Friday April 8 : Al-Arroub – Mar Saba

Thursday 8 March 2012
popularity : 15%

Subject of today’s Arabic class: the days of the week. The first day is called yawn al-ahad, “the first day”. It’s logical except that for the Muslims, the first day corresponds to our Sunday.The second day is, of course, “the second day”, yawm al-ithniin, that is to say Monday. After that, yawm al-thoulatha (third), yawm al-arbiya (fourth), yawm al-ramis (fifth): Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday… Stop ! Friday isn’t just “the sixth day”, it’s yawm al-djoumoua, the “day of the gathering”, the day when people meet and pray: in a way, it’s their “Sunday”. And the week ends on yawm as-sabt, the seventh day, Shabbat for the Jews: Saturday. On the next day, yawm al-ahad (our Sunday), the children go back to school: it is the first day of the new week.

So today is a day off for our young Palestinian friends. A great opportunity to spend it together. We have decided to go on an excursion to Mar Saba Monastery , in the North-West of Bethlehem, and to have a barbecue there. We told our Palestinian friends that we would take care of everything: they would be our guests. We asked Tareq where we could find the foodstuffs and this morning, before our friends arrived, we went to the local “supermarket” (6 shelves in all…), were Bassam works. There we felt a bit at a loss and asked Mohamed and Hassan who had joined us what they would like to eat. But they were of no help since Palestinian people NEVER answer that kind of question. They just told us that Hashem liked big pickles, so we bought a can as well as sunflower seeds, which is the local teens’ favourite snack. Then we went to another little shop where we bought onions and tomatoes, to the baker’s were we bought two baskets of kmag (flat breadthat looks like soft pancakes which you tear into pieces and use as a spoon or a fork). The last thing we needed was chicken for the barbecue. Unfortunately, the only ones we could find were frozen… The old butcher had to call for one of his sons to cut them into chunks, which he did with an axe... The sun is shining today: hopefully the meat will have thawed by the time we reach Mar Saba…!

First encounter with Israeli Soldiers.

As agreed upon, we meet our friends on the main street of Al-Arroub. We notice immediately that none of the Palestinian girls we met yesterday are present. Appearantly, participating in a mixed activity is unthinkable for them (or/and for their parents). It’s a pity for everyone.

The minibus Sandra hired for us is right on time. We pile up the bags of food, the music instruments and about twenty half awoken teenagers on and between the seats. Has anybody thought of bringing a barbecue?... We, the Belgians, look at each other, feeling a little bit stupid. Indeed! What shall we do without one?… Our friends laugh at us gently: they were teasing us. Hashem says that Hassan is waiting for us in front of his house with half of a barrel which we’ll use as a barbecue. We thank him, relieved. We are really happy to see these boys again. While the van starts, we go round our mixed group and try to remember each other’s names… Pronouncing them is a real problem and makes all of us laugh. The mood is good. We are all looking forward to this day in the countryside! The minibus is now driving slowly towards Hashem’s house that stands right next to the entrance of the camp.

A few meters further, we spot Hassan who’s waiting for us patiently, leaning on the promised barbecue. How gorgious he looks, with his sunglasses on his nose and that wisp of straw between his teeth! Some of us could even have a crush on him, couldn’t they?... We wave at him while the minibus stops next to him, ready to pick him up.

And then, suddenly… Something absolutely astounding happens. We aren’t here anymore but right in the middle of a war or of a science-fiction movie. All of a sudden, four or five Israeli soldiers bolt from the blue and tumble in front of us, armed, wearing helmets, boots and fatigues and carrying a whole gear around the belt that looks anything but friendly. Margot whispers in astonishment: we would rather expect them in the Australian bush, not in the middle of a praying village!

Two of them go up the narrow street on our left, running with their knees half bent like they were trying to avoid being seen. We see them crouch down, hiding behind a barrel of fuel oil and pointing their guns to the front of them, to the left, to the right, then to the sky… There is nobody there, the street is empty!... We we see another soldier circle around Hassan without even looking at him, then go along the house on our left, his back flat against the wall, holding his machine gun tight in diagonal against his stomach, like in a bad B series or movie. A third one is now moving sideways like a crab and raking the right side of our minibus with the tip of his rifle while looking through its scope. Races, excitement, orders and peremptory signs: move forward! Retreat! Encircle the bus! … Two meters away from the windshcreen of the bus, a young Falasha [1] has put one knee on the ground, lifts his gun and points it at our driver then at Tanguy who’s sitting at the front too. But, my word… He is going to shoot! Is he really going to?... We give a gasp of horror and swallow in disbelief. This can’t be happening! It is even better than in the Counter-Strike video-game, if you see what I mean….

Time is as if suspended. Laurie and Natalia are lying down flat on their seat and laughing nervously. Margot, Marie-Gaëlle and Caroline follow the whole scene, their jaws dropping to their knees: these soldiers are our age, or maybe just a little bit older! Sebastian asks if he can take photos but Paul tells him not to as we don’t know what the soldiers’reaction might be. Anne-Claire has taken her friend Tare’s hand in hers: it is cold in spite of the heat outside. The young Palestinians have all fallen completely silent, their insouciance suddenly vanished. We don’t know if we had better look through the window or avoid it: it seems to us that any of our moves could displease these militaries. Where are we now? In which parallel universe have we suddenly plunged into without noticing?...

From behind the rear row of seats, we now spot a woman walking down the street a few meters away from us. Two children are with her. They are carrying some food supplies and are obviously coming back from the market. We hold our breath: what is going to happen? She has stopped and without letting go of her bags, she takes the hand of each of her children who instantly come closer to her… Silence in the minibus. Silence and immobility. Tense waiting…

Then the soldier who was aiming at our driver suddenly gets up and, without paying any attention to the lady and her children (they could as well be translucent), he sets to running back to the other soldiers who have taken the street leading to the mosque of the camp. Today, yawm al-djoumoua, day of prayer: it is easy to know where to find a great number of Muslims gathered together… The militaries have gone the way they came: all of a sudden… We look for Hassan. He’s still there, on the same spot, in the same position… That’s even better than fourth dimension: Hassan still leaning on the barbecue-grill, still wearing his sunglasses, while these soldiers just fresh out of adolescence were walking around with real guns loaded with real bullets…

We don’t know it yet, but it is all over. Like when you are playing postures: when the signal rings, the people go back to their normal life, conclude their unfinished sentence, finish their suspended movement. Our young Palestinian friends have got off the minibus and fuss around Hassan, help him bring the grill in the bus, talking together in Arabic. They look a lot less in shock than we are. Because what has happened is just routine for them?...

We would like to understand what we have just witnessed, what we have just been in the middle of. Tareq explains in a few words: “It was an exercise, some military training. They do that in the camp, in the midst of the children, of the everyday life, without telling in advance. They do so when they feel like it or when they are bored. And it’s a pity if there are problems, if one of them gets angry and shoots and hurts somebody: this is real-life training…” We listening to him, stunned: this is little more than a big scouting-game except that people can get injured, especially among the children who, generally, respond to the provocations by throwing stones: the Israelis’ guns are loaded with real bullets. The adults have learnt to wait until they have finshed their training but the kids haven’t… Do the soldiers often do so? “They do, particularly on Fridays. Actually on every Friday…” [2] To think that in our country, there are people who meet to take part in life-size role-plays, who play at war “for real” during their week-ends! What a pout-on!... Here, warm blood can flow for real, children can really be arrested, really be sent to prison, waouw!... This tension which is being created for the people living in the camp, it’s so exciting!... Is it?...

The mini-bus starts again gently. We leave the camp towards Bethlehem where we pick up Sandra who is spending the day with us. We tell her briefly about what we have just been through (we are still quite shaken!). This is no surprise to her.

En route for Mar Saba

Just before leaving Bethlehem somebody asks another interesting question: has anybody thought of bringing some wood coal?...

Goodness gracious! We, the Belgians, are starting to feel really stupid! Again, this makes our Palestinian friends laugh. Better, it inspires them a songs which they accompany with their darbouka. In the meantime, Hashem, Mahmoud and Anne-Claire go and try to find some black gold in one of the little shops that are still open… OK, problem solved ! Yallah ! Let’s go! Finally!...

The landscape unfolds behind the bus windows: grandiose, barren. We are crossing what the Israelis call the desert of Judea.

The road is narrow and winds between the hills. We pass through three or four Palestinian villages and then stop to enjoy the panorama: the view is incredible. Sandra explains that, if the time were brighter, we would be able to see the Dead Sea from here!...

Here and there, an Israeli settlement: a cold and methodic, almost military arrangement of constructions that don’t fit at all with the undulating Palestinian countryside. Margot grins: they probably hired Dutch architects (she is Dutch :-)).

Far beneath our feet, we spot children playing (working?) in what looks like a rubbish dump. Where do they live? Who are they? “I don’t know”, says Tareq, “They may be Bedouins. These people haven’t got an easy life neither….” We know : Bedouins find fewer and fewer places where they can live as all the good lots of land are confiscated and turned into military zones... We go back on board. A few more hairpin bends and we can see the monastery. Sandra tells us a bit about it:

“Mar Saba is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It’s situated 15 km away from Bethlehem, but you can only reach it by car or minibus: the bus-line 60 that comes from Bethlehem only goes up to the last village, just before the rubbish dump where we stopped. Mar Saba was created in the 5th century B.C. by Sint Sabas of Cappadoce, Turkey. The buildings were reconstructed after 1834 earthquake. It’s a Greek Orthodox monastery: women are not allowed in. But, you’ll see”, she adds seeing the feminists of the group grimace, “it’s worth going to: the view over the Cedron is breathtaking…”

The bus drops us on a little parking space in front of the monastery: the road doesn’t go any further. We unload the provisions and each of us carries some of them as well as the musical intruments and the chicha. All of a sudden, somebody asks if we thought of taking a grill on which to put the chicken for the barbecue… That’s the absolute limit!... To think that the Belgians were supposed to take care of everything!... A quick but animated discussion ensues between our friends: Hashem, who decidedly seems to have quite a lot of influence on the rest of the group, sends Baha back with the minibus: he will find a grill for us…

We decide to settle in at the foot of a square tower built a few meters away from the monastery itself. Everybody (or almost everybody, there are always shirkers :-)) sets to peeling and slicing the vegetables, and here I’m shedding streams of tears over the onions (poor Abed!), and there I cut my finger while snipping the tomatoes (dear Margot!). God bless Sandra who brought spices (so important in this country where nothing is eaten that is not spicy). We roll the (almost completely defrosted) chunks of chicken in them: another improvisation. In fact, we should have let the meat marinate during the night…. Somer of us are already heading for the shade… Quite normal, since we are in the middle of the desert and the temperatures are everything except mild! The men busy themselves starting the fire pulling each other’s leg and humming bits of songs.

While the embers get hot enough, Sandra, Tanguy (who looks like a mushroom with his linen hat), Caroline, Mahmoud, Hashem, Laurie and Wassim embark on a discovery of the place: they want to go and see the source mentioned in tourist guides… In fact, it’s only a tiny trickle of water.


Anne-Claire, who has stayed in the shadow of the tower with the laziest (or the most hard-working, it’s a question of perspective) members of the group, suggests preparing a surprise for the hikers. Let’s form a Belgian-Palestinian choir and rehearse a well-known French nursery rhyme: “Mon coq est mort” (meaning: my cock is dead). I know, she tells the Palestinians, the lyrics are quite stupid, but the song sounds really nice when sung in a round… The Palestinians immediately agree to meet the challenge. They learn and rehearse the French words of the song with relish. We make only one concession and change the “cocodicodicodicoda” into “cadacadacadacadacada” which is closer to the Palestinian cockcrow (indeed, cocks sing differently according to whether there are Italian or Dutch!)... Ok, singing all together is already one thing. Let’s now try in a round…

Here are the lyrics:

Mon coq est mort (2x)
Mon coq est mort (2x a little louder)
Il ne dira plus cocodicocoda (2x)
Cocodicodicodicoda (2x)

We laugh a lot and need to start it over and over again. It ends souding quite decent! Then Hashem wants to teach us a song too, which is both in English and Arabic. But he warns us that the lyrics will be “as stupid”. In fact, they are even worse: “Everybody likes houmous. Some like it with lahm (meat), some like it bedoun lahm (without meat)”, etc… And you go on, changing the ingredients. It is stupid, but we have such fun together… The ice is broken (under the blazing sun!), self-consciousness has dissolved into a cheerful complicity. We feel simply happy together. For us, the Belgians, it’s nothing really exceptional, but for the young Palestinians it is. As we are going to discover during our stay in the camp, this is a very special moment: they are outside the camp, outside the permanent tension occupation has locked them into. Here, they feel free and safe. We are still not sizing up what this day means to them. The hickers are back now. The little choir takes place on the stairs of the tower, and there we go!... And it works!... Cheers and encores: we can’t stop the Palestinians anymore, they are so proud to sing in French!

The embers are ready now but Baha hasn’t come back with the grill yet.

Anne-Claire, a former girl-scout, suggests we tried using the silver foil (which our friends brought to smoke chicha after the meal) and placing the (now completely thawed) chunks of chicken, the sliced onions and tomatoes on one sheet of it and lay the whole of it directly on the embers. It is not that great but it is better than nothing… The heroic chefs cover the whole of it with another sheet of silver foil. They then try to grab some charcoal pieces and put them on top of it. Waouw, it’s really hot!... All that’s left to do now is wait for the food to cook and hold back our saliva. Fortunately, we have the sunflower seeds!

While the meat is cooking, the boys offer us a dabkeh workshop. Dabkeh is the traditional Palestinian dance which boys and girls dance (separately!) holding each other’s shoulders.

Sebastian, Nathalia, Paul and Anne-Claire try to learn a first move, then another, then a third one on the screeching music coming from a cell-phone. It isn’t that simple at all! It is both sports and folk dance, especially for the one (a Palestinian!) who does it solo in the middle of the circle… OK, we have got to admit that we don’t really have a gift for it…

First service announced. With eight hands, we try to remove the first silver foil dish… But the coal is so hot! We are burning! The sheet of silver foil tears away under the weight of the food. We try to scoop up what has fallen into the embers, laughing and screaming so hot it is. The first chunks of chicken are served burnt and covered in ashes on the outside, still pinkish in the inside. But with the lentil salad (Sandra, it’s delicious, thank you !), the hummus, the sesam bread, the potato-filled pastries (Sandra again, what would we do without her!), the sweet sesam biscuits, the bananas, it almost looks like a real barbecue… The carnivores content themselves wit hit in any case… And all of a sudden, we spot a cloud of dust on the horizon: it’s Baha who’s coming back with the desperately wanted barbecue grill…

It makes things a lot easier, the chunks of chicken are well done now. We are almost satiated… But then we realize that our Palestinian friends haven’t eaten anything yet! They were all cooking for us and serving us… It’s their turn now !

Siesta-time now, for everybody or at least for the most overcome with the heat: lazy chicha and strumming on the guitar for Laurie, Paul, Natalia, Caroline and the boys’ band. In the distance, we see a few tourists who have come to visit the monastery. Closer to us, there is a donkey and three kids who swallow down the leftovers of our meal ravenously. If we had known, we would have left some more!... It’s hard to know where they are from. Apparently, they hang around here all day long in the hope of picking up what the tourists will have left behind them.

The young Palestinians make fun about the accent of one of the kids (a Bedouin) who is begging for a cigarette. He’s only eight… How stupidly can boys behave when it comes to show off in front of girls! And the same is true for the girls this makes giggle!... The teens aren’t nice at all with the kid. They are having fun at his expense, tell him he’ll get a cigarette if he first sings them a song, which he does. The Belgian and Palestinians laugh then give him his reward. But the boy has hardly started to smoke that an angry man turns up and flogs him with his stick.

Just at that moment, Tanguy, Tareq, Anne-Claire, Margot and Marie-Gaelle come back from their walk. They left after lunch and followed a path, or more exactly a sort of canal dug into the rock in order to collect the rain waters. At this time of the year, it is of course dry. At the top of the hill, they found shelters made of metal plates and tents. Tareq thought it could be Bedouins living there. He really wanted to go and meet them: “I have never met Bedouins. I’d like to talk with them, ask them how they live”. But there was nobody up there, except for a man playing the flute, an instrument he had made himself. Tanguy asked him if he could try to play it, then the man left and they went on walking. Apparently, he is the man who beat the kid, most probably his son. As he sees the child crying, Tareq can’t help going to him in order to to talk to him and try to comfort him… The teens, Belgian and Palestinian, don’t feel too proud of themselves. How could they?

Time has passed: we pack our things up, pick up the paper napkins and plastic beakers the wind has sent all over the place, cross the split that separates the square tower from the monastery itself. The minibus should be coming back soon. Meanwhile Paul, Sebastian, Tanguy and two of the Palestinians decide to go and have a quick visit of the monastery. Women aren’t allowed in. It doesn’t really matter, it only a bit frustrating (if not persecutory) like everytime women are considered as “unworthy” or “impure”… But the monastery is closed on Friday anyways. In the end ofd the day, nobody will have visited it. Margot has fun: this is God punishing men for being such machos... [3]

As we have discovered, our friends, and particularly Hashem, are really fond of French and eager to learn some, so we teach them phrases they should know when they go and study in France (a dream for some of them): “Bonjour, je m’appelle…. Je suis étudiant en… Merci beaucoup -, de rien,- je vous en prie… Je t’adore…” They’re so cute, so attentive and rather gifted! In the meantime, those who are not interested in languages work on the dabkeh steps we wer taught before lunch….. Not that great… Rhythm doesn’t run through the Belgians’ veins!

The minibus is there. We load barbecue and bags, and drive back to Bethlehem where we leave Sandra. Then we head to Al- Arroub where everything looks alright now.

Our Palestinian friends testify.

Back in our flat, we have a light meal and wait for our friends. They have all gone home for supper. They come back tidy and neat, wearing perfume, perfect like every evening. Abed has brought somes beakers filled with a home-made dessert. He’s so cute, it is such a pleasure to see the pleasure he takes in pleasing us: and he has such a great smile!

When they have all arrived and we have finished doing the washing up, they tell us that today things disn’t go smoothly inside the camp. Like on almost every Friday, there were provocations on the part of the soldiers: incursions, throwing of smoke and tear gas bombs into the mosque at prayer time…. Hashem has come with a short video shot on the sly from the terrasse of his house last week. It shows Israeli soldiers raiding the camp, while young and less young Palestinians run to get back home. We hear the noise all this makes, the shooting, the cries of surprise or outrage: excitement mingled with fear. The camera shakes in the hands holding it, the picture is unstable. What we are watchin going on is really upsetting.

When the video ends, Hashem takes the floor. Hashem is really the idaal student or son-in-law: handsome, smart, feeling comfortable in public. He has a great presence, and his English is excellent. The others boys treat him with respect. He informs us that each of them has prepared a short testimony and that tonight they would like to tell us about a moment in their life as refugees. They want to do it in English, for us. And that is how the longest evening of our stay in Al Arroub starts. Each in his turn, the seven boys start talking and tell us an anecdote or an episode of their life inside the camp. They do so with great moderation while the others keep quiet and sometimes nod in approval:“It’s true, I was there” or “Yes, I know that, it happened to me too”. Really intense moments, filled with emotion and seriousness.

Baha speaks first. He’s nighteen and explains to us that since he came to live in the camp, he has had to face many problems he had never encountered when he was living in Bethlehem. He gives an example: «

Baha
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“Three weeks ago, I was going to university. It was about 10 a.m.
When I got near Kfar Etzion settlement, a soldier made me stop and asked for my papers. I gave him my ID. He looked at it and then declared there was a problem with it: he said it was not mine. He told me that I would have to stay there the whole day, and indeed, he didn’t let me go. He forced me to stay there and disappeared with my ID. He only came back three hours later. I had had time to think about what to do and I gave him my sudent card so he could compare and see the ID was mine… He hardly looked at it. Finally he let me go. ”
 [4]

Baha then gives the floor to Wassim. Wassim is a sweet little fellow of 15. His face is still one of tender age but is contrdicted by the seriousness with which he speaks and listens. There is much frankness and such intensity in his eyes that we can’t help feeling both respect and admiration for him. He speaks really gently and takes care of his English :

Wassim 1
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“There are so many things I could tell you about, I don’t know where to begin... I’m going to tell about something that happened to friends of mine three weeks ago. My friends were standing along Road 60, the main road between Hebron and Bethlehem, when a car driven by a settler stopped next to them. My friends thought that the driver wanted to ask them about the way, so they got closer to help him. But the man took out a gun and simply fired at them. One of them was hurt in his stomack, the other one in his leg. He hasn’t been able to walk since then. Two days later, the soldiers came to his house and arrested him. He is still in prison now, even though he is injured. He has been in prison for three weeks now... I don’t think he will ever be able to walk again. His leg is in a really bad state.”

We had agreed that we wouldn’t interrupt the boys while they were speaking, but we can’t wait with our question. Has you friend got any medical treatment in prison? Yes, he has, Wassim tells us. How long is he going to stay in prison? Hashem explains the system: “Nobody knows. When someone is taken to prison, it is impossible to know when they will be released. They’ll be tried and judged according to what the Israeli court will decide they have done (whatever they actually did). There is a clear « price-list »: you get 6 months for having throwns stones, be it only a single one. Two years imprisonment for throwing a Molotov cocktail. Seven years if you only think of killing someone… Wassim’s friend hasn’t been judged yet. In fact, it is constantly postponed.” We ask Wassim how old his friend is. “He’s 16”. Laurie and Natalia are surprised: but he’s our age!... Even younger! Hashem hands out his cell phone: “I know it’s horrible, but you have to have a look, it’s a picture of his leg”. We pass the phone around in silence. “As you can see that: he was hit in his calf, which means that the guy fired at him while he was running away. The settlers fired although he had his back towards him”. Laurie, who still tries to convince us that she doesn’t understand English, asks us to translate what the two boys have just said. It’s the first time in five days that we see her not look suspiciously at our Palestinian speakers when they tell about the horrors of the Israeli occupation. The fact is the gorgeous Hashem is a better informant than all those who came before him… Natalia asks about the other teenager, the one who was shot in the stomack: did he die? No, he didn’t. Apparently, he’s even in a better condition now than his friend.

Wassim signals that he would like to add something. His voice is painfuly tense. Obviously it means a lot to him that we understand the situation well:

Wassim 2
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“The soldiers arrested my friend although he had done nothing. He just wanted to help the driver. But the settlers fired at him!... My friend hadn’t done anything wrong, but they arrested him and put him in prison!” To clear any ambiguity and so that things are said clearly and not only supposed, Anne-Claire asks: is there any chance that the Israeli settler fired because he was afraid when he saw the two young Palestinian guys come closer? Wassim answers immediately: “No!... No!... They didn’t walk up to him. He was the one who stopped his car just next to them. ”

We ask: Can these teens prove that they didn’t do anything? Why don’t they tell that it was the settler who attacked them? Hashem answers: “In the judges’ eyes, the settlers are always considered to be more honest than the Palestinians”. Wassim adds with a lot of bitterness in his voice that the Israelis only apply their rules or their logic, which is that the Palestinian have nothing to do here: they can all simply just die ! “The soldiers knew that nobody would come and support or defend my friend’s cause. That’s why they arrested him”. Hashem completes: “The settler didn’t have any problem whatsoever. One hour after the incident, he was already back home. As you know now, I live next to the entrance of the camp. All of this happened in front of my house. The police came. They demarcated the perimeter of the scene, marked the ground with chalk, around the blood. They told the settler that he would be punished. Later, the family of the two victims tried to know about the settler several times. In the end they realised that the police simply confiscated the settler’s gun, which is ridiculous because if there is one easy thing to do in Israel, it is to buy oneself a gun”. Just like in certain states of the USA, Margot says: you don’t need a permit to own a gun, which is a real aberration for us, Europeans.

Margot, Marie-Gaelle and Caroline look stunned by the stories the teens of Al-Arroub are telling us. In which value system do the soldiers and the settlers live? A system where the life of a Palestinian has so little value, where the police pretend doing their job, where the guilty settler can just go back home without any trouble after firing at two kids, where nothing nor nobody seems to be able or interested in stopping any mad man who loses it? What travesty of justice!... Laurie is biting her lips: her first conviction (“the Israelis protect and defend themselves and the Palestinain must have done something to deserve what is happening to them) is now more than challenged. Natalia is trying to imagine herself for a second in these Palestinian teens’ shoes. The sole idea of it terrifies her. Sebastian takes photos. As for Paul… Contrarily to Laurie and Natalia, he has never shown any open reluctance to what he was discovering but he always seems to be so invariably distant towards what he sees and hears: up to now, we haven’t seen him show empathy, nor heard him ask questions either…

Now it’s Mahmoud’s turn to speak.

He’s sixteen, he has splendid eyes, and the same child-like freshness as Wassim. He’s a timid and he blushes really easily. Well, it isn’t that easy to speak in a foreign language in public, especially in front of so beautiful girls :-). But he takes the plunge couragelously and starts speaking staring at his hand palms :

Mahmoud
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“One day, we went on an excursion, all the classes of the school together. We were more than one thousand. When we came back to Al-Arroub camp, we saw that there were four cars full of Israeli soldiers at the entrance. As soon as they saw us, they started to fire tear-gas bombs and grenades at us. We all started to run in all directions to try to avoid them and take cover, hide ourselves. This happened two years ago. I was 14 ans.” [5] We ask him if there were only children “Yes, and our teachers. We couldn’t see where we were going because our eyes were burning”. We look at each other: how could one believe that the soldiers were ensuring the security of the Israelis doing this? How would you call it when armed adults take it out on children coming back from a school trip?... Anne-Claire strokes Mahmoud’s hair gently and tells him that he spoke really well and that she really thinks he’s a brave young man. He smiles back at her and asks: “True? You mean it?” She says she does.

Hassan has started to speak now. He has a very fine face, almost feminine except for the 3 hairs growing on his chin and for his short hair. He looks and sounds really sweet. We hold our breath as we can barely hear his voice:

Hassan
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“My name is Hassan. I’m 19. I’m going to tell you how the soldiers arrested me and put me in prison when I was 15... They came to fetch me in my home at 3 a.m. They blindfolded me, tied my hands behind my back and took me to prison. There they started to hit me, in my eyes and they asked me if I agreed to work for them as a spy in the camp (denounce people). I answered: “Don’t even dream of it! Never!” They kept me for five days… They accused me of throwing stones…” Hashem comments: “I still remember how swollen his face was, how tumid his eyelids, and his eyes bloodshot. He was in a really bad state when he came out of prison...” [6] Hassan wearing sunglasses and chewing a wisp of straw while the soldiers were charging around him this morning ….

Abed is going to speak now. We like him a lot, especially Margot, Caroline and Marie-Gaelle. It’s his smile we saw first day when we arrived in Al-Arroub. He’s a tall guy, very lean, almost skinny. He sculps his spiky hair with hair gel and much care and as he is always wearing a yellow and orange striped sweater, we have nicknamed him Tigger, like in Winnie the Pooh. Like the other boys, he doesn’t at all try to show off or brag. He just tells his story. “My name is Abed, I am 19. I could tell you many stories, but I’ll just tell you a little one: after I was released from prison, I went back home. One month later, I wanted to go to Ramallah. But I didn’t have any ID anymore…”

Abed
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We stop him, there is too much missing information for us. Why didn’t he have any ID anymore? Abed smiles: “The soldiers in the prison had kept it. They didn’t give it me back when I was released.” Again we ask: in prison? Why? At 19? You don’t look a bad boy? But Tanguy makes a sign: let’s let him go on with his story, otherwise he’ll never manage. We swallow our questions and listen to his “little story”. “So, there is a checkpoint just before Jericho. The soldiers stopped me and asked for my ID. I told them I didn’t have one anymore. They took me out of the car and left me wait alone for three hours. Then, they said to me: « We know that we have your ID, but you will stay here all the same.” They made me stay for another five hours. After that, other soldiers came (another shift) and they told me: you can go! And they simply let me go.” [7]

Since Abed doesn’t add anything to it, we ask him again why he went to prison. Abed smiles shyly. It’s a long story and a little bit complicated. As he didn’t like schooln he had decided that he would work to earn some money. But there isn’t much work in Palestine - the country is economically ruined by the occupation, prevented from developing, opening factories and creating jobs. So he went to Israel, where he found a job in a restaurant. “After a while, my passport expired. In fact, they caught me while I was on my way back home.” But you told them that you were going back home? “Yes, but they didn’t care. Since my passport had expired, I was an “illegal” and this means going to prison”. We heave a sigh, all our reference points are upset. What about the spirit of the law rather than the law itself? It is becoming more and more obvious to us that the idea is not to maintain law and order by punishing the offenders. What’s prevailing here is the arbitrary, abuse of power, the desire to humiliate the other, crush and destroy him.

Anne-Claire would like Tareq to tell us about him now. She and Tanguy know his story, but the rest of the group don’t. [8] Nor even the Palestinians, most of whom are his former students. The fact is that in Palestine nobody speaks much about what happened to them - the words of abuse, the injuries, the humiliations they have been through. Dignity and also: since everybody has their share in it, why try to draw the attention on your case, why add more pain to pain?

Tareq clears his throat. He didn’t expect Anne-claire to ask him to tell about himself. But Anne-Claire insists, it’s important that the teens can hear his story. They look at each other for a long moment, and finally Tareq accepts. He’s also a teacher. He knows it’s important for the future adults’edification. But Anne-Claire feels that he’s really emotional. His shoulder is shaking against hers is it because he has to talk in front of his former students or because he’s about to bring back nightmares?

Tareq
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“I live in Al-Arroub camp. I’m almost 30. I was 18 when I was arrested. It was on my first day at university. They took me to prison without telling me what for. I just didn’t understand what was going on. » Tareq’s voice is really fragile. His eternal smile has vanished. He speaks without looking at anybody, as if this was the only way not to break down: “I spent the first 20 days in a sort of tiny cell, out of which they would pull me from time to time to ask me questions about what was going on in Al-Arroub camp. For example if I knew names of people throwing stones, who I know was a member of the PFLP [9]. Eventually I asked them why they had brought me there. They told me: "Because you are a member of the PFLP". [9]. This was not true. In fact I was simply a member of a student group that organised things and activities for the students at the university.”

His mouth sounds really dry. Margot hands him a glass of water. He takes a sip then goes on: “Life in prison was so miserable, so horrible, so sad…. I was locked in this cell that had no window, and I couldn’t know if it was day or night outside. The light was on all the time... There was so little space that I couldn’t stand nor stretch my arms or my legs... There must have been a camera somewhere because each time I was about to fall a sleep, they would come and bang the door to wake me up. After 20 days, they told me: « You don’t need to answer our questions anymore, we are taking you to Majedo prison [10] You’ll stay there for two or three years, we don’t know. You will be judged over there and they will decide how long you are going to stay in prison.”

“They drove me to this prison in a jeep. After five months there, they told me : "So, you hav been judged and sentenced to one year imprisonment"… I was so angry to hear that! But then, I saw all these people there… Many had spent so many years in prison, most of them more than ten … I met many guys in Majedo prison and I heard many stories. There was a man, he had been there for four years already and nobody had told him how longer he was going to stay.” [11]

“In general, the prisoners spend the time reading books they lend to each other, or talking to each other or playing football. Anything to escape from boredom, to while away the time, because it doesn’t go by... There were over 200 prisoners in my jail... Nobody can sense the real meaning of freedom unless he has known that… Before they release people, the Shabak [12] is supposed to interrogate them a last time. The soldier on duty asked me what I had done in prison. I told him that before I was imprisoned, I didn’t know anything about politics but that in prison I had had time to read and learn.”

Tareq looks up: “I’d like to say this: nobody can really understand what freedom is until it’s been taken away from him.” Tareq’s voice has shaken all along his story. He cleared his throat several times in an attempt to control his upcoming emotions. All the young Palestinians have listened to him with great attention. Now that he is telling about the value of freedom, Abed, Hashem, Hassan, Mohamed, Baha, Wassim and Mahmoud begin to applaud. We join in, awkwardly. They know what they are talking about. We feel very small in front of them.

Hashem takes the floor now. He hasn’t forgotten the little French we taught him in Mar Saba and starts in Voltaire’s language: “Je m’appelle Hashem, j’ai 16 ans”. We smile, he has such a good memory and his accent is perfect! But he goes on in English, a lot more seriously.

Hashem 1
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“I’m a Palestinian student and I live in Al-Arroub. I’m going to tell you about something I experienced and which has left its mark on me. The simple fact of speaking about it is painful to me. Last Summer, I went to America to take part in a international camp called "Seeds of Peace". When I arrived at New-York airport, a policewoman came close to me and asked me to follow her. She wanted to ask me a few questions: my name, my age, my country. I told her my country was Palestine. She tried to enter this data in her computer but she couldn’t. She said to me, "I can’t find Palestine on my computer, maybe it is not on the map?” I was really shocked. I said to her: "What do you mean?" I repeated, "Palestine, I come from Palestine, you know Palestine, don’t you ?" She said, "yes, I know Palestine, but I don’t have it on my computer." Then she said, "I know it is going to hurt you if I write that you are from Israel, so, I’ll write that you are from Jordan", and she wrote "Jordan" next to the entry"country". But one of the managers came and told her not to write Jordan. "It is Israel." It really got on my nerves. Yes, it really affected me! She noticed that and said to me: "I am sorry for you. I have a boy of your age. And I and my son love you. We know you are right"… I was really angry and sad because these people had come to my country, erased its name from the map and called it « Israel ». And they resort to all kinds of inhuman ways to get rid of us, to do their ethnic cleasing. I was shocked but at the same time, I also felt that there were people in the world who supported us. This lady gave me some hope and I told her, and I thanked her for that. But it was really hard to hear that Palestine didn’t exist on the world map.” Hashem looks seriously at each of us: “I want to tell each of you here that Palestine is in our heart. We have it drawn here, in our heart. It is really there and we shall never forget our land, and Jaffa and Haifa, you know… »

He hasn’t finished speaking : “ I have a lot of personal stories to tell you as a Palestinian. Many things happened to me. I can’t tell you all of them but I want to talk a bit about my experience in America. I went there to talk about peace, to dialog among others with Israelis of my age. I stayed there 20 days and I shared a room with my enemy, we slept in the same bed. It wasn’t easy... The first week was really hard for me. In fact, at the beginning, I didn’t integrate with the group. I didn’t want to speak with any of the participants. You have to understand me: I have never seen an Israeli without his gun and all of a sudden, I was supposed to accept to talk and even sleep with one of them?... There were Pakistanese, Egyptians, Afghans, Jordans, Americans, it was an international camp. I didn’t speak with the Israelis, except in the dialog workshops. And there we would have arguments, "it’s our country, no it’s ours!"... I’ll tell you more about the workshops but first this: after 20 days, I came back to Palestine and the first thing I saw was the checkpoints, the soldiers throwing gaz and carrying guns... I told you, the only fact of speaking about this hurts. It’s really hard: after spending 20 days in America, where you can live in peace, feeling safe, you come back here and... It was the first time I had gone out of Palestine. You come back here and you are again right in the middle of a nightmare. And this nightmare is your life: every minute, every second that goes by, you are afraid…”

Hashem 2
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Hashem speaks in a low voice and quite fast. His English is really good and Anne-Claire must translate for Laurie, repeat or explain some information. Hashem listens to us as we react in French to what we have just heard. He raises a hand: “I just want to say this to you: We Palestinians are not against peace. It is peace that is against us…” We tell him that this attachement of the Palestinians for their country, their love for it is a bit strange for us. Of couse, nobody is trying to steal Belgium from us. Well, not really. He understands but he repeats: ““Palestine is in the heart of all the Palestinians. Our heart is linked to our land, it is something really visceral. Being away from it, if only for one week, is hard for us. That’s what I felt when I was in America. I missed my land so much, my family, my friends, everything… You know, one day, during a workshop, the dialog facilitator gave us five pieces of paper. A word was written on each of them: “wealth”, “health”, “family”, “religion”, “nationality”. And then he asked us to choose which one we would renounce and in which order. I first gave up “health”, then I gave up “wealth". Then I gave back the papers with “family”, then “religion” written on them. But I didn’t give the paper "nationality", I kept it, I, the Palestinian... I was the only one in the dialog room. All the others had kept religion or family. They then asked me why I had renounced all the others and kept that one. I answered that, first, my nationality is my wealth, then that I could give my health for my nationality but not the other way round. Thirdly, I said that all the Palestinians in the world are members of my family, so if I have a nationality as a Palestinian, I have a huge family. As for my religion… I’m a Muslim, so it was hard for me to drop the paper"religion". But I think my religion is part of my nationality…”

Hashem 3
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“An Israeli guy of the group reacted to whazt I said: "Wait! Wait! What do you mean when you say you could give your health for your nationality? You would be ready to bomb yourself on a bus and kill tens of civilians?" I answered to him: "I would be killed by one of you, a soldier of your army, maybe you... In two years, you will be a soldier. When you are 18, you will join the army. Maybe you’ll come into my refugee camp and maybe one day you’ll make me lose my health for my nationality: maybe you are the one who will kill me." And I asked him: "Yuval, could you die for your nationality?" And he said yes… "You see", I answered, "things are clear ». One day he will be a member of the l’IOF" - and Hashem comments in passing: “I call their army the IOF, the Israeli Occupation Forces. They call it the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces” - then he goes on: "And I told him, you are the one who’ll maybe bomb himself and attack my camp". I told him with a smile but then I looked straight into his eyes and said: "One day, Yuval, you’ll come into my camp as a soldier but I hope that you will rememeber that at a certain time you and I have shared a room. If you don’t forget that, you’ll be welcome into my house and I will invite you for a cup of tea with me...”

Tanguy asks Hashem if he has kept in touch with this young Israeli. “I still have some contact with him and some other guys of the international camp on Facebook. But we don’t talk about politics. We have contacts but it is really, really different from the dialogs we had in America, because we have all gone back to our reality, each one his. In the international camp, they were kind of affected by the dialog facilitators and counsellors, the group challenge, the games that were organized to help us trust each other… But then, they came back to their reality, to their family who started to influence them again, make them think the Palestinians are all terrorists, “they are our enemies, you can’t make peace with them”…”

We tell Hashem what we know about the Israeli education system, that since their tender age, the Israeli kids have heard this song and also the one that says they have the right to be here, in this place. The whole group of Palestinians nods in agreement: yes, they know. It is the way things are.

Hashem 4
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Hashem takes the floor again: “During a workshop in the dialog-room, an Israeli told me: "This is our country. The proof of it is that it is written in our history that the Jews were here 6000 years ago." I answered that the Jews who were here 6000 years ago were part of Palestine. They were all Palestinians. They were Jewish Palestinians. I reminded him that before 1948, there were Jews in Syria, in Yemen, in Jordan and in the European countries and still other places. The Jews he was speaking about were Palestinians. And I also reminded him of what one of the instigators of Zionism, Ben Gourion, had said that the Israelis should expect Palestinian resistance to their manœuvres to occupy the country. Because it was our country and they had come from the outside afterwards: they were responsible for trying to build their country in another people’s country. Even the founder of Zionism had admitted it. Finally I said this to him: "The Ommeyades occupied Spain for 800 years. Does that mean that we, Muslims, have a right to go to Spain and occupy it because our ancestors were there a long time ago?”

This sounds as a word of conclusion. Everybody gets up to stretch out their legs a bit. Abed hands around the little dessert beakers he prepared for us. The smokers go out on the terrasse, the tired ones collapse on the two bed-couches. Somebody makes some new tea, others help themselves to sodas... How can these young men be so nice and sweet, so open-minded and wise, so tender and generous while they know that every night, there could be banging on their door and soldiers ready to take them to prison? We feel so much anger in front of the injustice, the inhumanity of their situation! Fear too: Natalia says that in their place, she wouldn’t even dare to go to bed anymore… This is what happens with Tareq: he hardly ever sleeps at night. Wassim comments: “Yes, at the beginning, it was painful. But you know, you learn to live with it. It is part of our life.”

Réactions
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Hashem adds: “The reason why we always try to behave as great people is that we can never know what will happen the next hour. Maybe I’ll leave tonight and get arrested. Maybe I’ll be in prison in one hour. I wouldn’t like to regret behaving in a bad way. And also, as Wassim says, it has become part of our culture. Hassan was arrested, my brother was arrested…”

Hassan says: “You know, since the soldiers came and arrested me in the middle of the night, I have never slept without my clothes on anymore: I always expect them to come and get me any time. When I hear soldiers entering the camp, I’m ready, all dressed, just in case.”

It is quite late now and our Palestinian friends have to leave. We hope they’ll get back home without any trouble. It is the first time we size up the risk they take they come to see us in the vening. Anne-Claire tells them what we all think: we are honoured by their presence, proud to know them and from the bottom of our heart we thank them for having told us about them so openly. Hashem shakes his head: “You should be proud of yourselves. I really mean it. It is not a compliment. Be proud because you crossed the Mediterranean to come and see what the situation is really like here and how the Palestinians live. There are lots of people in the world who don’t even give us a thought. We feel small in front of you because you crossed the sea to come and meet us. We really appreciate what you are doing. And thus, from the bottom of my heart I can say to you: je t’adore!” Hashem has said these last words in French, with a wonderful accent and a wonderful smile... Everybody laughs, but tears are not far.

See the photos of our trip to Mar Saba

Read on about our trip


[1The falashas are Jews of Ethiopian origin.

[2When we come back from our excursion, we’ll learn that on that day, the soldiers have once again frightened the people in prayer away by throwing tear-gas grenades into the Mosque yard. We got confirmation of this from several witnesses.

[3See more photos of Mar Saba.

[4On this subject, read the testimonies given by former soldiers and collected by the Israeli organisation Breaking the silence. Men and women testify of the arbitray confiscations of documents and of Palestinians made to wait without reasons.

[5At the beginning of 2011, Mahmoud shot a short documentary on Al-Arroub camp.

[6On this subject, read the testimonies given by former soldiers and collected by the Israeli organisation Breaking the silence. Men and women testify of the blows that are systematically given to the Palestinians, without any reason other than it being the militaries’ way of doing things.

[7On this subject, read the testimonies given by former soldiers and collected by the Israeli organisation Breaking the silence. The soldiers work in eight-hour shifts and spend eight at the checkpoint, followed by eight hours guard duty, then eight hours rest. The teams succeed each others and it is not uncommon that the Palestinians contained are left to the next team’s good will.

[8Read the account of Taayoush 2009 trip.

[9PFLP : Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, militant Palestinian organisation.

[10Majedo prison (or Megiddo, name of an important archaeological site) is situated in Galilea (in the North of Israel), 30 km to the South-East of Haifa.

[11About the prison system in Israel/Palestine, see for example the information from the Comité Action Palestine or from the Israeli association B’Tselem.

[12The Shabak, or Shin Bet, is the national security service in Israel.