رابطة توأمة نابلس دندي
Experiences of Nablus
Mary McGregor and Nick Steff visited Nablus in October 2015 with other members of DNTA. They told a DNTA meeting about their experiences and feelings.
Mary: Thank you for giving us this opportunity to share our Nablus trip with you. We are conscious that we are speaking to a group, many of whom have had a greater experience of Nablus and Palestine than we have. I have been a supporter of the Palestinian cause since I joined The Friends of Palestine Society in 1975. I have also shown my active political support throughout my adult life but this was my first visit.
Nick: I have visited Palestine 3 times. Firstly in 1983 when doing some travelling, then in 2012 on an Olive Tree Planting project, but this was my first trip to Nablus, too. So we hope that for those of you who have been, this will trigger very happy memories and for those of you who haven't visited, we will give you an incentive to go.
Mary: The trip started for us in Jerusalem. And although we won't spend much time on this, we want to mention a couple of things. First of all when we arrived, the tension was palpable. You will remember that last October when we were there, there was talk of a 3rd intifada. Israeli soldiers were everywhere, all over the old city. On our first morning there, when we were eating breakfast, we were told that a Palestinian woman had been shot by a settler round the corner from where we were sitting. We later found out that the settler had tried to pull the woman's hijab off. When she resisted by hitting him with her handbag, he shot her. She was subsequently charged with assault! This certainly made me a bit nervous as we started off on our sight-seeing day in Jerusalem.
Nick: During our day, we managed to get access to Haram Al Sharif (the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). As we approached, the door of the Al Aqsa mosque, we heard women chanting slogans. We went up to speak to them and it turned out that one of them was Nour, who had studied at the Al Maktoum institute, in Dundee for 3 years.
Nick: For the rest of the day, she gave us a tour of her city, including the Mount of Olives, Silwan and other areas of Jerusalem we would not have got to. She ended up taking us for tea. This hospitality was overwhelming and just showed the Dundee connections very clearly.
Mary: Our trip to the West Bank was the first time that I became aware of the extent of the occupation and the reality of the illegal settlements. Settlements is really the wrong term. The Israeli settlers are building cities and towns and encroaching negatively on every aspect of Palestinian life; whether it be harassment at checkpoints to interfering with the olive harvest. We'll return to this later.
We travelled by public transport through the West Bank via Ramallah to Nablus. The contrast between Jerusalem and Nablus was very obvious. It felt much calmer and we felt that we were with friends. We had only been in Nablus 5 minutes and were walking to the hotel when someone recognised Mike.
Mary: Despite the sound of gunfire at night time and the call to prayer in the morning, we felt safe and relaxed in Nablus.
The photograph of the bullet hole in the hotel is iconic now. Used to symbolise a sophisticated, educated, population who continue despite occupation and continuing violence.
We were in no sense an official delegation from DNTA but we wanted to take greetings from DNTA and the citizens of our city. What amazing comradeship and hospitality we experienced in the process.
In Nablus we met up with Rami who acted as our main host for our trip.
Tour of the historic old city
Mary: Everywhere there were symbols of the occupation and resistance. The price for some families was very high indeed.
Mary: People resist by living their lives as best they can, given the terrible trials of the occupation.
Mary: People exist through artistic expression.
We found this to be true at Naseer Arafat's soap factory, which has been transformed into a cultural centre.
Mary: Traumatised children painting on doors to exorcise their demons.
Nick: Too much blood seen by people too young to comprehend why they and their families are vilified and murdered by the Zionist state of Israel. At his centre, young children learn to play the piano taught for free by volunteers. His family's soap factory converted into a place of creativity and hope. Many of you will have met Naseer when he visited Dundee just after our return in October last year.
Mary: Naseer arranged for us to meet with the Mayor of Nablus. We explained we were not a formal deputation but he was very clear that he wanted the twinning to be strengthened particularly via the school twinning, so he extended an open invitation to Dundee's Lord Provost.
A city under occupation is one where balancing the ways to resist is no easy task. There are many who are angry with the Palestinian Authority. Frustration leads to people joining a variety of political organisations including Hamas.
Nick: Solidarity is shown through the international volunteers at Project Hope where we met up with Greta who has been sponsored by DNTA. She has been teaching young people in Nablus.
Mary: Nablus town is so lovely and warm and welcoming, it is easy to forget that many people live on the fringes in large refugee camps where work is scarce, poverty rife and resistance takes a different form.
At one point, we were caught up in a flare up at the Hawara Checkpoint just outside Nablus city. The car we were travelling in, along with others going through the check point, was used by Palestinian youths to hide behind as they threw stones at the Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and later live ammunition. Over the days we were in Nablus, large numbers of youths were taken to hospital with injuries. A dangerous game of cat and mouse played out. A seemingly futile way to resist yet if you are a Palestinian youth disenfranchised economically, politically, socially - what else do you do to say "I am here and I will exist. I will not bend to your will". I found their courage inspirational and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Nick: Growing olives is another form of resistance. I am sure you know the importance of olive growing and not just as an economic commodity but as a way of resisting encroaching settlements. We went to Yanoun, a very small village several miles from Nablus, that is surrounded by ever-encroaching Israeli settlements. The villagers there are frequently harassed by settlers. We went to look at some building work that had been funded by FONSA and also to meet with the Ecumenical Accompaniers who are based in Yanoun, whose presence tries to minimise the behaviour of the Israeli settlers.
Again the Dundee connections were there. One of the EA's was a young woman from Sweden who had visited community projects in the Hilltown area of Dundee. Another EA had studies at St Andrew's University.
Nick: Later that day, after we had left there, was an incident where the settlers had come into the village.....
But just the determination to keep going, supported by the EAs, is a direct way to resist the occupation which requires a whole load of bravery.
Nick: We were then picked up from Yanoun by Rafiq: A young man who some of you may have met when he stayed in Dundee for several months with Rami. His family live in a small town several miles from Yanoun, where he is a teacher.
Schools in Nablus
Mary: We visited a girls' school in Nablus and were blown away by what we encountered.
Mary: The young women and girls gave us an extremely proficient presentation in English on the history of Nablus. The girls answered questions with a maturity and political awareness seldom found in pupils of the same age in Scottish schools.
We then visited the classrooms and had a tour of the school. What a place. You could feel the mutual respect and indeed love between all who were working there. The girls told us they were the "Freedom Fighters of tomorrow". At that we held our breath as they began to elaborate, "We will be the human rights lawyer, the teachers, and the doctors." They were determined to fight for their land and their people but in a different way. Again many ways to resist.
Mary: They were truly amazing as were the staff. We could see how frustrated they were that the twinning link with schools in Dundee had not gone further.
Nick: This was echoed when we went to the boys' school. They were happy to see visitors but I think they would have preferred to be talking to people their own age exchanging experiences.
Nick: However at the end we promised to take back their concern that the schools twinning has not gone further and we know Mike has been pursuing this.
Mary: Another friend of Dundee that some of you may know is Hadi. We spent a fabulous evening with him and his family discussing politics of course but also philosophy, literature and culture. We were entertained by his children singing traditional Palestinian songs longing for return which were deeply moving and touched our hearts.
We returned to Jerusalem via Bethlehem and got caught up in the periphery of more tear gas and stone throwing. A week earlier a young boy had been killed at the Aida refugee camp where the Lajee dancers who have visited Dundee twice come from.
We worked our way back to the airport for an early morning flight home amongst rising tensions in the city.
Trip over - how did we feel?
Put it this way I would go back in a heartbeat to do something useful. I loved Nablus. I particularly loved the old town and the smells of lemons and spices and flowers. Most of all I loved the people. I never felt unsafe when we were with our hosts. Our welfare was their utmost concern. Their bravery and tenacity was incredible. Anyone who hasn't been should go. They want us there but most of all they want the link with Dundee to be real, not just visitors but friends in their situation.
There are many ways to resist and the twinning is one of them.
This is based on a talk given by Mary and Nick to DNTA members in June 2016. The opinions expressed are personal and may not reflect those of DNTA.
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