Visiting important places and learning about political and social issues were amazing aspects of the BZU work camp. Although it only lasted nine days, my knowledge on a variety of issues expanded. I could also practise some strategies I learnt whilst in Singapore to improve my cultural intelligence. And I experienced living in a different environment, hearing a different language daily, eating different food… Although, without doubt, the highlight of the camp were the people, from Palestinians to international participants (like me).
As I always say, I’m not a good socialising and I was scared about that aspect of the camp. I didn’t want to be my usual self and stay in a corner away from the fun 24/7, nor did I want to force myself into uncomfortable or awkward situations. I just wanted to have an opportunity to be social while staying true to myself. Fortunately, I had many of those opportunities and the majority went quite well. Much better than I expected. I widened my networks and made many acquaintances throughout the camp. I even think I made friends with whom I would like to stay in touch, very possible in the era of social media.
The majority of conversations I had whilst in the camp were 1:1 or small groups of 3-4 people. This made it easy for me to feel comfortable and talk freely. Every day I engaged in conversations with different people about a variety of topics. There were people with whom I spoke daily, others with whom I spoke now and then, and others with whom I spoke once or twice. Regardless, all the interactions were valuable in different. Sometimes they were just fun. Others they were politically charged. Sometimes they were about sharing experiences and thoughts. Others they were about discussing and arguing (respectfully) about contemporary issues.
As expected, the occupation in Palestine was a frequent topic, nonetheless there was always something new to learn when it came up. I heard people talk about their experiences trying to enter Israel and Palestine through the airport in Tel Aviv and through the border with Jordan. They were stopped for several hours for no apparent reason, other than being of Palestinian heritage or/and having an Arab background/name. I wasn’t shocked by any of this, I’m not unfamiliar with ethnic profiling, but it was still disturbing to hear. Some of them thought Israel did that to scare them from coming back to the region again, which is believable.
Another topic of discussion regarding the occupation was whether if Palestinians wanted a 1 or 2 state solution. One of them argued that they tried the 2 state solution, Gaza and West Bank were meant to be for Palestinians, but the checkpoints, settlements and the Wall happened, together with constant arrests. Hence, the question is whether if Israel wants a two state solution. Another Palestinian said that the issue wasn’t about one or two states, but about the right of Palestinians to exist, be free, end the occupation and develop their region. This line of thinking can be linked to complaints I heard regarding the checkpoints (were Palestinians are humiliated and treated like prisoners and animals) and the constant needs of permits to move around for Palestinians. In fact, when we visited Jerusalem, the majority of Palestinians in the camp couldn’t come with us, which made the day bitter-sweet.
Hebron was also a topic that came up now and then. Hebron is a main city in the West Bank to which we were meant to go, but we couldn’t due to ongoing tensions. Hebron is the most critical place in the West Bank: there are two Israeli settlements in the middle of the city. To protect the settlers, the IDF is present. The situation in the area is similar to apartheid. Palestinians in Hebron suffer from attacks from settlers, and due to the IDF, resistance is tough. It is a bit surreal how Israel has settlements in a main Palestinian city, but as I was told, it is the mentality of colonisers and oppressors: power and control. Hebron is an important economic and commercial era, many imports from China go there and are exported to other parts in the West Bank. I was told that buying there is cheap. Meanwhile, Ramallah is the main city for shopping and fun. Nablus, Bethlehem and Jericho are more historical and cultural areas.
The last conversed issue regarding the occupation that is worth talking about is the Wall. I saw it for the first time when we were coming back from Jerusalem after a day out. My main thoughts were how the international community allowed this to happen. Then, some international participants talked about how in Europe they got rid of the Wall of Berlin and promised to never step that low again, yet there was that monstrosity in the West Bank, separating families, villages and neighbourhoods.
The Israeli occupation in Palestine was not the only political and social issue I talked about with participants in the camp. I had conversations about topics like marriage, dating, religion, governance, race, ethnicity, Europe, Brexit, Turkey, democracy, the USA elections… I never felt uncomfortable discussing any of these topics because I’m used to do it in university and because many people in the camp were very educated, good at debating and respectful about others’ opinions. That’s something I liked a lot about the people I met in the camp: I could discuss issues I care about outside an anglocentric environment. In addition, I realised I had various things in common with various participants in the camp, when comes to personal experiences, knowledge and opinions.
Leaving politics and social issues aside, there were various fun and nice social moments whilst in the camp. We had an afternoon session of painting pots, we went to a music festival whilst in Bethlehem, we hanged out in some bars in Ramallah… My favourite moment was being invited to eat to the house of one of the Palestinian participants, together with two European girls and another Palestinian. It was a very spontaneous invitation that turned out to be a great decision. His mother prepared traditional Palestinian dishes for us: maqluba, dolmas and kousas. They were delicious! We also had coffee and tea.
Our pal’s young cousins and siblings were around the house too, we spoke with them. After eating, he showed us his family flats and his pet pigeons. At some point his father, who is a taxi driver, came. We spoke with him for various minutes. He shared with us some anecdotes of working as a taxi driver in the region, mainly the negative stereotypes of Arabs that Israelis have and share with foreigners, which he challenged thanks to his good conduct as a taxi driver. I felt a lot of empathy and frustration, I understand how it feels when you have to prove you are not what is told about people like you. Overall, the afternoon in our pal’s home was very pleasant, the Palestinian family had remarkable hospitality with us.
Socialising, living and travelling around the West Bank nine days gave me a good taste of Palestinian life. I miss certain aspects of it. Mainly the food. Before going to Palestine, I had never eaten Middle Eastern food before, other than Turkish food. I remember being unsure about eating hummus for breakfast on the second day on the camp since the one I ate in Singapore wasn’t very nice. Now I miss having hummus with khubz (a common type of bread similar to pita, the world also means ‘bread’ in Arabic) for breakfast every day. I also miss eating falafel and some pizza-like dishes (I don’t remember their name sadly). And deserts like baklava and kanafeh stole my heart.
At the end of the BZU work camp, I was very sad to leave, although I needed to leave. My physical health was very irregular while my mental health showed signs of emotional exhaustion. I couldn’t wait to go to the doctor in England and carry out tests to see what was wrong with me. I also couldn’t wait to go back to quietness and loneliness after a summer of daily interactions and experiences. While various international participants stayed behind, I left Palestine the day the work camp ended, the 11th of August, together with a participant from Germany. We had to cross through a checkpoint and it was a negatively bizarre experience, although because of our European passports & non-Arabic names, we had no troubles.
On our journey to the airport I was scared about having problems. I had read various accounts on how leaving from the Ben Gurion airport in Israel can be problematic. It is regarded as the “safest” airport in the world, although I wouldn’t describe it as such at all. My companion and I separated when we arrived because we had to check in through different terminals. Before checking my luggage, I was briefly “interviewed” by a security officer. She asked some random questions about my luggage and then checked my passport for minutes. I could see the confusion on her name whilst reading my details, as if something didn’t add up.
Finally, she asked “”where are your surnames originally from?”. I didn’t know the answer, I just mentioned my parents’ birth countries. She didn’t know my mum’s home country, I had to explain there are three Guineas in Africa. After my response she stared at my passport for a few more seconds and then gave me a sticker with a number, which I had to show after checking my luggage and going through immigration. The number I given was a ‘5’, meaning I was 1 number away from the highest level of threat (the airport uses a system of 1 [low] to 6 [high] to determine how suspicious are passengers). I didn’t even mention I’m learning Arabic and that I visited Palestine. I knew that Arabs and Muslims, people with Arabic / Islamic names and people who had visas from Arab / certain Muslim majority countries got a 5 or 6 by default. I didn’t expect it for me, although I wasn’t that surprised.
Obviously, I wasn’t very pleased with this, not only because I was racially/ethnically profiled, but because I had to wait for minutes while my hand luggage was thoroughly checked before I went to the area where my departure gate was. However, since I’m black hence used to this, I got over it. At the end of the day, I don’t live in Israel. But there are black people and Arab people who live there and go through similar and worse situations every day. I was actually lucky to have an EU passport, I know that travelling with an African passport would be much more troublesome. Moreover, when I met my German companion before she boarded her plane, she told me she was given a 6 and asked various uncomfortable questions, because she was heading to Jordan and Lebanon through Greece. I didn’t have it that bad after all.
Talking about my nine days in Palestine requires over four blog posts, even though I had to condense my experience because I didn’t want to bore people with unnecessary details. As you may have realised, I didn’t add many personal comments on reflections on what I witnessed and learnt, mainly regarding the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Needless to say, I still support the Palestinian cause 100%. Needless to stay, my dislike of the Israeli state and its treatment towards Palestine increased. I would be happy to write a reflective account on my experience if it weren’t because of my current struggle to write essays and informative blog posts. That’s why I wrote a freestyle reflective poem. My opinion on social issues normally flows better in poetry than in essays. So here is a link to my poem, titled “History is Today”: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/09/05/poem-history-is-today/
This is the fourth and last post of my blog series “BZU Work Camp in Palestine”. I hope you enjoyed it and look forward to new series on the future.