Sunday, 31 October 2010

Chapter 16 What it feels like for a girl

It started slowly. A quiet whispering that followed us everywhere we went. Hearing our names murmured around us as we walked through the Old Souq on our way to school. Slowly the murmuring became louder, bolder, eventually turning into shouts.

‘Hello Sara!’ I would hear from a random stranger.

‘Ah, you are the foreigner who speaks Arabic. My youngest niece’s friend who lives in your apartment building told her parents who told me about the one who speaks Arabic,’ said the man in the accessories shop.

‘Rose! Rose!’ the lovely American heard from a top floor balcony. She looked up into the face of a young man she had never seen before.

‘Where are the footballs today? We want to play.’ From young boys in the street now accustomed to seeing us hauling sports equipment to work.

A certain celebrity accompanies being some of the few long term foreigners in Nablus. Nablus is one of the more conservative cities in the West Bank and doesn’t get the same levels of tourist traffic as Ramallah, Jericho or Bethleham - each of which offer completely different experiences.

So we stand out.

The men and women in our group experience this notoriety differently. When Hans walks down the street he is often accosted by gaggles of teenage girls who collapse into fits of giggles each time he answers their friendly questions with a smile and a nod of his blond head.

When us girls walk down the street we often get comments that are less well intentioned. Not necessarily unkind, just fairly exotic. As there are many who still don’t know I speak Arabic there isn’t much self censorship in their choice of words.

It’s an interesting experience being a girl in Nablus. Covered from wrists to necklines we try not to make waves.

Soon after beginning our classes we received a complaint from the school. Our necklines were too low. Having thought we had all been doing a good job of complying with local customs we were taken aback and we often confer with each other now before leaving the house.

‘Does this look ok? Should I wear a scarf around my neck?’

‘Might be better, just to be on the safe side.’

The people of Nablus are wonderfully friendly and we have been taken in by many who have showered us with hospitality and goodwill. But never far from our minds is the fact that men and women are quite segregated here and we must respect that. We keep male friends at a distance and are careful to keep an eye on the signals that we give off.

Certain places we simply cannot go if we are not accompanied by the men in our group.

The longer we are here the more we understand about how things work, and the more scandalized we become about other foreigners who are not following the rules.

'Did you see that girl?? She's just wearing a t-shirt. No cardigan nothing! Her arms all out and everything tsk tsk.'

Then we catch each other's eyes and laugh.

We came here to teach and yet every day we are learning.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Chapter 15 Chasing a headline, missing a story

The young man struggled to find the words: ‘people come here all the time searching for a headline. Chasing a story. They ask questions but don’t listen to the answers. They only want to hear about struggle, blood and suffering. But look at us, we are living. Every day we are living. And we are about more than this conflict.’

He is right. There exists a Palestine that we don’t see. Partly through circumstance but also partly by choice.

This Palestine has a day to day existence beyond the conflict as well as a narrative that is sometimes completely separate from it. A Palestine that celebrates birth and achievement as much as it suffers death and tragedy.


Everyone here has a story. Harrowing, shocking, heart breaking stories. Stories told in many different voices. Voices weighed down with sadness and regret, others raised with pride and fire while some recount their experiences with humor as if to say ‘do what you will but nothing will take away my capacity for joy’.

Ahmad, the boy at the sheesha place, spent the last two years in an Israeli jail. Part of a group of young men who dreamt of freeing their land and made unfortunate choices, he was taken forcefully from his home and tortured for information.

He and his friends laughed and joked as they shared their stories with us. He described the various methods of torture he underwent. He spoke of being made to stand in his underclothes in the middle of winter while the guards doused him with freezing water.

‘Next time bring me some soap so I can wash myself’ he would say to them. Often provoking another beating.

He stopped and stared at the floor for a few moments, remembering. Then he lifted his head and said ‘When I got out of jail I came to a realization. I realized that Palestine does not belong to us and we are nothing but ants to be stepped on.’

He was released from prison six months ago. He is 19 and no longer involved in politics.

There’s the gentleman who helps at school whose leg was shot off while protecting his friend in the fighting of 2002. He lost an eye to a bullet in 1987. His mother suffered a fatal heart attack upon hearing the news. She thought he had died.

He was also imprisoned. He spent about four years in jail in the 1980’s.

Everyone I speak to wants out. Everyone I speak to dreams of a life outside of war. A life where they are free to live and raise their families. A life where they can get in their car and drive without the fear of checkpoints and borders.

As I sat, lost in thought, Ahmad got up to leave. Dusting off his jeans he said matter of factly ‘We have lost Palestine. We have nothing and we will never get anything. Forget the politics. I go online sometimes to see pictures of the land that used to be mine. I know I will never see it again.’

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Thank you

I want to say I’m speechless. But I’m not – I’m so excited and overwhelmed that I’m bubbling over with everything that I want to say.

But I’ll keep it simple.

Thank you.

To everyone. To everyone who’s donated their hard earned money at a time when things are difficult for many.

To everyone who’s shared the story. To each and every person who’s tweeted it, facebooked it, blogged it, emailed it, bbmed it, texted it or just plain talked about it.

Because you’ve done it… and the money has been raised. What little is left has been pledged and the team at Meyer Children's Hospital is ready to go ahead with Ola's operation.

One week ago a death sentence was looming over the life of a seven year old girl. But your compassion and actions over the past 10 days have eradicated that death sentence. As if it were nothing more than a puff of smoke from a sheesha pipe.

It’s beyond belief what can happen when people come together.

The PCRF are now taking care of the final details of Ola’s trip and I will keep you all posted on how her operation goes. Inshallah kheir.

A few very special thank yous:

To my family who, on extremely short notice, mobilized and donated even more than I could have hoped for. I love you and am humbled by you.

To Alexander McNabb, without whose tireless campaigning so much of the fundraising momentum would simply not have happened. Without Alex this campaign would have been nothing compared to what it has become. He has also been a fundamental part of my support network for a long time and for that I am forever grateful.

To my colleagues in the West Bank, especially Ellen whose background in human rights campaigning and advice has been hugely helpful. And Ciaran, whose beautiful photo of Ola has circulated the net and given soul to her story.

Thank you to all Geekfesters, for opening their hearts and wallets and Gerald who generously donated one of his stunning pictures for auction.

To the PCRF for the work that they do and the doctors who give up their time to come to Palestine and treat these children.

Thank you.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Geekfest - a talk on the West Bank

Geekfest kindly invited me to give a talk on life in the West Bank via webcam to Dubai. Unfortunately on the night the internet crashed and we were unable to go through with it.

The talk has been recorded and uploaded on to the Geekfest site and, for all who are interested, here it is!

Hope you enjoy it and find it valuable.


Sara's Ussa from Geek Fest on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Urgent Appeal!

Ola (see previous post) is currently lying in a hospital bed in Rafeedyeh Hospital, Nablus. Her preliminary operation went well and the pressure on her brain has been relieved for the moment. However her tumor will only get bigger and if it is not removed she will die.

The PCRF is working with Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence to get her flown over there for the operation that will save her life.

Unfortunately the Meyer Children’s Hospital’s budget for pro bono cases is finished for 2010 and are unable to take on any new cases until 2011.

Ola’s life is now worth €11,000 and we are trying to raise the money to save it.

If you feel that can help please go to the PCRF website and donate whatever you can.

The link is:

If you do not have a paypal account, you can donate through the PCRF's main donation page but please quote ‘for Ola’ in the space provided so that the funds can be properly allocated.

Otherwise, please – tell your friends, your family, your boss and your uncle’s best bud.

Share Ola’s story so that we can change it

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Chapter 14 Ola


Another day at the hospital. It started off much the same as any other first day of the medical missions I’ve helped on with the PCRF. Patients streaming in and out of a small, crowded room. Mobile phones going off constantly and moving around is difficult.

The chatter in the room is non stop and switches between Italian, English and Arabic depending on who’s speaking to whom. The patients who come in have mostly neurological problems, issues with their spinal cords, mobility or, in one case, a patient who had lost half of his skull and would spend his life drooling down his shirt.

Picture it for a moment.

Now imagine these patients are all children. Because they are. Some as young as a few months old ranging to teenagers, fresh faced and painfully innocent.

Now imagine a beautiful little girl. A little girl who literally bounced into the screening room. The first thing you noticed was her incredibly cheeky smile framed by dark hair and dancing eyes.

“My name is Ola” she practically screeched, unable to contain her excitement. She shook hands with the doctors and kissed the nurse.

Ciaran, colleague and brilliant photographer, had kindly lent his time to take photographs for the PCRF and was quietly snapping pictures of the Italian neurosurgery team as they worked.

“Hey! You gonna take my picture or what?” she shouted across the room to him as the entire room broke out into laughter.

She had captivated us all and was a ray of sunshine in that room.

Dr. Lorenzo smiled fondly at her as he slipped her MRI scan result out from its large brown paper envelope and held it up to the light.

He stopped. A large tumor at the base of her skull told him all he needed to know.

“If we don’t get this girl into surgery as soon as possible she will die.”

A moment’s silence, and then the room sprang into action.

What equipment was available at the hospital? How to best approach this life threatening situation?

Within moments a decision had been made. A preliminary surgery would take place the next day to relieve the pressure on the brain. Then Ola would have to be sent immediately to Florence where the team could perform the necessary surgery under the best possible conditions.

But the reality is not so easy. The hospital in Florence has to accept Ola as a charity case and send her an invitation letter before she can be granted a visa.

In order for the hospital to sponsor the €11,000 operation Ola needs to have the necessary paperwork and this could take time.

Time she may not have.

Now, it’s a race against the advancement of the tumor. The medical team and the PCRF are working on ensuring the vibrant Ola lives to see another birthday.

Please, visit the PCRF website. Read about what they do, understand why their work is so important and, if you find it in your heart and are able, donate. Help. Start a chapter in your city. Or just spread the word.

Give children like Ola a chance. You never know, you may be saving someone who will one day save you back.

(*photo courtesy of Ciaran)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Photos The Old Souq - revisited

I finally had the chance to take a proper wander around the Old Souq. It is packed packed with stuff. Unbelievable.

The entrance is beautiful. A simple arch leading to a narrow road that, if needs must, can just about fit a car in it. Cobbled streets and alleyways wind away from the main road and the smell of fresh bread wafts around.

I wasn't kidding when I said it was packed. There's everything in the souq. From vegetables and spices to bicycles and go carts to racy lingerie to musical instruments to jewellery, to fish, meat and chicken (you pick them live from cages and for a little bit extra you can have them slaughtered in front of you to ensure ultimate freshness).

It's full of people as well. Chatty children who say hello, stall owners shouting out prices and Falafel guys trying to entice customers.

Words cannot describe - so hopefully images will do the trick. Ladies and gentleman... the Old Souq!

Photos In & around Nablus

Nablus is actually a very picturesque city. Nestled in a little valley, it’s surrounded by hills and the city rolls along taking similar shapes.

I originally thought I’d work a couple pictures into each post but I’ve got a bunch now and, despite me having the photography skills of a six year old, some of them are actually alright.

So, here you go. Nablus. Enjoy.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Chapter 13 When you're a stranger

‘Tch! Eggs?’ snorted Abu Khalde. ‘Run downstairs and tell Imm Khalde to feed you. She made moujadara today.’

I didn’t need to be told twice. Well, I demurred a little to be polite – but there really wasn’t much feeling behind it.

I ran down the stairs in delight. We had been eating well but I was craving some home cooked Arabic food.

Imm Khalde is a petite woman with short dark hair. Her two children have grown up and moved away and, despite having moved back to Nablus some years ago, she is still adapting to life here.

As I sat with Imm Khalde and ate her delicious food we chatted away. Her soft voice envelopes you in comfort and she is extremely mother like. Her smile is just a little bit timid but you can see in her eyes that there’s a warm, engaging personality in there.

‘I wish we had stayed in Switzerland,’ she confided. ‘There’s much more freedom there. Here, everyone knows who you are and where you are going. But you see, at the time, we thought it would be better for the children.’

Khalde’s sister it seems, like many teenagers, had been having trouble reconciling her parents’ ideas of life with what she was exposed to in school. This was what had prompted the move back to Nablus.

Although, in retrospect, Imm Khalde often felt that, despite the cultural differences, her children would have had access to much better opportunities and education in Europe.

Her life here was quiet and she missed the freedom of movement she had gotten used to in Europe. She spoke of having to request a special permit to enter Israel Proper in order to accompany her sister to her Jerusalem based oncologist. These were sometimes hard to come by and she had to submit a written request justifying her visit. There were no guarantees that these requests would be granted.

There are many stories like these. Our taxi driver from Taybeh to Nablus spoke of regularly being smuggled into Tel Aviv in the boot of a car for his work. This was common practice and people pay up to 200 shekels a head for this service.

‘Eventually they found me out and banned me for five years.’

‘When was this?’ I asked envisioning him as a young man putting himself through that to feed his family.

‘Three months ago.’

I pack my bag and set off to the airport without a second thought, yet out of all my students, only one has ever been on a plane.

‘I think I was 2 years old’ she had said, her eyes squinting as she tried to retrieve the memory.

When people here find out where I’m from they are shocked that I am here.

‘Why would you leave your beautiful country for this disaster?’ they say.

‘But it is beautiful here as well’ I always reply.

‘Really?’ one young man had retorted. ‘How about we switch. Your life for mine.’

He had made his point.

The inability to move and travel is crippling. In so many ways. But let’s put aside for a moment the economic implications and lack of educational opportunity. There is also the deprivation of the benefits of exposure to the outside world. Barring things like movies, shows and music there is zero cultural exchange here.

Little wonder that it is impossible to walk down the street without having comments thrown at us from every street corner. Comments that range from ‘welcome’ and ‘how are you’ to the ubiquitous ‘fuck you’ that every Palestinian youth seems to know.

We are treated like aliens because that’s what we are. We are strangers to a people who have not had the luxury of being strangers themselves. Only the unwanted on their own land.

How does one breed relatability in this environment?

Ask me again in three months. However I suspect I’ll have even less idea than I do now.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Chapter 12 A night out in the West Bank

I wish I had taken some pictures yesterday because we ended up in some quite cool places.

It was Thursday and the last day of the working week. We’re still having logistical issues with the Ministry of Education and this time it was the location of the boys’ school that was being problematic. We had to pack it all in early so decided to walk home through the Old City.

The old city is a maze of small, dirty looking convenience shops, falafel stands, political posters, spice shops, bike shops, vegetable stands, butchers shops, fish, flashy lingerie stores, antique stores and pretty much anything else you can think of all packed together in winding pedestrian streets with any number of little side streets. You really could wander around for hours. You would get hopelessly lost of course but in the meantime you could fill your little shopping bag with good, fresh produce for cheap as well as ludicrously inappropriate clothing that you would never be able to wear outside your front door.

We were accompanied most of the way home by a large and somewhat rag tag crowd of students. The girls tend to go straight home, wandering about in the evenings is not an option for them. So it was a large group of boisterous and very chatty young teenage boys that chaperoned us on our way through the Old City. The further we went the more kids would break away to take a side street home yelling goodbyes and waving.

The incredibly cheeky (as most of them are) but very sweet Abdullah was one of the last few with us as we cut across the market. When we stopped to buy a juice he warned us that shopkeepers were probably making us pay double what the product was worth and that, as he knew all the prices, we should take him with us to safeguard against us being ripped off by shopkeepers.

About 45 minutes later we make it home . Now, Nablus is dry. As dry as they come. There is no bootleg whisky hanging about, no beer that can be purchased from the friend of a friend of a friend for ridiculous prices and certainly it is not advisable to go around asking. Some people go to the nearby Samaritan community for a fix but it’s a bit of a hassle to be honest, and apparently quite expensive.

There’s also not very much to do in Nablus after it gets dark. The life here is very family oriented and most socializing is done in people’s homes.

The sheesha place next to our house, Upstairs, tends to be the focal point of our evenings. However if we do not arrive by 7 pm they assume we are not coming and close up. So, seeing as it was the weekend we decided to make our way down to Ramallah. About an hour away by car but several light years away in terms of night time entertainment.

We get ready, walk down to the bus station and hop on to share cabs that will take us to Ramallah. About half way there I realized with a start that I'd forgotten to bring my passport. Not the cleverest thing to do while traveling around in the West Bank. Actually, fairly close to being the stupidest.

'Damn' I think to myself. Looking surreptitiously around at my colleagues (and bosses) I decide against saying anything that might provoke the response 'well you should go home and get it' and cross my fingers that the check points along the route would be unmanned.

They were. Safely in Ramallah now I only had to worry about the way back. But that wasn't until later.

Our first stop in Ramallah is Ziryab. A chilled out bar/restaurant that I’ve mentioned in a previous post. Several bottles of local wine later we head out to Sangria’s, a restaurant with an outdoor garden that serves no Sangria but cooks up a fantastic sheesha. The atmosphere was relaxed and the conversation flowed over amaretto sour lattes, lemonades and the decidedly addictive termos and salty popcorn we were being served everywhere we went.

It was Beit Aniseh that served as the highlight of the evening though. A proper bar with a funky interior and good music. Its clientele were young & trendy types and you could definitely get a whiff of liberal snobbery every now and again. Made up of young Arabs and foreigners in the form of teachers, aid workers, journalists and erstwhile documentary makers, it was a good place to meet people and share experiences.

There was an outdoor garden and although it was becoming quite chilly at night, it was full of people drinking and chatting.

With the exception of one Arab guy who kept drunkenly participating in our conversations, people remained very much in control of their drinking and behavior. Despite Ramallah's general tolerance towards drinking, it is not acceptable to be staggering around in the streets singing songs of love and liberation.

Finally at 3am we found ourselves some cabs, negotiated prices back to Nablus and made our way home. The Israeli check point at the entrance to Nablus was, thankfully, unmanned and after hanging out on the roof of a friend’s house we went home and fell straight to bed.

A good night out in the West Bank.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Chapter 11 Edward... from Twilight

I always find myself writing at this time. Everyone's asleep and I’m on the balcony looking out onto our lovely view.

It reminds me again how you just can’t see in London. By that I mean you can’t see beyond the next high rise building. Every time I leave London I remember that land actually goes on. That you exhale in a slightly different way when looking out over hills, water, forests, trees, or whatever it is.

Today was our first day of class. A disorganized few hours to be sure. But then the first day of class often is. Levels need to be ascertained, kids shuffled, re-registered or registered for the first time while others can no longer attend and must be taken off the class lists.

It’s a mass of teenage mayhem. Excited about their new foreign teachers, full of the energy they had repressed during the school day and raring to go the students milled around shouting and laughing.

The yelling and fooling around was impressive. No amount of ‘get to class’, ‘stand over here if you can’t find your name on the lists’ or ‘give me back that soccer ball’ was going to work.

Also unhelpful was that the location for the girls’ classes had fallen through, meaning that the boys and girls were in the same building. I give credit to the girls – but some of the boys lost their heads a little.

My class today was made up of six girls ranging from the ages of 14 to 16. Talented young students who were looking to expand their horizons both on a linguistic and social level. Kids with an eye on their future.

A late start and reduced hours meant the original lesson plan would have to be cut down. Many of the girls had not spoken English since the year before so we kept it conversational. We asked and modeled personal information questions then each girl had a turn in the ‘hot seat’ where the other girls could ask her any questions they liked.

They asked each other fairly generic questions at first. Favorite colors, best friends and things like that. Then as they began to feel more fluent and comfortable, the questions became a little more probing.

‘What are your hopes for the future?’ was the first, fairly timid departure from the routine.

Then the questions got more interesting.

‘If you had to choose between someone you loved or someone who loved you – what would you do?’asked Hana, a sweet giggly girl with a bright smile who spoke a mile a minute when given half a chance.

Questions with cultural relevance: ‘if your parents disapproved of the boy you loved, would you respect their decision or go against them.’

With the exception of one girl, who liked to think of herself as being the craziest one around, all said they would acquiesce to their parents’ wishes.

Sana, wearing a pink veil and blue top whose favorite color was black, said she would choose education over love. She wanted to become an astronaut.

It became clear quite quickly that love was a popular theme with the girls.

When asked which celebrity they would most like to meet the top two answers were Edward from Twilight and Rihanna.

Actually it was just 'Edward'. It was my ignorance that prompted the reproachful clarification 'from Twilight'.

Questions about travel and living abroad came up. The girls showed a strong sense of family with one saying that furthest she would go was Amman so as to stay close to her loved ones.

Based on our conversations today, I feel like these girls have a lot to say.

As they should, and I look forward to hearing it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Chapter 10 Normal

There are six of us, sitting on the balcony of the girls’ apartment and, although it’s only 6pm, it’s dark out. Jim, our resident Irishman, is playing Fleetwood Mac and we’ve each been planning our inaugural lessons for tomorrow. The day we finally get to meet our students and really get started on what we came here for.

I was at the hospital again today. A few posts ago I wrote about observing reconstructive surgery on a one year old. The surgery was performed by a visiting medical team from the States. The team’s visit, as that of many others in the Territories, was organized by a charity called the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. The PCRF’s story started 20 years ago with a young Gazan boy called Mansour, who lost both legs to an Israeli anti tank grenade, and has now grown to an organization with a volunteer community that spans the world and has helped thousands of children from across the Middle East.

There’s another team in this week. This time from Dubai with a specialist in orthopedics. I spent some time with the team helping to log cases as the doctors screened patients and studied scans.

The cases ranged from weak discs best treated with a shot of cortisone to the back all the way to an old man who was bent over at an almost 90 degree angle. He had fallen off a donkey four years earlier and, despite visiting many doctors, his condition had continued to deteriorate. He would definitely need surgery.

Some of the patients were in so much pain that they had been unable to work or feed their family for years. They would look searchingly at the doctor, hoping desperately for a magical cure that would restore them to their position as proud head of the family.

The doctor, compassionate yet honest with his diagnoses, would ask questions about the patients’ lifestyles. What work did they do? Was it something that could have contributed to the back pain? Were they left or right handed?

Lifestyle was a big issue. The world has become very health conscious and it’s more common than not to see people exercising and watching their food. Many of the patients we’ve seen over the past few days have been overweight and their backs were simply giving in under the pressure.

Health is a big issue in many places. Governments launch expensive campaigns to educate their people about the importance of eating and living well. Apart from raising the general standard of life it also relieves public health services of the very large strain of dealing with issues arising from unhealthy lifestyles.

I haven’t seen anything like that here. Nor many areas suitable for children to run around and play. Schools are slowly placing a greater focus on sports to encourage children to make exercise a regular part of their lifestyles but this is still very much in its infancy as far as I can tell.

So it became clear why so many of the patients, despite being only in their 40’s and 50’s, were suffering from problems that could have been avoided had they been aware of the long term dangers of a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

Many of the women who came in that day were worried about how long they would be off their feet. They had children to raise, homes to keep in order and simply could not afford to be flat on their backs in bed for long.

The doctor saw almost 40 patients on the first day. Back to back. When I asked how many patients he would see on a normal day back home he laughed and said 'never more than 15.'

Meanwhile the electricity would cut about once an hour as it was overloaded by the many AC's being blasted around the hospital. The room was filled with other doctors, administrators, nurses coming in and out, patients, me with my laptop and the incessant ringing of mobiles. All of which, strangely, featuring ringtones which were any one of a range of extremely cheesy pop songs.

By the end of the day his face was drawn from exhaustion. Not only from the constant flow of patients in and out of his door, but from allaying their fears and meeting their desperation with the sometimes disappointing truth that the pain would never completely go.

The next two days will be mostly operations to correct what can be fixed. For some it is too late, but for others it will be a return to something they haven't felt in a long time. Normal.

Sidenote Shukran

I wanted to take a quick moment to thank everyone who's been reading the blog and sharing it with their friends and families.

It's been wonderful to read your responses on the blog and by email and I really appreciate your thoughts and comments.

I was interviewed by DubaiEye radio the other day about Nablus and the blog. You can find the link to the interview here if you are interested.

It's the fourth audio link entitled 'Nablus'.

This would never have happened were it not for the enthusiasm and interest people have shown in hearing more about Nablus and life in the West Bank.

So a heartfelt shukran from me for opening your hearts to this glimpse into Palestine.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Chapter 9 Oktoberfest

If you had asked me a month ago how I thought I would be spending my time in Palestine I would never have imagined something like this.

We’ve cast off our long sleeve cardigans and the evening air is warm against our skin. There is clapping and whooping as the young woman on stage smiles out into the crowd.

‘Are you happy?’ she asks in Arabic.

The roar is deafening.

Her straight, jet black hair swings over her shoulder as she turns to grin at her drummer. Her black vest and baggy black trousers almost blending her into the night but for her luminous skin.

She opens her palm and faces it towards the crowd her silver rings glinting and the crowd is momentarily silenced. The electric guitar begins a dark melancholy melody and the crowd of thousands starts to jump and cheer as the pace of the song builds and she begins to sing:

‘No man’s land’ she chants in her rich voice as an impromptu mosh pit starts up in front of the stage.

This is Cultureshoc, Palestine’s first rock-rap band. And this… is Oktoberfest.

You may never have heard of it, neither myself nor my colleagues had ever heard of it, in fact, not even our taxi driver had ever heard of it.

And yet here it is, in the little West Bank village of Taybeh, for the third year running. Palestinians, Israelis and tourists from around the globe come together for two days of music, food and, of course, the much loved local beer.

And it’s not just beer that is being showcased. As thousands of people stream through the narrow street leading to the performance area they are exposed to a wealth of Palestinian food and produce. Fragrant, fresh oregano, shawarmas, sandwiches… doughnuts for heaven’s sake! And honey. Honey jars, honey soap, honey candles and even a glass encased bee hive.

The performance area itself is crammed with people. Various acts take to the stage: a Palestinian rap group called G-Town, Sri Lankan dancers, a comedy skit by the locals, Brazilian dancers, a gypsy band and, my own personal favourite, Cultureshoc.

I had one amazingly reaffirming moment when Rose, the lovely American, turned to me during the traditional Dabke performance and said in awe:

‘I am blown away by this. This sense of history and identity. This sense of “I am Palestinian” ‘

The look on her face and the tone of her voice brought a familiar tingling to my eyes and I quickly blinked away tears.

It wasn’t because I agreed with her, although I did, that I became so emotional. It was seeing the recognition, the acknowledgment, of Palestine on such a deep level – one which says that we are all members of the same humanity and, as individuals, there is more that binds us than sets us apart.

It made me see another side to the tragedy that is Palestine. We’ve forgotten, we’ve all forgotten, what lies beneath the conflict. What came before the pictures in the paper and the images on TV. That there is a rich, deep and historic culture that is still being celebrated here each and every day.

And that blew me away.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Chapter 8 Sky Nablus

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.