Wednesday, 31 October 2012


We are a little embarrassed by the surfeit of fruit that we have accumulated in recent days.

We are eating an awful lot of fruit but we are perhaps buying a bit too much. This is certainly not extravagance in terms of money. Fruit here is generally of a very high quality but reasonably priced.

Our heavily laden bags normally cost no more than £7 to fill. Shopkeepers have chosen their best products for us and given us somethings for free.

When we needed a small amount of olive oil to last for our final few days, the local shop was able to offer only 1 litre bottles. So they went to their house, filled up our little 250ml bottle and refused to take any money.

Mayor designate

We were invited to meet Ghassan Shaka'a whose list of independent candidates won 10 of the 15 seats on the Nablus City Council in the recent local elections. This means he is almost certain to be elected as the next Mayor of Nablus.

He asked us about the new Lord Provost of Dundee. He allowed us to film him and expressed his gratitude for Dundee being the first city to twin with Nablus all those years ago. He spoke of his uncle - Bassem Shaka'a - who initiated the twinning.

We left with very positive feelings and an expectation that Nablus and Dundee will work together to find new ways to develop the twinning relationship.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gather in the olives

It's time to harvest the olives throughout Palestine and we did a very little bit to help in the village of Burin just south of Nablus.

Other internationals come here to help because Burin and nearby villages are some of the worst affected by violent Israeli settlers who have illegally taken over the hilltops to build new settlements.

Fortunately this season has been fairly quiet but some incidents have been reported.

Such a pity because it is a very tranquil setting with the steep hillsides of the village covered in olive trees which have given a good crop this year.

Mike enjoyed climbing a tree to pick the highest fruits though felt somewhat apprehensive as Bilal started pruning the branches below him (though not the one he was standing on ...).

Picking olives is quite hard work because you have to reach and seek the sparsely arranged fruit and pluck them off mostly individually. So a tarpaulin is spread beneath each tree in turn and the olives are dropped on to this to make it easy to gather them up.

Leaves and rotten fruits are discarded, the best kept for the kitchen and the rest sent to be pressed into olive oil.

The first rains of the season came while we were there. Quite refreshing and in such warm weather you dry out quickly. A bonus is that the dust on the trees is washed off making the picking process more pleasant thereafter.

Meeting Namareq again was a highlight - she visited Dundee in 2005 as part of the twinning delegation and was able to show us her olive trees, her husband and her children.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The calm of Eid

Before Eid, Nablus was frenetic even into the early hours of the morning. But when Eid started all became calm.

Not entirely quiet for the mosque continued with its special Eid prayers. And although the streets were practically deserted, the car drivers still found a need for horning from dawn onwards.

We took a walk through a deserted city. People who saw us stopped to talk or shouted greetings from their cars as they drove past. All really friendly.

The Old City was definitely not its usual self. Shops locked, streets almost deserted although the houses were full of families visiting each other.

In following days, shops started to open and Palestinians living in Israel with full Israeli citizenship came to shop and visit family. This was particularly evident in the Sama Nablus park which is high up on the hill of Mount Ebal - about half the cars there had the distinctive yellow number plates of Israel (and which are normally prohibited from entering Nablus) rather than the green plates of Palestine vehicles.

Eid al Adha

It's really just like Christmas here but more so.

We are in the middle of Eid al Adha and everyone is involved. People are visiting their families and their friends, buying gifts, eating and talking.

Thursday night - the last night before Eid - was stunning. Religious people had been fasting all day but this was not apparent. Streets were shut to make space for more stalls and more shoppers. Everyone came to shop. We left our flat at 11pm with Rami as our guide and just wandered through the Old City and City Centre. Almost every shop was open - and the extra ones.

Everywhere was crowded, hard to get around because of the throngs. We gave up at midnight but others apparently carried on until 2 or 4am.

It was noisy and messy, piles of packaging strewn everywhere - even Scottish rubbish (see photo). But when we came back tomorrow every bit of it had been swept up and removed.

People were so excited. We stood out like sore thumbs and everyone welcomed us, asked How are You? and What is your Name? Some of they younger boys were a bit too boistrous - following us and wanting to talk - but all in high spirits and friendship. We became one of the toys of Eid.

Even the mosques were ready for Eid with special prayer calls.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Michael Marra

We were all extremely saddened by news from Dundee of the death of Michael Marra, Nick's brother. His was a wonderful talent which did Dundee proud and also recognised the wider world and made people laugh, cry and think.

We have contributed to another tribute so let's just say here that we will miss Michael Marra and feel so sad for Nick and other members of Michael's family.

Jess drew this olive tree for a card we sent and we include it here because it represents our feelings better than many words.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Checkpoint Checkpoint guns and questions

Nick and I unfortunately had to leave our companions after just one week, due to other commitments back home. Our flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt was scheduled to leave at 04.30 on Tuesday morning so our wonderful guide and fixer of problems, Shaden had arranged for us to be picked up in Nablus shortly after midnight.

After our sad farewells we set off for the airport. This should be a fairly straightforward journey as Nablus is not very far away from Tel Aviv. In addition our driver, Karim, is a Samaritan and has an Israeli ID card and his taxi has an Israeli number plate.

What could be more straightforward. Well, almost anything as it turned out. On this short journey we were stopped twice, both times by gun carrying soldiers. The first was on leaving the (Illegal) Israeli settlement of Ariel. There we had to open our suitcases as the guards somehow found my book "A Sunday at the pool in Kigali" a potential threat to Israel - even though none of the guards appeared to speak or read English.

The soldiers were also inquisitive about a ceramic dish I was carrying home. They decided to exhume Nick’s toilet bag, just in case he was carrying some giant open razor. Alas they found nothing and we allowed to continue our journey. The whole thing was rather silly.

Once in Israel proper we were again stopped at another checkpoint outside Tel Aviv airport. This time it was a bit more scary. We didn’t have to get out of the car, but the gun carrying guard was very persistent and intensive in his questioning of just why we had been visiting Nablus. Nick was the one who bore the brunt of their questioning. The concept of twinning and making friends was clearly beyond the salary grade of this particular guard.

We didn’t really know the full names of any of our hosts in Nablus, apart from Mr Yahya Arafat, and we felt this was probably not a good name to divulge. In the end they were happy with the names of Shaden, Riyad and Ahmad.

This time Karim our driver was also intensively questioned and he had to go into the little cabin to get his ID checked. Eventually we were waved on. The stop did not last all that long, but the uncertainty was very unsettling. Especially with guns around.

We kept thinking what could they do - send us back to Nablus? Arrest us for making friends with Palestinians?

That we did make it through to the airport on time was in no small part due to our very own personal Good Samaritan, Karim. He was aware of the possibilities and kept telling the Israelis that we were his friends and that we had visited his village just outside Nablus. Without his help, not sure how it would have all ended. Cannot image an Israeli taxi driver from Tel Aviv (the other option open to us) would have been so kind and helpful.

But inshallah, we did make it to the airport and there were funnily enough no problems in there. We just sailed through security. Our thanks to Karim and it is so good to know that the kind and friendly traditions of the Samaritans are still alive and kicking in 21st century Palestine. Pity that they seem to have disappeared in Israel.

(Contributed by Alister)

Monday, 22 October 2012


Palestinian electricity has been fragmented and inconsistent. NEDCo (the Northern Electricity Distribution Company) has been created to sort this out. Our host here, Mr Yahya Arafat, gave us a tour of the company and explained its objectives.

Electricity was supplied by municipalities, each receiving its supply from the Israel Electricity Company (IEC) but agreed to form a company to take over this role.

So NEDCo started with 94 separate feeds from the IEC, at different voltages and at different prices. They are rationalising this.

More importantly, they are setting far higher standards for transmission and for safety with a substantial emphasis on good customer service. Although only operational for 2 years they have already built new infrastructure, new customer service centres and higher levels of response.

Better still, they have reduced the prices that are charged to customers even though the prices they pay to the IEC have increased. This is achieved through greater efficiency and a more methodical approach to charging customers and following up all losses including non-payment.

The presentation we were given by the General Manager - Eng. Salam Zagha - was very interesting, with an overview of the company. The Board room was full of company directors and managers who then showed us the staff of HQ, the Nablus Branch Office and a local sub-station.

Nablus Fire Department

Yet another warm welcome (not a pun) from the Fire Fighters of Nablus. Jamal the Fire Chief came over from the Municipality especially to see us and many other fire fighters gathered round as we admired the fire appliance from Dundee that had been donated by the Fire Brigade Union in Scotland.

They described to us some of the challenges they face - like the very narrow streets in the Old City and the refugee camps - and the challenges they might face - like an earthquake or political instability.

We were amazed that the Fire Appliance from Dundee could not be used because Israel prohibited it. Such control extending so far into Palestinian operations is still quite shocking.

The solution was to purchase a new left hand drive Volvo chassis and transfer the cab, tanks and kit onto it. The Mayor had described signing the cheque for this upgrade. At least it might give the equipment an extended life. But some new hoses are still needed.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Local Elections

By chance, we happen to be here during the elections for the local council and mayor. This has not had much impact except that Mayor Adly Yaish will be standing down with a new mayor taking his place.

There are some noisy processions and cars but overall the main sign is lots of posters.

When we visited a school on Thursday we had to walk through a military and police barrier which was protecting the school during the period when the military adn police were voting (leaving them free to protect all the other voters on Saturday).

The election is by proportional representation and there are three lists on offer:

  • Fatah (the party of the government)
  • Independents (members of Fatah)
  • Leftists

Someone told us that they were voting for Ghassan Shaka'a because he and his list were the least corrupt of all the lists. But it sounded like a common complaint against politicians though they did think that Mayor Yaish was free of corruption.

An Nasr mosque

According to the plaque, historical documents confirm that there was originally a church on this site. It was converted into a mosque in 583AH/1187AD, after Salah-a-Din and demolished by the earthquake in 1927.

The present building is the result of substantial reconstruction during the last century.

Alternatively, the inscribed stone at the entrance to the mosque says it was built by Leader Amr Ibn Al As in 15 Hijri/638AD. When the crusaders occupied Palestine in 1099AD they converted it into a mosque. When the occupation was ended by Salah Al Din Al Ayoubi in 583Hijri/1185AD the building was reconstructed to become a mosque.

The mosque was given the name Al Naser (victory) in memory of the great victory of Salah Al Din over the Crusaders.

After the 1927 earthquake nothing was left except the base of the mosque's old minaret and some part of its western wall.

The mosque was rebuilt by the Supreme Islamic Council in 1354Hijri/1935AD.

The current design reflects that of mosques in Istanbul where the ground floor is used for commerce with the mosque itself on the upper floor,

Askar Refugee Camp

How can you imagine living as one of over 12,000 people living in a refugee camp less than 800 square metres? This is the prospect for many older and younger Palestinians. They all looked cheerful but told us that they simply needed to have more space for their growing families.

We met the Committee who function as the municipality for the camp. They interact with UNWRA (the UN agency which provides health and education in the camps) and other authorities.

The committee are making strong efforts to provide stimulating activities for the children and young people in the camp. They support arts, cultural and play opportunities.

So we saw a large garden park with slides, swings and play equipment alongside a building funded by the Germans which can be used in a variety of ways. Today it was set out for a wedding party - such events providing employment for up to 20 camp residents.

The off to Dar Al Funoun centre for the arts where we saw a short film and a dabke (dancing) demonstration which 2 of us could not resist joining.

The centre also offers ceramics, painting and other arts in an attempt to provide stimulation for the camp children. They also try to promote Human Rights through arts.

They are very keen to explore twinning options with others.

Lunch with Shaden's Grandmother

Food just gets better.

Near the centre of Nablus, the house is a charming older property with original features and substantial space which is well used.

From other comments, you won't be surprised to hear that we took particular interest in the embroidery which Shaden's Grandmother had created.

One had a rather strangely attached collage of a flower in the top left hand corner. So we asked why. Turns out that an Israeli bullet came through the window in 2003 and lodged in the framed embroidery. The hole is still visible in the glass (tape marks and hole can be seen in the photo - right hand pane, upper part).

So to the meal which was mostly makloubeh (cauliflower, rice, chick peas, etc. in a pan which is tipped upside down for serving) with Palestinian salads and accompaniments. Delicious.

Even a pudding to follow was delicious - something like filo pastry with a soft white cheese filling, fried and coated in a syrup.

Palestinian Prisoners Society

Over 4,500 Palestinians are in Israeli jails including 150 children and 7 women. The Society is made up of former prisoners who provide support for current prisoners and their families.

Nablus alone has 850 prisoners. In total, about 900,000 Palestinians have been in Israeli jails. Of a population of about 2.5M this is around 1/3.

Of particular concern to the Society are the many prisoners who are arrested by Israel and then kept under Administrative Detention. So they are not charged with any crime but merely detained for 6 month, renewable, periods. The Mayor of Nablus was himself held under such an arrangement for 15 months even though there were no indications that he was involved in anything untoward. There were certainly no charges brought against him and he was never brought to court or found guilty of any crime.

Woman Programmes Center

Now for some embroidery.

Although the centre does many other things, such as teaching massage and photography, our focus was on embroidery because Alister is keen to explore traditional and modern forms.

What we saw here was astonishing. Neatly and expertly sewn patters looking both traditional and fresh. The women were sitting informally working on purses, bracelets and other products which could be sold in the shop.

We wanted to know how they knew which squares to fill to make the complex designs they created. There were pattern books, no sketches and no markings on the embroidery fabric (aida). When asked, they smiled and said that Allah provided the guidance.

The shop had bright and lively coloured products so we could not resist buying some.

And this is where Clare Pouget Wright worked with the women to produce designs especially for DNTA. The bracelet with Scottish and Palestinian flags set in a traditional matrix has been a popular seller for DNTA members and supporters.

Project Hope

We have worked for a long time with Project Hope but this time we had a very stimulating discussion with Hakkim and others about possible twinning opportunities.

Exciting to have Rami and Rafiq with us because it was through Project Hope that they came to spend 4 months in Dundee (2010-11). Project Hope is working to establish funding for more of these exchanges.

They also need volunteers from Scotland. The minimum stay is 5 weeks but a more realistic period is 3 months for which about £2,000 needs to be raised to support the volunteer. They can contribute with any skills they can offer - such as teaching a language, circus skills, drama and music. There are 17 international volunteers at present with more local ones.

Graphic novels have become an established part of the Project Hope portfolio. The first round was in 2009 since when a second book has been published with a third underway. These provide an expressive medium for young Palestinians to communicate their feelings and experiences in an accessible format. Project Hope provides the training, support and publishing.

And finally, on our way out we met Aiysha who had just arrived from Glasgow so we hope to see more of her in the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Naseer Arafat

A warm welcome from Naseer in an old soap factory which is now a Heritage Centre with an amazing variety of activities.

We liked them all but the ceramics and carpets were really brilliant. And great to have Naseer explain how the soap factory worked with the boiler for the mixture and pits alongside which held just the right amount of olive oil for the next batch of soap while warming it up from the fires of the current batch.

Naseer impressed us with his wide range of interests and knowledge. He is publishing a book next week and we hope to be able to get a copy.

He also created a strategic plan for Nablus which was launched at an event in 2010 which included representatives from all the twin cities of Nablus - including Dundee.

We had a robust discussion about the British rule of Nablus from 1917 to 1947. Not much evidence survives except some unused post boxes which are identical to many in Britain. Naseer told us of some architectural features which were required by British regulations. So nothing much positive to say and quite a lot negative.

Sama Nablus 2009

High up on Mount Ebal the Nablus Municipality have created a wonderful park. It has stunning views over the City of Nablus and hundreds of picnic benches.

It's not just the views, it is so warm that you can come here at night and sit comfortably with your food without any chilling. That's just what we did. Our hosts provided a real feast of food with traditional Palestinian dishes.

The lights of the city grew stronger as the sun sank down below the western fringes of Nablus and was replaced by a waxing crescent moon which rose, turned orange and sank behind Mount Gerazim.

We didn't sample all the local options - mosque, food stalls and toy shops, but we did walk to the caves from where stone was quarried to build the ancient Old City of Nablus. Here we found bats searching for insects and young men smoking shisha (hubble bubble).

Quite frightening to go down the hill which was quite steep in places but we made it safely back to the hotel.

Edward Said Conservatory

A wonderful house, large with spaces for teaching rooms and even for a small concert with grand piano.

The piano student was a young girl who had only had 3 lessons so when we asked her to play for us she was a little bit shy. Her Italian piano teacher got her to play some simple tunes and then accompanied her in a rousing performance. Excellent!

They clearly have a vibrant programme of education and development.

Touring the Old City

Nablus has a wonderful Old City, full of life, narrow paved streets with limestone walls of houses, factories, shops, hammams (Turkish Baths) and mosques.

We enjoyed a spice shop and museum with so many different spices, herbs and dried fruit we were mesmerised.

In the hammam we felt even hotter than in the street. Didn't try the sauna and were impressed by the high temperature of the slab.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Nablus schools keen to link with Dundee

Then off to working schools - first a boys' middle school and then a girls' high school. All government schools in Nablus are single sex.

Both expressed a strong desire to work with us to interact with children in Dundee schools.

Neither has an internet connection in the school so we might consider fundraising to help provide this. Then we could use video-conferencing (Skype)to bring the pupils together.

Each of the classrooms we visited was full of lively young people who spoke to us in English. We were intrigued by references in one English exercise to a "duck bus" which none of us had ever heard about. Apparently it was a feature of river traffic for the London 2012 Olympics. Palestine is ahead of us!

Mayor Adly Yaish

As always, the Mayor of Nablus - Adly Yaish - made us very welcome in his office. He expressed fulsome appreciation of Dundee which was the first city in Europe to twin with Nablus.

He explained the key achievements of his time in office which included better schools, improved water and electricity, creation of parks and economic developments.

When DNTA first me him in 2007, Mayor Yaish explained that because half the people in Nablus are under 18 they are a high priority. When he took office many schools were being used for two shifts (one group of children from 07:30-12:30 and a different group from 13:00-18:00). THis has been eliminated by building more schools so that all children can go to school at the same time.

Similarly, class sizes have been reduced from an average of 47 to an average of 31.

We met a delegation from Turkey who have funded a new girls primary school which is currently under construction.

We are in Nablus

Arriving in Tel Aviv at 02:30 is not ideal so we are tired but cheerful. A quick walk around Jerusalem's Old City and then on the local bus to Nablus where Shaden was waiting to greet us.