Gaza. The Final Frontier

Ok, I joke…because it is the only part of the crazy Levant I hadn’t seen but it does feel odd being here. It isn’t like the West Bank, where I felt instantly like I was always supposed to be there. Here, I feel very at home but I do also feel the weight of the siege…it is clearly a place people are not supposed to go. But I am so glad I came. It does not feel unsafe, I am guessing that would not have been the case whilst it was directly occupied and had settlers. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been because Gaza is not spacious…it feels full. We got to Egypt just two days ago, I spent half the day asleep after the flight and then we went exploring in Cairo.

Tahrir Square was a little anti climactic, but I suppose it isn’t exactly in use in the same way it was last year! We walked along the Nile, and took an interesting boat ride. It was a rave boat….It was also a little uncomfortable watching the tongues hanging out the mouths of the men while some girls danced full on booty popping. All the while, I had been worried about getting the work I need done actually completed when I got to Gaza. I know how difficult getting things finished fast and efficiently can be in a culture that values red tape and process and a much more relaxed speed. The ride from Cairo to the border was not as bad as I expected, but it took about hours. I fell asleep and heard the words ‘Pakistani…Pakistani!’ whilst drifting in and out of sleep…which cause me to think I was in Pakistan and really threw me off for a minute or two!

The border took about 50 minutes, and I have developed some kind of anxiety syndrome because I was on edge and I bit my poor nails like crazy. The last time I was in a border security hall is was Allenby, and we all know that ended not so well. It just reminded me how not over it I am, but I had a nice lot of people to keep me entertained and once we were through and welcomed, it was great. Many of the group are Palestinian, and one had never been to Palestine, so it was a big deal for them. I felt a little guilty that I am still whining about missing out on the West Bank, when they can’t go at all. The drive from Rafah to Gaza City felt long because I was exhausted but the hotel was lovely, it is called Al Mathaf (Museum) and is really charming and actually quite posh. The WiFi is a little pants, but I can sit in the dining area and drink yummy milkshakes whilst on the net. I also have people ask me where I am from and very warmly welcome me to Gaza…I think ‘Ahlan w sahlan’ is a phrase I don’t get tired of hearing from nice older people! :) They also play all the dabkeh songs I heard in Beddawi, so its good fun!


I was then taken for lunch by the manager of the field office, and given a giant plate of meat to eat. How three big men think I can eat the same as them, I don’t know! But it was nice.The kebabs tasted Indian! I was then taken back to the hotel to rest, and fell asleep whilst trying to get the internet working on my phone, waking up to a phone call that the field office manager, Mahmoud, was waiting for me. I got driven to an amazing place-a beach resort and play park built for boost tourism (I am guessing local!) and it had a little 3D cinema projector in the back and I watched a ‘Prehistoric Advenpure’, yes really! It was really fun, and bizarre. I made a little friend called Doa’ee who is the cutest little thing, and I was told that the board who created the resort also want cable cars from one end of the beach to the other. The entire resort gave jobs to local engineers and labourers and they did everything, even down the beach huts. Also, almost everything was smuggled in via the tunnels at the height of the siege. The peddalos were smuggled in….I never thought I was ever see a peddalo that was an act of resistance…but there you go, only in Palestine I got a special tour of the Gaza harbour, with its monument to those killed on the Mavi Marmara. The harbour area is very pretty, it has a lot of potential., and you can see the potential of Gaza left unrealised and it might be why Israel is so willing to bomb them. I was then driven back to the hotel to finally knock out and sleep until 8.30am when I was called by hotel staff and told breakfast was ready.

Today, I went to the office which is really nice and the staff were just lovely. Very kind, and welcoming and ver patient with my questions, which I know seem obvious to them. I had breakfast with all the men, and it was nice that I could understand some of the conversation, like when they were making fun of the newlywed men in the office….or when they would joke about the boss. I kept getting told to eat, and I was given a lot of coffee and tea…good thing the West Bank has given me good practice in how not to look horrified when the Arabic coffee is put in front of me! I think the meetings in the office were the only time I didn’t keep flashing back to missing the West Bank. After lunch, we visited a couple of medical related projects which was very interesting. The Public Aid Society showed me around their cardio hospital and I saw the only 3D cardio CT scanner in Palestine. I also heard about the high rates of malnutrition and the issues it causes to the general health profile of Gaza’s children, as well as high rates of congential illnesses.

Next, I visited the Hayfa Medical Centre, which now has a building but requires equipment in many floors. I spoke with the staff and also with a government engineer who spoke about his issues working with certain foreigners who wanted to help but did not respect the culture. Ah, the colonialist mindset! I was fed cake and had a lovely table of fruit and drinks and the men joked about ‘where is the siege!?’ before the lights went out and they emphatically shouted ‘there it is!’. It is amazing how fun people are here, and how strong they are in just living life and staying upbeat. We then visited a mosque built outside Gaza City where the Imam had travelled in India and Pakistan and he was very nice to me. We spoke a little Urdu and he said ‘karte karte marte hain, marte marte karte hain!’ and laughed. He invited me back for the date season and said I should visit and be there for the harvest. On my list of things I must do now- see the date harvest in Palestine! I then attended a graduation ceremony at one of universities that we have worked with, and it was really nice. The Prime Minister was in attendance and as the camera whizzed around, I thought ‘I am never making it back to the West Bank now!’ lol. Inshallah I am not on the footage anywhere!

His house is just down the road from the hotel in the refugee camp where he was born and raised. I have to say, that is impressive… Gaza itself is such a mix of different places to me….It looks in parts like Jenin, like Beddawi and also like Pakistan. It has palm trees and pretty beaches, it has refugee camps and bombed out buildings as well as high rises and fancy hotels. There are a lot of donkey carts, hence reminding me of Pakistan- due to the siege and lack of fuel. The people are very kind, which is not at all surprising but it is still very humbling and moving. I am looking forwar to seeing more of it and meeting more people, hearing their stories and of course getting through my list of outcomes!! The siege, the destruction of the wars, the poverty and the simmering insecurity is always there.

Even when you can’t see it, sitting in a nice hotel…You can feel it because although there aren’t soldiers or settlers, Israel has made its mark and Gaza has to struggle under its weight. In my mind though, I just keep thinking how I am less than 50 miles from Jerusalem (and my people- which really hurts!)…I could walk there in 18 hours but I might as well be as far as Jupiter and that is how everyone here feels, and I will leave and they will stay and keep feeling that. I still can’t quite believe this is the world we live in.

‘Enterey Denied’- My day with Israeli border security at the Allenby crossing.

After reading this article:

I realised I did not feel better but actually felt much worse about my own experience at Israeli border security. I am part of a club none of us wanted to join but were made to simply because of our racial and religious backgrounds. I don’t buy that Israel stops everyone pro-Palestinian (although that is enough to get you denied entry too), I do think they put extra malicious effort into treating Muslims and non white people like criminals and making it as difficult as possible for them to come into Israel and the OPTs.

After three fun days in Jordan me, my sister and our friend headed to the Allenby crossing hoping to enter the West Bank. I wasn’t worried, I expected a long wait, lots of questions and hostility but, ultimately I expected to get through.

Maybe that confidence was my undoing. I expected the privilege afforded to me by British passport would get me through…After all, the Queen herself requests you let me pass without hindrance. But no. Big no.

After arriving at around 3pm, we had our passports taken, my sister was questioned and then we were taken to the big waiting room. The man who came to interview us was immediately menacing. He was polite on the surface but his tone with me was very different to how he spoke to my sister. I was asked if I had been before… ‘yes’ I replied cheerily.

‘why were you here so long? You were volunteering. You said you would leave in three weeks when you entered Tel Aviv’ he said suspiciously

Yikes! They had kept my notes from last time. But it was fine, I said I had been travelling and I was trying to learn Arabic after which I was taken aside for a one on one interview.

The menace was obvious, he did not like me and he intended to make me uncomfortable. He was aggressive in his questioning, firing out questions about why? tell me where you where? who did you meet? I replied, I kept it vague and I did say I went to the West Bank- they knew this already.

He said volunteering was not a crime…that I should admit it, but when he asked me he made it sound like it was something suspect. I had to skirt around that and keep it plausible. I said the most honest thing I could: I fell in love with Jerusalem and I found the old city really inspiring and interesting and so so different from east London. I really wanted to learn Arabic and be fluent and it is difficult to learn from books when you get older. He kept interrupting, and I kept trying to not sound ticked off.

My attempts to be friendly were not working, and then came the ‘you are a liar. You are lying. You lied’ blah blah blah. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t system when it comes to telling Israeli border officials why you are entering Israel, even though you really want to enter the OPT.

I was struggling not to get annoyed and angry…I said I had a return flight, I was a tourist on holiday and I wanted to go to Al Aqsa. I then got asked if I ‘had been to northern Pakistan recently?’

Really, wtf?! The implication clearly being there was something dodgy about me because N Pakistan is now entirely synonymous with terrorism and violence. I was polite and said no, I had not been for many years. Then came more questions about why I hadn’t been. Exhausting! And by now the panic was setting in. I was getting worried.

I was then told ‘I know you are a strong believe in the BDS movement’ and ‘You are a member of various groups.’

I said ‘no. I am not a member of any group and I don’t understand what the BDS movement has to do with me coming for a holiday to somewhere I like. Surely people with various political views come here? My political view is hardly surprising to you, and not really something relevant’. He said ‘yes, we are a democracy.’ Ugh. My brain can’t actually make sense of that even now.

I was asked about my volunteering in Lebanon. The info is up on the net, so I explained what the project was. He worked hard to make it sound sinister. I was working with kids for God’s sake!! I made it clear I had never engaged in ‘activism’ during my time in Israel and I was just coming as a tourist and a pilgrim.

I made the point he was questioning me because I was brown and Muslim. And he said ‘your skin colour has nothing to do with it’ and ‘I am half African…’. Ugh, in all of that I still had to deal with a privilege denying dude buying his own crap about being from a democratic englightened nation that isn’t racist despite his own actions in that very moment!!

I then got asked if I had friends in the West Bank. I said I did in Jerusalem. He asked why I had not put their names down, and I said I wasn’t sure I would see them. I was here with my sister. I didn’t want anyone to be harassed by them through association, so I kept it vague. I said I made mostly international friends when I was here last.

I got a lot of ‘we could make this interrogation harder’ and ‘it could be worse for you’ and references to body searches peppered throughout too. And at that point, a body search would have been much more pleasant. I have never met anyone so entirely lacking anything human…He was a little hate filled robot. It was actually very off putting, since despite being interrogated and body searched previously by my border security pals at Tel Aviv, they at least feigned politeness and indifference. This guy, he enjoyed the power he had and he was going to use it. I realised me getting in was a distant possibility now and I got really upset.

I then had to log on to my facebook (minus a few pro hunger strike profile pics of other people, luckily my newsfeed was all nonsense!) and my gmail (I have now changed all my passwords now but it still feels hugely creepy I had to log in on their computer). I didn’t have the choice to object since I didn’t want to damage my chances. In hindsight, I wish I accepted I wasn’t getting through and told him to get bent.

He sat there the whole time, it was extremely intrusive and I did actually feel violated. He then went through my phone contacts (thank God HTC has various lists and not all the names showed up!). He took down the West Bank numbers. I said they were people I had met, girls in the Old City, taxi drivers, helpful kind people and I was unlikely to meet with them. I said contacting them may concern them…He said ‘why?, they will not be in trouble unless you are a terrorist. Are you a terrorist?’ I think my mouth actually fell open and I paused before saying I was a law abiding British citizen and I didn’t appreciate being harassed like this.

He didn’t really care. He just reminded me that if not for me my sister would be through and again, it could be ‘a lot more difficult’ but of course he ‘would not do the body search himself’. Creepy comment to say the least.

Then I was left to wait for about 4 hours, my sister was interviewed, our return flights checked and we were eyeballed by everyone walking past. The Palestinians in the waiting area were lovely, we met a very nice man who spoke Urdu and told us how he is made to wait for 12 hours at a time because he is originally from Gaza. I got a little choked up, because in all the crap we were getting and how awful the Israelis were- the Palestinians are so kind, you don’t quite know how to deal with it.

The waiting area closed, we were made to sit outside and then someone came out with our passports, and told me I would have to go back. I knew it was coming, but that little spark of hope was still there and they trampled on it with glee. The man who had interviewed me, whose name and details I had asked for and he had not given them, had to be called over and I asked what the problem was. I was given some rubbish excuses for denial ‘you can’t enter.. for security’ and then he said with the most smug look ever ‘because we can’. He told me I can’t try again because I am banned for 5 years and the only way to appeal it is to get a lawyer and take it to the supreme court. Me and my sister froze for a moment. She looked concerned I was about to snap.

I was struggling not to cry and/or jump him and smack his tiny hideous face into the floor. I did manage not to do both. Good for me.

I made it clear that I had been racially and religiously discriminated against, my sister divided our stuff, told me to get back to Amman safely and she left for Bethlehem as she was not denied entry. I was taken to the bus and a man with a gun said ‘goodbye’ to me and I promptly told him to ‘fuck off’. Childish, I know but really I was not thinking about anything beyond ‘what the hell just happened?’.

Sadly the ordeal did not end. The border was closed, the money exchange was closed and the soldiers on the Jordanian side, despite being helpful, reinterviewed me and made me wait around for 40 minutes. I was asked if I was married about 4 times, which is always a question that pisses me off. And told ‘no problem. They do this. Israelis!’. They said there was nothing that could be done. I was a mess. I did actually start crying in the office and they looked super uncomfortable. I am sure it would seem a rather amusing scene to an outsider.

I took a taxi- the last one, back to Amman. The driver was a nice man and said inshallah I would get to go again. He bought me a coffee and I went back to our hotel, still in shock.

I emailed the British embassy in Tel Aviv (no response), the embassy in Jordan (nothing still) and also the Israeli embassy in London (no email response, but I called them when I got home and have written a complaint- not that anything will come of it).

I waited for my flight that was booked by my brother and sisters who insisted I get home asap. I think they were worried I would do something silly like go back to another crossing and get arrested. It did cross my mind. Then I had an awful, awful flight home and upon arriving inLondon, I burst into tears in the Heathrow car park.

I got home and spent the next few days going between super depressed and super angry. I don’t think anyone gets how awful that experience is unless they have been through it. It is humiliating, it breaks you down because you have no power or control in the situation. I was treated like a criminal, it was deliberate, it was malicious to wait until the border was closing and everyone had left when I am sure they knew they would deny me entry early on, if not from the very beginning. It was made as awful as possible so I would never want to risk it again. And I do have anxiety about it- what if I try again (with a new passport and through a different crossing) and I get a ten year or lifetime ban? What if I get detained?

On top of that, I am always replaying it and questioning myself- was I rude? Should I have grovelled? What did I say wrong?

And it makes me downright ticked off- I wish I had earned that ban at least…I wish I had made some bold statement or punched that bastard in the face!

I feel like I let people down, I feel like the one thing that made me feel safe about travelling- My British nationality- let me down. Turns out, brown trumps maroon. :(

Dealing with the aftermath has been rough. People are not sure how to deal with me and they don’t quite understand why it has hit me so hard. I have had some very insensitive responses- things like ‘oh well, you can still go to other places.’ or ‘maybe it is a good thing because now you can think about settling down’ or ‘bad things happen, just get over it’. It is a sad reminder how numbed people are to discrimination, and how readily they just accept it as ‘one of those things’.

It shook my faith, I am ashamed to say I let it do that to me. I felt a little abandoned or that I was being punished and I didn’t think I deserved something so awful. It has taken a while for be not to feel like that. I had to remind myself how fortunate I was to have stepped in Al Aqsa even once, or to have met the people I did. I had to remind myself I wasn’t the one being denied my homeland and I didn’t really have much of a right to feel as bad as I did. I always felt guilty I could go to Palestine and Jerusalem when so many people that I respect and love can’t ever go. I, at least can empathise with them a little better, but it reminds me of how enormous their loss and the injustice of it is and wonder when the hell things will change?

The shock has worn off, but it is still never far from my thoughts. I work surrounded by references to Palestine and pictures of the Old City. It stings. I talk to my friends in the West Bank, and I am sad I missed their graduations or I didn’t get to see my boys.  I am sick of talking about it and seeing people look bored, because I sound like a broken record. Feeling powerless is not something I deal with well and right now I have this black hole of doubt in me that makes me think I will never go back, I will never see my friends again and I will never step into Al Aqsa again. If I had known this was going to happen, I would not have left at all.

NOT just one of those things!

I haven’t managed to write anything for months, mostly due to being stressed out with job applications, readjusting (badly) to being home and not really having the energy to engage with everything that has been going on- Syria, Iran, hunger strikes, Pakistan…The world has seemed gloomier than usual. it is Anti-Street Harassment week. And gloomy is out, angry is back!

This is something where awareness is key. Talking about it and getting that whole ‘not a big deal’ thing removed is important, because it is a big deal. A whistle, a leer, someone getting too close on the 25 bus…it isn’t something to be accepted as just one of those things.

Street harassment isn’t about a woman being dressed a certain way, it isn’t about someone showing a romantic interest….it is about control, power and deep seated misogyny. It is about marking spaces as ‘male’ and letting women know they are there because men have allowed it, and their bodies are, for those moments, public property. It is some strange tax women get asked to pay for being on the streets or public transport!

It can be something small or very serious, like someone staring at you for forty minutes straight on the bus, to someone following you or even assaulting you. Most women I know have suffered this at some point, and having travelled to various places- I have unfortunately dealt with it at home and abroad.

My trip to Pakistan as a young teen was marred by constant harassment and it really got to me, to the point I refused to leave the house. Women there seem to deal with it, they even make excuses for it, and victim blaming is rife. It’s called ‘eve teasing’ in India, it happens in a mass scale in Egypt, it seems to be a serious problem for women in built up urban areas on the US. It isn’t restricted to one country or religious group- despite what how the media want to portray ‘other’ countries as lands filled with perverts who don’t respect women….London isn’t so great at times either!

It is a human rights issue. All women should have the right to leave their homes without fear of intimidation, violence or harassment. It is about respect. All women should be respected enough to not be treated like objects there to satisfy some creepy urge to make someone else feel powerless.

It needs to be talked about openly. As a Muslim woman, I have to put up with a lot of the ‘women are like pearls/lollipops’ and if they covered ‘thieves/flies’ (read: men) would leave them alone. It’s nonsense. Men need to have the onus put on their behaviour. They need to be scrutinised, women need to be taught to stand up for themselves and more people need to step up when they see it happening.

There is so much more to it- it is often racialised, then there is racialised abuse aimed at women because they make soft targets, abuse at towards women who don’t look a certain way ie. cisgendered or not matching an accepted beauty norm. It is damaging to women and our progress and daily lives.

And….There is nothing remotely flaterring about it. At all. It usually makes you want to wash yourself in acid.

The Final Week….or the Week of Doom!!

After returning to Abu Dis once my sisters and Sophi left, I felt pretty down. I attempted to sort my things out to make packing easier, which just upset me more and was glad when I was taken out to Jericho for lunch by Gabi and Samed. Much needed distraction! and I am glad I got to see Jericho…it looks very much like the old Hollywood, highly Orientalist, but pretty movies portrayed the Arab desert. It looks really different from Abu Dis or Jerusalem, which are not even so far away.

Also, Black Arabs! Amazing…I would love to understand race and identity better in Palestine, the phenotypical variations of the Palestinians have also really stood out since being in the Camps in Lebanon- it would be fascinating to explore. Yep, geek!

After a nice meat sandwich and sitting in a park trying to restrain a certain photo snob from ruining a family moment, we went home and I found a gift that was left for me by Ehab, one of my university students. It was a Holy Qur’aan, with an amazing message that made me ball my eyes out! I was so touched by it, I don’t think I deserve those words at all, but it means a lot that someone respects you in that way. It is something I will always treasure, and may Allah reward him, inshallah.

On the way home we drove through Sawahre village and saw a group of Israeli soldiers set up outside a house, guns out….It just looked crazy- there were at least half a dozen of them, in broad daylight with kids a few seconds down the road…Bloody soldiers.

The next day was our last Saturday at Dar As Sadaqa and we took the kids on a little trip to Beit Lahem to see the lights and Xmas goings on. It was a fun day, but damn did the kids whine about the cold! :) In the evening, we returned to Beit Lahem for an interesting dinner with some friends and a lot of internationals. There was a lot of yummy food, and I made Indian daal which I don’t think went down so well!

It was a nice evening- but I have trouble with certan internationals who rock up to a place and display no cultural awareness, sensitivity or are just plain ignorant. No excuse. I was talking to a nice enough Polish guy who said he ws studying in Tel Avivis but wanted to see the other side to the story. All good so far…then he asks me ‘why are you drinking water?’ (as opposed to wine)  had a little whine about how awful Muslims are to towards homoesxuality citing only Saudi and Iran and despite saying himself that a gay Arab he had met would choose his nationality over his sexuality, he still didn’t seem to have learned anything from that! Ugh. I have him my anti-Orientalism, imperialism, hawk feminism rant…he didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night! I just don’t have patience for clueless people.

Sunday was a holiday and I took the opportunity to meet up with friends in Ramallah. It was raining like crazy though! And my shoes could not cope (the boots got a blade in them and thus a giant hole!). We met up with the lovely, lovely Ahmed and Ehab and had coffee then a shwarma and then met Besan and had coffee again before going to Arafat’s tomb. It rained the whole time and the tomb is tasteful, simple..bare even. Whatever people may say…not many men have done what he did..he was truly a leader of a revolution and he put the Palestinian issue in the international arena, on Palestinian terms. That gets resepect.

We then had to say goodbye to people…and of course I got all teary (no surprise!) because I thought it would be the last time I would see Ahmed. Luckily, that was not the case…but it was the last time I saw Besan and Ehab and that was awful. We got on the bus to go home and someone- who shall remain nameless- finally called to say he was free! (Tsk tsk Younes! :)

Monday was fairly uneventful except for the fact I was just really down. The next day, I had a nice lesson with a brand new class at the UNRWA school and had my last lesson at the boys’ school. It was sad…those boys were a lot of fun and I really enjoyed my time there. The teachers and head were also really lovely. I got a nice thank you and some cakes. Good stuff.

I was also taken to Nabi Musa- the mosque and tomb of Prophet Musa by Samed, Gabi and her very nice friend Alena, who drove. I am really glad I went, as it is a beautiful old mosque and I got to pray there. The desert is stunning. Absolutely breathtaking actually and I am glad I got to see it.

Once we returned to Abu Dis, I met Ahmed who took me to Sawahre for dinner and FIFA with the Al Quds boyband! :) I accidentally even won a game! More goodbyes though, which was not at all fun….for anyone since I came to realise how uncomfortable I must be making people!

I had to say goodbye to Ahmed- who I emotionally blackmailed into coming to say bye to me- and I really didn’t cry so much but a 14 year old at the centre found it more than a  little amusing. Wednesday was also my final time to say goodbye to all the kids at the UNRWA school and my student Duha said I was like her big sister, Razan said I was like her mother! lol. WHAT?! but in her defence I could have a 14 year old, technically. *Back in London- today I walked past a group of schoolkids and none of them yelled my name or told me they loved me. Bah!*

We had a visit from a lovely family we knew, and said more goodbyes-but it was nice that I ever got to meet them- that is something to feel very happy about. Thursday morning, I woke up later than I wanted and went to Al Quds for the last time. The lovely Sanaa met me, and having someone there was great because it meant I didn’t get as down and was able to enjoy it. We talked about faith, living in London, about how amazing Al Aqsa was…it was really nice. We prayed Duhr and went to the old city, where Sanaa left to go home. I bought sweets- a lot of them! (Almost all gone already though!) and walked around for a while before getting back on the bus to Abu Dis. I spent the whole time just dealing with the fact I won’t be able to get on a 36 bus and go back whenever I wanted- something most West Bankers have to deal with despite being right there. It’s such an injustice, that words can’t really describe the situation with enough strength.

I had to pack and it took forever- although surprisingly I wasn’t over my weight limit and could have bought more sweets!

The night was a long and sad one. I cried (of course) but I wasn’t just crying because I was leaving, it was everything from the whole three months and it was overwhelming. The morning was me trying to hold back the emotion with everyone telling me to be strong. And then faster than expected we were in a car heading for Tel Aviv. Sami, the driver had picked us up on our arrival and seen me cry at my first sight of the Dome….so I am the girl that cries!

At the airport, we were stopped at the checkpoint and our bags scanned. When the security person was going through my case she picked up the Qur’aan Ehab had given me (I had wrapped it like a present) and when I told her what it was she said ‘sorry’ and put it down carefully. I was surprised. Inside the airport I separated from Gabi and Joe and had a very friendly woman come over to me say ‘Hello Maam’ and stick a sticker with a Number 6 on it before asking me anything. LOL. I guess I just look like trouble! :) I had everything searched, I had to get half strip searched- they checked my hair and then I got told ‘this is too big’ as they were scanning over my jeans- EXCUSE YOU! But it was apparently because the jeans were too loose and the scanner wasn’t working.

The thing that struck me- the woman searching me was super uncomfortable. She had her arms folded whilst I was putting my hijab back on, she was backed against the wall and she looked terrified when I asked her ‘so how do you decide who gets searched in this way?’. It would be funny if it wasn’t all about racism and prejudice and a flipping occupation.

I got escorted to the bus to the terminal, sat around with annoying tourists, got on the bus, and found myself in the main departure area- which had been empty when we arrived last time and walked to the boarding gate. I luckily met Gabi who gave me a much needed hug. It felt like such a horrible end to such an amazing experience. I felt like I was losing something that was mine and I didnt want to let it go. Strange thing to feel about a place and people that you have only known for 3 months. And then as Gabi went to get food…I had to listen to ‘Israel is great. I wish I came straight here’ and blah blah and had to leave the boarding gate for fear of punching someone. My sister was right, being in that airport just cements a lot of the resentment you feel. But they want to intimidate you and make you feel uncomfortable so you don’t try to go back.

The plane ride was too long. I was sad in a way I don’t have words for and I cried in the car home with my sister finding it funny. Why does everyone laugh when I cry?! This is why I usually cry alone in bathrooms!

I made it home, saw my family and that was definiteley a relief. I fell asleep, waking up to loud drilling next door. Home sweet home. I think Palestine should give me my heart back now. I kind of need it.

The Penultimate Week!

I am already home and just thinking about being in Palestine and what happened two weeks ago is a little confusing. But it was an amazing week and so if I don’t write about it…I won’t remember everything!

My sisters and friend flew in on the 17th, and I awaited news of their arrival. They got in with almost no hassle….which I am grateful for but also a little ticked off! One hijab and suddenly I am a huge security threat?! Idiots at Ben Gurion!

The next day I rushed over to Jerusalem after my women’s class to meet them and it was so nice to see them. It was wonderful to be in Al Aqsa with people- it was only on the first day there I had someone with me- and it felt a lot less overwhelming and I didn’t get that strange ‘watermelon heart’ thing I usually do! :)

We walked the old city, got a random matchmaker dude trying to set us up…bizarre….and then headed back to Abu Dis for our leaving party for Alexis. I showed the girls our flat, before heading over to the Comaro Cafe where I got to introduce them to all the people I had been talking about for the last two months! It was a fun night- it included some pretty impressive bhangra moves! :)

It was also the day the prisoners were being released and once the girls had headed back to Jerusalem- we waited for news of them the released prisoners would get to Abu Dis. We waited for hours! We then got word they were heading to Azarya and we waited on the main street for the cars to arrive. As we were standing there, having a conversation about how difficult life under occupation can be- four Israeli soldiers with their guns raised came down university street and up the main road. It was a ridiculous sight. They just looked like stupid children playing dress up, but it was also sinister because they just walked along, stalking up the street for no reason but to intimidate and remind people they were there.

The release of the prisoners was amazing! It was so incredibly nice to see the town celebrate and to get its sons back. When we had arrived almost three months before we arrived to a hunger strike and a solidarity tent…to stories of young men taken from their homes at 4am. And now, we got to see those men back home in the arms of their parents and siblings and it was moving and hugely important. Israel has arrested even more people than were released in the first phase of the swap, it is certain some of the boys I taught or who would say ‘Hi Summer!’ to me at the school will be arrested and detained. It is just unjust in a way that is hard to comprehend.

The next day I had to work and take my classes at the schools before my sisters came over to the centre and we went to paint the wall! It was something I had wanted to do with the kids at the centre, but we didn’t get the chance…which is a shame. We then went to Azarya for dinner, which was nice…It was nice to just have them there…it made the prospect of leaving seem further away, even if I spent the morning crying about it!

The next day I was working and they went to Ramallah and did a tour of Jerusalem…I now realise I barely saw anything in Jerusalem- must be more of a tourist next time! I had told my sisters it was cold, and out of nowhere the weather had turned lovely! They were cursing me for making them layer up and for Emmy’s furry hat that never got worn!

Wednesday we went to Hebron after they got a tour of the prisoner’s museum in Al Quds uni. We all agreed that we would have spent way more time at uni if it looked like Al Quds…and the museum definitely had an impact on them. The drive to Hebron took too long, I don’t know what it is about those West Bank taxis…but I vant handle them! We walked through the new city and into the old one. Sophi and Emmy had been there before but it was new for Nooreen, I don’t think its a place you can get to grips with even a little in such a short time.

We headed to Al Ibraheemi mosque and the soldiers til issue with the leaflets the girls had from the prisoners museum…they said you couldn’t take in symbols of the Intifada and Palestine…My mouth actually fell open. So, a Jewish Zionist extremist masscres people, but the metal detectors are used on Muslims and Palestinian symbols aren’t allowed in a mosque, in Palestine?! Woah. He asked if we knew what grey were….I said yes, we most definitely do….but I also had to keep Nooreen in check since she decided to go a little too attitude-y with them. ‘I speak English. Do YOU speak English?!’ It’s funny now, but then I was worried she may be pushing it with the overly aggresive body language!

Going past the soldiers to get into the mosque always leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and the girls got upset at the litter in Sara’s tomb section. Hebron is damaged, but I don’t think the settlers or soldiers can do anything to take away from the beauty of the place or its people….it depresses the hell out of you, but it also makes you angry and that is an important emotion to feel, a valuable one.

After the mosque I took the girls to meet the legend that is Abed, of Shuhada Street. As we crossed the checkpoint barrier, the soldiers came towards us talking in Arabic and I answered them with ‘yeah, yeah, we’re not Palestinian we can come here!’ and Abed laughed. It was ridiculous.

We sat there and talked with him, were offered tea….it was awesome! His take on his situation is astounding and hugely inspiring. We got invited to dinner next time we were in town- inshallah I get to take him up on that! He is the one reason Hebron did not depress me this time…amazing, amazing man.

The next day we went to Al Aqsa and shopped in the old city, before heading to Beit Lahem to meet our lovely friends! The bus to Beit Lahem too a ridiculously long time- but we got there (late!) and went to the Church of the Nativity and watched the Christmas celebrations…plus a little parade of little kids from across Palestine for ‘Children without Borders’.

More lovely people joined us and we walked around, had lunch, went and had sheesha and I got rapped to in Arabic- courtesy of Anan! We walked around a lot more…and I got all teary and had a horrible joke about dead babies told to distract me! It kind of worked. Good job Ahmed! :) It was a really fun day, and we all were sad it had to end, but it got cold and we got tired!

We were dropped off at the checkpoint…and found a nice taxi driver, who I managed to have a whole conversation in Arabic work! Go me! He was just extremely polite about my incomprehensible syntax, I am sure…

The next day we went to Al Aqsa again, before the girls got on their sharute to the airport and I sadly headed back to Abu Dis. I wish they had stayed…I could have done with my sister telling me to ‘shut the f-up’ when I got too emotional! :)

Meeting extraordinary people…It’s just another day in the West Bank!

This post has been waiting for me for ages…but it has been hard to concentrate on writing when the ‘day of doom’ loomed over me! ie. leaving! Now I am actually back home! Boooo!

Something you learn early on is that everyone has a story in the West Bank and I was fortunate enough that people have shared their stories with us..

Two weeks ago we met a man who had been in prison for almost 30 years. Ali, was released two months ago in the first phase of the swap deal for Gilad Shalit. He has been in prison since before the First Intifada, and his release is definitely something to be celebrated for his five children, grandchildren and his wife.

Ali is definitely one of the ‘tigers of Palestine’ – like the men I met in Lebanon who had fought and suffered for Palestine..he has that same defiance and fearlessness and to say it is impressive is an understatement. He welcomed us into his home and of course, he thought I was Arab but when I said I was Pakistani he was very sweet about it! People sharing their life stories with you, especially when they are so fascinating is a real privilege- there is never a strong enough way to say thank you for it!

He spoke about his time in prison- they had charged him with being the leader of a militant group- and he spoke about how the prisoners had organised themselves to demand better treatment. He spoke about the importance of the hunger strikes over the years, that got them family visits, better food, access to news and helped to end beatings by guards within prisons.

However, he said that torture and beatings were commonplace in interrogration and holding…He mentioned how he was tortured….freezing cold water poured over him, loud trance music played in a confined space and also…something that shocked me (which is getting to be rare with the Israelis!)- a spinning g-force style plate that shook them until they caved in! WHAT THE HELL?!

He mentioned the ‘Shalit law’ that had taken away many rights from political prisoners, but that the most recent hunger strike had an effect on getting somethings back but conditions were still bad. It was fascinating to hear his description of everyday life and organisation in the prisons..Problems between prisoners were sorted out amongst them, the organised to decide what food they wanted and the prison administration left them to it. It was agreed that external events would not affect the prisoners but in reality, they were collectively punished for Shalit’s hostage taking and for other events in Israel.

When Alex asked him how he felt about the taking of Gilad Shalit and the deal…he said something I was amazed by- he said that it was good Palestinian prisoners would be released and that their families needed them, but he knew what it was like to be a captive and empathised with his friends and his family. It was bad for him….but ultimately it was the Israeli regime that should be blamed…I couldn’t agree more.

He heard the news of his release from the guards whilst still on hunger strike and couldn’t believe it. I can’t imagine how that must have felt…He had been given certain parole conditions, but was happy to ignore them- I love that defiance!

We were shown some of the artwork he had made whilst in prison, and he said one of the pictures was about nature and animals and everything they couldn’t have when they were held. He had been to six different prisons over the 30 years and at one point his son (Daniel Craig lookalike!) has allso been in prison with him. In the last year, his wife had been banned from seeing him because she brough their grandson to meet him….

He said he was looking forward to spending time with his family, he said he missed figs whilst he was in prison….and he said he doesn’t feel like he wasted time. He was imprisoned for his country, that isn’t a waste but a duty. Wow.

A week later I was in Hebron with my sisters and our friend, who had come to Palestine for the week. I took them to meet Abed, with his lone shop on the closed Shuhada Street. I have mentioned Abed before…but I don’t think I can stress how much of a LEGEND this man is! We sat and talked with him for a long time and everything he said…wow. He said he would not leave his home, that he was simply guarding the land…it was a duty, it wasn’t his but a trust from God! He said no amount of money would make him give up this duty, whether is it 10 or 100 million! Amazing. Amazing. He also insisted on giving us a gift and when we said it wasn’t necessary he said ‘No! Father speaking!’ Awww. I love it when people call me their daughter, it is so moving! Abed had helped people after the Goldstein Massacre and now struggled to pass by the mosque without remembering what happened. It is so sad to see tha sadness in the eyes of  a man with so much fire and fun! We spoke to his son Mohammed about growing up around soldiers and he was very is all he knows. But he was also very much a Khalil boy, and wanted to stay there… was an activist. However many soldiers and settlers there are…They don’t have that heart, which tells me they won’t win. Inshallah.

As we were laughing and joking in the shop about finding us all husbands (apparently is it the solution to everything!) a jogger walked past, having come from the settler end of the street. Seeing him in his tacky little sports gear, cruising down the street made me sick. It isn’t normal to go jogging in a street that is suffocated by injustice, racism and militarisation. I wanted to yell after him…actually I wanted to trip him up- but I didn’t! :)

The skewed way the conflict is presented seems even more ridiculous now I spent so much time in the West Bank…To expect Palestinians to be some kind of passive society that sits by and takes a brutal occupation, to prove they are ‘civilised’ or ‘peaceful’ and therefore deserving of basic human rights and then malign and discredit their claims when they resist is a product of a racist, unjust and sinister narrative.

As we were driving through Ar Rum one day, I got to see some of the speech Mandela made and is now written across The Wall. It is actually a beautiful speech…He says it is embarassed the Palestinians need to use the word ‘Apartheid’ for their situation…I couldn’t agree more. The Palestinian cause always needs to be repackaged and sold in a palatable way…why? Because they have fought back?! When settlers go jogging with guns, when Israeli women throw boiling water from windows onto Palestinian shoppers and when children are detained and arrested…when amazing people are punished and hurt….That is what is immoral and needs to be condemned…and not in the same breath as militant activity by Palestinians. It is not the same thing!

Jenin Jenin: Part ii

We were welcomed into the home of Umm Raed, a mother of seven who had lost her husband in 2002, during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp. We sat in the spacious living room, and were told that their home had been invaded and used as a base for Israeli soldiers to attack the rest of the camp during the attack.

In 2002, the family was staying in the centre of the camp with their extended relatives. The Israelis began their air and tank assault, and the family were trapped in the camp. Umm Raed described how her children were all very young, there were her elderly in-laws in the home and they had no way to contact anyone outside the house.

The children talked about remembering the noises and explosions of the air assault. They had to move from house to house (as going outside would have meant snipers and bombs) to get to the safety of the Red Crescent society building on the outskirts of the camp once the bulldozers arrived. Nidal, the father had been shot and killed close to his home and his body was buried in the rubble. For three weeks the family had no idea Nidal had been killed, as they assumed, like all the men from the camp, he had been arrested and taken by the Israelis. Sadly, the family also lost Nidal’s brother and other male members of the family were arrested and imprisoned.

Their home was destroyed and they lived in rented accomodation for a few months whilst it was being repaired. Umm Raed spoke with an amazing amount of patience and resolve. She worked hard, with the help of her extended family to bring up her children without a father and she spoke of her sadness at remembering the good times and how life goes on but it can never be what it was. Her daughter, Hiba said that everything in the camp reminds her of her father and what happened and it is not something that can be escaped. Umm Raed spoke of the Israelis and how she couldn’t understand why they had done what they did to Jenin…she said they ‘had no mercy’….I would have to agree and add that bulldozing a refugee camp also makes you cowards.

Raed, is this beautiful boy who is now immortalised on film pointing out the grave of his father. His father is a martyr, and I wonder what mixed emotions that must bring for a young man. He spoke about feeling anger towards the soldiers he sees but that he knows he can’t express it because they can kill him without a second thought. He also said he wasn’t afraid of death, something I have heard a lot and it gives me a sense of sadness but also…I am always impressed at the bravery and strength I have seen here. It isn’t recklessness, it is steely determination in the face of an enemy that works to break you down…

The family were incredibly kind and I am always touched people will tell us about their lives and experiences. I asked the children and mother how they felt about people coming to them and asking these questions and they said they wanted people to know and although they didn’t have much hope for justice, they still wanted what happened to Nidal spoken about.

In 2012, it will the tenth anniversary of what happened in Jenin. Ariel Sharon, the man that aided the Sabra and Chatila was also responsible for Jenin. He has never been called to task for what he did….he has butchered Palestinian refugees, broken down lives they rebuilt after being driven from their homes and there is little hope anyone will ever be brought to justice…..Justice is denied in Jenin and that means the scars will always remain. People still argue over the use of the word ‘massacre’ because not enough people were killed and apparently they were all ‘militants’ anyway (ugh!). It is easy to trample on those most vulnerable and then deny their suffering in Israel…and in the rest of the world. The way Jenin was reported in the UK was disgraceful in the erasure and misinformation given….This is why solidarity and twinning with the camp is so important.

Between 2002 and 2007, 104 were killed in the camp (not including the March attack) and the camp is constantly raided and people arrested. There is no security for the people in the camp, even more so than other parts of he occupied territories because it now has a reputation for more radical politics.

I remembered the people I met in Beddawi who had been from Nahr el Bared and I remember Tereiz who lived in Nahr el Bared speak about how her home has been destroyed by the Lebanese army, her gratitude at finding a photo album in the rubble….The injustice Palestinian refugees face is astounding…

All refugees suffer, many can never go home…but their right of return isn’t denied like the Palestinians. It is this denial- the forced migration, being ripped from a life, from a home and a future and thrown into the status of a non-person because of how we see citizenship and belonging, that gives them a much greater sense of belonging than the rest of us have….even if they cannot be where they belong.



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