The nonviolent intifada: part 1

IMG_6486Our first month in Ramallah went from bleak midwinter to blazing midsummer. Weather in the UK, by contrast, is pleasantly predictable.

Normal routine centred around working in the basement office and eating in a campus canteen, and I now can’t remember why we decided to change this up on one of the rainiest days of the trip and take a bus into Birzeit village for lunch. After the food, we joined the crowd gathered under the awning. Freezing grey sheets of rain fell off it in curtains. One man had parked his car right on the doorstep, but he didn’t want to get his tailored suit wet walking around to the driver’s side. His passenger, a much less slickly-dressed man, didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Lotty offered the suit her umbrella to make the 5-step journey, and in return he offered a lift to whoever could fit in the back.

On the short drive to the university he asked us what we were doing there. His English was good. He translated our answer – we’re researching how the occupation affects education – to his passenger, who perked up. He mimed handcuffs. He was a student who had been in prison, and the suited driver was his lawyer.

“How long were you in prison, why?”

He held up seven fingers – seven years – enthusiastically. “Ana-“, he mimed firing a gun a few times, “yehudi”.

I got the pronoun and the noun, but wasn’t sure how to translate the mimed verb. I hoped it was past tense. “He says he shot Jews.”

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A car fire at Birzeit – actually a demonstration by the fire service.

Math and unfamiliar conversation topics are two things I’m bad at. I didn’t ask him any more questions. Later I managed to do the subtraction. The seven years in jail made him a likely member of the second intifada. So he was a freedom fighter, not a terrorist – phew.

Back in our office, we joke that we have been radicalised. MI5 will be tapping our calls. The immersion method might not have done much for my Arabic, but it’s done a lot for my mindset. On our short car ride we didn’t bother to ask the passenger what had driven him to try to gun down strangers; we could simply insert into his past one of the dozens of stories we’d heard already about his grandparents’ lost land, or his friend who died in an ambulance held at a checkpoint, or his sister who was beaten at a protest. Killing civilians is never justifiable, I think. But I only think that because my friends and family are unlikely to ever become collateral damage. I have the luxury of never having to rethink my morals.

He was a civilian attempting to kill people he didn’t know a thing about, beyond their nationality and assumed religion. I don’t approve of it, but I spend most of my life tacitly accepting that soldiers kill people in my name as a UK citizen. The passenger may not have been handed down the authority to kill by a government, but what difference does it make? For him, his authority was whatever struggle he, or his family, or his friends, had endured on a daily basis since the occupation began.

Even if I accept that much, coming back to the UK with a story like that is incredibly daunting. I’m not good enough at explaining what it’s like to live in Palestine to convince people that they should accept it too, to understand that these things happen when people feel like they have no way out. It’s a struggle to write about it now. When the only thing I can really do to change the situation is to raise awareness, and to do so in a way that undoes some of the demonisation Palestinians face, it’s so tempting to pretend I never heard an angry word spoken in the West Bank. It would be easier to write only about friendly market stall vendors giving out free oranges and “Welcome to Palestine”s to us stumbling Westerners.

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Bathroom graffiti, Jerusalem

It would be simpler to pretend that all the people I met in Palestine were angels of peace, but it wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s pointless to hide an instance of Palestinian violence towards Israelis when the media parades whichever scraps they can get. Today a Palestinian teenager was killed in Ramallah, outside Qalandia checkpoint, after he threw stones at a patrol vehicle. “The moral of the story is, don’t bring a rock to a gunfight,” says a comment on the Daily Mail. The Guardian has yet to report it.

Luckily, some angels do exist. There is a nonviolent side to the resistance, and it is flourishing. In one day, I met three different groups who had never hit out in anger at Israel, despite being struck first – repeatedly. The next three blogs will look at the scale of these three projects: one house, one village, and one city.

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.