Jizelle Salman from Beit Jala is English language teacher and youth coordinator at the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem.
Jizelle Salman: “When you come back here, you feel a magnet”
I need to take a detour to get to my house. I used to take a road which has now become an Israeli checkpoint and military camp. We’ve heard last year that the land on the hill above my house, which we cultivated for many years, will be expropriated in order to build the Wall and next to it a military road. This was of course most difficult news for us. The Wall will be at a distance of only 6-12 meters from our house. We will be imprisoned by a Wall above our house, where there is the Har Gilo settlement, as well as a Wall below our house. Above our own lands the Greek Orthodox Convent has lands, and beneath our home the Salesian Convent has lands. Both convents started court cases against the Israeli army. Because these are churches which the Israelis respect to some extent, we may perhaps be supported. The Israelis have been announcing that they are changing the route of the Wall, but up until now we haven’t been informed.
Through the checkpoints my dad lost his factory, a stone factory for building houses. He got the raw material, the rocks, from Hebron, but the rocks could not pass the checkpoints and so he lost his job and left for work to the USA together with my sister who also studies and works there. I hope that my father will come back. My mam stayed here. She is a very strong woman, she didn’t want to leave to America. An important reason to stay here is that we have a road so that at least we can go to downtown Beit Jala and Bethlehem. They could not close the road because there is a hospital nearby. So we were lucky. The fact that we have a house here protects us from our land being expropriated. If we were not here, there will be nothing to prevent them from taking the land so as to enlarge the Har Gilo settlement.
Palestine is divided into three areas. Sometimes you loose counting [laughs]. Area A is supposed to be 100 % Palestinian controlled, area B Palestinian civilian-controlled but the Israelis control security, and area C is only for the Palestinians concerning specific rights like telephone and electricity; while in all other matters it is 100 % under Israeli control. I live in area C, so you have the army around. It is very difficult to have the soldiers coming and going along the house. Sometimes they close the road as there are injured people who are coming to the hospital and who may be “wanted.” Then the Israeli army comes and searches the area for people. I wanted to go for my masters’ study to Birzeit University, normally 2 hours away. However, the checkpoints and the difficult roads made it impossible. It’s not safe. Sometimes you are stopped, you can’t go further to your destination and it also happens that the road back home is blocked. Then you’re stuck in the middle while you are under the rain or in the heat of the sun. My uncles are living in the Ramallah area; I haven’t visited them for the last two years. You can’t easily go to hospitals, to holy places. I haven’t been in Jerusalem since four-five years. It’s very difficult to even get a permit to go there. So you can’t live your life. At night when you want to go out as a young girl, hang out with friends or something, you need to be careful not to reach areas near Israeli checkpoints so as not to encounter Israeli soldiers. Sometimes when they are looking for someone there is a closure in the area where you are and the drama starts. Frankly, you can’t feel what I’m saying until you live it.
I really hate checkpoints around the house. I used to go around and walk over the hills. We live almost at the top of a mountain; it has very nice views. It’s fresh, there are no smells like in downtown Bethlehem. But as soon as you want to go and walk during, for instance, a beautiful summer night you feel that it is dangerous. Up at a certain point you feel that they will suspect you and take you away for investigation and all that stuff. So you’re just imprisoned in the Bethlehem area and even not in all of the Bethlehem area. You’re stuck in a very small space. You can be checked after every few meters. You suddenly find a so-called emergency checkpoint in front of you and they take you away for investigation, just like that. This happens especially in our place, because as I said I live in an area where they look for wanted men.
Each summer I go for a journey abroad, to study or visit my friends. When I need to travel in June I start planning for the travel from March on. All these three months I don’t know whether I am able to leave the country or not. We can’t use the airport [near Tel Aviv] because you’re a Palestinian. So you have to go through Jordan for which you need a permit. Will you pass the checkpoints that day? This may depend upon the mood of the soldier. After a while, you loose hope and you want to say: It’s enough, I don’t want to travel. If every year you have to suffer three months just thinking about how to leave the country, it becomes really tiring.
Then you reach the point that you succeed in going out of the country. You find another world; freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of expressing your opinion as a human being, respect for you as a human being, respect for you as a female, culturally speaking. I remember the days when I traveled to Europe. In Holland they put me in the train. You can go just from one city to another without passport and after some hours I discovered that I even was in Belgium. Wow! Nobody asked for my passport. I was free! The journey back was my biggest problem. You come back here once again and you find the opposite. You find checkpoints, you find yourself stuck in cultural issues, you can’t move, you can’t do anything. I was really frustrated and depressed the first weeks as if I hadn’t been living here before. I said to myself: “Was it real what I had been living under?”
I don’t know why I had that feeling at the beginning of my return back home that I just wanted to leave this country. But all of a sudden after three weeks and after unpacking and running around and doing the dozens of things which you have to do after traveling, I felt that there is this magnet here that attracts me. It makes you feel that you are attached. I don’t know what it is exactly. After all, you can only scratch the surface of your life. You don’t know what is beneath that surface. But there is that feeling that captures you, in a brief moment. When you ask me about the reason, I can’t really spot it. First you think, there’s here nothing to do, and you can’t bear your life any longer, as there are dozens of problems on your head, and than all of a sudden, something comes like this [snaps with the finger], maybe it is a smile of a friend, maybe it’s a word from an old lady, maybe it’s a cup of coffee with your relatives, or your relatives coming to help you. Maybe it is our family life, maybe it’s our friends. You can’t find an exact answer to the question why you want to stay here. It’s just a feeling that you can’t resist. It’s strange, but that’s how it works.
After this trip, I had this feeling at the moment when I was completely at rest with my family again, with my friends and family. I was back in our normal prison life [laughs]. And I thought: So why do I want to leave? I shouldn’t. I don’t have so many choices here but at least I have better choices than other people. I have a job, I study at a university, I have friends, I have my social life. What do we need from life, in general? We need respect, we need to be able to afford a household, we need our friends. It’s not so complicated.
I once had a problem with my car, a small accident. I phoned and suddenly, three cars arrived, full of guys, my brothers, friends, saying: What do you want? Is everything OK? The guy who made the accident was even afraid because he thought that I brought all those people to make a problem for him. Wow, whenever you need them they are there for you. Maybe family life is better outside, I’ve never tried it, but I sometimes hear from my father that he doesn’t see my sister in the US for two days, although they live together. She works different hours; she studies at night, gets up early. Money-wise, they say it’s better there. But if you work a lot without having the time to enjoy your life, what will happen to you after a certain number of years? It’s not easy when you are under stress. Sometimes I just want to sit with a big family around, drink a cup of tea. When they ask me: What do you consider an off-day, a holiday? After having visited six countries this summer, I say: I am completely free when I am away from the world, and when I am in my pyjamas drinking coffee with my mam, with nothing to do. It’s such a therapeutic feeling.
I reached the positive point that I said, without hesitation, “I am so lucky to be in Palestine and Bethlehem,” after going to Lebanon, for a workshop. I went to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. There I met a lady, she is in her late sixties maybe, and we were holding flowers to go to the collective graveyard made in commemoration of the massacre. She asked: “Where are you coming from?” I said: “I come from Bethlehem, Palestine,” and she started to hug me and kiss me, she even wanted to kiss my hand. She started to cry. She didn’t want to leave me and she said, please take me with you. We, the visitors, came from six Arab countries, about sixty people in total, and all of us were crying that moment. The refugees have this strong desire to see their land. When I asked them: “Where are you from?” they said “from Safed,” or “from Acca,” and they mentioned names of villages that I even don’t know. When I went home and saw my family around me, and we had a party in the front yard, I said that despite the fact that it is very difficult here and you have to struggle, I remain here. In fact, the struggle makes me stronger. I have been through a lot. If you have everything, a tiny problem becomes a big problem and you get frustrated by it. But if you face a lot, if you face a really tough experience, it makes you stronger, it gives you a challenge. So I said to myself, it’s either me or life, you know, life is not going to get over me. So I say now that I am here since I do have certain choices, better choices than others have here, and I must stay here in order to save my home, to save my life, to give people ideas.
As a teacher of children, I hope that they can make a change as Palestinians; respect the differences of the other; respect somebody for what she or he is. The concept of freedom is for me respect for a human being. I am not sure whether we will reach that stage soon. I think that we need to build it up by education, to work hard on it, among us as Palestinians and besides the Israelis. We shouldn’t feel superior or inferior towards other people. If you feel inferior you develop hatred towards the other, and when you feel that you’re superior the other person will not feel that you respect him. Of course, it’s a very long term goal.
Generally, what keeps me going on, it’s hope. You have the hope of being able to make changes. The feeling that you’re still young, that you can do so much here. You see foreigners staying here for solidarity purposes; they give. So you ask yourself: What about you, Palestinian youngsters, why don’t we give? In fact I do believe that we give a lot. And we still have the energy to give more, to raise up our children, to stay in our country. You have the love for your country, for the people that you are connected with, the students you teach. In a way, every single thing here you love. It is your country, your home.
Despite all the terrible things that happen to us Palestinians we have achieved something. We have achieved to have our national Palestinian passport and ID which reflects our nationality. That’s what I discovered when I lately went to Canada for a few weeks, on a scholarship. The aboriginal people there, those native Canadians, they don’t have Indian passports and have just melted as part of a colonial history. I realized that I had forgotten that we are strong enough and that we have our own nationality, our presence, our own country. We are facing very strong international powers, the strongest powers in the world. But we have asserted our cultural and national identity.
There are also rewarding moments with my children, students I mean. Whenever I am going into the class I just feel that they’re waiting there for me, outside the English class. Last year I told a class that next year I wouldn’t teach them anymore. They went to the principal asking if Miss Jizelle could stay teaching them. I teach them how to be self-confident, how to act democratically. I don’t impose things on them; I give their opinion weight. Sometimes, when I am tired and nervous and start shouting, they say “Ahh, but you said that you were a democratic teacher!” Education is most important for making changes. You see the glitter in the children’s eyes when they hear the word democracy or participation. These eyes reflect hope, innocence, the love of their teacher. That’s so rewarding for me.
Living in Palestine is something special. I was lucky enough not to have to leave the country, not to become a refugee or an emigrant. I could have gone to the US and get a green card or a passport, but I didn’t do so. If I would have to choose again, I would once again choose to live in Beit Jala, on the top of that mountain that is so very calm and clean, and with its strong family and social bonds. Bethlehem and Beit Jala touch your heart, directly.
Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem. This interview is part of a series made for United Civilians for Peace. The interview has been printed on EI with permission of the author.