Tag Archives: Israeli Palestinian conflict

Car Talk

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

If you love cemeteries like I do, you would love New Orleans.  Bodies are buried in above-ground crypts so the … whatever it is that oozes from decomposing bodies doesn’t seep into the groundwater.  Thanks to the heat, bodies decompose quickly and fresh ones can be added onto the pile in after only a year.

Lafayette Cemetery #1 is not to be confused with St. Louis Cemetery #1, where the voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried.  I visited that one my first time in New Orleans, and the two cemeteries look the same except that Lafayette is in the posh Garden District and St. Louis is in Treme, which as depicted in the hit HBO crime series.

The four of us split up and wandered around.  I was wondering over this rubber duckie-themed tomb when my phone rang and an androgynous voice asked for “Miss Anne.”

Rubber Duck Grave

“This here is Tracy,” s/he drawled, calling ya’ll bout your car.  It’s lookin’ real bad …”

The line went dead.  I hit redial.  The connection wouldn’t work. I wandered around for another 20 minutes, clutching my phone and willing it to ring.

When it finally did, Tracy laid it on me: “It needs all new spark plugs,” s/he said.

“How much?” I asked.

“A’m sorrah Miss Anne, but I hate to tell ya it’s gonna be ….” Click.

Lynn, trying to be helpful, said, “That’s what I thought all along!  Spark plugs—and now you know that your car has spark plugs!”

I don’t remember what I said but it wasn’t nice. She went silent.  By then we had “done” the cemetery and re-joined a walking tour of the Garden District, featuring the houses of Nicholas Cage and Sandra Bullock.  It was hot.  The phone kept ringing then going dead.  For an hour.

Finally, Tracy got through. “What?” I yelled.  “I can’t hear you!”  Other members of the tour were giving me dirty looks.  I finally got that it was going to cost me $800.  Since my worst case scenario had been that the car would be a total loss, this was actually a bit of a relief, but still not a welcome amount of money to have to lay out on vacation.  Or anytime.

“It’ll take fahv days to get the parts from the dealership in Baton Rouge,” Tracy informed me.

“Five days!  But I have to be in Minnesota on Wednesday!” I moaned.

“Unless ya’ll want to use generic parts, Miss Anne” s/he said.

“Of course I do!” I exclaimed.

“Then it’ll cost ya’ll $550.”  Now I felt like I was getting off easy.  It’s all relative.

After the walking tour we sought refuge from the heat in Starbucks.  I apologized to Lynn, and she accepted.  No drama.  I don’t know what she would say, but I wasn’t surprised that in 11 days spending 24 hours together, there wouldn’t be some disagreement.

We caught the Hop On Hop Off bus again and got off at the restaurant recommended by the guide.  I always figure these are the restaurants owned by the guide’s brother in law, but so what?  It was really good.  In no time Tracy called again to say my car was ready, and I left my pals standing on a street corner in the blazing sun to wait for the bus while I hailed a cab.

The cabbie’s English was not good, but that didn’t stop him from telling me that Tracy’s garage was “too many crooks, and too much expensive.”  He informed me that I should have asked him where to take my car.  Right.  If I could have gone back in time … I changed the subject.

“Where are you from?”

“Palestine,” he replied.

“I was in the Palestinian territories last year.”

He stared at me in the rear-view window.

“You are a Jewish!” he said.

“Ye…sss.” Was he going to take me to a remote spot in Treme, stab me, and dump my body in St. Louis Cemetery #1?

But instead he exclaimed, “We cousins!  You, me … Jew, Arab … we must try to get along!”

When Worlds Collide

I’ve been writing a series of posts about traveling in Cuba that starts here. I am pausing that for a day to write about an unsettling experience where my worlds collided.

I volunteer with the Minnesota International NGO Network, or MINN. MINN is composed of Minnesota companies and nonprofits that work overseas, like my employer, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT).

Last year MINN launched a class called MINNspire, which helps 50-somethings to explore doing something abroad. This could be anything from volunteering with Peace Corps, to teaching English as a second language, to consulting on communications, as I have done. MINN isn’t there to find them placements; we’re there to guide them through the thought process. I led one of the four sessions last year and will do the same this year—I think.

I was excited that we had 18 people registered—about twice the number as last year. It’s kind of a big commitment to come to something after work, in the dark, during the winter.

I walked in and said hi to my friend Carolyn, one of the four facilitators of the class. There were already two students in the room. Carolyn said to me, in a way that told me we might have an “issue”, “Something really interesting happened with registration. I spoke to a Rotary Club that happened to have a lot of members of the DOC, and we’ve got 10 people from the DOC registered for the class.”

The Department of Corrections. The people I never wanted anything to do with, ever again.

I had come from work, where I had spent the day writing about Eritrean torture survivors. Eritrea is known as the “North Korea of Africa.” They have forced conscription, which means every young man must join the military or go to prison. In the military, they are worked like slaves and their service is indefinite. If they try to escape, Eritrea throws them into underground prisons where they are tortured. If they make it to Ethiopia, they wind up in refugee camps with no future, and their family back home is persecuted. Sometimes they try fleeing to Israel, the one country that reluctantly takes them in, but often they are caught by—essentially—desert pirates called Rashida who hold them for ransom, torturing them while their families listen helplessly on the other end of the phone.

As you might imagine, a lot of Eritrean torture survivors have PTSD, and that is where CVT comes in. We provide trauma therapy and we hope to add physical therapy next year.

So I was writing about this all day and then I stepped into a room of people who had been my and my son’s tormentors for a year and a half.

I am in no way comparing what I went through to what Eritreans have endured. My point is that I know firsthand what a flashback feels like. A surge of adrenaline surged through me. My heart started racing and my palms got sweaty. I felt a powerful urge to bolt.

“I figure if I was a prison warden for 20 years, I can do anything!” one of the women exclaimed. The thought of her volunteering in an orphanage made me uneasy.

“My son just finished the boot camp program,” I told them. Might as well get it out there before she said something that would cause me shoot my mouth off. They oohed and ahhed said what a great program that was.

Carolyn knows my back story and has a high EQ.   She emailed later:

“I would never imagine that you would come face to face with your oppressor in MINNspire.  I mean, last year you were in Palestine, looking for ways to collaborate, professionally, with enemies of the Jewish state and now you come to St Paul and you are asked to teach the people whom you’ve written about for years.

“ I have to shake my head at what the universe is throwing at you.  But if anyone can handle it, you can.”

I hope she’s right, because I thought about backing out of the class but I’ve decided to stick it out.  I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, Ten Years On

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.


Have a Little Kidney with that Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you in the U.S.  I’ve been kind of mired in negativity lately.  Here’s a little story that jolted me back into an appreciation of how good I’ve got it.

A woman approached Vince on the train platform to ask if he would sign a petition.  For those of you who started reading this blog in the last month or so, Vince is my son who was released from prison a few months ago and who is living with me.  He blogs here.

Anyway, on his way home from work, this woman approached and asked if he knew about … wait for it … organ harvesting in China.

Organ Harvesting

I work at a place called the Center for Victims of Torture and had a son in prison.  I thought I had heard everything.

Apparently, back in the 90s, the Chinese government gave the stamp of approval to a Buddhism-derived religion called Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa), which promotes truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.  I guess the government approved of it because it represented traditional Chinese ways, including meditation.

Falun Gong became wildly popular, and soon people were meditating in public parks by the thousands.  The government saw this as a threat and began to crack down.  Adherents are now routinely thrown into labor camps and tortured.  According to the brochure, captive Falun Gong practitioners are blood-typed and used as a large, live organ donor bank, killed on demand for “transplant tourists”—people who travel from other countries and pay for an organ transplant.  Do they know that someone will be killed to save their lives?  How can they not?  Again, according to this brochure, the wait for a kidney in the U.S. is five years.  In China, it’s 15 days.  Well that is slightly suspicious, don’t you think?

So why isn’t the west up in arms about this, like they are about the Palestinians or the Syrians?  Maybe it’s because China doesn’t have freedom of the press?  We know about the plight of the Palestinians because, ironically, Israel has a free press.  We know about the horrors Syrians have endured because they’ve managed to escape to other countries where reporters can talk to them and we see them in our Facebook feeds and on Yahoo News every day.

I don’t know who this young woman was who approached Vince on the train platform, but he thought she was Chinese.  So apparently Chinese in the U.S. are getting organized.  The brochure and their website are pretty basic.  If the Chinese can hack into the CIA’s websites, why haven’t they taken down the Falun Gong one?  I am very skeptical on a lot of issues, but this woman cared enough to stand on a train platform on a very cold Minnesota day and approach strangers with brochures.  If it’s not true, why would there be an organized effort against it?

I’m sorry if I ruined your appetite for turkey and mashed potatoes.  This story makes me feel grateful to not be in a gulag waiting to be murdered so my organs can be sold to wealthy transplant tourists.  No, wait…that’s kind of extreme.  I’m grateful that I can write about this, share the story, spread the word, and maybe contribute in some way to ending it.  Here’s a petition you can sign and share with others if you want.  Thank you.

Jew Be a Verb


A story line throughout the third season of Orange is the New Black is the character Cindy’s conversion to Judaism.

The corporation that runs the prison is cutting costs by purchasing brown, lumpy slop in giant bags that they pass off as food. One prisoner figures out that the frozen kosher meals are pretty good, and soon a group of prisoners are claiming to be Jewesses in order to eat kosher.

When the prison notices the uptick in kosher requests, it sends in a rabbi to suss out who is a genuine Jew. Cindy, who is Black, begins to read up on Judaism. At first she just wants to pass so she can keep eating kosher. But then something grabs her, and as she studies she becomes serious about converting to Judaism, and well, this is one of the few happy endings in the series. It wouldn’t be a happy ending to born again Christians, and we Jews aren’t in to converting people, but I am moved when anyone finds meaning.

I heard in this scene many of the same things that led me to Judaism. Like Cindy, I was raised in a faith in which pretty much Everything was A Sin, and fear and guilt ruled the day. You didn’t ask questions, you did what you were told by the men who ran the show, some of whom were molesting your friends. If you sinned, you went to this same man to ask forgiveness and it was granted by him and after I mumbled three Hail Marys.

I think there’s a perception that Judasim is just like Christianity, except without Jesus. It’s not.

In liberal Judaism, which includes the vast majority of Jews in the world, there is no hell and little emphasis on sin. The idea is to do the right thing today, because it’s the right thing—not to avoid hell. If you screw up, it’s your responsibility to make amends to whoever you have hurt and to make your peace with God, if you even believe in god, because a lot of Jews are atheists. Confused? Well in Judaism it’s your responsibility to study, ask questions, and wrestle with all the big issues to figure out what makes sense for you. No one tells you what to think or do. Rabbis, who include women and gays and lesbians, are teachers and have no authority to forgive you.

Judaism doesn’t prosthelytize. We don’t care if you agree with us or not; we don’t care if you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a pagan. Just don’t try to convert us, thanks.

Instead of using the word charity, we talk about justice. It’s not an option, and it’s not about writing a check. It’s about doing, fighting, and pursuing justice. These principles are one reason why I’ve been able to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all sides.

Of course there are plenty of Lutherans and Catholics and pagans and agnostics who are also motivated by social justice.

There’s more, but like Cindy, the main thing that attracted me to Judasim was an inexplicably strong feeling of recognition. Like Cindy said, “I feel like I found my people.”

After I had studied for several years with a Rabbi and a group of fellow seekers and yes, learned elemental Hebrew, I converted—which is a five-minute ceremony. My mother attended the Friday night service in which this took place. Just before we left for synagogue, she said, “I guess it makes sense, you converting to Judaism, since your father’s family was Jewish.”

What!? She had known I was studying all along. She didn’t have any details, and since my dad died 47 years ago and we’re not close to his family, and I have no time or patience for family tree research, it will just remain a question mark.

When I told a rabbi this story once, she said that she hears stories like this often, and that there is a theory that all the Jewish souls lost in the Holocaust have sought refuge in the people who are converting, whether they’re in prison (Cindy) or are unwed teenage moms living in subsidized housing (me, nearly 40 years ago).

That Confounded Bridge


My Palestinian colleague is going back to Jerusalem this weekend. When I was there with him a few months ago, I wrote about what that involves, but I didn’t mention that he was strip searched three times while I waited for him on the other side of the bridge crossing. At the end of an email exchange in which I expressed my concern about him crossing the border again, he wrote:

“Steadfastness ‘Somod’ as we say is a good peaceful weapon. When I feel disempowered, I think of others who experienced harder situations and kept strong along with my believes in justice, freedom, dignity, and integrity. I will need to find ways to express my rage, although I always believed in constructive actions that can bring change. In solidarity!”

There are parallels between his and Vince’s situations, not least of which, they’re about the same age.

I went through a long process of change when I was sent to the Palestinian Territories for work. My first reaction was, “Are you F—ing kidding? I’m Jewish!” [Since Vince is no longer at Moose Lake, surrounded by skinheads and brothers of the Nation of Islam, I can say that.)

Over a period of six months, “my thinking evolved,” as Barak Obama said about his position on gay marriage. I found some like-minded Jewish American activists who saw no problem with holding Israel to high standards. My rabbi said, “Maybe God thinks you’re the one to do this.” I don’t know about that, since I don’t believe in god and I can’t see myself as some sort of messiah—to the Palestinians! But he didn’t think I was a traitor to my people, that was a huge relief to me.

I could write volumes about this, but for this blog I’ll just say that I credit all my work in Alanon for helping me develop an open mind, a radar that tells me I’m in denial, and a willingness to try anything to feel better and get clarity. I am so glad I went on the trip. I could have easily refused to go, and missed a life-changing opportunity.

I moved less than a week after returning from that trip. That was two months ago, and now I will move again in three weeks. Yes, I found a condo to buy just a few weeks after I moved into my new apartment. Sometimes timing just isn’t great. But an unexpected benefit is that I won’t have to have the conversation with my landlord about Vince moving in.

In fact, when I called my landlord to find out about getting a subletter to finish out my lease, she told me the person would have to have 2.5 times income to rent, “and of course we don’t want any felons!” she laughed. She said it so lightly. She obviously isn’t related to any of the 47,000 ex offenders in Minnesota.

VINCE: [Ms. Maertz: Good news about getting the condo.  I know it’s nice to have a glass of wine or a beer in your own home.  But if you do while I’m there, I will get sent back to Moose Lake for 18 months.  So decide now if you think I should look for another residence. Love, Vince]

Work/Life Sameness


Greetings from Amman, Jordan.  I am just back from a week in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel (OPTI, as we say in our biz, which is rife with acronyms), where my colleagues and I had meetings with about 30 human rights activists and also held a training on how they can work more strategically and tactically.

Yesterday my American colleague and I rushed back over the Allenby Bridge from Jerusalem to Amman because a historical snowstorm was predicted.  Our Palestinian coworker had to stay behind because the border staff is on strike, and they can process tourists (me) but not Palestinians.  A good example of something we heard over and over about the situation in OPTI—“it’s complicated.”

Another thing that came up again and again was prisoners’ rights, and torture, and torture in prisons…there was as much blame on the Palestinian Authority as the Israelis, so the Palestinians are getting screwed by both sides but of course the Occupation is what has to change…I could write a whole separate blog on this trip.

So now we’ve had about 4 inches of snow and everything is shut down, and I get to read some of the light literature I picked up in our meetings:


Before I left Minnesota, I called Moose Lake and talked with a guy there about my visit being denied.  It was a very cordial, respectful conversation.  I felt listened to.  He explained that the dress policies had changed and that they had been trying to communicate this to visitors.  I suggested they collect visitors’ email addresses and send mass emails about rule changes, and he thought that would be a great idea and asked me to email it to him.

I feel better about “the incident” now, but will Volk be at the front desk when I get there next time?  I’m nervous about that, mostly because I feel I owe him an apology for calling him a pervert.  Then a second later I think, “Wait—he owes me an apology!”   I suppose both are true.

The weekend after I get home, I move to a new apartment.  Then I will have to visit Vince the following weekend because he moves to Boot Camp a few days later and he won’t be allowed any visitors for two months.  It’s not the greatest timing—coming back from a long, intense work trip, moving, then having to do all that driving to Moose Lake, but I have missed hearing Vince’s voice, and after being estranged from him, off and on, for many years I am so grateful that we can talk to and see each other regularly now.