Sunday, April 17, 2011

PalFest 2011: Day 2 | John McCarthy

The day started brilliantly with breakfast on the terrace and most of us are feeling restored after a good sleep. “We are Family” is playing over the restaurant loudspeakers. The track seems to speak to the rapidly growing bonds of friendship within in our group. But then again the song’s refrain is ironic, to say the least, in terms of the ‘relative values’ displayed by Israeli officialdom.

Heading north from Jerusalem, we re-entered the West Bank and followed winding roads through steep valleys, past olive groves, Arab villages and Israeli settlements. The Israeli settlements are mainly very neat, uniform developments, approached by neat spur roads. In the stark, wild beauty of this landscape such trim suburbs look very out of place behind their perimeter fences. The Arab villages were more organic, rougher around the edges.

And there are checkpoints of course. The one just outside the town of Nablus has been left open for some years now, but nevertheless an Israeli flag still flies above it, just to remind everyone that Israeli might is never far away.

Nablus was buzzing. Immediately you had the sense of a thriving community – an economic and social centre for the area. Wandering the narrow alleyways of the souk with Ursula and Gary, I felt the surge of warmth and excitement I’ve come to associate with being in an Arab town. Although I’ve but a pittance of Arabic, somehow I get the vibe and feel at home. But then why wouldn’t you feel at home in a place where every few metres someone greets you with “Welcome!” It seems amazing that the welcome for strangers – even the smiles and banter for each other – remains such a constant part of Palestinian society. The souk has everything on sale, small stalls selling spices, clothes, hardware. I’ve got to say though that a bucketful of sheep heads beside a butcher’s shop has me hurrying on. 

After lunch in a little cafe we rejoined the group and headed north again. The horizon opened out; the landscape more gently rolling than it was near Jerusalem. There seemed to be fewer settlements.
North of Jenin the country opened out even more, acres of farmland surrounding small towns with distant low hills off to the west. It gives you a feeling of how the land would have been right across old Palestine. Then we hit a traffic jam. Not an accident or road works but a checkpoint, a big one, the border. Beyond this we will go “into the ‘48”; that is, into Israel.

The oppression of Israel’s obsession with ‘security’ hits home at places like this. It is a crude industry of humiliation. The security people walk about very slowly chatting noisily to each other as they rudely wave some drivers on, others to stop. They barely look people in the face as they demand to see ID papers. It’s the rudeness, the ritual quality of the degradation that is so obvious and so distressing.

Suddenly we were in the thick of this nonsense again. A plain clothes policeman took exception to one of us taking pictures. We all had to get off the coach to have our passports and bags checked. The racism was rampant. Anyone with a brown skin did not get their passport back – even though they were citizens of America, Britain or Canada.

Most of us were then told to get back on the bus and wait. Around our bubble of detention, cars stood half emptied as sniffer dogs and border guards rifled through them. Their human cargo went through the hall for ID checks and questioning. Some are taken into a small room, for more detailed questioning, perhaps a full body search. Talk on the bus turned again to wondering how the Palestinian people keep so level headed, apparently letting it wash over them.

After more than an hour we went on. Most of us anyway Ahdaf, Omar, Murat and Mohammad were kept there for a couple more hours to answer pointless questions. (Omar and Murat suffered the indignity of a body search.) 

Eventually we gathered together again at the Arab Cultural Association in Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel. After supper there we enjoyed an evening with a panel – and much discussion from the floor – on the theme of how the experience of Palestinians can best be expressed to the world through literature.

At the start of the event, the chair of the Arab Writers’ Union, who bore a surprising resemblance to a youthful Danny Kaye, said a few words. He spoke of the importance of literature in the development of the Palestinian liberation narrative. And, touching Ahdaf’s note from yesterday’s blog, he spoke of the importance of building connections: between Palestinian communities in Israel, the Palestinian territories and beyond, and with the wider world.

Sitting in the packed room, looking around at audience and the Palfest group, I was touched by the sense of connection between us all. I don’t know how to say “we are family” in Arabic, but I know I felt it tonight.

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