I finally entered the world of Palestinian women. And it happened as I ventured into Hebron- which in Arabic is known as Khalil. As these emails are being read by more and more people I feel I need to reiterate that I am no specialist in anything! I write about my encounters here in the Middle East. What I see as a non Arabic non Jewish South American which is quite randomly happening.
As you might remember when I took the van to Nablus I sat next to an older man who had studied at the LSE in the 80s.doing After our encounter he called me a few times to know if I was doing fine, and so it was decided I would come to Hebron to visit the city and he would show me around. Zuhair is from a very important Palestinian family and turned out that he told me about all the intricacies of Palestinian politics as he himself had been invited several times to be the mayor of Hebron, the minister of Education, a representative of the Palestinian authority and most surprising of all had been one of the leaders of the Muslim brotherhood in Palestine when still living in the UK. As a prominent Palestinian phd student who was very politicised in the 80 Zuhair decided the political think to do was not to be involved in politics. Holding a phd in international politics and thousand of books about the middle east in his house he was not short of opinion and stories. The most important one is probably that he thinks Muslims and Christians and Jews should live all together as they for thousands of years, and that no world power actually wants peace. ” it is a maxim divide and rule”
Because of Zuhair I had the chance to go to places in Hebron the ordinary traveller does not. I also had the chance to meet a traditional Muslim family. I was taken in and taken care with so much care that I could not possibly describe. I immediately met his wife Rima, and his sister the sweet Israa. The first floor of the building was his office, the second his house, the third his mother’s and from the fourth he could show me all of Hebron. As I came in they offered me tea, and juice and food. Only later did I get to understand how serious was for Zuhair an important man to take in as a guest a young woman he barely knew. His family took me in with open heart.
After the first meal, Zuhair, and his sister Israa who is 22 and is about to get married in June to a Jordanian she met 3 times came to take me to the city. I was first taken to the centre of Hebron rehabilitation and I was introduced to the director. The centre is concerned with renovating the old centre, and giving benefits to Palestinians to move back in, or to stay where they are if they are already there. For those of you who do not know Hebron is one of the most tense and chaotic places around here. There are settlements inside of the city. Jewish orthodox ( although Zuhair says they are actually not religious bc real jews could not behave the way those people do).. abuse Palestinians daily. They throw so many things through the windows that as you walk through the centre there are iron nets covering the street. The Israeli army is present to protect the Jewish settlers and knowing that the settlers use the army as a buffer to do whatever they want. It was because of such daily abuses that the organisation breaking the silence was born. Breaking the silence is a very controversial organisation where ex IDF soldiers write about what they saw that was abuse. It is important to say that all Israelis I met here are entirely against the existence of these settlements in Hebron, and they also think these settlers are crazy and their actions despicable.
As a result of the continuous occupation of the centre, and the violence inflicted daily, the centre is entirely empty. As I walked through the city I could see one shop after the other closed. Above me i saw the buildings where Jewish settlers lived, and the nets where laid glasses and bottles, and all kinds of things that people throw down. I saw the streets that are closed and no Palestinian has access to. I saw the buildings marked of bullets, I felt the tense atmosphere. I saw how many more km they have to drive because they cannot cross a street. I was taken to the Mosque of Abraham which is divided in two. One side for the Jews the other for the Muslims. There lays supposedly Abraham, Sara, Isaac, and some other important religious figure that I do not remember the name of.
To get inside the mosque we had to go through a few check points. There stood young soldiers carrying riffles. I asked if I could take pictures of them. They agreed as long as I would be in the picture too. I did. It was a surreal situation. I was asked where I was from, my religion, and then wished I good trip. I went in in a Hijab as sign of respect. I watched the tomb while I could see through the window on the other side and orthodox Jew taking a picture of the same tomb. Israa told me she would pray. The mosque was almost empty and Zuhair explained to me it was bc it was so hard to come in nowadays.
We then walked back home through the different centres. Zuhair emphasised how commercial centres changed place all the time as a result of the occupation. “It is actually much better for us real occupation than this fake state. we have no power. since the supposed separation there are more settlements being built than ever”. he explained. Back in his house his daughter Mais who is the finance director of the rehabilitation centre was waiting for me. His other daughter came bringing her children. At some point I lost count of how many children where there. Badria, his mom, could not speak to me, but hug me, and said to me she wanted me to go to paradise. which meant I should convert to Islam. She wanted to take me in as her daughter. They treated me with an indescribable affection. I taught little Layan, 8, to count in french, and she practiced her english with me. She got so attached to me that she woke up the following day telling her mom she had dreamed of me and wanted to play with me again. I liked her so much that I stayed an extra day just to be able to play with her.
I could not have full conversations with the women but I fell in love with them. I watched the continuous taking out and putting on of veils as different guests came into the house. When I put a veil on to joke they all thought I looked so beautiful in it. It made me realise at least some of them really liked the veil. I asked Israa how she felt about marrying. Mixed feelings she said. Once I understood she was moving to Amman to marry a man she barely knew my heart tightened. Israa is the sweetest and I wish her anything but happiness. She invited me for the wedding. As we walked in the streets she bought me a little bracelet. I who never really wear anything have it now around my wrist as a memory of the love I received from my new friends. When Rima, Zuhair’s wife, realised I loved Zaatar she prepared me a special Zaatar bread. I ate all they fed me. I told them of my travels they laughed they loved hearing about it even if all that i did was not practice in their culture. I was invited for ice cream, I sat in a living room full of joyful children, women and men. They laughed, joked, played with children. Are we really that different? I could not help but think that we are not. These family was so religious. They followed all prayers yet they respected I was not.
When it was time to go my eyes filled with tears. I feel so thankful. How can it be all these people are so kind to me? They thanked me for bringing them smiles, laughter and joy. Before it was time to go Zuhair gave me a bag full of the “best Zaatar in the world”. ” Whenever it is done, you let me know, i ll send more to you.” He took me back to the bus station put me in the van and once gain gave the specific instructions to the driver. Next to me sat a Palestinian boy who went to university in NYU. We talked the whole time. Again he lived with Jews and Christians in New York. He was starting an organisation against racism. ” You see. These occupation harms us both”.
As Zuhair drove me the day before through the refugee camp, around the settlements, showed me road blocks, I felt exactly the same. These settlers cannot be happy living isolated. My friends in Israel cannot live well living in fear, my friends here cannot live well living under an occupation. I feel they are missing out so much. I who stand in the middle having the chance to meet the best side of both cannot stop thinking of Dubois’s words ”
“And herein lies the tragedy of the age:not that men are poor,.. all men know something of poverty;not that men are wicked,.. who is good? Not that men are ignorant,..what is the truth? Nay, but that men know so little of man. W.E.B du Bois (The souls of Black Folk)”