My changing perceptions of Islam

Since arriving in Palestine just under a month ago, I have begun to develop my understanding of Islam more deeply and have been considering my own relationship with religion as a result.

I am indebted considerably to my flatmate, who as a practising Muslim has been a brilliantly well-informed source of information about her faith, and many of the things I will write about here have been learnt through her. Aside from my Grandma, she is one of the only people I have ever spoken to – from any religious background – who has a deep and nuanced understanding of her religion, answering all the questions I’ve thrown at her with a measured and open-mind. Neither blindly following nor “brainwashed”, she seems to benefit from using Islam as a world-view, a way of understanding wider issues that she may come across in her life.

This post is not intended to be a deeply-informed perspective on Islam – it would take years of studying to do so – but more some general musings which have affected me personally, in order to counteract some of the very dominant views currently held in Western countries which I had not realised I had unwittingly bought into.

Just before I came away, I went shopping on Oxford Street to buy some slightly more “modest” clothing than my usual attire. I went into Primark in Oxford Street to pick up a few things, and was shopping alongside women wearing the niqab – their faces fully covered and some with mesh over their eyes, with long gloves on so that no part of their skin was exposed.

I remember standing there and feeling so sad for these women, who at that time appeared to me to be trapped in a dark and repressive world. It has been suggested that 90% of our communication is non-verbal, and therefore any of the bodily expression that comes naturally to us as human beings seemed to be repressed for these women, cutting them off from the “normality” of lived experience.

My flatmate explained to me that many women in the UK who wear the niqab are converts to Islam, in addition to a growing number of young women who wear the niqab in spite of what their parents and husbands want. Rejecting the now acceptable consumption of female bodies wherever you turn, she told me how many women are wearing the niqab as a rejection of the way that women are viewed and consumed in our society. I’m not just talking about pornography here, a quick flick onto MTV will serve just as well – try watching with the sound off to get the full understanding of what I mean.

Many Niqabi women choose to wear the face covering as a way of being respected and heard for the way they think and not the way they look. This is why (ironically) the niqab is actually more popular in Western, secular countries as opposed to many Muslim countries – the former being more obsessed with narrow ideas of beauty and requiring women to look and behave in a very particular way. I have seen perhaps only two or three women wearing the full veil since arriving in Palestine.

Nevertheless, this has not changed my view on the limiting of life experience for women who wear the niqab – if it is worn for “feminist” reasons then this is a painful indictment of our current society where women feel that they have to take this extreme measure in order to be recognised as a human, not as a body.

What I was shocked to realise in myself, however, is that I had unwittingly confined my own perception of Muslim women in general to my feelings towards the women I saw on Oxford Street. Coming from the perspective of a white, middle-class “liberated” woman, it is only since coming to Palestine that I’ve really questioned what I now recognise as a fairly restrictive view of Muslim women in general.

The very fact that I had an attitude towards Muslim women “in general” at once began to ring alarm bells for me as I began to recognise the complexity of Islam and the many choices that it presents for those who follow its teachings. I have met people who fast – but do not pray, who pray – but do not cover, who drink – but always fast etc. This is of course in addition to the many strands of Islam – Shia, Sunni, Sufism etc – all of which have different customs and beliefs that define their particular branch of Islam.

With regard to whether women decide to wear the hijab or not, I have often thought of Islam as a fairly patriarchal, sexist religion because it is the women who cover. I thought that women had to cover because they were the “heathen temptresses” who would lure men away from worship, when in fact the Qu’arn does suggest that women can cover, but the passage which immediately precedes this says that men should “lower their eyes” also. The onus is on both parties to be respectful of the opposite sex.

My flatmate has pointed out that many women decide to wear the hijab as it is a sign of identity, a pride in belonging to a group that has an inherent set of benevolent values and beliefs. One of the pillars of Islam is directly linked to helping and protecting others around you, and from my personal experience this seems to be regularly enacted amongst communities here in Palestine. Whilst I am sure this says as much about Palestinians as anything else, there is no denying that the values which Islam inculcates match this warmth, generosity and openness of spirit.

More than anything, I have met so many strong and intelligent Muslim women whose faith gives them a positive identity from which they can draw guidance as to how they live their lives as good people. It is at once a very personal religion, whilst also being one that is grounded in society and relationships with those around you. Whilst Buddhism seems to be the “on trend” religion to adopt currently, there seems to me to be an isolation to Buddhism that is at odds with my own personal view of people as social beings. In light of this, it speaks volumes about the courage of Lauren Booth’s conversion to Islam, a not easy choice in Western societies dominated by Islamaphobia.

In addition to the rise of “terrorism” in the 21st century, many people look to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to justify their views on Islam as a religion. However, I’m sure I don’t need to point out to many people who read this blog that the terrible repression of women in these countries has deviated significantly from the origins of Islam. Instead these practises are based on cultural (very different from religious) customs that have been injected into these societies.

It is not that I am on the verge of converting to Islam, but learning more about what seems to me to be a very beautiful religion has made me question exactly where my own values have come from. I have never been a spiritual person – I attended Sunday school as a child and whilst I liked the stories that we were taught, it never really resonated for me personally. The values and beliefs that I follow have been inculcated by my parents from a young age, but are further grounded and solidified in my interactions with people in all parts of my daily life. I have rejected the natural career trajectory that my social and economic background perhaps dictates, instead trying to find meaning and purpose in my life through other channels. Whether I can be an affective agent of change whilst in Palestine remains to be seen, but the reasons that have brought me here are very similar to the other girls I am working with, wherever we have taken our inspiration from.

Religion dominates the political narrative here in Palestine, and this is something that I have slowly been trying to get my head around having come here with a Marxist world-view. I have begun to view my Marxism as something of a secular faith – a belief in the revolutionary potential of the working classes – and so it has been fascinating comparing and contrasting this with Islam.

However, the way that religion is used politically here – to often devastating consequences – seems to be at odds with the core values that underpin both Islam and Judaism. Just as Communism was warped in such a way that it became a destructive force in the 20th century, religion has always been manipulated in order to justify some of the worst actions that take place in our society. In a free and democratic society I believe that everybody has a right to practise any religion they choose, but the world would be a better place if only the benevolently peaceful values that underpin these religions were translated to the political arena.

Olive harvest in Qalqilya

At this time of year, Palestinians of all ages come together to help to collect the olive harvest, and we were fortunate enough to have been invited by our friends here at Birzeit to help collect olives on their grandfather’s land.

Olives represent 25% of the agricultural resources here in the West Bank, and many families make their living on the harvest of olives for food and export productions such as oil, soap and other products. Yet their deeply rooted significance in the conflict has become a touchstone of the beauty of Palestine – and the ugliness of occupation.

Dating back to Ancient Greece, the olive branch has come to represent a symbol of peace and of the fertility of Palestinian land. However, 1.2 million olive trees have been destroyed, uprooted, torched or stolen since the occupation, and with relentless speed the Israelis have annexed land through the apartheid wall, which means that many Palestinians have been prohibited to harvest their own olives due to permit restrictions and land confiscation.

As a result, the friends who we travelled to Qalqilia with had not been able to access the land we were to work on for over ten years. The Israeli government only permitted their grandfather and grandmother to access their land, which had once been rightfully theirs, and with each passing year had found it increasingly difficult to harvest the olives alone.

However, as the checkpoint had been unmanned for a week, the family decided to cross this year to help with the harvest.  As our taxi drew up to the checkpoint, there was a frantic exchange in Arabic as the taxi driver expressed that he did not want to take us through. After some convincing, we did drive through the checkpoint, but after a short while he refused to drive any further fearing the wrath of the Israeli army were he caught on this side.

We walked the rest of the way to the fields, and en route were flanked on one side by the looming Israeli settlement that had been illegally constructed on their grandfather’s land. In the West Bank, much of the architecture and materials used to build Palestinian homes merges with the landscape and serves as merely a speckle to the natural beauty of the valleys here. The settlements, however, looked like they had been cut out of the worst of garish Florida real estate, and pasted defiantly on the slope above the farm lands. The rows and rows of white-washed, chrome-glistening apartments with shirtless men lounging on the balconies looked like a Truman Show microbubble, completely jarring with the landscape surrounding it.

Nevertheless, when we got to the fields we got stuck in with the rest of the family, helping to pick the olives from the trees, which were collected on large tarpaulin sheets underneath us. I’m not sure that sampling the bars of Ramallah the night before is a particularly good preparation for olive harvesting, so we quickly found a shady spot and sat on the floor picking olives from the cut branches. By doing so, we were apparently reinforcing the stereotype of women during the harvest, but I was far too hot and hungover to be a feminist at that precise moment in time.

We spent a wonderful day with the family, as they chattered in Arabic and we politely tried to make ourselves look as useful as possible. The radio played all day, and we were told of how they used to listen during the Second Intifada to the devastating reports of violence and destruction that swirled around them the last time they had been able to take part in the harvest.

Nonetheless, none of this was evident as we stretched out in the shade to be treated to what they offered as a picnic, but was more like a Palestinian feast, which our British scotch eggs and cocktail sausages could never even possibly rival. Whenever being entertained by Palestinian families, I always have no trouble consuming the same amount as I usually would in a week – not only because it is so delicious, but also because of the generosity and pleasure they always seem to take in hosting us. I still can’t quite believe the amazing Palestinian hospitality shown to me since I’ve been here, the people I’ve met have genuinely been some of the warmest and most generous of anywhere I’ve travelled.

After lunch, we finally succumbed to the heat of the olive groves, and decided to walk up the hill overlooking their grandfather’s lands, where we found a shady tree to snooze under as the gradually fading daylight played amongst the leaves above us. Our friend who had not been there for more than a decade walked across the hill and told us of the caves in which they would hide as children during incredibly drawn-out games of hide and seek, and showed us the trees they used to swing from before they were banned from this area.

If spoken with melancholy, these recounts may have been heart-breaking, but the beautiful and happy day we had spent there showed to me the resilience of the Palestinians against all the adversity and suffering they had encountered in the last 60 years. The olives we were collecting were not for sale, but instead to produce the olive oil which would be used by the family throughout the year, and testifies to the fact that the Palestinian lands are not a commodity to be pushed and pulled apart by the Israeli government and international treatises. There is a connection between the Palestinians and the land here that seems to come from having to struggle for the very earth itself, the roots that bind the olives trees and the Palestinian people to their beautiful country.

As we stood on the top of the hill, we looked out at the landscape punctuated by the ugly Israeli watch-towers, manned by cameras and armed guards, and our friend took me by surprise when after a brief silence he asked, “What will we do with these watch-towers when Palestine is free?” As we entertained wrapping it in fairy lights and making a Palestinian Eiffel Tower, what really resonated with me is the seemingly endless supply of defiant hope amongst the Palestinians I have met here, whose relationship with their land seems to be as much a part of their soul as the very ground that they walk on. Freedom may appear far off for Palestine, and there are times at which I feel utterly disheartened, but the attitude of people here has quickly put me in my place and showed me to find great pleasure in a beautiful country I still feel so lucky to be living in.

First checkpoint experience

Today was the first time I was able to experience for myself what it is like to go through an Israeli checkpoint. The checkpoints have become infamous as being synonymous with the very worst elements of the occupation; their very tangible, physical presence and what they signify has meant that anything I have ever read or been told about has always been framed by their overbearing existence.

The students at Birzeit are constantly having access to their education restricted due to being continually – and often pointlessly – held up at checkpoints when travelling from their villages and cities to the university. One of the girls that I work with told me that complaining about delays at checkpoints has become something of a national past-time, akin to our recent British love for banker-bashing. However, just like our current desire to have a good old banker blaming session, there is a darker and more disturbing side to what this surface whingeing indicates.

The unjust and inexcusable accounts of Palestinians’ treatment at checkpoints is well documented, and I have been told many horror stories since arriving here. Yet whilst fortunately my experience today at Qalandia was nowhere near as traumatic as other’s have suffered, it was nonetheless an incredibly jarring experience. We were travelling into Jerusalem, and having caught a bus from Ramallah, when you arrive at the checkpoint everybody has to unload from the bus and go through security, and catch the bus again on the other side.

Graffiti on the 'Apartheid Wall' at Qalandia checkpoint

As we got off the bus we were herded into a long metal cage, with a growing crowd of over 100 other people all trying to get through the checkpoint as quickly as possible. Standing in the midday sun, in a tunnel that had vomit spattered all down one side, the jovial smiles we shared with others around us on the bus quickly turned to frustration as we stood there for over an hour and a half. Mothers and their young children and elderly Palestinian women with their shopping bags were given no reprieve and subjected to exactly the same treatment, and as the queuing wore on the atmosphere started to get rather more tense, with children crying and people beginning to shout.

With an IDF soldier on the other side of the cage only intervening every now and again to shout a few words in Arabic, hand firmly gripped on the handle of his massive gun, the absolutely idiotic revolving door at the end of the tunnel that let you through to the next part of the cage only worsened the situation. It was electrically operated and at apparently random intervals it would swing round letting a couple of people through at a time, and in a queue that was at least ten times its width, this led to a bit of a scuffle and lots of shouting as people tried to get through so they could go about their daily lives as quickly as possible. Mothers were separated from their children as there was no way of telling how many people the revolving bars would let through at a time, meaning that when I finally got through I was waiting on the other side for my friends with a little girl of around 7 years old.

Having had my bags scanned, I went up to the window where two Israeli soldiers sat languidly smoking behind bullet-proof glass. They were no older than 20, and when I showed them my UN identity card, which explains I am a development worker, with a smirk they asked to see my passport and visa stamp. I don’t know if it was being in the cage for a few hours, or the huge guns resting casually in their laps, but I felt my heart racing as I flicked frantically through my passport trying to find the right page. I knew that I had all the correct accreditation and absolutely nothing to hide (apart from a growing inner loathing) but I felt stupid and pathetic proving that to these nonchalant teenage soldiers.

As we climbed back on to the bus with everybody else, nobody that had gone through had been given more than a cursory glance over, and more than anything the whole ordeal had felt completely… pointless. I have repeated that word three times now in this post because that is exactly how the checkpoints seem to me. From speaking to our friends here, if you really wanted to go into Israel, there are definitely ways of going about it as we have heard many tales of getaway cars and rope-climbing the wall. The people we have spoken to are far from a threat, only looking to experience a piece of life on the other side of the wall. So if a suicide bomber was really intent on blowing him or herself up, a big bloody wall and some checkpoints probably wouldn’t do the trick, and surely the Israelis know that.

As a result, the predominant purpose of the checkpoints seems to be to make life as difficult for the Palestinians as possible, with a dose of added humiliation in the process, so that they are forced to surrender to the will of this almighty military power on a daily basis. Even if putting an Israeli checkpoint into Palestinian East Jerusalem was legal (it is supposed to be the capital of a future Palestinian state), making the process so slow, difficult, and often traumatic demonstrates once again that “national security” appears to sometimes be a mere facade in order remind the Palestinians exactly who is in charge.

In solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike

Yesterday we were taken by one of the students we are working with to Ramallah, where activists are currently camped out in solidarity with the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who are currently entering their ninth day of a hunger strike. As the Israeli prison administration continues to reject prisoner’s demands for basic improvements in living conditions inside prisons, support for the strike is becoming widespread across the occupied territories.

I wanted to draw attention to the strike as it demonstrates a form of non-violent protest that is clearly not reported in any of the British media and barely in any international news either. As usual, it seems that the only news from the conflict that British media is interested in is that which is sensational and violent. For decades, Palestinian prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes to demand – and win – their rights, putting their bodies on the line to demand freedom and dignity for themselves, their people, their homeland and their nation.

Netanyahu recently announced his plans to impose harsher conditions on Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s prisons; he described academic studies for political prisoners as “an absurd practise” and stated his intention to end prisoner’s enrolment in academic studies. This particular move has directly touched the heart of Birzeit’s Right to Education campaign which I am working on here, as it serves to demonstrate one of the many ways the Israeli government has attempted to limit and restrict Palestinian’s access to education.

The Palestinian prisoners have made several key demands that at a very basic level fulfil the “absolute rights” of prisoners, and I have listed the most pertinent ones below:

– End the abusive use of isolation (this is a long-running element of the prisoner’s campaign as some inmates have been held in solitary confinement for over ten years)

– End restrictions on university education in the prisons;

– End the denial of books and newspapers;

– End the shackling to and from meetings with lawyers and family members (where, we were told, prisoners were not even allowed to hug their children)

– And ultimately end all forms of collective punishment, including the refusal of family visits, night searches of prisoners’ cells, and the denial of basic health treatment.

Netanyahu’s restriction on the prisoners’ rights is in part a collective punishment enforced after an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza. This idea of collective punishment is something that truly shocked me, in spite of the fact that it has been shown time and time again to be the automatic response of the Israeli government; if one Israeli is harmed, then the whole of Palestine will suffer. It made me reflect upon the ideas of the ConDem government after the riots in London took place, which considered both punishing the families of rioters and removing their access to benefits, which would have entirely ignored the basic welfare of these people.  Is this really the way England, as a “democratic” state, ever considered dealing with this crisis?!

But anyway, I want to please urge any readers of my blog who feel passionately about the Palestinian cause to take action and express their solidarity with the prisoners, by sending an email that will take only ten minutes of your time away from facebook/youtube/the guardian etc…

Please write to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights organizations to exercise their responsibilities and act swiftly to demand that the Israelis ensure that all Palestinian prisoners are freed from punitive isolation. Email the ICRC, whose humanitarian mission includes monitoring the conditions of prisoners, at jerusalem.jer@icrc.org, and inform them about this urgent situation.

Partying under occupation

Having been fairly unimpressed with the Arabic version of EuroPop that we have heard on the radio since being here, going to the Taybeh festival was a veritable feast of really brilliant music. As the sun was going down on the first night of the festival, a band called Toot Ard was playing and there were definitely some tangible Outlook vibes in the Taybeh village, as they played a set showcasing some of the best dub and reggae I’ve heard since discovering Fat Freddy’s Drop last year. As the lead singer of Toot Ard whipped the crowd up into a bouncing frenzy towards the climax of their set, he could certainly have given Gentleman Dub Club’s Jonathon Scratchly a run for his money.

The international comparisons aside, the Arabic influence on the band sparkled defiantly, and a Palestinian guy that we have befriended told me that the band is most often found at political demonstrations. I truly believe in using the power of culture to fight cultures of power, and looking at the energy and vibrancy of the people at the festival made me remember why I always recall to music when I am feeling the most disheartened about the world around me. This track was a particular favourite from their set…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QfXVGuvwd4&feature=related

On the second night of the festival, we arranged to meet our Palestinian friend again so that we could go and see DAM, a hugely popular Palestinian hip hop group. Unfortunately, there was a power cut at the festival about an hour after we got there (something which commonly happens in the West Bank due to the diversion of electricity supply to Israeli settlers), and so the gig was cancelled at the last minute. In the taxi on the way back from the festival, we were chatting with our new Pally pal who was telling us about what it is like living as a young person under the occupation, and the challenges faced by those who attempt to use culturally subversive means in order to defy Israel’s chokehold on Palestine.

He explained to us that in spite of the terrible things committed against Palestinians’ rights in the name of “security”, he wanted to meet as many Israelis as possible, as he had a firm belief in the fact that there must be other like-minded young Israelis who also wanted peace. He has being using a website called www.couchsurfing.com as a way to try and fulfil his desire to meet Israeli people and attempt to foster some mutual understanding, and perhaps reconciliation. For those who don’t know about Couch Surfing, on the site you make a profile and offer your couch to travellers who are looking for a host in an unknown city and somewhere to crash for free.

Through this he has met open-minded Israelis and formed lasting friendships, and I was taken aback by the brilliant simplicity of his utilisation of this online service. For those of you who know how much I love the internet, you can only imagine my unbridled glee at hearing about this. For all of those who whinge about young people today spending too much time online, the possibilities that the internet creates are absolutely limitless, and in the hands of creative and forward-thinking people it can be such an exciting forum for progress and rapid development.

Wanting to go to Tel Aviv to make a return visit to his new Israeli friends, but not contemplating applying for an Israeli visa just to be rejected, he decided to sneak his way into Israel. After bribing someone to allow him through the checkpoint, he was spotted by Israeli military who chased him from the border, but fortunately his Israeli friend was waiting in a car on the other side so he hopped in and they sped away. He spent three days partying in Tel Aviv and enjoying the trappings of what its burgeoning club scene has to offer, but in doing so was taking a huge risk. If he had been caught by the Israeli police, he would have faced at the very minimum a one month jail sentence. I think I have taken for granted things like being able to go out in London on a Friday night and see any type of music that takes my fancy, or being able to hop on a plane and go to a European festival, without having to worry about visas or IDF interrogation. For a Palestinian, however, it seems that one month’s jail sentence is the price you pay to party in an occupied state.

Taybeh Oktoberfest

This weekend we went to the Taybeh Oktoberfest in the hills of the West Bank, just outside of Ramallah. Taybeh is the only brewery in the Palestinian Territories, and in the name of experiencing some Palestinian fare, we decided to go and check it out. My very limited Arabic (currently extending to “mumkin kebab”) combined with no knowledge of the service bus made getting there a little complex. In the end, we resorted to walking around the centre of Ramallah calling “Taybeh? Taybeh?” into taxi windows, sort of the equivalent of walking down Oxford Street shouting “Stella? Stella?” and hoping to be taken in the right direction.

What I’ve found successful in London can obviously translate well into this country as we eventually found the bus and drove through the beautiful valleys around Ramallah at sunset. Dusk here is truly as you’d imagine an Arabian night and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the hazy sun as long as I’m here. When we arrived the atmosphere was brilliant, and getting straight to the point of our visit, I had my first pint of Taybeh. Taybeh means “delicious” in Arabic (I can now say “mumkin taybeh kebab”) and delicious it certainly was; at only ten shekels (just under 2 quid) it went down most enjoyably in the balmy evening.

Taybeh is a true Palestinian success story – overcoming the multiple obstacles it faces in a largely teetotal Muslim country, with bleak economic conditions and the extra costs and challenges that make-up Israel’s occupation, its output has increased threefold to 600’000 litres a year since re-opening, after being closed by the Israelis during the Second Intifada. However, they still face problems. One of the vendors I was chatting to told me that because the beer is made without additives or preservatives, once bottled it is supposed to be packed in a dark and dry place. However, often when crossing the checkpoints to reach its distribution points, the soldiers keep the trucks in long waits in high temperatures, opening the crates for “security purposes” knowing full well this will spoil the beer.

However, as I am quickly coming to learn since arriving in Palestine, the resilience and vitality of the Palestinians is limitless and this did not stop them conducting a booming trade this weekend at the festival. In 1994, the family who owns the brewery put up the 1.2 million dollars themselves to start their business, after no bank or aid agency would fund a project as unlikely to succeed as a Palestinian brewery. As I looked around the festival on Saturday, with Taybeh and conversation flowing, a delicious assortment of meat grilling on the BBQs, and Palestinian hip hop blasting from the speakers, I thought – not for the first time – that perhaps banks and aid agencies hadn’t got a clue.