Amahl Bishara, Nidal Al-Azraq, and Kholoud Al Ajarma
Pleasure More Than Hope
Amahl Bishara is an assistant professor of Anthropology at Tufts University.
Nidal Al-Azraq is the program coordinator for the Lajee Center in Aida Camp, Bethlehem.
Kholoud Al Ajarma Al Ajarma is the arts and media center coordinator for the Lajee Center in Aida Camp, Bethlehem.
July 7, 2011
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Lately, I’ve been re-reading The Courage to Be, by the 20th century theologian/philosopher Paul Tillich. Its basic message is this: We dwell in what is best in us, what is essential about ourselves, and find joy in these things, in spite of the accidental and difficult parts of every life. It occurs to me that it’s this elemental courage to be that is always missing in news of faraway tragedy and conflict. We experience pictures of people frozen in the worst moments of their lives. We have no sense of what will help them get out of bed the next morning and still live and love and even take joy. This was on my mind as we produced this hour’s show, a new installment in our series from Jerusalem at the West Bank. This time, we soak up the humanity of a close-knit neighborhood in the sacred city of Bethlehem — that is, normal life in a Palestinian refugee camp in a West Bank town.
AMAHL BISHARA: The things that give me hope and pleasure here. And I have to say pleasure more than hope — getting to enjoy sort of the change of the seasons here and enjoy the cauliflower and then the almonds and then the chickpeas…
MR. NIDAL AL-AZRAQ: It’s one of the resistance elements. Even though you feel the pain inside you, you need to laugh and you need to smile, and you need to play, you need to move in your life.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, “Pleasure More Than Hope,” inside Aida refugee camp.
MS. TIPPETT: Aida camp is one of three refugee camps on the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Nearly 5,000 people live here, usually together with relatives in buildings that have gotten taller, added floors, as their families have added generations. More than half of Aida’s residents today are young, under the age of 25. And most of them are Muslim, but there are Christian neighbors.
MS. KHOLOUD AJARMA: The name of the camp itself came from the name of a Christian lady who lived here before 1948. So when the people came here, this lady had this coffee shop and she offered coffee to the refugees and hosted them for a while. So that’s why people…
MS. TIPPETT: And did they name the camp after her then?
MS. AJARMA: Yeah.
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT That’s so interesting.
MS. AJARMA: So — it was. It was very interesting and also because Aida — the word in Arabic is linked to ouda, which means return.
MS. TIPPETT: Kholoud Ajarma works in the Aida camp youth center, the Lajee Center. This is a center of community, and it’s where we set up our microphones and cameras for half a day. We’ve come following the work of a Palestinian-American anthropologist, Amahl Bishara. She’s living and working here now with her infant daughter and her husband, Nidal, who grew up in Aida camp. We’ll hear from him in a little while. We begin with Amahl, who I experience as a kind of bridge person between life in this part of Bethlehem and listeners in the U.S. and beyond.
MS. TIPPETT: So just as we start, let me hear a little bit of your story and your background. So your family was Palestinian? Were you first-generation, second-generation American? Or what’s that connection to here?
AMAHL BISHARA: My father came to the States in 1966 from here. He’s an Israeli citizen, so he was born and raised in the Galilee. My mom’s Swedish-American.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. So tell me what your sense of — what did Palestinian identity mean to you when you were a child and then as you grew up?
MS. BISHARA: You know, I think a lot of it was about politics when I was a kid. I think it was about politics and food and family, which sounds like it covers a lot, but I think as I got older certainly that sense of what Palestinianness is about has gotten a lot deeper, although it’s still a lot about politics, food and family [laugh], kind of unavoidable.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you think that your sense of your identity and was part of your attraction to anthropology, did that play into it?
MS. BISHARA: Well, one way I explain my interest in anthropology is my father is so political science oriented and, in fact, most people who look at this conflict are really political science oriented or history oriented. I think coming here and just getting sort of the glimpses of Palestinian society that I got, you know, hanging out with my cousins playing Uno — which we could play because I spoke enough Arabic to know the colors and the numbers, you know — I realized there was a lot more going on that I felt didn’t enter into those political discussions. So anthropology was sort of my way of investigating kind of everything else. You know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So as an anthropologist, you’re actually coming at the story, right, the Palestinian story, the Arab story from that direction of what’s going on on a human level, a social level?
MS. BISHARA: Yeah. You know, for example, being here in the camp, this refugee camp, you know, some days it’s really quiet and, you know, those are the days that certainly the journalists are not here, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. BISHARA: But it’s important to be here on those days. First of all, because it’s important to understand that the politics of the situation are sometimes about it being deadly calm, really quiet, about the fact that, you know, many of the teenagers, 15 to 20 or so, are in prison, for example. Well, that makes for quiet. It’s also about being here because, for example, at night there are still arrest rates. Journalists aren’t necessarily here for that either because, obviously, they don’t usually spend the night. So it’s about being here for the quiet times. It’s about being here for the sort of the things that just sort of erupt and take shape.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me — describe where we are now.
MS. BISHARA: Right now we’re in Lajee Center, which is a youth center organized or established in 2000. It serves the youth of Aida refugee camp and some other places around here. So it was established by people who used to be members, active members, of political parties, you know, who were political prisoners and then who, in the 1990s, became more and more disillusioned with the formal political processes and decided that, if they wanted to do something to help their community, to build something for the new generation, they were going to have to start from sort of the level of the street. So actually before they had this really nice center set up, you know, they did. They did activities in the street.
MS. TIPPETT: Like what?
MS. BISHARA: I think they started with things like — well, they started right before the Second Intifada. So one of the things they wanted to do was have a scout troop that would go out and like walk in the mountains and stuff like this. That became impossible during the Second Intifada.
MS. TIPPETT: It was kind of civil society, right?
MS. BISHARA: Yeah, yeah. Civil society, exactly, right? Well, now we have a dabke troupe, which is a dance troupe. We have a library, a computer lab. We have a media center that does all kinds of media-making. We have a fantastic photography program. We have short documentary production, digital storytelling. So there’s just sort of like a lot of stuff going on here and a lot of kids passing through. I think some of it is about all those like concrete things that we make like cool little documentary films, but a lot of it is just about having this space for kids to come together and also meet people 10 years older than them who can sort of talk to them about their lives in a way that their parents and teachers maybe don’t.
MS. TIPPETT: I know in some of your work, you talk about the language. Well, even the language of a refugee camp, and this is also an experience I’m having here. These are also communities, right? And as you say, there’s a diversity to what a refugee camp looks like, feels like, what happens there. I mean, I’m experiencing — it just feels like a neighborhood, right? So I think if Americans have images probably from some kind of natural disaster of a refugee camp, it’s makeshift, whereas these are, as you say, distinct communities and very different communities. I mean, describe how you would talk about, you know, what is a refugee camp, the range of that?
MS. BISHARA: Well, yeah. So one thing that’s very different about this refugee camp compared to many that you hear about in the news is that it’s been around for decades, right? You know, since around 1951. So it started off with people living in tents. They lived in tents between five and 10 years, and then they built these concrete houses, which were one-room blocks. Then since then, you know, people have built houses and then they built on top and top and top and top, letting each family sort of grow because they don’t have any room to expand.
MS. TIPPETT: Grow vertically.
MS. BISHARA: Grow vertically. You know, it used to be that every family had this little concrete block house and around it was some land and they used to do a little bit of farming. So people had, you know, a lemon tree, an olive tree, little place for vegetables like tomatoes and so forth. But as they had to build out, all of that land was taken up. Now there’s almost no sort of even tiny bit of open space in the camp. So that’s one characteristic of the camp.
The other thing is that each of the camps even in the West Bank have different characteristics. You know, if you go to Balata refugee camp in Nablus, it’s so tight that you can easily push your hands out and touch two houses. I mean, that’s how small the alleyways are. You know, there’s maybe one way through the whole camp — which is much bigger than this camp — that a car can get through. So this is, you know, is a kind of one of the more comfortable refugee camps, but it’s still overcrowded. You know, it has some like lack in terms of municipal services. Most of these people were, you know, farmers and, obviously, now they’re not.
MS. TIPPETT: So here’s a perhaps stupid question, but as you also note in your writing, people are not any less free to move around who live in the refugee camp than other citizens of Bethlehem, right? It’s not like they’re locked inside the refugee camp. Could people move out, decide to leave?
MS. BISHARA: They could, yeah. People do, certainly. You know, if they can save money to buy land or, you know, rent or buy …
MS. TIPPETT: So they could take a job somewhere and have enough money then to rent an apartment somewhere else?
MS. BISHARA: Yeah. Then they would still, of course, be refugees and they would still have the right to return.
MS. TIPPETT: They’d still have refugee status.
MS. BISHARA: Yeah, they’d still have refugee status.
MS. TIPPETT: But is part of what holds these communities together a collective will to move as a community back? Is that the idea?
MS. BISHARA: Yes. But why are people still in the camp? The real reason people are in the camp is because they actually can’t necessarily easily go out and buy land and build. So in a way, the politics — certainly there is sort of a political community here in the camp, you know, a cluster of people who care about the same kinds of things and so on and so forth. But it’s not to say that, once you move, you lose that. But I think there is anxiety about that. My husband’s sister is building a house and it’s going to be really beautiful and it’s on a piece of land. You know, it’s really lovely. They’re almost ready. In fact, they’ve bought the furniture about a year ago.
MS. TIPPETT: Are they living here now?
MS. BISHARA: Yeah, they live in the camp. They bought the furniture like a year ago. It’s been sitting in like the warehouse or something because they’re not ready to move to the new house. Now the sort of stated reason is they’re waiting for this road to get paved so that it will be easy for them to come and go to their new house. But the truth is, you know, they could have moved up there. I think they’re reluctant in some way to leave the camp.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Pleasure More Than Hope” — tracing the contours of everyday humanity in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Amahl Bishara is a professor at Tufts University. She’s Palestinian-American herself and currently living here with her baby and her husband, who grew up in Aida camp. And she’s done some really interesting research into how foreign journalism about Palestinians informs their sense of themselves. You can dig into that on our website, onbeing.org.
MS. TIPPETT: So here’s the way you’ve said this. It’s not just that journalists come in and they’re working with people on the ground. They’re getting quotes from Palestinians, right? And then you say then, although these Palestinians’ words are transported all over the world, they tend not to come home to roost. If I ask you, you know, what are the Palestinians’ stories you wish were being told? You long to be covered, to be truly covered? You know, what comes to mind?
MS. BISHARA: Well, some things like, you know, I think refugee stories. Stories about loss and about distance. For example, many of the refugees living in this refugee camp could walk to their villages in about an hour if there wasn’t a wall in the way and if it was legal. I mean, that’s a really intimate relationship with a place that’s completely taken out of their lives in a physical sense. I mean, they’re really close and they know it and yet they can’t get there, right? So those are some of the stories, I think, stories of villages. You know, you don’t get that much. Stories about agriculture, about growing things in this land and what that means to people.
MS. TIPPETT: Of thriving villages or just functioning villages.
MS. BISHARA: Yeah, functioning, getting by, you know? Getting by on, you know, raising — just now it’s the season of what they call zahr baldi. It’s like a kind of cauliflower that’s local. It’s a little bit yellow if you see it in the markets. It takes nine months to grow…
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I’ve seen that. It grows that yellow?
MS. BISHARA: It grows yellow.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I thought it was pickled or something.
MS. BISHARA: And it takes nine months to grow. You put a seed in the ground in May and you harvest it in February and it doesn’t require any irrigation water and that’s why it’s grown here. That’s one of the reasons it’s grown here, you know. So you think about — I mean, I just had a baby, right? You know, a cauliflower that takes nine months to grow, you know, is really lovely. And they taste better, and people really enjoy that. So, yes, thinking about some of those stories. Now I’m not saying that American audiences have to hear these stories. Obviously, nobody needs to hear about this nice cauliflower.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but they’re stories of life, whereas often the stories we hear are of destruction and death, honestly.
MS. BISHARA: That’s right, that’s right, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I want to come back to even a term like refugee. There’s a reality to that that deserves expression, right? But I think that the language of refugees, especially in an American ear where that experience is so foreign these days, it is the language of victimhood. And I don’t experience the whole Palestinian reality, the human reality, to be one that’s just victimhood, right?
MS. BISHARA: I’m happy to hear you say that because a few years ago, I think, for a journalist coming here, one might have been bombarded by stories of victimhood. So in a way, I’m really happy to hear you come here and, you know, hear that you come here and say that actually there’s a lot more going on. I think that’s great.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, what I’m not saying is that there’s not a tragedy that’s real, right?
MS. BISHARA: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s not suffering that’s real, but that’s different from saying we are only victims.
MS. BISHARA: Well, I mean, I think people would say that refugee is not just a language of victimhood. It’s also a language of rights. I think people would be very clear about that, you know? It’s about a right to return. It’s about a right to, you know, go back to the villages where our grandfathers were born. I think many people would say that.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. But I still don’t think it’s as the only defining word on a human being, they are a refugee. It’s not enough.
MS. BISHARA: No.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, even if, as you say, the word itself holds necessary, but it’s one descriptor. You know what I’m getting at?
MS. BISHARA: Absolutely. I mean, it’s a political identity. I mean, the Americans don’t walk around necessarily thinking I’m a citizen, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. BISHARA: But that’s sort of what — I would say like being a refugee is like that.
MS. TIPPETT: So you know you’re a citizen and you’re a parent and you’re somebody’s child and you do this for a living and you write and you have these thoughts, right?
MS. BISHARA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That’s very true here as well.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, honestly, I also feel like the language of settlement obscures the reality. You know, when you see these settlements, I think both a refugee camp and a settlement — I’m talking about these Israeli settlements, you know — Americans might imagine tent cities in both cases.
MS. BISHARA: Ah, interesting.
MS. TIPPETT: And not — you know, the settlements are these gleaming — they look like suburban condominium developments, right?
MS. BISHARA: Oh, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’m just saying I’m very intrigued by how I think the language, even some of the really basic vocabulary, obscures the story.
MS. BISHARA: Yeah. It’s like we need to just keep on unpeeling the layers of what these words mean and what they mean to different people. So for example, in Bethlehem, if you ask somebody, you just run into somebody on the street and ask them what their impression of a refugee camp is, it’s going to be very similar to, depending on who you stop on the street, if you’re asking a person who’s not a camp resident and doesn’t have friends and family there, they’re going to think of it maybe in some of the similar terms than if you stopped somebody in Manhattan and asked them about what the South Bronx is like. So these places have a lot of different connotations.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think I just want to finish with asking you about — are you living here now?
MS. BISHARA: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Are you permanently, indefinitely?
MS. BISHARA: No, no, six or seven months.
MS. TIPPETT: How long have you been living here?
MS. BISHARA: Six weeks, something like that.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, so your daughter wasn’t born here.
MS. BISHARA: No, no.
MS. TIPPETT: But you are living here and you’re living here as a mother. That’s a relatively new experience for you. Tell me how you think about that and what this experience of living here and living here as a mother has maybe added in terms of a layer of your comprehension to this? Also, I think this question is related, you know: What makes you despair and what are your sources of hope, being here in the midst of this place?
MS. BISHARA: Well, I have to say that I feel that in every way it’s a privilege. I’m in a privileged position being here. I am privileged to have a kind of a job that allows me to travel and do in-depth research for months and months. I mean, I’m a university professor on sabbatical. To do that as a new mother is actually a special privilege. I mean, I have my daughter here, and sometimes she can come on the research trips and see the new spring baby animals and how fun that is when I go out to check out the cauliflower and I get to take her along. I as an American am incredibly privileged to be able to move throughout this country as pretty much no one else can.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s huge, isn’t it?
MS. BISHARA: Yeah. Palestinians from the West Bank can’t go inside and Gaza obviously can’t. Palestinians from inside Israel don’t really come here much.
MS. TIPPETT: And Israelis can’t move freely in the same way either.
MS. BISHARA: That’s right. They don’t move. But the interesting thing about it for me is it’s not at all a comfortable privilege psychologically, emotionally, even physically. You know, very few people move the way I do, so there’s no infrastructure, for example, to move the way I do, you know, taking these buses and walking and crossing the checkpoint and hiring cabs and patching a way to go from one place to the other in these routes that very few people are traveling, coming home to tell people about it. It’s exhausting and it’s uncomfortable, but I’m really, really happy to be able to do it.
I was a little anxious taking my daughter here. One of the things that made me most anxious was to be in — I just imagined, what is it going to be like for me to be in Jerusalem with all of those armed settler types and my infant daughter? You know, I’m coming from Massachusetts and, you know, the wonderful cities of Summerville and Cambridge in Massachusetts. It feels very safe and comfortable there, and to come to this place where I have to see my daughter next to an automatic weapon, you know. I took the train with my daughter and it was very strange because, aside from my experience with family, public transportation is one of my main experiences of Israeli society. So there I am in a long train ride and I’m doing this all by myself because my husband can’t go inside Israel.
So handling this very squirmy, active, sweet, seven-month-old and everyone wants to make eyes and google and play, and I’m hesitant about whether I want her making eyes at the soldiers, you know. Then on the last leg of the journey, I was across the way from two women who I think were Arab, Jewish, gay, poor women. That was how I blocked them out from their appearance, and also they seemed to speak no English. They were speaking all Hebrew. These women were like, give us your baby, give us your baby. I was like, no, I’m not going to give you my baby. It’s really nothing personal. I just sort of tried to say nothing because we had no language. But anyway, she got so squirmy and so on and so forth and they just kept on making eyes and smiling. My daughter was smiling back and I was like OK. So she had a really nice, I think, time with these women, so that was a good connection.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I keep hearing from people. I think, again, from the outside, it feels like a situation of total despair and the peace process is locked. I don’t experience people here to be without hope, though. I almost see people pointing at these human encounters like that as somehow seeds of what might and must one day come about.
MS. BISHARA: I hope so. I hope so. I mean, the things that give me hope and pleasure here — and I have to say pleasure more than hope, unfortunately, are kind of the things that happen with the people that I care about and the people that I’ve known for a long time or meeting a new person who’s able to sort of tell me something in a really dynamic, interesting way. Getting to enjoy sort of the change of the seasons here is something that I — I mean, I’m often here in the summer. Again, I just feel like it’s a tremendous privilege to be here in the winter and the spring and enjoy the cauliflower and then the almonds and then the chickpeas. Then there are these things called faqqous, which is a kind of cucumber. It’s kind of between a cucumber and a squash. I mean, I love all these seasons. This is what I take great pleasure in.
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, listen to my unedited conversation with Amahl Bishara at the Aida camp, including some discussion on her research into the web of relationships between Palestinians and the journalists who cover them. We also discussed how Al Jazeera has transformed journalism in this part of the world, and created a sense of longing among Palestinians to develop their own strong local journalistic voice. That flows into what’s happening day to day at the Lajee Center at Aida camp. Kholoud Ajarma is 24 years old, and has grown up here; but she spent some time studying abroad in Coventry. That’s where she got her English accent.
MS. TIPPETT: And what is your role at the center? I don’t think — did you say that before?
MS. AJARMA:: I’m as well, we have the newly established media unit. So Mohammed is responsible for the photography part; I’m responsible for the film part.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. AJARMA: But as well as I do training for this new project that we — is called Our Voice, which is, we work with six different refugee camps all around the West Bank, where previous work was based here, mainly in Bethlehem. But now we work with refugee camps in Nablus, Jenin up north, Ramallah in the middle, and Bethlehem in the middle, Jericho and Hebron in the south. So we teach a group of children. We have 210 children that we teach, different syllabus including human rights — not children, I mean youth. But teach them human rights, democracy, gender issues, along as photography and journalism.
MS. TIPPETT: Huh.
MS. AJARMA: And the outcome of the project that these kids get to write a magazine in the same name of the project — Our Voice. And in this magazine they cover many issues about their lives. So we’re trying in a way with the media unit and with Our Voice to create alternative media because people abroad don’t really see the day-to-day life. Nobody comes — like no journalists come into the refugee camp and say, “I want to sit with a family and see what they cook,” for example.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. AJARMA: So that’s what we’re trying to do — get to people’s families, get the human aspect of refugee lives outside.
MS. TIPPETT: We’re posting links to a few past issues of Our Voice magazine on our website, onbeing.org — including one centered around letters young Palestinians here have crafted to people who’ve held power, past and present, from Ben-Gurion to Barack Obama to Ban Ki Moon. And you’ll find photos by a twentysomething resident of Aida camp and participant in the youth center, whom we met, Mohammed Al Azzeh. He’s also part of a YouTube video made by youth of Aida camp at onbeing.org right now — it’s a glimpse inside what Amahl Bishara called the quiet times in the camp, when journalists aren’t watching.
Coming up, we speak with Amahl Bishara’s husband, Nidal. He comes from the Aida camp and has long worked with teenagers here and in other refugee camps across the West Bank. He shares his sense of how the up-and-coming generation of Palestinians thinks about a future with Israelis.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, “Pleasure More Than Hope.” This is the latest in our series of shows from our spring trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. This time, we’re in Bethlehem, which today is a West Bank city; it’s home to three refugee camps alongside its iconic sacred sites like the Church of the Nativity. We’re in the Aida refugee camp, a neighborhood of around 5,000 people — extended families and others, including some non-refugees. The Muslim call to prayer sounded beyond the windows — you may hear it in the background — as Nidal Al-Azraq sat down to speak with me in the Lajee youth center. The atmosphere in this space is creative and calming at once. But that’s not to say that cycles of conflict, peace process, and intifada, or uprising, are not milestones of a childhood spent here, like that of Nidal Al-Azraq.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me your story.
NIDAL A-AZRAQ: Well, I was born and raised here in Aida camp, and I lived almost all my life in this refugee camp, where I witnessed a lot and I learned a lot socially and politically. I got involved in activism early in life. I started in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And as many people who’ve worked politics, we stopped working in politics when Oslo came.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Those were the Oslo years.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah, when Oslo came. At that time, I was studying electricity and I finished the electricity and I started working in Israel and in Jerusalem. Then in the beginning of the Second Intifada, I was working actually in this settlement and I was, you know, seeing the helicopters shooting Bethlehem and then I decided to not work in Israeli settlements since that. So I came here. I started working in the streets with the teenagers and the children, trying to first understand them, to see the similarities and the differences between my generation and their generation and the challenges that they face. I got involved with Lajee in 2002. I was at that time injured badly from the helicopters, so I couldn’t work. I looked out for jobs.
MS. TIPPETT: Were you here when you were injured?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah, I was here in the camp. It was 2002 in March. It was the invasion of the Church of the Nativity.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, right. Where there was the siege.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: There was a siege, a long siege, in Bethlehem, and I was with my friends. They started here actually in Aida camp, where they brought two helicopters and maybe 600 or 700 soldiers with many tanks for this small place. I was injured with 40 people. Six of them were killed. Since then, I couldn’t work in construction and electricity, and the Lajee came to me and they offered me a job.
MS. TIPPETT: And this is this media project.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: This is back then we were in different location here. We had this computer lab, and they asked me to come and operate this computer lab. So I was in very close contact with kids and teenagers, where I really got attached to them. Since then, I devote my whole time, my whole life, working with the children and teenagers in Aida camp. And now I expand my work through Sawtuna project that Lajee has been doing since the last two and a half years.
I work in Nablus and Balata camp and Jenin camp in Jenin with groups of children and teenagers on different topics related to human rights, democracy, topics like to understand the conflicts and how we can, you know, not live with it, but go around it that we can survive. Basically, my job is to educate these children and teenagers to better prepare them to the future. You know, the idea is that they can reach to the level where they can make decisions by themselves. You know, when you’re in a conflict, there are a lot of movements, a lot of groups that try to bring people around them.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: This process, a lot of manipulatings, a lot of playing in minds. So one of the main ideas that Lajee taught to help these teenagers to reach to the age where they can make their own decisions, and this is a tough and hard job here.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s an interesting project also because I think teenagers in any culture, that’s also a time when they’re perhaps vulnerable and also, as you say, being able to make wise decisions for themselves is a challenge.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: It’s a big challenge.
MS. TIPPETT: Almost biologically as well.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah. It’s a big challenge here. I mean, I worked with teenagers in the U.S. in high schools. Here, you work with them in institutions, but their families have so much troubles because of, you know, poverty, unemployment. Each family has an 10, 11, 15 kids, and the parents are so busy trying to provide like food and education for them, and the street is quite a tough place for them as well. So you face a lot of challenge with these teenagers and children too. You know, let’s think about our situation. Let’s think and discuss how we can, you know, understand it and let’s find a way how we can, you know, work on it.
You know, one of my main goals working with these teenagers is, after this two and three years of working with them, how they can carry the knowledge and the things that they learn and go and make some changes in society based on their beliefs, of course, and based on the things that they believe in. Of course, now I work with the groups that have been involved in Sawtuna for the past two years. And I have a few meetings with them, and I found that they really, really take a step forward and go to this society and try to challenge society. But we found that the society is bigger than us and stronger than us, so we started practicing here the idea of democracy, the idea of the individual in the group, and it’s a perfect time because of what’s going on in the Middle East.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and are they inspired by that, these teenagers?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: A lot. I was shocked, you know. For example, we started with this caricature cartoon by a Palestinian artist whose name is Naji al-Ali. He has this cartoon where he had ana, which means “me,” “individual,” and nahnu “we,” “the group.” He tried to challenge the two ideas, and I took this idea and we started like drawing this idea and discussing it. And we made big posters, and we went to the administrator office here at Lajee to test the democracy that we have here. So if you have your place to express your opinion, when you express your opinion, what kind of challenges you receive and are you ready to fight for them and things like that. That has been really exciting. These inspirations they have been before, but with what’s going on in the Middle East …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s emboldening.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah. Really, they have so much courage, they have so many fantastic ideas that we can like sit and plan. So it has been really fun to do this with the teenagers here. They do the same job with the people at Jenin and Nablus. It’s a new thing. Usually, we used to challenge the occupation here, you know, with different kind of resistance, you know, demonstrations, stones, and all these types of resistance. But now we start to challenge the society.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It seems like the challenge is going both externally and internally.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: That’s true, that’s true. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Pleasure More Than Hope” — inside Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The Arab Spring is not the only fluid force in the backdrop of life here right now, of course. Prospects for near-term progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations are as fraught as ever and as unpredictable. And as Nidal Al-Azraq helps me understand, the emerging generation here has its very own sense of basic principles like the right of Palestinians to return to the ancestral villages of their families.
MS. TIPPETT: So I wanted to ask you, compared to your generation in terms of how you saw the future unfolding and these kids now or these young people. You know, do they have a different vision of what’s possible?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: That’s a very good question, actually. They have different types of visions, you know. This right-to-return issue that is really big and complicated and has been going on since 1948 is an issue for them. But we proposed this question for them so you’ll be able to live with Israelis of the same land. Actually, this is our next magazine at Lajee, with the six different refugee camps in the West Bank. Who knew the future and the possibilities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts? So many of them, yeah. I mean, I’m ready to go back to my village, I heard a lot about it from my grandparents, from my parents, some of them. Well, I was born here and I don’t know if I can return. So then, well, I would like to go and live near the beach, you know. I like water, you know, these types of things.
It’s hard for them to explain for them. Like the one-state, two-state solutions, demographically and geographically, but they know that they want one-state solution. Other issues, to be honest with you, many of the teenagers and kids who have lost their parents in this conflict or their parents were like killed in front of them by snipers, through the invasions, to discuss the idea of like what do you think of the future of Palestine and Israelis living together and all these things, they have different issues. They still have this anger and hurt feelings inside them, but they have the ability to move on with it. But they’re really struggling, as many people here in the West Bank are struggling.
You know, sometimes I discuss the issue of forgiveness. You know, sometimes we enter like some philosophical topics to these children. What do you think of forgiveness? You receive some kind of answers. Well, I can’t forgive now because there’s no ground for forgiveness. I have occupations, I have walls, soldiers come every night to the camp, checks, arrests, you know. So some kids, well, I need justice before I forgive. I need my rights before I forgive. So their view, their vision of the future is really quite complicated. They all agree that, yeah, we would love to live in one state without walls, without checkpoints. I can go to the beach and I can, you know, go to my village. They have the ground for it. But because the location of Aida camp is very close to, as you see, the settlements, very close to the military camps here, most of the conflicts and the clashes used to start here and ends here. So they really got damaged psychologically from the side.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, there’s so much pain and damage all around that complicates all the other issues. That human pain becomes a factor. You know, I think people in the States, as you realize, they often think of this as a religious conflict.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, but I mean, the layers of this — there’s so many layers, and that’s just one of them. I mean, is religion part of these young peoples’ — how does religion play in it or does it at all into their reactions?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Reaction to the conflicts?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, or when they talk about forgiveness or just how they cope in their day-to-day lives?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: You know, based on my experience in the past nine or 10 years working with children and teenagers, I can say comfortably religion is not the issue for them, when it comes to the conflicts. For example, all their parents grow up working in Jerusalem and Israel. There was a time when during Oslo and before Oslo when all the Israelis used to come and shop here and the checkpoint was open and many people used to go there inside Jerusalem and see places. So when you propose this for them, when you say to them, OK, Jewish and Palestinians, they say Israelis and Palestinians. They don’t say Jewish and Muslims. The conflict’s between Israelis and Palestinians and the conflict’s between religious settlers and villagers. They don’t use the terms of like religious Muslims are fighting Jews, for example.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s not a conflict between Islam and Judaism.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah. Without watching the TV, the conflicts are around them. They living it live and they face it in their daily life as some movements and some left movements and they have different views. Of course, when you talk to a kid or to a teenager from a religious family here, he will be using these religious terms in terms of struggle, in terms of we should fight and things like that. But even though when they use these terms, they will use them as a relation that this is a conflict of Israelis and Palestinians and we should fight to gain our rights. They don’t use the term for example Jihad in their discussions, even those religious kids will not. You know, in the 18th or 17th century, nobody is going to throw anybody in the sea, nobody’s going to be some propaganda terms. Sometimes they hear them and they get excited about them, but they realize that it’s not the case. So, yeah. I mean, my experience with them, it’s really fully politically, not religiously.
MS. TIPPETT: These layers of psychological trauma of people in prison, people killed, being separated from loved ones for all kinds of different reasons, how do people live with that? Is it possible to kind of carve out a sense of dignity, to transcend it? What makes that possible?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: One of the things that we learn when we’re children — I’m talking about my experience now as a child — we learned this lesson not by our parents or our families. We learned this lesson by the life, the three things of how to survive and how to live with pain and how to rely on yourself as children. How to survive because it’s a conflict. A bullet may come to you any time. You need to learn early in age how to avoid. How to live with your pain because you may get arrested or a beating or humiliated at checkpoint. Not live with it and cope with it and accept it, but how to go around it and continue with your life because it’s happening on an every day basis. You will get really damaged if you cannot as a child, as a teenager, as a parent, if you don’t know how to deal with these things. It could really damage you and destroy you.
Yeah, we have a lot of damage, psychological damage, inside us and a lot of sadness inside us, but we have the hope and we have the mechanism we learned early in life how to cope with it, of course, with lots of suffering, and how to survive also. We learned this lesson when we were children because, you know, your parents may have got killed or arrested and your brothers and sisters, and you need to find your way in the society. I mean, remembering my childhood, like my family in the ’80s were politically very active. Our house got demolished once and got closed once, and my sisters went to prison as my older brothers went to prison. I mean, I learned this at 11. My father was busy providing like lawyers and providing like food to the family.
So I grow up — even though I’m the youngest, I should be spoiled in a sense, but I grow up basically in the streets and other families raised me. Other people raised me in the street, and I have learned a lot. Yes, it affected me, and I still carry these psychological issues in my mind and my memories. But on the other hand, it gave me the strength to survive. One time, I give a talk at Boston and an American from the audience asked me, “I went to Palestine and even though there’s like a lot of sadness and anger and occupation, but people are smiling and joking all the time.” I told him, well, it’s one of the resistance elements, not just to resist the occupation, to resist your pain, your fear because it’s always around you. You can’t let this fear and let these things destroy you. Even though you feel you have the pain inside you, you need to laugh and you need to smile. You need to play, you need to move in your life. For example, early in life, we learned to not show our feel to the occupiers.
There’s a very, very strong video. Actually, it’s Kholoud’s relative, she’s a teacher. They bombed the door, and she was behind the door and she was killed. So her daughter was like six years old and was crying and begging the soldier to call the ambulance. So her brother, which is 11 years old, came and asked her do not cry in front of the soldier. For me, I know why he did this. I understand, but I was shocked to see this boy asking his six-year-old sister to not cry in front of the soldiers because we learned early, like, OK, don’t show your tears to the occupier. This is one of the elements and all these things. Yes, it damaged us, but I have to say it gave us something positive. It’s hard, it’s weird to listen to it, to believe it even, but it has a lot of negative sides. But based on my experience who witnessed and lived the First Intifada and lived the Second Intifada and I participated in many of these, yes, I can say it’s hard psychologically on every level, but I have some strength by it.
MS. TIPPETT: It also makes me think that, if Palestinians and Israelis lived together one day, part of that would be having to learn to show your pain to each other.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s another excellent point, which wouldn’t be easy.
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: It wouldn’t be easy.
MS. TIPPETT: No. It would take generations, wouldn’t it?
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: It would take people living towards that.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah, yeah. But you need to find the ground for it. And slowly, people will do it, but it’s hard, it’s hard. And even as Middle Eastern culture, Arab culture, especially for boys and men, you need to be tough to not show your tears. We struggle so hard when we bring psychologists and social workers to work with the teenagers to talk about their feelings. This is one of the major struggles here in Palestine. Just talk about your feelings and you’ll feel better, you know, we’ll find a way to help you in this. It takes us months and months and years, you know, for them to reach that I will, yes, I believe that is good for me. Yeah, I feel comfortable, I feel good about it, you know, I can talk about my feelings, about how I feel, everything that I face in my life. So it’s not easy.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Thank you.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Yeah?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. AL-AZRAQ: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, we’re excerpting and posting a documentary made by Nidal Al-Azraq and his wife, Amahl Bishara. You heard my conversation with her earlier in this hour. The documentary — “Degrees of Incarceration” — chronicles Aida camp community members, old and young. You can also find video of my unedited conversations with both Nidal and Amahl. Again, that’s onbeing.org.
And, in a realm where borders have no meaning, our Facebook community continues to grow with more than 20,000 strong voices. This is where some of our richest conversations are taking root. Find us at facebook.com/onbeing. Or check us out on Twitter, where we gained a large number of new followers in response to my recent interview with neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Our Twitter handle: @Beingtweets.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Special thanks this week to Fouad Abu-Ghosh and Diane Winston.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.