Monday, August 28, 2006

Palestine Diary: Never ending end (4)

5 August 2006, Nablus

Yesterday I got up early in the morning and went to the Notre Dame building that belongs to the Vatican for a conversation with a group consisting of rabbis and priests defending human rights. First, we watched a documentary about a Palestinian village where Beduins live, which was destroyed by Israeli soldiers and the people’s reactions to this. The people living in jerry-built houses and shelters are poor anyway, they live on animal husbandry. For several times they were asked to leave the village because an Israeli settlement was going to be built there but they didn’t accept. They resisted as much as they could. One morning, soldiers raided the village and destroyed all the houses. Upon this, some of the people were taken to refugee camps, and some have been continuing their life in tents in this dry, barren, Godforsaken place.

Abu Muhammad, one of the leading figures of the village says, “They not only dismissed us from the village but also make us build their houses on our own land. They make us build the walls around Jerusalem. Everytime I look at them, my eyes fill with tears! Turks reigned here but didn’t touch the people, but these men want not only our land but want it without anyone living on it. I will never work as their slave!”.

Palestinian workers building houses for the Israeli settlement say, “What else can we do? Will we starve to death? How else can we feed our babies? We have to work!”. Several years pass. Abu Muhammad and some more people keep on living in the area though they are occasionally disturbed by the soldiers. Now the Israeli settlement is active with its luxurious villas, shopping centers and wealthy residents walking their dogs. I can’t help but ask the group, “Don’t do these people ever look 100 meters ahead and realize what they have done? Don’t they feel pangs of conscience?”. The rabbi answers, “Most of them were smiling as the houses were being pulled down. You could see happiness on their faces.” Then I understood that they have no mercy, no compession at all!

Confused again, I go out and start walking towards Al Aqsa in the amazing streets of the old city. Nuns are passing by, then the Jews wearing long curly sideburns and black hats, and Palestinian children play around colliding with the passers-by. When I arrive at the gate of the mosque, I see that a battalion and a bunch of policemen surround the place. There is tighter security because it’s Friday today. They ask for my ID and I show it. I go ahead and get blocked by another soldier, then another policeman. My passport is checked for 4 times. Eventually an officer at the last entrance door does not accept my passport. He asks for my ID because the fact that I am a Turk does not prove that I am Muslim. And I start saying all the surahs I know. Then the officer looks at me with bewildered eyes and says, “afvan, afvan” and allows me to go in. There is such a big crowd but unfortunately women are not allowed to enter Al Aqsa. I could only see Omar Mosque.So be it, I’ll feel grateful.

I go to the hostel and what I see stuns me: some ultra-Orthodox Jew is chatting with the Palestinian officer in the lobby. And I greet them and get seated. Those Jews normally have such a cold and indifferent attitude that I get surprised when I see this man chatting like everyone, with his hat in his hand. Jonathan is 22, a student studying the Torah at the School of Thelogy. He says he sometimes chats with the foreigners that come to the hostel. Unfortunately his English is not good enough to have a deep conversation, so I cannot get the replies to many of my questions. But I learn that he has got Palestinian friends who are against war. Finally we even have a picture taken together.

Towards 4 o ‘clock, I meet Mete Çubukçu, a journalist and an author, who spent 3 weeks at the Lebanon border and arrived in Jerusalem yesterday. He mentions the situation at the border and Gaza. He, too, has lost his hope though he has been occasionally visiting this country for 13 years and he is familiar with all that’s going on. He says, “I don’t know how it could be solved, it’s too late for Gaza now”. There is 24-hour mutualbombardment at the Lebanon border. A lot of fires break outbecause some of the bombs fall on forests, garbage lies in heaps in the streets, there is lack of authority and fear reigns in everyone’s heart. There is no end to this. You can never tell what will happen tomorrow, no predictions or hypotheses work here. A waiter approaches us and says that it is “Shabad” now and it’s time they closed the cafe. We say goodbye to each other. I return to the old city, and Mr. Mete to his hotel room to get prepared for his flight to Turkey.

The destination in my mind is the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus Christ lies according to Orthodox and Catholic belief. It is a very big old church. In it there are priests from various countries in the world: Asian, African, European. I walk towards the grand bazaar and run into Amanda and Marian, the American and Romanian students I met in Bir Zeit. We have lunch together and visit the Wailing Wall to watch the Shabad ceremony. In Shabad time, you aren’t supposed to use electrical appliances from Friday evening until Saturday evening but people have found a solution to this: there are buttons that have been arranged automatically so that the lights of the houses and some electrical devices are automatically turned on. It means people don’t touch the buttons anyway, in other words, they don’t use electricity!

Because it’s the third time I have been to the Wailing Wall, I keep my visit short and we go to the Mount of Olives to see an incredible scene. The 2000 year old olive trees are being protected by special guards. There are Jewish, Muslim and Christian graves all around. Because it is believed that the resurrection of all the dead on the last day preceding the Last Judgement Day will start on this mountain, these graves are special. It is very difficult to find a place and it’s very expensive to buy one.

Passing by the graves, I walk downtown and on my way I encounter some Israeli soldiers. Marian starts a conversation and I, having found the chance, ask them what they think about the war and one of them says, “We hate this war but we support the war!!”, “What do you mean?”, “We have to defend ourselves”.

It’s the first time I have had a chance to chat with these soldiers, who are between the ages of 18-25. Actually I am so biased against them that I refuse to talk with them at first. But then, when I see their friendly attitude, I start talking. I see that they aren’t conscious of many things. None of them is a brutal killer with a burning desire to go to the border and kill Arabs. 5 minutes after I leave them, I feel a sharp pain in my stomach, like the pain of a knife wound. I can’t even walk. And I can’t figure out what it is, not a spasm I guess. Amanda takes care of me, she says some insect bit me. Thank God, she has medicine with her so she spreads it on my stomach. Could it be that I have been punished because I talked to the Israeli soldiers? I could believe anything in Jerusalem, this city is comething different.

The city is full of historical and holy buildings. There is a magnificent atmosphere. As I am taking photos and chatting with the Palestinian kids playing in the street, I suddenly realize that I am in front of the church where the tomb of Virgin Mary is. Every moment there occurs something interesting, one thing after another. I certainly want to spend a few months here.

We go to a small simple restaurant to have our dinner with Amanda and Marian. We run up a very high bill. We ask about it to the Palestinian owners and they say, “It’s Jerusalem here, in the western part the prices are double”. Anyway, they give a discount. And I say,
“You always say that you are poor and unjustly treated. But here everyone rips off the tourists. I have a bargain even for a bottle of water. Each time, I tell them that I am Muslim so that they sell things at their normal prices. Why is it this way?” He says,
“We are poor people, so you should help me, you are Western people”. ,
“OK, let’s help you but do you help Gaza and Lebanon?”
He replies, “Yesterday aid trucks went there but Israel wouldn’t let them pass. We cannot enter Gaza. Also we have our families here to support”
“You could help if you really wanted to, but you don’t. You find excuses and hide behind them. Unless you protect each other, how can you expect that from Western people?”

I cut the conversation short because I also can’t understand it all. When you go into deep, you see that they also want to leave the war behind. They want to lead normal lives like everyone else. Nevertheless, their indifference is killing me. The Palestinians living in Jerusalem are really different from the ones in West Bank. Money has such a power that it changes religions, nations; it makes everyone slaves.

When Amanda and Marian talk about Nablus, I decide to see that city. I get up early in the morning and go to Nablus. Now I am at An Najah University. There are lots of European students working voluntarily here. I get informed about these projects so that I can come later to stay longer. Now we set off for a tour in the city and the refugee camps.

6 August 2006, Jerusalem

Nablus is a 7000 year old city, thus it has a considerable cultural heritage. But its current state is miserable. Lots of teenagers are walking in the streets with guns in their hands. There is a lack of authority, the police don’t work because they haven’t been paid their salaries for the last 6 months, no one obeys traffic rules. More than half of the cars in the city are stolen property. The city with its population of 180 thousand suffered an Israeli attack two weeks ago. Israeli soldiers had been after someone again called Ala Sanaqra and they bombed an area full of municipality and government buildings. In the bombing, an old building dating from the Ottomans also got destroyed. The attack lasted for 3 days and 70 prisoners in a nearby prison were not released, nor were they transferred to another prison. They begged but no one helped them. Sanaqra had been hiding in a house close to the area and when the bombardment was over, he waved at people, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m alright” and walked away. It was the city that suffered, plus the injured and financial loss.

Amjad Rfaie, the chief of the Rehabilitation Center at New Asqar refugee camp says,
“these incidents are a part of our daily life. We don’t even get surprised”. New Asqar was built in 1964, 6 years later than all the other refugee camps throughout the country. Virtually everyone in this camp of 6000 inhabitants is unemployed. Before the intifada they had been working as workers in Israel, 35 km from here; but later on they got fired and now they live on aids coming from outside. They have no hospitals or schools. They use electricity and water illegally. Before Hamas came into power, their situation had been better but now all the foreign associations stopped their aid. Rfaie says, “I don’t like Hamas either. I support Fatah.But didn’t the world want democracy from us? So, we held an election, and Hamas won the elections. Now we respect that, but the rest of the world is punishing not only Hamas but also all the people here by ceasing their aid and support”.

The story of the rehabilitation center they founded is interesting. Rfaie and many other men like him go to prison in the early 1990s. He spends 5 years in prison at various intervals in 7 years. “The difference,” he says, “is that I didn’t have my wife and children with me, that’s all. Here I have them now but I still suffer, we live in a outdoor prison”.

When they are in prison, they decide to get together and do something. Neither fighting with guns nor all other political approaches work for them. So they found this center so that they could give hope to children or at least to the next generations. In 1992 they had their first library in the middle of the camp outdoors. They didn’t have even a hut, but now there are supporters more than ever and they do have a 3- story building. They execute lots of aid projects to which many foreign associations give support. They offer physical and speech therapies, and lessons on music, dance, computers etc. 18 foreigners work here voluntarily, most of whom are American. The managers say that they are trying to raise the leaders of the future. There are 300 children here, all of whom are very clever and nice. Their life is very hard but this center means hope for them.

I ask whether they receive any help from the government. They say, on the contrary, the Ministry of Social Services direct the ones who ask for help to the rehabilitation center. Civil servants don’t work anyway because for the last 6 months they haven’t been paid their salaries, 100 dollars a month.

On my way back to the hostel, Uhud, an employee at the center, offers to give me lift to the university. But, she says, she has to stop by the police station to have a report written because he had his car plate stollen several days ago. We set out together, and see that not only the camp but also the surrounding districts are miserable. The roads are impaired, the weather is hot, people are trying to reach somewhere in that hot weather with their kids. Houses, bombed and destroyed, huts...When we arrive at the police station, we see a sleeping police officer, and empty rooms. On the walls there are the posters of “martyrs” according to Palestinians, “terrorists” according to Israeli people. They have a photo holding guns and Al Aqsa in the background. There are maybe 50 of these posters on the walls. As we are walking in the station, where half of the rooms with worn out walls are empty, a female officer says “hi” to us and invites us to a room. The officer, who hasn’t received any salary for 6 months and who keeps on working in this wretched building in this hot weather, kindly chats with us as if everything was alright and writes the report Uhud needs. Then Uhud takes me to the school and we go downtown with 2 new hosts. I get a bit scared when I see some civil teenagers walking in the streets with their guns. The hosts say, “Don’t be afraid. It’s quite normal here. But when Israeli soldiers come here, you cannot find any of these men here”.The shops are closed, the houses have been destroyed, teenagers walking with guns in their hands, and posters of “shehids” who died for their country. This is Nablus. But what surprised me most is that the hosts accompanying me take everyhing as normal and continue their lives. They feel neither fear nor anger. They are concentrated on their schools and future.

As I am touring around the city, I notice an Ottoman toughra (sultan’s signature) on a clock tower. Then I learn that the architecture in the city belongs mostly to the Ottomans. When I learn that the house I see at a corner is a 400 year-old Ottoman house, I knock on the door and get in the house. 4 relative families live together in the same yard in this big house. Their surname is Aga, but they are Palestinian. Nablus is the homeland of “kunafa”(a kind of dessert), by the way. It originated here. There are several kinds of it.

I don’t stay long because there are many checkpoints on my way. A taxi takes me to the border and I see a queue of about 1000 people waiting. Soldiers don’t give permission, they just keep people waiting like this. I show my passport and pass, the others will wait God knows for how many hours. I get stopped twice at checkpoints. I am the only foreigner. When we get close to Ramallah, we realize that the road has been blocked. There are 2 tanks on the road and they block the road, no explanation or a valid reason! We wait there for about an hour in 40 C, then we are checked again and we pass. Arrival at Jerusalem also takes hours. To be precise, it takes me four and a half hours to go 70 km. Exhausted, I immediately go to sleep at the hostel.

It is my last day here today. They do it even in Jerusalem: Today soldiers blocked the roads again, they look for Palestinians in the vehicles they stop, find them and search them.

7 August 2006, Istanbul

It was a hard day yesterday. It was both because it was the last day there and it made me mentally exhausted to see so many things in such a short time and to face something new as I was trying to digest another. Twice, I found myself crying for no reason in the streets of Jerusalem.

Last night I went to the Palestinian National Theater to see a Palestinian movie I had wanted to see so much in Ramallah. It told the story of 2 villages in the Lebanon-Israel (Palestine) border, 100 meters away from ecah other and lots of mines laid between. It was in Arabic and there were no subtitles but it wasn’t so hard to understand because the effects of the incidents could be read on people’s faces.

For the last time I watched Al Aqsa from the terrace of the hostel. Then I packed and went to bed. In the morning I went to the airport. On the gate of Ben Gurion Airport there are huge “no guns” signs in addition to the usual “no smoking” signs. I joined a queue and an anxious wait started. An officer approached me and typical questions came one after another: Where have you been to, why did you come here, what will you do here, why are you alone, what did you do in Jordan?, and so on. Then he took a look at my old visas. When he saw the visas of United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, a sour look came over his face, as if he disliked Arabic. He asked me why I had been to those countries, and he took my passport and walked away. After a few minutes, he came back with his manager. My dear US visas and cool Schengen visa hadn’t worked.

No sooner did the manager start asking the same questions than some man approached us and said in Turkish , “Is there a problem?”. Then he turned to the officer and said, “Why are you keeping all of us waiting? It’s obvious that she is just visiting the country, why are you treating her like this? What is your justification?”. The officer asked the man, “Who are you, mister? What is your title?”. The man asnwered, “I am a colonel. I am Turkey’s military attaché”. The officer withdrew, and muttered things like, “We just wanted to ask a few questions, OK you may pass” and he gave my passport back. But he didn’t forget to stick certain labels on my bags, meaning “ultra detailed search is needed”. There are 4 colors of labels to stick on bags and they are arranged according to the officers’ suspicion level. For instance, mine was lilac. In the second step, the bags are being searched according to these colours, some very casually and some very carefully. I got surprised and I thanked the colonel. He said, “This is the way they are. When they see ‘Pakistan’, they treat you like a terrorist, but they fear us”. Well, I didn’t know that Turkish army has such an impact on Israel. Then my bags were opened, one by one, all the wraps of the gifts were torn, the bags were examined carefully for half an hour, including the buckels of my sandals. Then I went to the THY (Turkish Airlines) counter. At that moment an Israeli officer signed at me, like, “I am not working. Try the next window”. The colonel made an effort again and said, “Come with me”. Again the same reaction, as a result the officer apologized, “I didn’t know, sorry.” And she asked gently, “Would you like aisle or corridor?” and she gave me a wide area right behind the business class. I again thanked the colonel, who came as a godsend and immediately another control started. All my IDs, diplomas, everything including the interiors of my toothpaste lids! Finally I made it to the plane and got seated with my T-shirt with the Palestinian flag on. And I felt as if I had achieved something big, and I felt so free. I arrived in Istanbul, leaving my heart in Palestine.

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