|Volunteers planting a tree. Photo by Melanie Van der Voort.|
|Picking olives with the local.|
|An ancient olive tree. Photo by Emile Ashrawi.|
|Planting a tree. Photo by Melanie Van der Voort.|
A Foreigner in Palestine
By Kris Justice
My first visit to Palestine was in 2005 at the invitation of some Israeli anarchists whom I had met in Amsterdam. At that time I wasn’t very well informed about Palestinian history or the current situation of Palestinians. On arrival the landscape and smells gave me a strong feeling of coming home. That was an unexpected experience but it didn’t yet have a deeper meaning. During those first two weeks we visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Akka, and Haifa. Only later did I realise that I was in historical Palestine.
Even in 2005 there was some awareness of the “conflict,” as I would refer to it back then. The Israeli activists I met were involved in the campaigns against the Wall, but when I asked them about Palestinians and visiting the West Bank they frowned and discouraged me from visiting the West Bank on my own. It was not safe for me to go there and I should at least find some other internationals to travel with. But I didn’t.
Back home I felt so bad about not having made more effort to visit the West Bank that I started to look for information on how to travel there in a more organised way. On the website of the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the YMCA of East Jerusalem and the YWCA of Palestine I found the Olive Tree Campaign and the upcoming olive-picking programme. In addition to helping farmers in the olive harvest and giving protective presence, we would make several excursions to understand the geopolitical situation and life under occupation in Palestine. I immediately signed up.
Even though I considered myself a leftist, with an activist background and a very multicultural group of friends back home, it turned out that I had very stereotypical ideas of Palestine and the Palestinians. Did they really have more modern mobile phones than I did? And Internet at home! When did these Palestinian Christians convert? Are there actually universities in the West Bank? And how come most people here speak English?!
The olive-picking programme was intense and filled with many meetings and excursions. During the evenings my host family in Beit Sahour, one of the many Rishmawis, gave me the feeling of being part of their family.
And I fell in love. With the landscape, the people, the music, the dance, the food, the language, the way of life, the traditions, the family life, the culture of hospitality, and the friendships.
So I decided to stay.
Together with some friends we started an alternative political café at the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour where we organised lectures, film screenings, and cultural events.
In my free time I learnt a lot about Palestinian culture and traditions. The mothers of friends taught me how to cook maqloube, warek dawali, and mahshee. I attended tens of weddings from very traditional Muslim weddings in villages to Christian weddings with people dancing drunk on tables and women wearing less than I would ever wear back home.
During the past five years I have spent nearly two years in the West Bank and travelling around the 1948 areas. Friends often say that I probably know Palestine better than most Palestinians. From the Golan Heights to the Negev and from Jaffa to Jericho, it is all familiar to me. And every time it strikes me that as a foreigner I am able to go where most Palestinians can’t go. One of my Palestinian friends in the diaspora, whose family got killed in the Shatila massacre, once told me: I can see Palestine through your eyes and it makes me cry...
People are usually surprised when I speak so positively about Palestine and when I mention the dignity and courage, the steadfastness and kindness of Palestinians. Does that mean I don’t see anything negative here? O hell, I do.
Don’t think I will ever get used to the gossip and negative attitudes people can have towards each other, the lack of trust, and sometimes the jealousy. The taxi drivers are making me crazy with their attempts to flirt, and if they are unsuccessful they raise the price! I have big problems with the oppression and lack of freedom caused by conservative elements in society, and I hate the corruption. Down with the NGO business and people abusing the situation of occupation for their own benefits. It makes me sick to see Palestinian police with their toy guns, not present in the streets to protect the Palestinians but there to police the Palestinians on behalf of the Israeli occupier. And it is getting worse now with threats to people and artists who express their criticism of the Palestinian Authority. It is an absolute shame.
But corruption is everywhere in the world. Conservative elements are also taking over in Europe. I dislike authorities anywhere, and taxi drivers are generally annoying, wherever they are.
So, yes, I love Palestine. Sometimes it feels as if I lived here in a previous life. When seeing the olive trees, the houses, the stones, the earth, when smelling the air of Palestine, I am happy and calm. I have been living between the Netherlands and Palestine for five years now, and there is no doubt that I’d rather live here.
Beit Sahour has warmly welcomed me and I feel accepted as a foreign inhabitant. I will always be the foreigner, but that doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. My foreign background gives me some privileges and more freedom. Of course, the eyes of the locals are on me, especially those of my neighbours, and yes, Beit Sahour is well known for its gossips, but honestly speaking, I love gossiping myself, so I totally blend in!
The fact that my Arabic is getting better and better makes me feel more independent. It also helps me to better understand the culture and traditions. I love how people greet each other in the street and how they wish each other a morning of light and flowers, good health, and much prosperity. Another great thing here is that you don’t have to make appointments in advance with families or friends. You can always expect at least one member of the family to be at home and while you are drinking a cup of tea the others will arrive, including some other relatives and neighbours. Never a dull moment.
Since my last arrival in October I started teaching zumba dance classes at the YMCA in Beit Sahour. It was a great surprise to see how much the women enjoy this physical workout - a mixture of African, Arabic, Latin American, and Indian styles of music. We started with 30 women during the first trial lesson and right now almost 60 women attend the zumba classes.
Through my current job with the Olive Tree Campaign I manage to be part of the ongoing struggle for justice in an effective and positive way. And despite the hardships, I feel blessed to be part of this society of strong and wonderful people. Palestine has given me opportunities to start initiatives such as the political café and the zumba classes, which I would have never had in the Netherlands, with all its rules and regulations. Palestine has given me much love and friendship and the feeling of being home. But I realise, I enjoy the privileges of a foreigner in Palestine...