Spring in Sabastiya 2016


Sabastiya – Spring 2016

Travelling: no problem at passport control either way.

The arrangement to get taxis directly from and back to Tel Aviv worked well. A good system: cost this time £70 each way (per party). Good to talk to the Palestinian driver from Tulkarem during the journeys.

Guest house: largely unchanged and still comfortable and welcoming. Not as many guests as in past years due to worsening of the situation (ie knife incidents etc.). While I/we were there we met a twinning group of 3 from the Midlands, 2 PhD students from Germany and Switzerland studying at the British Study Centre in Jerusalem, a family from Hebron (academics), a group of 6 from France who had come to do some walking /exploring, 6 people (from Cyprus, Jordan, Italy) attending the International Mosaic Conference; 2 French and one British EA, an American student studying Arabic in Jordan.

Abu Yasser was expecting later in May a group of about 40 younger Palestinian Israelis (from Haifa/Nazareth) to come with their professors and use the Palace and rooms for a day to explore closer links with the West Bank. And a couple from the West Wales group en route to their twinned village of Rummaneh (very NW corner of the West Bank close by the Israel border).

Enaya Kayed, Abu Yasser’s sister: she was a really active woman, in the village, regionally and nationally in Palestine. At the celebration of her life 40 days after her death, they had a big gathering in the Holy Land Sun, with a lot of national dignitaries paying their respects. She was instrumental, with her brother, a GP and now the Deputy Mayor of Sabastiya, of getting the authorities in Nablus to agree to the filming of Paradise Now. There had been stiff opposition. In the film, in her honour, Sabastiya is mentioned (but not shown).

In the village: we reconnected with some of the young guys I taught English to, particularly Shadi who used to run the original guest house, but who now runs the third, newest guesthouse called the Mosaic Guest House owned and run by the organisation that has links with the religious charity in Italy, who created the original guesthouse, and in so doing uncovered many of the ancient ruins and mosaics in the centre of the village. They were the group that organised the successful Mosaic Conference. Abu Yasser and Shadi now work together in terms of putting up large groups who come to Sabastiya.

There have been considerable problems with the running of the original guest house: the municipality in May got rid of the latest manager and are appointing someone else. Abu Yasser may be involved in helping out the new person.

Watched 3 games of international football – once with Lynne on the large screen set up in the central café, and twice in the café up near the Holy Land Sun. Lots of tea, coffee and squash and biscuits consumed. Very chilly evening.

We were warmly welcomed to the central café by Abu Majdi as usual. People were friendly and said hello. It is looking very beautiful and pristine. They have a few sunshades on the tables now.

I met a group of 3 older guys who spoke to me in German …. All of whom had gone to live in Germany some 50 years ago. A couple still lived there and came back to Sabastiya for 2 months around Ramadan. They told me that there were in fact 20 men in the village who were like them and that a German documentary maker had been to film them recently to make a film about their stories/lives.

Girls School:  We thought it very important to try and really connect with them. We were very warmly welcomed (more tea/coffee/biscuits/chocolates). Miss Amani the head showed us around the office etc. They now have 3 teachers of English, the newest one is part time and was the most proactive: it was through her we got to hear about the dire need for a new photocopier.  A good replacement costs £1400. They have £400 from Anaya Al Kayed’s estate. This leaves £1000.  It was agreed that the money we send goes via Abu Yasser. Everyone was happy with this.  I have the email addresses of all 3 teachers and connected with one on FB.

I made short videos of these 4 staff talking about twinning (for something the Twinning Network wants to produce). Miss Amani’s daughter has just graduated in medicine from an Najah university. Speaks excellent English, I have done a lot of corresponding via her.

Need for books: there is a shortage in the school and the girls complain they have to read the same ones over and over again. Wafa, one of the teachers of English would like to do drama with them: they used to perform little plays in English when she was at school (she’s in her early 50s): could we find some plays to take over: or, we could adapt a story into a play format and email it. She would like a play that has a moral! Why not!!!  I think we should take books over each time we go.

Our involvement: they said some very nice things about HAFSA! We are welcome any time … but May is the very worst month to do more than just pay visits to the staff room to drink coffee. March and April are better … and maybe we can actually do stuff in classrooms with the teachers and students….

Two Annual Hafsa Prizes/certificates to commemorate Enaya: this was enthusiastically agreed to: for contributions to the community: school and village. As it was the end of term almost, I was invited to a staff lunch at the Holy Land Sun a few days before I left.

Village Library: This time I took over some books from the Oxfam bookshop in Ealing in excellent condition. I asked Abu Yasser what to do with them .. he suggested the library. Library?! This is in a room in the Municipality building. It is run by Zainab who volunteers her time.  She had not heard of HAFSA. Originally from Sabastiya, she has just retired back here after spending 36 years as a high school science teacher in Jordan. She was delighted to see us. And get the books … HOWEVER, when I was browsing around I saw they had in fact loads of books in English, clearly largely unborrowed. But, kids who come like playing games …. So maybe we can think of this in the future. Zainab speaks good English, and said we were welcome to visit the library any time – and get to interact with the kids a bit as I did. It was all very relaxed and informal.

In the next room is the clinic where we met Maryam one of the main nurses. She lives in Nablus. She had not heard of HAFSA.  She spoke excellent English, partly because her husband works and travels in Palestine a lot with and on behalf of international NGOs. Very outgoing and chatty. In Sabastiya there is a higher incidence of cancer than in comparable areas and they don’t know why.

“Special Needs” Project:  Before any centre is established, it is necessary to find out what the range of needs are, what the priorities might be. We visited Marwan in Jenin refugee camp who along with others started a centre offering replacement limbs, physio and speech therapy. His paid day job is working for the ministry of youth and culture in Ramallah. We attended an afternoon of a 3-day summer camp for about 60 young people with learning disabilities. Students came from various places in the West Bank. It was fun and very inspiring. Hani, Abu Yasser’s son came along too. This camp was held in a centre in the Jordan Valley owned by the ministry of youth now … it had been built in the thirties as a British prison …. very eery being there!

What should/can HAFSA do? A needs analysis needs to be done; Abu Yasser says they already have some information. Marwan could assist in helping with this and costing it.   Abu Yasser was keen on replicating a summer camp for just a day for Aabastiya and neighbouring villages …. Marwan could help organise this. It might help get the ball rolling ….

Women’s project to make and supply pizzas and filled bread to school tuck shops: This has absolutely nothing to do with HAFSA as it is funded by a foreign NGO. They have equipped a larger downstairs room in the palace as a kitchen. It seems ideal.    But, we did get to meet and spend time with the group of 5/6 women who do this every day … some getting up at 5.30 to begin all the prep and baking … etc etc.  One morning Lynne and I went with Samar, Abu Yasser’s wife, to help deliver all the food. We went to 3 other neighbouring villages. it was so interesting, the drive through the hills so beautiful! And the reception in one of the girls’ schools literally overwhelming. At the last stop we went back to someone’s house for a cold drink and a biscuit.

The women chop onions and peppers by hand …. For all the toppings and fillings. It takes 2 women at least an hour … I thought maybe a small, labour-saving food processor might be handy ….??  But maybe they like doing it in this traditional way? Like picking, preparing, rolling all the vine leaves… takes so much time …. But that’s what they do. Any thoughts?

Developing the Northern West Bank tourist/friendship network: For a few years now, Abu Yasser has been very keen on the idea of improving communication/tourism in this area, and networking with like-minded Palestinians … i.e, north of Ramallah up to the border with Israel. He feels this area is neglected by international visitors/NGOs etc. He has established contacts and is building on these: visits, joint projects, maybe forming a committee to discuss possibilities.

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature takes place at the end of May which I told Abu Yasser about.  It transpired that he knows one of the organisers from Bir Zeit university in Ramallah. The only one event they had up north was in Nablus, at the library. He wants to talk about the possibility of having something in Sabastiya. You may have read that Ahmad Massoud, one of the artists due to take part, the author of Vanished who came to our Ealing Palfest, was denied entry at the Allenby Bridge … by Israel, who said he was from Gaza. He has a British passport, but no, he is from Gaza, so can’t visit the West Bank. All the other international artists got through. I heard him speak recently and he said this experience has really shocked and traumatised him… as if he is a non-person.

Israel/settlers:  Soon after we arrived, Abu Yasser told us that they had been told that Israel would be back within the week to continue to their development of the ruins area, ie Shomron National Park. They knew no further details … and no further news came . ……

It was Passover while we were there, and for 2/3 days all the area from the far side of the large carpark/football pitch, to the ruins in the hills … was out of bounds to people from Sabastiya/Palestinians. It was popular with Israeli visitors who came in cars and coaches.

The army was present with jeeps and guns, and one evening there was some trouble with them throwing tear gas canisters through the windows of a house where there were a number of young people at home. Late one night there had also been stone throwing by settlers on the main road to Nablus, which caused long traffic jams and much fear. We were coming back from a concert of the first Nablus Cultural Festival and got caught in this … our driver had to take a detour into the hills to get us to Sabastiya. He was clearly very fearful.

Other things: It was a packed programme the 6 days Lynne and I were there together – we also went up to meet people from the new group in Rummaneh to help forward a project for their nursery. We had lunch in Jenin with the main guys. We visited a women’s craft fair in Nablus and sourced a number of items, discovering the wonderful women who run the Tubas Soap Company.

Outside of this, when Lynne had gone home, I also caught up with friends and ex-students from the university, did some English conversation there, visited homes, had so many dinners, so much coffee and tea. Heard about one large development project in Bethlehem, Tubas and Tulkarem governorates …. And financed by …. The British Government! I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. If you google this you can also find some fine-sounding words that were written to report the signing of this agreement at the posh Movenpick hotel in Ramallah. You remember Huda, my ex-student who spoke at our AGM… her father is involved in this and invited me to the ceremony. It would have been amazing to have gone but I would have already left by then.

I went to meet a friend who works at the British Council in Ramallah, went back to my favourite restaurant there, Ziriyab, and discovered a new one offering curries and oriental cuisine .. the owner learnt his skill in San Francisco and is married to an American. But of course!  I treated myself to a nightie and a ring from THE silver shop in Ramallah ……details of which I am sure you are dying to hear about.   I was offered gifts to bring back for everyone! Jars of jam, honey, olives, olive oil, zatar, bars of soap, lemons, grapefruit, mint, sage … and literally, the shirt off their backs…. Such is the second to none hospitality as we all know.  Sadly I had to leave these all behind. And my heart.

Jean, June 4 2016