At night the view from our balcony is beautiful. A clear dark sky under which glimmering lights from homes and street lamps give off a warm glow. In the near distance, on the hill, is a cluster of white lights that stand out from the rest. They extend in a straight line cutting horizontally against the hill.
This is Sama Nablus or Sky Nablus. A pedestrian area-cum-park where children play and grown-ups rent sheeshas and take strolls up and down the boulevard. The walk is lined with tables where people sit, talk and smoke admiring the view of Nablus and beyond.
In the distance the lights of Tel Aviv can be seen against the night.
We took a taxi up to the park after sampling Nablus’s famous knaffeh. The stories are true, the knaffeh is brilliant.
After an evening of chatting and sheeshaing we too strolled down the boulevard. I took in the people’s reactions to us. My three colleagues had between them two sets of blue eyes, one very blonde head and all had pale skin. They could only be ajaneb (foreigners). I was less easy to place. When alone most people would identify me as Arab but when with a foreigner I was assumed to be one too.
Unlike other cities in the West Bank, Nablus does not see many tourists and foreigners are something of a novelty. While the majority of people we had come across since arriving in Nablus had been overwhelmingly welcoming and kind; they were most certainly exceptions. Many of them.
Coming back from buying some novelty plastic flowers from a street vendor Hans, a friendly and sociable young man, looked ruffled and confused. As he handed over his money, Hans told the street vendor he was English. The vendor replied with disgust that he hated England and loved Ossama Bin Laden.
Walking through the boulevard we evoked a lot of interested stares and comments. Excited to practice their English many people would say welcome or, in some cases, something sarcastic and fairly aggressive. Either way it was clear that blending in would never be an option.
It took us an hour to walk home through mostly deserted streets. We didn’t see any unescorted women and small groups of men hung about on dark corners. Cars honked at us as they passed by, the interested drivers leaning out of their windows to take a better look.
It was fairly eerie but not uncomfortable. Until a group of young boys noticed us and began to follow us down the street. I began to hear shouts of ‘bad devil’ mixed in with Arab obscenities and threats.
‘Turn around! Turn around you son of a bitch!’
The tone in his voice made my heart stop momentarily and I felt a tinge of apprehension. Hans was a body builder and ex bouncer from the UK and I knew he would defend himself if he had to. With us also were Jim and Rose and I began to consider how I could best mediate between the two groups. A street fight would certainly not get us off on the right foot in this conservative city.
As I was considering this an older man from a taxi stand saw what was going on and yelled sharply at the boys.
The taunts stopped and it was silent again behind us.
‘What were they saying?’ asked one of the boys.
‘Nothing useful’ I replied smiling and our walk home continued uneventfully.
It is very possible that incident could be put down to the immature behavior of bored teenagers who were looking for a bit of entertainment. That tone however; that tone carried hate in it, and pent up resentment.
There seems to be a fascination that people feel with foreigners, but it is mixed with distrust. It shows up in the eyes of some of the children. Like an internal push-pull where they are not entirely sure how much they can let their guard down.
A stark reminder of the many bridges that have been burned in this land and that it will take much much more than a few English teachers to rebuild them.