Mourning in Palestine

2009-01-02 00:00

I have been living in the West Bank city of Nablus for the past seven weeks as a volunteer, teaching English and art in the three main refugee camps in and around Nablus, Balata, Askar and Al Ein.

The main streets of the camp seem similar to most in Palestine. However, walking down the side streets you see how ghetto-like the camps are. Buildings have risen where tents once stood, but there are no roads between them, just alleys down which you can walk only in single file. Some families live in perpetual darkness in the lower levels of these densely packed buildings. The walls are riddled with bullets and burn marks. The army invades most nights.

I teach English to Grade 9 and Grade 7 children in Askar, and Grade 5 to Grade 7 in Al Ein. They have some basic English and I try to practise conversational English through games and structured conversations.

The older girls are learning English competently, and we have animated discussions about their lives and their concerns. I learn about their aspirations for freedom, that their heroes are Yasser Arafat and Salahuddin Ayyubi, that they don’t know who Paris Hilton is, and all about their dreams for the future (which are context-specific; for example, one pupil wants to be an air hostess, but does not think it is possible because Palestine doesn’t have an airline).

The younger girls can be disruptive and over-enthusiastic, but have stolen my heart with their presents of little sweets and biscuits, their hugs and the daily invitations to their homes.

However, the best part of my work is my art and craft classes. I have one class with 10-year-old boys in Balata, one of the roughest refugee camps, and one with girls. These children are talented, interested and very appreciative of their classes. We have made masks, bags, boxes, puzzles and paintings, and I never fail to be amazed at their creativity and excitement. Living in a refugee camp in an occupied state is tough and it shows at times. For example, when the boys draw pictures, behind the olive trees, flowers and mosques that they draw, there is always a tank bearing an Israeli flag in the background. But in the class they are just children who love making beautiful things and I work with the vision that they could use art to remove themselves from their surroundings and see the beauty in the world rather than just the pain.

I have loved my time in Palestine with its warm and welcoming people and its serene countryside. Yes, I have felt the impact that occupation has on the daily lives of people: the one-hour trips that turn into four because the roads are suddenly closed to non-Jewish people, the checkpoints, the guns, the separation wall and having to show your passport (or if Palestinian, your Palestinian ID “pass”) at every stop. But these experiences have been far outweighed by the pleasant experiences of the simple meals in village homes, the joint Christmas and Eid celebrations, shopping in the markets and chats with dynamic university students.

But my experience here has changed drastically in the past few days. On Saturday, as bombs rained down on Gaza, I cried. As did all the other volunteers and Palestinians I came into contact with. I cried because I knew that on the road there was probably a falafel seller and some old men drinking tea. I cried because I saw little girls in blue striped uniforms running and knew just how young they were, because if they were in Grade 7 or older they would be wearing green stripes. I cried because my husband Ismail could have been in the mosque that was bombed. I cried as I saw the uniforms on the dying policemen, because they are the same uniforms worn by the traffic officers who help me cross the busy Ramallah streets. I cried because they had prevented independent observers, doctors, volunteers, medicine and food from entering Gaza for months. I cried because the world was not outraged. I cried because I don’t want to have my brown-skinned Muslim children grow up in a world where their lives are not equal to that of an American or Israeli or British child. Where their deaths would be acceptable collateral damage for the defence of the privileged states.

Sunday was a day of mourning in Palestine. It was supposed to be the celebration of the Islamic New Year. Instead, shops were closed, music no longer played and people no longer smiled. As I write, the raids on Gaza continue, the university and more mosques have been destroyed, more children are dead, wounded or orphaned. And right now in the West Bank, it feels like the world is condoning it.

• Sha’ista Cassimjee is a former Pietermaritzburg resident.

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