Category Archives: Palestine 2014

August 28th, 2014 (Hebron)

*** I really struggled to write this post, and I apologize for the length ahead of time. But if you want to understand what the occupation looks like from the inside, this is the entry to read.

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As part of our short vacation from working in Nablus, we decided to take a day-trip to Hebron. I was told that this was where I’d come face to face with the occupation. I was ready, but I wasn’t ready.

But before I tell this story, I need to give a little background info: Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world, and with a population of around 600,000, it’s easily the largest governorate in the West Bank. According to the bible, it’s the town where Abraham settled, making it an important religious site for all three major monotheistic religions (Abraham’s the guy who almost sacrificed his own son because God asked him to). Because of this, control of the town has been sought after by many groups of people dating back to the second millennium B.C., and most recently by the Zionist Labor Party of the Israeli government. Their mission was to occupy this city, and after the Six-Day War in 1967, they had their opportunity. The Labor Party seized much of the West Bank, including Hebron, and remained in control for decades. Then, with the Oslo Agreement in 1995 and subsequent Hebron Agreement in 1997, most of these cities were returned to Palestinian control (at least nominally) with one exception: Hebron. The city would be split into two sectors: H1, which is Palestinian controlled, and H2, which is retained by Israel. H2 occupies the middle of the city, and contains around 500 Israeli settlers and 2,000 IDF soldiers in four downtown settlements (that adds up to about four IDF soldiers per settler). These settlements are funded and protected by the Israeli government, and their primary objective is to secure a Jewish majority in strategic regions of the West Bank, despite their explicit prohibition in the Geneva Convention (read more about the legality and purpose of the settlements here). All movement in and around the area is restricted to Palestinians, and especially Shuhada street, where 1,829 Palestinian-owned shops have been permanently shutdown. This means that the heart of one of the largest cities in Palestine is closed-off to most of its residents. In their place, it houses one of the most hostile settler populations in the West Bank. This is the place where settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994. Today, we would meet a Palestinian who calls these settlers neighbors.

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At first glance, Hebron looked the same as ever other town we’ve visited in Palestine. Bustling market place, falafel carts, traffic, etc. But then we entered the souk, and after a few intersections came up against a fenced-off, barbed and blockaded street. “H2 is past there,” a shopkeeper told us. Unfortunately, “past there” was where we needed to go.

Drew and Julia had given us the number of a contact in Hebron a few days before, when they learned we might be visiting. Hashem Azzeh couldn’t come meet us; he’s been under detention for two years now, meaning he can’t leave the H2 sector without being rearrested. So he told a taxi where to take us. We drove all around Hebron, taking long detours and suspicious alleyways. We were beginning to wonder if this guy was really taking us to Hashem when he turned around and asked us in Arabic how many days we were spending in Hebron. “Just today,” I responded. He laughed. “Pay attention, then.”

We were dropped off in front of an abandoned guard tower and a traffic gate. Hashem stood waiting on the other side, so we crossed over into H2 territory.

As we walked with Hashem, he told us more about himself. He’s lived in Hebron his whole life, and is one of the few families who has remained following the settlement installments 20 yeas ago. After studying medicine in Jordan, he returned to Hebron to work as a physician, but can no longer do so due to his detainment within the H2 sector. Why exactly was he detained? For leading tours like this one, where he shows foreigners what’s going on inside the settlements. “They called it ‘Anti-Semitic behavior.'” He looked at us, perplexed. “For showing people the truth! What do they even mean, ‘Anti-Semitic?’ Arabs are technically Semites!” (it’s true; not to belabor the point, but here’s the dictionary definition of a Semite).

A bunch of children were sitting outside a school. They were a little wary at first, but at the sight of Hashem, they warmed to us and started practicing their English: “How are you! Where are you from!” Some even got up and showed off their dabke skills. They kicked, stepped, twirled, and then broke away and ran off, giggling. Hashem followed them inside; he volunteers here as a director of student activities. “I taught the women basic healthcare and sexual education, so they can teach their students. I trained them, so they know how to check for breast cancer. We have psychology classes, too, to help the kids cope with the settler attacks. They have a lot of fear; many can’t sleep in their own room, or even alone at all. ” We asked Hashem what exactly these settlers would do to terrorize the kids. “I’ll show you,” he said.

We walked away from the school and towards Hashem’s house. Along the way we passed an IDF soldier on the way, who eyed us suspiciously but let us by all the same. We stopped just before an orange house. “This is the settlement. These are my neighbors. They tried to buy my house from me twenty years ago, the way Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs, to make me leave Hebron, but I refused. So after that, they turned to violence. The entrance to my house used to be this way, but they won’t let me cross, so now I have to take another way.” Then he turned down a dirt side path. It ran parallel to the orange house above us, and as we walked, kids ran out on the porch. They started yelling at us in Arabic and Hebrew. I couldn’t catch most of it, but I did understand “sharmouta.” It means “whore” in Arabic.

Hashem stopped under a grape vine. There were a few green ones, but most looked more like rotten raisins than grapes. “The settlers poisoned these, and the fig trees, and the olives. Here, look at this one.” He pointed to a huge olive tree, the largest I’ve ever seen. “We call them Roman olives. It’s 2,000 years old. The settlers cut off it’s largest branch, but we stopped them from doing more.” As we wandered the garden, we saw more signs of sabotage: shriveled fruit, dying shrubs, trees that were cut down to stumps. There was broken furniture in the yard, and a bullet lodged in the wall above his door.

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(Hashem leading us around H2; an IDF soldier in his outpost above Hashem’s house; grapes poisoned by the settlers)

I was already disgusted, but he went on. “My wife was pregnant in 2009. One day, she came home, and the settlers walked up to her, and they beat her. The fetus died. She became pregnant again. They beat her again, and tried to make it so she couldn’t get pregnant anymore. But, somehow, she became pregnant again. This time, I told her to stay in the house, that I would bring her everything she needs. Thank God, she gave birth in the night. But when we returned home with the baby, there were 50 settlers waiting for us. They beat me, and they beat her, and they even beat the infant My wife was permanently damaged, but we made it inside the house, and my daughter is four years old. You’ll see her now.” And with that, we entered his house.

The first thing I noticed about Hashem’s home were the beautiful oil pastel paintings hanging on every wall. The second was a little head poking out of the room on the left. Then it disappeared. “She’ll come later, don’t worry,” Hashem laughed. We sat down in his living room and watched videos while drinking mango juice. The videos were of the settlers: settlers explaining their tactics, settlers throwing rocks at Palestinians coming home from school, settlers screaming at Hashem and his family. In one of the videos, the perpetrators where children: girls in sundresses, shouting curses and kicking their Palestinian counterparts, and young boys waiting further on, clutching stones (here’s a video of one of the settlers, Mirar, training children to attack her Palestinian neighbors. The white building in the video is the settlement right next to Hashem’s house).

The video finished, and the child who had been peeking at us finally came in to say hello, followed by her mother and her brother Yunis. This is the girl who survived the beatings from the settlers, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at her. She’s absolutely gorgeous, with smooth, undisturbed skin. The mother was beautiful as well,her face was marked by evidence of the attacks. She’s the one who painted all the oil pastels in the house:

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We left the house to visit what used to be the busiest marketplace in Hebron. Shuhada street was like a ghost town. The windows were broken, and the doors had been welded shut years ago. There were no signs of life anywhere, except the occasional child donning a kippuh. Hashem pointed at each shop: this one was a bakery, a pharmacy, a dentist’s office. On the side of a school, we found some faded graffiti that read “Gas the Arabs!”:

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 (Shuhada Street)

No more than twelve years old, Yunis walked a little ahead of us, hanging back only when he saw the settler’s children ahead. “They beat him, when he comes to and from school,” Hashem explained. I looked at Yunis again, startled. He didn’t look scared, but he never smiled either, not once during the whole tour. His face was just grim the entire time.

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(Yunis, waiting for us to catch up)

By then the sun was descending in the sky, and we needed to get back to Nablus before it got too late. As we walked back the way we came, I asked Hashem if he’d ever tried to escape his detention area. “Yesterday,” he responded immediately.

I laughed, surprised. “Why?”

“Because I needed a haircut.” Well, when you need a haircut, you need a haircut.

Just then, a group of Palestinian kids appeared from around the corner and ran up to us, tripping over each other to shake our hands and ask us questions. I turned to Hashem. “How come they’re not afraid of us? We’re total strangers; based on what they live with, they should have every right to fear us.”

He shook his head. “We have workshops on nonviolent resistance, and as a part of these workshops we teach the children that the settlers are not like most Jews. Whenever I have visitors — and especially Jewish visitors — I bring them into the classrooms to meet the children, you know, to show them that not all people are like the ones giving them problems. My only exception is Zionists. If a Zionist comes here, I show him the door.”

We stopped just before the ledge of a crumbling wall six meters high. “The taxi station isn’t far from here. Just climb down this and you’ll be out of H2.” I banged my elbow on the way down but otherwise escaped unscathed.

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(Hashem’s 2,000 year-old Roman Olive tree, and Giulia)

 

 

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(H2 kids waving bye from the six meter wall)

What Hashem had touched on right before we left is something I find central to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not a war over religion, nor has it ever been. Religion in this context has only ever been a pretext for a crusade for resources and political control in Palestine (literally since the Crusades in the 11th century AD). Before the Israeli invasion in 1948, there was a large Palestinian Jewish demographic that lived in peace among the Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Samaritans. Today, “Jewish” can mean many things: there are secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Jews living in Eastern Europe and New York and California, and even people who identify as Christian Jews (seriously)*. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only 75% of Israelis living in the self-proclaimed Jewish state are actually ethnically Jewish or practice Judaism. Many of the settlers themselves are religious zealots from Brooklyn who were hired to wage Israel’s war in a house in the West Bank. So, contrary to popular belief, these communities have little to do with the average Jew. In reality they are an implementation of the Israeli government that serve a political end. The settlers are to the Jews as the KKK are to the Christians, and the ISIS to Islam. Each of these groups claim a religion to justify their terrorizing actions while displaying a blatant disregard for the principles and practices that constitute their chosen theologies.

I don’t scare easily. But what I saw today scared me. It scared me first to be near people who were so zealous and cruel that they would beat a pregnant woman into miscarriage in the name of their religion. It scared me to see settlers’ kids, around the age of those I’ve been teaching during my time in Palestine, look at me with hatred that shouldn’t belong to someone so young. It scared me to look at Yunis and realize that he has to see live with these people. And, most of all, I was horrified by the slow realization that this is what Israel is funding and protecting, meaning it’s what Americans are supporting with their tax dollars. Had I not seen it for myself, I doubt I would have believed it.

*For more information about demographics and recent history in Palestine/Israel, check out this post by David Sanchez, complete with sources and statistics. We met David in Hebron, which for him is just one stop on a year-long voyage to fifteen countries important to his Peace-Conflict studies. He keeps an excellent blog that’s definitely worth a long look.

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August 27th, 2014 (Bethlehem)

Christmas town! In August! Our trip to Bethlehem was a welcome retreat from Nablus. Not that we don’t love Nablus; we’re just getting a little too comfortable with living there, and really need to see more of Palestine before we leave. Sometimes I forget that we’re in the Holy Land, but Bethlehem definitely makes you remember. This place has, like, seventeen different churches belonging to sects from Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., as well as mosques and other religious sites. The one we made sure to visit was the Nativity Church, where Jesus was supposedly born (although it’s one of forty different places that claim the same thing, and I’m pretty sure he was only resurrected once).

The culture of Bethlehem is radically different from that of Nablus, most likely due to the heavier Christian demographic here. Then again, every city in Palestine seems to have its own unique mix of people of social attitudes. We had just barely reached Manger Square when a middle-aged local swept us up and began to give us a free tour of the sites. At first we were wary, because we thought he had an agenda. And he did in a way, but he didn’t want money, or even to convert us politically or religiously. Like many other Palestinians, Saeed noticed we were internationals, and wanted to share his story and perspective with us, in the hopes that we might pass it along when we return home.

So Saeed talked to us as we walked past olive wood shops and souvenir stands. He told us how most Palestinians feel that Western media portrays them unfairly while denying them a voice on the conflict with Israel.  He stopped in a woodworker’s shop to take pictures of Christmas ornaments for an American family, who wanted to buy straight from the factory in Bethlehem. I asked how he met them. “I was giving a tour to these Christians from Ohio, you know, showing them the churches and the shops. They’re pro-Israel, but I still gave the tour, no problem. They looked at me and said, ‘But you’re Palestinian. You’re like one of those terrorists. But you’re such a nice guy!'” He went on to tell us they’re still pro-Israel, but gradually beginning to understand the Palestinian perspective. All sorts of visitors come to Bethlehem: Arabs, Americans, Israelis, Jews, Muslims, Christians. Saeed is happy to give tours to all of them; he just hopes that by talking with them, he can help them form a better understanding of the Palestinian people.

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(Painted wood carvings from inside the Church of the Nativity)

In one shop, we ran into some Germans and learned they were volunteers, which immediately sparked a conversation. As it turns out, they’re musicians as well: they work for Brass for Peace. Of course, as a trumpet player, I geeked out. The woman we were speaking to plays trombone, and apparently this organization specifically focuses on teaching brass instruments to teenagers in Bethlehem. I had  no idea something like this even existed, but I’m starting to realize just how many different volunteer organizations come to Palestine. We’ve come across theater troupes, women’s programs, Doctors Without Borders, church groups, housing reconstruction teams, the EAPPI, and every kind of infrastructure and healthcare unit, all run by NGOs and administered with the cooperation of local Palestinians. Funding is hard to come across, but it’s encouraging to see that there are so many volunteers willing to come support the people here.

The shops and churches were nice, but after our tour we went on to our main priority in Bethlehem: the Separation Barrier that runs right through the middle of the city. I mentioned it in my second or third blog post, but today I got a much closer look at it. This wall is an 8 meter high sheet of concrete that cuts the city in half, and the bottom half of it is completely painted with anti-occupation posters and graffiti, some of it from the world-famous artist Banksy. We spent a good hour just strolling along the wall, taking pictures of the graffiti and reading the stories written over it:

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… and my personal favorite:

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The War is Over (maybe)!

Tessa posted this on Facebook yesterday, summing up our experience of the last few days: “Last night the city was hushed and I watched army jeeps take over the streets as arrests occurred throughout the West Bank. Tonight there are celebrations and fireworks in honour of the Gaza ceasefire. What a difference a day makes.” After 50 days of warfare in the Gaza Strip, Cairo has finally brokered terms that both Hamas and Israel can agree upon. We’re (tentatively) celebrating the headway made for the Palestinians, because for the first time in seven years, Egypt and Israel will open a few of their border-crossings with Gaza, easing the blockade and allowing in humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials.

But both sides are claiming victory, with varying reactions from their people. Hamas has been holding victory rallies and celebrating the fact that they were able to force real negotiation efforts with Israel. And I think here it’s worth mentioning again that Hamas is a legitimate political party, democratically elected by its people to represent the Gaza Strip, and that they attempted peaceful negotiations, with little or response from Israel (Jimmy Carter wrote an op-ed on the dangers of demonizing Hamas that explains the situation better than I ever could). Before this last bout of fighting, 1.8 million Gazans have been suffocating under a seven-year blockade, leaving them isolated and in utter economic crisis. I will never condone violence as a means of negotiation, but I do understand the desperation of the Gazans and why they believed that fighting back was their only option.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also called the outcome victorious for his people, but rather than organizing victory rallies, many Israelis are criticizing his leadership. “‘After 50 days of warfare in which a terror organisation killed dozens of soldiers and civilians, destroyed the daily routine [and] placed the country in a state of economic distress … we could have expected much more than an announcement of a ceasefire,’ Reuters reported analyst Shimon Shiffer as writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper.”

So it’s unclear who “won” the war. Even though the ceasefire terms sound progressive at first, The Guardian makes the important observation that “the terms of the deal – brokered by the Egyptian government, and reached on the 50th day of the conflict – appeared to be almost identical to those agreed at the end of the previous war 21 months ago.” And Al Jazeera follows, reporting that “The war today is an echo of the war of 2012, and that is a reminder of the war of 2009 and before that the war of 2008 and still before the war of 1967, 1956 and 1948. The war of today, therefore, is an echo of the 1948 Nakba, and the 1967 Naksa and Sabra and Shatila in 1983.”

But I’m a little more optimistic about the outcome, and particularly the effects this war has had on public opinion of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Despite the fact that you can still be fired for simply criticizing the Israeli government (and each of those highlighted words links to a different case), the issue is finally beginning to be discussed by celebrities and politicians, as well as on social media sites, in a more open and critical manner than ever before (looking at you, Jon Stewart). And this excerpt best explains the general feeling of optimism from the ground: “From the perspective of a straight score-sheet, the number of deaths and the amount of destruction during the war was incomparably greater in Gaza than in Israel, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar university. ‘But in Gaza we measure things in a different way. The Palestinian resistance with modest military capabilities was able to fight one of the strongest armies in the region for 50 days. The resistance and the people were not broken. The Palestinians showed resilience and steadfastness. You don’t look at victory and defeat only from a military perspective.'”

As I type, I can hear car horns and fireworks outside, celebrating for Gaza. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of the conflict, but for now everyone’s taking the time to acknowledge that the fighting’s over and some progress has been made. More importantly, we’re happy that the civilians in Gaza will have some tenuous peace and the chance to rebuild.

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***My last few posts have been more politically charged than usual, and I want to get back to writing about music and Nablus. If you want to keep up with what’s going on Palestine and Israel, please please please make sure to check several different news sources for each story; this issue tends to garner more bias than others, especially in Western media. I usually check in with Al Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, BBC, and Haaretz before posting about something happening here. And after that I check The Onion, because by then, I just really need to laugh about something.

August 26th, 2014 (Miscellaneous Sounds of Palestine)

Before I left the United States to come to Palestine, I almost, almost bought a field recorder. I took a huge detour that makes me regret not buying one (there’s a lot for a musician to hear in Istanbul, Lesvos, Rome, and Berlin), but I’m lucky in that my two flatmates in Nablus happen to be very interested in ethnomusicology, and brought along one recorder each. Giulia has been especially diligent in making sure we capture pieces of what we hear everyday. Some of these are a few weeks old, and really belong to some of my earlier posts, so I’ll go back and edit in the links, but this post will provide a sort of sound collage of Palestine for anyone interested. 

Adhan Thohr Juma3a – This is definitely the most exemplary sound byte I could include here to represent Nablus. Here, the time of day is clearly marked by the five calls to prayer. In other words, the call serves as a musical sundial. This particular adhan plays in the afternoon on Fridays, to announce the most important prayer of the week (similar to Sunday church bells for Christians). And although many Muslims have insisted to us that the call is vocalizing the Qur’an, not merely singing it, I can’t help but love it based on it’s sheer musicality. Each call is sung in a maqam, or Arabic scale, and sometimes the vocalizers ornament each phrase and elongate the words (religious rubato, though they might not appreciate the expression). It’s one of the things I know I’ll miss once I’m back in the States.

Wedding Song and Dabke Dancing – Because to understand a Palestinian wedding, you really need to hear it. Actually, maybe it’d be better not to; the speakers were turned up louder than anything should ever be ever, and I think my left eardrum has some aural form of PTSD. But you can’t hate this music — it’s designed to get people moving, and there’s a strong sense of rhythm that makes it hard to resist the dance floor, even if you suck at dabke (like me).  Also, here’s a recording of us almost dying as our car raced twenty others to get to the wedding first. And here’s one of me, at the wedding lunch before all of this, killing time drumming on a bunch of soda cans.

Pool Jam Session #1, 2, and 3 – This is what happens when you stick a bunch of musicians in a pool house for a weekend. We had two oud players from Nablus, one singer from Canada, one flute player from Italy, and me, playing guitar and occasionally oud as well. #1 is probably my favorite. It’s called Ya Leyl Ya Leyl, and Professor Habib composed it. It’s so simple but we never get sick of playing it, and it’s the easiest to jam, because the accompaniment is just switching between Do and Fa, and then repeating the same thing in the minor key. I don’t know what into the second recording, but a lot of it is improvisation between Nidal and Habib. And the third is an Egyptian political song. We don’t know the name; we just call it Ham/Hum, for obvious reasons. 

Students at Sabastiya and the Medical Relief Center – We gave our students drums and taught them to beat out rhythms while singing. Our Sabastiya kids are mostly 10-12 years old and we had them drum along to Tik Tik Tik Ya Musleiman by Fairouz. Everyone here knows Fairouz, and especially this song; the Lebanese singer has a lot of classic children’s songs in her repertoire, and even the adults we meet love it. And apparently, my own mother used to sing it to me when I was a baby, though I had no idea until we had already taught it to the kids here. The Medical Relief Center students are a little older — 14 to 18 in age — and a lot of them know some pretty complex rhythms. In this recording, one of our students is leading a call and response song/chant/game with the rest of the class. Giulia, Tessa, and I have noticed that students respond really well to rhythm, but don’t have as much familiarity with pitches and harmony. That observation could be made of Arab music culture as a whole; the beat tends to be a lot more important to the essence of a song than the melody is. It’s worth mentioning that every student there knows how to dance dabke.

The only other recording I want to include here is of daytime fireworks, but only because we’re so relieved that our ears have finally learned to distinguish between a spray of bullets and a wedding celebration. 

August 25th, 2014

The kids are going back to school, so for this week we volunteers get a little break in our schedules as the students adjust to theirs. We’ll be back to normal in a few days. For now, we’re enjoying a much needed rest, which has given me time to reflect on the complex layering of cultures in Nablus. That, and also a few days to party at our friend’s pool house in the Jordan Valley.

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The pool house had a high fence surrounding it, so for the first time in three weeks, I was able to wear a bikini and walk around in shorts and a tank top. Note: I’m from California, where the second the weather breaks 16 °C, everyone’s in shorts. I consider it a major accomplishment that I’ve grown comfortable with long sleeves and pants in a country where people drink hot tea to cool down. I’m used to it now, but during my first week here, I was amazed that so many of the women were wearing head scarves (hijabs) in this heat, along with leggings and even jackets. To be honest, I was criticizing (in my head) the idea that this society’s religion oppressed its women in terms of freedom of movement and expression. As usual, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Abu, a friend of Nidal’s, took it upon himself to enlighten us.

As we walked through the souk, looking for some knefah, Abu picked up a conversation we had started earlier about religion. “You know Muslim women don’t have to wear the hijab,” he began. I will admit, I was surprised. My mother is technically a Muslim and forgoes the hijab, but she also forgoes the rest of the religion, so I didn’t exactly view her as the paradigm of cultural Islam. “Yes, in the 1980’s, before the First Intifada, Palestine was like Europe. Tee-shirts, dresses — seriously! You should see my aunt’s pictures.”  And it’s true: if you look at photos from that era, not nearly as many women wear the scarf as they do today. Abu was getting excited now; you could tell he’s explained all this before. “It’s traditional, not religious. The tradition comes from religion, yes, but people only take the tradition so seriously because of he occupation. When the IDF locked down Nablus in the early 2000s, times were hard, and we didn’t have international influence because nobody could enter the city. All we had was religion and tradition, and the people clung to it.” We’ve definitely noticed the aftereffects of the six-year blockade on Nablus; it’s one of the most conservative cities in the West Bank (not including villages), meaning long-sleeved clothes, no alcohol, and a major emphasis on religion. Pop culture and social media is huge here, but whenever Israel begins bombing the Gaza Strip, the only songs accepted on the radio are dedicated to Gaza, and Facebook becomes a channel for otherwise censored news and critique. But it’s important to acknowledge that this cultural lean towards conservatism was caused by the occupation and is a way of resisting it, rather than the reverse: that religious intolerance caused the occupation. In fact, Nablus has always been, and still is, a hub of religious diversity and tolerance. Though predominantly Muslim, Nablus houses a large Christian demographic that has peacefully existed here for centuries. Overlooking Nablus from one of the valley mountains is the Samaritan community, which has been there for nearly 2,000 years and is viewed as a sort of neutral zone (alcohol is routinely sold there, and Good Samaritan Arak is the best I’ve ever tasted). There used to be a Jewish community within Nablus as well, before the invasion. But now in their place, over on another mountaintop, sits Yitzhar, the Orthodox Jewish settlement that keeps itself separate from Nablus, but occasionally causes conflict in this otherwise peaceful city.

We leaned against the wall of the cafe, eating our knefah as Abu finished his speech on culture. He wants us to understand, but he also understands us; he’s traveled around Europe with Nidal, so they have international experience and know quite a bit about our own cultures. We’re pretty comfortable with him, and he doesn’t care that we don’t wear a hijab. Actually, most people here don’t; we’re Westerners, with our own beliefs, and as long as we respect the culture of Nablus (see: not downing shots naked in the street; also: not starting a city-wide blockade that literally restricts all movement into and out of the city for six years), they will respect us. Moreover, they’ll probably invite us in for some tea and ma’amoul.

August 20th, 2014 (Last day of First Schedule)

Halfway through our placement, Project Hope is shifting all its volunteers’ schedules. School is starting up again in Nablus, so we can’t have morning classes anymore. If we’re lucky, we’ll still have the same kids. For all the obstacles we face with teaching here– including the language barrier, the problems in Palestine, and the fact that they are, you know, children — they’ve made so much progress in these last three weeks that I’m reluctant to give them up for a fresh new batch of students. 

Until now, Giulia and I have been teaching at the City Cultural Center and Medical Center in Nablus, a women’s center in Askar Camp, and another in Sebastya. Each class has its own difficulties and personality. There seems to be a trade-off between behavior and enthusiasm; at CCC and Sebastya, for example, the kids are usually pretty well-behaved, but they get bored more easily, so we have to work harder to keep their attention. At Askar and the Medical Center, the kids are crazy. I always leave with my ears buzzing, and the Medical Center is where the fight broke out a while back. But when they focus on an activity, they put an amazing amount of energy into it (here’s a link to the Medical Center kids singing Al Kufiyya for us). 

We tried to make the last day memorable while simultaneously reviewing everything we’ve gone over up until that point. With the older kids, I wrote out some staves and had the compose their own music. It was pretty basic stuff, but they were able to come up with 10 or so bars of song, which Giulia and I then played on her flute and my trumpet. 

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After going over rhythms, notes, and dynamics, and singing “Tik Tik Tik Ya Musleiman” and “Oh! Alele”, we took group pictures of each class. Sometimes, we let the kids try out our instruments. Most of the younger ones could eventually get a sound out my trumpet, and a few managed to jump registers, which is actually way more than I could do the first time I picked one up. It made me want to buy them all instruments; some would seriously make great musicians, if they just had the resources to get started. 

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August 20th, 2014 (Second Intifada and the Second City)

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.”

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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.

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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?

10615383_10152687363513223_2580408904183996774_nThe 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.