Tag Archives: Nablus

August 13th, 2014

Two weeks in and I’m still adjusting to this weekday shift. Today is Wednesday, so to us Westerners it’s really a Friday. You could tell by the way the students were celebrating: screaming Do-Re-Mi, jumping out of their chairs, clapping rhythms to a beat much faster than the ones we laid out. Then I made the mistake of handing out recorders to each and every one of them. We felt their Friday energy release in the form of twenty shrieking whistles, so piercing that the English teachers nearby came over to yell at our kids. Finally, we calmed them down enough to teach a few notes, and felt grateful for even that much progress by the end. 

Askar camp was worse. I keep reminding myself that these kids live in a cramped refugee camp, and tend to have a lot more energy than the others. Usually this is a good thing; they’re some of our most enthusiastic students and retain information better than most. On the flip side, if they get bored, this energy becomes fuel for literally bouncing off the walls of our echoing basement classroom and screaming until our ears hurt (maybe we should teach them to scream in harmony; at least then there would be something musical about it). Today, they sat still just long enough for us to do some rhythm review, and then broke out into the scene described above. To make matters worse, our translator ditched us again, so we struggled in vain to maintain control in Arabic.


(But we still love our Askar Camp kids) 

Needless to say, I was relieved by the time we hit our weekend. The other Music Harvest volunteers and I hung around the Project Hope office, practicing jazz tunes and free jamming, before going home for quiet and relaxation. In the evening we had oud.

We met Nedal at City Center and took a taxi to Habib’s house. The second Nedal touched his knuckle to the door, it swung open with a slam and an “AHLAN WA SAHLAN!”, knocking Nedal back a good five steps. Habib stood in the doorway and erupted into laughter, before properly welcoming us inside. 

Tessa, Giulia, and I thought we needed to exchange our regular-sized ouds for bigger ones. As it turns out, we don’t need bigger ouds, just better technique. We spent an hour listening to Habib and Nedal improvise Taqasim, following each other through different maqams and quoting songs in both English and Arabic. They were really communicating; the two voices were woven into one, so that I couldn’t tell which one was playing the melody and which the harmony. Afterward, we were given an hour’s lesson, going over the nahawand maqam and “Tik, Tik, Tik” by Fairuz. 

 The evening wore on and we grew more relaxed. Habib’s friend Akeel brought chicken and potatoes to make makloubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish (in Arabic, I say “makloubeh” when I want to mean “upside-down,” and people understand because the way you make it is by flipping chicken upside-down onto a pilaf). Akeel also brought a homemade pear brew, so we put the ouds away, poured a glass, and sipped it while peeling potatoes. Meanwhile, we talked about work and nature and gardening; Akeel keeps a pepper garden, and regularly eats these green and black chiles. They taste like an inferno. Then he showed us a party trick where he smokes a cigarette, then flips it back into his mouth, appearing to have swallowed it whole. I swear, he doesn’t have a tongue. 

 I’m not surprised that of all the people we’ve met in Nablus, these three musicians are the ones we feel most comfortable around. As Habib said, “It’s only been two days, but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time!” He went on to talk about how musicians share the same “shape of mind,” and that the act of music-making is intrinsically communicative and unifying. Obviously, we all agreed: that’s why we’re here in the first place. 

August 11th, 2014

Saturday is Monday, and Monday is the busiest day of the week. CCC in the morning, Askar camp in the afternoon, Arabic lessons in the evening, and oud with Nedal in the night. It starts out like hell but gets easier as the day goes on. Our translator didn’t show up today, so the first couple classes were even more difficult than usual. But Giulia and I are picking up Arabic quickly, so we nailed at least a few of our objectives.

Oud was the best part of an otherwise long, humid day of work. We learnt the first maqam, called Nahawand. It’s similar to our Aeolian scale, but the third and fifth are a little flatter than we’re used to. I’ve grown attached to my oud; it has this beautifully expressive face, with an inlaid wood and mother of pearl design resembling an eye with a teardrop. Habib says the face of an oud determines the sound. I think he was referring to the material and shape, but my oud’s voice is just as sad and warm as its face looks. It fits well with the Arabic music, which as a rule emphasizes feeling and emotion as the guide to good sound.

After the lesson, we followed Nedal upstairs to drink tea and watch the urban sunset from his uncle’s balcony:

His uncle was carrying a baby, and as we played with him the mother came, carrying the baby’s identical twin. Twins are extremely common here; I have three sets of twins among my classes, a set living on my street, and a set that walks by everyday on their way to work. And more often than not, they make an effort to dress the same way, just as these babies were.

August 10th, 2014

Today, I had my first meeting with my most difficult and fun class yet. 30 kids ranging in age from 14 to 18 years old were stuffed into this tiny room at the Nablus Medical Center, dancing and yelling and eager to start class. Until meeting them myself, I would have never believed they could be more rambunctious than my eight year-olds. The boys were especially energetic; they wanted to know where we were from, what we played, if I could teach them drums, guitar, how to dance, etc. Some of them were only a year younger than me, though I kept that to myself. With the help of our translator, we finally got them to calm down. The nice thing about teaching older kids is that, even with an Arabic/English communication barrier, it is much easier to get them to understand what you want. Within forty-five minutes they had learned all the basic rhythms and Solfege that had taken the other groups a week to fully comprehend. The lesson was over fast, but not before one kid and I had a quick jam session with drums and trumpet. As they were leaving, the students started clapping and singing our names: “Giulia, behebik, Camellia, behebik.” It was extremely noisy, but endearing nonetheless.

Straight after that, I took a taxi to Ramallah for a quick visit. I have some second cousins there that I wanted to meet. They’re related to my mother, but I was going to meet them before she did.

I fell asleep in the car and woke up in Ramallah. While waiting in the heat for my cousin, one of the men who was in my taxi bought me a water from a nearby cafe. This is one of the things I absolutely love about Palestine: strangers being randomly kind to each other, especially men doing something nice for women out of the blue, is neither uncommon nor creepy. If someone offers you some tea, or decides to guide you to your destination free of charge, you just thank them and remember to pay it forward in the future. Hospitality is built into the culture.

My cousin arrived a few minutes after I did. Emad speaks enough English for us to converse, and as we walked to his car he told me his son was getting married this Friday, and that he wanted me and my friends to come. 600 people are coming to this wedding, and most of them are related to me. I’m only one quarter Palestinian, yet I have some 500 relatives living in Palestine.


(Emad, with Ramallah in the background, and Jerusalem waaay in the distance)

Emad’s family really wanted me to have the traditional Palestinian experience. As we sat in the living room drinking Arabic coffee, they had me try on a tob, which is an embroidered Palestinian dress, typically worn at parties and weddings. Then they served maqluba for dinner, which is one of the most recognizable Palestinian dishes. “Maqluba” means “upside-down” in Arabic, and it’s made by flipping meat over onto a plate of rice and then pouring hot yogurt on top. I wolfed it down, forgetting that in Arab countries, the hosts will keep serving you until they see that you physically can’t eat anymore. By the time I had to leave to catch a taxi back to Nablus, I was stuffed with lamb and rice, and looking forward to the wedding on Friday.

August 9th, 2014

Saturday shouldn’t feel Monday. It’s just not right.
Even though I slept over thirty hours this weekend, a.k.a. Thursday and Friday, I definitely didn’t get enough to be awake for morning music class with twenty eight year-olds. Our students had the Monday/Saturday blues, too; their voices sagged during the vocal warm-ups, and sluggishly clapped through the rhythms I wrote out for them. Still, though, they’re learning quickly. Everyday we add a new rhythm, exercise, pitch, etc.

Our second class was cancelled, so Giulia and I celebrated by eating literally the best falafel I’ve ever had (this is slowly turning into a food blog…). Then we met up with Tessa, and all three of us returned to Project Hope to meet our new oud teacher.

He showed up on the steps, right on time. The second I saw him I knew he was a musician. Picture a young man with hair gelled and spiked, dressed in a loose open shirt over a tank and shorts, and you have Nedal (Nedo for short). Garbed like that, he looked like he was from California rather than Nablus.

The first thing Nedo told us, after his name, was, “We need to get you guys ouds.” This wasn’t exactly planned in the budget, but we’re also not exactly the sort of people to reject the chance to own a new, exotic instrument. Plus, oud lessons were part of the deal; as a volunteer for Music Harvest, you teach music in exchange for learning oud, Arabic, and certain cultural facets of Palestine. Project Hope calls it the Tabadel Program, and the whole philosophy behind it is that when you come to teach, you also come to learn.

We definitely learned a lot as we followed Nedo through the winding souk and into a music shop. We learned that he’s an internationally recognized musician, who recently toured Euope with a group called Onadekom Band. We learned that the music shop in the souk sucks, and that we needed to meet with a man named Habib, professor of music at the An-Najah University of Nablus (that’s “Professor Love,” in Arabic). And we learned a lot more about the oud, this instrument we’re about to spend a lot of time learning.

Oud’s are basically guitars without frets. This allows their players to reach the elusive quarter tone, a musical feature rarely (if ever) found in Western music. In the Western world, there are 12 scales and their various modes. In Arabic music, there are around 35. They’re called maqams, meaning “place” in Arabic. When you play oud, the point is to get from “place to place”, often by Taqasim improvisation, feeling out the flow of the music while at the same time abiding by a complex but unspoken rule system. Professor Habib demonstrated would be the first one to demonstrate Taqasim for us.

Even in the lobby of his building, we could hear high-pitched plucking drifting down from three stories above. Following the sound, we climbed the stairs and pushed open the door to his apartment. He certainly had a musician’s house; bookshelves on every wall were cluttered with sheet music and ethnomusicology books, while ten gorgeously carved ouds hung on the sides and leaned against a sofa. On one table sat a bucket of violin bows, and above his TV were several shelves reserved for ornaments in the shapes of various instruments. Habib himself sat in front of the TV, playing a qanun. He didn’t stop immediately when he saw us, but continued for several minutes, strumming the qanun like a harp with one hand and picking out a longing melody with the other. We didn’t mind; in fact, we were totally entranced. After a while he stopped, turned to us, and laughed. “It’s new to me! I’ve been playing for two months!”

Wow. Two months. I had heard that Habib plays, like, a million instruments, but he truly sounded masterful on this thing. And it looks difficult to play: two thumb picks are all you have to make a huge range of sound on this precise and technical instrument. But the qanun was just the opening act; now Habib reached for his oud, his first instrument, an ornate full-bodied one with birds etched across its face (click here for a video of Habib’s playing). He started playing, a slow, sad maqam, but gradually he accelerated and transposed to a new key, a fiercer one. Soon his hand became a blur as he picked out rapid patterns in the strings, with such practiced technique that even to Western ears, the quarter tones sounded settled and right. Then he started morphing into another maqam, a calmer one, until finally ending the piece with a moderate flourish. But before we could applaud him, Habib stood up and put the oud down. “Now that you’ve heard how an oud should sound, it’s time to pick one out for yourself.”

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It’s like he said we were choosing our first Pokemon. Giulia, Tessa, and I started talking about how it would sound, whether or not we’d fall in love straight away, and so on. So when Habib led us around the corner into another room, we were totally floored. It was filled, from floor to ceiling, with ouds. Just stacks of ouds, everywhere. There must have been a couple hundred of them.


(Seriously. This was just one wall)

After a tuning and jam session between Habib and Nedo, we had our ouds ready to go. We were beaming as we left the apartment, our new instruments slung over our shoulders. To celebrate, Nedo wanted to take us to Semaa Nablus, a sort of park at the top of one of the mountains overlooking the city. It was late, but we were to happy to care.

Fast forward three hours and its 1:30 am. We’re just thinking about going home, after drinking coffee and smoking shisha with Nedo’s friends. The night is clear and the temperature is perfect, and you can see Tel Aviv from here. Nedo’s group ranged from their early twenties to their fifties or even sixties. The eldest is an ex-war general, and the next had spent sixteen years in prison after the First Intifada. The younger two were his brothers, and the rest were cafe employees who were bored and wanted to hang out. Before coming to Palestine, we were told by our coordinator that friendship between opposite genders didn’t really happen in Nablus, due to their rather conservative, Islamic society. But by the end of the night, we were telling dirty jokes, making fun of each other, and sharing stories from our respective home countries. True, as a group of three girls and one guy we initially attracted a lot of attention, but that was mostly due to Nedo: he’s basically a rockstar here. Now, sitting at a table with these guys, talking about Islamic marriage culture and the Occupation and friends and family and sex, we feel like total equals. Definitely not a conversation/situation combo I ever imagined having in Palestine.


August 8th, 2014

All is safe in Nablus. Occasionally we here gunshots in the distance, but, as I’ve mentioned before, they’re far from here, restricted to the demonstrations at the checkpoints. Even so, Tessa, Giulia, and I spent the day inside our flat. We really needed a couple days to rest after such a hectic week. Yesterday we slept in til noon, and only went out to buy knafeh from the souk. That’s where the best knafeh in town was supposedly located, and we saw the truth of our recommendation upon arrival; the line was out the door, and the server was working nonstop to keep pace. Cut a piece, slide it onto a plate, cut, slide, cut slide. By the time we got a slice, there was no room to sit, so we leaned against the wall and took our first bite. For those of you who haven’t yet had the fortune to taste knafeh: it’s a pastry made of semolina and baked white cheese, then drizzled with syrup while still hot. It actually tastes like happiness.


And looks like it too.

The day the protests were happening, we literally didn’t leave the flat until nighttime. But after dark, our neighbors came down to take us to a party, our first one in Palestine. Ahmad and his mom drove us to this restaurant… but then Ahmad left. I was confused, but just followed his mother down an alleyway and up the stairs to second story.

I have to give some background information before I continue. In Nablus, the most conservative city in Palestine, we get away without wearing headscarves… but just barely. Nobody, not even men, can walk around in shorts and a tank top. Most women have not only scarves, but sleeves to their wrists and pants to their ankles. So it was a shock for me to walk into this secret showroom and watch as a roomful of Palestinian women (literally) let down their hair. Not only did they take off their scarves, but their overcoats, too; and underneath those coats were dresses that would put clubbers in America to shame. We’re talking thigh-length, strapless, sequined, form-fitting, it’s-time-to-go-crazy-at-the-club costumes. And tons of makeup, and tattoos! But they didn’t just undress and start a conversation. Oh no. These girls got on the dance floor, and started rocking out to some Middle Eastern electronic dance music. You don’t know the meaning of bass until you’ve heard the traditional hard beat of a doumbek amplified with four different synthesizers.

I was feeling pretty energized, but hadn’t yet hit the dance floor. Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed of dancing to music I don’t really know. Not that the music wasn’t beautiful – it was – but these girls had their own style of dance that went with it. They twisted their wrists and rocked their hips, moving to the music in a graceful, trance-like, but still edgy and dance-able sort of way… that is, until “Gangnam Style” started blaring over the speakers. Then I was right there with them, and we were all dancing to this ridiculous song the same way an American would.

August 7th, 2014 (The World’s Gone Mad)

Before I talk about what’s going on in Nablus, I feel the need to quickly comment on the state foreign affairs, because frankly, the world’s gone mad. ISIL (or ISIS, depending on whether or not you’re an Archer fan) is killing and taking over cities in Syria and Iraq, with the threat of spreading to Tunisia, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Lest we forget, these are the guys that AL-QAEDA disowned for being too extremist. Ebola is spreading through West Africa like wildfire, and Boko Haram is still hanging around nearby, killing and raping in the name of Islam. Then, of course, there’s Ukraine in open warfare, with the whole annexation-of-Crimea business. And then, most pertinent to myself at the moment, there’s the fact that Israel is bombing Gaza to smithereens as we speak (or type) and has been for the past month. Add to that the plane shot down over Ukraine, the one downed in Mali due to a storm, and the complete magic-trick that was Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (all passenger planes), 2014 is looking like a crazy-as-all-hell kind of year. And we still have five months to go.

But back to Gaza. It’s the weekend here in Palestine (Thursday/Friday, because Islam), and we were chilling with the neighbors upstairs, watching the news, when a spokesman for Hamas appeared on the screen. Today is the third and final day of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and the mood is tense in Gaza as night falls. Hamas is demanding that the blockade on Gaza be lifted, and Israel is refusing to respond. Nobody knows what might happen tomorrow.

The one thing that is dependable, however, is the resilience of the people of Gaza. On TV we watched in Gaza City as its citizens paraded by the thousands, showing they are still together and that they’re spirit is not broken. I have to admit, there is a special kind of bravery in that. These people are supporting their community after having been bombed for an entire month. After losing nearly 2000 people to Israeli rockets. After displacing 500,000 civilians. They still want to fight for change. They don’t want it all to have been in vain.

But that means Nablus will host protests tomorrow, on Friday, the holiest day of the week in Islam. Which means I’ll be staying in after the noon prayers, waiting out the IDF arrests and gunshots.

August 6th, 2014

This morning we ate labna and grapes while listening to gunshots. A few days ago, this would have made me tense up and strain my ears for minutes on end, trying to decide whether or not I should make a dash for the bedroom. Now, the other volunteers and I have grown strangely accustomed to the noise. In fact, Tessa, being the musician she is, has formally named it part of the “tapestry of sound in Palestine.” We hear bullets almost every day, although they’re far off and restricted to protest areas, and unlikely to spread, since all the shooting is done by the IDF (the Palestinian protesters don’t actually have guns). There’s zero risk of being shot here in Nablus, but it still feels weird to be so comfortable with such a sound.

The City Cultural Center classes are running smoothly now; Tessa, Giulia, and I no longer feel the need to all go to every single class. Which is good, because according to my (rather unreliable) schedule, we’re up to 16 classes a week between the three of us. Afterwards, Giulia and I went to go teach a new class, this time in Askar refugee camp. Askar isn’t as compacted as Balata, and it’s fortunate enough to have an art center and a women’s center in addition to schools and health clinics, all funded by the UNRWA. We were told the class was at the art center, so we sat out front and waited for Habib to open the building. After ten minutes Habib was still a no-show, but someone was watching us from the house across the street. Two kids, no older than ten, were shyly peeping at us from behind the green front gate. I tried saying hi to them, but they immediately ran indoors. Giulia and I went back to waiting. It was getting really hot outside, and beads of sweat were forming on our brows and arms.
Suddenly, the gate opened, and the younger boy came running across the street, straight for us. He stopped abruptly at the foot of the steps and asked us, “Bidik Ahwe?” (“Would you like coffee?” in Arabic). Giulia and I looked at each other. Habib still wasn’t here, and we had nothing better to do, so we followed the kid back to the house.

Inside was the other boy, a girl, and their mother, who brought us steaming Turkish coffee. It was surprisingly refreshing, despite the heat. Nobody in the family knew English, so we practiced our Arabic, awkwardly but successfully getting across that we were music students from Italy and California, come to Nablus to teach for Project Hope. The mother smiled and asked us more questions: Were we teaching at the arts center? Do we know Habib? What do we play?

Meanwhile, the older boy started messing with my trumpet case, tapping it and looking it up and down, like it was a cage containing some small, exotic animal. Finally, I unzipped the cylindrical case and pulled out my Kanstul trumpet. And the kid immediately grabbed for it, almost knocking it out of my hands. A little wary, I told him to be careful, but let him play with it while I reached for a mouthpiece. He puffed up his cheeks and whooshed a ton of air at the lead pipe, to no avail. I laughed and demonstrated for him, letting loose a bright tone, before handing the instrument back to him. He caught on quickly.



Finally, we received a call from Project Hope. As it turns out, the class wasn’t at the arts center at all; it was down the street at the women’s center. We hurriedly finished our coffee, flipped our cups (to read the fortunes) and dashed over.

After class, we had lunch with Sego at what is probably the ritziest restaurant in Nablus (we’re talking fish for 120 shekels), and later, after a nap, we climbed upstairs again for coffee and tea with the neighbors. Our large group broke into smaller ones, with different discussions buzzing around the balcony as the sun shrank in the west. It was a learning exchange; Ahmad taught me Visual Basic coding on his laptop, while Tessa and Giulia taught Khalid how to play Happy Birthday. As a music and computer science major, I felt completely in my element.


After we had finished our coffee and figs and mangoes, Khalid and Ahmad’s mother beckoned for us to come with her upstairs. We climbed, one story after another, until we were five or six floors up. I had no idea the building was so big. We emerged on a rooftop patio, sheltered by an awning heavy with grape vines. I know I’ve already described various viewpoints overlooking Nablus, but this was different. From up here we could see the two mountains that form Nablus’s valley in their entirety, as well as the northeastern and southwestern ends of the city. The city sparkled below us and hummed with traffic and nightlife. Suddenly there was an explosion, and our eyes snapped to the center of the city. But instead of fighting, we saw fireworks. Green, white, red: the colors of Palestine.

August 5th, 2014

I woke up this morning to Khalid practicing his piano nursery rhyme on the floor above me. It was 7:30 in the morning. The kid is dedicated.

We had two classes today: one at the Cultural Center, and the other in a town called Sebastya, about a half an hour away from Nablus. Both classes went extremely well. Our lesson plan was ironed our after its we piloted it yesterday, and the kids in both classes were eager and cooperative. They seem to enjoy vocal exercises the most, even if we’re just going up and down the scale, because that’s when they get to interact most directly with the music.


It’s getting harder and harder to find time to write; each class takes at least two hours, between lesson planning, transportation, and the class itself. And of course, we now have Khalid to teach during the evenings.
At 7:50 pm he knocked on our door, ten minutes before the scheduled time. That’s actually huge, considering most people here are at least ten minutes late to just about everything (though I should mention that our students haven’t been late once yet). I was pretty tired, but I invited him in and we got started immediately. The funny thing about Khalid is that most of the time, he’s an uncontrollable ball of energy, but the second you put a piano in front of him he becomes this focused, perfect student. Yesterday, he only knew the piano keys by numbering them. Today, I taught him Solfege, and he immediately, intuitively made the connection between Do and 1, Re and 2, etc. By the time I sent him on his way, he was playing his nursery rhyme from memory, without numbers, and playing with new combinations of notes. I was grinning like mad for fifteen minutes; it’s unreal to witness this kind of progress, especially when you had a hand in it.

August 4th, 2014

We had our first class today, and as far as first classes go, I’d say we did alright. A little awkward in terms of flow, but that was to be expected, given the fact that we had about a day and a half to come up with our first lesson plan. This class was at the Nablus Cultural Center, just a few blocks away from Project Hope, and it’s probably where we’ll be teaching most often. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. Timing is pretty whack here; fashionably late is considered punctual, and I’ve learned not to trust the schedules we’re given. Our translator showed up fifteen minutes into the hour-long class, which meant Giulia, Tessa, and I spent that time awkwardly introducing ourselves in Arabic to a group of giggly eight year-olds.

But the nice thing about music is it’s literally the most basic form of communication, so it’s not hard to get across to these kids what we want them to do. It’s crazy how intuitive a four-four rhythm is, or even the Solfege scale (Do-Re-Mi). Imagine not knowing how to tell someone you want them to sing, but being able to successfully conducting them in choir to “O alele!”.

Back at Project Hope, we checked in and said hi to some of the other volunteers. Our coordinator gave us the day off, and since we haven’t had a free moment since coming here, we took the opportunity to practice a bit before heading back to the flat. I went out to the stone balcony with my trumpet and started playing. I knew it wouldn’t be long before one of the neighbors yelled at me to stop, but from that spot I could see all of Nablus in the valley below, and I wanted to take in the view as much as possible. Like I thought, the door to the neighboring balcony opened up just a few minutes later. A little boy ran out, leaned over the balcony, and started yelling, “Bekefi!” to the ground (“bekefi” means “stop” in Arabic). At first I was confused, but when I realized what he was doing, I almost gave myself away by laughing; the acoustics were making the sound from my trumpet ricochet off the walls and ceiling and finally down into the valley, so it sounded like I was playing from right under his building. We were only three meters away from each other, but he never even saw me.

That night, we went upstairs to meet our landlord and his family. We ended up staying for two hours, drinking tea and eating figs and talking politics. It’s impossible to have a conversation here without politics entering into it; the occupation is such a part of life in Palestine that politics are tied to everything from education to holidays to what you’re eating for dinner.

Before we left, the youngest son, Khalid, ran up to us with a tiny piano keyboard and asked us to teach him music. We showed him a nursery rhyme, and he became absorbed with it, practicing it over and over again as everyone else continued talking.

We were practically adopted by the time we finally made it downstairs. As Ahmad, the eldest son, put it, “I had only one sister. Now I have three more!”



August 3rd, 2014

Today is Sunday, and classes start tomorrow. We’ve only been here a day, but hey, no pressure.

Project Hope sent me, my flatmates, and three other volunteers to Balata and Askar, two of the refugee camps adjoining Nablus. As the taxi neared Balata, I began preparing myself for — well, I don’t know what I was expecting. Tents? Campfires with families huddled around? Sadness and Ruin, everywhere you look? But no. In reality, Tel Balata looks like a small section of any other crowded city. White skyscrapers are huddled together, lining both sides of a main street where all the street vendors gather.

Not that Balata doesn’t have its differences. It is, after all, a refugee camp. 30,000 people are jam-packed into the one squared kilometer that the camp is allowed to reside on. The people can’t expand horizontally, so they build vertically. The result is a forest of huge, looming skyscrapers, built so close together that you’d have to squeeze to get through the alleys. We were only allowed to wander these alleyways with a guide. To some people here, there is no distinction between foreigners; if you’re not Palestinian, you’re Israeli, and that can cause trouble.

But as we wandered Balata camp, we saw no signs of hostility whatsoever. In fact, we mostly saw children: tons of them, running through the alleys, riding their bikes down the main street, playing soccer in the few open spaces. They ran up to us and yelled in English, “Hi! How are you! What is your name!” I don’t think they could understand a word of our response, but they giggled like mad when they realized they were successful in making themselves understood to foreigners.

At the next camp, Askar, we met the director of an arts center,  who invited us in for black ginger tea. After introducing himself and discussing the volunteer projects with us, he steered the conversation towards Palestine. “What do you think of this country?” he asked us.
“It’s nice,” one volunteer said.
“Beautiful, even.”
“Everyone is so hospitable.”
He listened and nodded. Then he leaned back into his chair and said, “I don’t like it here. I don’t like the situation. But I don’t want to leave. Palestine is mine but it’s not mine. We have this land, but we don’t have Gaza, we don’t have Haifa or Jerusalem, we don’t have freedom. We have to claim it, even if we don’t really have it.”

He told us then of some of the horrors happening in Gaza. One man was found stumbling in the streets with a bag full of meat. It was his son. He had been “shredded” by a brand new type of Israeli missile. They pack tiny shards of metal tight around an explosive and send it over into overcrowded Gaza. When it hits, the missile explodes and the fragments rip through the flesh of anyone within an 80 m radius. I’ve heard kinder descriptions of hell. I don’t think anything I ever read in a book will measure up to the atrocities committed by really human beings.

The rest of the evening was much lighter. We did a little shopping for dinner: three huge eggplants for one shekel, mangoes for two, tomatoes and mint and onions for four. That’s, like, two and a half US dollars in total. The broke college student in me almost cried.


With these ingredients, we made a really delicious pasta with some fruit on the side, and three English teachers from Project Hope joined us for dinner. One is from Toronto, the other Montreal, and the last is from London. That makes three Canadians so far, one Londoner, one Italian, and me. More volunteers are set to arrive tomorrow.