By Jan Darmovzal & Mumtaz Mohd
We sat in the passenger seat of a car with an Israeli plate and a Palestinian driver, staring straight ahead at the towering curtain of concrete, stretching out of sight on both sides. At that moment, the complexity of the Palestinian struggle became painfully apparent. The apartheid wall, previously seen only through the television screen, was drawing closer in front of our eyes. The driver told us that this “so-called security barrier” which separated Israel from West Bank was ruled to be illegal by the United Nations International Court of Justice, an opinion shared for the most part by the international community. The separation wall stretched to a total length of 770km, equipped with razor fences, watch towers and security cameras, just like a high security prison. In truth, the wall does not protect any community. It serves only to divide, like a wall in the heart of humanity.
The grim reality of the fenced structure and military checkpoint was drastically contrasted with the liveliness of the city of Bethelehem that lies just beyond the wall. On this side, the wall itself was coloured with an endless multitude of graffiti. The roads were bustling with taxi drivers picking up Palestinians who had passed the security check. Friends were greeting each other on the streets over cups of coffee. This was our first look into the Palestinian society, one that is not often depicted in popular media.
We passed this scene and headed to a restaurant where we met our guide, Mustafa. Mustafa is from Volunteer Palestine, a local organisation that coordinated our West Bank visit. The organisation is managed by three dedicated and determined men – Mohammed Abu Suroor, Anas Abu Surroor and Mustafa al-A‘raj. Guided by their passion to uphold Palestinian history, culture and values, they encourage international guests like ourselves to experience life in West Bank as authentically as possible.
As part of this experience, we stayed with a local family at Al-Azza refugee camp. Mdm Humeidah’s unmatched hospitality and excellent culinary skills utterly spoilt us as we were introduced to a wide diversity of local cuisine. Mdm Humeidah lived with a teenage daughter but over the weekend, the rest of her daughters and grandchildren gathered at this family home. During these times, the house was filled with chatter, laughter and even more food. We were pulled into the conversations, as they were genuinely curious about our lives in other parts of the world, and our opinion of their beloved homeland. We felt at ease, almost as a member of the family.
Just a ten minute walk from Al-Azza refugee camp is another camp called Aida. We spent many afternoons volunteering at the Aida Youth Centre located within the camp. We assisted Tagreen, the local teacher, in teaching children english, mathematics, arabic and sports (essentially just table tennis and soccer due to the limited equipment). Beyond that, we were also assisting a local volunteer in a research project. Aida and Al-Azza refugee camps, like other refugee camps in the West Bank, were established as a result of Israeli ethnic cleansing policies adopted in 1948. During that time, Palestinian villages in the area today called Israel were taken by force and its population harshly expelled and made refugees. This 1948 event is known as “Al-Nakba“ (literally “the disaster“) to the Palestinians, and the “War of Independence“ to the Israelis. The entrance of Aida Camp is marked with an enormous key to symbolise the keys that their ancestors held to when leaving their villages in 1948. Believing that their departures were temporary, they left with no other memorias from their homes apart from the keys. Even though the people in these camps came to live together many years ago when they barely knew each other, they have developed strong social ties and community cohesiveness that characterised the tapestry of Palestinian society.
We encountered many other Palestinians who inspired us, one of whom is Akram al-Warah. He owns a shop located on the first street corner of Aida refuge camp, selling a range of Palestinian memoralibia incuding jewellery, keychains and art displays. Some of these pieces were made from material that symbolised life in occupation, such as metal from tear gas cannisters. Due to Aida camp’s proximity to the main checkpoint between West Bank and Jerusalem (Checkpoint 300) and a military post, the camp was frequently raided by Israeli military. Hence, tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets were strewn along the streets of Aida. Akram used the same metal pieces found in these weapons that were thrown at his community to create something beautiful. Needless to say, some of these memoralibia have found their homes with us.
On another evening, we met Tariq Abu Salameh who founded Beit al-Musika (House of Music), a collaborative space for local artists in Beit Sahoor. At Beit al-Musika, we were introduced to the oud, a traditional Arabic instrument, as well as various forms of Arabic tunes. As a musician, Tariq is committed to preserving and promoting Arabic culture through music, instead of succumbing to the global trends in the music industry. He also chose to put his energy into creating music that communicates the values and dreams of Palestinians, instead of responding to the political reality of occupation. “If we are only fighting against the oppressors, we will not have anything uniting us when the oppressors are gone. We have to stay true to our culture and identity, so that we as society will be ready once we have our nation-state.“
The Palestinians have been portrayed as an agitated and violent community, but the people whom we met were contrary to the said image. The three young men of Volunteer Palestine – Mohammad, Anas and Mustafa – who became our human library were proofs that Palestinians can be highly knowledgeable and rational in their opinions. Our host, Mdm Humeidah, is representative of any mother in the world whose priority is to protect and comfort their loved ones. Akram opened our eyes to the possibilities of responding to violence with creativity while Tariq taught us to be true to ourselves, and not to be distracted by the enemy who wants to rob your identity.
One thing that they all shared in common is their hospitality. The worse that has happend to us while in Palestine is to be fed all around the clock even if our stomachs are full, to be held back by shopkeepers who are keen to teach us their language, to be offered cups of aromatic Arabic coffee by every person we met, and to be called “habibi“ (my love) by someone who had made our acquaintance ten minutes before.
“We will return to Palestine“ were among the last few words we uttered before leaving for our home countries. These five words signify to us the desire to return to the land with the endearing culture and people. It is a desire to give back to the place that opened our hearts to boundless amount of human empathy, respect and determination. To the Palestinian refugees, these five words encapsulate their right of return to their homes, as rightful owners of the land that have been stolen from their ancestors. Palestinians deserve their own country and their children deserve a memorable childhood, not one spent as administrative detainees behind walls and in prisons, but rather on green gardens with their friends and in warm homes with family members.