Monday, 29 November 2010

Chapter 21 A day in the life

5:30 am wake ups notwithstanding, the new schedule is pretty hectic. Which, by the way, is why I have been doing such a bad job of keeping up with the blog.

Sorry. I have been thinking about it though!

It’s still pitch dark when I get up. The light in my room at the new place doesn’t work so getting dressed has resulted in some “d’oh” moments once I’ve checked my appearance in the school bathroom.

At 6am the souk is almost deserted; unheard of at any other time of day. It is beautiful. Many of the buildings in Nablus date back to Ottoman times and the architecture is stunning.

I get to school and go immediately to class to set up, write warm up questions on the board and do my printing/photocopying for the day.

The bell rings at about 7:30 – it is rung manually by administration so you couldn’t set your watch by it – and we get in to class for about 7:45. The next two hours are a race against waning concentration levels, well timed games, threats to take away game time and slapping zero breaks on students who forget that the classroom is not, in fact, a zoo.


‘Yes Miss Sara’ sheepishly while sitting back down and dropping the sharpener that was threatening to be thrown across the room.

‘Omar, are we in the playground?’

‘No Miss Sara’ eyes to the ground.

‘Are we perhaps at a party Omar?’

‘No Miss Sara’ squirming in his seat.

‘Where are we Omar?’

‘In class Miss Sara’

‘Good Omar, now what do we not do in class?’

‘Throw things’

‘Excellent, now do you mind if we go on?’

‘No Miss Sara.’

An oft repeated conversation.

We start off each day with the words ‘5 games’ written on the board. Throughout the course of the lesson, often in the first hour, this becomes ‘4 games’, ‘3 games’ continuing all the way down to ‘0 games’ as their many transgressions cause a steady drop in the number of games we are going to play.

‘Uh-oh, one more game down. Children, why have we lost another game?’

Desperate hand waving punctuated by exasperated sighs ‘Because Dina is talking.’

‘Good children. Yes, Dina was talking so now none of us can play.’

Angry sidelong looks directed at Dina as she slouches further down in her seat in embarrassment.

Divide and conquer. A strategy not to be underestimated.

They are lovely kids though.

Pint sized Maya gives me little notes throughout class with detailed drawings of her and me surrounded by hearts and the words: Ilove Mis Srrra.

Much as I enjoy this – I am somewhat concerned that a) she’s scribbling little notes instead of working and b) I’m not catching her at this when she’s meant to be doing page 54 of the phonics book.

There is much points allocation for good behavior.

‘Excellent Waleed, well done Lina, Lana – good work. Points to you all for sitting quietly. Omar! Why are you lying down under your desk?’

Once class is (finally) over and I’ve escorted a line of complaining children down to the zero break detention room, I plop down at my desk and think fondly of grown up offices.

Not for long though, for once break is over I’m supervising the 6th grade for their reading class.


‘Yara, you will almost certainly dislocate your arm if you don’t stop waving it around like that. And dancing around is not going to make me call on you.’

‘Ahmad, is your name Abdullah?’

‘No Miss Sara.’

‘Is your name boywhositsnexttoAbdullah?’

‘No Miss Sara.’

‘Then why in the name of all things holy are you humming along as they are meant to be reading out loud?’

‘I don’t know Miss Sara.’


The bell, eventually, rings. Back to my desk for another bout of nostalgia before putting together prepositions charts featuring foxes in various positions with regards to a tree before heading off to my after school English class.

This one is easy. The girls are motivated, eager to learn and lessons are easy to plan. This is followed by an hour of sports and I get home at about 5:30.

Some experimental cooking with fresh produce – oh the days of ready made meals and chatting with my flatmate about who awarded more zero breaks that day. My current maximum is 12. Out of a class of 21.

Some more planning for the next day before crawling into bed at – yes you heard it – 9 pm.

Speaking of which....

A good night to you all.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Photos Jerusalem - The Wall

We managed to convince our bus driver to make a quick stop at the separation wall outside Jerusalem's Kalandia checkpoint. We wanted to take a few pictures and do a little exploring of this fence we had all read so much about.

The 'fence' goes on for miles by the way. In fact, it's expected to span over 400 miles by completion. It's also pretty thick and solid.

It's also much higher than any fence I've seen before. About 26 feet actually if we're being precise.

Just saying.

The Wall is covered in graffiti which ranges from angry scrawlings to beautiful pieces of art which evoke myriad feelings and stories. Here are a few:

The most famous of the nine pieces by Banksy. Having seen it in print, I was excited to see it in real life and immediately went looking for it. Banksy told of a moment while he was drawing when an old man approached and stood, surveying his work.

'Why do you try to make this wall beautiful?' the old man chastised, 'we don't want it to be beautiful, we hate it.'

I love the addition of the bird handing the little girl more balloons. When Banksy first drew this, the surrounding bits of wall were completely blank.

This one is right under the girl with balloons. I have no idea what it says but liked the way the fingers were drawn.

No words needed here.

This one, so poignant.

Tucked away at the bottom - easy to miss but the words speak loudly.

That's a heart in his slingshot.

Hard to believe but these pictures make up only one tiny fraction of the wall.

Sorry, fence.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Chapter 20 West Bank Eid

We're off for the week and despite big plans: (cue deep cinema voice and stirring theme tune) "One week...One West Bank city a day" we've so far just been to Ramallah.

I do love Ramallah though. It's got a much more relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe than Nablus. There's loads of cool little places as well where you can sit and have coffee or a meal.

The day before Eid we went down to do some work in my favourite spot (Ziryab). About halfway through our salads (we have a general rule of anything but hummos and falafel sandwiches outside of Nablus) there was a sudden explosion of noise made up of drums, trumpets and cymbals.

What could this hullabaloo be? We ran to the balcony and were treated to potentially the most organized thing I have seen since arriving in Palestine.

A huge, uber long procession of what we assumed to be scouts were marching down the main street leading off from Manarah Square. Uniformed kids of all ages, genuinely from about 6 years old, with all manner of drums and brass instruments were marching in near perfect unison in celebration of Eid.

The drummers were great. Their long drumsticks attached to their wrists by a cord were being flicked around effortlessly to bang on their huge drums. This included behind the back hits and side switching which all looked very cool.

It took easily 15 minutes for the procession to pass us and the streets were lined with onlookers taking pictures and videos.

Dedicated water boys and girls were running through the ranks making sure everyone was keeping well hydrated. Their red faces were indication of how far they had marched already. It didn't look like they were going to be stopping any time soon either.

Walking back in the early evening the square was chock-a-block with people hanging around, doing last minute Eid shopping and men selling their wares.

Public transportation over the Eid days was surprisingly available. Despite having been worried that we might be stranded there was very little problem in finding services (serveeses) trundling people around between the various cities.

For Eid lunch, I went to Jerusalem to spend time with some family members I'd never met before.

Now, there are two main check points when heading out of Nablus which ordinarily are not manned. However when our servees pulled to a stop I was awoken from my nap to see a long line of cars ahead of us.

There was a general murmur of discontentment in the car.

"Uffff... they always do this, it's just because it's Eid."

"Yallah shabab (boys) get your passports out."

It took us ages to get to the checkpoint as the soldiers were asking to see ID papers from almost all of the cars passing through.

Sure enough, when our servees pulled up the soldier asked to see papers from around half of the young men in the car.

The passports were taken and a few phone calls made before they were given back and we went on our way.

I didn't think much of it as you do sometimes find the checkpoint manned. However when the second checkpoint was also manned and we found ourselves in yet another long queue of cars I began to see what my co-serveesers were talking about.

We reach Ramallah and I change cars for one bound to Jerusalem's Kalandia checkpoint. Manarah Square is deserted - a sight I have never seen before and one in stark contrast to the night before.

West Bank cars are not allowed into Jerusalem so we get dropped off at the checkpoint and cross it on foot.

We line up at the pedestrian section of the checkpoint and pass one by one through a turnstile which is stopped after every few people.

We go through, pass our bags through an X ray machine and walk through the airport style metal detector before showing our passports to the ladies seated inside.

I somehow manage to get lost in the maze of turnstiles leading on from that and find myself back outside of Jerusalem.

I queue up again and somewhat sheepishly re-present my passport to the girls who look at me in surprise.

They don't speak English and, through a series of gestures, I explain to them what happened.

They guffaw jovially at my foolishness and usher me through to where I am meant to be going.

Eid lunch with the family was great and with a (very) full belly I begin the three hour journey back to Nablus.

Leaving Jerusalem there is no checkpoint stopping and I get to Ramallah quickly and find a servees to Nablus.

On the way back there are, again, a series of long queues leading to checkpoints where passports are checked. We see a few young men who had been taken from their cars for extra questioning.

Cars on both sides of the road were being checked and as we slowly make our way past the check point there is much conversation between our driver and those coming up on the opposite side.

"What are they looking for?" A fellow servees driver.

"I don't know. I asked but they didn't tell me." Both laugh at the ridiculousness of the statement.

"Everything ok up there?" Another car driven by a man with his wife and daughters in the car.

"Ah, you'll be ok. You've got no men with you."

"Yes, I've gotten ridden of them all" he joked.

The check points back into Nablus are still manned but we are not stopped and the ride home continues unhindered.

Nablus is also quite quiet compared to the day before and the shops are only just beginning to open up after having been closed all day.

I meet my colleagues for a sheesha. They have spent the day with a Palestinian friend at his village. Welcomed warmly by his family, they watched a goat being slaughtered in the traditional way and were fed enough to pop while being showered with hospitality.

Just another West Bank Eid.

* A big thank you to Ellen for her well captured photos

Monday, 15 November 2010

Chapter 19 Mini Hajj

Every morning at 7:30 the children at our school stand in lines in the courtyard. Ranging from 1st to 6th grade they stand in queues in front of their teachers. School bags next to them on the floor and looking generally presentable in their uniforms they fidget and chat, generally arguing about who’s standing too close to whom and who cut in line.

It’s still really warm here so the weather is lovely that time of morning. It’s a peaceful kind of chaos.

The religion teacher turns on his microphone and leads the students in reading the Fatiha and a couple other Souras from the Koran. He encourages them to be louder; to think about the words.

There is a brief exercise period involving arm lifting and movement before three students are picked from the lines.

These students climb onto an elevated circular slab of cement and yell scouts orders into the microphone.


'At ease!’ and various other things of that nature.

Then comes the national anthem.

I had never heard the national anthem before and, on my first day, was treated to a rousing rendition of it. The children form a salute with fingers at hairlines and, with their little bodies being almost thrown backwards by the strength of their voices, begin to sing:

(Translation courtesy of Wikipedia, feel free to offer any corrections if needed)

بلادي بلادي
بلادي يا أرضي يا أرض الجدود
فدائي فدائي
فدائي يا شعبي يا شعب الخلود

بعزمي وناري وبركان ثأري
وأشواق دمي لأرضي وداري
صعدت الجبالا وخضت النضالا
قهرت المحالا عبرت الحدود

بعزم الرياح ونار السلاح
وإصرار شعبي بأرض الكفاح
فلسطين داري فلسطين ناري
فلسطين ثاري وأرض الصمود

بحق القسم تحت ظل العلم
بأرضي وشعبي ونار الألم
سأحيا فدائي وأمضي فدائي
وأقضي فدائي إلى أن تعود


My country, my country
My country, my land, land of my ancestors
Revolutionist, Revolutionist
Revolutionist, my people, people of perpetuity

With my determination, my fire and the volcano of my revenge
With the longing in my blood for my land and my home
I have climbed the mountains and fought the wars
I have conquered the impossible, and crossed the frontiers

With the resolve of the winds and the fire of the guns
And the determination of my nation in the land of struggle
Palestine is my home, Palestine is my fire,
Palestine is my revenge and the land of endurance

By the oath under the shade of the flag
By my land and nation, and the fire of pain
I will live as a Revolutionist, I will remain a Revolutionist,
I will end as a Revolutionist - until my country returns


For Eid, the school constructed a mini Kaaba in the basketball court and the students came to school with improvisations of traditional pilgrimmage dress for the mini Hajj that would take place later.

All gathered after the morning lessons with girls in veils and the boys in white taubs, sheets or towels which they wrapped around themselves.

The journey around the Kaaba began, accompanied by regular scolding from the religion teacher.

‘Be serious! This is Hajj, not a race!’

‘Ahmed stop pushing Mustafa – shall we cancel the whole thing and go back to class??’

Nagham, a beautiful little girl in my class, jumped up and down waving enthusiastically at me throughout all the back and forths between the basketball post and the school bus sign a few metres away (or the hills of Safa and Marwah).

The children then threw erasers at the ‘devil’ after a warning about their performance.

‘Let’s try to aim properly this year children, last year was not good. ‘

After all, nose bleeds at mini Hajj are a bit of a downer.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Ola - update

Ola had her operation last Tuesday at the Meyer Children's Hospital in Florence and hamdillah it went well.

The tumor has been removed from the base of her skull and it is now being tested to ensure it is not malignant.

If it is she will need chemotherapy but the doctors are confident that it is benign.

Keep your fingers crossed and your positive thoughts flowing her way!!!


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Chapter 18 Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Walking into a classroom of 8 year olds can be intimidating. Even though they’re little and still figuring out how to add fingers to toes, when you confront them as a group – it is eat or be eaten.

So when I head to the front of the room to take over what is to be the new addition to my teaching schedule, I know I have to lay down the law. Quickly and forcefully.

A word of advice to you all. Never underestimate the cacophony and resulting confusion of 20 eight year olds each jumping out of their chairs, practically dislocating their shoulders with hands waving in the air making squealing noises and asking 50 different questions with a level of urgency you would normally hear in only in the most dire of emergencies.

‘Teacher! Can I go to the bathroom?’ from the boy in the far left hand corner, pushing his floppy brown hair out of his eyes and wriggling in discomfort.

‘Miss Sara!!! How do I spell cat!!!!’ Screams a sweet looking girl in the front row with a look of pure panic in her eyes.

‘Miss Miss! Look at my hair!!!’ a child who is a photocopy of the girl in little Miss Sunshine has inexplicably braided her braids together and possibly onto the chair.

Meanwhile Deema, with a ponytail and dark eyebrows, is throwing an eraser at skinny little Ahmad seated right in front of her who in turn turns to me and complains plaintively and loudly from the middle of the room.

Yasmine doesn’t have a pencil while three others are asking for paper and Feras, who for some reason insists on standing up each time he speaks, is reciting answers from his notebook. Meanwhile I am desperately licking my fingers and scrubbing at CAT which I have written on the board using permanent marker by accident.

It is 7:50 am.

Suddenly a loud clap from the back of the room and everyone is seated, still as statues. Mr Sean has made his presence known and Mr Sean, as the children have found, is not to be messed with.

Oh to command that level of respect from an eight year old. I never imagined I would want it so much.

‘You have five seconds to get everything you need from your bags and start answering the questions on the board.’

A silent flurry of movement as the children comply and I take a deep breath. This will constitute the beginning of my day, every day, for the next seven months.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

An Ola update

Ola crossed through the Allenby Crossing earlier this morning and is being picked up by my lovely cousins.

Ola and her mother will be flying out to Italy tomorrow where the team is waiting for her.


More updates soon.


BTW if anyone knows anyone in Florence who wants to pop by and check up on them please do let me know.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Chapter 17 This land

About 20 km north east of Nablus you enter the Palestinian section of the Jordan Valley. You immediately notice the change in the scenery. It is lush; flowers and greenery coat the ground.

A few kilometers west of the Jordan River, it is one of the most fertile pieces of land in all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And it shows.

Agriculturally, this should be a big money maker for Palestinians. However it is a Zone C area, under complete Israeli control, and settlement building added to severe restrictions on Palestinian farmers have drastically affected their ability to grow and sell their produce.

We are on our way to visit with an American pediatrician who has spent the week visiting camps and schools in the area.

The area is littered with check points and they are not friendly. Our taxi drops us off ahead of one which we have to cross on foot before he picks us up again on the other side.

We are called over one by one. I make my way through the medical detector forgetting to put my bag on the little table alongside and am startled by the loud buzzing sound. Three IDF soldiers with M4s stand to one side checking passports.

A blonde with a buzz cut and a harsh accent takes my passport. I stare down the barrel of his rifle which is pointing straight at me about 2 inches from the top of my abdomen. I wouldn't put him at older than 19.

'Ah, you are from England.' He laughs, though I’m not sure why.

Many foreigners come to this area as volunteers, building houses and sleeping in camps that are in danger of being bulldozed to make way for settlement building.

'How is it?' I have some trouble deciphering what he’s saying.

'Cold.' I reply with a smile.

Check points are generally manned by young people going through Israel's compulsory military service. They are posted around the territories and have to stand around all day with very little to occupy their time and minds other than passers through.

Bored young people with guns. Never a good combination I think.

Nevertheless, we are allowed through without delay and continue on our journey.

We stop off at what is the oldest building in the West Bank dating back to the Ottoman Empire. It is being rebuilt by volunteers in association with a local solidarity charity. It will one day be a community centre, free for all.

It is beautiful. The rebuilding is being done in the traditional way and I hope they achieve their goal.

The volunteers who come here also spend their days making bricks out of mud and clay. The idea is that these bricks are easy to make and easily replaceable. So when cities and camps are knocked down, they can be rebuilt again quickly and at little cost.

We make our way to a small city to visit one of the schools. A number of children with learning disabilities and health issues have been marked out by teachers for Dr. Barbara to examine.

The kids are friendly and boisterous. We sit them down at a table and I throw each one my sunglasses as we try to ascertain if any have any severe difficulties with motor abilities.

Dr. Barbara says that most of the children she has seen in the area are quite healthy and most of the cases she sees that day are related to children whose learning difficulties are related to untreated hearing and vision problems.

As we make our way back to Nablus I am taken by the beauty of the landscape that surrounds us. It looks so different to anywhere else I have been in the West Bank. Flowers grow untamed and the quiet roads are surrounded by farms and trees.

So many facets to this place. Not only its history and people but also the land itself. So much promise to this land.

The things it could be...