Orientation

February 15, 2015 § 1 Comment

I have a map!

This is a great deal more exciting than it sounds. I don’t know if it’s a Ramallah thing or a Palestine thing, but people here do not do street names. Which consequently means directions are largely incomprehensible to a newbie. “You know where Arab Bank is? Yes? Yes! No, not that Arab Bank, the one near that well-known cafe. Oh you don’t know the one I mean? Near…” and so on.  So the fact that I now own a map means I finally feel (sort of) self-sufficient. At least I can find my way around without asking 12 people en route.

Another thing I am discovering, after 3 weeks of constant last-minute rushing around, is the importance of developing a routine, and sticking to it. From next week it will be Arabic course two nights a week, teaching (!) Arabic one evening, Pilates on Saturday morning and gym whenever I can manage it. And at least one trip. And 35 hours of work in between. No more. Let’s see how it goes.

I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a diary and I can’t share every little thing. So I want to write a bit about Khoddori University in Tulkarem. It’s a stunning series of simple buildings – clear lines, wide interiors. Universities in Palestine are worth a visit. Education is everything. I went to Khoddori along with a group of volunteers who were delivering an English language session to students there and, as I wasn’t personally involved in delivering the session, the group coordinator at the university gave me a little tour. A bit of geography to start with. Tulkarem is right on the western border of the occupied West Bank, approximately 15 km from the Mediterranean. Of course there’s a giant wall blocking any access to the sea for those living there. I am genuinely sorry to keep going on about the Wall, but it’s unavoidable. Especially for those of us who are privileged enough to be allowed to travel around. The economy, traditionally, was based on agriculture, and the small amount I saw of the city from the university grounds is lush and green (and surrounded by grey concrete. Sorry. I have wall-related verbal diarrhoea).

Khoddori University, the coordinator told me, was built as an agricultural college in the 1930s, funded by an Iraqi Jewish man. More recently, his grandson also donated money for a new building. It became a university in the 2000s and is now funded through the Palestinian Authority. So far so rosy. If you look West over the wall, you can pretty much see the sea that most Palestinians can’t get to. On the Palestinian side, there’s the Gishuri chemical plant – an Israeli owned plant that used to be in Israel, but was shut down by an Israeli court following legal action by residents against the pollutants it was pumping into the environment. So the owner reopened it on Palestinian land. Apparently (and these are the words of the coordinator) – “when the wind is blowing towards Israel, they shut down the plant. When it’s blowing east, they leave it. We have a lot of problems with cancer.” Apparently the Palestinian residents have also tried to take legal action, but without success. It’s facts like this, facts that have almost become a norm for people living here, that  makes you realise how completely insane the situation is in this tiny, breathtakingly beautiful, strip of land.  It completely confounds belief.

Bil’in, for me, was similar. Everyone who comes to Palestine with some sort of activism in their blood visits Bil’in. I won’t write loads about it – but Wikipedia has a decent entry. Anyway, what struck me, again, was how stunning the place is. We met a family, mum dad and 3 little kids. They waved, and welcomed. I had some basic conversation with the little ones. One of the girls trusted me enough after 60 seconds to hold my hand. There were poppies randomly dotted around everywhere. And empty tear gas canisters, and the toilet-roll-like containers that they’re thrown in, with a couple of words of Hebrew written on them on white labels.  And you see the wall snaking around, and it looks deceptively far away… and then suddenly it’s THERE, literally right in front of you. Barbed wire on both sides of the road running alongside it. A couple of guys and their herd (?) of goats. We join them for delicious, sugary tea, smoky from the fire. “Welcome to Palestine”. Beautiful, crazy, confused country.

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“We’ve got used to living with this suffocation. We just try to poke holes so we can breathe”

February 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Middle East is at its most beautiful first thing in the morning, when the roads are almost empty and you can appreciate the natural and man-made beauty of your surroundings without the constant distraction of market stalls and unpredictable traffic. To be fair this is probably true of anywhere in the world, but I’ve never been more than a theoretical morning person – I’m sure I’d love it if I could get out of bed.

Ramallah on a normal day isn’t more crowded than what you’d expect of a capital city (and with East Jerusalem under Israeli authority, Ramallah does function as the de facto capital of Palestine).  Nonetheless, when I went out early on Friday, with good intentions of going to the gym (which, by the way, were thwarted – gym was shut. FRIDAY. I forgot.), it was astonishing to notice the contrast between this early morning silence and the daily bustle. The building I live in is at the top of a hill, and then the road flattens out. Between the houses there’s a clear view across the hills in the north – if I had a better idea of geography I could tell you exactly what’s over there but I’m still not particularly well orientated! Anyway, the point is, it reminded me how lucky I am to be here.

Emotionally, it’s been a confusing week so I’m struggling to write this in a sensible, non-stream-of-consciousness way. In the last 2 weeks I’ve travelled from Ramallah to the office in Jerusalem 4 times. Each time, I’ve crossed Qalandia “checkpoint” which separates the northern West Bank from Jerusalem. Generally, my journey is fairly straightforward. I get on a bus or a servees (shared taxi) from central Ramallah. There are 2 bus routes which take you all the way to Jerusalem, the rest just take you to the checkpoint. However regardless of which bus you’re on, you still have to get off and cross the checkpoint on foot. There are a few exceptions – mostly the elderly and sometimes women with children – and me, on one occasion, because I happened to be on a bus full of mothers and babies and for some reason (British passport maybe?) the soldiers who got on to check our IDs didn’t make me get off.  Coming up to Qalandia on the Palestinian side, there’s the infamous separation wall (8 metres of concrete topped with barbed wire…), covered with graffiti (including a couple of Banksy pieces – the girl with the balloon and the boy with the bucket). The buses drop us off at the entrance to the checkpoint. You enter what I can only describe as a large wire cage and wait with everyone else until the soldiers open the turnstiles to let us in, 3 people at a time. It can take 10 minutes, or 2 hours. It could be much more, if you’re one of the hundreds of Palestinians who cross in the early hours of the morning to get to work. You might not be allowed through, for any number of reasons.

Qalandia

Once through the turnstiles, you put all your belongings apart from your ID documents on a conveyor belt for scanning, while you yourself walk through a body scanner, hold your documents up at a window (If you’re Palestinian you also get your thumbprint scanned), and wait for the soldier on the other side to wave you through. Then you get your stuff, walk through 2 more turnstiles to clear the checkpoint, and get on the next available bus.  Once, there was barely anyone waiting and yet it took ages for the turnstile to open to let the next group through. When it was my turn to show my passport, I realised that this was because the soldier was on the phone, directly in front of the window but refusing to look up until he was ready. I can’t have waited more than 3 minutes with my ID pressed against window, but that was frustrating enough. It just serves to emphasise that the whole system is at least as much about control as security – if not more so.  And yet for me, with my magic British passport, this checkpoint business is barely an inconvenience. I’m waved through without a word.

Birzeit UniversityOn a (slightly) more cheerful note, last week I also visited Birzeit University in Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Right to Education (R2E) campaign and one of our project partners here. Birzeit is a beacon of resistance and it was genuinely a dream come true for me to be able to visit!  Our volunteers are working to help raise the profile of the campaign internationally – but also among Palestinian students, many of whom, having lived their whole lives under occupation, have accepted the violations of their right to education as just one more thing they just have to deal with. Checkpoints, road closures, arbitrary detention of students and staff, refusing visas to international staff and students, denial of permits to students from Gaza to study in Ramallah. All of it has become expected. The situation was aptly summed up by one of the lecturers we met (a Palestinian woman who grew up in the States and came back to Palestine with her parents when she was 15, after Oslo, when they fully expected things to get better) who said, laughing: “We’ve got used to living with this suffocation. We just try to poke some holes so that we can still breathe!”

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Yesterday I had my first full day of being a tourist! We went to Nablus, a city in the north which is built in the valley between two mountains. Mount Gerezim, in the south, is home to a community of Samaritans – it’s the most sacred place in the Samaritan faith.[1] First impression – Nablus is significantly warmer than Ramallah! The Old City feels like a mixture of the Middle East and Europe – partially enclosed markets, wide squares and narrow streets.  The smells range from concentrated poultry droppings to the aroma of freshly ground spices, depending which part of the market you’re in. Nablus is famous for its kunafa, a delicious dessert made of cheese – which, to be honest, was my main reason for wanting to visit. Most exciting discovery of the day – there’s more than one kind! It’s also famous for olive oil soap. We visited the old soap factory and were given a free tour by a man who has worked there for 30 years. It was in Arabic and there are a lot of soap-making words that I don’t know, so I missed a lot of vital soap-making information (sorry, Erin…).

There is a significant Israeli settlement (around 6,000 inhabitants according to Wikipedia) north of Ramallah on the road to Nablus, called Beit El. After returning home last night, local news told me that settlers had been “hurling rocks” at Palestinian vehicles on that road. Everyday there’s news of some act of violence which somehow seems insignificant in the context (and, of course, bigger news, like the incident at the Lebanese border this week) . Palestinians threw stones at settler cars. IDF forces assaulted and arrested a 10 year old boy in a refugee camp in Jerusalem. Palestinian stabbed 10 people on a bus in Tel Aviv. Settlers ran over a 5 year old. I’ve been here for 2 weeks and already I just scan the news for anything that might affect my personal safety or plans, and move on.

[1] Nablus, like Ramallah, is one of the few Palestinian cities in ‘Area A’, so fully under the control of the Palestinian Authority (the Oslo Accord divided the West Bank into 3 non-contiguous areas – Areas A (full PA control), Area B (PA civil authority, Israeli-PA security control), and Area C (full Israeli control). Nonetheless the IDF frequently carries out night raids on houses in Nablus and the surrounding villages.

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