It was at the most innocuous of events, a birthday party in central London where, at around 1am and a little tipsy, I (quite literally) ran into a guest at the party who would change the course of my summer. The topic of the Middle East came up and this relative stranger told me that he had done some volunteer work with a local charity in Nablus, Palestine. I found myself telling him that I had always wanted to visit the region; a comment which, while true, was made more in passing than with any genuine gusto.
Fast-forward two months and here I am, writing this from the office of Human Supporters Association, an NGO that gives trauma counselling to children in Nablus as well as teaching them languages and school subjects. Getting here was certainly not easy. On the five – hour flight, I made best friends with Daniela, a Romanian pathologist working in Tel Aviv who insisted on giving me my first few shekels, force-feeding me biscuits, and telling me that I was the craziest person she had ever met for wanting to go to the West Bank rather than stay in Israel.
As we parted ways at Ben Gurion airport, she left me with a jovial “Welcome to Tel Aviv!” Five minutes later, I was sat in a cramped room being interrogated by a man who looked far too much like Seth Rogan to be as stern as he was. Call it caution, call it racial profiling, call it whatever you want, but if you try to come into Israel with an Arabic surname, albeit with a British passport, you’re going to be questioned for a very, very long time. Later, when I had settled into the guest-house in Nablus, some of the volunteers were shocked I had told Seth the truth about my volunteering in the West Bank, and I discovered that lying is, unfortunately, the quickest way into the region.
After three hours at the airport, I was given my passport and allowed to leave, only to advance 50 metres before a woman came up to me and asked me how I was with an incredibly welcoming smile. “Surely she can’t be flirting”, I thought to myself, considering I was pale as a sheet and smelled like stale biscuits. Suddenly she made a move towards me. I closed my eyes puckered my lips in anticipation but, as it turned out, I was being detained yet again by a plain clothes police officer who wanted to search my bag for drugs. By the time I got to the hostel in Tel Aviv, it was nearly midnight. I was knackered, missed Daniela as if she were my own mother, vowed never to watch Knocked Up again, and slept with my bag for a pillow. I reached Nablus hassle-free the next day, entering the northern West Bank via Jerusalem. I was picked up from the city centre by Samara, a local volunteer who also runs the guest-house. I dropped my bags off, grabbed a long-needed shower and set off to explore… or rather that’s what I would have done if I didn’t collapse in bed until evening.
Nablus is located in a valley in betweentwo mountains. On my first night a couple of French volunteers took me up one of these, Mount Gerizim, to see the Samaritan village. There are only 700 Samaritans in the world and the village we went to houses half of them. This small Abrahamic religion has faced persecution from Jews and Muslims for thousands of years, and it is prohibited for Palestinians to enter the village. Walls are definitely a main feature in the West Bank and Israeli soldiers, Palestinian people and Samaritans are all kept very separate. Indeed, Israeli citizens are not even allowed to come into the Palestinian Territories.
I must admit that my expectations of basic amenities in Nablus were low, and of government provisions for its people even lower. I discovered, however, that everyone is entitled to free healthcare and schooling. In fact, almost every teenager I’ve met has wanted to go to the local An Najah University and continue their education. As one local French teacher at the charity told me, “Les enfants de Nablus rêvent de deux choses: etudier et voyager.” There are very few people under the poverty line and no beggars on the streets, which locals tell me is because the Koran obligates all Muslims to give to those poorer than themselves on a regular basis, especially during Ramadan. The Koran says a lot of other things, many hotly debated between Muslims, but, on this point at least, the quasi-Robin Hood effect has created one of the safest street cultures I have experienced anywhere.
There’s a lot to see in Nablus, especially the old city, which is an array of narrow cobbled streets full of markets and shops specialising in the three things this city is renowned for: soaps, sweets and handicraft. Even though it’s less warm now, everything takes place out on the street, which makes the place visually astounding. In the centre of the city is the main marketplace where I go for my lunch-break. You don’t even really have to order in the restaurants, you just sort of nod at the man behind the counter and he produces something delicious, cheap, and inevitably smelling of oregano.
One night, I was taken to one of the oldest cafes in Palestine, Hamouz. It has survived 120 years of Turkish, British and Israeli occupation and has been passed down through the Hamouz family. On entering, I was greeted by the current Hamouz (no-one knows his first name), who showed me photos of him as a child serving tea to the British army. What comes as a shock is that many of these cafes are for men only. I was told that that this discrimination is not indicative of a wider culture of sexism in Palestine; it is instead a relic of a bygone era that is quickly fading as the new generation starts to take precedence.
Amid the exuberant and loud buzz in cafes such as Hamouz can be found small enclaves, shrouded in smoke, where pairs of men will sit for hours playing chess. At work, too, lunch-breaks in the office are often quiet affairs interrupted only every halfhour or so by the sound of a king falling over. One of my supervisors tells me wistfully that the Palestinians understand chess better than any other race because they are forced to spend their lives living four steps ahead of their oppressors.
The generosity of the Palestinians is unmatched, especially considering the distress they go through on such a frequent basis. Just two days before I arrived here, Ali, a volunteer paramedic, saw someone shot through the chest just outside where I work. Another volunteer saw one of his brothers go to jail in Israel for 13 years for siding with Arafat in the 1982 Lebanon War. The other night, as we were heading out, two volunteers got the news that someone they grew up with had just been killed in Syria after having his hand chopped off. This conflict is grizzly business and the resilience of these Palestinians, and their ability to smile after the very personal grief they’ve suffered, is admirable. Since arriving, I haven’t stopped thanking drunk me for arranging this volunteer work. You need to be careful out here, and at times very patient, but I thoroughly recommend Nablus to those interested in understanding more about Palestine’s long and troubled history.