Living their lives as best they can

Following my departure from the bridge, I chatted with my aunt in the taxi and she told me personal news, then started talking generally about the situation in Palestine. The route we were taking to Arrabeh was actually, I found out, forbidden to me since I hold a foreign passport, and not the correct permission. There was a checkpoint on the way and my aunt began saying prayers left right and centre and I thought I was about to implode. Thankfully we were not made to stop; the worst that would happen in any case would be that we would have to turn back and take another route, losing another couple of hours travelling. Yet this was a significant event because it is indicative of the Palestinians’ lifestyle. So much is about where you can or can’t go.

The seven days I spent there were extremely enjoyable. My family and the Palestinians I met were so happy to have me there and wanted to tell me all about their experiences (before I even could ask them). I was asked several times if I followed the news, and that I shouldn’t believe everything I hear or read. I told them that I follow different sources, not simply the Western media. Ironically, sometimes they were saying this because they were trying to say that there was nothing to fear. I heard ma fish khawf (“there’s no fear”) so many times that week, if I had started a per-mention fund I would be a richer person today! Based on the stories I was told, and what I saw, I feel that these words are untrue. There is certainly much to fear. The situation is unstable and unpredictable. I suspect that their fear is so inherent, so deeply entrenched that it is forgotten. It must be forgotten if they are to continue on with their daily routines.

For one week I was showered with stories, sometimes seemingly so implausible that they challenged your belief. But they were told so candidly, so easily and without thought that any question of exaggeration could not be entertained. The one topic that was never discussed was that of the Palestinian Authority. No talk of Arafat and his colleagues. No vicious diatribes against their leaders. I didn’t really wonder why at the time as I was so interested in everything else happening around me. Looking back perhaps this is why it did not come up; I don’t think it was fear. It is more likely that the majority of Palestinians are indifferent, too busy trying to get through another day, not allowing hope for strong leadership to toy with their minds.

The major stories I heard were about how the soldiers had closed off the road to Jenin, preventing them from going to the city that is the main source of food and other goods. Many Palestinians in nearby towns and villages also have employment in Jenin meaning that they were unable to earn their living.

“When was this?” I asked my aunt.

“About a year ago, when things were at their worst. See that mountain? People were actually climbing down it to get into Jenin. And they were allowed in, because the soldiers didn’t care, if these Palestinians wanted to trouble themselves.”

A journey from Arrabeh to Jenin should take no more than fifteen minutes but each journey to and from this time took between half an hour to forty-five minutes. While at this time the main road is being redeveloped, it is once again an indication of the difficulties Palestinians face daily due to lack of opportunity for progress and development. The journey to Jenin took me through the town of Qabbati where I saw men and women harvesting olives, and the one day I came back a little after sunset, I was surprised to see the amount of activity in the town; the streets were alive, coffee shops packed with people, mainly older men chatting and observing their surroundings.

As a result of road closures, the Palestinians created new roads in order to get to Jenin, including this route through Qabbati. They wanted to avoid situations such as being pulled over then being made to lie under a tree all day while they were fasting (this happened to some) because they had attempted to get to Jenin. Sometimes you were ordered back even if you were just walking.

If you have ever visited an Arab family, you would know that they hold very dearly acts of hospitality, especially when it comes to eating. At one point I commented to my aunt that the bulk of the conversations I hear or take part in are about the occupation or food. She had said to me earlier that the Palestinians can manage with very little as they can make their own bread, they have oil, and their water comes from the well. Indeed… I was rather amused by the fact that when it comes the occupation, many Palestinians are willing to accept, but once their food supply is threatened they create new roads! I said this jokingly and it was met with great laughter from those listening. I wasn’t saying that food is not important - they knew exactly what I meant.

No matter how blasé and accepting Palestinians are about their situation, I observed their awareness. My cousins said that a visitor to them, who regularly followed the news in another Middle Eastern country, was shocked that they spent so much of their television time watching Star Academy (a popular television show, but also the name of a channel that plays music videos 24 hours a day). This was funny to my cousins - this is their acceptance. “This is our life. I don’t need to watch the news,” I was told. This is perhaps another reason why politics was not discussed; while there is a great deal of communication amongst Palestinians, news tends to spread by means other than television.

It is sad to see that there are indents in the roads from the tanks, piles of sand that were used to block the road left to the side to allow passage; it is even sadder that my young cousins are pointing all of this out to me. On my last day in the West Bank no one was allowed out of Jenin for the day (it is often closed while someone wanted is searched for). Discussions about whether to go somewhere or not, not wanting to obtain permission to go to Jerusalem because you’ll probably be turned away and, as any ten year old can point out, it’s dangerous! Never leaving your house without your ID card or passport. This is all normal. This is daily life with varying periods of relief.

At one point during the Intifada, things were so bad that families were staying inside, unable to leave for anything because it’s just too scary. One of my aunts housed seventeen family members for over a week.

At one of my aunt’s houses, there is a huge hole in one of the walls, courtesy of Israeli commandos. I was told that one night these commandos (not ordinary soldiers, their faces are painted and they wear a different coloured uniform) were looking for someone matloob (“wanted” by Israel) in the village. My family staying in the house slept in a room very far from the front door and did not hear the knocks. This got them into trouble, as the commandos became suspicious. Why hadn’t they opened the door? As a result, the house was turned upside down.

There is also a small hole in another wall from a rifle butt. The wooden door to the salon (sitting room) was smashed open, clothes thrown from the closets, not a stone left unturned. My family was made to stand outside while all of this occurred, and my aunt said that about ten or twelve commandos took over the salon, legs crossed, relaxed, smoking cigarettes. One of my younger cousins outside was shaking with fear and my aunt told her “Why are you scared? Don’t be scared!” She was told to shut up by one of the commandos. However another commando at one point took a blanket and gave it to my older cousin (who had been questioned, being a young man) and told him to cover his sister as she was cold. This was all related to me with amusement, although it could not have been amusing at the time.

I visited another aunt in my dad’s village whose apartment neighbours a demolished house. Once again the story was related to me with some humour. My cousins had been eating lunch and then heard an extremely loud bang. They rushed out to their balcony only to see the roof of the house next door collapse. Apparently Israeli soldiers had knocked on the door and as no one answered, a grenade had been fired at the house from a tank up the hill. How is that for innocent until proven guilty? The whole time I heard this story, I wondered how we could live in a world where children are telling me that they have witnessed this!

It was emphasised to me that the soldiers rarely came knocking - it was only when they were looking for someone. They only took the person who they wanted if he/she was at his/her home. If you were hiding someone though, it would lead you into great trouble.

I spent some time in Jenin, but I always left as early as possible to prevent any difficulty getting back. During the day there are a huge number of serviis taxis coming and going, but after 4.30pm it becomes harder to find one.

Jenin is a hub of activity. It is a city, although it doesn’t completely look like one in many parts of it. It is the main source of shopping although business is not good all around since there is no money. There are shops carrying the latest fashions, displays of shoes hanging on doors, tables cluttered with nik naks along the streets, sweet shops, banks, carts overflowing with fruit and vegetables (following my joke about food my aunt said, “take a photo of the carts!” but I didn’t), and a huge serviis depot. In the past, many merchants would travel into Israel to buy their stock, but those days are gone. There were once good relations between many Palestinians and Israelis, however it is not common now.

Of course, Jenin is a hot spot and an extremely unpredictable area. While visiting my uncle, the door was actually rattling on and off for about five minutes.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “That’s just from the Israeli planes flying overhead.” Then a moment later, “Try and leave as planned on Saturday, by the way. You don’t want to linger as who knows what will happen in a day.” Hmm, reassuring words considering the amount of times I was told ma fish khawf. I ended up leaving on Sunday, just for the record!

Jenin is well-known for the refugee camp and the atrocious events that took place there in recent times. Some family members drove me past where parts of the refugee camp used to be. I took pictures of the empty field, the graveyard for the victims of the massacre, and the new houses built for them by Sheikh Zaid. I also photographed refugees collecting food, having happened upon them doing so.

On a tour of Jenin more things were pointed out to me. I was shown the effects of showers of bullets on the walls. I observed an empty space of land that had once been home to a huge building that was destroyed by Israeli soldiers. More demolished houses, but not in empty spaces - the damage is in front of you, the unmistakable evidence of destruction. At this point my camera was forgotten as I stared agape at the damage.

PA soldiers stroll the streets, some stand around talking and laughing, while ostensibly on the lookout for trouble. They are not allowed to carry weapons, nor can the police. They do not seem to have anything to do. It is almost symbolic of the stagnant situation the Palestinians find themselves in. This is a huge concern, as for most families, the absence of a stable economy, or a fruitful employment sector no doubt has a detrimental effect on the mentality of the Palestinians, particularly the younger generation who are seeking a future filled with hope and opportunity. The responsibilities of family life at times must overtake the chatting over tea and guava, and drown out the laughter so resonant because it is so heartfelt and, quite simply, because it is not the sound of crying. But let me emphasise that the Palestinians choose not to be victims. While there is much talk of the occupation, they are living their lives as best they can.

One evening on my way back to Arrabeh from Jenin, I was being driven home by family so they took me up to the top of a mountain where a montazza (“outdoor garden cafe”) that I had gone to four years earlier stands empty and neglected, looking down on Jenin. It looked really lovely and peaceful, and for a moment it was very nice. Then my driver said, “This is where the tanks stood during the massacre of the refugees”. A moment’s peace only.

As I mentioned earlier, I had a 4.30am departure time travelling in a serviis with a few other people to Allenby Bridge in order to return to Amman. As Ramadan had begun, I stayed up late with my aunt and cousins eating, and then tried very unsuccessfully to squeeze in two hours of sleep (thanks to the mosquitoes!). The ride was too bumpy to facilitate any napping, so I was fairly sleepy on the way and was truly hoping for an easy path home. Everyone had assured me that I would not be troubled when exiting because they are happy to see you go. This came up a lot!

A couple of the checkpoints were a quick check of our documents without too much of a wait, as we only had a few cars ahead of us. Although I did notice many people walking on the side of the road to get through. At one point a Palestinian man was walking towards a soldier and he was ordered to go back. Clearly he wanted to talk to them and kept going. The tension in the taxi I was travelling in was palpable. The man next to me muttered, “What an idiot! They’re going to shoot him!” Thankfully this did not occur, but I think my heart stopped for a moment as I contemplated the possibility.

At Zatara checkpoint, I watched as a car ahead of us was stopped and the passengers were told to get out. They were all young men and everyone watched as they were told to lift up their shirts to ensure that they were not carrying explosives. The car was also checked thoroughly before they were let through. I observed that I was not the only one watching with great interest. We were all watching, a mixture of curiosity and disgust. The other passengers, all Palestinian men, seemed to not be surprised and yet still a bit shocked by this reality.

This is so far removed from what the majority of people experience in their lives. I was actually seeing before me what I had so often read and heard about, but did not truly comprehend until I had witnessed it. This sense of insecurity, the instability, the reality of occupation and its product. I wish that I could have taken a picture at that moment, but I was too afraid to draw attention with a flash. I thought it could have caused trouble if I was seen by a soldier, and they were everywhere. However, the image of the men lifting up their shirts for inspection is permanently emblazoned in my mind.

Another checkpoint was run by the police. They actually made our driver open the boot and assist them in checking the bags. This took a while and while I knew nothing was going to happen, I was feeling anxious and just wanted to leave. One of the policeman had sorted through my bag very carelessly and an item was handed back to me because they were unable to re-pack it properly. Our passports meanwhile were (I am assuming) being checked by radio communication as they were still with one of the policeman. As we finally left, the man next to me commented that what had just happened was unusual, as the bags are not usually checked at checkpoints on the way in. I asked him about the policeman and he said that they are Arabs, Muslims even; the 1948 Arabs, who were probably Druze, living and working in Israel.

At the second-to-last checkpoint my driver told me not to give him the passport yet. The soldier inspected the documents given to him (by then there were only three of us in the taxi, including the driver) then looked at me and asked the driver for my documentation. I handed over my passport and watched as the soldier looked at and then nodded his head up and down. “Australia,” he said, rather amused. Later we joked about the soldier’s reaction. “It’s something strange!” my driver said.

At the bridge I was not delayed. I was questioned briefly (and surprisingly) as to where I was born (twice!) and why I had come. I waited for my bus, and eventually retrieved my luggage and climbed aboard, taking with me so many thoughts and memories, I thought I could burst. I had the same bus driver as when I came in, and he remembered me and smiled as he welcomed me back.

I am no stranger to the hardships of the Palestinians. I remember soldiers bursting through my grandfather’s house during a visit in 1990, following which the women were ordered to go outside and clean the walls of the anti-Israeli graffiti. That memory lives with me, but these experiences as an adult lend me a vastly improved and different perspective. I am content that I went and saw with my own eyes something of what they live through (although nothing compared to what the Palestinians have seen and continue to see).

A younger cousin told me on an evening walk once that she likes the look of the Israeli soldiers; it’s only when they start killing that she doesn’t like them. I will never forget that. But as someone there said to me more than once, “we can’t let fear rule us. This is our life. We’re just going to live it.”

Related Links

  • Foreigner, Amal Awad (4 November 2004) - part one of the same journey.

    Amal Awad is an editor in the publishing industry in Australia.