Finding family far from home

Student says she found the real Palestine. (Submitted)

Waking up wasn’t that hard. At dawn, the man who sells the pita bread, sweet breads, and buns was all ready outside on the street yelling. His cart was waiting for customers who were eager to get fresh bread for their families. If his yelling didn’t wake me up, a cup of well-brewed Arabic coffee that was strong enough to wake the dead would set me straight. That, with a side of oven-warm pita bread dipped in olive oil and sprinkled with zatar (thyme) was a great way to start the day.

Walking to work around 8 a.m., I would feel the sun on my neck and arms. I wiped away the beads of sweat slowly forming around my forehead with my kuffiyeh (traditional Palestinian scarf). The only shade on the way was from the pink hibiscus tree that grew on the corner of our street. I loved the way the petals got caught in my hair and teased my hot cheeks.

The rest of the way to work was all in the sun.  I would dodge the white and blue mini-buses that whizzed and zigg-zagged among the morning traffic. Every car was filled with men sporting the black and white kuffiyehs. The yawning and perpetually bored policeman stood on the corner of road, directing traffic. But most of the time he would sit on the plastic lawn chair in the shade, talking with passers-by.

Kids would already be walking to school. The girls were dressed in navy blue skirts and grey shirts. Their big, soft, brown eyes matched their smiling faces as they waved to me. The boys were rowdy, chasing after soccer balls or loudly calling to friends on the other side of the street.

Most of the stores would be opening now, the owners standing outside in bunches, having their morning coffee and cigarette while scanning the newspaper. Walking towards Bethlehem I could see the hills of the West Bank, hazy behind the morning heat, dotted with the settlements.

Work would start with a cigarette on the balcony and finish with a cigarette on the balcony. Story writing would be punctuated by arguments over the current situation and groans of disgust or agony over the daily reporting. Sometimes, it was hard to keep one’s emotions in check when you had to write about a 16-year-old who was arrested and detained for months on end.

But this is what a typical work day looked like in Palestine.

I travelled to the Palestinian occupied territories as part of a volunteer program that gave  participants the chance to experience Palestinian culture while working in their professional field in the West Bank. I worked for PNN, Palestine News Network, an independent internet media outlet in Bethlehem and lived with a Palestinian Eastern Orthodox Christian family in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem.

I had decided that by living and working in and around the six-decade old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would be able to tackle some of the greatest challenges journalists, and especially aspiring foreign correspondents, face.

***

I stared down the barrel of the M-16 assault rifle the Israeli soldier held firmly in his hands. It was pointed at my chest. There was a line of international volunteers, mostly from the Holy Land Trust, the non-profit organization I had volunteered with, standing opposite the soldiers.

The volunteers decided on this Friday they would come to Al-Wallajah, a small village outside of Bethlehem, to protest and show solidarity with the locals from the village. The protest was about the confiscation of surrounding farm land in and around the village for the continued building of the security barrier between Israel and Palestine.

I could feel the sweat pouring in streams down my forehead, my back, my arms, and my neck as I stood, only my eyes peering out from behind the scarf that was on my head. I could see spots in my eyes. My mouth was dry. The soldier’s dark green uniform was padded with a Kevlar vest, complete with a walkie-talkie radio, binoculars, and what looked like a grenade. He couldn’t have been more than 25. Other soldiers stood on the sides of the road and filmed us.

A scuffle ensued and we were all shoved back, repeatedly being told, “Get back, move back, move back now!” The pushing and shoving stopped soon enough. My entire body trembled in the scorching afternoon heat.

As I drudged slowly back to the village, leaving the soldiers standing in the hot sun, I looked out over their heads. I saw olive orchards, thinking there was a painful irony that the olive branch was a sign of peace.

***

“We think of you as our daughter, Anna. I talk to you like I talk to my daughter,” my host grandmother said to me as we sipped some steaming hot Arabic coffee on the porch of the home. My host grandfather nodded and smiled warmly before taking a long drag of his cigarette and sipping on his own coffee. He was in his signature silk red pyjamas. My grandmother craned her neck to see if anyone was walking down the street. They both beamed at me before continuing to talk amongst themselves in Arabic.

I had been living with my host family for a little over two weeks now. My grandmother taught me how to make real Arabic coffee while gossiping with me about her daughter-in-law. My dad would share his cigarettes and shisha pipe with me, while we chatted about politics. On hot Sunday evenings, we would all pile into the car and go for ice cream, along with my two sisters and little brother.

My mom took me to St. Nicolas’ Church where my grandmother starred in the church choir.  We went to church together as a family and ate supper together as a family.

I smiled to myself: families are the same everywhere. Human beings are the same everywhere. I turned my head to look out over into the street and the city.

The hot July sun was slowly setting down over the hills of the West Bank. It was rush hour and you could hear the honks and beeps of cars on the main street in Beit Jala. The sky was a pale blue, a hot evening haze settling over the city.

I found it hard to swallow the wonderfully bitter, frothy coffee. I could feel my eyes filling up with tears.

Some 10,000 kilometers away from everything I had ever known, under military occupation, I found something. I found hope. I found Palestine.

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