Many Palestinians that I met during my travels in the West Bank told me that to know what Palestine really was about and meant, I had to go to Nablus. Most of them also told me that Nablus was their favourite city.
After spending 5 weeks there this summer, I understand why.
Arriving from Ramallah (on the fastest taxi/service ride I have ever experienced) the first thing you see on arriving in Nablus is its most famous checkpoint: Huwara.
Huwara, its people and its colour. Yellow.
Yellow like the hundreds of taxis and services parked on both sides of the checkpoint. You need them to leave the city and to get inside the city. Since the start of the second intifada, entry to Nablus by car or truck has mostly been forbidden. You cross the checkpoint on foot, on your way in and out.
Once in a service (cheaper taxis that take people from one set stop to another, most of them old Mercedes) it takes only 5 minutes to reach Nablus’ vibrant city centre.
And then, something else hits you and you start to realise that Nablus is like no other place in the West Bank.
The city centre is bustling with life. Cars come out of nowhere, people chat in the middle of the road, falafel shops at every street corner, a man sells coffee to stationary drivers, fruit sellers, people waving at you to stop for a chat, sounds of “welcome, how are you” coming from all directions. Nablus is non-stop. You hear, smell, taste and see here. All at once.
This is the best example I’ve seen so far of controlled chaos.
People seem to live here. Everyone I meet is smiling, laughing, inviting me to their home for tea, asking me about my country. Everyone seems so happy to see me here. Everyone.
After a few days in the city, I realise that this is only the outside. Inside everything is a lot darker. Nablus reminds me of a clown. Smiling to hide its suffering.
Everyone is happy to see a foreigner, an international, because not many come to Nablus. Walking around the city you quickly realise that there is no tourism here. Only a few NGOs operate here bringing internationals (a nationality in itself in Nablus. Anyone coming from Europe, the U.S.A, Scandinavia . . . is called an international) into Nablus. In the U.K., the Foreign and Commonwealth Office strongly advise AGAINST travel to Nablus. But why? This is a stunning city full of amazing people. I struggle to understand.
People want to know my story and I want to know theirs. They want to understand why the world has forgotten them and I want to understand what has happened to them. They want to “take off their veil”, allow me in. I cannot refuse and decide to film them. For them to talk and the world to listen. To give them a platform to express themselves.
After a few interviews, it rapidly becomes obvious to me that everyone has a story here.
Bashir tells me that he had to stop his studies for a while because he could not afford it. He had to work in Ramallah for long hours, making only 20 shekels a day. Both his parents are unemployed. Like nearly 70% of the population in Nablus. A huge increase compared to the 1997 rate (14.2%). Nablus’s citizens have lost 60% of their income since the start of the second intifada. Most people here are young (50% of the population is under 20) and highly educated. Nonetheless most of the youth here are either unemployed or work in shops selling anything they can (some shops sell groceries but also clothes, house utilities. . .). Shops can be open for up to ten hours a day without a single customer. Nablusis simply don’t have money to spend.
Hakim tells me that every time he hears the Israeli army during the night, he wakes up, gets dressed and sits quietly on his sofa waiting for them. Not because he’s guilty of anything. Except maybe of being Palestinian. No one is safe in Nablus during the night. The situation is extraordinary. Nablus was one of the first cities to welcome a Palestinian police force a few months ago (around November 2007), but this police force only acts from 6 am till midnight. From midnight onwards the Israeli army takes over. Every night the Israeli army enters the city and its refugee camps (Balata, Askar, El Ayn) and, with the help of loudspeakers, sound bombs and weapons, arrest Palestinians, quite often ransacking their houses, beating them and their families, and sometimes killing them. The Israeli army has “carte blanche” here. Even during the day. A police officer told me that the Israelis sometimes call them during the day to tell them that they’ll be down (the army base overlooks the city, on top of a mountain) in a few minutes. They clear the place on the spot to let the army do “its job”. It is as simple as that.
Hassan tells me that one day he was arrested while going through Huwara checkpoint. He spent 11 months in jail. To this day no one has told him why. The only thing he knows is that it was administrative detention. In every story you hear, jail comes up. For a male citizen of Nablus, jail is pretty much compulsory. Nearly half of Nablus’s male residents have gone past the Jail square. However this is no board game — some of them are incarcerated for months at a time without knowing why they were arrested in the first place or when they’ll be released.
Maroof tells me that during the first and second invasions of Nablus, while he was working as a volunteer with the fire brigade and the Red Crescent, he was nearly killed twice by the Israeli army. They knew he was working as a paramedic. Maroof witnessed many times blatant human rights violations by the army. The ambulances were not allowed to do their job properly and to rescue people. A lot of people died as a result of not being taken to hospital in time. Maroof and his team were once forbidden to leave the old city. They had to stay there for 12 days without edible food.
And then there is Saed who lost his mother in 2002 when she was assassinated by an Israeli sniper. There is Eslam who twice saw the Israeli army occupying his house and could not go out for days at a time. There is Ala from An Najah University (the biggest university in the West Bank) who cannot sleep at night because of nightmares due to multiples Israeli army interventions and beatings in the campus during the night. There is Amad who went to jail with his whole family for 3 months in 2005.
And then there is this Palestinian girl, 17 years old, from Balata refugee camp, who tells me, on my last day in Nablus, while sharing a meal people from the camp had prepared for us:
“Tell me. What was the image you had of us before coming here? Did you think we were all killers? Did you think we were all crazy? Because I’ve got friends in Europe who told me that over there people think we are all crazy and terrorists. You know it hurts me so much when I hear things like this. We’re not crazy. We’re good people here. I mean not everyone’s good. Like everywhere else. But most of us are good. Nice people. Do you see many terrorists in this room? Do we all seem crazy to you? We’re just normal people and we want to live a normal life. But life for us is hard here. Can you tell the truth to your people when you go back to Europe? Can you tell them who we really are, please?”
I am so touched I cannot answer. Could you?
Most of the testimonies I filmed are now available online at <lifeunderoccupation.wordpress.com/>. Do not hesitate to show them around and use them.
Frank Barat is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. You can reach him through his blog.