It’s only just past 2pm on my first day of nine months studying Arabic at An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestine but already I feel that I need to get my thoughts down.
I’m sat on one of two beds in what is my temporary room. There are 11 of us here in Nablus who studied at SOAS last year and have arrived from London and Italy over the last week and between us there are three flats. The guys are together in one of the flats and I’m living with three other girls. The landlord was happy for us to be mixed but the international students’ officer at An-Najah University wanted us to be separate in case the neighbours didn’t take too kindly to other arrangements. Having lived with two guys and 3 girls in London last year, I’m well aware of the other advantages of this situation. Put lightly, if boys claim to be clean, it is only because they are not using the standard definition of the word.
My current bed is temporary because we have three rooms between four of us and are still waiting to see when the fourth will appear. It’s a cosy room with the tv whose only purpose is as a mirror, the window that allows me to see over the valley of Nablus by turning my head only slightly to the right, and the huge wardrobe, which I know messy piles of clothes will simply lie next to in an open suitcase. However, since it’s the one that will neither require two to share, nor double up as a living room, it’s unlikely that it will remain mine. The flat is also only for a month, until we find a different place, host families or decide to stay on here. It’s close to the market and the old university campus (though wherever you stay in Nablus requires a slow, sweaty slog home), has a roomy, airy feel, with a balcony and even a kind of patio out the front door with a convenient plastic table and chairs that allowed us to enjoy our lunchtime humus and flat bread in the open shade. To say it has a lived-in feel is an understatement. The left behind booklets on Palestinian politics were both useful and a nice touch but the photos of unidentifieds, the old bar of soap, toothbrush and used sheets, the pink thong and bra discovered by when one of my housemates sensibly changed her sheets..?! Granted, the Jordanian passports we discovered this morning were exciting, making us feel like detectives in a crime thriller, especially since they enabled us to identify the woman in one of the hanging portraits as Mrs Hayat, born in 1936, and the stapler and umbrella, if not the long coat, may well come in handy, but I’m looking forward to the end result of our planned cleaning session later this afternoon.
Already, it’s clear that I will learn Arabic well here. Our venture into the market this morning, before everything closes for Friday afternoon prayers, awakened me to how rusty my Arabic after the summer break, but hopefully with a bit of courage, persistence and intense revision sessions, it’ll start coming back. Being reminded of the word for floor by an attempt to buy floor cleaner from a boy at one stall is certainly a more entertaining way of learning the word than by translating such a sentence as ‘The woman still needed to clean the floor in the living room’ – a sentence typical of our notorious green 1950s study packs. Listening to the taxi driver on his internet ‘walkie talkie’ phone device that links him with other Arabs in different areas of the world was definitely an experience. An hour of Jew-bashing means that the word ‘kalb’ (dog) is firmly lodged in my head! The word for pig also came up but obviously not often enough.
Israeli immigration was easier for me than I’d expected. The first time I felt nervous was as I approached a man in one of many boxes. More of a laugher than a crier, I have a strong inclination to laugh in nervous situations and so was concentrating hard on suppressing a smirk. I told him that I was studying Arabic because I find languages interesting and couldn’t tell if his following question of ‘Why not Hebrew?’ was jovial rhetoric or angry cynicism. I expect the latter. Most of us had to wait in a room while checks on us were carried out but it was Ahleen, the only Muslim of the group, who was cross-examined, even being questioned on her hobbies. I was at first surprised to find a tv in the room showing an Israeli football match and drinks machines but came to suspect that, since visitors are unlikely to have shekel coins on them and the match was particularly poor and seemed to be on repeat, these were more torturous than benevolent additions to the room.
The ride from Ben Gurion airport to Nablus only took around an hour and, since there is no permanent checkpoint on the route, I wouldn’t have noticed that we had entered Palestine if it weren’t for the transition from a smooth, lit dual carriageway to a dark potholed single-tracked road, and the contrast in the structure of the buildings that someone pointed out. A sudden yet short-lived improvement in the quality of the road, as well as the introduction of lights, is a strong indication that you’re passing an Israeli settlement. Within a few hours, the much talked about situation of the Palestinian oppression had become a reality. But what hit me the most was the size of the region. Although I knew from maps that neither Israel nor Palestine were huge expanses of land, I had always imagined it as a divided war, with the two territories clearly separated and moves played out from afar. Yet the way one blends into the other and people, in a sense literally, live on top of one another, made me realise the intense intricacies of the conflict and its effect on people’s lives.
Before arriving here, I planned to do a much more focused blog, exploring particularly the role of gay rights in the conflict. The situation intrigues me since the Israeli government, though blatantly removing many basic human rights of Palestinians, present Israel as a haven of gay rights and Tel Aviv (though, to be fair, with little competition) is boasted as being the ‘gay capital of the Middle East’. It uses this status to set itself apart from Palestine, which it presents as backward in the casual homophobia of its citizens. This has led to many applying the term ‘pinkwashing’ to Israel, claiming that it focuses so greatly on gay rights in order to detract attention from its ironic restriction of human rights, and in its last Pride Parade one of the groups present was ‘No Pride in Occupation’. I had expected that homosexual relations were illegal in Palestine, however, after a little research, learnt that they are legal in the West Bank, due to a ruling under a Jordanian occupation (it being legal in Jordan) but are illegal in Gaza, due to a ruling under British occupation, and that the Palestinian authorites have since chosen to leave things as they stand. Yet many gay Palestinians still flee the West Bank, finding themselves rejected by Palestinian society and then unable to legally seek refuge in Israel due to their being Arab, hence why such groups as Aswat, which is based in Haifa and works with women in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel; and Al-Qaws, working for ‘sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian Society’, exist.
I was also considering basing this blog around a quest to find the women’s national football team after discovering two articles about them on the internet. The latest, written in 2008 by a Guardian reporter, outlined the difficulty for women here to play football but how the Women’s National Team had just played their first international match on a proper outdoor pitch in Palestine. Only women were allowed into the stadium , which was almost filled to capacity, but men still climbed up to the rooftops to witness the spectacle. I’ve searched on the internet for signs of more amateur levels of the game in Palestine but to no avail, and so am determined in my nine months here to find where women’s football is practised in and to hopefully also get in contact with the national team.
But within 24 hours of being here, I’m aware that I cannot possibly hope to restrict myself to talking mostly about one single subject. Asides from the fact that I am a certified rambler (talking not walking), it would be like tasting all of Nablus’ delicious pastries and only revealing the identity of one (spoiler alert – tasty pastries and freshly baked bread are likely to feature frequently in this blog). My parents will at least be relieved that I’m no longer writing a blog titled either ‘The Freedom To Occupy’ or ‘Occupied Closets – A Freedom Paradox’ but going for the simpler and less controversial ‘Palestinian Ponderings’ because even Daily Mailies know alliteration works. But, while learning Arabic, discovering the culture, meeting amazing people and visiting places I had previously only ever imagined as part of a Christmas tale, I aim to satisfy the goals of exploring both of the above through top investigative and journalistic work. ‘No Pride In Occupation’, Aswat, Al-Qaws and the groovy gay vegan anarchist cafe in Tel Aviv will all have had their moment in here by the time I leave, inshallah (if God wills). And, as an ashamedly unknowledgable atheist, I aim to learn more about the religions that overshadow every aspect of life here, so be prepared for some faux-pas, given that in my last blog I accidentally described the C of E as Catholic.