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CANADA-PALESTINE SUPPORT NETWORK
July 7, 2004
NAKED IN NABLUS - PART I
Story and photos by YayaCanada
This article is also posted at: Palestine Chronicle.com
"You talk about the terrible suicide bombers, but when you have lost your house, lost your loved ones, and are standing naked, no one asks you where your clothes are. If you had any, you wouldn't be showing your private areas to others." Muna Dawani, Teacher - Interviewed July 6, 2004
Winter in Nablus is like July in Canada, said Muna Dawani, a Palestinian school teacher visiting Canada. I was feeling a little depleted from the heat and humidity but Muna seemed comfortable in her new environment. Her ready smile and the soft lights in her dark eyes, her almost poetic way of speaking, are all belied by the camera.
Muna came to Canada because of a miracle, she believes. In Nablus it's often impossible to visit neighbours in the next street and travel abroad was, of course, completely out of the question.
So impossible was it considered to be that the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv didn't even bother to open a file when application was first made to obtain visitor visas for Rev. Hasam Naoum of St. Philip's Anglican Church in Nablus, his pretty wife, Rafa, some members of a Nablus youth group, and the gentle, yet strong woman, Muna, who teaches in the little school located inside the church compound.
See Ottawa Sun background story
Rev. Naoum's Canadian counterpart, Fr. Robert Assaly, of St. Thomas Church, Ottawa, persisted until the unimaginable became reality, and now here was Muna lounging on the deck of a backyard swimming pool near Kanata, at the upscale home of Samah Sabawi and her husband Monir ElRayes, in the company of her friends from Nablus and a host of new Canadian friends - as naturally as if this were an every day occurrence, yet still conscious of how unlikely it was to have happened.
Equally unlikely it was that I would have been sitting across the table from her, since not three years ago I was only vaguely aware of what is euphemistically termed, "the Middle East conflict". Yet there I was, full of questions and, although worried that I might open some wounds, still determined to understand how one survives in a place as besieged as Nablus, and in particular, from a woman's point of view.
Muna understands English quite well, but answering my questions in English was too difficult. While waiting for our busy hostess to be able to finally sit down and act as interpreter, Rev. Naoum, who is fluent in English, provided some background to the church and its little school.
Sixty-three children attend the four-room school inside the church compound, divided almost equally between pre-schoolers aged 3 - 4 and a kindergarten for ages 5 - 6. Muna teaches 30 pre-schoolers.
Classes operate when curfew restrictions allow. There have been times that the children have missed as much as 3 months of school due to shutdowns by the Israeli military.
How can these tiny children learn while their world is in such chaos, I asked.
"Surprisingly, they learn very well," said Rev. Naoum. "In fact, when they move on to the higher grades in another school, they often stand first in their classes. But they have been robbed of their childhood.
"The effects of being so frequently under siege are readily apparent in the games the children play on their own," he continued.
North American kids once played - and perhaps some still do - "Cowboys and Indians" because of exposure to "western" movies, but Rev. Naoum says that Palestinian kids play "checkpoint", "house search" and even "funeral" because of the reality of their existence.
"We need counseling centres. Every family has lost at least one of its members violently, and the whole family becomes disturbed by this."
Does the church compound have bullet holes, I asked, remembering photos I had seen of all sorts of other buildings.
"Oh, yes!" replied Rev. Naoum, "and the soldiers even tore down part of the low wall that surrounds it. They are threatened by any place where they think a gunman could hide."
Does the church give sanctuary to gunmen?
Rev. Naoum emphatically shook his head. "In Nablus there are all sorts of places to hide, even underground. You can get lost there, so it is not necessary for us to hide anyone. Besides, both Muslims and Christians have high respect for their own and others' holy sites, and they would not want to endanger them in any way.
"Bethlehem was a rare exception," he continued. "There was no place at all to hide but in the church, and they did so because they were desperate.
"We are often asked if we Christians are in danger from Muslim hostility, and that is nonsense. Christians and Muslims have lived in mutual respect for 1400 years in Palestine. It is not, and never has been in the nature of our people, even within Israel, to live in separate communities based on religious faith."
Samah had finished her part of the dinner preparations and, leaving her husband Monir in charge of barbecuing the hamburgers and T-Bone steaks, she sat down with us, ready to translate. Rev. Naoum shook my hand and took his leave to join some other men who were sitting around the swimming pool, supervising the children. Muna smiled at me, gazed into my eyes, and readied herself for some hard questions.
How do you help your students deal with these unthinkable conditions?
"We can't really help them, but each morning we have talks to allow them to express their feelings. We hear things like this: 'Last night the army came to our house' - 'My cousin (or father) has been taken' - "The soldiers put bullet holes in our walls' - 'We have received a demolition order'."
"We give them love because in love there is strength. If a child feels loved, he can resist."
Are these children Christian?
"No, the majority are Muslim. In all of Nablus there are only 700 Christians."
Samah pointed out that St. Philip's Church is in the very centre, the core of Nablus, and that Muslim families are happy to send their children to a Christian school.
Do you teach them the Christian faith?
Muna laughs, "Some of the parents ask us to give them lessons in the Muslim faith, and we tell them we do not teach religion of any kind. As Christians, we see Jesus in everyone, and we just thank God that the children, many of whose families are impoverished, and are suffering terribly, can at least receive love."
What about the notion that Palestinians don't supervise their kids well enough? The older ones run into the streets during curfew, they throw stones at tanks, they risk being shot and maimed. Why don't the parents stop them?
"The children are cooped up so much, in small quarters with large, extended families, and the older ones become aggressive, desperate. They need to be outside, in the street or up on the roof, and they take that chance. Most parents would find that kind of situation hard to cope with."
What causes some of them to become suicide bombers? Is it really the teaching of Islamic fundamentalism and the promise of heavenly virgins that motivates them?
(I've personally wondered why North American men invariably mention the virgins in reference to suicide bombers. It seems to reveal more about the North American male's mindset than it does about the true motives of the kids who choose this route to death.)
"Of course, we don't approve of suicide bombings," Muna says softly, sadly. "But we have compassion for young people who make that decision. Perfectly normal, well behaved, educated and secular young people develop an urge to blow themselves up, and this has little to do with religion.
"It has more to do with the recent loss of a family member or close friend, and a lack of hope for the future. Often it is a desperate attempt to try to get the Israelis to pay attention. There are so many close to starvation, so many who have lost their homes and all of their possessions.
"The young people feel so helpless, so powerless, and this is a way that some choose to gain a sense of control over their situation, to have a choice they can actually make.
"We can't judge them, but we try to teach our children to survive by love. They ask if it is okay to hate the Jews, and we say it's not okay to hate the Jews, but one can hate some things that they have done."
What is life like for women in Nablus?
"There is an increasing unity between the sexes. Women are much stronger, a situation that was evolving even before this recent intifada, but that has speeded up since it began. People are all in the same difficulty, and so we all help one another without strict roles to play.
"Males, of course, are always seen as a threat to the Israelis; women not as much. So when a male disappears from the community, it is the women who go to the soldiers to try to find out what happened.
"My own brother disappeared for a time, and I went to try to find out where he was. His crime was that he took a chance and sneaked out to go the store to buy milk for the children during a curfew.
"Sometimes, in the narrow side streets, people take that chance and run out to buy food. The store owner will let them in a back entrance and sell them what they need. And then they hurry back home. But sometimes they are caught by the soldiers.
"When my brother was caught, the soldiers told me to go home because he was being kept at the checkpoint for the full day as punishment.
"There were about 40 males there, of all ages, kneeling with their hands raised over their heads, my brother among them.
"Checkpoints and house searches are extremely humiliating to the male head of the household, and they feel so powerless to protect their families that the incidence of heart attacks among older males is increasing.
"Sadly, there are now even some women suicide bombers. This means that a pregnant woman is treated roughly at checkpoints, because there is fear that she may be hiding explosives and this makes the soldiers hostile."
What about the criticism that Muslim Palestinian women breed like rabbits? Are they making a deliberate attempt to outnumber Jews? Is Islam opposed to birth control?
(As in the Roman Catholic religion, which produced some very large families in North America before Catholic couples found the courage to disobey the church and use some form of birth control.)
"It could be that some couples are having large families to outnumber the Jews in Palestine, but large families are common amongst the poor of every country, for many reasons. And when you are restricted by curfew, for instance, and the electricity is turned off, what else does a young couple do?"
(This reminded me of the baby boom after the great 1977 power failure in New York City.)
"Also, for people whose living depends on agriculture it has always been traditional to have large families so there are many hands to help with the work."
(That's always been the case in North American agricultural communities as well.)
"Some of those women became addicted to babies," Samah interjected, "to the joy, the miracle of creation, the heady experience of giving birth to a new human being.
"And some have only daughters, for instance, and want to have a son - or vice versa - so they keep trying."
(Again, not unlike North Americans. There's a common joke about families of sons trying to make a daughter and ending up with their own baseball team.)
"But Islam does not prohibit birth control, and even supports abortion in necessary cases."
Are daughters considered as valuable as sons, I asked.
Both women smiled with shining eyes. "Girls are very much loved and adored," said Samah, glancing fondly across the table at her own daughter.
I turned again to Muna. Tell me about the house searches. Is there always a terrorist in the house that gets invaded?
"They are random, and often appear to serve no purpose. Soldiers take over a house for a period of time, pushing all of the residents into one room, and when they are ready to leave, they leave. We all have neighbours who have been shot. I lost a close friend, myself.
"I'll tell you about a house invasion I ended up involved in. There is a house near the church compound whose children attend our school. It was past 8 am, the time that the father usually drove the kids to the school. I thought someone might be sick so I went to find out. The house looked as usual, so I knocked on the door. But no one answered. I continued to knock and to call out, and then in panic I really hit the door hard, and finally it opened. There was the father with a soldier behind him, sticking his rifle into the father's back. I was told to come in. I said, I am a teacher; the children will be missing me. But it made no difference - I was forced inside.
"The soldiers didn't want any of the neighbours to know they were there. After a time when I didn't return to the school, the doorman became worried, and he too drove to the house and knocked on the door. He ended up inside as well.
"The priest then tried to telephone the house but for a long time no one answered. Finally the soldiers consented to speak with him. They told the priest that the family's lives were in danger if he dared tell anyone they were there."
Did you ever find out the reason the soldiers took over the house?
"It turned out that from this house they could see the gates of the old part of the city. They were watching the traffic patterns of the village and preparing a report."
But surely they had other means of watching the traffic - using helicopters, or positioning themselves on a hill, or even using those cranes attached to military vehicles that lift the soldiers up high to create a sniper vantage point.
"Yes, that's why it seems more like intimidation tactics than anything else."
"Because they want us to leave or die a slow death," said Muna, choking up a little. "They took our land, and they blame us for losing it, yet they claim to want peace. They have caused many deaths even indirectly, by terrorizing households - fathers have died from heart failure because of the feeling of helplessness the soldiers create when they invade people's homes."
What would you especially like Canadians to know about?
"This barrier they are building - they are stuffing us into bottles and they can pull the cork or replace it any time they feel like it.
"You talk about the terrible suicide bombers, but when you have lost your house, lost your loved ones, and are standing naked, no one asks you where your clothes are. If you had any you wouldn't be showing your private areas to others.
"It's hard to have hope. Something worse happens every day. Today I heard about the professor who was shot. Tomorrow someone else. Only our faith keeps us going.
"Nablus has a reputation for being a great terrorism centre, and it has come under violent siege, but we Palestinians are not all terrorists. We only want freedom, Muslims and Christians alike. We want to liberate our land - we are only asking for our right to live in peace."
Naked in Nablus - Part II
Barhoom Hanna, Bachelor, Electrician and coffee brewer extraordinaire
Men who work in the kitchen while the women talk politics
Arabian coffee from Nablus
Weddings in Nablus
Employment in Nablus
Rafa Naoum, minister's wife and Industrial Engineer
YayaCanada is the web name of Corinne Allan, a semi retired computer consultant, software coach, artist, writer, editor, document and web designer, and political activist living in Ottawa, Canada. She operates her own website: YayaCanada.com and is webmaster for canpalnet-ottawa.org and the Ottawa Raging Grannies.