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Notes from Nablus, June 2014

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Greetings from Nablus!

Jacob's Well in Nablus

Jacob’s Well in Nablus

We have been here two weeks now!  We have been very fortunate to have met so many wonderful people and are sponging up Palestinian hospitality.

We hear the word, “Welcome!” 100’s of times each day — walking through the bustling and vibrant market, in the refugee camps, down any street, or while in a café.  In fact, we cannot travel very far without people calling out to us, “Hello!  Where are you from?” and then in response to our answer, “You are welcome!”  Sometimes these exchanges can double or triple the time it takes to get from point A to point B.

Another common phrase we hear is, “If there is anything you need, anything I can do for you or help with, just call, anytime, I am happy to help.”  Practically everyone I have met and exchanged phone numbers with makes sure to offer this.  I have not yet tested it, but am certain that they are sincere.
What an honor and a delight to be amidst such warm, welcoming and kind people.  I notice myself relaxing and less concerned about ‘accomplishing’ and more so about being present with the human being who is before me.

During our first week in Nablus, we climbed 45 minutes from our apartment to Sama Nablus, a park on the east hill facing Nablus, just past the Ein Refugee Camp.  Sama Nablus was just opened one month ago and contains many restaurants, cafés, children’s play area, and even some caves.  It offers an incredible view, lovely cool breezes and fresh air.  Right now it is the place to be to watch World Cup matches as they have an enormous screen set up and are showing all the games.  (The World Cup is a really popular event here and we find it on screens all throughout the city).

After exploring Sama Nablus, we sat at a café to have a beverage.  Bashar, the owner, chatted with us while getting our order, and, upon discovering that we were American, invited us to come sit with a group of visitors also from America.  We moved to their picnic table to chat.  They were a large family from Ohio, all Nabulsis returning for their annual visit.

When they left, Bashar, the owner, came to chat with us.  With his brother and cousin, they opened three coffee shops in Sama Nablus, just one month ago.  Before this, he was a building contractor and built many of Nablus’s tall buildings, but said that it is very hard work, and he was ready for a change.  Business has been slow but he is hopeful that it will pick up, for even though the days are long, the work is enjoyable and not nearly as hard as building.  He is the father of 6, ages 7 months to 9 years old.

While he attended to customers, he continued to return to our table to chat and practice his English.  He had studied for two months with Project Hope and was quite accomplished for having such a short time to learn the language.  He was also very helpful in expanding our Arabic vocabulary.

Socializing seems to be woven into the work day in Palestinian culture.  Bashar spending so much time with us while also working is the norm, not an exception.  Whether in the market or any shop, the employees socialize with friends who are there or customers, or whoever.  Even in the hectic maze of the Old City market where there are thousands of stalls and potential for high competition between them, shopkeepers enjoy each others company or friends stopping by.

Everywhere we go, the impression I get is that socializing is as important as ‘getting down to business.’  Great value is placed on relationships.  What a lovely contrast to the US where we sometimes become so driven by ‘the bottom line’ or the ‘end goal’ that we lose sight of the fact that a human being happens to be standing before us.  I relish that this pressure does not appear to exist and people can engage with each other, one human to another.

Indeed, relationships appear differently here.  There seems to be incredible closeness and affection for each other that is expressed.  In fact, ironically, American culture comes across highly homophobic in comparison.  What I mean is that it is common to see men holding hands, or arm in arm, while walking together down the street.  Words of affection, such as ‘Habibi’ (my love) are sprinkled into every other sentence between men.  Also, the common family structure is that the entire extended family shares an apartment building….each child’s family has an apartment.  Thus, you will find parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all living together in one building.  Families are obviously much closer, more tightly knit than what we have lost in our culture.  There is tremendous support that arises out of this tight fabric of familial relations — family is always there for each other.
We are staying at an apartment provided by Project Hope, the organization where we are volunteering.  Project Hope offers all sorts of supplementary classes to children and adults, all over Nablus.  Dozens of volunteers from around the world teach conversational English, French, futbol (soccer), music, taekwondo, Irish dancing, and many other useful skills.  Because it is summertime, Project Hope is now supporting summer camps.  Jordan and I have visited several: one at the Red Crescent (Red Cross) Society of Paletine, one in Balata Refugee Camp, and a third in the Old City.  We have helped teach English, and Jordan is playing A LOT of futbol, and in the evenings basketball, and I have a tutoring student whom I am helping to pass an English exam so that he can get his 2nd masters degree and PhD in Sydney, Australia.  He is the manager of transportation and communications at the Ministry of Health.

We have visited two refugee camps so far (there are four in Nablus), and they differ markedly from the rest of Nablus.  Even though the city is quite dense by Boulder or even Denver’s standards, the refugee camps give new meaning to the word, ‘density.’  I don’t recall the figures, but in one square mile they pack an insane amount of people — the passageways between homes and shops are tight with no room between homes whatsoever.  So, the next time you are annoyed by your neighbor’s obnoxious music, be grateful for the distance that you do have between your place and theirs — we are fortunate to have as much space as we do.

Here is a ‘Classic Nablus’ experience: upon departing from Hamooz, the oldest coffee shop in Palestine (established 120 years ago), I asked the proprietor where is his favorite falafel stand in Nablus — he directed me to one fairly close by, just 300m away.  On my way there, I heard a shout from a sewing machine repair shop, “Hello!  How are you?”  These sorts of exchanges occur dozens of times each day, sometimes I stop to engage, sometimes I continue on.  This time I chose to engage.  After exchanging a few questions, “What is your name?  Where are you from?”  “America!  Very good!  You are welcome!”  “Where are you going?”  I pointed to the falafel stand I had been guided to, all the men I was conversing with shook their heads, no no no, “that falafel not so good,” “Here, I will show you the best falafel in Nablus.”  I then followed the man as he led me several blocks down to the center of Nablus, through a maze of streets, and to The Best Falafel Stand, Nassir’s falafels.  He then insisted on paying for the falafels and walked me back to where we had met so that I could continue on to meet up with Jordan who was playing basketball.  This is Classic Nablus.

Jordan and I have noticed that we are treated differently when we are alone.  He does not get the same enthusiastic calls of “Hello!  What is your name?”  but instead people just begin speaking Arabic to him, because he looks as if he could be a native.  When we are together he notices how different it is, and even when we are together, people begin speaking English to me but Arabic to him.  He is enjoying the ‘stealth’ position that he is afforded with is features.

He is also getting to avail himself much more than I of the sweet delicacies of Nablus.  Kenafeh is the local specialty — and can be found everywhere…we are trying to give as many of them a try as possible.
Hakim, the capable and impressive (speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew, English and French — and is also a simultaneous interpreter — likely other languages too…) director of Project Hope, has introduced me to many key figures in Nablus.  I have met with the Academic Director of the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Nablus, and the President of the Balata Futbol Club (they are the top futbol team in Nablus and one of the top in the West Bank — two of their players are on the National team that will be playing in the Asia Cup later this year), and I have also had the honor to have met the mayor of Nablus who is also a member of the Palestinian parliament.  He is an impressive gentleman who has dedicated his life to serving his community and creating opportunities for peaceful coexistence.  I am hopeful that he will grace the city of Boulder with his presence.

There is so much more to share, but this is a snapshot of our experience in Nablus so far.  I have been posting pictures on the Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project’s FaceBook page — so if you go there, you can see the images that go along with the words here.  And, if you ‘like’ the page I think you will even get notified next time I post pictures…but I am not so sure about that.

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Report from Essrea Cherin, Board Chair, Boulder-Nablus Sister City Project — June, 2014