem in the whole world and not just of Islam. It's very sad the way the whole world is turning fundamentalist."
For her, there has been a reverse process. There was a time when she went to church regularly, "but when I met Simon it became kind of odd, because he went to the Catholic Church and I went to the Orthodox Church, and in the end we both stopped going. I believe in God just as I did before, and so does he, but my lifestyle has become less and less religious. You could say that I'm less religious today."
We go to a restaurant called Darna. In the summer, on Thursday and Friday evenings, the place is always packed, says Baransi-Siniora. She and her husband and a group of friends often get together there, usually on the second-floor rooftop balcony, to drink and chat. Most of the friends in the group live in Jerusalem. But "In East Jerusalem after seven in the evening there's nowhere to go. There are no bars, no nightclubs. Everything's dead. So people come to Ramallah. When we don't go to Ramallah, we really like to go to Shanti in downtown Jerusalem or to Dublin, which is a really excellent Irish pub."
This afternoon at Darna, the crowd is made up of French, Japanese, Americans and lots of Palestinian men and women in designer clothes. "There's an elite class in Ramallah," she says, "but it's shrinking. It's still not like what you have in Bethlehem, where everyone flees abroad, but there is such a thing here, too. How much can people take? Those who have the financial means get up and leave."
I was born here
Maysa and Simon live in the Sheikh Jarrah area of Jerusalem, very near the American Colony Hotel, in an old Arab building with a garden and colorful tiles (I note to myself with a smile that it's not only the leftists in Israel who tend to go for Arab houses).
Two dogs play in the backyard. A Christmas tree still adorns the living room. On the wall is a picture of Yasser Arafat. "I loved Yasser Arafat so much," says Baransi-Siniora. "When he died, I spent three days at the Muqata with Loures, who was very small then, and I told her who Abu Amar was, and I went from place to place, crying all the time. To this day, Loures says, 'Abu Amar, may Allah have compassion on him.' She also knows about Abu Mazen, though she doesn't recognize him in the same way."
Loures constantly asks questions about politics. She is learning to tell the difference between Jewish police officers and Palestinian police officers and soldiers. Maysa's childhood was simpler. Her father, who moved from the Galilee to Jerusalem to attend university, remained in the city and started an insurance company. She was born in 1976 in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, and went to school there. "And then the first intifada started and the schools were closed all the time and my parents got fed up with it so they decided to send my brother Labib and me to school in England."
They were sent to a boarding school in Canterbury. She was 12 and he was 11. "It wasn't quite the standard thing to send kids abroad on their own, especially girls, but my father always trusted me. It was very hard for me at first. I was homesick and I cried a lot, but then I made friends and the boarding school became a home. The other students were mostly English, and there were also many Chinese. There were no Arabs there, and no Israelis. It was a wonderful experience. I gained independence, and I also think that the great relationship I have with my parents now derives in part from not having spent my teenage years with them making their life miserable. Afterward I moved to London to study electronic engineering. I was there for four years. My brother came to London, too, after I did."
In London, Maysa became a political activist. She was elected head of the Palestinian student organization, and that is when she really discovered how complex the matter of identity is. "You can see that there are Israeli Arabs, there are Palestinians who live in London, there are Palestinians who live in Palestine, there are Palestinians who live in Israel and there are also British Jews, which is something totally different than Israelis, and then there are Israelis who are different from religious Israelis and settlers. That's where I first felt the need to see how to form a connection between all these different elements."
In 1996 she decided to return to Israel. "I had gone away and come back and gone away, and then you reach the point where you have to choose where you belong and I decided that I wanted to choose to live here, here where I grew up, here where my family has been for generations." Her family had in the meantime moved to Ramallah - not the typical choice for a family with blue Israeli IDs. Her younger brothers had grown up in a thoroughly Palestinian environment.
When she returned to Israel, she began working in her field, in her father's company in Ramallah. "Socially, I had to start almost from zero. My friends who'd stayed in Israel lived lives very different from mine. After I came back I tried to go out with them for a drink, like I used to do with my friends in London, but it was something totally different. Even going out to a movie was a big deal. I had just one friend left who was like me, who lived a liberated and modern life, and we still go out at least once a week for a drink or to a movie. I have to go out in the evenings. Simon and I go out a lot. Never to clubs. We like small, quiet places. Pubs, coffee shops, restaurants. Places like that."
She met Simon through a mutual friend, in a coffee shop in East Jerusalem. The Siniora family had moved to Atlanta following threats from Meir Kahane's group when Simon was a young teenager. He attended high school and university in the United States. His parents divide their time between Atlanta and their home here. His sisters also live in Atlanta. Simon studied accounting, but he currently owns a large travel agency in Ramallah. After their first meeting, he and Maysa dated for two years before getting married.
As an Arab-Israeli, you had no problem marrying a Palestinian?
"Not at all. I never saw myself as an Arab-Israeli. I also never saw myself living anywhere other than Ramallah or Jerusalem, even though I have a lot of family in the north and we go there often. But even as a child, I thought of myself as a Palestinian living in Israel. To me it was always very simple. But two years ago I ran a workshop for the radio station for Arab children who are studying journalism, and that was the first time I spoke with Palestinians from inside Israel and encountered the problem that they have. I had 10 Arabs from Nazareth who didn't know whether to call themselves Arab-Israelis, Palestinian-Israelis, Palestinians who live in Israel, or just Palestinians."
As a Christian, you are a minority within a Palestinian Muslim majority, and as an Orthodox Christian, you're in the minority among the Christians. How much does this affect you?
"It doesn't. This whole division into Christians and Muslims really doesn't matter to me. Just like the division between Christians and Jews doesn't matter to me. I have Muslim friends and I have Jewish friends. I have just as many Jewish girlfriends as Arab girlfriends. I met a lot of them through Louri's kindergarten, and she still has a lot of Jewish friends from there, and I know a lot through my work at the radio station.
"As for the separation between Christians and Muslims - once it wasn't important at all, but today I'm afraid that it's become more important because everyone is becoming more religious. All the hatred between Christians and Muslims is something new. You see it very strongly in Nazareth. It used to be that the differences were not between Christians and Muslims, but rather differences of socioeconomic class and different levels of conservatism. In general, Ramallah is a less conservative city than Jerusalem. I'm not talking about the suburbs and villages around, but about the city itself. In Jerusalem there is more conservatism. But in both places, if you're from the affluent class, then you behave differently - you go to restaurants and cafes, and dress differently. Like we do.
"In Jerusalem there's less of an elite than in Ramallah, and therefore the gap between the classes is less striking. In Ramallah it's very striking and prominent. But in Ramallah, too, life isn't as good as it was before the intifada. There are a few restaurants and let's say maybe 10 cafes. So if you like to go out, you end up going to the same places again and again, and there's a stifling feeling. Before the intifada, you could go to Gaza and Jerusalem, too. I still can because I have an Israeli ID and a press pass, and Simon also has a press pass. But Palestinians from Ramallah are stuck all the time with the same 10 cafes and the same people in Ramallah and it's very hard."
Do a lot of Palestinian women live a lifestyle similar to yours?
"Not enough. It's growing, but it's still a very small percentage. Women's status in Palestinian society is improving, but the improvements are still too small and too slow. Women also aren't involved enough in politics. There's an increase in women's involvement in business, but it's all going very slowly. By the way, in Jewish society, the rise in women's power isn't sufficient, either. After 60 years, there are way too few female Knesset members - Their number has hardly changed. There aren't enough women ministers in the government. As a woman, I believe in women. I believe that if there is a rise in the power of both Jewish and Palestinian women, there will be a better chance for peace."
Is there a Palestinian peace movement these days?
"No. Not like the Israeli Peace Now, nothing of that scope. But there are a lot of people who want to do things to promote peace. People like me, for example."
Do you think there is a chance for peace?
"It's very hard. Because it's not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's also the internal Palestinian situation, and it's also the conflict between Arab states and the world. Sometimes you look at things and it feels like someone has an interest in ensuring that there will never be peace here, as if it's the way of the world for people here to kill all the time. This idea horrifies me and that's why I am certain that we must work to do whatever is possible."
And you feel this is a good place to raise children?
"It depends how you want to raise them, on what values. I could raise my daughter in America as a citizen with full rights, but I ask myself if that's what I want. Do I want to keep her away from the conflict? After all, her personal security is not at risk at all. We don't live in Gaza. And besides, if I leave, who will remain here? I believe that I belong here and that she belongs here."
Does Simon feel the same way?
"No. He, like his father, says there's no future here. He grew up in Atlanta, and all his wonderful childhood memories are from there. His friends there, the television shows, the food. He likes everything the way it was there. He also believes that generally life there is more comfortable and easier for everyone. But he still feels attached to this place, too. On the other hand, if I said - Okay, let's go - he'd be out of here in a minute without having to think about it."
Last Christmas, Maysa visited her husband's family in Atlanta. "I was there for 10 days. I died of boredom. I felt like chewing my fingers in frustration. Simon, who grew up there and always misses it, told me that it's the best place in the world. I told him I want a newspaper. Just a newspaper. Simon said to me, maybe you could go shopping. There are very few women who hate shopping, but I'm one of them. If you want to punish me, send me to a mall. Then he gave me a newspaper and it was full of ads and other nonsense.
"I said to his father - 'Hana, how can you live in a place like this? You, who are a compulsive consumer of news like me?' And he said, 'You get used to it. Here it's peaceful. Here it's paradise.' And I said to him, 'You can fool everyone else but not me. This is paradise because everything's dead. I also saw how you get up at four in the morning to get on the Internet like I do.' I've been all over the world, but after 10 days away I want to be back here, I want to go home. No place else can compare."