Nabilah Shihab is a third year sociology major at the National University of Singapore. She is also an editor at The Kent Ridge Common, where this article first appeared. Read more about Palestine here.
How It All Began
My story began 14 years ago.
When I was 8 years old, my teacher told the class to bring something interesting for show-and-tell. I didn’t know what to bring so my beloved mother, who had just returned from Palestine, gave me an olive branch from Hebron. With pride, I stood in front of my class and spoke about a land called Palestine and the symbolic meaning of peace embodied by the olive branch.
14 years later, I walked the quiet streets of Nablus when that memory flashed across my mind and I understood that I was always meant to be there.
I boarded the plane from Singapore to Amman, Jordan without a clue what lay ahead. I knew that I would need to travel from Amman to the Israeli border but I did not know exactly how. From the writings I read over the years, I was aware that I was entering an area of intense political conflict. However, I was curious to understand the intricacies of everyday life by experiencing them.
Crossing the Jordanian-Israeli border, I had my first glimpse of the tensions at the Israeli immigration checkpoint where I saw Palestinian men, women and children who arrived before I did, being detained.
After being held for 5 hours during which my luggage was meticulously searched and I was thoroughly questioned about my ethnicity, religion and ability to speak Arabic, I was granted a limited visa restricting me from any part of Israel.
At this point, it dawned upon me – I was no longer a mere spectator in the tensions.
I felt the need to employ the fluidity of my racial identity to my advantage. Although I am of Arab, Malay and Chinese ancestry, I made a mental note to conceal my Arab identity and ability to speak and understand Arabic because it would mean less hassle for me when crossing through the border.
Every rare occasion that I was mistaken for a Palestinian was a moment of pride.
I entered Palestine not knowing where to go. I took the chance and hopped onto a minibus to Nablus where my epiphanies would later begin. Through the twists and turns of my uncertain journey I learnt valuable lessons.
I soon learnt to tell the difference between celebratory wedding fireworks and the gunshots fired at protesters, between love and loss. Yet, I struggled to accept such contradictions that defined life in Palestine. The land rich with olive trees was in dire need of an olive branch for peace.
All the books I read as a teenager did not teach me life lessons that I learnt from roaming the mysterious back alleys of Nablus’ old city and being invited into strangers’ homes. I learnt that you don’t need money to be rich because my bag full of paper money felt poor next to an old lady with a heart of gold.
On my last days in Palestine, a friend invited me to visit an ill old lady who lived alone in a small, dilapidated room in the old city of Nablus. Hung on one of her four walls was a black and white photograph of her husband who had passed on.
Although she was without material possessions, she thought I was homeless and kept worrying about where I would sleep at night. She manifested the honorable and kind nature of Palestinians who care about others more than they care about themselves.
I was so humbled and inspired by the warmth of Palestinians that every rare occasion that I was mistaken for a Palestinian was a moment of pride for me. If I could walk through the old city without being recognized as “ajnabiyyah” (foreigner) or if taxi drivers did not ask me where I was from, I took it as a compliment as it made me feel part of a people with strong principles and gentle hearts.
The generosity of the Palestinians is most reflected in the food they serve their guests. As the Palestinian saying goes, “you eat as much as you love the person who cooks the food.” In the name of love, I had eaten a lifetime supply of food during my stay in Palestine.
Food is unmistakably the Palestinian language of love. The endless invitations for breakfast, lunch, dinner and every meal in between that I received from Palestinians I had just met were undeniably statements. I vouch for the notion that the guests of Palestinians are celebrated like royalty and never leave hungry.I had never met a people so genuine about giving that they would never accept “no” for an answer. They love you and want to feed you, so eat you will.
I vouch for the notion that the guests of Palestinians are celebrated like royalty and never leave hungry.
Soccer Girls of Askar Refugee Camp
In their torn shoes and oversized jerseys, the girls played soccer as if their lives depended on it.
During my spectacular one and a half month stay in Nablus, I was given the golden opportunity to train with pre-teen girls in Askar Refugee camp. Twice a week for two hours, I felt that I went back to a time when I was a young 18 year old, fiercely training for the national championships in Singapore.
Despite our vastly different circumstances, I realized that the soccer girls of Askar Refugee Camp were similar to my team in junior college. I saw myself in the aggressive Leena who fiercely chased the ball as if all her dreams were in it. I saw my team captain Anne Marie in the strong and skillful Yusra who dribbled with confidence and impeccable ball-control.
Yet something was amiss.
Unlike my team in junior college who were like sisters, these girls lacked a sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship. I was taken aback by how abrasive and unforgiving they were towards one another each time someone missed a shot. I wondered if their aggressiveness had anything to do with the fact that they were girls and refugees facing double discrimination.
Since I understood intimately society’s tendency to trivialize female involvement in a culturally masculine sport, I figured that life in a poverty-stricken refugee camp could not be easier for them. The gated confines of an UNRWA school provided a world of opportunities for the girls in Askar Refugee Camp to fight to be equals. In their torn shoes and oversized jerseys, the girls played soccer as if their lives depended on it.
The Children in the Village of Boreen
Twice a week, I spent time teaching English at a village called Boreen in the outskirts of Nablus. The children only spoke Arabic, and could neither read nor write in English. Yet, they were enthusiastic about learning and unafraid to make mistakes. We began by learning numbers and the English alphabet. I taught them how to read and write.They taught me that we do not choose the circumstances we are born into but opportunities are ours to seize.
These children barely knew their ABCs but they had more wisdom than I.
Our class was every Sunday and Tuesday at 3pm in a dilapidated old house turned into a classroom referred to as Markaz Bilal Najah.
I wanted my classes with the children to be fun, so one day I brought bottles of glitter and paint hoping to do art with them. The art supplies unleashed their excitement as the children who were initially quiet and well behaved became chatty and began jumping around. I was told that the children had never painted before.
This was an impactful moment for me because it was then that it occurred to me that the social, political and economic circumstances did not allow them to be children. The difficult realities they faced forced them to grow up quickly.
The Story Ends With An Olive Branch
In Palestine, every new face was a face I was almost certain I had seen before and every soul I met felt as if we had known each other for a lifetime. Yet I knew that once I left, coming back was an uncertain plan. So, just in case I never returned, I wanted to bring home with me something from Palestine.
While on my way to the border into Jordan, I told the taxi driver to pull over. I asked him if I could pluck an olive branch from an olive tree by the side of the road. He turned back to look me in the eye and in that moment, I realised we had an unspoken understanding. The olive tree is more than a source of nourishment for Palestinians, it represents their resilience and their hope for a peaceful future.
Just like my mother had done 14 years ago, I tiptoed under an olive tree and reached for an olive branch to take home with me.