I haven’t written for so long because I’ve had too much to write. I was unsure that I could do justice to the things I’ve seen in words. Life here was pretty intense during the war between Israel and Gaza and living with Palestinians meant that it was impossible to avoid the horrific scenes being continuously repeated on Palestinian news channels. I learnt to take myself away from it, since especially the propaganda channels that would play ‘Death to the Israelis’ in the background (reminding me of British war propaganda) didn’t even broadcast proper news. But then my housemates would still show me gruesome images of the remainders of children’s bodies on the computer. I once lost my temper with the same news channel being on yet again and said that they should watch something that at least had proper information, since this was undoubtedly controlled by the government, but they asked me which news channel they could watch, in that case, that wasn’t biased, and I had to admit there wasn’t one. I was also ashamed to have to tell them that week of the West’s shockingly biased news coverage of the conflict. When events started escalating, I had to dig hard on the internet to find out which side had actually fired the first missile and eventually found that, contrary to the mainstream depiction of events, the previous week Israel had stepped up their attacks (as part of Pilar of ‘Defence’?!) and Hamas were understandably trying to play them at their own game. Except 150+ – 3 highlighted how American weapons are still in a league of their own. God bless America.
My ability to talk Politics in Arabic is certainly increasing however, though I would have prefered to have the word for ‘missile’ lodged in my head through the reading of a text book. And religion, too, given that my Catholic friend is now living with us. I regularly find myself having to answer questions such as how the Israel-Palestine conflict can end, and where life comes from. All without causing offence. Hence the useful phrase ‘fikra nawwi’ (ideally) being typically used before I give my opinion on what may actually be a realistic solution or theory. I do rather enjoy being able to slate the American and British governments to applause however. And did I mention how I explained what being gay and the gay rights movement meant to my Arabic professor, and how the gay rights movement is very much alive and well in Palestine?
But before I get to that, I think I should start with the canaries.
They were declared dead at the scene, you see. Since they had been upstairs as the gas entered the house, they had felt the full effects of the canisters thrown into the camp by the soldiers and Ahmed came into the room carrying their cage as a temporary coffin. It was my first experience of tear gas but, safely inside Ahmed’s house with the door shut, I have nothing particularly exceptional to report. At first I had just been aware of a peculiar smell and had written it off as a musty blanket but then it transpired that it was actually tear gas. The first effect you feel is stinging in the nose and, the second night, when more was thrown and the windows had not been shut in time, I found myself automatically shielding my eyes as if from a harsh light, though the gas was completely invisible. You certainly didn’t linger between rooms and, when moving from one room to another, it was necessary to cover your mouth. But this was normal, I was assured. The irony, however, being that I found the knowledge that they shrugged this off as everyday life far more disturbing than the effects of the gas itself. The second night the sounds of gas bombs going off were seperated by the sounds of footsteps charging down the narrow streets, sometimes no more than a metre or two wide, and a mixture of Palestinians’ and soldiers’ voices as the latter pursued the former.
I was in Arroub camp – a refugee camp north of Hebron (or Al-khaleel). Having decided to visit Hebron since ‘it is a very important place in Palestine with Jews not only surrounding the town but actually living directly on top of Palestinians and therefore necessary I see it at least once’ (this being the Arabic spiel I adopted the numerous times I was quizzed by friends as to why I was going); I found Ahmed on couchsurfing and figured coushsurfing in a refugee camp would certainly be a unique experience.
The camp has ten thousand residents and was created in 1949 with most of its residents originally from Hebron and its surroundings, or Haifa. The land is rented from the nearby village of Beit Umar by the UN and the residents rent the houses, which they’ve greatly expanded and improved upon, over the years, from the original basic houses that were built. The land however is officially under Israeli authority, with the Palestinian authorities refused access. Whenever there’s problems in the camp, the soldiers simply close the barrier, causing Ahmed to declare ‘ It’s not a camp, it’s a prison’.
It’s in such places that I feel even more heartened by the warmth people show you when they invite you into their homes. He still lives with his family, who only speak Arabic, and I was thus reminded of one of the greatest rewards of learning a language.
Since Ahmed had studied Politics, we discussed things a lot. About how the creation of two states is not a solution, as there will always be the potential for war, and how the situation is now different than it was 30 years ago, given that many current Israelis were born here and so see it has there home, whether this is just or not, but that the main problem now is that each generation learns violence from the last and, as his friend put it, ‘How can I desire peace when I saw my brother being killed?’. Ahmed’s views were refreshingly practical and peaceful, given that all the male members of his family have been imprisoned by Israel at some point (without explanation, of course) and very nearly himself, narrowly escaping when they said he was not on the list and released him. He told me about the time he was beaten at a checkpoint because the Israeli soldiers asked him where his phone was and didn’t believe him when he said he didn’t have one. Apparently the Russian soldiers are the most ruthless.
The saddest thing I heard the weekend I spent in Arroub camp, however, was the mother’s sigh. I heard it whenever she stood up, saying that she didn’t know why her back hurt, I heard it whenever the foul smell of gas seeped into the room, and I heard it everytime the death toll in Gaza increased. Similarly, the one time the news channel got switched off in the flat was when the image of an old man crying appeared. My friend declared it too sad, saying that I felt the same way and I only realised she was right when I couldn’t muster a reply. I guess it’s because it is possible to remain optimistic throughout most of your life, convincing yourself that things will improve, and that at least for the next generation things will be better, but the older you get I imagine the harder it is to hold the same optimism. and then when you see that hope lost in someone who won’t live to find out if things did improve for their children, it’s a disturbing sight indeed.
But I never intended this post to become so heavy. You see the next morning I was woken by the sound of canary beaks on metal. It turned out they had just passed out and were in fact not dead after all. Draw from it was analogies you like, draw from it none if you prefer, but I decided it was an inappropriate time to alert Ahmed to the irony of this occupation witin an occupation in the name of animal rights.
The family advised me against going on to Hebron since, given the situation in Gaza and the constant tensions in Hebron due to the high settler population, there were even more soldiers than normal and the old town had been closed off. So I went to Bethlehem instead, since it was only half an hour away. Like you do.
The bus dropped me off on the main road and I at first set off in completely the wrong direction before deciding I should swallow my pride and just get out my guide book. I discovered there was fortunately more to see than just a few cafes on a modern street and set off in search of the old town, wondering if Joseph had popped into ‘Bethlehem Supermarket’ for snacks after his long journey. The nativity church was very pretty I guess but since I was not there on a spiritual pilgrimage, rather simply dropping by on the way home, I didn’t linger. What was far more interesting was the journey back to Nablus from Ramallah. There were more soldiers along the seperation wall than normal, and buses had been stopped in places that they normally wouldn’t have been, though ours passed though fine. I twice saw clashes between soldiers and youths throwing stones and burning tyres, and the usual route from Ramallah to Nablus had been blocked off, with us having to go to a backroad and then walk through the concrete blockades to get another service taxi the rest of the way. When I finally got home that weekend, my head felt saturated with images, thoughts and opinions. I wasn’t really sure what to think or do so just let everything swarm around in my head, hoping my thoughts would settle eventually.
When a ceasefire was finally agreed that Wednesday, you could feel the atmosphere lighten everywhere. People’s greetings no longer felt like they came with a smallprint and that night we knew the celebratory car horns on the street were not for someone’s wedding. Though I felt as if everyone was still holding their breath slightly, waiting to see for how long the ceasefire would last. I certainly was. And I was pleased to be able to escape that weekend to my flatmate’s house in the country.
See I now have three Palestinian families that will happily take care of me – my latest in a random little village north of Nablus. Very sedate and far from any settlements, it was a refreshing place to visit. The road there reminded me how much of Palestine is simply mountains and the hills certainly make for a fun ride if you get the right (or perhaps wrong) driver.
I was typically introduced to a lot of relatives who now all want me to stay with them some time, and was force-fed rather a lot of food. I learnt that knowing the rules to chess and being able to play chess are two completely different things, and built a reputuation among my flatmates for being good at animal impersonations since playing animal snap there, and so this week have found myself frequently stopping what I’m doing to impersonate random animals that appear on tv. If I can make people laugh by pretending to be a seal though, I will happily pretend to be a seal.
It is not like I have to work too hard for my flatmates approval, however. One flatmate frequently declares ‘mmm, ra’i3a’ (‘wow, wonderful’) whenever I make a mildly feminist comment or do something useful like unlocking my flatmates from the bathroom or getting us a new gas cylinder, and has repeated her desire to marry me since I took her for kanafa, declaring that I would make a great Muslim.
Sometimes, however, I’m not quite sure in what state my flatemates would be living in if on their own. Well fed and, though only thanks to Salwa, in a clean house but certainly without a lock on the bathroom door. It is not that they are incapable but patriarchical, respectful society has rather weakened their ability to hold landlords to account. Hence me frequently finding myself in conversations with our landlord over problems with the flat, despite living with four fluent Arabic speakers.
The quest to get a lock fitted on the bathroom door went on for six weeks and would have made a perfect sketch show towards the end.
I first requested that the landlord fit a lock on the door when he came to collect the first month’s rent. He said he would come back tomorrow. The next month I pointed it out again, saying that the door itself now no longer shut properly. He slammed it with all his might, declaring that it just needed a bit of force. I insisted it needed fixing and he said he’ d come back tomorrow. The next week he came back to collect the rest of the month’s rent. I said that the door needed fixing. I think he finally got the hint and came back with a screwdriver. But the handle was, low and behold, unfixable and so, having taken it off, he said he’d come back tomorrow with a new one. The next day he actually came back. I was rather amazed at this unexpected change in behaviour but then discovered that the handle he’d brought was the wrong way round for our door. So he took the handle off, leaving the door with the ability to shut but not open, meaning that we now had to use the bathroom with the door ajar.
Though all my flatmates knew the situation, two of them still managed to lock themelves in the bathroom that evening. Three flatmates in fact, if counting the latrine, of which the door has only ever been able to be opened from the outside. Fortunately, part of the handle had been left that could open the door if pushed a certain way at a certain angle and so they didn’t spend the night in there. After phoning him to see if he was coming, motivated by daydreams of spending the night locked in the bathroom, and then waiting three more tomorrows before he appeared, the lock was eventually fixed, but he did run away rather too quickly before we could ascertain as to how exactly we get hot water. It seems this tale may well be continued…
But at least having shy flatmates forces me to use my Arabic. Having initially having been frustrated whenever anyone spoke English to me, sometimes I now find myself speaking Arabic all day without even seeking to do so. Since my Arabic’s improved, those of my friends who can speak some English will speak to me in Arabic, and I’ve been increasingly meeting their friends who can’t speak any English. I can now have dreams in which I’m having to speak in Arabic without waking myself up from the mental effort and am even beginning to be able to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and phone calls!
I’m able to successfully tell off the kids I teach once a week at Askar Camp, to the point that they’ve started to respect me and with the sentences that I frequently say, have been told that I need to speak more slowly.
I’ve also been making progress on my two missions – learning more about the Palestinian gay rights movement and getting into the football scene.
With regards to football, I can’t quite believe how far I’ve got. Last Saturday I started training with a football team in the nearby town of Tulkarem with a friend who I play football with at university. They were pretty good and it was certainly serious, with the coach even taking my ID and photos for the required membership card. I therefore asked my friend if we were supposed to pay and was met with confusion. When she finally got what I was saying, she laughed and asked me ‘You want to give money to the coach? But he won’t be able to accept it.’ Apparently here the council pays for all the teams and the facilities and, what’s more, since we make the bus trip to Tulkarem from Nablus, they will even reimburse us for the ticket and, though I will believe it when I see it, all of us are going to be given football boots.
On the journey back, she asked me whether if she came to England she’d be good enough to play for tha national team, and I couldn’t help but laugh. After explaining that they’re at a pretty high level, I asked if she’d be good enough to play for the national team here and she said that she’s hoping to when she’s old enough (being only 17) and that she’s friends with some of the girls that play for it. I was rather starstruck, since after reading about them I’d set myself a little mission to watch them play and possibly meet them. She says she knows when all the matches are and we’ll go next time and she’ll happily introduce me.
What’s more, I am apparently going to be playing with Tulkarem in the national championship next April, against teams from Bethlehem, Ramallah and other towns. I’m planning soon on applying for my Palestinian citizenship…
My gay rights adventures, on the other hand, have stalled slightly since my trip out to Tel Aviv. I decided to take the plunge and do this year’s mini dissertation on the role of the Palestinian gay rights movement in the struggle against the Occupation, such as how it is misused in Israel’s dialogue against Palestine.
I seriously cannot remember the last time I was as scared as I was when it came to my turn in class for me to tell my professor what I wanted to research. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through me and, when I read out my title, I wasn’t sure if he didn’t understand it because I read it in such a shaky voice or for other reasons. In the end, I passed him a written down version, muttering something about how my professor from England had approved it, and literally ran back to my seat. He just stared at it blankly for a while and then told me it wasn’t clear. ‘Err, what’s not clear?’ I asked. ‘The title’, he said. ‘What does this mean?’ he asked, reading out the Arabic for gay. Well, after four hours of class, I did not have the energy or the motivation to explain to him what the gay rights movement was in Arabic, in front of all the other students. Instead, I explained to him what the gay rights movement was in Arabic the next Tuesday, when our professor from England came to visit, in front of all the other students. To give him credit, we actually had a discussion about whether it was secretive or open and, though he said it was socially sensitive, he didn’t say it was impossible and that we would talk more about it another time. That time hasn’t come and I felt more self-conscious than normal wearing my Amy Whinehouse t-shirt in his class this week.
But before I end this post I should maybe refer back to the canary in the cage since only last night, as I am writing this, was Palestine recognised as a state at the United Nations. It may well simply be a political, and not a practical, achievement for a government that is neglecting its people; it may well cause America to withdraw funding, and the peace process, wherever this is apparently taking place, to be slowed down; but all I know is that, if having gone to the UN to ask for recognition, the world had once again turned its back on Palestine, there would not have been celebrations going on in the street last night until the early hours of the morning. Within two weeks, this nation has gone through a hell of a lot and, whether or not it manages to fly out of the cage any time soon, it is certainly not dead.