Time has come for me to leave my dear Nablus, to leave Palestine, my home for these last four months.
It’s an opportunity for me to reflect on my experience. When I first arrived, I found it very difficult for a long time to write about it, because I received so much information all of a sudden, and didn’t have any perspective to put some order in all of that. I believe I still lack that perspective, and that is one of the reasons why I have decided to leave, but I can however already start to connect the dots and make sense out of all of the crazy things I have experience the last few months.
I came here mainly to teach French and English in different schools, one of which is in a refugee camp, and to give an initiation to Slacklining in the circus school. I leave today with so many memories related to that, so much love and happy moments. My students have often driven me crazy, but we have shared so many very special times. They made me laugh and moved me a lot.
Balata refugee camp was eye-opening, the conditions for studying being far from ideal. These camps have been created when Israel was established, in the first years after 1948, in order to host the thousands of people who were expelled from their homes at that time. Refugees from their own country, they live in cramped areas and very poor conditions.
The circus school was created in 2004, and has ever since been a haven for children and adults of all ages. In a place where playgrounds are rare and extra-curriculum activities even more, Assirk Assaghir feels like an air bubble in a sometimes suffocating place.
The environment I arrived in was very different from now. Project Hope was full of volunteers, and most of them were staying long enough for us to all develop some very, very strong bonds. I actually believe that I have rarely, if not ever, felt as loved, supported and surrounded by amazing people as that time. We were like a big family, and the moments I spent with all of them were some of the happiest of my life. As time passed, people started coming and going faster than in the beginning but incredible people kept coming to Palestine. Saying goodbye to all of these people has been heart-breaking almost everytime, but it was okay because I was staying. I always dreaded the day where I would be in that position, which has come today.
Of course, I am talking about international volunteers but that was far from being the only friendships I have created. I have had the chance to get to know people from one the most welcoming places I’ve ever been to. From the start, my Palestinian friends have introduced me to a very different way of discovering Nablus than just being a simple “tourist”; I have hung out in local cafés, I have driven around the city at night at way too high speeds, with very loud Arabic music playing 🙂 !, I have shared coffees and dinners in local families. I have talked about life, politics, love, ambitions, I have laughed to tears and found support when I got sad or sick. I have even learned some Arabic!
I have walked down the beautiful streets of the old city of Nablus, smelled the particular air in its lively market, enjoyed the amazing views from the top of the mountains, stopped to have coffee and enjoy Palestinian hospitality, many times.
Because yes, there has been that aspect too. The cultural norms, the heavy dictates of society, all the things that are considered “haram”, forbidden by religion, but mostly by tradition. There has been all these worries about reputation, all these unsaid things that have often made things very hard for me, coming from a totally different culture. There has also been the hassling in the streets, the judgemental looks or comments, the difference of treatment because of my skin and eye colour. I have accepted these things as being part of a very traditional Muslim culture, that doesn’t only fully prohibit alcohol (which is not such a bad thing!), or doesn’t allow me to wear clothes that would show more than my ankles or elbows, but goes as far sometimes as not letting a young woman to cross the street in front of her house alone, out of fear for what men could think or do, out of fear for reputation. Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to everybody, and Nablus happens to be one of the most traditional places in the West Bank, but witnessing that inequality between men and women has more than once made my blood boil.
I would want to say that those are the only injustices I have witnessed here, but I am afraid to say that those are nothing compared to the deeply sick situation in which Palestinians live. I chose not to mention the Occupation first because I don’t want this place to be reduced to it. It has so much more to offer and deserves to be known for so many other reasons, but it is a reality that no one can deny and that I have to talk about. Because the West Bank is not only made of warm and welcoming people, of kunafah and old cities, it is also made of daily gunshots, keffyehs and checkpoints. It is filled with Israeli soldiers and settlers, who have decided to ignore International law and basic human rights and establish their homes where Palestinians use to live. I would want to be able to give a list of all the horrors that these settlements involve but I could never finish it; I’ve seen olive trees that have been destroyed, I have seen people not allowed to go to their land to cultivate the food that allows them to survive, I have seen people denied the right to go and pray for their lost ones, or to move freely, I have even seen people being thrown trash at from settlements straight above their heads. I have seen a wall representing so many injustices.
I have had to acknowledge that Israel is not the only enemy of Palestinians, because they are their own enemies themselves. I have had to run from blank bullets, and try not to choke with tear gas being shot and thrown at a crowd by their own police officers. And I have myself had to desensitize myself to the shooting I heard, almost every single night of my stay, because there is nothing unusual for Nablus in everything I have presented above. There are a lot of clashes between people from the cities and from the different camps, between people from different political factions.
Don’t get me wrong, living there is very safe; as long as you avoid big gatherings of people and getting in the middle of such clashes.
I have also listened a lot. I have listened to the stories of the people, the intifadas, the tanks, the soldiers, the bombs, the humiliations. I have fought a lot against people who were too extreme, people who praised violence. I have tried to understand where people come from, why people act the way they act. On both sides. I have learned so much but I sometimes felt that I understood even less than before my stay. I have felt helpless and hopeless. Tired.
But I also listened to the dreams and the hopes of people, I have seen them laugh, sing, dance, create. I have learned to recognize some of the weird sounds that make up their beautiful language. I have been constantly inspired by their strength and resilience, by their desire to live, to believe. There is something in the air, here; maybe it’s the fact that some of the oldest places in the world are here, maybe it is because it is supposed to be “the holy land”, but there is something here that leaves a mark on everybody. I will never be the same person again, I have learned and grown so much, I have been inspired. I have decided to focus on the good, that this is what I want to remember from Palestine, from this country that still has a long way to go before obtaining justice and freedom.
Free Palestine <3