A long wait…

As I write this next entry I am sitting in my Nablousie flat on a fresh bug- free mattress, after a few weeks of living in flea infested quarters that I have come to call home. I never thought that having a billion bites on my body while living in a flat that experiences weekly droughts or power cuts would be the place I felt most comfortable. Yet, I have truly fallen in love with life in Palestine and all that comes along with it, for better or for worse. Ironically I am grateful for every abuse I personally witness so that the stories can be told and every offer of kindness I stumble upon which reminds me that good things can still flourish under occupation. There is too much to tell- it is overwhelming. Every minute there is a new story that will go unreported, everyday many classes to teach, every week new places to discover and every person I meet is a new friend to cherish. I will try and cover some good and bad that I have come across in the last week.
Being a woman in Nablus is unique. There are many rules and many customs so foreign to me. Women here are always covered, including us volunteers, from neck to ankle to wrist. Most women in Nablus are veiled as the city has become significantly more religious in the last couple of years. As a woman I should refrain from smoking, laughing, eating, drinking or speaking loudly in the streets. It is an easy thing to get used to when you are only here for a short time but imagining it as a lifestyle is challenging. It is not as if you will be arrested as these are not laws. They are customs that everyone obeys, plain and simple. Everything is accepted and understood.
The Turkish Bath, Hamaam, is open to women on Tuesdays, so this evening I and several friends/volunteers both local and international go for an evening of bathing and relaxing. It is an amazing experience: entering the bath, getting undressed, seeing your friends unveiled showing their beautiful hair and watching a new personality appear. The sounds of laughter and feelings of ease are intoxicating. Everyone moves from saunas to hot stones to showers to steam rooms with their bar of olive soap and loofa in hand. Conversations and gossip are the music of the bath. The sight of skin and hair create a liberating vibe. When finished in the baths you move into a large room decorated with nargilla pipes, beds, fountains and mirrors where you sit back and continue the chatter until you have had one too many teas and are ready to leave the special haven to head back into the real world. It is an experience I will hold on to forever and I will surely find myself there in a week’s time.
This week, a special festival will begin in Nablus. It is all the talk in the city and everyone from kids to adults is very excited. There will be a shopping festival in the streets, music and cultural events daily and one of the proudest features of the festival for Nablousies will fall on Saturday when the city makes the world’s largest Knaffe ever (the Palestinian sweet that Nablus is famous for which is made of pastry and white cheese and is to die for!) All the kids in my classes, as well as many locals, are talking about how Nablus is going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. It will be 78m long and feed about 6000 people, not nearly the amount of people who will be coming from all over Palestine to partake in the festivities. It is something everyone has been looking forward to for a while now. To be honest, the first thing that came into my mind when I heard about the festival was whether or not the Israeli soldiers were going to interfere and how they were going to do so. With Huwarra open for the first time in 8 years only 3 weeks ago, all seems to be getting easier on the surface with regards to the movement of Palestinians across the West Bank. It would be easy for the soldiers to close the checkpoint at any moment and cut Nablus off but I pray this is just me being paranoid. Unfortunately today it appeared in the news that the soldiers had invaded the main planning office in the city and arrested several people working on the festival. They ordered  many events  to be canceled and forced posters and flyers to be removed from some city walls. The festival will begin tomorrow. I wonder what is next on the agenda. Just last week Israel said it would be working to make things easier for the festival to be a success. I don’t see how arrests and forced cancellations are encouraging the festival’s success. I was upset with myself for being skeptical at first, now I am deeply saddened that I was right. Who knows what is to come in the next week. I can only hope that what is left on the schedule goes on as best it can. I would love to know why the posters were taken down. I would love to understand why the festival is a threat to Israel. I would love to understand so many things but at the end of the day I have learned: there are no explanations for anything. It is the policy of the IDF to damage those under occupation in any way possible. It will never make sense to me.
This past weekend I traveled to Jordan so that I could visit Petra, Wadi Rum (a red desert) and the Red Sea. It was to be a long trip either way, even though Jordan is only a couple of hours away, but I took the longest route possible. I traveled with the Palestinians. Now here is a story that doesn’t reach many. I left Nablus on a service bus to Jericho. I had received the Jordanian visa from the embassy in Ramallah that morning so I was able to cross at the King Hussein Bridge rather than going to Israel and crossing at Eilat, 5 hours south of Nablus. I met a nice man on the bus who spoke broken English and helped me find my way to the border. At the border there are two routes to Jordan, one for Internationals or Jerusalemites, the other for Palestinians holding a green ID. When we arrived at the beginning of the border crossing, the man asked me to travel with him as a Palestinian so I could see what it was like. As he had been a friend to me and since I am here to understand their lives, I willingly accepted his invitation, knowing I was in for quite an eye opener. We waited to board a bus with many others for quite a while, then finally got on the bus only to travel a few meters and get our IDs checked for 30 minutes while waiting inside the unairconditioned bus on a 40 degree afternoon in the desert. After this we traveled about a kilometer to a random place where we had to get off the bus and pass through a metal detector to get on another unairconditioned bus. Again we had our IDs checked, were yelled at in Hebrew and waited. During this whole time cars to the right of us passed by with ease carrying those with any passport or ID other than the Palestinian citizenship. We then waited in a long line of buses carrying other Palestinians for over an hour in the heat to get to the Israeli border before entering Jordan. Babies were crying, everyone was thirsty and dehydrated; going to the bathroom was not an option as leaving the bus was forbidden. After much time had passed and little distance was gained we reached the Israeli border and got off the bus. An armed soldier immediately noticed I did not fit in with the group and told me I could walk around the metal detector while the rest of the bus queued up to be searched. I continued to follow the Palestinians into passport control where they were each aggressively searched. Some soldiers unpacked their bags and threw the belongings all over when they didn’t find anything, leaving the people to gather their belongings and repack their bags in the chaos of the terminal. Long lines were delayed by many questions at the booths and there was lots of yelling at people in a language they don’t speak. I approached a soldier who was yelling at a man and flashed my passport. She immediately smiled at me and called over a lady who treated me like royalty as she ushered me out of the terminal and into an air-conditioned room where the VIP travelers got their passports checked and then waited for the VIP bus to the Jordanian border. I felt so uncomfortable and angry at the abrupt change of scenery. I felt ashamed that I had left my friend in the hell he brought me into and furious that I had been so warmly welcomed and quickly processed when I knew my friend would spend several more hours there before making his way to Jordan. My French friends traveled the same route the day after. A child wet himself on the bus because the soldier would not let him off to go to the bathroom. I spoke with Ayman’s aunt who recalled her travels across the border years back. She would leave Jerusalem at 7am only to arrive in Jordan at midnight. The Israelis would make all the Palestinians remove their shoes at one point and then throw them all in a pile at the end leaving people to search for their pair amongst hundreds of others. This is all in the name of humiliation. There is no reason this needs to be so horrible. There is no reason I should be the only person on a bus to skip the security checks. This is the most blatant abuse and racism I have experienced yet. A friend of mine in Nablus recalled his trip to Jordan a couple of months ago. He was stopped at a security point and the soldier demanded he take off all this clothes in front of the hundreds of people. He refused for a while and was then sent into an interrogation room where a female soldier then demanded him to remove his clothes in the room with her. Being a Muslim male, he had to refuse her orders. After 30 minutes of arguing she sent in a man and he was forced to take off all this clothes before passing the gate. The humiliation, even when he told me this story was too much to handle. I traveled back from Jordan to Palestine as a foreigner. It was ‘pleasant’ and there were no hassles. As my bus drove from the Jordanian border to the Israeli border we passed 18 large buses filled with Palestinians waiting to cross. I made it through 3 hours after passing these buses. I have no idea how long it took them, or if they made it that day. I am going to finish here for now, as I have nothing left to say that will make sense. Nothing here makes sense. I don’t understand how this is happening right under our noses. There is nothing humane about the way Palestinians are being treated. They are all labeled criminals and terrorists before they are even born. I have never seen such injustice in my life.

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Opening eyes

Yet again, it has taken me a while to write my next entry.  In the past week I have discovered the darker side of things here.  On the surface all was beauty and smiles, aside from the Separation Wall, soldiers and poverty.  The olives trees, rolling hills, generosity and overwhelming community vibe still exist, but under the surface there is so much pain and frustration.  It is easy to forget that it was only a couple years ago that the people of Nablus were being attacked by bullets and bombs courtesy of the IDF, that the children were up all night waiting for the soldiers to enter their homes and arrest their fathers and brothers, that internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah raged alongside the occupation, that life was filled with war and terror.
A few days before I passed through Huwarra checkpoint for the first time, which is the main checkpoint into Nablus, it had been opened for the first time in years.  This meant that Palestinians and anyone else traveling in the West Bank would be able to enter the city without being searched, interrogated or humiliated.  I thought this was something to be celebrated.  That perhaps it symbolized a positive change with regards to the occupation in Nablus.  Upon further reflection, I realize that even though people are able to move around much more freely than only three weeks ago, there is a dark undertone to the change, which is characteristic of Israel’s policy with regards to negotiating with the Palestinian Authority.  Now that it appears to the international community that Israel is easing up their control over the West Bank, which I assure you they are not.  Israel will now have an advantage at the bargaining table to ask for more concessions such as more land and the security of settlements.  Don’t get me wrong I am all for peace and justice, and negotiations and peace talks would be a great way to go, but the manipulation of the stakes on the ground is appalling.  This perspective will never appear on the news.  Israel needs the international communities’ support in all their endeavors in order to continue their iron fist policy in the West Bank and the colonization of what is left of the West Bank.  Nothing here is what it seems.  That is the most dangerous thing.
I have begun my Photography/English classes, which have turned into me working with the Bridge to the World program that is picking up speed at Project Hope.  It is a program that focuses on the idea of blogging as a method of communication.  I came here with a hope of finding a way, small but significant, to have the stories of my students written for people outside Palestine to read without being edited like the rest of the news that reaches the West.  This is one the unique and advantageous aspects of working with an organization like Project Hope. They welcome every individual to create and implement their own program or curriculum.   Instead of focusing on politics (which is difficult in a place like Palestine), there is a focus on basic human rights such as education and normalizing life through providing structured routines for the kids.  The result is a diverse selection of classes and activities for the locals to chose from.
This conflict, on an international level, is entirely controlled by the media.  Being here makes me realize how misunderstood everything truly is here.  The danger factor of the West Bank that everyone seems to believe outside of Palestine does not exist anymore than it does in any city in North America or Europe.  If anything, I feel safer here than back in Canada.  The Canadian government has classified the West Bank and Gaza as level 4 on a 4 point scale for travel warnings.  This means the government has deemed these areas the most dangerous in the world to travel to and urges all citizens not to enter Palestine.    I knew before coming here that this was an example of the Israeli influence on the Canadian government to deter people from coming here and seeing what is actually going on in the Occupied Territories.  Israel does not want the reality of the occupation to become public knowledge.  If the countless violations of basic human rights were reported honestly to the world, it would not be tolerated.  One sees this further when you cross the borders into West Bank.  Here, huge security checkpoints loom over you like the entrance to a jail, checking every car and occasionally holding up a car or person.  The shock and frustration you feel when going through Qalindya doesn’t fade.  You walk through the dark, narrow, metal stalls; then through the turnstiles where you are herded into another metal cage with everyone else who is waiting to pass through.  I found it shocking and admirable how calm and patient everyone is in these situations.  While only about four people are admitted into the metal detecting section of the process through yet another turnstile, waiting people still exercise manners letting women and children go through and never trying to push their way forward to beat the line that can last hours, although I have usually waited 20 minutes on average.  I can’t imagine the behavior of most other people if they were forced to wait in a similar situation everyday to get to and from work, school or home.  People already get aggressive in concert lines, bar lines and even at the movies.  It is truly an amazing site.  Needless to say, Israel doesn’t make it easy, nor do they promote international tourism in the area.  On top of that, they do not encourage humanitarian aid in the Occupied Territories either.  All the volunteers who come to work in Nablus are given strict orders not to show any sign of Arab sympathy when going through security at the airport.  Failure to do so results in hours of interrogation, potential flagging or deportation, depending on factors such as religion, countries you have previously traveled to, etc.  I think this fact on its own speaks for itself.
Anyways back to the project, I am working with four individual classes of kids from ages 11 to 17 from Nablus and the Refugee Camps.  I am helping them develop blogs that will hopefully reach readers in the West so that the story of Nablus can be told from the mouths of the youth of Nablus and not the reporters receiving second hand information.  I am encouraging the kids to write about whatever they want, not necessarily the conflict which is difficult to talk about for many reason.   Either way, it is hard to avoid the effects of the occupation when discussing their daily routines.  Obstacles include the large language barrier (although some students demonstrate excellent English), as well as severe trust issues.  In past years there were many spies in Nablus that would help the IDF arrest anyone who was remotely involved in  the resistance during the Second Intifada.  Although things have calmed down, trust still remains a huge issue for many who saw their families and friends beaten and arrested.  The kids split their time between writing about topics such as culture, poetry, cuisine, football and arts and then learning the basics of photography, they capture the story through their eyes.  For one of my classes we have done interviews with family members in order to get a broader timeline of information about the lives of those in Palestine.  I have been extremely impressed with the talent and interest the kids have in this project.  They are excited to have a voice and willing to share their culture and experiences with anyone who will listen.
I initially had planned to buy cameras for the kids; however due to the increase in students I am teaching, it is no longer possible to buy the cameras with my budget.  I will be buying disposable cameras and using some cameras that are here at the centre.  I still am hoping to be able to exhibit their photos before I leave for the community to see the great work they have been doing.  If you know of anyone who is interested in donating to my project please put them in contact with me.  Things here are not expensive so a little can go a long way.  I believe strongly that this form of education can be a step forward in overcoming the media’s manipulation of the conflict.  Feel free to ask more questions about the projects.  I will have the children’s blogs linked to mine at the end of the summer for you all to read.
Outside of the classroom I have spent my time traveling around Palestine and chatting to anyone with a story.   I went to Hebron last Saturday.  My next entry will describe the horrendous abuses I saw there.  Hebron is one of the largest cities in the West Bank and is also the most violent city in terms of settler violence.  Stay tuned…..

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Jerusalem

I have been in Palestine now for a week and a half but spent the majority of my time in East Jerusalem so far.  I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunity not only to visit one of the holiest cities in the world for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, but to be able to live in and see the East of Jerusalem in great depth. I give my thanks to Ayman and his generous family who have let me stay in their beautiful hotel, the Jerusalem Meridian, a historical property that has been in the family for generations, survived the creation of Israel (many Palestinians have lost and are still losing claim to their land since 1948 in Jerusalem) and is a mere 5 minute walk through the Arab downtown to the Damascus gates of the Old City.  Jerusalem is a divided city, the West belonging to Israelis and the East to the Arabs.  The Old City paints a picture of beauty, ancient charm and segregation with four quarters boasting a unique atmosphere either Christian, Muslim, Armenian or Jewish.  It is incredible when you realize how close the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of Sepulchre are to each other inside the Old City walls.  Within the charm of the Old City lies the presence of IDF soldiers looming in every walkway in every quarter with loaded guns ready.  I found it particularly shocking that it was the Israelis that were guarding the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest place for Muslims that only invites non believers in to visit during select times of day, and never on Fridays.  I decided to go visit so Ayman brought me to the entrance fully covered out of respect for the religious.  Immediately Ayman was asked for his ID card; I didn’t have my passport but this was not the problem since I am foreign and all exceptions are made for visitors from the West in order to keep a good reputation.  They immediately called in a background check on him and when they found nothing, still decided against letting us in.  We then walked to another entrance which was also one into the Western Wall. You then walk through a passage (boarded off from the area) to get to the Dome of the Rock.  This was a place that Ayman had been before; however, on that day the soldiers decided that because he was Palestinian he would have to walk to another entrance.I on the other hand would be fine to pass through.  This was one of the first incidents I witness the racial profiling that is done all day, every day in Jerusalem against Palestinians.  It was also my introduction to the inconsistent nature of IDF soldiers.  Depending on their mood, their day, who approaches them, they will decided whether to complicate a simple procedure by humiliating an Arab in their own city by questioning them, checking their records, or simply denying them access to a public place.  It was horrible to watch and I can only imagine how much more horrible it is for that to be your reality in your home town.  The army’s psychological aggression and abuse can be seen everywhere in East Jerusalem but it is almost always defended by labeling things security risks.  When I first saw the Wall it almost wasn’t real.  A huge, gray, concrete, electrical barrier between the West Bank and the land Israel has forced into their borders.  You see the Wall doesn’t follow the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line, which is internationally recognized as the border between Israeli territory and Palestinian land.  Rather it weaves around settlements that scatter throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank in order to keep Israelis on the ‘safe’ side of the Wall and to give Israel the better more prosperous land that rightfully belongs to Palestinian families in the West Bank.   It divides families and villages into pieces making travel almost impossible, increasing travel time up to 4x and separating farmers from their land.  This takes away their ability to bring in money to feed their families and develop a viable economic existence.  On another level its psychological effects are arguably as significant.  The wall creates the feeling of a prison, as if you are trapped inside a small area of land with little money and development.  It is hard to feel as though you are human when you are pushed into a small area of existence where a wall is erected for the purpose of keeping your people out of Israel because every single Palestinian is a potential terrorist.  (at least this is how the Wall spoke to me)  It reminds one inside the West Bank of the occupation on a daily basis.  It symbolizes that Israel does not want any Palestinians to ever enter and no Palestinians (residents of the West Bank) will ever be able to see the land that their parents and grandparents grew up on.  It also makes it harder to believe that the Palestinians will ever regain any of the land that has been taken (even the land that belongs to them according to International law.  It is a wall that hopes to crush hopes and dreams.  It dehumanizes everyone is surrounds.  I can confidently say that if there is ever to be any kind of peace between Palestinians and Israelis that the wall must be one of the first things to go.

Checkpoints are another unique form of security for Israelis and humiliation for Palestinians.  They spread throughout the West Bank on roads where ever Israel has deemed it necessary to check each car.(for what exactly I don’t know)  On the way to Nablus from Ramallah there are several (although opened at this particular moment meaning you can drive through without being stopped).  There is no reason the IDF needs to be delaying peoples’ travels and questioning them when they are moving between villages carrying on with their lives in the prison Israel has created for them. Israel continues to remind them they are under occupation by stopping their cars and demanding their IDs where ever they decide to make a checkpoint.  There are also the checkpoints that separate the West Bank from Israel.  Qalindya is the main checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem.  I have passed through a couple times so far.  On the way into the West Bank the soldiers usually have no reason to check IDs as you are leaving Israel and no longer their problem.  However, the other day when I was coming back to Nablus they decided to stop every car of hundreds during rush hour, likely to slow things down and cause inconvenience for Palestinians.  No Israelis pass through to the West Bank as they are not allowed in the territories and definitely not welcome.  The exception would be the settlers who live on stolen land in the West Bank.  They have their own roads that are controled by the IDF for their ‘safety’.  On the way out of the West Bank to Jerusalem you must get out on foot and walk through a massive area of metals bars, turnstiles with angry barking voices in Hebrew on loud speakers (a language Palestinians do not speak). You line up in the hot day as people pass through three at a time to show their IDs (or passports if you are foreign) and get searched (metal detectors, etc.)   People often refer to the experience similar to that of cows in a slaughter house.  It really does look the same.  It is a humiliating experience to be treated as if you a threat to national security just because you are a Palestinian.  As a Canadian I have no problems moving around.  I am welcomed with open arms.  For locals, they are treated like shit.

Back to East Jerusalem: I was given a driving tour where I was able to visit the tops of all the hills that encompass the city and present majestic views of the Old City and sprawling neighborhoods that radiate out from the holy core.  From some hill tops you can even see Jordan and the Dead Sea.  I was also able to observe the difference between the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the settlements of East Jerusalem.  A settlement, by the way, is land that legally belongs to the Palestinians. (re: 1967 Green Line) that has been taken by Israel and built on in order to create a larger Israeli presence in the Arab side of town.  This over time will give Israel a larger presence in land that is being fought over and in Israel eyes, a strong claim to the land of Jerusalem.  As you drive through Beit Hanina, Ayman’s neighborhood, you can see poor infrastructure and roads, garbage everywhere, no benches and no sidewalks.  If it is left unmaintained it will quickly turn into a ghetto.  Across the street in the same neighborhood, beautiful new houses with parks, benches, no garbage and beautiful greenery define one of the many settlements.  The contrast is impossible to miss.  Now you would think that those with the new roads and many services would pay a higher tax but it is the Palestinians who pay the highest tax and clearly get the least amount of services.  I went to several other neighborhoods and found the exact same thing.  It is very clear to the Arabs that Israelis want them to leave.  Arabs don’t have the means, the money or the time to take care of the things they are paying the country to do for them.  They pay higher tax and they don’t even have a vote because the Palestinians of East Jerusalem for the most part hold a blue ID which means they are residents of Israel but do not have citizenship so they have no vote.  The Palestinians of the North have Israeli citizenship because they were given it after 1948.  One may say, why don’t they just accept Israeli citizenship and take their right to vote?  By doing this a Palestinian of Jerusalem admits that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and denies Palestine its claim to the city as a capital as well.  It will also not result in less tax.  Either way, you are always a lower class citizen.

It felt it important to explain all of this because most who visit Jerusalem from the Western world will stay in West Jerusalem.  Here you will miss everything that is going on in other parts of the city.  West Jerusalem is beautiful and well kept.  The occupation is not something Israel wants to publicize to its tourists.

Aside from touring Jerusalem in great depth, East and West, eating wonderful and enormous Palestinian meals for lunches, strolling the Old City quarters and meeting people of all backgrounds, nationalities, religions and beliefs, I traveled to Jericho one night this weekend to see the oldest city in the world and furthest below sea level.  After a 20 minute drive through the desert you reach Jericho, a sweltering 39 degrees Celsius at midnight, I can only imagine the day temperature. We also went to Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank which is much more alive in the evening then East Jerusalem and is decorated with a Western flare.

I still continue to be surprised everyday with the beauty and generosity of the people of Palestine.  They are so eager to tell their stories and communicate to those outside.  The media has not given them half a chance to be heard but everyone who comes to visit represents a chance to change that.  The occupation must be understood for what it is truly doing to innocent people all over the land.  If everyone I know could see what I am seeing here things would be different.  Our media would be pressured to change and report the crimes being committed in the West Bank by settlers and soldiers everyday.  The news would not comment about one house that is to be demolished but the hundreds that are ready to go any day now.  Please continue to follow my blog and leave comments or ask questions to better inform everyone outside who is interested.

I had my first class today for my photography project.  My class is full of incredibly intelligent 15 year olds who are excited to take photos and write about their poems, songs, families and culture in order to communicate their lives to people outside.  Their dedication to my class and enthusiasm is very moving.  I think they are all going to do great things in the class.

Enough for now,
Steph

Recent Settler violence in East Jerusalem:  (something our newspapers will not get to report)

http://english.pnn.ps/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=5941

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The Eclipse that is Nablus

I arrived in Tel Aviv last Thursday and spent my first five days in Jerusalem.  I will write about my time in Jerusalem in the next post as there is much to say about this incredibly unique city but at the moment I am going to write about my first two days in Nablus where I will be spending the majority of my time for the next six weeks.

Traveling to Nablus was easier than it was only two years ago when the journey was littered with checkpoints breaking up the drive through the rolling hills painted with olive trees and Palestinian history.  I traveled with Ayman by bus to Ramallah from his neighborhood in Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem through Qalindya checkpoint, a monstrous scene of Israeli soldiers too young to carry the massive guns they hold, to Ramallah where we got on another service bus to Nablus.  Huwara, a checkpoint at Nablus that in past years has prevented many Palestinians and even internationals from moving freely throughout the West Bank, was open so we traveled right through into the city centre and then taxied to the Project Hope house.  First things first, a tour of the old city; the overwhelming feeling of history and the occupation is hard to ignore.  It was only a couple years ago the city was terrorized by the IDF occupation.  Posters of martyrs as young as ten years old decorate the houses that have been rebuilt next to the rubble of those that never were.  Vendors and shops surround you, doorways to soap factories, the smell of bread and knaffe (incredible Palestinian sweet that it native to Nablus), children playing on the streets; the scene is magical and lively.  Everyone is so kind and welcoming it is hard not to immediately fall in love with this place and forget that the city is still under occupation by the Israeli military some nights.  The city center is a bustling chaotic scene of cars, bikes, vendors, fruits, men and women.  All around you can see the hills that surround Nablus, decorated with old homes and singing out the Adhan (call to prayer) five times a day.  The house I stay in is just like rez.  A co-ed mix of fantastic volunteers of all ages, from all countries, of all languages and walks of life.  There are at the moment nearly 30 of us sharing two bathrooms, a kitchen and a glorious balcony overlooking the city from the hill.  The heat is impossible to ignore at a sweltering 40 degrees today, and then add on the long pants and shirts we must wear as women at all times, in all places, even on the balconies of our flat.  Things in Nablus are cheap.  A falafel sandwich and drink a mere 4 shekels at most(about a dollar), a taxi ride is 10 shekels and then there is the astounding generosity of the locals who will offer you most anything to welcome you to their city and let you indulge in their amazing cuisine!  I have never experienced generosity of this magnitude and felt this welcome anywhere else in the world.  The community works together and it is really a beautiful example of their resilience throughout what to anyone outside the country I can now say is unimaginable.  I had a meeting today with Tharwa, the lovely and energetic English teaching coordinator and already have two English classes ready to go and a photography class for which I have been planning for the past few months.  The photography project is something I have dreamed up on my own and the response when I met my students was really touching.  We will be doing a Time Capsule project which I will explain in more depth in entries to come.  In a nutshell it is a mix of poetry translation, interviewing, cuisine and culture.  I also was lucky enough to help out with a photography graphic novel class today with some fellow volunteers.  The kids are creating a comic and instead of drawing they are creating a tableau for every panel and taking a photo using different techniques they are being taught.  One group’s story was a family trying to go to the beach but getting turned down at the checkpoint by the Israeli soldiers because they are Palestinian.  A common story to these kids.  To think I was drawing castles and princesses at this age.  I think this alone says more than words can describe about the childhood they have had.  The other group did a story about their home being demolished by the IDF bulldozers without warning.  Again, experiences that are an everyday reality to these children who are mature beyond their years, who have experienced war and humiliation on levels one outside cannot fathom.  And yet they were having a wonderful time in the class, truly happy to be in a class in the middle of the hot summer practicing their English and telling their stories to those who will listen.  The CBC came by and filmed us today as well which will be airing on June 30th or July 1st on The National so please look out for the clip to see more about what PH is doing in Nablus.

Everyone says there is not much to do hear.  That nightlife is dull and when you aren’t working there isn’t much else to do.  However I can now say this is complete rubbish.  For any class a volunteer wants to teach whether it be an aerobics class with housewives, a journalism course with students of the university, Spanish lessons for the local volunteers, Art classes,  Debka lessons, etc. there will always be tens to hundreds of people ready to get involved and sign up right away.  I can already feel how much Project Hope is appreciated here and it is a beautiful thing.

This evening after a giant communal dinner of lentils, rice, onions and salad (did I mention I have never had such amazing food in my life as I have in Palestine!) I went with two local volunteers (and new friends) Raed and Rube as well as my roommate Bell for a walk to the park.  As a woman in Nablus I am not allowed to be out after dark on the streets alone and much always dress appropriately despite the sweltering heat.  To be alone on the street with a man is frowned upon, as is laughing out load, smoking or talking in loud voices.  The curfew for our safety is around 12pm so long as you are with a local volunteer else it is earlier.  All these rules made me think there was something to be afraid of here but what I came across tonight surprised me.  After walking down the stairs of death (dubbed this since people here don’t enjoy the hot and grueling walk back up) we passed by several fully armed police on the streets (something I am quickly becoming desensitized to)  and reached a vendor selling balloons of all shapes and colors and cotton candy to the children that ran all over the park with their families.  At 9pm at night tables are filled with families having ice cream, smoking nargilla, drinking juice and coffee and Arabic music plays in the background.  It was nothing I have ever seen before and something I hope to do most nights while I am here.  We sat for a couple hours talking about Palestine, learning new words in Arabic, sharing stories and history.  The vast majority of people living in Nablus will never leave the West Bank as they do not have ID cards.  This means that they will never be able to visit the places their parents and grandparents grew up,visit Jerusalem their capital or see their history in the land that is now Israel.  They are caged in by the separation wall that was built in 2003 which was built by Israeli in the name of security but really just transforms the West Bank into a massive open air prison while dividing family from their land, from friends and relatives and making travel nearly impossible for some.

I guess I will stop here for now.  My first impression of Nablus are mixed.  A mix between the beautiful culture, people and city that lie in the dark shadows of the occupation.

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Intro

This is the first time I have travelled to Palestine, and the Middle East in general, so it only seemed fitting to write my first blog during my trip.  I will be working in the West Bank in Nablus, Palestine with Project Hope organization (www.projecthope.ps)  After learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian plight, Middle Eastern politics and the beautiful culture of the Palestinian people, it only seemed fitting to travel to Palestine to see it all for myself.  Since the media has failed to acheive any credibilty in documenting the occupation (lives, politics, culture and events) in Palestine, I hope that I will be able to provide an honest account of the situation on the ground.  The work I will be doing is mainly teaching english and photography to the children in Nablus and the refugee camps (Balata and Askar), maybe a yoga class here and there and whatever else that comes my way.  I will get in to details as I go along and will have links of other volunteers/journalists working in the area on my page that I highly recommend following.  I will also have a flickr page with photos of Palestine, Project Hope projects and other experiences throughout the summer.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you may have.

In peace,

Steph

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