Bethlehem بيت لحم

Bethlehem. Stairs on the left lead to the nativity square – can’t remember street name.

The main road is constructed very well, but the town looks dusty and forlorn. Talk to any business owner in the town (I talked to several) and they tell you that under the PA ( Palestinian Authority ) they pay more and more “taxes.” What do you get in return? “Wala ishi.” Nothing. Among everyone I talked to, especially the young people in our village was a sense of hopelessness. The word I heard more than once to describe the PA was “mafia.”

The most hopeful part of our visit was to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. We went to the Ibdaa Cultural Centre, Dheisheh camp has an internet center which offers training and “internet cafe” hours to the residents.

Like every building in the camp, the Ibdaa Cultural Center is small and crowded, and every inch put to good use. Children come and go, obviously at home and eager to show off a place they are proud of, and which provides them with their only positive outlet. Through the fundraising efforts of the people there, including the US and European tours which the children’s performance group did last year, a new building for Ibdaa is being built on the edge of the camp. The land was donated by the UN, whose compound is adjacent, but no funds came from the UN or any governments. The new center includes space for all the centre’s activities, as well as guest rooms to allow the camp to host delegations, and volunteers from other camps and around the world. Ziad, one of the adult coordinators at Ibdaa gives us a tour of the new centre and the camp. He shows us the Hebrew street names spray painted on Dheisheh’s walls. These are Israeli map references which date from the days when occupation soldiers chased Palestinians through the narrow alleyways. The camp residents have kept them as a reminder. The Israeli soldiers at least had a sense of irony: they named one of the alleys “Champs Elysees.”

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The UN health centre serving dheisheh camp refugees, was one of the heath care clinics we worked in during our stay. However, Camp residents who require hospital treatment must seek it at their own expense in Bethlehem or Jerusalem, though often other refugees pitch in to help.

Hannah and I at the UNRWA clinic serving refugees from dheisheh camp.

Down the road from Dheisheh, is a large new building. This is Yasir Arafat’s “office.” It was said he’d rarely set foot in Bethlehem, and yet apparently the PA felt it was more urgent to build an administrative building for the “president” than to provide a hospital for the refugee camp.

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Jerusalem القدس

Jerusalem, the beautiful.

We took a little bus/shared taxi from the allenby border, through the West Bank to Jerusalem, witnessing along the way the evidence of Jerusalem being ever more surrounded by huge, illegal Israeli settlements — glistening, military-gated “communities” strategically placed on hilltops and water aquifers, beautifully constructed with U.S. tax dollars.

Driving through the holy land, I had never seen anything like it. Well, maybe it is better to say I’ve never felt anything like it.

When you first arrive in a place surrounded by desert, with the sea on one side, and the vast Middle East on the other, knowing almost all prophets walked on this land thousands of years ago, it is both stunning and peaceful. I couldn’t help but notice the clouds above me that resembled big choleric fists being thrown to the sky, demanding mercy and justice.

When you’re in the holy land , all your senses suddenly change. It is difficult to explain but you feel the history in every corner. You get a sense of war, conflict, and suffering but also of peace, love, and hope. You can feel the true meaning of the Holy Land. It gets to you; it gets to every single corner of your body and soul.

At eight in the morning, we walk down Nablus Road towards Damascus Gate.

Damascus gate, this is the main entrance into the walled Old City.

Entering the Old City at that time, few shops are open. Some shopkeepers are sweeping and washing the narrow alleys and streets in front of their stores. The smell of bread fills the air. Occupation troops patrol in groups of three. Sometimes they lean lazily against walls—ignored and ignoring the emerging life around them. These days the streets of Jerusalem do not threaten them.

Come back in mid morning and Damascus gate is transformed. Fallahat—women from the villages around Bethlehem—sit along the walls selling every kind of fresh produce. They wear their traditional thwab—black, and blue dresses with intricately embroidered breast panels. Laid out before them on cloths are vine leaves, mint, sage, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini.

Pickles and Olives here are heavenly

Inside the walls, shops selling souvenirs and CDs compete for attention. Speakers blasting the latest Egyptian pop tunes compete with taped recitation of the Qur’an from more pious shopkeepers across the way. Boys with hand carts stacked high with crates hurtle through the narrow alleys somehow managing never to hit anyone.

The old city, muslim quarter

I had never witnessed so much religious and ethnic diversity in one place, in my life before.
Arabs, Asians, Americans, Europeans, Africans, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Muslims all in one place.

Christian pilgrims and tourists of every color gaze around in wonderment. American backpackers complain loudly about the latest inconvenience they have encountered. Go to Jaafar sweet shop any time of day and eat the finest Knafeh anywhere. Despite the signs everywhere in the country of Israeli encroachment, it is when I am in this Jerusalem, surrounded by ways and rhythms that cut as deeply into peoples lives as the wheel ruts grooved into the stone passageways, that I feel convinced that Israel may occupy Jerusalem by force, but Jerusalem will never belong to it.
It is beyond possession and it will outlast its latest conquers.

The variety of cultures in Jerusalem is outstanding.

Similar to many societies however, Palestine-Israel presents a polished version of itself to tourists, where 5-star hotels in Tel- Aviv and tourist attractions in Jerusalem cloak its brutal realities.

Israel condones torture in it’s prisons and currently holds at least 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, 450 of which are children and 125 of which are women. Many are currently held in “administrative detention” which means they have not been charged with any crime and they can be jailed for up to 6 months with their detention indefinitely renewable.

Palestinians gather infront of the Israeli interior ministry office in occupied east Jerusalem from the previous night so they can be first in line when the cage-like entrance opens in the morning. Some of the people line up simply to sell their places later on. This is where Palestinians must come to petition the occupation authorities for spouses and children from other parts of the occupied territories be allowed to live in Jerusalem

This is where Jerusalemites must come to defend their right to stay in their own city and to register their children. It is within these walls that orders have been issued to expel thousands of Jerusalemites and to divide thousands of families. A little up the road is the US consulate. By morning there is a line there too. Palestinians are always lining up at checkpoints, government offices and embassies.

Machane Yehuda market

At first glance, – the market looks shabby, a sort of a slapdash jumble of stalls selling bright vegetables, fresh fish, dried fruits, spices and a few shops selling kippas, plastic housewares, conservative clothes, Ethiopian baskets. But don’t let the junky exterior fool you: The Shuk is home to the most delicious foods in all of Jerusalem.

A lebanese restaurant at the very end of the busy street in the Shuk offers a great perch for people-watching and the softest most luxurious eggplant you’ll ever have.

After spending the day in Jerusalem, we are met by Fatma, our coordinator, infront of damascus gate, and take a “servis”, a Palestinian public minibus, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. This is where we’ll be staying for the month, bethlehem, بيت لحم
As the bus leaves Jerusalem, it detours through the old Palestinian neighborhood of Bak’a, which lies just to the west of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. I am astounded by the many large graceful Arab villas. Shady verandas with arched colonnades, old wooden doors framed by vines. Each and everyone is now inhabited by Israelis, the original owners expelled in 1948. It is here that the Israeli elite lives and many of the houses fly Israeli flags. A few of them display “For Sale” signs. One large house on the main road, newly renovated, boasts a large sign in English and Hebrew: “A Little House in Bakah— Hotel, Restaurant and Bar.” I wonder where its real owners are and what they would think if they saw their house now.

Crossing the border.

Border crossing from Amman to the West Bank

In the weeks preceding my departure from Sudan to Israel through king hussein border, I received travel warnings from the coordinators of the internship, and the organization sponsoring our trip.

We were provided suggestions of how to increase our chances of getting into Palestine-Israel. It is not uncommon for travelers to be denied entry into the country for absurd reasons such as their father’s last name sounds Arab, or they criticized Israeli policy on a social networking website. We decided to tell the Israeli interrogators we were tourists, but to be as vague as possible.

In Amman, I met up with my friend, Hannah and the next morning we proceeded down through the stunning Jordan Valley to the Allenby Bridge land-border crossing into Israel. This is the way that almost all Palestinians come and go from the state of Israel — at least those who are actually able to obtain visas allowing them to travel. It’s also the route used by Palestinians who live elsewhere and are coming to visit or do business.

If denied entry, travelers could be detained for hours, interrogated and forced to board the bus back to where their flight originated. Other visitors to the region advised me to avoid saying words like “Palestine,” “Palestinian,” “solidarity,” and “West Bank” inside of Israel’s border control. I was also advised to sanitize my email, facebook, whatsApp, gallery in the event that Israeli officials requested my password in order to rummage through my inboxes, messages and profile. Unfortunately, this is a common experience for Palestinian-Americans attempting to visit the country. Additionally, I was warned that Israeli authorities, on occasion, aim to cause one to feel as though they’ve done something wrong. In my case, this tactic was working. I felt I was committing a crime by wishing to enter israel. Israel was getting to me already, and I hadn’t even stepped foot there yet.

Hannah and I, at allenby border, waiting for our names to be called.

After almost 8 hours of waiting and 30 minutes of interrogation, we were officially permitted into the state of Israel.
Our passports were not stamped, our israeli visa was given to us on paper.

My walk to Palestine

A photo of me and Anouk in Tunisia, during our pyschiatric internship. AlQuds – Jerusalem: A palestinian land under israeli occupation, a place so many palestinians dream to visit one day.

Born to a Sudanese (Afro-Arab-Muslim) family, and coming of age in the UK, being too young to fully comprehend oppression, occupation, and stolen rights, yet old enough to feel them through mosque speeches, bbc news, and family gatherings, the child in me, felt stabbed , as she struggled to understand the disregarded historical facts and morals. The attempt to erase an entire people and absorb its culture into an artificial identity was a bit too much to comprehend.
Growing up I taught myself subconsciously and silently to internalize it and take it for what it was, apparently it takes true effort for the mind to accept the very concept of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s destructive consequences over the years.
But the painful footage of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy, being shot dead gets to me every time. Mohammed Al-Dura, the son of the entire Palestinian nation, may he rest in peace, is why we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy, and answer to it.
But then again, how can I involve myself in the grassroots of Palestinian’s rights, when I have never picked up a book or watched a full documentary on the subject, or never spoken to a Palestinian about their life, and how it feels to be oppressed and cut off from their own homeland whilst international settlers take up camp there.
I believe that we are all walking repositories of buried treasure, meeting Lotta Plump (A former intern at UNRWA), Abdallah (A palestinian), and visiting schizophrenic patients whose subconscious love for Palestine turned into delusions of how to solve the conflict, during my 2 week internship in Tunis, made me wonder if the universe had buried in me this love and affection for Palestine all these years, only to stand back and see, if I could uncover it, and use it for a good cause.

Palestinian Flag, a present from Abdallah, before I left to Sudan. Had it pinned on my university bag ever since.

Little did I know, it would only be a matter of months, and I’d be crossing borders to Palestine to work on a Refugee Camp Project.

“So I will be patient with beautiful patience.” فصبر جميل

“All my life I’ve been going around waiting for sth. All my life infact I’ve felt as if… as if I were waiting in a railway station. And I’ve always felt as if the living I’ve done so far, hasn’t actually been real life but a long wait for it, a long wait for something real”
So to my future; the very close beautiful future ahead of me. To tomorrow, the day after, and to the 60 years ahead.
To the achivements that I’ll be reaching soon, and the teeny weeny details that’ll take me there. The future relations I’m going to have, the new people I’m going to meet, the frienships, and my life-bloomers, and all the other lovely gifts that’ll come with them. To every other soul who will come into my life and love me just the way I am, as flawed as I might be, as unaccomplished as I think I am.
To the happy moments that’ll make up for the sad ones, the happy times I’ll cry to, the sad times that’ll wake me up to the things I wasnt paying attention to. 
To when I grow into the younger me, where I’ll tell myself I’m beautiful and enough, but believe it with all my heart. When I’ll love myself as if I were a rainbow with gold at both ends. The kind person I will grow up to be, to when I serve what is greater than myself, and give what I have been given. To the lives I will touch and be life changing to. To when I become my own standard of beauty.
To the battles I’m going to win and the ones I’m going to lose but come of confident and fearless, moving mountains the whole way. To finding out my beautiful traits and all the things I’m capable of.
 To the woman who no longer hides behind a mask, to deep talks and all other talks that play a note in me, talks that will make me slowly peel out of my skin, and aquire a certain level of vulnerability to expose my fragmented contradictory self, without shame, without fear. To when I’m no longer a war between what I should say and what I want to say. 
To when I’m cautious of doing my little bits of good everywhere I go, cause its those little bits of good that overwhelm the world. To the places I’ll travel to alone, to protecting my time and feeding my inner life.
 To when I understand to forgive rather than be revengeful and angry, when I no longer hold on to my history cause it’ll be at the expense of my beautiful destiny. To when I stop pretending I’m this average person, cause I wont be.
To everything I want, that is destined to become a beautiful reality.
To inner peace and tranquility.
To all the good in the world and beyond.
To things my mum’ll be proud of, to the things I will be proud of.

To when I become old and frail, a proud mother and grandma. To the life stories I’ll tell my children and the advice I’ll give my daughters. To the love we’ll share. To them.
And to the times in between, before and after; answered prayers, hardships and blessings that’ll bring me closer to God, new suras I will learn, stories that will grow my love for prophet muhammad (pbuh) till I love him more than I love myself. To the time I will enter paradise.
To these fleeting moments, I’m waiting for you at the railway station … with beautiful patience.

فصبر جميل

To a confused 18 year old.

img-20160822-wa0007.jpgDear me,

” As you move forward in life, please dont let yourself get caught up in the trap of comparison.

You’re going to continue to evolve in unforseen ways, you are full of complexities and wonders, that haven’t even began to surface, life’s unpredictability will draw them out, and what defines you now will be mere shadows and hues of a more vibrant you, over the next 5,10,50 years. Life will look differently than you think it will. So think big, show up early, stay late and work hard.

But stay focused, so that your change in growth is intentional. Don’t let who you’re becoming be shaped by disappointments, and also dont let yourself be shaped by acheivements either. Remember your kipling. If you could meet with triumph and disaster, but treat both imposters just the same.

The journey you take now will be led by you alone. Don’t let that scare you, oh no, let that liberate you. So keep moving forward and dont be frustrated when your path gets messy, because it will get messy, you’ll fall, and you’ll fail along the way, widely.

EMBRACE THE MESS.

Say it with me, EMBRACE THE MESS!”

#StolenSpeech

Much love,

Non-attachment

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We, human beings, sometimes share a finite lapse of time together, just like people on a packaged trip.
The major difference, is that, in real life, you don’t have any clue about when your shared time with someone is going to come to an end.
The circumstances of life, the fraility of the human condition, the instability of emotions – all these factors make relations much less predictable than we usually believe.
If we mediate deeply upon the impermenance of life, will non attachment be the inevitable consequence?
Non attachment does not mean indifference: on the contrary, it will empower you to live every moment with love and intensity knowing that it could end any time.
Non attachment is a state of mind that will help you both in times of joy and sorrow. Life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, of comfort and hardship.
We cling to pleasure hoping it will never leave, and we are overwhelmed by pain, fearing that it will never end.
By practicing non attachment, we become able to endure difficult moments, with a certain sense of humor, knowing that as a wise saying goes – this too shall pass – .
In the same way we can enjoy the beautiful moments of life without being tainted by the fear that they will end, as they undoubtedly will.