Monday, 30 May 2011

Chapter 65 London: first impressions

1. Gloom was the first thing I noticed as the plane broke through the clouds in its descent to Heathrow Airport.

2. Hordes of security stationed around the airport was the second thing I noticed. Loads of them, just standing around... waiting.

It felt ironic to be coming from a conflict zone and feeling overwhelmed by security.

3. Being accompanied wherever I went by billboard and wall advertisements.

4. An ad on the tube for 'overactive bladder disorder'

5. People being too busy to chat

6. London's incredible diversity of people, nationalities and languauges

7. Spying some triangle sandwiches through a supermarket window.

8. Supermarkets in general - good heavens the selection of stuff available. I wandered around Waitrose for a good half hour in wonderment.

9. Sticking a clear plastic tray with the words 'sea food medley' on it into my basket and remembering how varied my diet was when I lived here .

10. Seeing my family and being among people who know me well.

11. Broadband (I heart UK internet)

These are the things that have stuck out to me during the past three days.

As I sit on my couch, staring out into the drizzle while eating a treacle tart out of a box, it starts to hit me just how different my life in Palestine is to my life over here.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Chapter 64 Border lessons

It took five hours to cross from Amman to the West Bank. It took three and a half hours to exit Israeli customs at Allenby Bridge.

It took six hours to cross from the West Bank to Amman. Four hours to exit Jordanian customs and King Hussein Bridge.

'Isn't it meant to be quicker on the way out?' I hear you ask...

Yes it is.

'Isn't it generally totally uneventful and pretty easy?' I hear you continue...

Yes.. it is. It really really is.

Unless of course if your luggage is forgotten in no man's land by your Jordanian bus driver.

And Jordanian border officials refuse to let you back into no man's land because your passport's been stamped.

And the phrase "who's in charge here me or you?" gets thrown at you by a cranky head of border control after you refuse to accept the highly unlikely explanation that 'the next bus will get it'.

If that is also followed by finally being allowed back in no man's land only to end up back on the Israeli side where you have to tell your story for the 20th time so that you can re-enter Israel so that you can re-exit it to take another bus back to Jordan this time passing through the secure luggage unit to pick up your suitcase then your whole day's pretty much been eaten up.

And your dinner reservation with your family who you haven't seen in eight months where you will have sushi which you haven't eaten in eight months will have to be postponed.

So... a word to the wise: if you are Arab your suitcase will be taken from you to go through extra security checks. Ask about it all the time, make sure you are taken to pick it up and don't, under any circumstances, be fooled by the phrase 'It will be here soon - inshallah.'

Just thought I'd give you a heads up.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Chapter 62 Leaving

It crept up on me.

It felt like we had ages and now suddenly in a few short hours I'll be making my way back to the bridge.

What was meant to be three months has become eight and my two weeks worth of clothing has held up admirably despite the weekly washes, hikes and general romps with children.

It's been a full, rich and extremely educational experience. I know calling it educational makes it sound like a chore, but it's very possibly been one of the best years of my life.

Memorable moments?

Observing my first surgery on my very first day in Nablus

Ola, the PCRF and the #SAVEOLA campaign

Seeing my kids at school go from struggling to string a sentence together to using conditionals ('if I had one hundred million shekels I would buy Miss Sara' being a popular one. I figured it wasn't the time to explain the many ways that's a problematic statement)

Setting up classes at Askar Refugee Camp

Oktoberfest! What awesomeness...

TEDx Ramallah

I did say it was educational as well though didn't I?

Juliano and the Freedom Theatre

Seeing first hand the hardship and discrimination of occupation

Being denied entry into a religious institution based on mine.

Listening to the many sad stories told with the simplicity that can only be achieved through the loss of novelty

The crossing was a mad experience for me. Never before had I approached a customs official in such a state of anxiety. Not something I'm looking forward to doing again.

So as it stands I'm in London for the next few months before coming back in September for another year of blogging, teaching, learning, doing and (hopefully) being of use.

I'll still be blogging throughout the summer but not as much. It'll be interesting to see how much reverse culture shock there'll be going back to London.

Maybe none at all.

I have to say there are certain things I'm really looking forward to.

Another list coming up:

Broadband internet (even just alwaysavailable internet)

Triangle sandwiches and food on the go

Skirts and short sleeve shirts (I know it's shallow, but I haven't seen my ankles in months)


Not being stopped by men and women with guns every other day

So... just a couple things.

One thing I know for sure is that the more time I've spent here the more I've loved and appreciated it. I recommend you all to come for a visit - see what it's really like. Look beyond the headlines.

There's so much to love.

Anyway my lovely readers. I've had a super time, I hope you've enjoyed reading.

Soon we shall meet again.


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Chapter 61 Magic bread

A non descript door in a non descript alley leads to a Narnia of bread based footstuffs.

A small room in an ancient little structure. A stone oven. Wafts of fresh baked bread smell floating around and generally some Qur'an playing on the radio.

It took us months to stumble across this place and genuinely like two seconds to become regular customers.

Samir opened up shop 20 years ago and serves arguably the best egg bread around.

It all looks so simple:

Bake some bread, crimp the edges, break a couple eggs, mix them in with salt and pepper, stick it in the oven, roll it up in some newspaper and slide it across the counter.

So simple.

And yet... so yummy.


Hence the name.

'Hey anyone want anything from the magic bread place?'

'You went to the magic bread place???? Aaargh - why WHY did I have to be in class?'

And it doesn't stop at egg bread. He also sells fantastic zaatar (thyme & sesame), cheese bread, various mixes of the three and cooks gloriously fragrant traditional Palestinian dishes in his stone oven.

When he's in a good mood he'll chat and give you a taste of whatever he's making. He makes impromptu introductions between customers as he feeds more wood into the oven.

'This is Sara! She teaches at the school up the hill. Sara - tell him about the chidren.'

'Errrmm... the children are good.'

'Tell him Sara, tell him - are they learning?'

'Errrmmm... the children are learning.'

'Ha! Here you go, enjoy.'

So you hand over your three shekels, tuck the wrapped bread under your arm, leave his cosy little shack to make your way back up the hill knowing full well you'll be back tomorrow.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chapter 60 Colours

Our latest hike took us through Wadi Badan to Sebastiya which features ruins dating back 10,000 years.

The pictures of Wadi Badan speak for themselves but I wanted to set the scene for you a little bit.

Imagine walking in nature. Nobody around for miles - or at least as far as you can see. No cars, no roads, no planes, jets, watch towers, chattering children or nosy neighbors. Just you and acres of hills and forestry.

It's silent.

So silent your footsteps sound heavy. As you walk you listen to the wind rushing past your ears and the some time singing of birds.

And you notice the colours...

Monday, 23 May 2011

Chapter 59 Little boxes

Settlements loom large as an exacerbating factor here. They're everywhere. Creeping insidiously on the hilltops.

They all look the same. Red roofs atop of beige houses. Easy to set up, easy to transport. Settlements are notorious for appearing overnight.

Every time I see one the refrain to the theme song from Weeds plays through my head:

"Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same"

There are certain benefits to living in a settlement; tax breaks, free education, subsidized mortgages and other similar things.

The settlements are guarded by walls and checkpoints. They are connected to Israel and other settlements by special roads only accessible to Israeli license plated cars.

It makes for an exceedingly difficult environment. There is violence in both directions between settlers and Palestinians and the situation is fraught.

It is a problem. No doubt. I just want to give a little nod to the humanity of people just trying to make do.

Our various oh-no-we're-lost hiking bloopers have resulted in a number of conversations with locals to the area who tend to think we're settlers.

Without fail we've been greeted with a hearty 'shalom'. Once they realize I'm Arab and my colleagues are Western the language changes but the friendly sentiment remains.

In our last hike we were offered by rides by passing Palestinians who thought we were lost settlers.

Our 10 year old guide in Sebastiya spoke of playing with a child from a neighboring settlement whose parents were touring the Roman ruins.

It is a problem. No doubt about it. I just wanted to give a little nod to the humanity of people just trying to make do

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Chapter 58 A year in ice cream

As the temperature has been steadily rising I have steadily been turning into more and more of an ice cream fiend.

Not just any ice cream either. Proper, home grown, Palestinian to the core ice cream.

Drumroll please...

Al Arz ice cream (despite the cedar tree reference, there is no actual link to Lebanon).

It’s becoming problematic. Yesterday I bought an ice cream cone to sustain me on my way home to eat caramel vanilla ice cream from a tub.

It’s a slippery slope. It started a few months ago with the discovery of cookies and cream tub ice cream and now it’s extended to a whole range of delectable yummies.

The thing is it’s really satisfyingly creamy. Not too much – not enough to make you feel ill after polishing off a tub (I’m GUESSING) – and it’s got just a little taste of mastic, that gum like ingredient which gives Arabic ice cream its distinctive taste and texture.

So desperate were we for our fix that we ended up making our way to the actual factory once we had sucked Nablus dry of our favorite flavor.

It. Was. Awesome.

What started off in 1950 as a tiny ice supply story has slowly expanded and grown into a small, industrialized yet somehow Willy Wonka-esque warehouse with staircases tucked into corners, old school ice cream machines, huge vats and people with plastic head coverings overseeing the production of mind boggling amounts of ice cream.

Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures but here’s a little glimpse into my year in ice cream.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Chapter 57 How we learn

I watched Barack Obama's Middle East speech yesterday. And I watched his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu today.

I am not sure why I was filled with such burning indignation. I'm not sure why still, despite incredible behavioral consistency, I still feel let down and cheated by US foreign policy - why I still expect more.

I know. I should know better.

I should not have felt that familiar annoyance when Obama spoke of Osama Bin Laden and in one sentence destroyed the hope that he understands the complexity of the Muslim demographic, instead intimating that they exist only in one of two dimensions: In support of or in opposition to Bin Laden's ideologies.

I should have expected that the US's decades long support of Hossni Mubarak would be forgotten in this wave of gung ho support of the Arab Spring that does not include Bahrain or Palestine.

And saying the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two state solution is a misnomer when one state is a military power and the other is 'demilitarized' with no control over its borders. It's even more disheartening when the very next day Netanyahu slaps even this down and says in no uncertain terms that 1967 borders are out of the question: 'indefensible'.

When Obama talked about canceling USD 1 billion from Egypt's debt once when they elected a government the little voice in my head immediately added on "as long as it's a government America likes."

Maybe we do learn.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Chapter 63

Protests and violence everywhere. In the Golan Heights, the Qalandia checkpoint into Jerusalem, Egypt's border with Gaza and Gaza's border with Israel.

The West Bank has reportedly been sealed off and there's heavy army presence on check points.

There was so much tear gas at Qalandia that the inhabitants of a neighboring village had to stay indoors.

Today is the day referred to as the The Nakba or "disaster". The day that marks the anniversary of the establishment of Israel in 1948.

It often feels like there are many Nakbas in Palestine.

Over lunch with the parents of one of our school's prospective scholarship students the father joked:

The real Nakba happened when the Palestinian Authority came to power.

A taxi driver recently said to me:

We do not do ourselves justice. We cheat each other, we don't treat each other right, we don't stick together. I'm bringing up daughters and I'm teaching them not to have faith in this land. Not to trust this earth.

There are millions of Palestinians in diaspora. Millions still in refugee camps - living between the cracks. Citizens of nothing, protected by no one... wanted nowhere.

Still they wait. Hoping to return. Demanding to return.

A friend from a nearby refugee camp:

If we leave the camps then we give up our status as refugees. If that happens our birthright will be lost. Our true origins forgotten. Ignored. Removed from the political process. A part of it is pride. I am a refugee because I believe in my right to the land that was mine and my right to return to it. I cannot trust the politicians to fight on my behalf so I will remain a thorn in their side until they do.

*an image by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali
**image from Google

Friday, 13 May 2011

Chapter 56 Dislocated lives

He fell in love with her at university...

He took the traditional route and made the necessary inquiries. She was interested too. The families would soon meet.

Within one minute to the next he found himself spending the next five years in an Israeli jail. He never saw her again.

Fast forward twenty years and he’s married with growing children.

“You have no idea how it is to feel like you’re living the wrong life. To always be thinking of what could have been… should have been.”

He drives a taxi...

“When I first started driving this cab I couldn’t believe what had happened to my life. I had become a beggar, stretching my hand back for 10 shekels.”

He had been a high ranking civil service officer until he was fired and thrown in jail on suspicion of supporting Hamas.

She's seen the world fall apart and come back together...

and fall apart again.

She was 10 when they began the long walk from their coastal city to the West Bank. They walked for one day and one night.

"It was Ramadan and it was hot. People died from thirst. Mothers with children in their laps. I was carrying a child in my arms who was a stranger to me. It could have been anybody's."

Her father was already dead and her mother moved them from city to city to make ends meet.

Her own husband is dead and she spent years visiting her sons in jail.

Now she has over 40 grandchildren living around the world and she sees humor in the past.

She sits with grace... she speaks with humanity.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Chapter 55 The things you never think to pack

A series of unfinished posts lying around my drafts folder like half eaten sandwiches can't move me tonight.

Not even the tub of chocolate just outside of arm's length will move me.

Nor will the bottle of (local of course) white wine in the fridge.

Partly because opening bottles of wine has become a most tedious chore often involving the input and physical assistance of every individual within a five metre radius plus a range of unlikely household utensils.

"Have you tried the blunt edge of a can opener? That's what we use."

"You need to drive something sharp through the cork to release some pressure."

"Ok, you hold on to the neck of the bottle to keep it steady and I'll jump up and down to push all of my weight onto the knife in an effort to drive it down."

"Have they been filling the bottles with more wine? It's almost like it's harder to push the cork in these days."

"Shit shit shit I've broken the cork."

"Ah it's ok, we'll scoop what we can out and just drink the rest."

"Damn... bleeding... no no I'm on it - just give me a tissue. I'll get it this time, I could have sworn I felt the cork move a little."

"See you always make this mistake. You have to do it from a particular angle."

"How have we been here eight months and still not managed to buy a corkscrew?"

"There ARE no corkscrews in Nablus."

"Oh yeah..."

silent struggling...


Everyone goes back to their seats and the evening continues

Monday, 9 May 2011

Chapter 54 Relativity

Balata Refugee Camp

"Things are good now, when the army comes in to take someone they do it in the middle of night. No gunfire, no shelling, nobody dies - no fuss, much better."

Friday, 6 May 2011

Chapter 53 Not for profit

Miss Sara's Souq
Miss Sara's Fantasy Board Game
Miss Sara's Dance
Miss Sara's Second Dance
Miss Sara's Maze
Miss Sara's Obstacle Course
Miss Sara's Restaurant

I have IN HINDSIGHT noticed that a complete lack of game naming imagination may have inadvertently led to my children believing in the existence of a powerful gaming corporation.

Read: Empire.

Don't look at me folks. I was just trying to teach some vocabulary.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Chapter 52 Sonic booms and classrooms

I'm not trying to be unreasonable here. I'm not involving myself in politics that I could never really understand nor spouting hastily formed judgments based entirely on a perspective that was born and formed elsewhere.

I'm just saying there's only so many times the sound barrier has to be broken by low flying Israeli jets before it puts a damper on the class time 'mood'.

You see, it kinda breaks up my flow on the beauty of irregular past tense verbs when the 4th (totally unprovoked as far as I can tell) sound boom is administered and we have to wait (yet again) for the windows to stop shaking.

The kids are so immune to it they barely register the first few. Then, if there's a particularly low flying plane, the younger ones are startled out of their work and look up at you questioningly with anxious eyes filled with flashback.

Pulls their focus is all I'm saying.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Chapter 51 Crumbling from within

It took a while to wrap my head around the implications of the assassination of Juliano Mer Khamis.

It was like hearing that a long standing landmark had been knocked down. That the scales had been disastrously reset.

The Freedom Theatre’s place in the hearts and lives of its members cannot be underestimated. Nor the weight of the legacy of Juliano and his mother Arna in Jenin.

So tragedy lines the first building block in a complex situation.

The second is re(mis)presentation of progress. The Freedom Theatre was a symbol; of art, of tolerance, of expression, of healing and of hope. It felt like all these things had suddenly taken a staggering step backwards.

The third – division. Not the one that gets all the publicity. Not the one between two warring factions who have become so tunnel visioned in their hunger for power that they seem to have lost sight of what their job really entails.

Newer divisions criss crossing their way across an already fragmented land.

Notices were posted around Jenin saying that Juliano and the Freedom Theatre were collaborators intent on spreading Western culture. That their behavior sullied the memory of martyrs and those who died for Palestine.

The notice demanded that parents stop sending their children to the theatre and that any who continued to support it would be met with the same fate as Juliano. This sentence was followed by a helpful addition in parenthesis “(with bullets)” in case the heavy handed hint could possibly have flown over anyone’s head.

The killing of Vittorio Arrigoni, soon after, strikes a similar chord.

People intent on helping Palestine killed by Palestinians; it sits uncomfortably. Juliano himself was half Arab.

Small, extremist groups within Palestinian society - seemingly operating
independently - slowly taking out elements that, with the best intentions, are working towards helping Palestine.

I know it is the nature of extremism but that this intolerance is taking such precedence over the the will of the majority and the good of those involved in a situation like that of Palestine breaks my heart.

I cannot say what is best for Palestinians nor their future. It’s not for me to say that the presence and work of people like Juliano and Vittorio gives hope and alleviates pain.

It does however seem to me an inalienable truth that the brutal killing of those who dedicate themselves to a cause, to a people, to a nation, because of a difference in ideology is more than a crime against the victims.

It is a crime against the cause itself.