Something that struck me forcibly while in the West Bank a month ago was the incredible strength of Palestinian women. Far from the cliché of barely visible, submissive domestics, I found an attractive, feisty bunch, full of muscle (not only physical, also psychological), intelligence, confidence and humour and, as such, the bedrock of their families. So here are a few thoughts.
Last night in London, opening the Palestine Film Festival at the Barbican, I saw Najwa Najjar’s moving new film, Eyes of a Thief. This confirms, yet again, the ability of Palestinian women to creatively soar above the 60-year old conflict. In this case, the focus was the bloody period of the Second Intifada and its aftermath, seen in a series of flashbacks to 2002. Political and emotional, based on a true story, the film is, in director Najjar’s words, “a scream for peace”. However as she articulated after the screening, she feels hope is slowly ebbing away. In contrast, here she is, in buoyant mood afterwards – apologies for the abysmal pic quality.
The reality of Nablus
Much of the film was shot in and around Nablus, the beautiful old town where I spent some time a few weeks ago, as well as referring to Sebastiya, which I wrote about here. When I first visited Nablus in 2008, it was just emerging from years of vicious revenge by the Israeli army for its violent role in the Second Intifada. The Huwwara checkpoint on the road from Ramallah still imposed hours of queuing and humiliating body searches, while curfews, shelling, nightly incursions by tanks, house-searches, arrests and killings were par for the course.
In the old walled kasbah, chilling posters of ‘martyrs’ clutching machine-guns plastered the walls (above) while many buildings looked shelled to bits. As a historical centre of resistance, Nablus suffered more than any other West Bank city, with hundreds dead and injured, or whisked away to Israeli prisons. And yet – I still had a fascinating time chatting and photographing in cafés and shops, mainly encountering older men who were outgoing, curious and very funny. You can see that from my pics of the time.
And here’s the king of knafeh at the Al Aqsa café, that gooey sweet cheesecake that makes grown men weep for more…I saw him again in October, still stirring those pans.
This time, however, there was far greater commercial energy and even regeneration of the lovely old Ottoman town. Nablus appeared to be regaining its role as economic capital of the West Bank, sometimes making it hard to remember that this is a country under occupation. The main checkpoint had gone, while the town of 130,000 people was visibly expanding, creeping up the steep hillsides on either side to look out at Israel’s illegal settlements on neighbouring hilltops. But in contrast with 2008, younger men seemed passive, the faded posters were ripped by the wind and rain, or had disappeared entirely. Had all motivation gone?
The only strength I sensed came from the women. I met a diverse handful at the impressive Beit Al Karama, a cultural centre set up a couple of years ago, mainly to provide workshops and counselling for women who had lost their children in the Intifada. Here I watched a glorious lunch being prepared for a dozen or so visitors (unexpectedly and impressively, a British tour group, Political Tours).
Over lunch, Beesan, a ferociously smart young woman who spoke impeccable English, explained the political past and present of Nablus. One of her points was that 59% of university students are women. Below is Mouna, the quietly efficient head cook, in front of a mountainous maqloubeh made with lamb, toasted almonds and freekeh.
Back to celluloid takes on the occupation: another, more insidious aspect explored in Najjar’s film attracted her comment in the q + a session afterwards: “In 2002 we knew who the enemy was. Now it’s changed. Corruption is a disease created by occupation”. Without revealing the plot, I’ll just say that one of the characters embodies this.
This surfaced, too, in the village of Burin, just south of Nablus, where I stayed for the olive harvest last October (see my blog here). Bright young men, including one who had recently been shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier for no reason, told us about settler attacks, but also about village “spies”, i.e. informers. Knowing they exist, but not knowing who they are is yet another nail in the coffin of trust and social cohesion.
But the women of the village were another story entirely. They were (mainly) the ones organising the family olive harvest, helped by teenage sons and daughters, occasionally with a husband or elder son who would often seem severely depressed or, at least, withdrawn. And no wonder. The situation is such that their lives are limited, without meaning or hope, so they have to construct an inner life. They have no rights, freedom of movement or homeland. Emasculation is hardly the word.
In contrast, these women below, led by Zohaire, second from left, the gutsy village councillor, were full of the joys of a harvest picnic…ominously watched over by Bracha, an expanding ideological Israeli settlement bristling with watchtowers.
Another day, when it rained, warm-hearted Dilal, her chain-smoking husband, Ahmed, and their listless, unemployed son, rapidly erected a makeshift tent from the ground tarpaulins. “Come – come!” she beckoned. So seven of us squeezed inside to kill time while telling stories, drinking syrupy coffee from a thermos, and keeping dry.
The moment the rain stopped she was out busying herself with a gas-burner. Soon a feast of entirely homemade meze materialised – creamy hummus swimming in luscious olive oil, a silky reduction of tomatoes and garlic, cheese from her own sheep’s milk, cured olives, aromatic za’atar (wild thyme seasoning), delectable grape jam, and of course mountains of flat-bread.
This spread, put together with huge smiles, was typical – possibly equalled by our lunch with another woman, Doha, a muscular little ball of energy who even lugged a pressure-cooker to her grove. That was between moving ladders and tarpaulins, picking olives in the upper branches, answering her mobile, later whizzing someone off to Nablus, making dinner for her family, dropping in at our house with a huge homemade dessert (when did she concoct that I wondered – in her sleep?) – all the time coughing asthmatically. Here she is – aloft, and below that is proof that strong women start early in Palestine.
Then there was Najwa (below) who, as someone else commented, should have a degree in logistics for her highly efficient organisation of olive-picking with not a second lost. Her meze picnic was exquisite too, while her vitality ricocheted as she sang and roared with laughter.
Palestinian women – the strongest arm in this tragic conflict? Roll on. I hope they can maintain the energy levels, and keep making films to tell us about it.
ADDENDUM – Since writing this, I have seen an extraordinarily constructed film, My love awaits me by the sea by Mais Darwazah, a collage of interviews, poetry, personal reflections, romance and imagery that circles round the concept of the open prison that Palestinians are forced to live in. As always, humour is never far, and the last interview, with her outspoken mother, is a jewel – “the motherfuckers!” cries this plump elderly woman in hijab and djellaba, in a stream of other expletives. Brilliant!
Finally – I should mention Leila Sansour‘s powerful Ode to Bethlehem, Open Bethlehem, another intriguing mix of the personal with the factual – concentrating on a smaller prison, that of Bethlehem. In tune with the Christmas season, it is now being screened at several independent London cinemas.
Read more of my posts on the West Bank: on Israeli settler attacks, on Jersualem’s Old City and its multiplying Israeli squatters, on the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, on the separation wall in Bethlehem. on Bethlehem’s top chef, Fadi Kattan and on Ramallah’s impressive Palestinian museum, a showcase of contemporary art