Exploring mazes, asking questions

In Palestine, where national elections have been delayed since the late noughties, universities are the one place where Fatah and Hamas can battle it out at the polls. For this reason, student politics is seen as the key indicator of how Palestine would vote in a general election.

Having volunteered on a student campaign, I also think student politics is a pretty good indicator of the macro bureaucracies that plague the country. At one point, another British volunteer was told that she could put up an event poster in a faculty building, but only on one of the display boards. When she got to the faculty, she searched the whole building and found there were no boards.

Frustrated by the constant delays and red tape and general sense of dystopia, we took a day trip to Nablus. We said we wanted to get vox pops on education; as the English-speakers outnumbered Arabic five-to-one, it was fairly obvious that the trip was mainly to get out of the Ramallah office for a day.

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An-Nasr Mosque, in the centre of Nablus’ old town.

Nablus

Ramallah is an exciting city where you can find a film screening or concert just about every night of the week, but one thing it lacks is an “old town” district. Most of the towns we visited in Palestine and Israel had one of these winding warrens of stone houses packed on top of bright market stalls, and they were always my favourite bit to explore. It’s impossible to get your bearings in them on the first go, or even the second, third, or fourth. I visited Jerusalem’s old town numerous times, but by the end of our trip I still felt like I was stumbling through a labyrinth. New streets full of eager or apathetic market vendors would always emerge just after I thought I’d gotten my bearings.

Nablus’ old town has a particularly labyrinthine feel to it, as wandering through to the centre reveals An-Nasr Mosque. I walked directionlessly through the souk, with its piles of dates organised by sweetness, and tiny sweet shops selling hot syrupy kanafeh, and emerged on the central square where the mosque sits. With its blue-green dome and lines of rainbow bunting, it was well worth getting lost to find.

As charming as the old town market was, the flea market on the edge of the new part of town was just as tempting. It looked so much like the markets selling odds and ends off Brick Lane, where locals buy shampoo as hipsters look for vintage cameras on the main street. I was dying for a look around, but felt too much like an observer; the old town is tourist-friendly, the flea market I’d feel too obvious walking around and staring at people’s daily lives. Luckily, our vox pop quest gave us the excuse to venture in.

Stalls were selling broken dolls and crates full of wires for electronic goods, if you were lucky enough to own the phone or camera that fit the plug. Not somewhere I could have gotten away with browsing, but brilliant and busy. We quickly attracted a crowd of vocal residents, happy and enthusiastic to tell us about their views on education.

Perhaps it’s the occupation that made people so willing to share their views, and for those views to be so strong. I imagine most British people would be baffled having to answer “what does education mean to you?”. The Palestinians we interrupted in the middle of making falafel or buying shirts all answered immediately. One said a single word: “everything”. Others talked for several minutes about how education had shaped their lives and families. One woman invited us to see for ourselves, and gave us her number to visit local schools in her village. We went three days later.

Burin

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Children at Burin’s pre-school.

Burin is south of Nablus city in the rolling hills typical of that area, thick with green olives. It faces ongoing encroachment onto its land by surrounding settlements. In recent years the village has lost 2,000 dunams of land to the Har Brakha settlement, and has been the target of violence from the extremist settlement Yitzhar.

The woman, Emusa immediately shepherded us into the village primary boys’ school. The boys were in their classes. A group of teachers accompanied us to the head teacher’s office.

Businesslike, he spoke with us about the stress settlements place upon the village.

“In short”, he said, settlers approach homes and sometimes attack them. Shots are sometimes fired. It affects the people here, and especially the children. A little boy in the first grade has selective mutism, blamed on frequent settler invasions of his home.

Chillingly, this village is only a short drive from the bustle of Nablus city. At one point villagers on their way back from Nablus were held up at checkpoint for four hours. Explaining that they needed to go home, they were told “there is no Burin”.

“Have many families have left because of the settlements?”, we ask.

The teachers and the head teacher flare up as our translator asks this. After a minute of heated discussion, our translator explains that a little girl’s family left after she was killed by tear gas. Another woman, who lost a baby after inhaling tear gas, moved from her previous home to one further from settlements, but remains in the village. We are surprised that the villagers remain so steadfast, and yet there is no air of optimism here.

“There is no positive for the future”, said the head. “I don’t think there will be a future”.

We went around all four of the village’s schools. Standing in the playground of the girls’ school, Emusa could point out a patch of road where a 19-year-old boy was shot two months ago. Al-Haq reports that he was throwing a molotov cocktail. Emusa says he was unarmed.

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Burin.

Emusa took us to her home. From her roof we could see the whole village, streets scrambling down from the hill into the valley. On the opposite hilltop we could see a settlement. One of her neighbours wanders in, clutching a poster. She seems vacant and drawn. Emusa explains that she’s the mother of the boy who was shot. We don’t know what to say.

We’re sat down to a massive dish of lamb and dolmas, Emusa apologising the whole time for not doing more for us. We drove away touched by her generosity, and saddened by the hardship facing her village. She was one of those rare people you meet travelling that tie you to a place forever.

Thoughts on interviewing

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Digesting in Emusa’s house.

We wouldn’t have met Emusa if it wasn’t for our “vox pop” project. The quotes we got from her and others in Nablus were used in articles and social media for the campaign, but it was invaluable on its own that the simple act of asking questions opened up new places to us.

Even if you’re not working on a project, having a few interview-style questions to ask people can help get beneath the surface of the place you’re travelling in. I think it worked particularly well in Palestine, where the population is keenly aware of the international eye on them and eager to make a good impression; we also had some Arabic-speaking buddies to make things easier.

There’s an ethical importance to being honest about why you’re asking the questions. If you’ll use the info from them for a blog or article, great. If it’s just for your own interest, don’t pretend otherwise. People are quick to open up to journalists and researchers, but I have a feeling that they’d be just as open to an honestly curious traveller. In the right circumstances, I’d definitely try and muddle through the language barrier with a few open questions next time I want to get to know a place. It can open up people and places in unexpected ways.

This blog was partly adapted from a post I wrote for Right2Edu.

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