West Bank thoughts

I’d been to the West Bank – over 30 years ago, yikes! – as a volunteer teaching English to Palestinian students in Bethlehem. Remember being terrified of teaching for the first time, making up the rules of English grammar as I went along (was teaching trainee teachers, who were mostly kind, but sometimes justifiably sceptical). First time back, apart from a quick visit to Jerusalem. Seemed more crowded – less open land – which probably makes sense – since the Palestinian population has increased, and there are vastly more settlements now – several hundred thousand settlers.

Was filming there for the UN – usual problem – trying to find a character we could hang a story around. I’d been told Murad was interesting – been in jail for 2 years for protesting against the settlement near his village (Tqoa). But when I first saw him, amongst a group of animated young Palestinians (the UN is supporting a youth/democracy project there) I thought, ‘no, ain’t going to work.’ He seemed quiet, maybe shy. Not the talkative type. Wouldn’t work.

But then a slow smile on Murad’s face as they talked about his exploits – in this case, at his most recent protest, he had willingly faced being dragged around by Israeli soldiers. I like the way males here can be playfully physical with each other – a lot of touching, a kind of stroke/push thing with the hand on the head – a lot of it with Murad. Clearly the character. A bit like the lion, slow to rouse, a slow smile – but held in respect – as well as affection.

Murad, helping paint a local school.

So we took him down near the plot of land that his family say has been taken by settlers. They showed us land deeds referring back to 1922 – ie the time of the end of Ottoman rule over the area, and the advent of the British mandate. I thought we should film him walking down past it. He can’t go in because you have to get permission from the Israeli authorities – rarely given. I kept my distance so cameraman Antonio could film without me being in the shot. It was a bright, hot day – very difficult for filming. Antonio could see almost nothing in his monitor. I sensed something. When Antonio returned, he said Murad had been in tears. I think being asked to think and focus on something in this way (ie people making a film about your life) can quite quickly bring up the core emotions. It was touching. Big, tough, Murad, wiping away tears.

We met some wonderful young people – including some very smart young people – like Niveen Al Darawish, in the town of Dura. She was part of the youth project too. Sharp, focused, highly intelligent – clearly wanting to make a connection with us. Very conservative village. I wondered if she’d have a chance of really getting away, having a truly fulfilled life. Contradictions: her mother worked for the Ministry of Education, but didn’t join us for dinner. Just the men eating. Niveen wants to study – that’s probably her way out, but not that easy. Many families do not want single women to go away to study.

Our great UN driver, Ahmed, from a village near Jerusalem, commented on the families we’d been interviewing. We got Murad’s mother on camera – his father had initially refused, but relented. In conservative places, a woman talking to strange men is all but unheard of. Ahmed said this might be the only time in her life that she would do it – literally. He used a phrase, that chilled my heart, about the look-out for women like here: “Father – Husband – Tomb”. A life where there is no reality outside those three things.

Left with memories of sharp young people, young people having a good time, despite the overall conflict, impasse, limitations. (Have to mention one that I hadn’t realised: non-elderly Palestinians – those who don’t have Jerusalem-based IDs – are barred from going to East Jerusalem, even if they live five minutes away! This has been the situation for about 15 years. The only way out for such Palestinians is through Jordan.)

A brief extract from one version of the short film we made.

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