Secret Gardens

I was surprised this week to be greeted by the premature rings of Christmas as I trogged through my Arabic homework. I was relieved, however, to discover, when I ventured out onto the balcony and peered down below, that the encroaching Jingle Bells theme tune was not accompanied by a jolly red figure but signaled a less consumerist affair. In fact, I was rather inspired by the sight of a man in a little grey car below serving out ice cream from an ice box, with his boot open to reveal a speaker – the source of the festive tune. It seems that the lack of an ice cream van need not be an obstacle to becoming an ice cream man.

I do prefer the Call to Prayer as a background tune however. For an atheist, I find it curiously calming. Granted I still have concerns that it will be abused Big Brother style to issue hypnotic messages across the country, but it also feels like a symbol of unification – a reminder that we’re all living under the same sky. Though my flatmate did rather detract from the element of mysticism when she mistook it, one evening, for my other flatmate singing in the shower.

In fact, it’s been a very musical week. On Saturday afternoon, having decided to spend the weekend in Nablus, I found myself sat in the office of one of Nablus’ three music studios. Nisar, the rapper who had hosted me in Jenin, had invited me to come and watch him record his second album there. It was a small place, but then I have no other visits to music studios with which to compare it, and had an air of Grease about it, what with the gelled hair and tight black jeans of the chain-smoking men who were lounging about the adjoining room. We typically spent most of the time sat around waiting for other stuff to be finished in the studio but this allowed me to catch glimpses of the religious debate unfolding between Nisar, who converted from Islam to Christianity two months ago, and the producer’s friend who works in a crème caramel shop and is a reborn Muslim. After a few hours, the studio was free and so I followed Wisam and his friend in, feeling like a groupie. It was certainly cool to see and excited my inner rapper but I was relieved when the time came to finally escape the increasingly smoky studio.

Yet the next night I was lured back to hang with the artists, as Nisar still had songs to complete, and was glad I did too. Just as we were pumping some beats (I’m trying to be gangster, ok), a couple of men, one with his family, turned up. Next thing I know, we’re all huddled round, watching the pilot for a Palestinian comedy, of which one of the men was the star. From what I could make of it, it was pretty entertaining and, from what I could gather from the discussions that ensued, the man who’d come with his family was a producer interested in the programme. Though I narrowly missed out that night on having a go myself on the mic, due to the rapidity with which the streets become deserted here, I’ve been offered a role as an extra if the comedy ever goes beyond the pilot. Though the only way I can see this working is if the jokes are at my expense…

That afternoon had been a little less comical however. Having registered our interest in helping with a mural painting at one of the refugee camps, with the guy who used to be a nurse but now works at an NGO in town and is reportedly a spy for the Palestinian Authorities, I found myself heading to Askar camp with two of my flatmates, in what was an unexpected burst of efficiency for a Sunday afternoon. Askar is one of the two largest refugee camps in the Nablus area, the other being Balata – notorious as the source of the beginnings of the second intifada and where much attention has been recently focused with the increasing tensions in the region. We were going to the camp’s Social Development Centre – set up in 1962 by residents of the camp. It was situated in New Askar –the name given to the area that was created to accommodate the overspill of refugees from Old Askar, yet still houses 7000 people in the tiny area.

It seemed they were keen for us to get involved in more than just the painting, which was a relief for me, still haunted by memories of my art teacher snatching the paint brush from me in frustration at my poor technique. They were also keen for us to get involved with aspects that interested us, and so it seems I’ll be helping with the sports centre, where they even teach girls football, and possibly some English teaching. It’s great to be able to do something for a long period too and the people running the centre were more welcoming than I’d expected. The tour round the camp they gave us was pretty grim. The sports centre had been set up to give kids there a safe place to play and something to do after school. Not to be safe from traffic or bits of rubble but from the Israeli soldiers, who would sometimes play with them and sometimes throw stones at them. Or shoot them. Just up from the centre was a small spot where children used to play football. It was on the edge of the camp, overlooking a checkpoint, and three children had been killed there, as they played. We were then shown into the back of the kindergarten where 7 gravestones stood. In New Askar, people aren’t allowed to be buried but the Israeil authorities had made an exception here. Kind of them. Not that there was even much to bury after these seven men had been blown to shreds by a bomb dropped from above by an Israeli helicopter in April 2002, as they sat in the road, talking. The checkpoints around the area were opened in 2010 but people from the Palestinian Authority are still only allowed to come here with Israeli permission, Israeil soldiers frequently appear at any time of day and take people, and Israeli settlers still sometimes come to the edge of the camp to terrorize the residents here. Though when they aren’t accompanied by soldiers, the young men of the camp are apparently able to force them away. As we walked back to the centre none of us said anything.

Yet the next afternoon proved even more emotional. Having been prevented from returning to the camp by a two hour taxi strike, I found out that the Freedom Bus would be coming to town. This is a creation of Jenin’s famous Freedom Theatre – a form of cultural resistance which has been plagued by threats from the Israeli authorities and had its founder assassinated in April last year. The bus is a group of touring actors who pitch up in towns and villages throughout Palestine to put on improvised shows, where members of the audience shout out words or topics, which they then act out. I’d found the idea intriguing when I’d heard about it but hadn’t been prepared for quite how powerful it would be.
After getting directions from my friend’s landlord we set off into the souk in search of minarets, squares and schools and soon became a baton in an informal relay as we were passed from one local to the next, taking us to this mysterious location. As we got closer, we could hear the sounds of a violin and keyboard and rounded the corner to find a gathering seated on plastic chairs facing a group of four actors dressed in black. A speaker was talking to the crowd through a microphone and we got there in time to see a woman from the crowd go up to the front. She proceeded to recount a tale of life under occupation and then the word she gave to be acted out was ‘damaar’ (‘destruction’). Well for the few minutes that these four actors displayed their notion of destruction, the entire vicinity, from the clusters of schoolchildren to the old women peering out of their houses from above, were captivated. They simulated the creation of a building and it then being knocked down and then the destruction of a human being. I couldn’t decide if the most powerful thing was the actors’ faces – one man displayed manic anger particularly emotively, or the screams they made echo around the walls of the square. But I think what actually made it so shocking was the situation in which such performances were taking place and the resonation that they had with the people watching who had lived through, and were still living through, such atrocities.

A young boy then came up to the front, in that way that children excitedly volunteer for something because they know everyone’s eyes will be on them, but then, when they’re actually up there, they panic and don’t know what to do. As he stood there, with his nervous eyes not knowing quite where to look, the speaker asked him ‘How do the Israeli soldiers make you feel?’ and he said ‘bikaaf’ – ‘I am afraid’. There was then silence as the speaker was rendered speechless. He kept trying to speak and then being held back by the task of holding back his own tears. Meanwhile one of the actresses silently cried in the background. Eventually he regained his strength and asked the boy his age. Nine.
The adults then acted out being fearful children. There was something strangely disturbing about such a scene.

As the crowd dispersed and the Freedom Bus packed up, me and Laura just stood there, not quite sure what to do. We then started walking aimlessly back through the souk until we passed an old café that Laura had discovered. From the outside, it appeared empty, as a spacious interior revealed nothing except empty chairs but around the corner lay a large garden. There was a small fountain and two groups of elderly man sat in circles on opposite sides, smoking nargilah. We got the feeling that the old man, whose family had been running the place for 60 years, wanted to hide us inside but when we asked to if we could sit outside, he took a couple of chairs and a spindly stand-come-table and plonked us down in the middle, beneath a tree. Completely sheltered from the sounds and sights of the bustling market, it was as if time stood still there, and the lack of colour, apart from hints of light green, created a very calming aura. As I allowed myself to fill up my glass of tea with sugar, still dizzy from the effects of the afternoon’s discovery, we were invited over to join two young men sitting with their shirts only loosely buttoned and papers sprawled over the table in front of them. Aware that we were already stepping on local territory, and with the reputation for promiscuity that comes with being a white female, I was a little concerned that we may be pushing the boundaries of the old owner’s hospitality but it seemed I was unable to escape the pulls of stardom, as it transpired one was a French director, embarking on his first feature film, and the other a famous Palestinian actor, with Laura even recognising him from a film she’d watched the previous week. They’d adopted this café as their office while they finished off the script for an unusual Palestinian film – a tale about a widowed vet, who falls in love and ends up undertaking a mission to steal a giraffe from an Israeli zoo, to help win the favour of his new love’s son.

It’s both bemusing and amusing the bizarre mixture of people one can unintentionally meet in a week in Nablus but my favourite encounter this week is one that helped take me further into the underground Palestinian gay scene. A random add on facebook from a 19 year old lesbian from a nearby town, who I expect found me via the al-Qaws facebook group (a Palestinian gay rights society) though she neglected to say, led to messages and a Skype chat in Arabic about the difficulties of being gay in Palestine. I keep hearing from people that Nablus is the gay capital of Palestine but doubt, if this was the case, that people would feel the need to illegally flee next door to a country that may imprison them because they are cast out by their family and society here. I think it’s like how Wales is notorious for its residents’ relations with sheep, yet I doubt may families there would be pleased to find that their child was dating an ewe. Not that I’m comparing homosexuality with sheepual relations. God no. Though actually… no, sheep can’t give consent. Anyway, for fear of digging any deeper a hole…

She naturally talked about the restrictive nature of life here and I was surprised to find that she only knew one other gay person – a man who she’d presumably tracked down with the same detective ability that she used to find me. When I asked her about her family’s reaction she mimed her throat being cut and she found it hilarious that I want to do my dissertation on sexuality in Palestinian society, wishing me good luck with that one. Yet she told me that the she thinks the next secret meeting for al-Qaws is in November – though they apparently only reveal the exact time and place nearer the event, and so I feel I’m already closer to discovering this side of life here and achieving one of my aims. In fact, after our conversation, which I should probably add was not in fluent Arabic but a mixture of spoken and typed broken Arabic and English, I felt like a detective, or maybe even a secret agent – ‘3amiila siriya’, to be precise.

I have also taken my first few kicks of the ball into the Palestinian women’s football scene. Less underground and more on astroturf, I discovered after a little asking around that the university has women’s football practices three times a week. This is primarily part of the sports course here, with students picking a couple of sports to do each semester, but they’re happy for other students to join in and were pleased to see me. I am now well aware of the feminine collective imperative for ‘run’ as well as the words for ‘game’ and ‘pitch’. I’ve also been befriended by a couple of girls already and have been trying to strike up some conversations (some more successfully than others), so hopefully this will be a great way for me to get to hang with the locals and improve my colloquial. I think it’s also what’s going to help keep me sane here. After the heaviness of the camp and the play, in addition to the fatigue that seems to come with a constant study of Arabic and trying to figure out how to behave in all situations, life here had started to get to me. But doing something that I know how to do and enjoy doing lifted me immensely and it was fun just to watch the girls being themselves in the changing rooms, just laughing and joking without their veils. It was similar to when Salwa invited me to her flat and her flatmates were just chilling like we could have been anywhere, cracking each other up so much, as they tried to speak English to me, that the guy from downstairs shouted up at them to keep it down.

I also found out that one of the girls at football is going to a new women’s team in Nablus that’s just started up and takes place on Fridays and Saturdays in the town stadium. It’s at 8am mind, and I feel that, since I’m also getting involved with coaching football at Askar, I’m going to ironically be playing more football than I have the energy or time for, but the rapidity with which things seem to be developing is too exciting to pass up on and so, if I can confirm how and when to get there this week, I may well soon be visiting the stadium.

The week was drawn to a close with another visit to Askar to paint the town not red but white. I’d previously been skeptical about the point of such a mural, feeling it was all a bit too hippy to be much use, but as we all chipped in, covering the tatty walls with fresh paint, and passersby stopped to watch, I could actually see the symbolic purpose behind such a project, helping create a sense of pride in living here by looking after what still remains yours. The children are going to get involved too, so I’ll be able to pass off my dodgy drawings as the artistic emotions of a five year-old.

A man deemed crazy did pass at one point, shouting things and was moved on by one of the local guys, but then another man passed by (or more literally squeezed by, as we all had to move the paint bucket and our stomachs in whenever a car chose to navigate its way through the narrow roads of the camp) and said ‘God bless you’. We also got to wear matching white long-sleeved tops and caps and I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a sequel to Misfits.

Though, when I look back, I’m always surprised by how much has already happened, I constantly have a little figure in my head – he wears a suit and a disapproving look and pokes me in the brain with a long ruler whenever I speak to a Palestinian in English or decide to spend the day at home instead of venturing out onto the street, or to explore some other region of the country. It doesn’t help that people can still tell me things without me catching a word of what they’re saying and that I say something that I think I know how to say and just get a blank stare, but I’m trying to wrestle the ruler off him by reminding myself that I still have over eight months here and am not going to become fluent in a month. Maybe he’ll need to give me a big wack round the head come December, when the only thing I’ve become fluent in is miming but for now I’ll try to push such niggling worries aside and just try to get into life here. I’d say ‘settle in’ but I only have a day left of not being homeless, since our current flat is too poor value for money for the few of us that live here. I’m confident no-one will let us live on the street and we’re currently awaiting a response from the woman from the centre for blind women, who’s contacting the administration to see if we can live there, since we chose to take up the offer she made on our previous visit. The idea of living at the blind centre grew on the three of us last Thursday when we realised it would give us the linguistic benefits of living with a host family, without as many of the restraints, and would be in the same area of town as we’re now living, and just be super cool of course.

But we await the verdict. Such uncertainty certainly keeps life interesting and, if we find we are able to stay there, as well as increasing my knowledge of Arabic, it may well lead to an increase in my tolerance of bitter guavas.


About balooinblue

I like to ponder, wander and occasionally absconder
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One Response to Secret Gardens

  1. Loved this. Some very powerful images that I’ll retain, like the street theatre and the refugee camp. Felt like I was there – a testament to your writing. Looking forward to the next! x

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