NAJAT EL HANI
‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference.
No matter what your destination,
just be sure to make every journey a journey within.
If you travel within,
you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’
This is what Shams Tabrizi, a thirteenth century dervish formulated as one of his forty rules for the religion of love. Sometimes when you travel far away from home, to somewhere different from the life you leave behind, one chooses whether to travel physically only or to add an additional layer by making it a journey within. During the summer of 2012 I decided to visit Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for volunteering purposes. A controversial region that I had only heard of, read about or seen through mainstream media’s general broadcasting. Information retrieved from the latter sources, strongly contrasted with the images I captured when traveling through the region itself. This story provides a narrative that is not easily broadcasted within mainstream media resources. A majority of the news broadcasts mostly cover short and subjective stories on the Middle East, especially when it concerns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With this story I want to contribute to the informative gap on a contemporary conflict and its daily paradoxes. I hope it will be shared with young people who want to extend their knowledge in general. But specifically to those global volunteers who are seeking for local knowledge on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are eager to build peace by sharing hidden stories.
From Tel Aviv to Nablus
After my arrival in Tel Aviv I wandered the city feeling an unknown type of fear and awareness within and around me. However, it was not until later during my travel that I discovered the disturbing elements giving birth to these feelings. ‘Imagine Tel Aviv as the city that captures many pleasures in life: beautiful houses, paved streets, booming nightlife and one of the most beautiful coastlines covered with the best beaches you have ever seen. The sand feels as if satin hugs your feet every time you take a step towards the clean, bright and heaven blue water. No one seems to fall short in anything. Close to the beach there are enough showers to wash yourself off at as the skyscraping hotels cover the boulevard. Life here seems to be about fun, forgetting what is really going on in ‘the promised land’ and trying to enjoy the city’s luxurious components. Yet, at the end of the day many faces do not radiate mental peace, they seem continuously worried instead. I believe that deep inside, many are aware at what expenses they are living, little did I know about how these expenses would actually look like..’
When I proceeded my travel to the occupied territory of the West Bank I was still to understand the impacts of constructed borders. People being separated from each other by mile long separation walls, twice the height and four times the length of the Berlin wall; electric fences and checkpoints that are guarded by Israeli military forces. As an occupied nation, Palestine is under legal, financial and physical siege of Israel. Thus, without permission granted at countless checkpoints and constructed border lines one is unable to travel 10 blocks or a nation away. As a Dutch citizen however, the color of my passport granted me permission to travel through many local paradoxes.
‘Being In Nablus is harder than I could have ever imagined it to be. After crossing the check point in order to enter the West Bank I rapidly saw the situation change. The Israeli flat and fruitful land made place for many high and dry mountains. This region goes under the name of: Palestine. Imagine Nablus as a grey and sad looking city without all the luxurious components Tel Aviv had to offer. A city that covers nothing more than life’s absolute basic needs. Simple housing, a few stores, some parks and necessary roads. People here constantly remind you to be careful with water and electricity, considering everything can just be cut off for days. What a bitter pill when remembering the public showers and artificial neon palm trees in Tel Aviv.’
Shocked by the contrasts I was still inspired to finish what I came here for: volunteer at the local university by teaching an English class for beginners. A program that was organized by the International Youth Exchange Program – Zajel at the An-Najah National University in Nablus. The big and renewed campus that provided education to thousands of Palestinian students gave birth to my inner hope. Unsure of what to expect from my students, they afterwards mostly showed us gratitude for showing interest in them. Being there and exchanging knowledge with them from across the separation wall made a lot of impact on this group. As our teaching team was composed of a Polish, an Italian, a Moroccan-Dutch and a Korean teacher we were able to exchange information, jokes and local stories that we had never heard of before.
Looking back on my volunteering experiences it is not the English classes I remember most. It is the students’ personal stories on their childhood experiences as former refugees and their inability to live a free existence. Stories that narrated the happiness after a return, love, humor and high doses of hope for the future. Even though I thought little of extending their English vocabulary through my volunteering experiences, they underlined it as strongly contributing to their future. Not only by strengthening their professional chances on the job market, but also by learning to communicate with people like us whose life experiences strongly differed from theirs. In this order, the exchange of stories could pave a solid two way street with an equal amount of professional and personal learning opportunities.
As the classes went by, I realized that many Palestinians are imprisoned within constructed borders. Many do not carry a legal citizenship and have never been outside the West Bank. Imagine. Never left the West Bank into Israel, the region their ancestors used to call home and where they are now legally banned from. Sadly, they never had the privilege to go to the beach and let their feet be caressed by the silky sand and summer warm water. But missing out on this is the least of their problems for many Palestinians who do not even possess proper housing facilities. Especially for those that were forced to internally displace and are housed in a refugee camp.
Ballata Refugee Camp
As one part of the Youth Exchange Program consisted of English classes, the other was composed of study visits to various locations in the West bank. The visit that left the strongest impression on me was the Ballata Refugee camp in Nablus. Not only because their life circumstances were alarming, but also because it provided insights on the contrasting opportunities between my ‘legal students’ and the ‘illegal refugees’ with a poorer economic background.
‘This camp was built between 1948-1951 and was meant to shelter a maximum of 5000 people which were forced to move from the Israeli west coast to the now known Palestinian West Bank. One of Ballata’s inhabitants told us that he and the rest of his family moved from Haifa to Ballata when he was a young boy. The now, grey haired man, narrated that their moving was directed by the United Nations who promised it would be for a maximum of five years only. It was a temporary solution until Israel’s new inhabitants would have a safe place to live at. The rest is history as they were never allowed to return and forced to live in a refugee camp with approximately 30.000 refugees. Imagine how this camp must look like when it was built to shelter 5000 people only. Exactly. It is a labyrinth of small houses, narrow allies with occasional lightening, garbage on many corners and surprised children running everywhere. Smells. Some pleasant and some bad. Small windows, many doors, many voices, electricity cables on dangerous places. Because of these and many other reasons, people have psychological, physical and financial problems and little education, if any.’
During one of my final evenings I gazed over Palestine’s grey colored mountains while realizing this is an imprisoned nation. We frequently hear about it on the news, are taught multi sighted stories about at school, but it is difficult to understand what really happens on the surface. My volunteering experiences made me realize that there is a strong difference between hearing about these stories and really experiencing life out there. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows an extensive narrated history, this volunteering opportunity provided me a platform to retrieve knowledge on multidimensional peace that is usually banned from mainstream sources. With this story I wish to underline that at the end of the day we are all humans, questing for the same basic needs such as peace, dignity and justice. When taking Shams Tabrizi’s rule in mind I realize that volunteering for peace offered me a platform to make a journey within. After return I felt inspired to blog about my stories as a peacebuilding methodology that could help contribute in understanding the results of daily conflict, hope and mutual fear. After all, I cannot help but wonder how far away peace really stands from them, when it feels so close and natural to us. Has universal peace become a 21st century mystical myth?
Story: The 27 year old peacebuilder, Najat el Hani from Amsterdam, shares a story about her travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. A story in which she focusses on her 2012 volunteering experiences at the An-Najah National University in Nablus. She currently divides her work between lecturing at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, youth social work and blogging for peace at najatfreedom.blogspot.com
Artist: Marek Wójciak