Before coming to Palestine, I did, I think have a typically Western perspective on it and the so-called conflict. That is to say, I sympathized with the Palestinians but thought that there must be a reason why all this was happening, a reason that was the fault of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. There was also the small issue of my fear that I would arrive back in England after 6 weeks in Palestine missing my passport and several limbs…Happily, this did not occur. What did occur is that I gained a much deeper understanding of the Palestine-Israel situation, and an impatience to come back.
The Siraj Center program is a really good way of introducing yourself to Palestine; the way of life, the people, and the language. It also has the upside of not being boringly educational, but really really fun! It was fantastic to be able to volunteer in Palestinian organizations, and see how they manage to function under the occupation, as well as getting the chance to live with families, which I think is an important part of the program – it allows you a stable base in the country, which when the situation itself is not totally so, is very reassuring. You also experience for a while what people here have to endure daily, not only by living with people but talking to them, which everyone is more that happy to do. What I was struck with here was the friendliness of the people – no matter what difficulties they might be facing.
Another good part of Siraj are the Arabic lessons at the university – it is much more satisfying if you try to speak in Arabic here, although sometimes a little dispiriting when people look at you as if you are speaking elfish with a gerbil in your throat – and I would definitely recommend them. If you stay with a family then the transition period from garbling incomprehensible phrases at people to being able to have a small conversation is much shorter.
The trips at the weekend are a lot of fun, and enable you to see more of the country and which areas have been most affected by the conflict. Needless to say the Dead Sea was very weird and very salty, but Nablus is stunning and Hebron fascinating. And then of course there are the Dabkeh dancing lessons. Hilarious. It is also the people who work for Siraj and the other people on the program who make it fun. George and Michel work tirelessly to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and they are both great people – very funny. I am so happy that I took part in this program, but don’t think that I will really realize the impact this experience has had on me until I get home. I really urge people to come here and see Palestine, and not be scared off by the news – the fact is, Bethlehem is a very peaceful place. That is what I have realized here – that to truly get an idea about this part of the world, and the people and the problems in it, you have to come and see for yourself, and not be swayed by other people's ideas or preconceptions. The five weeks I have spent here have been fantastic, but definitely not enough, and I will definitely be coming back. Having said that, I am still to go through security at the airport…