I’m getting in the mood and have a breakfast of hummus, salad, pitta bread, aubergines and halva. Delicious!
This morning, we are going to the Balata camp. Several writers are doing workshops and the rest of us will be given a tour. We arrive at the community centre where we are welcome by Faisal, a charming young man who tells us about life in the camp in perfect English: 25 000 people on a square kilometre, 70% under the age of 18, 40% unemployment since the second intifada which closed the border with Israel where most people used to work, huge families cramped in small dark houses which keep going up because of lack of space, no privacy.
Faisal taught himself English with the internet, reading books in both languages (he loves Hemingway). He’s relatively privileged because his parents have left the camp for Nablus itself. You need money to do this as in the camp you are funded by UNWRA (which is apparently massively cutting down its support now). He has a degree in journalism. His dream: to become a writer, travel the world, a world without borders where people of all races and religions can live together freely.
While our friends do a workshop, Anne Chisholm, John McCarthy and I are taken on a tour of the camp. Walking down the narrow alleyways that hardly separate the houses you have a glimpse of people’s lives. It reminds me of the ghetto in Venice but without the square or canal to help you breathe: oppressive, absurd, sad. There are graffiti everywhere representing Palestine breaking free from its shackles. The only posters are discoloured photos of “martyrs”. An old lady tells us one of her sons was killed and two are in prison. She is smoking outside her door to release the tension, she says. A gorgeous young Palestinian woman with her two month old baby girl smiles at us. What future for this child?
Our guide was born in Kuwait as his father had left the camp. But he came back during the war in Iraq. This is where all his family is. He’s now married and expecting his first child and no, he won’t have 12 kids like his parents had. He’ll go back to Kuwait if he can find work there but will leave his wife here. With the family. The future? Who knows. Things are slightly better now that the checkpoint cutting off Nablus has gone but who knows what will happen: a third intifada, 2 states, 1 state….? Who knows? Who cares? One day at a time. Life is difficult.
It’s obvious to me that the Palestinians lost more than they gained with the intifada but yet, the level of frustration such that it could all blow up again. We’ve met highly educated, frustrated young people with access to the internet and the rest of the virtual world. They are typical of young people all over the Middle East but with on top of it, an occupation to deal with.
Bidisha and Ursula Owen who did a writing workshop with 15 year olds say how politicised they found them. In their eyes, Israelis are only soldiers who bang down your door and your walls, oppressors, murderers. Assuming anyone still believes a two state solution is possible, is that how its future is built?
The afternoon is spent having a much needed relaxing time at the hammam. It’s woman’s day and when we arrive there is a festive atmosphere, women chatting and dancing with the TV blaring. By the time we’ve sweated, been scrubbed and massaged, the place is quieter and we leave feeling great.
The evening takes place in a beautiful garden. The scent of orange blossoms is heavenly. Our guides from the previous day are there. Asaf, the translator, asks me how I liked Nazareth. He is surprised when I told him how shocked I was by the church and I unthinkingly ask him if he’s ever been. Stupid me, of course he’s never been. He’s got a West Bank ID and was born in Jenin. For him to go, he’d need to request a special permit which might take months to obtain and would only be granted for life or death issues like medical treatment that could not be provided in the West Bank. And even then his permit would only be for a few hours and just to go to the hospital, should he be caught anywhere else he’d go to jail. No room for tourism.
The title of the session is “Orientalism after the revolutions” but in fact it is more about the individual speakers’ interest in Palestine. Basem Ra’Ad is the author of Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean (Pluto) which apparently proves that there are no archaeological justifications to the Bible, ie to the presence of the Jews here. He reminds me of Shlomo Sand whose book was so popular with huge numbers of people. And I think there will be more and more books like this, the delegitimising process is gathering speed.
The lovely John McCarthy talks with a lot of humour of his 5 years captivity in Lebanon. At the end he is asked if this experience makes him sympathise with the Palestinians held for years in Israeli jails. (Apparently their families now have to pay for their food!). He says the only thing he hasn’t forgiven his captors for, is the fact his mother died without knowing he was still alive. I think of Gilad Shalit but keep it to myself.
Lorraine Adams says how she abandoned journalism when her editor at the Washington Post accused her of being too biased towards the Arabs. This is when she decided to become a novelist focusing on the oppressed of this world. To love rather than report coldly. Very touchy feely. The audience loves her back.
Then we have two poetry readings. A young woman who reads in Arabic: I get a word or two here and there, Eliah, Haifa, she is beautiful and radiant and the audience is enthusiastic. Ahdaf promises she will translate her poems for us. Then a young Mexican Muslim poet, Mark Gonzales raps in English. He tells us it’s the same Israeli contractor who is building a wall on the US/Mexican border… He is a brilliant performer, almost in trance. His last poem is all about bombs falling on Palestinian babies. The applause is even more enthusiastic. I think of rockets falling on Sderot but keep it to myself.
At dinner I tell my friends how that evening made me a lot more uncomfortable than the night before. Even angry when Basem Ra’Ad spoke of the Seder as the time when Israelis celebrate killing Egyptian babies. Of course there is so much understandable anger and frustration on the Palestinian side but what worries me deeply is that all I see around me only points towards a more disastrous direction. Force and coercion never work in the long run but even less in a world made small by the internet. Things have to change but how?!