Turkish Coffee etc . . .
After our coffee we met up with some other students for a tour of the village Birzeit, where we are living. I’ve been here for a couple days and thought I’d pretty much seen everything, but I was very, very wrong. Apparently the part of the village that I live in is the new part, but the old village is fascinating. Some of the houses are hundreds of years old, although most of them are now abandoned and falling apart. I guess the town is named Beir Zeit (Zeit = olive, Bier =well) because the homes in the old village have wells inside that they used to store olive oil. The town also has four churches . . . the biggest one is the Catholic Church, and I guess it is the biggest one in the Ramallah area, although one of our guides tried to claim that it was the biggest in all of Palestine – I guess his father helped build it . . . There is also a Greek Orthodox Church, and I can’t recall now if the third was Presbyterian or Protestant; this is an example of my glaring ignorance regarding the history of Christianity. Anyway, it was really interesting and I can’t wait to go back with my camera. Our guide said that Birzeit was founded by five tribes, three of which were Christian and other two were Muslim. The land is still owned by the families, but now they live in the newer part of the village. We also saw the original Birzeit University building, where it began as a secondary school before growing into one of the biggest universities in Palestine.
During our walk, our guide pointed out the Israeli settlement that is closest to Birzeit as well as the refugee camp that is right below it (most settlements are built on hills). He also showed us where the checkpoint is on the only road that leads north to Nablus and Jenin. It isn’t actually the only road, but the Israeli’s have closed the others for “security” or for settlement roads. He said the soldiers recently acquired (stole) more land because they are planning to build a permanent checkpoint on the road. We also stopped by the student center, which is a place where students can go to do work. There is a small coffee shop inside and a couple of computers with internet connection, and I think they’re free, so I will have to go back and investigate some more. Although since I’m on a government fellowship, I feel like I should spend the money in the town and maybe help out the economy a little since so much of US money goes to guns, military training, and general support for the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces, which seems more accurate than Israeli Defense Forces). Most of the walls and building here have graffiti, a lot of which is politically motivated. One that stood out to me was a trash can where some kids had spray painted “Sharon” in big red Arabic script. We also saw the Women’s Clinic, which was open 24 hours for a while, but has run out of funding so is now open sporadically. I’d like to check it out and see what kind of services they offer and if they need any volunteers.
On the surface Birzeit and Ramallah seem like they are doing pretty well, but you don’t have to dig very far to find problems. There is a refugee camp that is basically a part of the village – but it is not technically a refugee camp because the homes were not built by the UN or with UN funding. I guess one of the local churches donated the land, but now they want it back to expand, but the refugees aren’t moving, so this could become a problem. There are a lot of businesses for a small town, and it seems busy since all northward traveling traffic has to pass through Birzeit, but there are a lot of young men without jobs and a lot of tension in the air. I suspect that I will find a very different reality when I travel to Bethlemham, Hebron, Nablus and Jenin; all places that have been hit hard by the occupation and the Wall.
Then we went for dinner at the local restaurant that serves alcohol, where the owner already knows my name, and apparently all the service staff do as well. I’ve only been there one other time, which means word has gotten out that there is an Arab girl in the International Student Program . . . Oh well, I hope the gossip is at least interesting.
Tomorrow my Arabic classes start. I have the afternoon free and since I now have an adapter and have charged my camera battery, hopefully tomorrow I will head back into the old village and take some pictures.