One last look at our Olive Tree

We left Palestine in the end of August, after spending the whole summer there. One of the first blog posts we ever wrote, was a summary of our fears and expectations. Back then, we gathered them in an olive tree, where the expectations were on the ground, waiting to move up the trunk of the tree as they (hopefully) would be fulfilled. The fears we visualized in dark clouds overshadowing our tree.

Now it has been more than a month since we sat on our separate flights, crying silently, as we left the Middle Eastern soil. For both of us, the process continued internally. You can not just leave such an experience and go back to your other life as if nothing happened. We finally took the courage to revisit the Olive Tree of Expectations, talked a lot on the phone (yes, we have a long distance relationship now!), and debriefed a lot.

What can be said about the initial tree of expectations is that it was indeed a good way of capturing the thoughts we had in the beginning of our time in Dheisheh. However, we clearly had little idea of what the summer was actually going to be like, and how deep this experience would touch us and stay with us.

In this post-Palestine blog post, we have hence changed our tree! The expectations from the first version have been moved upwards to the degree we feel they were fulfilled. The closer to the sky – the more fulfilled. The fears have gone from just a cloud to a sunny cloud if we were lucky enough to avoid them, and from just a cloud to a thunderstorm if we unfortunately were right in our predictions. We are sharing both the original tree, as well as the updated one to show what happened.

The olive tree pictures are then followed by our individual reflections.olives

Our first tree, that we initially posted on the blog back in June.

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And our updated tree, where the leaves have moved and clouds have changed.


 

TEA

Staying in Palestine for 2,5 months gave me so much more that I could ever expected. It opened new horizons, raised new questions, brought even a lot of different frustrations and it has challenged me more than I was able to predict, when I was leaving to this new world.

I learned a lot. Mostly because of living in a refugee camp, that really allowed to experience a bit of the life of Palestinians in this area. We have met really a lot of people, with different experiences- not only people in our camp and at work, but also people who lived in cities, like Ramallah, Nablus and even people who live on the other side – in Israel. And for sure one thing, that apply to all Palestinians is that they want to share; they tell their stories, stories of their family, of their past, their fears and their thoughts how they see the future. Sometimes it was so overwhelming hearing this, sometimes I couldn’t’ hold my tears, I had a choke in my throat and many times, I couldn’t’ find the words to reply. I would say that from this interaction, I learned the most- not only about them, but also about myself. Through their stories I have been exploring my own perceptions, reflection on my reactions and trying to figure out, what I think about all this.

In all this, language really wasn’t a problem. Many people spoke English. But I do wish I would learn more Arabic- at least for every day phrases, for greeting people, asking them how are they, being able to express basic things.
Most of the words I have learnt are connected to the food. We ate an amazing food and I would say food is really important part of their culture. It tells a lot about women there and how they are in charge for making the food and how – of course-it has to be done in their own traditional way. When Ida and me were preparing some “European food” they still prefered their food and their way of preparing it. I guess it’s really an important part of their tradition and this is something that matters a lot.

I guess I did learn a lot about the political situation there. For sure I know much more than I did before, but this also opened so many other questions that are still not answered. About their culture, perception and then also about why things are as they are. And many times, when I was asking this and pointing out how some of the things are not logical, they are unfair, they don’t make any sense, or are against the basic rules and are even violating human rights… I got the answer “We stopped asking why.” Many times they are powerless- not only in acting, but also in explaining and providing reasonable answer. Because so many things there doesn’t make any sense.

I saw a lot of bad things. Situations that are not fair, a lot of violence, people in distress, consequences of occupation that cuts into every aspect of life.
Israeli soldiers there are coming to the camp almost every night, looking for young boys to arrest them. This include shootings on the streets, gas bombs, sounds bombs. Palestinian boys are throwing rocks at them, which seems ridiculous, considering how armed the soldiers are. But after spending some time there and facing this, you start understanding the reasons, why they are doing this, no matter how useless can it seems. Maybe because they will never give up, maybe because they need to fight with whatever they have, maybe because of despair, maybe because they are teenagers and they are rebellious… or maybe because they don’t have much to lose anyway. They call it a “Tom and Jerry game” –never-ending chasing each other, provocations and humiliations.
Adolescence kids are taken to jail, being locked up for months even without trials. With harsh restrictions and limited possibilities for their parents and family to visit them. Sometimes when people are hit, the soldiers don’t let the ambulance to enter the camp and help them. Many boys limp, because they have been shot in the leg. Sometimes some of them die. They become a “shaheed” –martyr. Their pictures are being put all over the camp, the house of a martyr is being decorated, everything in the camps stops, shops are closed and the atmosphere change.

In all this, you really feel you have no rights, you feel powerless. Sometimes I felt sad, then angry, pissed-off, confused, scared, shocked…
And then I even started normalising this. Because it happened so often, that you cannot even be surprised anymore. Because in the meantime life goes on- you go to work, you play games in the cultural centre, you go to a wedding, you celebrate birthdays, you enjoy time with your friends and family.
And then- mostly in the night- you realise again, that this is not normal. That this kind of living is not normal, because you’re confused how you were actually having a pretty nice day, but at the same time there is shooting happening in front of your home.

So based on all those experience, I can say that also my biggest fears came true. The political situation there is not pleasant, I faced violence and too many times I felt despair, powerless and frustrated. And this feelings haven’t left, although I have left Palestine.

It is impossible to explain, that even because of this whole unpleasant and insecure situations that I was facing living in the camp, at the same time, I felt most safe in the camp. This was my home. And even though they broke into our home and violated my safe space, they didn’t managed to break down this feeling. Because the feeling of home and of feeling safe and being able to enjoy days and experience so many nice and amazing things, was created by people around me- because of them, their openness and their generosity. In this place, regardless of the situation, most of the times I felt amazing.

And this is just another example, how complex this whole Palestinian experience is for me.

I don’t think I contributed a lot and I constantly feel bad because of this. I don’t know what concretely could I do there, to shake away this feeling and what would make me feel better. But I wish I could do more. It is unbearable knowing what I know now, having this experience and trying to live my “old life” now. And this is why my Palestinian experience is not over yet. It is continuing every day, going beyond that 70 days I spent there.

IDA

The main expectations I had when starting my Palestinian adventure was to learn, and to grow. I wanted to learn about the culture, the people and the surroundings. When I think back, I feel like there are still more questions than answers. This summer opened my eyes for the Arab world and for Palestine in particular, but I feel like I could spend years there and still come home and tell my friends that it is a confusing place. Maybe this is the charm? I think it was important for me to come home to rainy Denmark for a month, to really be able to reflect on the experience and how it shaped me.

I came to Palestine, or more precisely to Dheisheh refugee camp, with an open and curious mindset and not so much knowledge about the conflict. I think I lived in a bubble where I thought I knew some of the history of the region, but looking back, I had no idea. I did not know in practical terms what it entails to live a life (for generations) under occupation. I did not know what it means to live a life where you are completely powerless. This feeling that the life of yourself, your family and your friends are not in your own hands, but in the hands of an external entity with machine guns, this is a bit fucked up. You can’t even control your water. You can’t go to the beach. This summer gave me an insight into the very local Dheisheh life, which is not really representative of life of all Arabs, or all Palestinians. The camp life is different in many ways. It is unstable, it’s unfair and it’s sometimes radical. Still, when I go back to the Westbank, I don’t see myself staying anywhere else.

This morning I read the newspaper at my breakfast table. I saw an announcement of a study trip to “Israel/Palestine”. Lately, I really started disliking this label. Often this place is referred to as a two-sided conflict between two state-like entities that just can’t get along. Israel/Palestine is not a place guys, and framing it like this doesn’t say anything about how unbalanced and multileveled the situation really is. I am aware that my perception of this place is a biased one. To every story there are different angles, and this summer gave me an insight into one of them. To this specific story however, I engaged fully and with my whole mind and heart.

Culturally, I think I could be an Arab. At least we have the same concept of time and the same taste in food (minus the meat). The first thing I did however, when returning to Denmark, was to open a beer. Now, looking back at the non-alcohol culture and the crazy music and dancing I do appreciate it a lot. What I will never understand however, is how Arabs can drink their coffee at midnight. Culturally, this summer was an amazing learning experience. Living so closely with other people, with thin walls and no privacy, really gave us the opportunity to dive into another reality culturally.

One of the most amazing things about the Arab world is the language. It’s so old and so colorful and it reflects to depth and the beauty of the culture. Even if the local slang we learnt doesn’t support us in understanding ancient poetry for me it did spark an interest that I had to engage with. Back home, I signed up for a basic course in Syrian Arabic, which I am now attending every Monday evening. Syrian Arabic is apparently a nice and soft dialect, and similar to what is spoken in Palestine. In class I realized I feel very emotionally connected to the words that I learnt in the camp. For sure Damascus Arabic is more user friendly, but Dheisheh slang is closer to my heart.

Before coming to Palestine I also had fears about this experience, mainly related to violence. I think there are things in that environment that no human should ever have to experience. However, if this is your daily life, you find a way to live through it. Palestinians are tough. Not because it is some pre-existing personality trait they all have since birth, but because they have to. And sometimes, you need to find ways to enjoy life and have fun regardless of all the dark clouds that surround you.
I actually don’t think we really saw a lot of direct violence. Sometimes however, just to threat of violence and the constant fear is even worse. Mentally, it’s always there.
I didn’t expect to be so affected by the nightly raids. I hated them, but I slept well most of the nights. Back home, loud sounds still freak me out, and make me mad, even after a month.

We also feared not being included in the community. For me, this was a reflection of being a foreigner, not speaking the language and of being a woman. I think we were very lucky. We ended up with people who welcomed us with open arms, introduced to their families and made us feel like home. I don’t think we were ever fully integrated, and some things related to family-planning, marriage and gender roles, I could never fully adapt, but the fact is that Dheisheh is my Middle Eastern safe-space and home, and I will go back. For sure, the best part about this whole experience were the people. Shukran everyone.

I had a beautiful summer. I learnt so many things, I saw so many places and I got to know so many cool people. I laughed a lot, I slept good and I felt like I was doing the right thing. There are so many stories and memories that are waiting to be told! Still, when someone asks me about the experience I never have time to come to this. I get stuck at soldiers, fucked-upness and hopelessness. I don’t know why it happens. I don’t know why I can’t speak about knafeh or the games that we played with the kids in the street or how me and Tea ended up dancing with the bride at that wedding. Instead, I still have this urge to tell people around me about the occupation and how hard it is to live normally under it. Somehow, this is just a small part of it all. Palestine is so much more than misery! I don’t think it’s possible to go there, and not fall in love with the place.

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