Image forming 1: confusion

After having worked for a while as a volunteer, I tried to understand what I had learned during my stay. This is something that’s hard to ascertain, because I have to puncture preconceived opinions, propaganda and my own image forming. I have to return to 2008 to explain what I mean.

In 2008 I entered the West Bank for the first time with a group of Dutch people during a trip organized by a Dutch Christian organisation for peace and I thought: “so this is the burdened area that I only know from the evening news: the area of Palestinian suicide bombers, terrorists and other violent people.”

But when I entered the house of my Palestinian host family for the first time I was baffled when I saw that they dress the same as we do, that their TV looks like ours, that their kitchen would have fitted in any Dutch house and that their dreams and favourite television programs don’t differ much from ours. The first revolution in my image forming was established: I had discovered that Palestinians are actually very normal people.

The need to adjust one’s convictions is overwhelming, but normal in Palestine. It happens to every person from the West. One surprise is followed by another.

During my trip in 2008 my image of Palestine and the Palestinians would be honed even further. We visited lots of peace projects and we often sat in a room listening to stories about Palestinian suffering, feeling goose-flesh all over, or about the captivating non-violent battle for justice of the Palestinian and Israeli activists. So I discovered that Palestine has a very active peace movement (see blog: The Third Intifada) and that Palestinians can even be peace activists.

In 2008 we also visited the Old City of Hebron, in the south of the West Bank. The Old City, or historic centre, is a strange case. Israeli settlers think they are entitled to this centre and they are in the process of taking it over house by house (sometimes in a violent manner). As soon as a Palestinian house has been taken over, Palestinians are not allowed to come in the vicinity of this house anymore, otherwise the Israelis feel unsafe (!). Palestinian shops underneath the seized house are shut down without mercy and the Palestinian shopkeepers have no income anymore. Some streets are blocked off by barbed wire. And taking photos of this situation while feeling despair, you notice the heavily armed Israeli soldiers on rooftops who watch your every move. The Israeli settlers deliberately drop all sorts of junk from their windows onto the street: stones, bottles, curb stones, feces and bars. This has caused injuries to Palestinians more than once, but the Israeli army does not intervene as long as the settlers stay unharmed. In most of the little shopping streets pedestrians walk underneath steel grills that protect them. The Old City of Hebron: a city where you can feel the suffering of the Palestinians. A city that will leave you with cold shivers running down your spine.

1. Little street in the Old City.
2. A
black and red dot on the door of your shop means: forced closure.
3. O
ne of the Israeli soldiers on top of a roof.
4, 5. S
teel grills over the little shopping streets protect Palestinians.

In 2008 we came as tourists and – outraged by all the injustice we had seen – we left as activists. Charged with new images of Palestinians as peace activists rather than terrorists.

In March 2010, just before my departure, I was confronted again with the images that still dominate the way most Dutch people think. People around me wished me a good trip and made jokes, such as: “Don’t forget your bullet proof vest!” and “Don’t come back with a beard” or “Make sure you duck in time if bullets are flying around!”

Well, I just laughed with them about those jokes. After all I used to “suffer” from those kinds of images too. Palestinians know we think about them this way and they find it awful, but I knew better myself. There was nothing wrong with the images that I had anymore: ever since 2008 I know that Palestinians are peace loving people and that nobody in Palestine leads a normal life and that therefore every Palestinian is involved in peace projects. You can’t do anything else in Palestine, because I hadn’t seen anything else in 2008. No more surprises for me! I knew everything!

Or was disillusionment waiting for me once again? Could it happen that I had to snap out of my convictions again to adjust my image of Palestine once more?

On April 5th 2010 I arrived in Jenin. Jenin’s centre has a colourful range of shops, mainly clothing shops but also hardware and mobile phone stores which are absolutely not inferior to Dutch stores. You can see loads of “happy shopping Palestinians” here. They enjoy the food they buy in the falafel, kebab or pastry stores. No peace activists that tell emotional stories, no goose-flesh. So could it be that it’s good being a Palestinian after all? Could it be that the occupation isn’t that bad? How should I understand Palestinian suffering if they seem to have lots of fun?

It was starting to get complicated. The first cracks in my image forming were appearing again. So Palestine is more than grey tones and suffering, it can be very enjoyable too!

At first I thought that this apparent joy of living was only reality in Jenin, but Nablus and Ramallah were even bigger shopping paradises. In Nablus I saw a new modern cinema, which most of our cinemas cannot match. In Ramallah there’s even a nightlife that is getting more and more known. When a Palestinian in Tulkarm explained to me: “we are trying to live the good life”, I didn’t get it anymore. “But how can you live without having the occupation on your mind?” I asked. “No, the occupation is always part of our life”, he said.

Well……..a good life under the occupation? How confusing…!


Ramallah

DSC00463
Nablus

I didn’t know why I visited Hebron again in 2010, because in 2008 I had learned that you don’t go to Hebron to have a good time. This time the service taxi did not drive straight into the Old City, but entered Hebron through the modern centre. I couldn’t believe my eyes: even more shops than in Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin, even fancier buildings, even classier shop windows. I was walking through the busy animated streets and suddenly I saw a street that was blocked off with barbed wire and an Israeli flag. I knew I had entered the Old City. I looked over my shoulder and in the distance I saw the shops of the modern city centre. Blast……….had they urged us in 2008 to continue walking 50 meters more than we did, we would have left Hebron with an entirely different image. At that moment I decided to leave the Old City because I was just too uncomfortable with my confusion. A bit piqued I started to adjust my image again.


Hebron.

Once I had returned in Bethlehem I told a colleague about my “discovery” in Hebron. “Hebron is simply splendid” I told him, I had a wonderful afternoon”. “But how should I put the Old City and the new centre together”, I asked. My colleague started to smile and said: “You have to get used to the fact that the occupation and a day of shopping go hand in hand here. It’s both part of our life.”

What everyday life means in an occupied country is difficult to understand and to interpret for somebody from the West. In line with this is the difficulty as to how to define Palestinian suffering. “Let’s be reasonable, I thought, “if you can shop all day long then how serious can your suffering be?”

Or was I wrong once again?……..

To be continued in: Image forming 2: suffering in layers


1. Shop window in East-Jerusalem
2. Ramallah (shopping mall)
3. Bethlehem
4. Hebron (shopping mall)

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