Archive for the ‘encounters’ Category

distant confrontations

February 20, 2008

As I review my 8 months in Palestine, each face vivid with a distinct story to tell, I revisit also the pain of seeing the daily indignities, and also the pain of losing a friend.

I’ve hesitated to dwell on this, as losing a friend, loved one, family member is far too common in occupied Palestine. But it was new for me, aside from beloved pets and distant relatives. This was someone who only the day before I had seen and teased, whose sisters, mother, wife, and baby son live on without him. That abrupt loss of a friend was made worse by the fact that I was within blocks of his home –and heard the explosions –the night he was killed.

Explosions are normal in Nablus. Not because Nablusi are inherently ‘militant,’ ‘terrorist-minded,’ ‘extremist,’ or any of the other key words which are used to defame a resistance to a decades-old occupation (and deter from that fact)… Rather, explosions are normal because Nablus is in occupied Palestine and is still an area that actively resists, something which in almost any other nation would be supported and applauded. Terminology. Rhetoric. Words at the expense of lives.

I heard the bombs that killed Abed that night. I awoke to them. Sat up a bit, looked out the window of the central old-city Palestinian friend’s apartment I was sleeping in, and knew there was nothing I could do that night. Oddly, already accustomed to loud bombings and gunfire at night, I thought about it a while, then went back to sleep. Tomorrow was another day, of army confrontations and potential settler assaults, which was fruitful in both regards.

As I speak to people back in my own country about what I saw, experienced, felt, lost… it seems so distant. Life here has its own complications, but many in comparison seem engineered to distract from those very real, daily, debilitating, and horrific problems of life in occupied Palestine

Mural Painting at Amary Camp

November 20, 2007

The kids were fantastic: excited to transform sparse grey walls to a rainbow of images.
An elephant, sheep of varying sizes, giant birds and butterflies, flowers bursting with colour…These animals, stenciled by R, an international volunteer with artistic flair and little discretion for scale, gained bright fur and clothes by kids who handled their responsibility very well.

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The Amary refugee camp play centre hosts about 50 children aged 5 years every day from 7:30-12:00, working with them to teach them language skills and play games, but moreover to provide a place where in the unpredictability and difficulty of life under Occupation, they receive the patient attention vital to traumatized children.

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The effects of the stress of children’s lives was epitomized by one hyperactive little boy who ran about expressing himself noisily and none-too-gently with the other kids. He was a pipsqueak bully with a huge smile demanding attention. From the headmistress, he was treated fairly but without hostility, catering to his desire for attention but not further playing on his emotional traumas.

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Three teachers work daily at the play centre, one of whom has been there for 20 years. Funded by both the Friends schools and UN funding, this Amary Camp play centre began in 1975. The centre is modest but the attention great, making up for where finances fall short. Nonetheless, the teachers try to provide milk for the kids 2 or 3 times per week and, the morning we were there, laid out a snack of the makings of a falafel sandwich.

The Friends schools serve approximately 1,100 students, from elementary to high school age.

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nablus musician

November 13, 2007

I stopped in a Nablus cultural centre to visit with friends I’d met months previously but hadn’t seen since. This is the same centre I once entered feeling quite glum about the situation in Palestine and what was happening to the people of Gaza with the Israeli incursions and the world-wide siege on Gaza.

I recall going into this cultural centre not feeling sociable and just generally miserable with humanity. And once inside, I was swarmed by the youths of Askar refugee camp, one of Nablus’ three main camps, who frequented the centre during summer months out of school. Soon they had the music going and were dancing Dabke steps like professionals. The music switched and they were throwing hips and shoulders like an alluring woman, grins on their faces.

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**[Dabke photos from Tulkarem peace event in June]

The other day when I went in, two young men were practicing oud and singing. Quite beautifully. One had an amazing voice with the scrapes and sorrows in it which mesmerize.

Their music instructor came out of his office and was soon coerced into playing a bit of oud for the visitor, to my delight:

So it was that once again Palestinians lift me from glumness, when they of all people have the right to dwell in the daily sorrows inflicted upon them. For the most part, the majority I’ve met shirk this right, instead reveling in laughter, teasing, music, and life.

local-toffees.jpg **locally-produced toffees, given by a Nablus teen who works in the factory.

little to do

October 14, 2007

Iman welcomed me.  It had been a few weeks since I’d been to his internet cafe.

“Eid mubarek,” I wished him, this, the third and last day of Eid.  I asked if it had been a good one.

“Good, yes, but not like in other countries. you see, there’s nothing for kids to do. They can play computer games, but they can’t go anywhere… even getting to Al Aqsa to pray is difficult to impossible for many. We have West Bank IDs; we can’t go to Jerusalem.”

I thought of Christmases as a child, of going on mini-vacations, going across the country to see relatives.

I saw the lines at checkpoints, particularly Qalendia, separating Jerusalem from Ramallah and leading away from most West Bank destinations.

A week earlier, passing through the Dahir al Bariit exit from Ar Ram, an older man befriended me en route. From Salfit, in the north half of the West Bank, he had come down for an eye doctor’s appointment. His clouded eye quite clearly needed attention, as his doctor’s note testified. He was sent away, sent to Qalendia checkpoint where he stood little chance of entering forbidden Jerusalem lands without the difficult to attain permit necessary for West Bankers.

I always feel wary of being trite when wishing a happy Ramadan, happy Eid, nice day…to Palestinians who would be most happy if they were allowed to move freely in their own land.
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birdsongs

October 10, 2007

Inside a small Nablus grocery store, hours after Iftar, the store-owner stands smiling and chatting with neighbours.

Extraordinary chirps spring from various birdcages around the store’s top shelves. “In Arabic we call them ‘canar’,” Zafer explains. “Always, the male, he sings, so beautiful. The woman, she never sings.

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He proceeds to describe the different birds he has kept over the years. “I’ve had birds for twenty years. One time every year, for one month, these birds change their feathers. They don’t sing during that time. Otherwise, they always sing. The nest, the woman bird makes it in two days. I could look at it for 100 years—it is amazing.

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The store owner is maybe in his fifties, and is wearing the more traditional robes that many don during Ramadan. Another older man smiles in the background and seizes the chance to speak when the first man pauses. “Sport?” he asks, pointing at my track pants. I explain they are comfortable and were given to me. He asks my pants’ size and beckons me to the back of the store where he has a pile of jeans, new. He wants me to take one, two pairs.

Zafer joins us at the back and begins pointing at, then opening, the freezers and boxes at the back. “This one is fish, this is chicken.” He takes me into a store room a bit further back and beings opening more boxes, from the rows filling the room: “This is sugar, olive oil, tea, coffee, rice, salt…

As he lists off the essential food ingredients, he pulls out a piece of paper, in Arabic, and explains: “every year, one rich man gives all this to the poor people of the area. Each box is worth about 180 shekels. Every year he asks me, ‘How many poor families are there this year?’ and writes me a check for the families. This year there are 30 in our neighbourhood, and 200 overall in areas around Nablus.  We have food for 200 families.

Each family receives 5 kilos of sugar, 5 kilos of rice, 1 kilo of tea, 2 cans of tomato paste (from Italy!), 1 450g container of tahini, 2 large packages of dates…The list goes on: halwa, chickpeas, corn oil,1 kilo of meats, 2 kilos of fish…

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My host explains that at Ramadan, every person becomes equal.  Looking at a Ramadan for Dummies sort of website later, I read that the month of Ramadan is a time of self-reflection, among other things, to focus on one’s spirituality but also on one’s relation to others:

Allah will say, ‘Back in the world, your neighbor at one time was hungry and sick but you failed to tend for him. If you had fed him and looked after him in his time of need, it would have been as if you were feeding Me.’ It will only be then that this man will realize the tremendous reward of empathy towards his fellow human beings. Today the worst feuds occur between neighbors because people remain ignorant of the rights of neighbors.Among the lessons of good character that the Messenger of Allah brought is good will and etiquette towards one’s neighbor. This is something that has been relatively forgotten nowadays.Living as brothers and sisters and as neighbors has become virtually alien to us, but we need to remember that neighbors are merely a mirror image of ourselves.”

The true purpose of fasting is to value the tremendous blessings of Allah and realize that a large percentage of people in the world do not have what we take for granted every day.Time and again I have seen these values put into practice during my time here in Palestine.

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September 22, 2007

The Dahir al Bariit checkpoint was open today, open for Ramadan, explained an English-speaking Palestinian Jerusalemite on the servis.

I ask how he got his Jeru ID. He explains that he born in Jerusalem and was living there in 1967 when Israel took over and occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Elaborating, he mentions how families were split after the Occupation: Maybe someone from Khalil (Hebron) had gone to Jerusalem. Israel registered them as living in Jerusalem, while their families were still in Khalil.

“Are you glad you have Israeli ID?” I asked him.

“I’m from Jerusalem,” he replied. “I don’t care if I have Israeli or Palestinian ID. I love the land, not the label.”

Our servis is stopped, traffic at a crawl. A man outside leans over and taps the door with his small hand-saw. The driver opens the door with a warm “Ramadan Kariim!” to his sawdusty craftsman friend, then to his 12 year old boy. They chat, exchanging further greetings, for a few minutes while traffic ahead starts to move again. Chatting a bit more, they bid goodbyes and the servis begins its crawl again.

None of the passengers uttered a complaint or were visibly put out by the exchange’s slight delay. Likely they would have done the same in the driver’s place

September 16, 2007

“They’re to waste your time. It costs money: half an hour, that’s half an hour of work, of your life gone,” the Jerusalem ID-carrying Palestinian told me. From just outside of Jerusalem, to get to work in the old city, where he sells hand-made jewelry, he must daily travel in the opposite direction, to Qalendia checkpoint, to then travel anew in the correct direction. Before the checkpoints and the Wall, his trip to Jerusalem was an easy one.

He, too, sees little security in the so-dubbed ‘security barrier’: “If there’s a will, there’s a way. If somebody wants to go over the Wall, they can.”

He talks about how the Occupation has changed not only daily life for Palestinians, but also life related to surrounding travel venues: “When my father was young and went to Damascus Gate (in Jerusalem), the taxi drivers called ‘Amman, Beirut, Baghdad….’ When I was younger and went to Damascus Gate, the taxi drivers called ‘Eriha (Jericho), Nablus, Khalil (Hebron)….’ Now, when my son goes to Damascus gate, the drivers call ‘Machsom Qalendia, Machsom Bethlehem (Qalendia checkpoint, Bethlehem checkpoint)….’

It gets smaller and smaller and smaller, our permitted area of travel.”

The road from Qalendia to Jerusalem normally involved a delay, in which the Border Police do another security check. Then, it’s just a matter of traffic…

Today, that stretch of road has a flying roadblock, possibly in place because of meetings with Condi Rice. If so, that is another irony in the endless, fruitless, staged peace talks: disruption of even an already disrupted journey.

The roadblock entails re-routing a re-routed entry to Jerusalem. The detour means that people already detouring from Ar Ram to Beit Hanina –just around the corner but out of reach due to the Wall and checkpoints –must further detour. The bus then has to backtrack to drop of these greatly-delayed passengers.

Back, all the way to the Dahiir al Bariit back exit, all because that particular exit is closed. It is closed, and yet one can evidently get dangerously close to it.

August 22, 2007

8:40 am

A round of walking to survey morning activities. Many of the problems reported by shepherds have occurred in the morning and at pre-sunset hours while they graze their sheep.

We sit atop a hilltop off the main highway. It is again a lovely scene, with rolling fields beyond and the angled morning light catching the white of the sheep –at sunset this is even more incredible.

Beyond these arid hills that somehow manage to nurture plants and harangued Palestinians, the expanse of Yatta stretches far, expanded by former residents of the older, greater Susiya, before the days of settler menance and IOF house-demolitions.

As with so many settings and incidents seen already, it is the harsh contrast of this serene environment and the local Palestinians’ brutal reality that stuns me again and again.

One can lose oneself to the wind, the birdsongs, the lulling heat, and pleasant view. And one can snap rudely awake to the absurdity of the settlers, soldiers, and the situation.

Days ago, we visited families across the valley, far west, moving from boy Suliman’s tent, where the women ask about bread in Canada [I’ve promised to bring a photo of my friends’ outdoor cob oven], to a cave where a young mother nursed her 2 week old boy and cared for her sullen, timid 2 year old son. The cave –quite cool in the heat of the day, and surprisingly functional –is isolated and seemed vulnerable to settler/soldier attacks and harassment.

We headed for Abu Malesh, whom we’d heard has had problems with passing settlers who stealhis figs, pilfer from his well, and assault even his sheep. Along the way, we were pulled into the tent of Aziz and his brother Abd’ Rachman who were assaulted, along with their young children, only last year by armed settlers, some wearing rifles, wielding a knife .  We later saw the house his family had been terrorized into leaving: a compact stone building overlooking the terraces of agricultural land below. Idyllic.

August 18, 2007

Najer, smiling, pays for my service, points out his home for a future visit, and smiles his way away, “M’assalamme!” in peace.

August 17, 2007

Visiting with people yesterday again highlights the privileges of having basic necessities, the devastation at not, and the grace of a many-times-battered Palestinian smile. A tentful of these smiles is blinding, and forgotten muscles stay locked in reciprocation.