Tuesday 25 March 2014

Blog 1 (repost): Stories

So I made it in. I met Lawson at the Damascus Gate and we made our way to the Guesthouse and then to Dar Assadaqa. I introduced myself, met the other volunteers, politely declined an invitation to a party on the grounds that I was exhausted, returned to the Guesthouse and fell asleep. The week since has passed in something of a blur. In that time I have toured Jerusalem with Robert, visiting the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; stayed on a sheep farm near Jenin with Lawson; helped lead an English conversation class at Dar Assadaqa; wandered around Roman ruins amongst the olive trees of Azzoun; eaten my body-weight in hummus and determined that I shall never get used to sweet tea.

I am feeling slightly overwhelmed and consequently it is hard to write about my first impressions, at least beyond the platitudes that all English visitors abroad find themselves spouting. The people are wonderfully hospitable and friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the food is delicious. The Arabic I learnt before coming here seemed to desert me on arrival and is only now returning, but as is embarrassingly frequent across the world, most people here speak some English and a large minority speak it very well. The occupation is less intense than I expected. I do not mean that it can be ignored - we carry our passports everywhere in case of checkpoints, we have hurried home due to rumours of soldiers in the streets, and there are revolutionary posters and resistance graffiti everywhere – but this is not a warzone.

There are stories though. Everyone has one. Most people have several. Telling stories seems to be a part of the culture here and people believe each-other. Communication, for the most part, is straight forward. Practical jokes aside (like telling one of our volunteers he didn’t get his visa!) people seem to mean what they say.  This trusting attitude complicates my job however, asking for proof can be offensive, even if it’s just requesting a receipt for expenses! Nevertheless, I shall faithfully repeat the stories that I have no reason to doubt and I shall try to avoid the embellishment and exaggeration that usually accompanies hearsay.

In Azzoun the family I stayed with told me a little about their home. Whilst it is located well beyond the 1967 lines, over the years it has become surrounded by Israeli settlements, which perch castle-like on the hills overlooking the town. Tensions are high and arrests are frequent. A few nights before I arrived, more than twenty local boys were arrested, accused of throwing stones at soldiers and other misdemeanours. The punishments are harsh, with terms of imprisonment lasting for months if not years. One of the boys in the house had suffered this. In 2008 at the age of seventeen he was arrested at gunpoint in front of his parents. The soldiers came in the middle of the night, broke into the house and forced the family outside. The father, who tried to insist on decorum in his home, was punched by one of them. He told me that this scared him, if his son had retaliated, he feared the soldiers would start shooting.

In this case there was some proof, not that I doubted the family’s honesty. I was shown photographs of the aftermath of this incident. The house was completely ransacked. Furniture overturned and broken, the oven door wrenched off its hinges, belongings strewn everywhere. It did not look like a methodical search for contraband but deliberate intimidation. I find it very hard to reconcile these actions with my only experience of soldiers so far, the friendly man I referred to as J, whom I met at the border. I can’t help wondering if he would be as appalled as I am by this story or whether he would try to rationalise it. Even if their son was guilty of some crime, which he denies, surely the family do not deserve to be treated this way.  In any case, he was sentenced to four months in prison and released on his eighteenth birthday. His record means that he will never be allowed to travel outside of Palestine.

Hearing stories like this directly from those who experienced them is a sobering and surreal experience. The family told them with surprisingly good humour, even laughing as they described being forced outside their home at two in the morning. For my part, I did not know how to react, I could express sympathy and disbelief, but the questions I wanted to ask – why did this happen? what was the point? how can it be prevented? – could only really be answered by the soldiers involved.

My first impressions then are mixed and contrasting. On the one hand, life here seems much like life everywhere. Some cultural differences are unfamiliar, but for the most part I feel at home. It is only the background of the occupation that is really strange. It doesn’t feel like a crisis or an emergency, just an ever-present hazard, almost like a natural danger, like living next to an active volcano.

Edit: This morning Lawson said that while he had been here there had been no action. I chastised him for tempting fate and said I would hold him personally responsible if anything happened today. Ten minutes later Abed warned us not to go outside because of tear gas at the University and we have been listening to the canisters go off all day.

We did dash out for lunch during a lull one point – life goes on – but while we were sitting in the café people started to come in with streaming eyes and their tops pulled up over their faces. On leaving the café staff sprayed our wrists with perfume to ward off the gas, but by the time I had crossed the fifty yards back to the office my throat and eyes were starting to burn. It wore off very quickly once I got inside but still a distinctly unpleasant experience!

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