Friday, 30 March 2007

Final thoughts

If only life was simple. Nablus is caught up in one of the most complex problems in the world with a tangled web that seems to involve every country in the world. Yet the people we met in Nablus just want to live.

The young people are protesting because the two cinemas in Nablus are both closed (mainly because of religious sensitivities). The priest is unable to tend his flock (Israeli controls on movement). The businessman cannot conduct his business (restrictions on the movement of goods).

Our DNTA constitution requires us "To encourage visits by individuals and groups to and from the linked cities, including children and young people and the development of personal contacts and by doing so to broaden mutual understanding of the cultural, recreational, educational and commercial activities of the linked cities."

There is no doubt that these very cultural, recreational, educational and commercial activities are just what is constrained in Nablus. We saw how Israel has constructed borders between Nablus and Israel on the outskirts of Nablus - NOT on the border (Green Line). Nablus cannot even trade with its fellow Palestinians. Yet Israeli (Jewish) settlers are allowed to move freely within Palestine (West Bank), to build houses and to develop agriculture and industry. Sadly, I have to say that this is clear and deliberate disrimination (by Israel) in favour of Jewish Israelis. It is sad because I am strongly against racism and yet this is what I observed.

I first heard of the holocaust when we were shown photos at school during the 1960s. I was truly shocked and remain so. I am also shocked by suicide bombing. But what the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is a deliberate takeover of Palestinian land and resources for the benefit of the Israelis. This is explicitly prohibited by international law and it is shocking that the world has accepted it.

In broadening the understandings between Dundee and Nablus it is unavoidable that we draw attention to these illegal actions and press for the human rights of the Palestinians to be respected. Equally, we must stand up for the human rights of the Israelis.

Indeed, this is my main feeling. That the Palestinians should demand the same rights as the Israelis demand. The right to govern their own state, the right to the rule of law and the right to have their human rights respected - i.e. to live in freedom and peace. I sincerely hope that current peace moves can bring this about for the benefit of Palestinians, Israelis and the wider world.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

We're back home!

Saturday: We had a fairly uneventful return journey. Only three checkpoints to negotiate, and the airport security checks. These were as thorough as expected with Julia being given a most intensive search apparently because she was a student in Jordan for a couple of years.

Returning to Dundee on a Saturday night was a sharp contrast. Much colder than Nablus, people walking carefree through the streets with many clearly drunk (alcohol is almost completely absent in Nablus) and the young women showing off most of their bodies despite the cold (in Nablus most - but not all women - are veiled and there is a universal prohibition on showing any part of a woman's leg).

We're a bit sleepy so I will post some reflections tomorrow as we reflect on our memories.

Recreational tours

Friday: Spent the day seeing beyond Nablus. First to Burin which - although only a couple of miles from Nablus, meant going through the Huwara checkpoint. Being Friday it was quiet and the Israeli soldiers looked quite bored. But Palestinian cars are not allowed to pass the checkpoint so our driver and his car had to wait for us and we took a taxi the rest of the way.

In Burin we met Namarecq who visited Dundee a couple of years ago. Great also to see her husband and 8 month old daughter. Her house is situated on the edge of the village and gave us views to the valley below and the the main village with its mosque and snuggle of houses. A brief visit but time enough for a cup of mint tea and a walk around the fields. Our departure was delayed because, being Friday, we had to wait until the taxi drivers had finished their prayers at the mosque.

Back through Huwara checkpoint to rejoin our car and driver - then on to Iraq Burin which is a most amazing old village situated on the top of a rocky outcrop. We were entertained in an old house on the top of the world overlooking the olive groves around Nablus. Lunch was a plentiful supply of chicken and bread with a horse ride as an aperatif!

During the afternoon we were guest in a modern house in a new area of Nablus being developed way up in the hills.

As we drove around we could see two significant settlements (Yithar and Bracho) which dominate the area. This visit was non-political but I felt sympathy for the Palestinians whose land is being used to provide housing and space for the occupying power (which is illegal under international law). The security measures protecting the settlers are having a serious impact on the social, cultural and economic life of the Palestinians.

For the evening we were entertained to dinner in a carefree atmosphere which was disturbed when we heard that the Israeli army had entered the town before we went back to our hotel. So, like everyone else in Nablus, we had to travel cautiously in the hope that we could avoid accidentally provoking any fire or get caught up in action.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Nablus Old City

Thursday mid-day: Nablus is one of the oldest cities in the world and its Old City is a wonderful expression of architecture and history. Houses are built on and around vaulted tunnels in a distinctive style. Sadly, the modern era is represented by destroyed houses and martyrs memorials - both testifying to the violent struggle for control of Nablus by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

We wanted to see the heart of the old city - its houses and its industry. A grandmother made us welcome in her home with her three grandchildren who were sitting in the window recess as she prepared a large bag of acuba (a green flower vegetable). She made us mint tea and told us factually about the traumas she had endured - losing sons and having the Israeli army smash her pictures on a recent visit. A surprising lack of hatred or passion - just a hope and longing that things would get better soon.

In a sweet factory we saw how the chick peas are roasted and covered in a sweet powder - delicious. Toffee also extruded and wrapped.

In the tahini facory we heard an explanation of the process of separating shells from the sesame seeds so that they could be roasted and ground.

The hammam (baths) were not operating but were still warm and steamy. It was good because that meant we could all take a look. The hot stones were comforting and we'd all liked to have had a proper session in such a richly decorated and historic place.

Of course the real industry is the shops. You can buy almost anything from spices, vegetables and meat to furniture. We bought a few herbs from the shopkeepers who all welcomed us and explained about the origin and use of their products.

Archway in Nablus Old City with shoppers and vegetables

Such a lively place but obviously in need of an economic upturn because there are so many areas neglected.


Thursday: Highlight was the afternoon meeting to discuss whether anyone in Nablus wants to set up an Association to mirror the one in Dundee. Would anyone turn up? Would anyone be interested? With much relief the room filled up and overflowed the table - over 40 people including the three of us from Dundee.

They were keen to strengthen the links between our two cities and everyone seemed to agree that we should add to what the Mayor of Nablus and the Lord Provost of Dundee can do - we want to make direct links between people in Nablus and people in Dundee. As the visiting group, we will be taking back names and contacts here to discuss with contacts in Dundee. We all hope that the Nablus-Dundee Twinning Association (NDTA) will facilitate these links.

An exciting outcome - and my main hope is that Dundee will be able to match the efforts of the Nablusi organisations who we have met here.

In the morning we met the Nablus Youth Council who are bringing together 34 organisations of young people from 18 to 27. Interesting mismatch of terminology because in Dundee we would mostly expect "youth" to mean 18 and under. But terminology should not be an obstacle to contact!

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Wed meetings

Wednesday: Long meeting with Mayor Adli Yaish in the morning followed by a long drive up Mount Gerezim to see the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. What a wonderful setting high up over Nablus. It is in the East of Nablus because the older hospitals are in the West and they are sometimes cut off from the population when Nablus is divided in two by the Israeli army.

At the Cultural Centre for Child Development we heard about their dabke (dancing) and saw a demonstration of it.

Lunch was at the Municipality with more delicious Nabulsi food.

Up the Mountain of Ebal to visit the Palistinian Boy Scouts and Girl Guides Association. They demonstrated their drumming with a parade of boys, gave a presentation from the girls, and gifts. We want to ask the Scouts and Guides in Dundee if they will make links with this group in Nablus.

Tuesday Meetings

Tuesday: Start with breakfast at the Arab Women's Union hospital, school, orphanage and Andaleeb College of Nursing. Then to Ministry of Education and Al-Salahyia Secondary School for girls. The class of 12 year olds welcomed us in English and showed us the cards they were making for Mothers day which is tomorrow (bukra).

Lunch at An Najah National University with its impressive new campus housing several faculties.

The Palestinian Young Journalists Forum is teaching the young reporters of the future and they have already reported on the recent elections. They want to exchange stories with young people in Dundee so we will put them in touch with the Dundee Youth Voice.

At the Employees Union we were greeted by the head and introduced to Fathi who was present when the twinning with Dundee was signed in the Nablus library garden. He is keen to re-energise the twinning.

We were guests at a delicious evening meal but had to leave to get back to the office for a 9pm presentation on checkpoints. However, it was rather long and we all started falling asleep. In any case, it is sensible to get back to the hotel before the Israeli army take over.

Abouna Yousef

Wed eve: Went to St John's church to meet Father Yousef of the Greek Catholic Melakite church. He is an elderly and wise man who told us how his work as a priest is dominated by the siege of Nablus. His congregation cannot travel to work and so unemployment and poverty are widespread. Many of his congretation has emigrated to Jordan though employment there is also difficult.

Personally, F. Yousef has difficulty travelling to his flock in Tulkarem because of the checkpoints. Even though he has a certificate showing he is a priest he told us that some soldiers ask him "what does it mean to us that you are a priest?" and one of them even threw his certificate on the floor to indicate that it is worthless.

When he goes to Jerusalem to meet his bishop he has to pass through many checkpoints and yet it is sometimes only when he gets to the last one that he is told that Jerusalem is closed to people from Nablus. So he has to return.

The Christian congregation in Nablus is declining and is about 650 people of all faiths including those in outlying districts such as Tulkarem. This is despite the good relations between the various faiths in Nablus - it is the poverty and the siege which are the main factors.

But F Yousef is a warm and friendly man who asked us in very simple words to help to tell the world that the Palestinian people are suffering and that the culture here in Nablus is being affected by the restrictions.

Interrupted sleep

Awoken this morning at 2am when an Israeli jeep parked opposite our bedroom window. Apparently several shots close by. Further explosions and shots from the distance. Jeep left but returned later and it was not until morning prayers at 4am that I could see a large convoy of jeeps, personnel carriers or whatever going past the end of the road back to their base.

This is apparently normal in Nablus.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Delays, explosions

Sorry it has been hard to blog in the last couple of days - many explosions last night, one person killed. But we are fine.


Monday, 19 March 2007

Out and about

Monday am, pm: Stopped at Jothour women's centre to see an exhibition of craft. Examples of finely embroidered dresses, baskets and souveniers.

Al Quds Open University teaches throughout Palestine and generates essential costs by charging students. To keep costs low the teaching is minimised. They need a new building so that students with disabilities can attend classes.

At Askar refugee camp we saw how their Rehabilitation Centre is helping children with various difficulties. Their programme for children with Cerebral Palsy covers the whole of Nablus.

Invited to the house of a local family for lunch we ate generously from the amazing range of meat, vegetable, salad, soup and bread.

The Arab Right Supporters children's group demonstrated dabke and explained how their various projects were giving the children of Nablus a voice which they hoped to be heard all over the world through a non-violent approach.

Much to say, but have to rush off to an evening meal with Ala'a and family. Wowee!

Two ears, two eyes, one tongue

Monday am: To the Nablus Municipality to meet the Mayor of Nablus. He received us with warmth and accepted our deliveries of a letter and a gift of a picture of the River Tay and Dundee from the Lord Provost of Dundee (Mr John Letford) .
Mayor of Nablus
In our discussions, Mayor Adli Yaish told us that we are all born with two ears, two eyes but only one tongue. His philosophy, therefore, is to look everywhere and to listen to all sides but to speak only the truth.

We were pleased to bring back to Nablus copies of art by the children of Nablus which had formed part of an exhibition in Dundee. Our Lord Provost was particularly moved by this exhibition because it expressed well the feelings of the children there. As Mayor of Nablus, Mr Yaish explained that he was particularly proud of the improvements he was trying to make for children. "If the streets are damaged I can repair them within two weeks; if our children are damaged the results may last forever".

We also met Raja Taher (Director of International Relations) who was in Dundee just a week ago so brillant to see her again.

Old friends

Sunday eve: Ala'a and family came to visit us in the hotel. We met Ala'a in Nablus 2 years ago and he came to Dundee. He's still a student in Nablus so it was great to meet his large family - Mother, Father, brothers & sisters. They left early in case the soldiers came so we had a bit of time to meet other visitors to the hotel - one of them turned out to have a sister in Wormit (just across the River Tay from Dundee)!

Sunday, 18 March 2007

First Day in Nablus

Sunday pm: After a short sleep we were picked up in our luxury Land Rover and taken to see the brand new offices of the Nablus Dundee Twinning Association from which we are able to write this blog.
We met Nasser Juma'a who is an elected legislator. He made us his friends instantly by treating us to the best Nablus tradition of knafeh. Could we make money by selling it in Dundee?

A visit to the local branch of the Teacher's Union enabled us to hear about the pay and conditions of teachers and the schools in Nablus. We are keen to see how links can be forged between groups in Dundee and Nablus with an emphasis on young people wherever possible.

Balata camp is bound to be a shock with streets so narrow that two people can hardly pass. But the cultural centre there is keeping alive old traditions of dancing as well as encouraging the women, children and young people of the camp to develop modern skills such as film making. Run by volunteers, it is great to find such positive efforts amidst the economic difficulties faced in the camp.

Onwards past stunning views of Nablus from the high slopes of Mount Ebal. We'll post photos as soon as we can.

Then to the National Centre for Music. What a surprise to be greeted by the stirring sounds of the band who included violins, guitars, drums and keyboards. Turns out they are all under 17 but, not so surprisingly, they practice at least twice a week. We heard about their visits to play in the USA, France and Belgium. Next stop Dundee perhaps?

So a full day (from airport to meetings), but heartening to see that culture is thriving in Nablus.

We've arrived!

Sunday am: Flight OK but the Israeli staff at Ben Gurion airport didn't know about twinning. Nor apparently did the immigration officer know where Nablus was. So we had to explain to higher authority why we wanted to go there. This took time.

It also required them to X-ray our suitcases. Naturally they found nothing suspicious but it all took more time. About 1 and half hours at 4 in the morning in a deserted airport with all of us half asleep.

But our taxi was waiting and the delay meant we drove through the Holy Land just as dawn was breaking. Wonderful! Then we arrived at the Huwarra checkpoint where we transferred to the care of our local host Riyad.

Great to be here in Nablus though rather tired.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Packed and ready

Saturday: We're packed with gifts and messages to take to Nablus including one from the Lord Provost of Dundee who has an open invitation to the Mayor of Nablus to visit Dundee. Last year the Mayor was turned back at the border between Israel and Jordan when he set of for the Dundee Youth Festival.

The Lord Provost of Dundee is keen to have young people from Nablus involved in this year's event and we will be doing what we can to help.

An article in the Dundee Courier today describes our visit and plans to strengthen the ties between the two cities. I still can't really believe that we'll be there tomorrow!

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

nablus trip

getting ready to go and looking forward to see all my friends in Nablus on Sunday.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Ready to go

There's so much to do in Nablus so we're going to be busy. Pity we will be there for only a week.

Our main objective is to support the development of a Nablus-Dundee Twinning Association based in Nablus. This will be the equivalent of the Dundee-based Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association.

Each group is composed of people from the area who want to be involved in the twinning. The objectives are to promote and foster friendship and understanding between the people of Dundee and those of Nablus.

We believe strongly in the social, cultural and economic benefits of twinning with cities around the world” says Dundee Lord Provost John Letford.

Setting up

Dundee has been twinned with Nablus for over 26 years. Visitors from Nablus are made welcome in Dundee and three of us are about to set off for Nablus to take greetings from the people of Dundee to the people of Nablus.