An Eclectic Mixture of Beauty and Suffering
By: Elisa Lintern
These past two weeks at An-Naja University have been transformational for myself and so many of the other international volunteers. I found the trip to be an eclectic mixture of beauty and suffering. On one hand, Zajel Program did not shy away from showing us the reality of life here, with a tour of Askar refugee camp early on the agenda, where we slipped through alleyways between houses hardly wide enough for one person to walk down, never mind to walk down two abreast. During our trip to Hebron we witnessed our Palestinian friends being turned away from a street and forced to take a 4km detour, and we ourselves spent almost an hour getting through a checkpoint due to the passport and bag checks, metal detectors and questioning. Even some of our most joyous moments were bittersweet: splashing about ankle-deep in the Mediterranean on our trip into Israeli territories should have been blissful- as it was for many of us- but I was also so aware that for many of the locals it was the first time any of them had seen the sea, and none among us could say for sure when they'd next have the chance to see it again. The young people we worked with in workshops were open and honest with us about their problems: many of them spoke of family and friends in prison in Gaza or Jerusalem, who they couldn't get visas to visit, of the crimes they had witnessed or experienced as children, and of the worry they feel when they try to envision their futures as individuals and as Palestinians.
But on the other hand, our experiences here were overwhelmingly positive. We were welcomed with humbling hospitality, generosity and patience, from not only the Zajel local volunteers, but the students and people we met along our way. We attended a wedding party where we were fed, danced with and marked with orange henna to symbolize joy. In Askar we had the privilege of seeing the children perform traditional dance for us, on a stage where one of the surrounding walls bore a bright mural with the words "their artillery can't kill our roots". A personal highlight was our night spent in the desert with Bedouins after we went to Bethlehem, after which we drove to watch the sun rise over the Dead Sea. Even the frankness with which the students spoke about their issues in our workshop was a positive, as their willingness to share what they experience (let alone in a language they aren't all confident speaking) was nothing short of inspirational.
Alongside friendships, amazing hummus and, for some, the discovery of a love for teaching, I think I speak unanimously when I say that the internationals here were given something incredibly valuable: the opportunity to interact with a culture which is being intentionally suffocated and stifled by another and yet is persevering. There are terrible things happening here, for sure, but, more importantly, there are- despite the odds- still wonderful things happening. Zajel is one of them.