I had decided to cut my time in Damascus a little short in order to spend a month volunteering at Karama, a children’s charity in the West Bank. As Syria doesn’t recognise Israel’s legitimacy (in fact, it will barely even deign to call it ‘Israel,’ preferring ‘Occupied Palestine’), I could hardly fly straight from Damascus to Tel Aviv, so I opted to go to London for a weekend of R&R first. Some delightful family friends kindly put me up, and looked after me very well. I reveled in their hospitality: home cooking (including a fantastic chilli con carne second only to my mother’s), Australian wine, Vegemite, a comfortable bed and Eurovision. I also caught up with some very good friends over dinner, went for a proper run, ate sushi for the first time in months, and drank my weight in fresh milk, so all in all it was a super mini-break.
I flew to Tel Aviv on Sunday without a single drama. I wasn’t flying El Al, but I had nonetheless been anticipating an interrogation before boarding my flight. El Al staff, the Shin Bet and Israeli border control are notorious for their thorough profiling and questioning of all foreigners (and even expat Israelis) attempting to enter Israel. Indeed, on my last trip to Israel I was questioned for four hours at HKIA before being allowed to board the flight to Tel Aviv at the last-minute. I’ve read a lot of scathing criticism of Israeli methods, as well as speculation that they’re just needless, discriminatory bullying, but in fact they only act through necessity, and it’s not for nothing that their national airline is lauded as the world’s safest. El Al’s sophisticated security precautions were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to attempted attacks and hijackings, and they have successfully thwarted all hijacking and bombing attempts ever since.
Incidentally, I know precisely why I was subjected to such rigorous checks on my last trip. First, I was a young, unmarried woman travelling alone. Single women are considered to be high-risk passengers, for fear they may be used, whether willingly or unknowingly, by Arab/Palestinian/Muslim lovers to carry bombs. It’s happened before – in 1986, Irishwoman Anne-Marie Murphy, pregnant by her Palestinian lover, attempted to board a flight to Israel at Heathrow. Her story raised suspicions, and when her luggage – packed by her boyfriend and already cleared by an X-ray – was re-examined by screeners, four kilograms of explosives were found concealed in the lining. Second, there was an anomaly in my itinerary, and this too rings alarm bells. My dad was working in Manila at the time, and I hadn’t seen him for a few months, so he suggested I spend my 24-hour layover with him, rather than in Hong Kong. The fact that I had no ‘proof’ (receipts etc) of my stay, because dad had paid my expenses, coupled with my elusiveness about my dad’s work, did not go down well. Even though I had nothing to hide, the barrage of questions was unnerving and my edginess was compounded by my awareness that my every move was being monitored and decoded. I clearly presented as terribly suspicious!
So anyway, while I acknowledge and respect the necessity of Israel’s vigilance vis-à-vis its security, I was nonetheless thrilled to bypass the disconcerting interrogation process. I was pulled aside immediately upon disembarking at Ben Gurion International Airport and asked, “You’re here alone? What is the purpose of your visit?” but my carefree “I’m on holiday” and the mere mention of a few of my Israeli friends’ names was enough to satisfy the employee of my innocence and good intentions. Never mind that I was actually headed for the West Bank…
I had prearranged for a driver to collect me from the airport, and I was soon delivered to the house of Yasser – the charity director – in Dheisheh, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. From the outset, I didn’t like him. He was unfriendly and seemingly unable to abide by acceptable social conventions, and within the first five minutes I was wondering whether he was an imposter, and whether he actually ran a charity. The very first thing he said to me was “don’t worry, you won’t be raped here, just don’t go outside naked,” the second thing he said was “some of my previous volunteers were spies,” he asked me a lot of bizarre, irrelevant questions, he stared at me for long periods of time in line with some psycho-analytical bullshit pretence of ‘studying’ me in order to get to know me, and then he’d sit for even longer periods, chain-smoking and staring into space. When I asked him any questions – about himself, the charity, the refugee camp, what my daily program would be like – he’d either accuse me of not having done any research, of being uninformed, or he’d tell me to calm down, to stop being nervous, that I’d have to settle in and get to know my host family before I’d start working. He also announced that Rhiannon was too difficult to pronounce, and said he was going to call me Stacey instead. I firmly insisted he call me Rhiannon, which made him visibly angry. He baffled me, and I felt far from comfortable with him, but I wasn’t overly unsettled. After my four months of dealing with the constant harassment and intimidating tactics of Syrian men, it takes rather a lot to perturb me.
I was taken around the corner to my host family’s apartment. They were perfectly pleasant, and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief at the sight of a Western toilet in the bathroom, but I had to steel myself at the prospect of living there for a month. The apartment was of the standard of all the apartments I rejected in Damascus. The family – the parents and their five children aged 17 to two – did little but watch television all day long, had a terrible diet (hot chips for breakfast, coke as the thirst quencher of choice), squatted on the dirty floor to eat their meals, which they scooped up with their fingers, and had questionable personal hygiene. I was given my own room, but the concept of privacy was lost on them – even when I barricaded the door with my suitcase, they’d force the door open. Within 24 hours the two-year-old son had seen me naked on account of the no-closed-doors policy. I was mortified, but at least it wasn’t the 17-year-old son who walked in one me while I was dressing! I was in hell, but felt confident I could last there for a month.
My first night in Deheishe was the night of the flotilla incident. Yasser came to visit me the next morning, made me watch ten minutes of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the night’s events, and then harangued me about the “illegal occupation” and the international community’s complicity in Palestinian suffering. He insisted 16 activists had been ‘murdered,’ and was mightily affronted when I pointed out that Al Jazeera was reporting nine deaths; he claimed any reports that the people onboard the ship were terrorists or terrorist-affiliated was just Israeli propaganda; he swore that the Israelis were unprovoked and had launched a premeditated raid on the ship in order to kill the innocent, rock-wielding activists in cold blood (here Yasser was attempting to stretch the standard David and Goliath narrative – in which beleaguered Palestinians are forced to use rocks to defend themselves against Israeli tanks and bullets – to the Mavi Marmara activists). I snorted at his suggestion that rocks were used as defensive weapons (“what, rocks on a ship?!”), which did not go down well. He then wanted to know what I thought about the incident. I said I did not feel at liberty to comment on it, as I hardly knew any of the details; that watching ten minutes of news coverage in a foreign language only a few hours after the event was not sufficient material from which to draw conclusions. He was livid: “I am so offended, we are under illegal occupation, you shouldn’t need to know all the details, or excuses, or reasons for Israeli aggression, you should just know that their behaviour and activities are illegal”. I then queried why we were even discussing the incident, when the day before he had gone to great lengths to assure me that Karama was not a political organisation, and that politics were not to be discussed during my time there. Nor did this go down well – he sat in silence forages, smoking away. I thought I was being diplomatic, but in retrospect it may have been more sensible to offer some meaningless platitudes about the evil Israelis and the poor Palestinians.
The rest of our second encounter was as strange as our first. I was subjected to more psychoanalysis and was told, “you’re confident but arrogant, you’re too polite, and you like people to think you’re strong but you’re actually weak”. He was visibly unimpressed when I politely but assertively challenged his assessments. My queries about the nature of the charity work were met once again with “we’ll discuss it when you’re less nervous”. He also told me I’d have to agree to not travel outside of the camp while I was volunteering, which contradicted the guidelines I’d agreed to before my arrival. They stipulated that as long as I informed Yasser and the host family of my plans, I’d be free to do as I pleased on my days off. I was even more baffled than before, but because he assured me that I’d start working on Wednesday, I was content to sit tight.
In the meantime, I didn’t leave the apartment. I was desperate for fresh air, plus I was curious about the refugee camp, so I kept asking the children to take me for a walk to show me around, but they always had an excuse. I could be reading too much into their refusals, but I have a feeling they were under strict instructions from Yasser to keep me inside.
By 3 pm on Wednesday, I still hadn’t heard from Yasser. I had been keeping my parents up-to-date regarding Yasser’s comments and behaviour, and when I spoke to them that afternoon, they told me to leave immediately. My dad’s impression was that he was trying to be an alpha-male and was attempting to force me into an emotionally submissive position by controlling my movements and criticising me, possibly in line with a sinister motive such as kidnapping me and demanding a ransom (during one of our encounters, Yasser had asked me whether my parents are wealthy). I didn’t need to be told twice; if my father is concerned about my safety, I know it’s time to move.
Dad told me to leave without drawing Yasser’s attention, lest he try to prevent my departure. I called my friend Asi to ask his advice – I wasn’t sure whether an Israeli taxi would be able to enter Dheisheh to collect me – but he told me to sit tight for a couple of hours, because he’d pick me up from the checkpoint at 5 pm. I packed up my things, but what with the lack of privacy in the apartment, the daughters soon got wind that I was planning to leave. I told them I had to go to Jerusalem for a few days to tend to a personal matter, but they eyed me suspiciously, and insisted I had to speak to Yasser about it. I stated emphatically that I had no need to speak with him, that I just needed to get to the checkpoint by 5, and could they please arrange a taxi to take me there. All I got in reply were repeated insistences that I had to see Yasser first. At this point I was starting to feel terribly uneasy, and concerned that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave.
The mother pretended to telephone for a taxi for me, but I knew she was stalling for time. Sure enough, Yasser’s deputy soon arrived. He was breathless and sweating profusely, so I inferred he’d made haste to intercept me at the apartment. He launched into a speech about who he was and how busy he’d been, but I cut him off, telling him I couldn’t care less who he was or what he did, and that all I was interested in was getting a taxi to the checkpoint, so there had better be one on its way to collect me. He accused me of being aggressive, angry and shouting at him. I was frustrated and scared, but I had been assertive, rather than aggressive, and I certainly hadn’t raised my voice, so I told him he hadn’t seen angry yet, and if a taxi didn’t arrive in the next few minutes, I’d give him angry. More accusations followed, but I thought it best to ignore him for the time being.
Finally, a taxi arrived, but the drama wasn’t over: the driver proceeded to drive me in the wrong direction. I may have been unfamiliar with Dheisheh, but I had paid attention to my surroundings upon my arrival, and I knew the checkpoint lay in the opposite direction. When I challenged the driver, he insisted we were going in the right direction. I was terrified that he was whisking me away on the orders of Yasser, and my mobile wasn’t working, so it was all a bit traumatic. An argument ensued, during which he telephoned someone on his mobile and told them I was being difficult, and I was just bracing myself to jump out of the taxi when he finally did a u-turn and started travelling in the right direction. Once we were at the checkpoint, he actually let me borrow his mobile to call Asi, who arrived within minutes. I’ve never been so relieved to see someone in my entire life.
It had been all very dramatic, but, I’m pleased to report, I didn’t panic, and I didn’t dissolve into tears. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to spend the month living in the West Bank, as it would have been a remarkably insightful experience. Nonetheless, I can report that in terms of its appearance and facilities, Dheisheh isn’t all that different from Damascus. The very term ‘refugee camp’ is a bit of a misnomer – it conjures images of tent dwellings, a lack of basic infrastructure, no luxuries, and abject poverty. In actual fact, people live in regular apartments, there is no shortage of essential supplies such as food and clean running water, and luxuries abound. The family I stayed with had state-of-the-art mobile phones, a television in every room, satellite television, a computer, the internet, more than enough food, and wardrobes brimming with clothes.
This is not to say that the residents of Dheisheh are well-off, have an easy time or lead an enviable life, but given that the Palestinians are the recipients of more aid and more charity than any other people in the world, it’s rather astonishing that they still live in relative squalor. Jerusalem is moments away, and yet the contrast between the two places is sharp. I conclude that standards of living are mainly attributable to the attitude and the mentality of the people and their leaders. I know where I’d rather live!