Friday, January 6, 2012


Yesterday, instead of going straight from Ramallah to Al Aqaba, I decided to put in a last-minute Couch Surfing request to Nablus. I'd been in the Ramallah bubble for too long and I felt the need to shake things up...and my Couch Surfing venture still hadn't happened. So luckily, Nizar, who had sent me a message earlier in the week and was very well referenced, called me 20 minutes after I sent my request, and met me in Martyr's Square, by the Arab Bank an hour later.

I didn't know it was called Martyr's Square until I read it on a street sign, even though I'd been there so many times before. It was the center of the city. Nablus is full of martyr posters. Most of the men pictured are holding AK-47's. I didn't know anything about these men. I'd been to three martyr funerals, one in Bil'in, one in Qusra, and one in Nabi Saleh. The people on those posters weren't violent. I didn't see men with guns on the walls of those villages. What happened to Nablus?

One explanation is the refugee camps. Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people live in Balata camp alone, which is 0.25 kilometers squared. Many of the martyrs come from these camps, and the people in these camps are from cities and villages in Israel, or "48," referring to the year they became refugees.

I greeted Nizar, who is a nice, scholarly-looking man with spectacles. He asked me early on if I spoke French, as he was nearly fluent and applying to study in Europe. We walked through the city, about fifteen minutes to Project Hope, where he volunteers. I'd been there before with my brother last year, but we arrived during Christmas holidays, when no one was around. Now there were people coming in and out, using the internet, and having meetings. My British couch surfer from last week, Ed, was getting ready to teach a drama class in Balata camp to a group of teenage boys. I was tempted to ask if I could join him, but Nizar had arranged for his friend Majed to escort me around the Old City until Nizar got off work. So off we went.

First, Majed showed me a sweet factory, where spinning metal barrels of nuts were getting slowly sugar-coated. I felt like I was intruding on the man pouring the syrup into all the batches, but he said I could take videos and a handful of nuts off the table. I figured there probably wasn't a health code here. Anyways, they were delicious. 
Then we went to the spice market, where I bought a bag of safron. We chatted about what spices to put in makloubeh, my favorite Palestinian dish, and I decided I wasn't ready to do my own makloubeh shopping, so I picked safron to be safe. It was fresh, from Palestine, not from Turkey. Baladia, organic. I learned that from Souli in Ramallah, as he's always looking for organic eggs.
Next we watched some guys making knafe, a famous Palestinian dessert that Nablus is famous for. My friend Mohammad had taken me and my mom and grandma to that same shop, and said it was the best knafe in Nablus. I'm not terribly picky when it comes to knafe, and I was partial to a certain shop on Ramallah, but I still loved it. Dough and cheese and sugar. Seriously....
Then we wandered into an old soap factory. Nablus is also well known for olive oil soap. There are several non-functioning soap factories in Nablus; only a handful of factories still work. This one looked like an ancient cave, and now it's something of a tourist sight. The man opened up a vat of olive oil so we could smell it, but we turned down the offer to taste it. He showed us a large, empty hole in the stone floor where the soap was stirred with a giant wooden....spoon-thing.

Then Majed and I walked around the souk and visited his friend who works in a hookah shop. I wanted to buy one for cheap, so he pointed out all the small ones, but I wanted the regular sized one, so I said I'd wait. I asked his friend why the tobacco prices had risen so high recently. Mustafa in Bil'in told it me they went from 9 shekels to 25 shekels, and someone else told me 60. I thought it was the Israelis who had done this. I thought, is there no end?? Now they can't even smoke their argheelah in peace?? But Majed's friend said, no, it was a Jordanian tax. oops. my mistake.

Majed seemed to know a lot of people. That was cool. Then we went to visit his family just outside the old city. He lived with his mother and two younger siblings and his grandmother, same building, different floors. I chatted with his family a bit, Lamees and Noor, sister and brother, were really cute, and they wanted to friend me on Facebook. 10 and 12, a little young for Facebook, no? Majed explained to them that I live in Al Aqaba, not Aqaba, Jordan, not Aqqaba, not Aqraba, but Al Aqaba, next to Tubas. This is an everyday conversation. I'm getting better at expaining. Though I still don't know how to explain the story of the village in Arabic. I need to sit down with Haj Sami and write down all the phrases I'm missing. I keep forgetting the word for "demolish."
The family insisted I come back on Friday to visit them, and promised me makloubeh. Ma'loubeh, as they say in the city. They laugh when I speak fallahi, the village accent...

Majed took me back to Project Hope, and we met up with Nizar and walked down a few hundred steps to a Shawarma shop. This was the best Shawarma I've ever had. So good. Then we headed back up the hill, and Nizar and I raced to the top, and the cold air made me wheeze for an hour afterward. Alright, I'm incredibly out of shape. I haven't been for a run in donkey's years.

Speaking of, I was taught a Palestinian saying, when you see someone riding a donkey, you can say hamar bitawbein, meaning "the donkey had two floors." that took me a minute to get. ahhh, the rider is also a donkey. calling someone a donkey is a popular insult here, especially amongst teenage boys.

When we got back to Project Hope, they were starting their Wednesday night film. This week it was Paradise Now. I'd already seen half of it, on Netflix and TV on separate occasions, and I was kinda tired of that first half, but I thought, hey, why not...immediately I was grateful for the opportunity to watch a Palestinian movie with subtitles. The blockbuster hits are mostly Egyptian, so following the local dialect was much more stimulating. 

The movie takes places in Nablus, mostly in the Old City. It's about two best friends who work in auto repair but are generally bored and listless, like so many young men in Nablus. This is during the Intifada, when the city was shut down by checkpoints and men under 40 had a hard time even getting out. They get recruited for a suicide bombing operation in Tel Aviv, and they accept. So the movie's about them getting prepared, seeing their families, who are unaware, changing their minds, things go wrong, there's a love interest...all in all the movie does a great job in depicting Palestinians as humans first, even as the main character is sitting on a bus in Tel Aviv, surrounded by soldiers and civilians, and you can see the vacancy in his face and you know he's going to go through with it. You don't want him to die, and there's no sympathy for the act, but you know what brought him to that point. Then the screen fades to black, then white, then black, then the credits roll. "wow."I was frozen to my seat.

Then everyone filtered out of Project Hope, and me and Nizar and Majed locked up and headed out. We walked into the Old City. It was quiet and empty, and our steps echoed off the stone floors and walls and tunnels. The light from the street lamps was beautiful on the Jerusalem stone. Then I looked up at the martyr posters. I felt like I had walked into a movie set. This is where it happened. Just years ago, this place was a prison, and everyone was trapped inside. Everyone is always telling me how much better the situation is now, and I try to imagine it worse.  I try to imagine everywhere like Hebron, where you see soldiers prowling through the market place. Now that's rare in Palestinian urban areas, in Area A, but Nablus has a lot of recovering to do. Because of the past checkpoint restrictions, the economy was basically strangled, and Nablus lost its status as the commercial center of the West Bank.

We walked past a vacant lot in the middle of the Old City, and Nizar told me they were fixing this place up to be a hostel for internationals. Then I thought, this place is just as beautiful as the Old City in Jerusalem. 3njad, it could bring in just as many tourists. Got to admit, it's getting better.

Majed told Nizar that I liked maps, because I liked the one of pre-Nakba Palestine in the spice shop (I felt bad for inquiring about it, and not the spices...) so Nizar took me to his brother's shop and gave me a travel book as a gift. It was simply called Israel. I tried to crack jokes about it, but I accepted the gift. I like to read travel books on Israel because I'm interested in how they frame the history and the people, but I don't know where I'll put this book. On the guest house coffee table?

Then we went to Nizar's friend's house for coffee and some food, rice and chickpeas with some kind of yogurt sauce, I forgot the name but it was great. We three sat together for a while, sharing riddles and games. I gave them the 9-dot challenge (cover all the dots in 4 lines without lifting your pencil) and they were totally stumped, but they tried non-stop for a good half hour. I found out that Nizar's friend and I have a mutual friend from Bil'in. She's studying to be a doctor so he knew her from the hospital. She's the sister of Tutu and Filisteen, one of Adeeb Abu Rahma's daughters. He mentioned Batool (Tutu) and I exclaimed, "you know her?" and told him about the video she made with Yazid that I posted on YouTube. He told me he'd watched it, and quoted one of her funny questions: "what is the relation between you and your uncles Helme and Khamis?" I was so surprised, this person I'd never met had seen the video! Palestine was getting smaller, walla. I was happy that I'd made the decision to Couch Surf tonight.

Finally, I was starting to yawn uncontrollably, I yawn a lot in general so people always think I'm tired, but maybe I just don't breathe as deeply as I should. I don't know. Anyways, Nizar and I headed out and hopped in his brother's car, which took us to the outskirts of Nablus, overlooking Askar camp. I was exhausted, but I managed to eat dinner with Nizar's family. He hosted Couch Surfers a lot and his family didn't seem to mind taking care of them, even in groups of five or six. We talked about Al Aqaba, where it is, how old I am, how I'm not married, and how everything sounds funnier in a village accent, then Nizar showed me pictures of his family and his sisters' weddings. Their faces were painted white and I could tell they were tired from two days of endless dancing and ceremony. I've seen enough pictures and wedding videos to know how much energy it takes to be in the center of all that madness.

Then I passed out. It was 1am. At quarter to seven, Nizar was knocking on my door, asking "are you still sleeping? do you want to eat?" I was feeling a combination of rage, exasperation, mercy towards Sulaiman, who at least waited until ten before giving me a list of chores, and "what? food?" One of my best motivators, 3njad.

We ate breakfast, then Nizar and his brothers and I took off the little rickety car and they started teaching me Arabic proverbs. There's one about a chicken digging a hole, then falling in it. Like digging your own grave, y3ani...we were driving through Nablus while all the kids were walking to school. I usually didn't see this hour, but I was glad to be in that scene. I think it's one of my favorite in Palestine, when the streets are full of schoolkids, talking and laughing and eating snacks and cramming before tests. I love these glimpses of normal life. I wish their English books were better. As Nizar and I were walking toward Project Hope, the girls gave me their "how are you's" and "what's your name?"'s and when I answered they giggled and huddled together.

Nizar opened up Project Hope and I surfed the web a little bit. He showed me the newspaper (Al Quds-Jerusalem) that had an article about the Israeli government wanting to cut down on the number of visas for internationals working for organizations that did work in the West Bank. It talked mostly about UN organizations and wanting to screen applicants more thoroughly, but it didn't really give reasons as to why, it just seemed like it was falling into the right-wing attack on human rights organizations. It made me nervous about my next visa, though I still wondered if my lack of affiliation made it irrelevant for me. Palden told me to just seem as pleasant and friendly as possible, as the border officials are most likely bored out of their minds. My mom told me to give a timeline, like I'm going to grad school in the fall, or I have something to do in the summer, so it doesn't look like I'm trying to stay indefinitely. Really, I just want three more months. For now.

I left Project Hope for Al Aqaba, and made my way down, through more hoards of school children on their break, and thought about organizing something for the kids. You know, contacting schools and doing a presentation tour, what for? I don't know. But I think there should be a more open channel between schools and international volunteers. To my knowledge, there's little in the way of organization on that front. I could be mistaken. Or am I trying to avoid organizing something? I'd need to contact the Ministry of Education. And make another website. Ok, baby steps. Baby steps to the next visa.....

On my way to the service station, I stopped into my computer store (ok, I bought a set of USB speakers and two sets of Arabic-English-Hebrew keyboard covers) to see my friend Mohammad. We sat and talked and drank tea for a while. For the first time I realized he had an accent, and asked him if he's studied in Britain. He had, and muttered, "bloody tossers." That made me laugh. I asked him about getting a mini-computer, since so many of my friends and fellow travelers were using them. I was sick of lugging around this behemoth. He showed me the new Dell model, that swivels from a computer into a touch screen. It sold for about $750. I said I'd never owned or operated a touch screen. He said the regular mini was $400. It wouldn't do for film making, just for on-the-go internet and word processing.

I liked sitting in that shop, I told Mohammad it was so full of nice things. Colorful, shiny computers and speakers and various toys. He said his life's work was in his shop.

While I was there I heard at least four parades of students on their way to the Fateh rally in Martyr's Square. Yesterday it had been in Ramallah, today in Nablus. They were setting up for it the night before, with huge balloons of Arafat and Abbas's heads on either sides of the stage. Two of the parades were scouts, with drums and trumpets, the others were just holding signs and flags.

"These kids need something to do," I said.
"They're just happy to be missing school," said Mohammad, "if they knew what Fateh was, they wouldn't be doing this..."
"At least in the States we have sports to absorb their energy..."

I gathered Mohammad was apolitical. But he said the system had become much more organized since the Intifada. There were no Palestinian police then, just occupation forces. So there was a lot more theft and looting within Nablus. Mohammad himself carried a gun..."can you picture it?" he asked. I couldn't. So there was something to be said for the efforts of the Palestinian on the streets, public it's time to invest more in the kids...really, keep them out of politics.

I walked to the rally for a few minutes, I didn't see any other foreigners there but I looked touristy enough with my three bags. Still, I didn't feel comfortable filming so I snapped a few photos and got outta there. It was so loud, wallahi. Music blasting and someone yelling through a microphone. The kids looked bored.

Then I hopped into a service to Tubas, and the driver said, "Ay, Morjana..."