Tuesday 25 March 2014

Blog 5: Students Interview

I have a regular conversation class with students from the local Al Quds University. The groups vary from week to week depending on their classes and availability. Over the last few sessions however a core group has emerged and we have been able to discuss Twinning more directly.  They would like to tell people in the UK about their lives here, and are happy to answer questions. Hopefully providing a perspective on life for young people in Palestine that goes beyond the usual media portrayal.

Today, I began by explaining the project and invited the students to pick a topic. They were keen to talk about the situation here generally of course, but I wanted to delve more into specifics. We settled on discussing the effect of the Israeli Wall, which I have blogged about before from my perspective. This is theirs:

“The Wall makes it much harder for us to visit Jerusalem, the beautiful, historical capital of our country. Of course it holds great significance to us as the site of the famous Al Aqsa Mosque, but is in any case a place where we can do much more than we can in the rest of the West Bank. Many people who can travel there do so to buy their clothes and shoes, or luxuries that are just not available elsewhere at the same level of quality.

“We all have green ID cards. These only allow us to travel in the West Bank. If we want to visit Jerusalem we require special permission. This means providing photographic ID and undergoing an application process. Sometimes it is quick, taking only an hour, but sometimes it might take up to a week to get our permits. This means that a trip to Jerusalem has to be planned many days in advance.

“Abu Dis is part of East Jerusalem, it is less than 2 miles from the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City, but because of the wall, travelling there can take over an hour. This is a problem not just for visiting Jerusalem for shopping or to see the sights, but for access to amenities too. Abu Dis does not have its own hospital because it used to use one just beyond the wall in Jerusalem. Now to travel there means obtaining a permit. The nearest alternatives are in Ramallah and Bethlehem, which take an hour or more to get to. Abu Dis does have a small medical centre, run by Al Maqasi hospital in Jerusalem, but it is not very good. The doctors are less qualified than those in the city and cannot handle serious cases. [One of the students] had an accident where he drilled his finger. He went to Al Maqasi for emergency care, but it was only when he was able to get to Ramallah that he received proper treatment. If his injury had been more serious, it could have been a serious problem.”

The students are keen to answer any questions anyone might have about their lives or who they are, so please feel free to ask anything and I will pass it on. 

Blog 2 (repost): I love the smell of teargas in the morning!

Wednesday, the last day of our working week, began with a meeting in with Abed, after which Lawson, Robert and I retired to our office. Before starting work, the following exchange took place:

Lawson: We really haven’t had any trouble at all since we’ve been here. No action or anything!

Me: Why would you tempt fate like that? If something happens now, I’m blaming you personally.

It was just ten minutes later that Abed put his head round the door. He warned us that we should not go outside or drink water because there were Israeli soldiers at the university down the road and they were using teargas to disperse people.

                Me: Lawson, I am blaming you personally!

We later learnt what had happened. It seemed some locals had been trying to break through the Israeli Wall near the university. Soldiers had arrived and dispersed them with teargas, but then entered the university to try and arrest the culprits. We could hear explosions, presumably tear gas canisters, going off intermittently all morning, then around midday they seemed to stop. Hungry, we asked if it was safe to go outside for lunch and perhaps unwisely we proceeded to Falafel King.

We had just finished eating and were about to leave when suddenly several students and children arrived in the café, their tops pulled up over their faces, eyes streaming. Almost immediately the air took on a slight tang, like the smell of a dusty radiator heating up. We decided to dash back to the office. Before going, the café-owner squirted our wrists with a perfume spray, to help ward off the gas. Even so, by the time we got back, my throat was burning painfully.

Luckily, we were not very close to the disturbance, the tear gas was invisible and once inside its effects quickly abated. We got back to work, listening to yet more explosions that sometimes seemed to get closer but then further away again. At about three o’clock Abed told us that soldiers had just arrested a child outside the office, but we do not know who he was or what he did. The explosions continued, accompanied by some metallic thumps that we later discovered were wheely-bins being pushed over, apparently to block the road and prevent more troops arriving. At around half past four an explosion sounded very close by.

Gas started to leak into the office, invisible but stronger than before, it wasn’t long before our eyes and throats were stinging, even with shirts pulled over our faces. At this point we decided to pack our things and call it a day, electing to go the long way home to avoid any military encounters.

I may be making too much of a trifle. Incidents like this are relatively common here. Our Palestinian friends told us that they take place every month or couple of months. As before what struck me was people’s nonchalance. If this had happened in London, it would have been national news, and answers would have been demanded. There would have been palpable sense of outrage, at least amongst those close to where the tear gas was flying, but here it was treated like an inconveniently severe downpour of rain. Unpleasant, but an inevitable part of life. Robert even tells me he even saw one student standing outside in the gas, breathing deeply, claiming he loved the smell!

For my part, it is not something I want to experience again and I sincerely hope that it is as serious an event as takes place during my time here.

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!