I know I’ve been awake for too long when the I hear the Fajr Dhuhr adhan announcing the crack of dawn. The first “Allahu Akbar” sounded over the loudspeakers of the nearby mosque just as I sat down to begin writing. We were out late celebrating; today marks the last day of class under our first schedule. After this weekend, the kids will be off summer vacation and back in school, so our schedule will probably become busier rather than easier, but we decided to celebrate anyway. We’ve been hanging out with Nidal and his friends since 2 pm and only got home a few minutes ago. It’s 4:00 am now.
It’s also the twentieth day we’ve been in Palestine, and we now have twenty more to go. It’s difficult to find time to write, not only because of our schedule, but because there are so many layers to each day and discovery that I’m reluctant to snowball it all into one journal entry. Everything I talk about here could easily be filtered through a political lens, for example. The occupation affects the economy, the economy affects education, education affects our students and the volunteers’ purpose in Palestine, etc. This is often the topic of conversation here. Today, the focus was on the Second Intifada.
Nidal took Giulia, Tessa, and I out to lunch, along with his visiting friends, Drew and Julia. Drew is an English teacher from Portland living in Cairo, and Julia is a Jewish-American from New York. The two are in Nablus conducting business research in the hopes of expanding Project Hope to other cities in Palestine, as well as personal research on the occupation in Palestine. Nidal decided that a good place to start on the latter would be the Old City.
After a few twists through the souk, we left the bustling shops to arrive in front of a green door with a rusted sign swinging above it. Nidal unlocked the door and pushed his way in. We followed him through a low corridor and up some stairs, emerging in a small stone courtyard with a jasmine tree and trash littering the floor. All around were doors, some belonging to residents, others free for us to explore. One room had been converted into a classroom, completely untouched except for a thick layer of dust. We looked out the window and found a huge well, maybe 10 meters in diameter and so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. “This well used to lead to a river under the city,” Nidal explained. “Now it’s just an entrance to the ruins of the Old City.”
I was confused. I thought we were in the Old City. But Nidal told us that what we know as Nablus was actually built right on top of an ancient city, like Rome. The aquifer wells are now some of the only entrances into it. “Underground lies an entire city, and it’s here that the Palestinian rebels hid during the Second Intifada.”
The 2000 Second Intifada lasted five years and severely impacted the West Bank. Every Nablusi over the age of twenty has a story about it. Our neighbor Ahmad was a kid back then, and strongly remembers chucking a stone at a tank; in response, it honked its horn (apparently, tank horns sound like this). The IDF demolished downtown Nablus, erasing years of history embedded in the Ottoman-era houses and souks. But another part of the city, even older and hidden from the destruction above, of the Palestinian resistance. Drew wanted to explore one tunnel entrance, but it quickly became to dark to see, so we decided to save it for another day. As Nidal led us through streets and courtyards, we found evidence of the fighting: bullet holes, crumbling houses, a broad sheet-metal school roof that had been wrenched down by Israeli soldiers. We climbed to the top floor of a beautiful, 200 year-old palace. It had once been elegantly painted, and a few panels of stained glass remained in their frames, but the ceiling was caving in and animal droppings were scattered everywhere. Its windows looked down upon a garden where a famous Palestinian leader was gunned down during the war.
We exited the palace and the density of the Old City, turned a corner… and found ourselves standing on a Roman amphitheater. I was blown away. It literally is just sitting in somebody’s backyard; had Nidal not been guiding us, we would have missed it. Jules and I climbed onto a fallen pillar and started rocking it back and forth. Jules started laughing. “Look at us, a Jew and a Palestinian, logrolling a Roman pillar in the middle of the West Bank.” It was pretty funny, even foregoing the irony of our respective ethnicities. I mean, the depth of history is astounding, and yet there is little to no regulation of the anthropological sites. Where’s the ticket vendor? The roped-off ruins? The tourists?
The rest of the night was spent at Bashar’s cafe in Sama Nablus, with the same people from our first night there. Naturally, our day trip sparked a conversation about the the destruction of Nablus and the demonstrations. “Everyone’s thrown a stone as part of a demonstration,” Aabu told us. “But we’re not organized. We’re not soldiers, just fighting for our homes. Sometimes, you see a demonstrator suddenly tumble over in the middle of a crowd. When that happens, it’s because another demonstrator accidentally hit him in the head with a rock.” He and Nidal joked about how the most firepower at their disposal was a Molotov cocktail, and proceeded to teach us how to throw it so you don’t end up with fire in your face. I love their sense of humor; even after two (minimum) intifadas, 66 years of occupation, a crushing economy, the daily injustice of the IDF, and the devastating and predictable cycle of violence in Gaza, these guys can still laugh at their situation. Nidal’s uncle was a major general in the war, and Bashar was a resistance fighter. Both had spent years in prison and lost friends and family in the war. Yet all still had the spirit to continue protesting and resisting while going on with work, family, and life. Moreover, they’re hilarious, and incredibly good company. There was no hint of bitterness from them as we sat at Sama Nablus, drinking tea and watching the city sleep.