Bearing Witness

Tour of my favourite Middle Eastern cities

To finish my time in the Middle East I decided to do a tour of my favourite cities, starting in Beirut and going through Damascus, Jerusalem and finally back to Nablus to say goodbye to the many wonderful people I meet while I was there.

Beirut made the list for different reasons than the rest of the cities, where as the other cities on the tour where there because of their dramatic histories and difference from anything I had seen before – Beirut made for it’s similarities to my home town Sydney. Great bars, good restaurants, fantastic climate and fine women. I spent five days in total in Beirut and only did the tourist thing on the fist day – Jitta Grotto and the cable  car. The other four days where spent relaxing during day and parting at night. I even got to play a short set on the last night in a bar in Hamra, I had befriend the DJ there through our mutual love of hip hop. He mainly play house, but told me if I got there early enough on my last night, ie before to many people turned up, he would bring in some hip hop and we could play back to back. As I only new some of the music he brought and was playing on CD decks for only the second time my mixes where a bit ruff – but it was great fun.

I then return to Damascus for a couple of days, I walked the souqs, visited the Hammam and ate fantastic ice cream covered in nuts – mmm nuts. I also need to make a correction to my last post on Damascus, apparently it is not the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world – Jericho in the West Bank holds that honor. But none the less Damascus is still my favourite city in the Middle East, wondrous.

Next stop was Jerusalem where I spent most of time in the old city. I returned to  Dome of the rock, had diner at Papa Andres with it’s superb s of the old city and took a day trip to the Dead Sea, Jericho and Masada – the only day I got my camera out the whole ten days of the tour. I also visited Yad Vashem the Holocaust Museum, which has a comprehensive history of the Holocaust and moving tribute to it’s victims. I also went to the Museum on the Seam – an art gallery on the green line that used to divide Jerusalem before th six day war in 1967. It is run by a group called coexistence, however there where no paintings by Palestinian artists, perhaps that’s what Israeli’s think coexistence is – complete domination.

However my time in Jerusalem was soured by being assaulted by undercover Israel Police, my only crime was wearing a Palestinian  koufeya. They approached me saying something in Hebrew, the only word I understood was Fatah as they pointed to my koufeya. They then surrounded me and one of the five guys tried to put his hands into my pocket. As they had failed to show me any ID at this stage I though I was been mugged and resisted. They then pinned me up against a wall – slamming my head  into the wall in the process. They then showed me thier police ID quickly and when I stated I had not seen it properly I was told I had and the guy who had me pinned against the wall drove his forearm further into my throat. After being thoroughly search and my passport checked. I was told “next time I wanted a souvenir to buy a fucking t-shirt”, when I responded by telling him “buying a  koufeya was not a crime”, he open his jacket showing me his pistol and placed his hand on it and stated “it is to me”. I Don’t know how Palestinians live with this brutality and worse on daily basis.

Then finally back to Nablus, which while the city it’s self was not my favourite city in the Middle East, it was where I made the most friends and had some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It was great to catch up with my friends and have familiar faces around again, as much of the last month had been spent travailing by myself. I will miss Nablus the most out of all the places I visited on this trip and insharlla I will return one day to celebrate an independent Palestinian state, so long over due.

View of the Dead Sea From Masada

View of the Dead Sea From Masada

Just floating around

Just floating around

Sunset over the ruins at Jericho

Sunset over the ruins at Jericho

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February 4, 2009 Posted by | My Travels | , , , | Leave a comment

Volunteering

After having some time and space to reflect on my voluntary work for Project Hope in Nablus, I still feel it is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life, however there are some things I would do differently if I where to come back or undertake volunteer work else where in the world – which I definitively plan to do.

Firstly I would spend more time learning the language before leaving, I feel this would have given me a better understanding of the people and culture. While also helping me immensely with my teaching, don’t get me wrong the translators provided to me by Project Hope where amazing and indispensable, however the saying “lost in translation” did come to mind several times during my stay in Nablus.

I also would have better prepared myself for the emotion roller coaster that is voluntary work. I experienced everything from excitement and joy to frustration and despair – all in the one day and some times in the same hour.

Plus also preparing myself to become emotional attached to the place and the people I worked with. I always felt an affinity with the Palestinian cause, but after my time in the West Bank that grew immensely. This was best illustrated by my reaction to the atrocities carried out in Gaza, just I after I had left Nablus. I would have reacted negatively even before my time in the West Bank, however after getting to know the people and the extent of their suffering, so often down played in the western media, the images I saw from Gaza on the nightly news nearly had me in tears.

That brings me to preparing for the realities of situation you are going to work in. This is hard to do as books and documentaries can only tell you some much, but the more knowledge you gain before you leave, will provide a  better base to build your understanding of the situation you find yourself in.

Finally if anyone reading this is considering undertaking voluntary work, my advice is DO IT ! Throw yourself into whole heartily – as it’s like anything else in life the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

To support Project Hope and he wonderful work they do – bringing hope to young Palestinians – go to www.projecthope.ps and click on support us and make a donation, please.

January 31, 2009 Posted by | My Thoughts | , , | Leave a comment

Thank You Project Hope.

I have notice lately that some of my posts, well lets be honest most of my post, have been quite negative and as depressing as the occupation is to witness. I must say my time in Nablus has been one of the most fulfilling experience of my life. I came to teach, but came away learning and not just about the situation here but how to look at and enjoy life. To make the most of what you have and not to focus on what you don’t. The Palestinian people amaze me more everyday with their generosity and positive nature – I will surely miss Nablus when I leave in several days.
  
However more than the place I will miss the people who have made my time here special. Starting with, and in no particular order; Hakim – who from day one welcomed me in to his home and gave me my first taste of Palestinian hospitality; Anas; my English translator who pulled me out of the deep end so to speak with my English classes and who also helped with the workshops in Askar, I will be forever in your debt; Hassan – who’s patients with my Australian accent while teaching me Arabic was never ending and what little Arabic I now have his all down to him; Tharwa – who made me fell like part of the Project Hope family from day one; Akiel – Always ready with a “hand shake” and a smile; Fino – who showed me Palestinians know how to party and who I hope makes it to Australia one day so I can repay the favour; Maroof – who greeted all my request with a smile; Tawfiq – who’s Nescafe and support got me through my four hours of Bridge to the World classes on Saturdays.
 
Now to the International volunteers; Simon – for his quick wit; Truda – for her positive nature and support; Javier – for his revolutionary ideals; Mike – for also helping fish me out of the deep end, re English, not to mention his crude jokes; Kevin – for his dry sense of humour and baking abilities; Malika – for her commitment to the course.
     
And last but definitely not least to all my students English, Bridge to the World and Askar you where all tullab mumtarse – excellent students – and made my time in Nablus a truly rewarding experience.
   
I consider all of you friends and will miss you all, THANK YOU :]
    
And to everyone involved with Project Hope keep up the good fight, your work is giving young Palestinians hope and as I now know with hope anything is possible !
 

December 21, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts | , , | Leave a comment

The lights on the hill

The Israeli Occupation Force [IOF] is a constant presence in Nablus, weather it’s at the checkpoints, on the streets after 11.00pm – when they take over from the Palestinian Authority soldiers inside Nablus, during one of their nightly incursions, or just the fact that every time you look up your reminded who’s in control by the foreboding lights on the hill. Hard to believe that Nablus is one of the few cities in the West Bank, apparently, under Palestinian Authority control ?
Israeli Occupation Force base above Nablus.

Israeli Occupation Force base above Nablus.

December 8, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts | , , , | Leave a comment

Classes

My “Bridge to the World” music classes are coming along very nicely, with around 20 students and most of them are really enjoying it. Making some very interesting music and laughing a lot, especially at my Arabic pronunciation – the Australian accent does not help. However I think a couple of the students though would much prefer to be working on their blogs and I have suggested that this would be alright to my translator, but his English is not as good as my translator for my English class and he just replies “yes, yes” and tells them to get back to music in Arabic. While my class with the local staff has taken a while to get off the ground, because of university exams, when they do turn up they are really enjoying it and the hope that they will be able to continue teaching the music program once I leave seems to be coming to fruition.

 

I have also finally been given the go ahead to run some music workshops at the community center in Old Askar refugee camp. I am really happy about this; I will have four students and run two workshops with each. All four of the students participated in the Sabreen mc workshops.- so the plan is to teach them the FL Studio software in the first workshop, then get them to produce a track in the second and if their up for it record some vocals. The double bonus of working in the camps and working with kids who are right into their hip hop – apparently they have formed their own b-boy crew in the camp and practice in the centre when ever it’s free – pestering the manger to get in there as often as possible, cool.

 

My Arabic is coming along quite well or tomam iktir. I got 41/ 50 in my unit one test and can carry on very basic conversations in Arabic – hello, how are you ? Responded – ask where people live ? Respond – order food – count to10 – say good bye. As well as this I have also learnt some cool saying, mush mush kila = not a problem and insharlla = god willing, not to mention the all purpose response of hamdu illa = thank god – can be used to respond to any thing you don’t understand that is said with a smile and surprisingly most things in Nablus are said with a smile.

 

English is going well mainly due to my amazing translator Anas, who helps me prepare and facilitate my classes. Though I did do the political incorrect thing the other day of wearing my black and white, Fatha, kofia to a class at the Youth Progressive Union – the youth wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] – apparently they have the red kofia to tie in with their socialist platform – looks like I now have to buy a red one.

 

I have the next week off, due to Eid holidays; I am going to spend the time traveling to Hiffa, Akko and Hebron. Hiffa has cool gardens and two nice art museums and Akko is this wonderfully historic port town with a castle and fortress walls. Apparently it is still very much like it was thousands of years ago, as when the first couple of waves of Jewish immigration happened in the 1920’s there was some much tension that instead of taking over the town the settlers decided to build New Akko, where the development has taken place leaving the old town virtually untouched. Then back through Hebron, as in my opinion, what is going on in Hebron is the clearest example of the double standards in the occupied territories – in the West Bank at least. Imagine the Israeli response to Palestinians – if they took over a house in Jaffa and terrorised the rest of the town – Ehud Barak, Israeli defense Minister, would definitely not be sitting down with them to have tea and kanafa and asking them to leave – a year after they first occupied it ! 

 

December 5, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts | , | Leave a comment

Nablus: “It is our life”

Every night the city of Nablus is shaken by the sounds of war, sounds that drive away sleep. One awakens with a start, not knowing if one has slept, not slept, or if we are in a waking nightmare. There is shooting, nearby explosions resonate, go off in the distance, and return as an echo. You don’t know what is happening or where it is happening. At first, you are very worried, then you stop thinking about it. One waits for daybreak with resignation. The people around tell you it is like that every day of the year here in the district of Nablus, that nothing has changed since 2000, that it is simply part of the panoply of the war of terror waged by Israel, added on top of the countless other repressive measures.

Soldiers regularly penetrate the small alleys of Nablus or its villages at night. They break down doors, throw grenades. House by house they search for men they say are “wanted”, are “suspects”. They force families out on the street, then they search, breaking everything, and if they don’t find what they are looking for, they order mothers to call their sons to hand themselves in via the loud speakers. If the “suspect” doesn’t appear, they may arrest the father, the brothers, or blow up the house. They leave before dawn.

The shooting ceased after midnight. But the fiercest fighting started at 4:00 this morning when the city was shaken by a strong explosion. Then intense shooting. The sound of the shooting was twice drowned out by the voices of the muezzin, voices going far, returning as an echo as we held our breath.

What happened tonight during the raid was not the usual. Israeli troops arrived around 4 am without making a sound, by surprise. Generally, the soldiers don’t come face to face with combatants because the wanted men hide. They know they are hunted and, with their poor rifles, are no match. But this morning, the lookouts resisted. The fighting lasted several hours. The Israeli army lost one dead and six others wounded, several very seriously.

Four young Palestinians were captured and taken away by the soldiers. They are undergoing interrogation by Shen Bet. The information that they will manage to extort will serve to justify the next round of raids and punitive actions.

We are waiting for the army to return at any moment and know that the repression will be all the more severe as the dead soldier is the son of the commander in charge of the region.

The people are at the end of their ropes. Israel has humiliated them, starved them, taken away all of their rights. They live here as prisoners. When people present themselves at the checkpoints – which are military zones where the soldiers amuse themselves by installing a reign of terror – they are humiliated, arrested, beaten. The young those between 14 and 30 years old – are not allowed to pass. They must take, at great risk, the mountain paths. A student at An-Najah University was arrested at the checkpoint one year and one-half ago and is still being held for having slapped a soldier who gave him a body search.

After six years of deprivation and massacres, one senses the people are all the more revolted and on edge that, beyond the persecutions of Israel, that they will also undergo the strangulation by world. A scandalous world that punishes and starves an entire people for having voted for Hamas.

It only reinforces their spirit of resistance. To rebel is the only thing that remains for them to protect their battered dignity. Because of this, one senses they are determined, ready to hold out against the entire world until that moment when the latter finally feels the full shame of having committed such a horrendous crime, until it understands that demanding the respect of their stolen rights is the legitimate right of the Palestinians.

It remains that what happened tonight will not be without serious consequences for them. The Israeli army will return to punish them all the more ferociously. But they continue on with their work, proceed as if nothing had happened. They look at you with the calm regard of those who know they have humanity on their side. It is their strength. “It is our life,” they calmly answer when you worry for them.

* Written by Silvia Cattori on the 18 July 2006, available @ www.silviacattori.net

While things have calmed down slightly in Nablus since the end of “Operation Hot Winter”, a major Israeli military incurrsion in Febuary 2007. I have still haerd of many miliatry incursion since I have been here, about one every second day. Where “suspects” are arested, beaten, their families put out in the street and on two occocation that I have heard of killed. Unfortunately It’s is their life.

 

November 25, 2008 Posted by | Media | , , | Leave a comment

Photostory: Nablus’ Old City

The souk during a bustling day in Nablus' Old City.

The souk during a bustling day in Nablus

The West Bank city of Nablus has historically boasted itself as the commercial and business center of Palestine. The West Bank’s largest city, it dates back some 4,500 years. However, Nablus’ economy, cultural heritage, and population have come under attack during the past four years of Israeli violence. Its Old City walls have acquired a new layer of history in the political graffiti and martyr posters honoring the scores of mostly young men from Nablus who have committed suicide bombings or, far more frequently, were killed by Israeli violence.

A wall in the center of the Old City, covered in political graffiti and martyrs' posters

A wall in the center of the Old City, covered in political graffiti and martyrs

Of its population of around 332,000, the Nablus district has seen 365 deaths during the first four years of the current intifada as a result of Israeli violence, and scores more have been imprisoned. Nablus has also seen the worst of Israeli closures. The Palestine Red Crescent Society has recorded that Nablus was subjected to 4,804 hours of curfew between June 2002 and September 2004. Israeli forces control all movement to and from Nablus through Huwwara checkpoint, which is one of the most notorious checkpoints in the occupied territories.

The combined factors of closure, movement restrictions, and violence have decimated Nablus’ economy. According to the UN, “Municipal revenues from the vegetable market, for example, dropped 90 percent since 2000 — from NIS [New Israeli Shekel] 5.19 million to NIS 509,290.” The city’s famed soap industry has been particularly hard hit. While there was once as many as 80 soap factories manufacturing in Nablus, there are only three fully operating today.

Towers of cut soap air out before they are boxed for shipping

Towers of cut soap air out before they are boxed for shipping

Not only has the development of Nablus’ economy been hindered by Israel’s movement restrictions and intensified violence during the last four years, but Nablus’ children have been hard-hit as well. Lack of access to food as a result of curfew and economic hardship has resulted in malnutrition among children, and the education process has been disrupted by curfew and violence. Teachers report that since the intifada, children are having a harder time concentrating in class. A Save the Children study found that “children live in a near constant state of fear. Their reference points for normal life have changed; they know the language of violence at a very young age,” and as a result exhibit the psychological symptoms of increased aggression and stubbornness, shortened attention spans, bedwetting, and nightmares.
A stately building in Nablus' old city

A stately building in Nablus

Despite all that it has suffered in the past four years, the impressive Old City of Nablus still clings on to any remaining magnificence it can. But visitors to Nablus will immediately notice the silenced faces of those pictured in the martyr posters, and the bullet holes in the buildings. And unsurprisingly for a city under siege, its sites of antiquity are not being properly preserved and maintained. Garbage is littered over the remains of a city long forgotten; its ancient arches now sprouting vegetation and its former majesty now dwarfed by the nearby houses.
The last four years of voilence and repeated Israeli incursions have tarnished the Old City's elegance

The last four years of voilence and repeated Israeli incursions have tarnished the Old City

Both Nablus’ historical heritage, preserved in its irreplaceable structures, and its future, found in the city’s children, are threatened by politics beyond their control. Like how the damage done to its architecture cannot be erased, Nablus’ children are experiencing potentially irreversible developmental problems because of Israel action in the suffering city. As the Old City of Nablus’ historic sites are being consumed by violence, the city’s future remains in question as the next generation lives in the limbo, uncertainty, and instability that come with protracted conflict.
  
* This article was taken from the Electronic Intifada  and writen by Maureen Clare Murphy. www.electronicintifada.net  

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Media, My Travels | | Leave a comment

Palestinian Hip Hop

I have just returned from a hip hop gig in Nablus, put on by Sabreen Organisation– who specialise in artistic development. There were three performers from England, Denmark and Germany, all of Palestinian heritage. Plus some locals who participated in sabreen’s workshops at Old Askar refugee camp. Even though there was only about 40-50 people there, the atmosphere was great with everyone dancing and cheering the whole night. It was cool to see a scene in its infancy. I also spoke to the organizer who is keen for me to run music production workshops at Old Askar for the local mc’s. Which would be incredible as I thought I would not be able to work in the refugee camp’s as computer access is non-existent.
  
I also have my first music class on Saturday with the “Bridge to world” program and on Sunday I am running another music class for the local staff and volunteers of Project Hope, in the hope that when I leave they can take over the music program. My English class at the Youth Progressive Union is also coming along quite well, mainly due to my amazing translator Anas. I have been preparing classes in grammar and vocabulary, the areas the students requested. However most of the time in class I feel very much like Anas’s assistant, as he’s understanding of English is far greater than mine – even though it is he’s second language.
  
Tomorrow I have an easy day and I am going to treat myself to a Turkish bath and a massage, looking forward to it. As showers over here consist of boiled water and a bucket due to the water restrictions. I am also planning a trip to Jerusalem next week, leaving Thursday and returning on Friday, as my schedule is filling up fast and I need to make the most of my free time while I still have some.
    
The t-shirt says it all

The t-shirt says it all

November 14, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts, My Travels | , , | Leave a comment

Olive harvest & Palestinian hospitality

Today I participated in the annual olive harvest with other international volunteers from Project Hope . It was a small grove in town and the trees where relatively young, only 20 years old. The grove was planted during the first intifada as Palestinians where in lock down for most of it and could not access their farm lands, let alone get food transported in. So all manner of fruit and vegetables where planted in town to sustain the population. The harvest only took five hours and every couple of hours we where brought tea, coffee and tasty treats. After the harvest we where taken on a tour of the city including the outlying villages, then feed an amazing meal, the food just keep coming. After dinner we where invited back on Sunday for a traditional Palestinian dinner, the family was incredibly grateful, as where we by the end of the day.

I also heard stories about Project Hope bringing food and medicen to the Nablus population at the peak of the first intifada. As mentioned above, Nablus was in lock down and Project Hope staff and volunteers risked their own lives to deliver live saving medicine and essential foods to the locals. Often playing a cat a mouse game with the Israeli military to get to sections of the town where the  heaviest fighting was occurring. I also discovered that Nablus is the second oldest constantly inhabited city in the world, no wonder it has an historic feel to it, and that before the Zionist movement started Samaritans – a branch of Judaism – Christians and Muslim all coexisted happily in the city. With the Grandmother of the family we pick olives for, a Muslim lady, telling me they even celebrated each others religious holidays.

Tomorrow I am assisting with my first “Bridge to the World” {BTTW] class, where young Palestinians are taught how to set up and maintain their own blog’s. The aim of the program is to help the participants feel less isolated from the rest of the world, while helping to raise awareness of the occupation and it’s impacts on Palestinian life. I also have a meeting with a local youth center about setting up my own English class. The arts coordinator is currently on leave so the music program my take a little longer than expected to set up, but atleast I will be kept busy in the mean time with BTTW and English. I am unable to put into words how amazing this experience has been so far and I sure it will only get better as I start to deliver my own classes.

 

Olive harvest

Olive harvest

Palestinian hospitality

Palestinian hospitality

Sunset over Nablus

Sunset over Nablus

 * Photo’s courtesy of Sadie – a British volunteer here to teach digital photography.

November 9, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts, My Travels | , , | Leave a comment

My first day in Nablus

Well I have arrived in Nablus and could not believe the difference from Tel Aviv. I flew for 24 hours half way around the world to arrive in Tel Aviv, a city that was very much like Sydney. Then yesterday I drove for two hours to arrive in Nablus a city that is completely different. The people, the landscape and the culture all which bear no resemblance to Tel Aviv.

After I got over the initial culture shock and the realisation of how bad my language skills are, I have settle in quite well. The local staff are amazingly positive and incredibly Patient with my limit arabic skills, not to mention my very thick Australian accent. The international volunteers have also welcomed me warmly and been very supportive. While the few locals I have meet that are not connected to Project Hope have been very friendly and welcoming. The city it self is a wondrous place, especially the Old City which has amazing markets and a really historic feel.

I have also hit the ground running, work wise, going through my induction today and tomorrow I am assisting another international volunteer to teach English. Then on Friday I am helping with the olive harvest, which I am really excited about, as I am keen to experience traditional Palestinian life and the lady who owns the olive grove is going to cook for the volunteers a traditional Palestinian dinner as a way of showing her gratitude. Then hopefully next week I can organise my schedule for my music classes.

The city of Nablus has only two entrances/exits, both check points manned by the Israeli military. In addition to this the city is also in circled by Israeli military out posts and watch towers on the hills above, as Nablus is situated in a valley. The residents of Nablus are only allowed to travel to certain parts of the West Bank with permits issued by the Israeli’s, not to mention Gaza and East Jerusalem which are generally completely of limits to West Bank Palestinians. These permits which more often than not are only granted after a lengthy and arduous process, if at all, are still no guarantee of access. As even when granted these permit holders can still be turned around at the check points on the whim of the soldiers manning them. This travel permit system has resulted in many Palestinian families being seperated from one another. Reconstruction also requires permits from the Israeli’s, which are also near impossible to obtain, meaning that many buildings that are destroy during incursions by the Israeli millitary are unable to be rebuilt. Incursions are a daily occurrence in the West Bank, especially in the refugee camps, these incursions are rarely reported in the western media.  The water supply, which is also controlled by the Israeli’s, is in sort supply and on my first day the water had run out by the time I arrive. This is due mainly to the fact that 80% of the West Bank’s water is diverted to Jewish settlements, even though the settlers only account for around 10% of the population. With most of these limitation on Palestinian life coming into effect during the so called “Peace Process”. With this in mind is it little wonder Yasser Arafat walked out of the Camp David peace talks. As he was not offered, as was widely reported, East Jerusalem as the capital and 90% of the West Bank and Gaza. What was on the table at Camp David was 10 enclaves similar to Nablus today and no part of Jerusalem. In addition to this the Israeli’s would still control the boarders, the population register, the water and the airspace – not to mention keeping most the fertile farming land in the West Bank. Far from the viable state the Palestinians desire and deserve. But even with all this the Palestinian people, mostly, still manage to maintain a happy and friendly disposition. Even joking about the generosity of Israel, “we asked for one state and they offered us ten”. 

Well time to get off my soap box and get some rest.

Nablus

Nablus

November 5, 2008 Posted by | My Thoughts, My Travels | , | Leave a comment