For those back home in England the first thing that has jumped out at me is the grossly distorted picture that is presented on our TVs. This image has been discarded straight away, and the violent pictures a distant memory. I feel as safe here as I would walking around my hometown or at university in Cambridge. You feel the desperation of the locals but in terms of the difficulties of sustenance and simple everyday necessities and not hostility. The Palestinians are prisoners in their own homes, their own land, requiring permits for checkpoint after checkpoint to move around the West Bank; and they are the lucky ones. Others have not seen Jerusalem for years when it is just one hill away, barely 5 miles, from where I am living in Beit Jala. As if they could ever forget they are served up a constant reminder of their lack of freedom in the form of huge walls and watchtowers separating them from Israeli settlements, where the grass really is always greener on the other side. I seem to be so empowered by my British passport and I feel simply guilty that I, as a foreigner, have simple rights that the locals do not. Struggling with up to 70% unemployment Bethlehem feels at a loss. It is this backdrop of adversity to the Palestinian’s lives that makes their resolve even more telling.
The hospitality is unmatched and every dinner I am left wishing I had a second stomach to do it justice. My wish is clearly their belief as their pursuit in filling me up is relentless. Hisham and I are staying with the parents in law of George (the coordinator of the programme) and we have become part of the family in a house which has all the amenities England has, including broadband internet letting me keep my finger on the pulse of things back home. Their generosity has been almost overwhelming given the loss of a family member just 4 days prior to our arrival. Happier times have followed and George’s son, Aram Saliba, provides no end to the entertainment, recently celebrating his 3rd Birthday last Sunday. No matter how many times he has seen them his thirst for Tom and Jerry and Shrek remains unquenched and is a sure-fire way of ensuring a few minutes of peace and quiet should you desire it.
Our two weeks have followed a simple structure but have had great variety within them. Just as with the first morning we have had two hours of Arabic every morning from Monday to Friday at the uni. In the afternoons we are volunteers for local schools and summer camps and the evenings and weekends are a mixture of group activities or day trips to surrounding areas of the region, further enhancing our experience and knowledge of the culture and the lives of the people who have welcomed us so warmly into their lives.
The Arabic lessons have been intense but incredibly useful as they are based around spoken Arabic, often my Achilles heel when learning foreign languages. Sami, our teacher, has proven to be one of the best teachers I have ever had and certainly one of the most charismatic. Getting us engaged in conversation within the group of 7 has certainly been great practice. Last Monday we visited Notre Dame in Jerusalem where he teaches translation to a group of local Arabs in order to help them practice, the least we could do for him. He was also kind enough to take some of my post with him to send from Jerusalem as the 3-4 week delay for sending from Bethlehem seemed a little too long!
Hisham and I have worked at a local summer camp but are yet to get fully involved in leading the kids. This will no doubt come once our Arabic improves but playing the idiot seems to be the international language for getting smiles from the children. We got to work on remodelling their playground which was completely overgrown by weeds. Hopefully the kids can now enjoy the space whilst we nurse the burns from all the work in the midday sun. Next project is to hopefully put together a new swing as the current one resembles a bit of a death trap.
I have been lucky enough to have seen some incredibly profound landmarks during my stay here. Although I missed out on Hebron just two days before I arrived I joined the group on the tour of the Old City of Jerusalem on Saturday 30th June. Walking the Via Delarosa to the Holy Sepulchre, the same journey Jesus made with the cross, certainly struck a chord, especially when combined with my visit to the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, where the manger lay 2000 years ago. We also got to see other sites such as the Al Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. The sting in the tale was a $14 lunch for just a falafel and a drink, truly extortionate compare to the $2 price in Bethlehem! That afternoon we were shown round some of the new ‘settlements’ that have been built by Israel on Palestinian land after housing demolition. We had a wonderful tour guide from the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition (ICAHD) who pointed out the last strip of land that remains the only hope for a two state solution, but left unchecked and built upon by Israel will be the last nail in the coffin. A four lane road being built to serve ‘solely a police station’ serves as a threatening move.
The following Tuesday we visited Aida refugee camp, adjacent to Beit Jala and Bethlehem. The greeting from the children was on a level similar to Father Christmas turning up, and any glimpse of a camera and they were ready to pose. The squalid and cramped living conditions are overcome by the hope that they may one day see their homes again, or at least the land where they used to stand. An amusing moment was the arrival of Superman at the camp, albeit a lot shorter and of a different complexion to how I remember; truth, justice and the Palestinian way was served up by a little boy running round the streets and jumping around on balconies.
On Saturday 7th July we rose at 6.30am for what was the highlight of the past two weeks, a trip to the Dead Sea. We trekked for two hours via St George’s monastery at Wadi Qelt, one of the few remaining from the previous 500, down awe inspiring canyons, descending to 400m below sea level at Jericho, both the oldest and lowest city in the world. A short gondola ride, which would have looked more at home in the Alps (and left me dreaming of snow and an end to 35 degree heat for a few minutes), took us up to the Mount of Temptation where we fittingly indulged in ice cream. To round the morning off we visited the archaeological dig sites of Tel Jericho, dating back to 9000 BC, and the natural spring which feeds the town with 700m3 of fresh water from the aquifer every hour. After refuelling at lunchtime we headed to Hisham’s Palace, which unsurprisingly had great resonance with one of our members! The afternoon was a trip to the Dead Sea for the surreal feeling of floating effortlessly on water. Almost matching it were the dulcet tones of George singing Arabic songs at full blast in the taxi on our way there. Although obvious enough, I can’t stress how important it is to avoid putting your eyes anywhere near the water – just a splash and one of us would be rendered blind and a round of Marco Polo would always ensue.
Our other evening activities have given us both amusement and lots to ruminate and the last two weeks will no doubt serve up more of the same. On Tuesdays we have guest lecturers and so far we have had one on a brief history of Palestine which was given by the Professor of the Palestinian History course in the second month which I will sadly miss. Wednesdays have been another highlight of the trip as we have been learning Debke, Traditional Arabic dancing, providing us a guaranteed hour a week when we can get our dancing shoes on. It has certainly come naturally to some of us more than others and, with the Arabic blood flowing through his veins, Hisham has certainly been the twinkle toes. Starting last week we have also managed to squeeze in a cooking class at the university after our Arabic class. Our traditional Palestinian menu is taught by Chef Andoni, whose culinary skills are second only to the precision taken in his attire and facial hair. Thursdays have been movie nights and Occupation 101 was incredibly powerful and moving. To watch the very streets I live and work on being bombarded by gunfire was shocking and served as a penetrating reminder of where I am. Fridays are normally penned in for group nights out and on the first Friday we were treated to a night of local specialities at a restaurant in Beit Sahour, including unknowingly eating sheep’s brain. Taybeh beer and Arak topped it off nicely though. We have also had two BBQs, and not wanting to break tradition from all the other meals that I have had, there is enough food to feed the five thousand. A little bit of football with the locals never goes amiss either.
We have a packed programme for the remaining two weeks and it’s a shame that Monday 23rd July is approaching so quickly. I have made some great friends here in Palestine, particularly in our group. It’s amazing to think that we’ve come from England, America and Chile, yet have all met in the Holy Land, thousands of miles from our homes. I can’t wait to see what is in store for us all.