Hawara is also the location of the main checkpoint into Nablus. Today the checkpoint is quiet, new ‘relaxed’ measures mean we can drive into the city. A few weeks ago we’d have had to wait for hours before leaving our car at the checkpoint and walking in. “Don’t you go a bit crazy living like this?” I ask Mazin.
“We’re all crazy Salim,” he says as we pass two sneering, uniformed youths slouched over their M16s. “And the craziest people of all are running the show.”
Nablus is the closest I’ve got to a functioning Palestinian city. Aside from the checkpoint on the edge of town, the city appears to be free of petulant gangs of Israeli soldiers, sharp elbowed American God-botherers, settlers and sites of disputed theological importance (though later I learn Rachel’s Tomb is here – a grail for hardcore othordox Jews). As it happens the indigenous Jews of Nablus, the Samaritans, have lived harmoniously with local Muslims for millennia. In 1948 they turned down Israel’s offer of citizenship, though I’m told more young Samaritans are opting for a pass that’ll get them through the checkpoints these days.
Over mud-like Arabic coffee, my companions Aziz and Mazin tell me about the city’s strong defiant streak and how most families have lost someone in the struggle. On the road in, we passed a huge construction site where they are rebuilding the municipal buildings razed in an F16 air strike three years ago. “Collective punishment for daring to resist,” says Dr M.
We arrive at An Najah University. There is an event to mark the opening of the American Studies department and Mazin, who is a lecturer at Bethlehem and Birzeit University as well as the director of the Palestinian Centre for the Rapprochement Between People and a tireless human rights campaigner to boot, is due to speak.
The car park is blocked by a bunch of bullet-proof 4x4s – the US Consulate’s Cultural Affairs officer is in attendance too. With some difficulty we manage to get one of the neckless CIA goons moodily fingering their earpieces to shift a truck so we can park.
The inauguration starts badly. The keynote speaker, Dr Philip Hosey from New York University, gets up to tell assembled faculty and students how “America created the concept of the democratic faith” and “has the longest tradition of social equality in the world”. He suggests Palestinians should stop clinging to Islam and become spiritual “like Italian Americans” who get on swingingly with their Jewish neighbours. There’s no mention of the security council vetos or the £62billion the US has given Israel to enable them to persecute and slaughter Palestinians for two generations. He talks about US diversity and suffrage, “okay, so it only applied to white male property owners”, as the model to follow. I look along the row where I’m sitting to see ten pairs of white knuckles in tight clenched fists.
Outside I run into Amjad and a group of English language students from the Uni.
“What do you reckon to that?” I ask.
“It was…very interesting,” says Amjad, guarded with an eye on the G-man hovering nearby.
“Interesting? Are you mad,” I say. “That was bullshit. It was total fiction!” I apologise for my sloppy English, but my sentiments seem to relax the boys.
“They give us an American studies department and send in F16s,” jokes Ahmed.
We chat about the city and life and plans. Most of them want to graduate then go abroad to study for masters degrees.
Back in the hall another US apologist, Amanda Pilz, describes the colonisation of the West in terms that would possibly be welcomed the other side of the Hafrada wall (it was a wilderness till the Europeans got here). It seems beyond irony in this venue. As she speaks the US cultural affairs officer turns to her colleague and mouths, “She’s good”. But the truth is she’s a liar.
The American contingent seems to have spectacularly mis-pitched itself. Their patronising manner and language exposes their contempt for their audience. No one bothered to tell them that Palestinians, despite the occupation, have more graduate degrees per head of population than anywhere else in the world. With unemployment levels that’d make Moss Side look like Silicon Valley, education has become something of a fetish for Palestinians, and for those that can raise the money, they go on and on. Today I will meet more people with doctorate degrees in a single day than any other day of my life. During the afternoon session we will slope off so Aziz can buy a laptop off a mate of his. The computer seller, Iyad, who lives a tiny village in the hills north of Nablus. He has a masters degree. In the flat upstairs he introduces us to his father who’s walls a covered with the certificates earned by his children. All his sons have masters degrees and three of them have science based Phd’s and they sell laptops for a living. Pilz and Hosey, it seems, have bought the Israeli line about Palestinians being an itinerant, illiterate people.
Finally the Palestinian contingent get to speak and they do it in an articulate and sharp witted, non patronising, way in stark contrast to the Americans.
Dr M throws out his prepared address (he tells me later) and lays into Hosey’s “myths”. He tells students they should learn the truth about America, he shows them maps of Palestine before and after the Israeli occupation and maps of the US before and after “the largest genocide in human history”. He tells them about slavery and how the US has bankrolled Israel’s massacring of the Palestinians. He tells them to read Howard Zinn and Edward Said and that they shouldn’t waste their time trying to effect change from the Whitehouse but should talk directly to Americans on the internet citing the civil rights movement and Vietnam as examples of how people pressure in the US can make a difference. He passes a paper round. “Give me your email addresses,” he says. “I will help you.”
“What do you think?” I ask the girl sitting next to me in the silver hijab.
“It was good,” she says, giving an almost unnoticeable appreciative nod. Her name, she says, is Esra but she calls herself Desert Rose – even before Mazin got here Nablus’s young people had worked out how to have the rock’n’roll without the shock’n’awe.
Dr M is followed by a string of Palestinian speakers all more convincing and articulate than the Americans – despite the conference being held in English, Hosey’s mother tongue. Saed Abu Hijleh (who was shot along with his parents on the balcony of his home by Israeli soldiers during the last intifada – an attack in which his mother died) picks Hosey’s excuses apart, describing the American expansion westward as “a bloody, colonial affair”.
Mohammed Dajani from Al Quds university tells us about the Caliph Umar Al Khattab who was striving for equality for all – men, women, slaves, black, white. brown – in the Middle east, 1000 years before Hosey’s white patriarchal American ‘diversity and tolerance’ was even imagined. And Wafa Darwish tells the students “to be able to resist we have to know our enemy”. It is a pity the feisty Darwish is blind as she doesn’t get to see the CIA meatheads frantically checking the exits or the woman from the Consulate sinking lower in her seat.
When the questions roll round Hosey shuffles reluctantly back to the stand to defend his whitewashing of the great American genocide. “There are parallels in the modern world,” he acknowledges. “Like the Jews coming to colonise Israel.”
“Palestine!” comes a shout form the floor.
“Er…Sorry?” Hosey’s mouth opens and closes. This may be the last foreign assignment he volunteers for.
“Palestine,” corrects the speaker. I don’t need to look round at him, his voice carries all the rage I have no doubt is on his face. “There was no Israel before they came,” he spits. “The country they colonised was Palestine.”
Darkness descends as we slide back through Hawara and head towards the bottlenecks in the south. Above us, the hilltop settlements provoke the night with their orange glow.
“The Buddhists have a saying Salim,” says Dr M. “’Seek the low places because from there you can grow and change. But from the high places, all you can do is fall.” We all laugh, silently hoping he’s right.