Monday, March 16, 2015

Final thoughts: Breaking down stereotypes and myths with humour and Kanafeh!

During our first week here, a member of our team received a message from a friend back home asking how she was settling in. This message then went on to ask the obvious questions, how we were finding wearing a burka, whether we actually had a building to live in and how we were obtaining milk each day. She was amazed to hear that we were not only wearing our normal clothes, but that we were living in a flat with heating and running water and had a supermarket just up the road from us, from which milk was easily obtained. We are now reaching the end of our three month experience in Palestine, so rather than just rounding up what we have been doing out here, I thought I would address some of the preconceptions that we (and our friends and families back home) had about Palestine before we arrived and how and why they have been challenged. 
Day out in Jericho with Tamayyaz students

The Western World has a very much skewed portrayal of what life looks like in the West Bank, if you Google image ‘The West Bank’, after you scroll through the plethora of maps of the West Bank (apparently people are really confused as to where the West Bank even is), you come across photos of the wall, protestors and warfare. In fact there are only a handful of pictures that don’t demonstrate this. If you were to surmise life in the West Bank by Google’s response, the West Bank looks like a constant warzone. However, what we have experienced here has been something completely different. We have stumbled into a country with some of the world’s most hospitable people, breathtaking scenery and the most amazing Kanafeh money can buy.

This is not to undermine just how horrific the occupation is, or to say that the West Bank is a safe and content region. It is anything but that, the gauntlet of Israeli armed soldiers that a visitor has to pass through into the West Bank is a testament to that and the complete matrix of control that the Israeli’s hold over Palestinian everyday life further demonstrates this. Although the occupation is a constant battle for the Palestinians, it doesn’t individually define them; there is a relatable human side to this complex region.

Graffiti on the Barrier Wall near Aida Refugee Camp
The biggest obstacle that I personally had to overcome before coming out to Palestine, was persuading my friends and family that I would be safe out here, and that I wasn’t in fact purposefully endangering my own life. The opinions that my family hold on Palestine is a testament to the role Western media plays in formulating incorrect ideas about the West Bank and harmful stereotypes. For them, I was entering a war zone, where I’d be subjected to daily rocket attacks and living in a country that was dominated by Muslim extremists. The reality is very different. Daily life in the West Bank occurs like it does in any country or city, people go to work, drink coffee, socialize with friends and have, what a lot would consider, a normal day-to-day life. The occupation restricts these activities in every way possible, yet the Palestinians carry on and resist. For example students’ travel to and from school and university is restricted, there are 59 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank and 243 flying checkpoint put in place per month by the Israelis, yet the Palestinians emphasize the importance of education and attend school daily, despite the obstacles they are forced to overcome. The resilience of Palestinians who face daily adversary is incredible. 

We held a class last week on stereotypes and the media, we split the class into two groups, one group brainstormed British stereotypes and the other focused on Palestinian stereotypes. When the group fed back on British stereotypes we heard the usual ones, tea drinkers, sarcastic, traditional. But then a few new ones came up, racist, lack of compassion and the Balfour Declaration was a recurring theme. I immediately thought of my friends and family back home, none of whom I would consider slot into these categories. But then I thought about Britain’s role in the occupation, and I was not surprised that they had formulated these stereotypes about us. But that’s the problem with stereotypes; they tend to tarnish everyone with the same brush.

Sign at the entrance to Tent of Nations
However, what was even more shocking was the stereotypes they were convinced we had on Palestinians. Terrorist was overwhelming the top hit; uneducated, impoverished and undeveloped all came a close second, camels and bad time keeping was also thrown into the mix at some point. Worryingly, these weren’t too dissimilar from the preconceptions that many of our friends and families had on Palestine before we came out here or the stereotypes that are often disseminated in the media. Last Wednesday we visited the Tent of Nations farm just outside Bethlehem, the farm is surrounded on all sides by 5 illegal settlements. In the face of continuing legal battles and violence from settlers and the IDF, the owner still maintained a positive outlook life, and non-violent resistance; he is trying to do something positive even in a dark political context. For him there is still life in Palestine, there is sports, music, art and laughter, but none of this is disseminated in the Western Media, we only ever read negative portrayals of Palestine.
Spending three months with us has challenged and changed our students preconceived opinions about British people, and the stereotypes they previously had; it is this same reversal of opinion that I want to achieve back home for them and other Palestinians.

If anyone had told me before coming here, that a day wouldn’t go by where I didn’t cry with laughter, I would have seriously questioned their sanity. Yet without wanting to sound like a cliché, I actually am sat here writing this whilst the room is echoing with laughter from my Palestinian friends. When I return to the UK I will encourage everyone and anyone who speaks to me about my time in Palestine to come out here and challenge the stereotypes for themselves. To come and visit this beautiful country, meet its incredible and hospitable residents, and witness their resistance to the occupation will challenge any of your preconceived stereotypes of Palestine. It is only through visiting yourself that you can challenge what the Western media and your friends and family portray as Palestine. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.   


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