My destination was uncommon for a young girl who wanted to “change the world” with her own contribution in a so complex a place as the Holy land… People were worried about me, and some of them even tried to dissuade me from living in Ramallah, but I was so happy and excited about my decision that I acted on my choice and made it happen: Palestine was the only place I wished to experience on my own, to know firsthand all the things I could see, touch, and smell. I did not want to trust media reports, tales and stereotypes anymore; I wanted to live Palestine in person.
“10th January – It is my first day at the Office since getting hired last month! I am now with my new colleagues and the friends I made in December! I am so glad they are so kind to me and even prepared a welcome lunch all together for me, they are going to be my family here”: It was just the beginning of a new life for me, and I was looking at those streets, fascinated by the scenery, the mountains, and the smiles of the people, their willingness to help and to teach me Arabic, their eyes full of hope and eager to learn from their new European friend. The area where I was living was mixed, a neighborhood where Muslims and Christians lived peacefully in a very balanced way, offering complete tolerance to each other with Mosques and Churches where they were praying and spending time with friends. My flat mates came from Nablus, Jericho, and Jerusalem, all of them kind and educated girls who were studying hard at the University and coping with their exams, but their favorite time was when I came back from the Office and they could hear about my trips around the world, to share our food and to teach me about their culture: we were spending hours together wearing traditional Palestinian dresses, reading passages from the Koran and discussing the meaning of it, listening to music and (of course) dancing together.
Life was moving along normally, as in any other country in the world, but intermittently there was trouble …
“27th February – Today I had an exhausting day at the Qalandiya Checkpoint, I do not know if my exhaustion was more physical or emotional. I can only say that I had to pass through multiple iron revolving barriers, get questioned where I was going, and why, and until when, plus standing in my queue. Yes, my queue, because on the other side of the street, Palestinian citizens stood in a separate queue with completely different methods of checking and questioning. I felt horrible about the privileges I had as a European. I made it to Jerusalem a bit late and then straight to the meeting, but in time to register, and all went perfectly. But my head was still in those revolving bars”: It reminded me of the day when I tasted the same bitter sadness during my visit to Hebron with Walah.
Do you understand how it feels to not be the owner of your own life and to live constantly under surveillance? I began asking questions about freedom of movement and basic human rights as I never had before those days. It was hard for me to deal with the hope of building bridges between people while, somehow, the walls were higher than I could imagine and still stood. The meeting was fruitful, but intense, and political matters merged in a tense situation between the two sides in the Holy land, and I observed the trends of the discussions with interest and participation. Those connections changed me, and made me understand that we cannot change whatever we wish, and my dream of building a bridge between the two sides seemed farther away than I had hoped.
It took some time to process the facts and stories of those days, above all when, upon my return to Europe for two weeks, I realized I was different.
“March – I landed yesterday. I had to get back for some meetings in Europe. I miss my life in Birzeit, the Arabic courses, the falafel kiosk and the juice shop next to Al-Manara Square, my colleagues’ smiles and my ‘Shabab’. I talk with Marwa from time to time using Skype, but I cannot wait to come back and follow my projects!”: Palestine is a land of marvelous people, I was and still today am fascinated with their happiness in small things, for the constant wish for modernization and improvement, and of course the food! I cannot even describe the taste of a delicious maqlouba, the zatar with pita bread and that tasty hummus garnished with paprika, olive oil and pine nuts. But those are only the basics of Palestinian cuisine, and just thinking about old Palestinian women cooking for me (like William’s mom or Sarah’s mom) takes me back there in a rush.
“29th April – I got back from Balata Camp, next to Nablus. The refugees’ conditions are unbearable there, but a lot of babies are getting treatment from local NGOs and are receiving humanitarian support”: Jalazon Camp next to Jifna was already a sad sight for me when William took me there in his car with Palestinian friends, but this shocked me, and somehow seeing so many babies receiving treatment with such basic tools made me sad. The NGOs there are hardworking, and they are investing a lot of time and effort to help the families to survive. I immediately remember my visit to Jericho with Mohammad where we saw one of our friends and his babies’ happiness when, once he came home, they were playing with their father… but not all families are so lucky.
“May – Sarah and I are chatting in the living room, in the new apartment. Today at work there was a huge stack of papers for me, and my Arabic classes in the center made me tired. I still have two full months here, and today I could face a hostile situation in the streets between students and occupation soldiers, and I ask myself: why so?”: I could never stand those moments when in few minutes a clash could give birth to a conflict in which young people were defending themselves with stones. My colleagues asked me to wait at the Office until it was over, but I had to go home quickly for my Arabic course. I did not have a good experience outside the building that day.
“27th June – I am studying, working, and eating at the same time. The last two weeks were extremely stressful, and I got invited by my neighbor Nidaa to stay with her and her babies. Fidaa (her sister) has been abroad for a long time, and she speaks my language perfectly. She has a passion and a great talent for cooking, and I am so happy to learn because I really want to see how to make tasty Palestinian dishes. Tonight I also have to wrap up a project for tomorrow, and my trip to Damascus is almost knocking on the door”: I remember the hands of Fidaa preparing food, like an artist, really. And, as is the case with her, you can see some Palestinian women making magic while preparing food with specific techniques. That night I was restless and anxious about my coming tasks, and when the Mosque called at 5 am I still could not sleep. I was seeing conflicts intensifying, and I also contracted a flu that upset my nerves. I was sick in bed and wishing to sleep but not sleeping, and medicines were slow to make me feel better, so it took me down a bit.
“End of July – The thought that I am going to leave this land in a few days and be away for a period of time hurts me (…) but I know I will be back soon to see my friends and continue my work here. Palestine and Palestinians have changed my life and have taught me a lot of lessons for life”.
The pages from those months number in the hundreds, I swear. Day by day I was meeting new people, talking with the authorities and getting involved in my projects and partnerships; I enjoyed the esteem and affection of my flat mates, who are still in touch with me today, and all of my colleagues. I miss all of them, one by one.
Walls are growing higher instead of getting taken down, cold new walls are going up and bearing more grudges in Jerusalem, and we (who volunteered and volunteer still today) can feel the empty spaces between the lines and underlying all there is a gloomy question: “Why can people not live in freedom and peace?”
I still cannot answer that question myself.