“You will see by your eyes”
Norma Turner with Zyara 2009

I had the privilege of spending 2 weeks in Palestine with a fantastic group of people and for all of us it was a journey of discovery.

I saw Palestine through the eyes of Palestinians living under occupation.

I saw Palestine through the eyes of Sana, Ali, Sami and Sahar, born in Palestine and planning their right of return.

I saw Palestine through the eyes of Souzan, Sharyn and Dana, Palestinians visiting Palestine for the first time and discovering what it means to be Palestinian. Like being an extra in an episode of “Roots”. 

I saw Palestine through the eyes of a caring, fun group of non-Palestinians, ages ranging from 15 years to 63 years old. 

All of what we saw and experienced is well documented and known to the international community. The vicious nature of Israeli occupation in all its forms and the quiet resilience of Palestinian people in the face of this oppression is there for all to see. 

To see by your eyes brings the reality into your heart. Israel is destroying Palestine not just for the Palestinians but for themselves. Their development is not sustainable in that land and the ugly prison serves to imprison both Palestinians and Israelis. The saving grace for Palestinians is that they are maintaining their humanity whereas the Israelis are becoming a people full of fear and hate.

It is difficult to envisage a future of peace with justice developing from a two state solution. The road to peace lies in fighting for one secular state for all its citizens. This of course is the choice of the Palestinians.

For me, I will continue to protest about the Israeli occupation and educate people to “see by your eyes”, so that they join the campaign for peace and justice for Palestine. 

Zyara is a positive way for people to find their own way of supporting Palestinians. When faced with the welcome, dignity and humanity of the Palestinian people I met, it has helped me to express my own humanity. In contrast, when faced with the racism and arrogance of the Israelis I felt such anger that I wished ill even towards Israeli children that I saw. Hate breeds more hate and somehow despite what they are enduring Palestinians I spoke to did not hate – and in this lies the hope for Palestinian people.

'Look again'

Alex Ritman with Zyara, April 2010

Watching a minor fight erupt at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, merely inches from the very spot where baby JC first burped and gurgled his way onto the world stage, is an amusing activity indeed. ‘Yalla! yalla!’ bellowed the security guard - clearly wanting to shut up shop for his dinner - to the mass of worshippers shuffling slowly past this rather holy square foot (marked by a golden star on the floor). His efforts to rush the crowd didn’t weren’t well received, particularly with one rather upset individual who had travelled several thousand miles for this spiritual experience, who decided to kickstart a war of words.

Hilarious it may have been for an atheist bystander, but this incident – rather tenuously, perhaps – can be seen as ever-so-slightly symbolic of the entire West Bank (in which Bethlehem sits, if you’re geographically unsure), a land where ancient and modern histories collide somewhat dramatically.

The very same fertile soils trodden over by the sandal-strapped feet of the world’s most important figures are now making the headlines several millennia later. Sometimes it’s easy to see both aspects of old and new, sometimes it requires a second look, but the current turmoil clouding an undisputedly spectacular part of the globe rears its head in various different masks as one makes a highly recommend journey across the West Bank’s remarkable landscape.

Take Nablus, an ancient city (they all are here) nestled between the bosom of two heaving hills. To the untrained eye, the old(er) town, at the heart of this classically Arabic conurbation, is a marvellous web of cobbled alleyways, where little alcoves hide unexpected commercial opportunities – a butcher, a sweet stall, a barber! – and where a waft of cinnamon can leads nostrils to a hidden spice shop marked only by a old creaking door. Stop to enjoy a paper bag of freshly-made falafels, possibly the tastiest you’ll find across the whole region (although it seems every Palestinian town makes this claim). Make sure you also try the knaffe – a firm Nablus favourite – so long as you don’t mind finding a thick layer of cheese in your sugary-syrup dessert.

But it’s important to look again. Inspect the fading posters on the ancient stone walls. Photos of men, most carrying automatic weapons and crudely photoshopped onto Palestinian flags. Then there’s plaques bearing names, some of entire families and often above phrases like ‘never forget.’ These are the fallen ‘martyrs’, killed by Israeli troops during the second Intifada in 2002, when this intricate network of narrow streets and tunnels became the backdrop for deadly gun battles as the occupying forces laid siege to Nablus and came in to squeeze the life from the second mass uprising in the occupied territories. Once you’ve noted this, each wall soon seems an obituary page from the town’s recent sombre history.

Travelling further south, past the silvery olive trees that line the rocky hillsides, to Jerusalem, the ‘situation’ reveals itself with a more sinister presence. The oldest part of this ludicrously elderly city, another complex maze of weaving alleys and tall, stone buildings arranged higgledy-piggledy after centuries of questionable planning, could easily pass as a charmingly rustic neighbourhood, a living, breathing tribute to a bygone age most modern communities have washed away with steel and glass.

But take a second glance. There’s the Israeli flag flying over one, newish looking building. And alongside, there’s an aggressive sentry box, occupied by a machine gun-wielding Israeli soldier. This little plot, it turns out, once belonged to a Palestinian family, but through the increasingly unjust property laws laid out by the Israeli authorities who consumed the whole of Jerusalem in 1967, it was confiscated, leveled and rebuilt to house a family of Zionist settlers, who have installed some heavily-armed security should the original occupants ever dare return.

And this is happening all across the city. Each morning heralds the arrival of a new batch of eviction notices to already embattled families – many refugees from the 1948 Nakba – who just happen to be living on land deemed ripe for Zionist expansion. Minutes’ walk from the Dome of the Rock, The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, three of the most important religious sites on the planet, Palestinians are living in tents next to their former homes, now occupied by hostile settlers.

Of course, it’s very easy to be fed a story of growth and opportunity. Take the tunnels Israeli archeologists are digging beneath Jerusalem, supposedly unearthing evidence of the proud Jewish existence on the land 3,000 years ago. Trouble is, the historical agenda of the tunnels is being doubted as they bury deep beneath the Al Aqsa mosque, putting the very foundations of Islam’s third holiest site under strain.

Just a few hundred metres away, in an area called Silwan, ‘King David’s Garden’ has been planned in honour of the famed Biblical king of Israel, on the very spot where historians claim his palace grounds grew. What the developers might not explain to tourists who flock to hear of the city’s heritage are the 88 houses currently sat on this historic patch of grass, 88 houses lived in by Palestinian families for generations, who are all currently fighting eviction. 

In Hebron, twenty minutes further south (assuming you avoid the frequent checkpoints), raised high enough to welcome countless red-soiled fields of knobbly grape trees, a second glance isn’t necessary. Pockets of Zionist settlements, usually just a house or top-floor flat, and each with the ubiquitous manned sentry post and Israeli flag, are scattered haphazardly across the city. The once thriving centre, already stifled of life by Israeli blockades that have severed most of its main arteries, sees settler activity ask serious questions of humanity. Wire meshing has been fitted above the narrow passages of the market quarter. Its purpose: to protect the locals from the garbage – and worse – that the radical Zionist settlers toss down from their lofty vantage points onto the Palestinians below. Any resistance is futile. 400 settlers are protected by 1500 Israeli troops.

Even outside of the main towns and cities, an ominous presence blots the glorious scenery. Aside from Israel’s infamous concrete ‘West Bank barrier’, which dissects the land much like a spoilt child might ruin his more talented friend’s sketch with a grey paintbrush, various hilltops bare the telltale red-slanted roofs of identikit residential estates. Settlements. Ever-expanding settlements. Built for Jews only, heavily guarded by the military and looming menacingly down on the indigenous Palestinian villages below. Even American tut-tutting seemingly can’t stop the spread of these colonial outposts deep into non-Israeli territory.

Of course, there are moments when a second glance reveals something altogether more heartwarming.  Jenin, the West Bank’s most northernly town, is a place better known for the deadly incursions of the Israeli army over the past 10 years. Locals will point out where the tanks came in, some even showing photos of their cars crushed underneath these caterpillar-tracks. But on the main high-street, just over from the bustling bus station, sits an unassuming, neglected looking building. This is Cinema Jenin, the town’s only picturehouse, closed in 1987 during the first Intifada and left to rot until 2008, when a project sought to bring it back to life. Now, with hundreds of international volunteers having spent dedicated months to its renovation and donations having arrived from across the globe, it is set to open this August, to be followed by a film festival next year.

In Nablus, just a short ride out of the old town, stands the impressive An-Najah National University, the biggest and most prestigious university in the West Bank. Recent investments from individual donors has funded the developing of new department blocks to cater for its 16,500 students and twinnings with international establishments see many bus loads of foreign students arrive to promote solidarity. But back in 1988, during the first Intifada, the university was declared a “closed military area” by Israel, and didn’t open again until 1991. Many of the students there now, born around the time of this first uprising and having been trapped within Nablus by the Israeli siege that followed the second, haven’t actually had a chance of travelling across their own country.

But please don’t see any of this as a reason not to visit the West Bank. The incredible hues of the fertile landscape alone are enough to leave anyone gasping and cursing the day they opted against a wide-angle lens. Without the odd tractor, unsightly block of Israeli concrete or ill-fitting settlement rooftop, thousands of years seem to have passed relatively unchanged. It’s not difficult to envisage sandal-clad prophets weeping among the olive groves or heavily-laden donkeys clippety-clopping down hillsides.

Then there are the people, warm and welcoming to anyone that has taken the time to explore their land and hear the stories. Expect timetables to be discarded early on as each and every Palestinian invites you inside to meet his family. Expect the endless rounds of thick-brewed coffee to continue late into the day.

Above all, Palestine is an important place to experience for oneself, away from the soundbites and headlines. Just make sure you give everything enough attention to see what’s really going on. 

(This piece was published in The Brown Book Magazine in June 2010)

A labour of love

Iain Akerman, 38, is a magazine editor and father from Dubai who spent a week working as a volunteer on the Cinema Jenin project.

“Cinema Jenin was nothing more than an empty shell when I arrived at its padlocked doors in July last year. There were holes in the roof, birds’ nests in the eaves and neglect had left the walls pockmarked and bare. The screen had long since been taken down and up in the projectionist’s room, a dusty old projector sat unloved, its reels of film scattered across the floor.

The only clues that the cinema was about to be brought back to life consisted of a stack of breeze blocks and the odd bag of cement, which were placed outside the derelict venue opposite the town’s main bus station. 

Fifty metres up the road, however, work was in full swing. A crumbling old villa on the corner of Azzaytoon Street was being renovated and turned into a guesthouse as part of the project and it was there that I spent the best part of a week.

For someone unused to the strains of physical labour, lugging marble tiles, unloading trucks, clearing debris, mixing cement, painting, sawing, digging and working like a mule were a harsh reminder of the ineffectiveness of my gym regime. 

The heat, which hovered around 35°C at its peak, made the work tougher, while dust thrown up by the renovation covered me in filth by nightfall. 

I learnt of the project through Zyara, a Dubai-based initiative which combines sightseeing with volunteering in the West Bank. The group organises one or two trips to the Palestinian Territories every year.

There were about 15 of us from Dubai, mostly British expatriates and Palestinians. We crossed the border from Jordan into the West Bank and, as I had Lebanese, Iranian and Yemeni stamps in my passport, I was detained with four of the Palestinians for about five hours. Finally, we were allowed in.

We worked eight-hour days in stifling heat with no air conditioning. Fakhri Hamad, the project manager – on whose apartment floor I slept for five nights – would encourage us all to achieve more, and each night we talked into the small hours as the fan in his living room worked overtime. 

It was during the evenings at Fakhri’s apartment, the guesthouse or at a restaurant that life in Jenin would slide into focus, often through the simplest of things, such as a snippet of conversation or a song. 

You see images of Jenin on TV depicting it as a hotbed of insurgency, violence and suicide bombers, but I wanted to see it for myself rather than via the media.

One afternoon, on a break, we walked along Jenin’s roads, past an imposing statue of a large metal horse and into the town’s refugee camp. It was at the camp’s Freedom Theatre that the Palestinian story of dispossession emerged first hand. The production, Fragments of Palestine, featured no dialogue, just an intense sense of injustice. 

Zyara’s ethos is simply that “you will see with your own eyes” and that is a succinct way to describe the motivation behind working and travelling across the Occupied Territories. It is for those for whom reading, hearing and watching are not enough; there is no substitute for experience. 

After a week’s work, we visited places such as Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Beit Jala.

When we packed to go, Fakhri had tears in his eyes. The days we had spent unloading lorries, digging and painting seemed a small contribution but as I boarded a bus to Ramallah, I firmly believed every effort counted, no matter how small.”

As told to Tahira Yaqoob

(This piece was published in The National M Saturday Magazine, on the 31st July 2010).

Nicola participated in the 2009 Zyara and became a member of the 'Chez Jenin' family. She was asked to write about her visit by Grazia Magazine. The article she wrote can be downloaded by clicking on the link below.

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Sherin: For me, Zyara 2009 was a life changing experience, on many aspects.  

I am a Palestinian, and even though I was raised in Canada there has not been one day in my life where I have not spoken, read, or heard about Palestine.  

I grew up on all the stories from my grandparents and parents, about when we had a land and how we used to live peacefully with the Jews as our neighbors and friends.   I spoke the language, I ate the food, I held the customs yet growing up I had a hard time understanding why I never lived on that land and all my relatives were dispersed across the world.  

Read Sherin's full note on this link and view her photo blog by clicking on the photo above.



'I learned so much..

I felt so much.'

Sue Smith with Zyara, October 2010

Read Sue's full note by clicking here or the photo to the right. 



'There is no other name for it. It is brutal, ugly, disruptive, disorienting, and irrational" 

Beth Stickney  who came across Zyara, October 2010

Read Beth's blog by clicking on 'Palestine Journal' or the photo to the right. 



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