I was half awake when my alarm clock went off, it was 3:00am already, my bag was crammed with books and papers, I did not have the strength to pull myself together and close it, in my head I could picture the long journey along Allenby Bridge, personally my worst nightmare.
I walked silently to the door, dragging my bag and picturing the moment when I would arrive in Ireland, which seemed so far away when I remembered the route I had to go through, from Ramallah to Jericho, Jericho to Amman, then from Amman’s airport to Dublin.
When I got in the taxi I could see the faces of people covered with sleeplessness and exhaustion yet to come, yawning took over the scene and I was lost between the desire to close my eyes and drift to a more comforting place and the obligation to stay awake and carry on pointless conversations about the weather and the situation on the Jeser (bridge in Arabic), people trying desperately to be optimistic and skip that agonizing journey, at least in their heads.
We drove through the wrecked roads and as the morning approached, the colors of dawn seemed to steal the darkness of the night as we went further on.
When we arrived in Jericho, it was already 6 am.
I could see the sea of people miles away from their actual destination, carrying cards with numbers issued by the Israelis, which by the time I arrived already seemed countless.
After waiting in the bus and then in line on the Israeli side of this short but never-ending bridge for a time that seemed like eternity, we reached the Jordan valley, and for me then everything seemed different, the color of the sky, the smell of the hot summer air and the brown scenery.
My flight to Dublin was drawing soon; I tried to imagine what it must look like, the green hills and Saint Patrick’s Day, the cloudiness and the mellow sunshine, vague images constantly crossed my mind but when the plane landed, it was nothing like the picture in my mind.
I could see the reflection of Dublin’s beautiful houses and mountains in the clouds, and as I reached the registration desk, a kind gentleman asked me where I was from. When I said Palestine, he smiled, and for the first time in a long time someone did not correct me or look at me strangely, he recognized Palestine and yet smiled!
I felt welcomed, even before stepping into the roads of Dublin, the warmth of the people seemed to steal the unusual coldness of the weather, at least for me since I was used to Ramallah’s hot Julys.
Glencree, peace at the edge of the world
Glencree center for peace and reconciliation, 12 miles away from Dublin city center was my next stop, an astounding facility built in the middle of nowhere.
This thirty-year-old Peace Centre was originally built as a British army barracks. Its purpose was to capture local Irish rebels who were fighting during the United Irishman’s Rebellion of 1798 (Civilian Uprising against the British Occupation). In September 1974 it was re-established as a renowned Peace and Reconciliation organisation.
The location was extraordinary, it startled me, the silence of Wicklow’s mountains was so peaceful, for the first time in four years silence felt comforting and not soon to be shattered by Israeli bombs.
Six delegations arrived that day to participate in Glencree’s international youth exchange program, a nine day program meant to introduce young people to different conflicts.
Our first activity as participants was to prepare a presentation about our country’s conflict, tell our side of the story to allow people from other parts of the world into our own struggle as ordinary people.
We-the Palestinian delegation- decided to tell four different stories, about checkpoints, the Annexation Wall, the April 2002 incursion into Ramallah, and a comparison between the current and the past intifada.
I wanted to say so much but was overwhelmed with the short time we had, and was striving to deliver my side of the issue in a manner in which everyone sitting in that small conference room would be able to relate to.
When my turn came, my heart was beating so fast and I was scared I would stumble on my own words, but as I started telling my story, about my experience during the invasion of Ramallah, a little peace and confidence crept into my senses, and I could hear people breathing heavily behind my voice.
Memories came back to me and I could see clearly in my head the events of the day Israeli soldiers came into my home, their green soiled boots, their rugged voices and their vicious guns, and in five minutes I was back into that black day.
As I finished telling my story, I looked around and saw tears on sad faces, I could feel despair in people’s claps, and I hated myself for a moment.
I realized in that second that I was suffering everyday, that my life makes other people cry and feel helpless, and at that exact moment I woke up from all my peaceful illusions and my daily prophesies about a better future.
Our session seemed to prolong for ages, seeing people’s faces broke my heart, their confusion about this inhumane occupation raised my attention to something I am getting used to, the incomprehensible inhumanity of the Israeli occupation.
They asked us all sorts of questions, from the history of the conflict to whether we would ever be able to forgive this enemy. I began to ask myself whether I would, and the lack of a clear answer suffocated me, I could not forgive or reconcile, with the occupation or myself, not at that moment when the feelings of fear from that specific day haunted me.
When you are living inside the conflict, you try your best to live each day separately, you try to leave the mountain of pain on another side of your soul and wake up every morning with a clean slate, again, you try but it never really works.
When the cold night fell on Glencree that day, I was exhausted, breathless and numb, I saw myself growing older by day, the wondering eyes of people as I passed, wanting to do something to console me, not knowing whether they should smile or laugh or simply hug me to retrieve that glow in my dark eyes.
After a restless sleep, little Irish sunrays tickled my face and I was ready to move on.
Belfast: my West Jerusalem
To give us a better understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland, we packed our bags the next day for a three day trip to Belfast, Bellycastle and Derry or London Derry.
The trip was very long; the deserted green roads seemed to stretch endlessly, then all of a sudden, we stopped at a semi border and were given 10 minutes to “exchange” our euros, then it hit me! We were in a different country, counting British pounds and buying The Times.
The whole idea was not alien to me but I was looking at the scenery and dozing off, the only difference as we crossed the border was the straight, less bumpy roads.
We arrived in Belfast shortly thereafter. The weather was darkening, and as a result, our only option was a bus tour through the streets and neighborhoods of Belfast.
River Lagan is not the only barrier cutting through the capital of Northern Ireland, there is a deeper wound slicing Belfast in two halves, the divide between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
Belfast seemed like it was built differently on each side of the so called “peace” wall. I wondered about the naming since on each side of the wall was hatred for the opponent, and so much tension and hostility.
When we entered the Catholic streets, you could see colorful Irish flags covering the place, busy streets and people. Driving further, we saw huge Palestinian flags drawn on the wall, I started jumping around the bus to get a closer look on a liberation sign for my war-torn country and nation, stamped on the walls of a European city thousands of miles away, and I celebrated some freedom with myself.
Five minutes later, we entered a deserted Protestant neighborhood, the first thing that caught my eye was a huge mural that said “prepared for peace but ready for war,” it took me a decent amount of time to digest the words and realize that they did not make sense. What puzzled me more was the complete change of view, that area was so cold and empty and just that second it hit me.
A few days before my trip I had gone to Jerusalem for the first time in four years, although because I have a West Bank ID, Israel does not allow me to enter my own capital.
I had begun my “illegal” trip by walking down the streets of the Old City which were alive, busy and colorful, and then I had gone for a drive in West Jerusalem. Just as I entered that area, my heart froze and nothing felt the same, the streets, the people and the spirit of Jerusalem were completely different, and being in the Protestant area in Belfast at that moment felt exactly the same. I dreaded being there, I was afraid of my own reaction, I did not want to hate Belfast like I hated West Jerusalem, but it was too late.
I wanted to crawl out of that city as fast as possible; I felt the British and Israeli flags covering that area blindfolding me, but then the voice of the tour guide saved me.
He was talking about the hostility mounting in the city daily; he pointed at windows of Catholic neighborhoods, more precisely, the lack of windows, since Protestant stones invaded their peace and shattered hundreds of beautiful houses on both sides of the road.
There was tension all over the place, you could feel it from your bus seat, all the hatred stole the scents of Belfast, and left it haunted by ghosts and long endless winters.
I was strangely relived when we crossed the Belfast border into oblivion again, on our way to Ballycastle (in Co. Antrim), a beautiful northern coastal town which was our next destination.
Derry: lost in the middle
Packed and ready again we drove on to Derry; the unique thing about it is that it has two names, Derry for Catholics and London Derry for Protestants, two names for one small town.
Our first activity was an open-top bus tour. The tour guide was from Derry and he knew the city’s history by heart, I could feel his love for this separated city and the passion he was trying to transmit to us, despite the sudden rain that soaked and partially blinded us as we started driving.
Just as I was drifting away with my thoughts through the rain drops, I was faced with a big mural that said FREE DERRY; looking closely I saw murals of Bloody Sunday.
On January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire on an unarmed peaceful demonstration killing 13 people and injuring a number of others, the march was considered “illegal” by the British authorities. That event left a deep wound in Derry’s people that refuses to heal.
Free Derry was one of the first areas that were “freed” by Irish republicans, the walls and buildings were bursting with colors and pictures portraying that single sad day that carried freedom on its tail.
When we returned that evening to our hostel, the owner asked us where we were from; when I said Palestine he smiled, and again I felt very welcome just from the name of my country, something that rarely happens in the world.
We sat down for some coffee and the man turned out to be a full bred pro-Palestinian and so was his wife; and when they asked us about life back home, about how the world perceives us, I felt like I was a queen of some fairytale country.
Waking up to morning in Derry was just as spectacular, light drops of rain were falling from the cloudy sky, and it looked and felt like Ramallah’s intimate winter.
After having a delicious Irish breakfast, we got ready for our walking tour, on Derry’s wall and around free Derry.
Despite the rain, we could sense the separation between the two neighborhoods, the wall was like a knife that harmed anyone who would get close, and the grayness of the weather added a rather depressing touch to the empty pathway.
The scenery changed as we arrived to Free Derry, the murals looked so real up close, one could see and feel Bloody Sunday in front of their eyes, the enthusiasm, injustice, anger, cheering, shooting, chaos, blood, disbelief and lots of sadness.
Reading the names of the thirteen innocent victims made me wish we had a huge mural in Ramallah carrying the names of the thousands of innocent Palestinian victims, maybe this way when peace finally comes people will still be able to stand next to it everyday and say a little prayer, but then again, will there ever be peace or a mural big enough?
Back to Glencree: deeper understanding, common ground
Participants were exhausted with the amount of ideas they had to bear with after our trip to the North, seeing Belfast and Derry allowed us to form concrete ideas about the deep complex conflict in Ireland, but again, seeing is believing.
The road back to Glencree felt more familiar, I could recognize the change of colors as we passed by the pastures, but as we arrived to the main road leading to it, we could see clearly the narrow military road, Glencree’s barracks were the only survivor in that former-war zone.
Entering the main door felt different that day, we were accustomed to everything now, our bedrooms, the food, the conversations and mostly each other.
After a week I got to see the people behind the different faces and names, they were amazing, aware, hungry for more knowledge, and triggered by our testimonies to make an actual change in their understanding of our conflict.
I got to thinking about their impressions and how they could help. Being with people who made the effort to get as close as possible to the core of the issue helped me understand their immeasurably positive impact on our cause. Each individual, whether from Warrington, England or the Basque country could help spread the word.
Our final days were focused on brain storming and discussion sessions, our final art project and a trip to Dublin.
Since we reached Glencree late in the afternoon we had one short session, where several questions were addressed, mainly about our impressions at that point, and what we are to bring back to our countries after this rich trip.
Amid the discussion, several people inquired about the lack of reconciliation and peace centers in the West Bank and Gaza, mainly for children. I couldn’t agree more with the great need for such projects, but I was also wondering, what would a little kid think if he went to a center and learned about the equality of humans and love and peace, only to be forced to return home through a checkpoint manned by gun wielding soldiers, only to be woken up later that night to the sound of Israeli guns shooting at his kin? Would he remember any peace songs at that moment?
Later on they asked each individual about what they would take back with them home, and in a rather gloomy manner I answered that I would take back hopelessness. I could see people lift their heads up in surprise, and I went on to explain that if the Protestants and Catholics who believe in the same Christianity cannot find peace, what is our destiny, two nations entirely different in beliefs and power?
I felt guilty afterwards, because even though I did not believe that any peace is viable in the near future, these people have provided me with enormous strength to speak, write and stand up for years to come, each one of them gave me a priceless portion of courage and respect for my nation and self.
Dublin: beautiful Ireland
I was longing to see Dublin, and I couldn’t have been more right, it was beautiful, the Irish accent roaming the streets, Irish music flowing from the stores and pubs, I loved being in Ireland at that moment, I loved the streets, the colors of the sky and most of all the people.
We walked around the streets then had coffee and cakes, Dublin reflected a beautiful face of Ireland and Europe.
At about 7 pm we headed to the theatre, we went to see a play called “A Night in November” by the Irish playwright Marie Jones, performed by John Dunleavy.
The play is a one-man show, where Kenneth Norman McAllister, a Protestant middle-aged bureaucrat, who is trapped in a loveless marriage and a boring job, wakes up.
A night in November takes place when McAllister takes his hateful father in law to a football game between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and is repulsed by the hostile behavior of the Protestant fans. At that moment the obvious truth hits McAllister between the eyes and pushes him into a different world.
Dunleavy’s face embodied every bit of emotion perfectly; I could feel my face wrinkle as he spoke and moved around that small stage, McAllister was changing right before my eyes, I was a witness to this unique transformation.
McAllister was alone, he was heading towards justice by himself, thousands of thoughts could have thrown him back into his peaceful narrow existence, but the light was too bright, there was no way back to blindness.
Kenneth started befriending his Catholic boss at work, and through him he saw the life he always wanted, the simple life that contained some love, empty of pretentiousness and coldness.
I saw myself and family in the Catholic boss, their house, their garden and the little details of the life they loved to leave reminded me of home, the flowers my mother leaves on the kitchen table every morning and the smile she has on even amidst the darkest days of invasion, she has hope.
I always say this is one of the very few virtues of being in an area torn by conflict; you concentrate on the little pretty details of life and become more human in order to survive the inhumanity that rapes you.
Later on, McAllister takes a huge leap towards “them” and decides to go to New York with hundreds of football fans to watch the match between the Irish Republic and Italy in the 1994 World Cup.
His challenge wasn’t leaving his old chauvinistic neighborhood to the airport, but leaving his old self behind and dressing in a green soccer jersey to support his Irish team, he was ecstatic, I saw a different face for the same actor, he displayed his emotions nakedly, and even I felt Irish for a moment.
He was welcomed by all the Irish people, he was one of them, they offered him rides and homes to stay in, for the first time in his life he felt like he belonged to a country, to a color and one crazy cheering crowd, he couldn’t have been more proud.
The similarities between the imaginary crowd and my people back home were staggering. Our unity, our homes and our suffering are, the same despite the vast differences between the two conflicts; we are all humans therefore our reactions are the same.
I left the theatre feeling differently about everything, it was like a leap of faith had just hit me in the face, we are not alone, never, we are surrounded by people who feel the same way we do, while I was scared in my house when Israeli tanks drew near, someone in Derry was scared of a British soldier who jumped out of his bushes in the back yard, while I was walking down the streets of Ramallah after one vicious bombing happy to be alive, someone in Belfast was celebrating surviving yet another attack.
Even though we all become so swallowed in our own conflicts, there is always this moment when we become one with humans elsewhere suffering as well, and it feels so powerful, it opens up a new window for us to breathe after a long suffocation.
We walked to our bus that night, and I could feel myself skipping through the streets of Dublin.
The final art project: flying back to childhood
To leave a lasting mark in Glencree, we had to finalize our exchange with a joint flag, so we woke up next morning prepared to launch ideas and draw a huge flag.
Before doing that, we were asked to write what stops us from using colors and drawing everyday on a piece of paper, it got me thinking about why I don’t own crayons or a coloring board, but failed to find an answer.
It’s not because I always have a million things to do, it’s not because I am busy or because I am preoccupied with this restless occupation, it is because I am growing up, I left behind childhood in a hurry and leaped prematurely into adulthood, although I promised myself not to do so. I always told myself I’m going to keep this little crazy child inside, and never give up on her, I just needed a reminder.
We had to draw our own little painting then take various ideas and put them on the big white board that was about to be invaded with colors.
We became kids, and it was such a relief. I drew a sun, rainbows and things I have forgotten existed inside me, and it was truly therapeutic.
Finally, we decided to draw darkness at the corners of our flag, representing our worries and sorrow, and then a sun bursting out of it, representing hope.
When I saw people’s different paintings I realized we all have fear and darkness inside, no matter where we lived or what we did, we all have our ghosts and demons, and we all were brave enough to confront them.
The flag was flowing with light, we all looked at each other proudly, I was 13 again, and wished I could be stuck there forever.
There was another colorful world waiting for us behind all our internal and external conflicts, a world that we could run to, any moment of the day.
The only way out is through
It was time to go home, that whole experience was over, I went that night to our meeting room to collect some papers, and as I was closing the door behind me I could hear our voices from the previous night, their faces weren’t leaving my head, I became accustomed to their laughs, words, solidarity and support, it was all so hard to leave behind.
I loved being a Palestinian that week, although it was hard to talk and remember my traumas all the time, I felt people’s hunger to understand and be part of our cause, not because they were pro-Palestinian or because we fed them with thoughts, but because our cause is a just cause and it would trigger any human being to rebel and seek freedom.
I had bits of ever person, event, city and county preserved in me. Sitting in the bus on the bridge waiting for endless hours wasn’t as exhaustive as it used to be. I closed my eyes and saw every detail of this trip clearly. My soul was still right there in Glencree, enjoying the wintry breeze.
Now I look at things from a different perspective. Just this morning I was stuck for an hour at the Qalandia checkpoint, but I knew there were people all around the world talking compassionately about me and thousands like me, as familiar faces belonging to an oppressed nation, refusing to stand still or die in ruins.
Those people with different colors and nationalities refused to be silenced or brainwashed, they opened their hearts and eyes to the truth and chose to go through that hard path in order to find peace.
I appreciate and will always remember each and every one of them. I think now is the time we go to the people, for they will help us find salvation. If you were in my place you would feel their energy, they gave me so much strength to go back home and write everyday in order to make a difference in their nations and mine.
The only sad part is the amount of hate and conflict still darkening our world; it is scary to try to imagine what might happen if we do not find peace soon, destruction is slowly eating up our planet; we have to take a stronger stand, sometime soon.
Ireland will always be in my memory and thoughts; it left a remarkable impact on my life and it will always feel a little bit like home. .