Documenting the harsh, beautiful reality of modern Palestinian life. Words and Photos by Derek Smallwood
A 30 foot tall separation wall makes both sides feel like a prison
It’s noon and like clockwork the adhan from the mosque’s minaret across the street begins. I hear the mosque closest to me first, then an ever-increasing round of beautifully sung shahada verses echo across the city, each starting slightly after another until the whole city can hear the call to prayer. I am on a roof, staring at my Arabic notes hoping that the foreign letters will imprint themselves in my mind. I mute the music on my computer, a habit and sign of respect that I quickly learned. The power of the adhan always reminds me how far away from home I am. It reminds me of how different this place is and why I came here.
I often feel like I have some sort of secular original sin granted by my fortunate first world birth. I want to feel out of place, out of my element. It’s good for you, right? The Israel/Palestine conflict has long been an interest of mine. It embodies all of the things I love to study, read and write about. If (hopefully not when, inshallah) Western culture and its three major religions decide to call it quits and take the rest of the world out with them, I’m sure the land of biblical antiquity will be the epicenter. Along with Venice, Machu Picchu and Glacier National Park, it’s a place I’ve always wanted to see before its gone.
I volunteered to teach English in Hebron, Palestine, one of the most conservative and volatile cities in the West Bank. Yes, there are roadblocks, checkpoints, soldiers with machine guns, nationalist graffiti, separation walls, and identity cards, just like what you see on the news. What has really got me thinking since I’ve been here is what life under an occupation does to a person. That is, how does the occupation affect my current coworkers, friends, students and neighbors.
The city has been occupied since 1968 and much of the surrounding area since 1948. It has permeated life here; it has become part of the psyche. The current generation of Palestinians have lived their whole life under the watchful eye of a dominant state with a finger on the trigger and total control over their access to land, water and ability to travel. When I ask my students what topics they want to focus on, the second most common answer is “vocabulary to describe the occupation,” right after “conversational English”. Even defining the word “occupation” to my students, who immediately asked what the actual definition is, made me think, how are they such friendly, happy people?
“It means taking over something that doesn’t belong to you.”
“It could also mean a job.” Shit, I thought to myself, that sounds horrible.
“It’s a bad word, sah?”
A woman paints a Palestinian flag on a child
I have visited several “refugee camps” all of which are a complete misnomer; the term implies a temporary relocation until refugee status is resolved. In Palestine they have become sprawling, permanent cities without infrastructure. That makes the inhabitants within them a homeless people within a stateless country. In these camps and around the city, I see a message on the large aquifers: the drinking water is a “gift from the American people.” It must boggle the Palestinian mind that the country that bestows your occupiers with the guns, aid and ideological support is also supplying the water.
Separation wall graffiti in Bethlehem
Separation wall graffiti, “Lady Liberty” cries over a dead child
None of the textbooks, UN declarations, general journalistic propaganda or even first person accounts I’ve read on Palestine has really been able to convey the heavy fog of the occupation. They do not show how it affects a person on a deeply implicit level. They also do not show the resiliency that explodes out of the people I meet.
Significantly more people are conversationally bilingual in Palestine then any of the other countries I’ve lived in and visited. Many of them are fluent, and it is not uncommon to meet someone who is trilingual.
“We like Americans,” I have been told, “We know the actions of your government may not represent you.”
The intelligence of this apologetic under-standing is astounding and always stated without provocation. It was the third sentence my taxi driver spoke on the way to school the other day, and the first thing the President of Hebron University said as he shook my hand.
Children in Aida Refugee Camp. Their parents have been in this camp since 1948 and they have never lived anywhere else.
Education is considered paramount and my school has a long waiting list of potential English students (women are the most enthusiastic of learners). Local activists excel at bringing the numerous progressive community groups and international NGO’s together in a tightly woven network. Everyone, from stay at home moms to old hajj’s to teenagers, seems to be involved in one of these community groups or working for societal development in some way. In so many small ways, I see daily resistance to the occupation. It’s not as obvious as the rockets Hamas fires into Israel from Gaza, but in many ways it can be much more effective.
Nowhere in Hebron are the effects of the occupation more apparent than in the Old City. It is under the full control of Israel and home to 1,500 IDF soldiers stationed to protect 400 settlers. The labyrinthine streets are covered by tarps so the settlers who live above the markets can’t throw trash or rocks down on the Palestinians below. Some families still live here, their rent subsidized by the Palestinian government as an incentive to live in such close proximity to the highly aggressive occupiers. The area is mostly inhabited by old men who sit in their one room shops reading the Koran, hoping for the odd tourist to come by or the local looking for a cheap deal. Their sons run through the streets, teenagers with a cigarette in one hand and a keffiyeh wrapped around their necks, the ubiquitous symbol of Palestinian nationalism made famous by Yasir Arafat, whose picture still hangs in every living room. When an Israeli patrol walks by, the boys stop and stare. I think, how will they be resisting the occupation in ten years, with a B.A. in community development or an A.K. 47? For now they are content shaking my hand and leading me into their father’s shop to buy my own real Palestinian keffiyah.
An Israeli patrol in the Old City
The Old City really epitomizes the rest of Hebron. It is beautiful and ancient, filled with trash and turmoil. The people live occupied with the constant threat of IDF soldiers kicking down their door. From what I’ve seen, those children of the Old City will someday be in my classes, not fighting in the third intifada. I’m no expert on the physiology of conflict and it really is hard to explain with words the mind-set of the people I’ve met. What I do know is they are deeply affected on both sides of the conflict. This is not something that is subtle or hard to see, it is blatant and can be found in nearly every conversation, just like the occupation itself.
The precarious balance of accepting the occupation, while at the same time fighting it, exemplifies a strength and tenacity in and of itself. It is an amazing blend of ardent nationalism and unfortunate realism that is impossible to explain. After a half century of occupation they remain positive and optimistic; a happy people who live their lives day to day just like anybody else in any other part of the world. It is sad, it is beautiful, and it is the reality of a life under occupation.
Hebron covered by a dust storm
Derek Smallwood is a graduate of Lesley University with a degree in Global Studies. He is currently teaching English at the The Excellence Center in Hebron Palestine. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .