Arab and Jew: Being young in a troubled land

Palestinian kids in Rafah. (Melissa)

Khaled is 19 years old but he comes across as being much older. He is very tall and slim but his face exudes experience and wisdom. Despite his quiet demeanour, he displays confidence and independence that was learned from growing up in a difficult situation. Khaled is great at dealing with people; he can be soft and kind to children but at the same time strong against those trying to take advantage of him. He usually gets what he wants and is respected across the city from people of all walks of life because he respects everyone and knows how to talk to people. I have met few with a better understanding of life than Khaled. He understands and accepts the bad as much as the good in life and really understands how the world works.

Khaled is in his first year of studies at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Every day I ask him, “what are you going to do tomorrow?” The answer is always the same, “The same as every day, nothing.” There is nothing to do in Rafah. Some days he comes home from school and sits with a frustration hiding behind his hazel eyes, more quiet than usual, staring at the walls for hours, moving only to light a new cigarette. He only smokes when he is upset, he tells me. “I feel lost,” he says on a number of occasions, “I cannot see myself continuing my studies here for another three and a half years.”

His thoughts may echo those of university students around the globe, frustrated with studying and exams, but in fact they are not the same. With an unemployment rate around 80% in Rafah, and around 70% in the Gaza Strip, there is hardly an incentive to continue studying. Thousands of university graduates have nothing to do every day. Khaled has two older brothers who have taken different paths in life. One completed his university studies in Business and years after graduating is still unemployed.

When I ask Khaled what Mohammed does every day, tells me he sleeps in late, sits around and at night goes to visit his friends. The same routine every day. Ahmed, Khaled’s other older brother did not go to university and is currently employed with the BBC in Gaza City thanks to his English skills and a lucky coincidence. This leaves Khaled questioning his education. I ask him what he wants to do with his studies. The answer, “I do not know, maybe I will become a translator. I do not know what will happen in the future, how can I plan anything? Nothing is in my hands. Maybe tomorrow the situation will be better, but maybe it will be much worse.”

Over the course of his life Khaled has left the Gaza Strip only twice, both times when he was quite young. He spent a month living in Jerusalem with an uncle but his memories are limited due to his young age. Another time he was lucky enough to hide in his father’s truck as he went to work in Israel and got to drive around with him. The rest of his life has been spent in the tiny sliver of the Strip. “I want to leave this place. I cannot see myself living here in this situation for the rest of my life.”

So many times I have heard him say this, an irritated tone in his voice. “I wasted a year of my life and I cannot afford to waste another, waiting, like I did before.” Khaled applied for, and received a scholarship to study in Algeria however when he was set to leave Rafah through the only border crossing that Palestinians are allowed to use, he was not allowed to pass despite having all necessary documents. The Strip was under complete closure for a period of months. He was forced to give up his scholarship and make a new plan for himself here in Rafah. All of his friends have left, he reminds me regularly. His one best friend is studying in Cypress, while the other is studying in Egypt. It is easy to read the disappointment and frustration in his face of being cheated out of what was supposed to be his.

Now he dreams of finding a way out, like many others, but it is a daunting and depressing task. Thinking of the rest of one’s life being lived in this tiny, sandy prison however is more depressing. Many people in the world do not travel for a number of reasons, including the expense. Few, however are barred from travelling abroad by an occupying army, forcing them to miss out on the opportunities to see cultures and ways of life so incredibly different from their own.

People cannot even visit Jerusalem or the West Bank and I am incredibly embarrassed to tell Palestinians how life is in Nablus, a city they have never seen and yet is a part of their country. Sometimes I wonder if the children of the second Intifada realize that in Canada people could go their entire lifetimes without hearing a real gun being fired, except on television of course. In Rafah I know that I did not go an entire day without hearing gunfire.

Many nights as we sit around with nothing else to do, he tells me stories of his childhood, of the events of the city, of the cultural and political eccentricities that are difficult to fully understand for an outsider. Often I tease him about his childhood, and how he must of have been a stone-throwing child during the first intifada. He tells me that often his friends and he would throw stones on their way home from school at some soldiers stationed in a building. “Sometimes we would ask them for money and they would give it to us, or they would give us sandwiches to eat.”

The fun and games of children however has transformed in their teenage years. One of Khaled’s friends has been killed, his shaheed poster is hung as a memory on Khaled’s bedroom wall. Where young boys once threw rocks now as teenagers they have the choice to join the resistence and fight for their freedom. “I was asked to join the resistance,” another friend tells me as we march through the streets in a demonstration against the Geneva Accords, “I was offered a gun and everything, but my studies are more important to me.”

Khaled’s father has been in prison dozens of times, rounded up and arrested for no apparent reason like the majority of other Palestinian men. “One time when they were arresting all the men in the area they came to the house to take my father away. I was young but I remember standing there watching. My mother was crying and as the soldiers took my father away she ran after them screaming and throwing stones at them.

As they put my father into the jeep the soldier fired one shot, it hit my mother in the head.” A tiny scar is all that is left and she is incredibly fortunate for the bullet grazed her forehead just above the eye. The first time I met his mother I asked how a boy as tall as he could have come out of such a tiny and frail woman. The thought of her being a threat to soldiers worthy of being shot is inconceivable.

Like all refugees Khaled tells me that he is from Ashkelon, not from Rafah although he was born and raised here, living in one of the many overcrowded refugee camps. I ask him if tomorrow the right of return was implemented would he really want to go back and leave behind everything that he has known here. His answer is quick and firm, “If everyone is allowed to return then there would be no problem because all of my relatives and most of my friends would be coming back to my village with me. The others would be living in the next village over, only a short trip away to visit. Of course we want to go back home.”

Fatma has recently started wearing a niqab, the full veil that leaves only the wearer’s eyes visible. “This is my freedom,” she says, “I can walk in the street and people will not know who it is, therefore they cannot think bad things about me. This is also my protection from men, they know to stay away from a woman dressed like this.” Most of Fatma’s friends also wear the niqab she tells me, and I wonder how much peer pressure has influenced her choice. When she first started dressing this way it caused a huge argument with her father. “He used to say, “No daughter of mine is going outside dressed like that! I do not want people to think that we are Islamic Fundamentalists!”

He told me that after a month I would probably get tired of wearing it, then after two months, then after three. It has been six months and I am comfortable to dress this way for the rest of my life.” I imagine most parents in the West arguing with their daughters to cover up and dress more modestly, not many have this reverse problem. Fatma’s sense of humour and strong personality are in complete contrast to the way people in the west think of women who are fully veiled. “When I first walked into class at university like this my French professor, who is from France, said, “Oh no, funny girl, not you too! Why are you dressed like this?” He then took me aside after class and tried to talk me out of my decision. I told him that this is better and that God likes it, and he respects my decision.”

Fatma is 21 years old and is studying French at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza. “I wanted to be an engineer, that was my dream as a child. I was always good at fixing things. When things in the house were broken my father used to give them to me to figure out how to fix them. Math was my best subject and my teacher thought that I was going on to Engineering School. She was very shocked and disappointed to meet me a few years later and discover that I was not studying Engineering, but that is the life.” Because of the situation Fatma’s family could not afford for her to study engineering, instead she decided to study French because it was cheaper, and it was something new and different. French cannot be studied in high school in Palestine and therefore the students begin from the beginning at university.

“Now my dream is to get a masters in French. That is what I wish but now I do not know if I can even continue my studies for next semester. There is no money to pay and the university is demanding money now.” Fatma receives some financial help for her studies but the scholarship arrives after the deadline for the payment date of tuition and the university is strict on its deadline. She sits and wrings her hands like she always does; her stress fills the room, leaving in the air a feeling of heaviness. Often times she yells at me, telling me that I do not understand her problems, her life. Of course I do not, and cannot imagine what it feels like to be in her situation. I know that she just needs to vent her frustrations about a situation over which she has no control. “I need to talk with you, my friend,” she says, “you always make me laugh and make me forget my problems.”

With her fiery red hair, freckled face and mischievous smile she is hardly what one would imagine as a subdued, veiled, Palestinian woman. Often times in the street she speaks and laughs louder than I, and indeed we spend the majority of our time laughing. She is always quick with a joke or funny story and our longest joke is how in order for me to get married and stay with her in Rafah, I must first find a man who will give me five camels. Like most girls in conservative Rafah however, she cannot dance unless she is only in the company of women. “My brother and I love dancing, and I used to be much better than him,” she tells me as we dance around the empty office, “but then I stopped dancing and he became better than me, its better this way.”

“If tomorrow you hear that there is a new shaheed in Rafah, it will be me, I swear,” she says almost every day. “My father is going to kill me. I know he will.” Like most teenagers, Fatma has problems with her father. She comes home too late (too late being after 5:00); she does not study enough (all the girl does is study), and other indefinable problems. “You know, before this situation I do not remember ever having fights with my father. Everything was good and our family was happy.”

Fatma’s house is located two doors away from the neighbourhood cleared by Israeli bulldozers in the spring. Several hundred houses were completely destroyed, leaving Fatma’s and her neighbour’s house next in line. Her father used to work in Israel but because of the intifada he is unemployed, like most men. His stress must be unimaginable. Fatma’s oldest sister has a job teaching English at a local language centre. She is supporting the entire family of seven living in the house. Fatma’s oldest brother could not take the stress anymore and moved to the Arab Emirates in order to work.

Fatma is incredibly proud of her country and her people. “I want to help my people any way that I can, especially those who live in the bad areas.” She herself lives in one of these areas but several times a week Fatma volunteers at a kindergarten with the children and at a number of youth centres and centres that help people who have had their houses demolished. She is always giving, even when her situation is so difficult, “these people need help, they need people to be with them to talk about their lives and their problems, to let them know that we still care about them.”

Shereen bursts through the door of her fancy home wearing the latest style of clothes. Her shoulder length black hair bounces as she walks, not to be covered, despite her Muslim family. “My family is very liberal when it comes to religion. My mother still covers her hair and prays but we do not. We are Muslims but everyone has the choice as to how we practice our religion.” Shereen is 18 years old and is studying Politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“There are only four Arabs in my class, and I am the youngest by far. All of the Jewish students are at around 22 years old and are just starting their studies because of their military service. It makes it hard sometimes to really say your opinion on topics, because I am so young compared to them. Our classes are great though, we study everything about this area that is problematic, we discuss everything.” At university she has many Israeli friends, “we get along well in classes and we hang out and are friends, but as soon as we discuss political things everything changes, it is like they forget that we are the same people that they are friends with and we become the terrorists that we are portrayed as. It is as if we are not equal to them and are guests living in their country.”

Recently Shereen has decided to move to the university in Haifa in order to be closer to home and her boyfriend. There she will study to become a teacher. “I think it’s a bad idea, she is stupid to move,” says her older brother, “the university is Jerusalem is much more prestigious, only those with the best marks are accepted.” However, it means staying away from home, a small village near Nazareth, most of the week, which is difficult for a young girl with a boyfriend. “Maybe I will end up marrying him, I do not know,” she tells me, although she and her best friend, a boy, have promised each other that if they do not get married by a certain age they will marry each other, as a joke.

Shereen’s father is one of the few Arab members of the Knesset. “The day that he won the election I stayed home and cried. I know that it is important to have people like him in the Knesset to protect us and look out for us but I could not watch, as he had to wear the symbols of the State of Israel. It was a horrible day for me.” As we drive through the scenic Galilee countryside in the family’s brand new car they point out the old, destroyed Palestinian villages along with the new Israeli settlements in the area. An industrial kibbutz has been built over the remains of a Palestinian village. “They are trying to move more Jewish Israelis to this part of the country because it is the only area that still has an Arab majority,” I am told. Shereen’s mother speaks with a slight tone of bitterness that has not been erased by diplomacy that her husband must use. “We teach our children the truth of this area, where the Palestinian villages were, it is important and they must never forget their history.”

At high school Shereen was taught in Arabic by Palestinian teachers but most of their books were in Hebrew. “We must speak Hebrew, and we study history from Israeli history books.” She was fortunate enough to be chosen to join a group of Palestinians and Israelis who were invited to Austria as a sort of cultural exchange, a time for youth of both sides to get together and talk in a peaceful surrounding. “We had a great time in Austria and we got along very well. However we still could not discuss political issues, when those came up things get tense but other than that we had a great time. I am still friends with many of the Israelis; they live in the next village over. One of them was here to visit just a few days ago.”

Shereen tells me how there are certain jobs that the Palestinians living in Israel can never have, such as being a pilot or any jobs that deal with security. “The people with the worse psychological problems in all the world are us,” she says. “We were forced to become Israeli citizens against our will. We are not Israeli and even when we travel abroad we carry Israeli passports but it is not who we are. At the same time we must watch what is happening to our people in the West Bank and Gaza. It is really a difficult life. I know the people in the West Bank and Gaza look at us and think everything is good here because we have money and can buy things, but money is not everything. The psychological problems we suffer are very intense. They do not understand our situation.” Shereen has visited the West Bank twice and says that the life is much more conservative there than where she lives. “It is must more Westernized here. I would not want to live in the West Bank.”

One of Shereen’s cousins was recently married and we got to visit his new house, which rivals any house in the west in terms of luxury. He and his new wife were watching television with an Israeli friend from a nearby village. The conversations that evening changed between Hebrew, Arabic and English. “See, we have Israeli friends,” Shereen said as we left the house. “When you come to visit again we will go to Haifa and have a lot of fun there. I like to go dancing at the nightclubs and my cousin has invited us bowling.”

A young Israeli soldier on duty in the occupied territories. (Nigel Parry)

“This must be a very boring job for you,” I comment as Tami sits in a chair, staring at the wall doing nothing. She nods. I learnt her name as she filled out the papers allowing her to search my bags at the checkpoint. The vocabulary used on the English form was quite difficult and I had to explain a number of the terms to her. We giggled at her not understanding the language. Tami must be around 19 years old, fresh out of high school and doing her obligatory military service.

“I have been working here for around six months and I will be here for another year and a half or so,” her face tightens as she realizes the meaning of those words. Another year sitting doing nothing, searching bags for explosives and stamping passports. Hardly valuable life skills. “I come from a small village in the north, it is far from here, about three hours. It is very beautiful there, not like here. There is it green.” We both look out the window at the brown landscape that surrounds us.

“I want to go travel in Africa for awhile when I am finished here. Then maybe go to Switzerland and work in a bank. I have an uncle who lives there.” I am not surprised that her future plans do not involve Israel. The majority of the soldiers I have spoken with are only riding out their military service with dreams of leaving the country as soon as it is finished. I have met several who are planning to move to Canada and America. When I asked several soldiers what their plans are for after they complete military service, more than one has answered, “Get out of here.” The only soldiers I have met who are happy to continue their lives in Israel are those who have immigrated from other troubled countries in the hopes of starting a better life. Yemen, Ethiopia, they have already felt the frustration of wanting to leave their homeland for somewhere better.

Along the roadsides everywhere in Israel there are soldiers waiting for taxis, walking down the street and waiting at bus stops. All of them carrying their guns slung over their shoulders like some macabre fashion accessory. Most of them between the ages of 17 and 20, just out of high school and completing their military service. I realize that mandatory military service is not uncommon in a number of countries, but nowhere have I seen the youth more absorbed by this military culture than Israel. When the average student back home would be beginning his or her studies, an Israeli youth would be trained to use weapons. For two years all these people know is the army, there is little room for escaping from it and most just go along with the flow- being in the army is an accepted part of life.

When I stop to think about every youth, with few exceptions, having to complete military service I wonder what effect that has on society. All the young men know how to use weapons, many of them have been subjected to the realities of the occupation in one form or another, some of them have much more brutal experiences than others.

What happens to these youth when they stop “just following orders” and go on with their lives? Surely they have suffered some psychological trauma, even if they agree fully with what they have be a part of. How do their experiences shape the rest of their lives, their interactions with others? I know that some of these experiences cannot remain repressed memories forever. The soldier who watched a woman cry because he would not let her reach the funeral of a family member. The soldier who shot a young boy in the head as he stood on his balcony. The soldier who drove over the body of a killed Palestinian with his tank. What happens to these soldiers when they go home at night? Do they regret what they have done? Do they write it off to following orders?

“Every day I sit here and stare at this poster,” Sherri continues, talking about a poster on the wall that is made up of images from some tropical island. It shows lush, green hills; white, sandy beaches; and a waterfall tumbling from a great height. “I wish I knew where that place was, so that I could go there.”

Melissa is a 23-year-old Canadian who has been working with Project Hope and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the West Bank and Gaza for the past two months. This is her second stint in Palestine with ISM. Melissa has graduated with a B.A. in History and Humanities and instead of growing up and finding a real job she is living in Rafah.