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food / travel

Couchsurfing In Palestine, Part 3: Death At The Door

Palestinian children playing in Jenin
Palestinian children playing in Jenin
Alex Correa

This is the third and final installment of a three-part series "Couchsurfing In Palestine." Read Part 1: Keeping Secrets and Part 2: Where Are You From?


I meet Saber in a cafeteria in central Jenin, just after noon. He welcomes me with a vigorous hug, the kind that people give to friends they haven't seen in years. Saber is one of Thawra's best friends, with a similar rebel spirit. With his tight shirt and short shorts, he says he feels like a stranger in his own town. But he also walks with the self-confidence of somebody who doesn't care about criticism.

That influence, visible in his clothing as well as in his attitude, comes mostly from Europe, which he visited very recently. Saber is one of the few Palestinians who is allowed to visit the Old Continent. After studying performing arts for four years at Jenin's Freedom Theater, he found small jobs on short films in Holland, where he lived for five months. His olive skin and short but dark hair made him stand out as an obvious stranger in the streets of Amsterdam. But at the same time, his lifestyle makes him a misfit in the town he was born. Saber secretly fears he'll never fit anywhere.

The Freedom Theater sits at the heart of Jenin's refugee camp. It was inaugurated in 2006, on the ruins on the Stone Theater, a similar project that was destroyed by a bomb during the Second Intifada, in 2002. The theater is now one of Palestine's main cultural initiative. Its goal is to ease culture back into local community life and to promote pacific and artistic resistance. On a shoestring budget, they create original productions and classic adaptations — of Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland, for example— to the Palestinian context.

In 2008, the Freedom Theater company came to São Paulo to promote the movie Arna's Children. For Habeeb al-Raee, one of the company's actors, it was first visit to Brazil and indeed one of the first times he left Palestine. When I tell him I'm Brazilian, his eyes start to shine. He wants to move to Rio de Janeiro at the end of 2016 to be reunited with a Brazilian girl he met three months ago in Jenin. He talks about caipirinhas and feijoada, a Brazilian bean dish, with the passion of an exiled Brazilian. His eyes, and mine, fill with tears.

The previous night, the Freedom Theater held a gathering to show off the theater to the refugee camp community. It wasn't the first such event, and it won't be the last. Everybody knows the Freedom Theater is there, but the population sees art and culture in general with disdain. For teenagers especially, it's difficult to get support from their parents when they want to go to acting school. In one of their video campaigns, a child says his brother had wanted to become an actor, "but decided it'd be a lot more honorable to become a war martyr."

Twenty kilometers on a donkey's back

Saber asks me if I've got somewhere to sleep tonight. I tell him no, not yet, and so he immediately offers me to stay at his. The house he lives in with his brother and two nephews, in the ancient part of Jenin, is still under construction. They're doing everything by themselves.

Among the few pictures that decorate the house, there's one that's more than a meter high. It's a portrait of Saber's father, killed in 2002 as he was coming back home with breakfast. The town was under rigid Israeli command at the time, and doctors and ambulances were banned from rescuing Palestinians. The first aid instructions on the phone weren't enough to save his life.

The decoration in Saber's room is rustic, divided between wood and concrete. Tacked onto the ceiling is a Brazilian flag. Saber has never been there himself, but is a connoisseur of Brazilian cinema, dreams of visiting Rio and wants to learn Portuguese and Spanish soon. He tells me that it's difficult for Palestinian actors to find a role other than as a terrorist or refugee. "That's not the sort of career I want. If I speak other languages, I could pass for a Latino and play in different sorts of films," he says.

We meet again in the evening at the home of Mustafa, a childhood friend of Saber's. He lives in a big house, on one of Jenin's mountains, and the silence of his backyard makes me forget for one moment what's happening down there.

There aren't many ways to have fun in the town. Jenin being mostly Muslim and not at all cosmopolitan, finding alcohol in the shops is impossible. The possible alternatives are to travel four or five kilometers until the next Christian city, where you can buy beer and wine, or to turn to the local drug dealer for a little hash, the most popular drug in Palestine.

For hours, Mustafa and Saber tell me about their lives and the conflicts affecting their country. Mustafa is particularly entertaining and has a real talent for storytelling. Not being allowed to leave Palestine, he made it his mission to visit every corner of his country. For one of his latest journeys, he had wanted to travel 140 kilometers — from the north to the south — on a donkey's back, but the animal gave up after 20 kilometers. Last year he finally crossed into Israel, albeit with no authorization (and no donkey) to see the sea for the first time, at 31.

Even today, the army's vigilance in Jenin is constant. At the beginning of the previous decade, the city was one of those that trained the most human bombs in Palestine. As a consequence, Israeli was merciless in its treatment of the area. On Mustafa's street, just a few hundred meters from his house, there's a wasteland that used to be a bomber's home.

"Someone will die today"

Nights in Palestine are usually calm and unremarkable. One can almost always hear the cicadas in the distance. It's already late in the night when we reach Saber's house, and we find stones and broken glass on the ground that wasn't there before. Further ahead, a group of cars and motorbikes seems to be waiting for us. Inevitably, I start to be anxious.

When we finally reach the congregation, they disperse towards the city center without paying any attention to us. As I struggle to grasp exactly what's happened, Mustafa and Saber understand in the blink of an eye: An Israeli war tank had driven by and some inhabitants, by convention, had followed it and thrown stones at it.

My hosts talk about it with nostalgia in their voice — and not worry, as I was expecting — remembering the times when they used to do the same, when they were teenagers, seeing Israeli tanks more as a circus attraction than a lethal weapon. Although throwing stones at an Israeli soldier can lead to execution, the authorities generally ignore attacks on tanks. When the soldiers decided that the party was over, they shot in the air, dispersing the gathering. The population's counter-attack, more a form of protest than of prevention, is still part of the Palestinian protocol.

The laughs eventually die down. It's difficult to know exactly when a happy memory of your childhood will turn into a traumatic recollection, especially in a country at war. "Someone will die today," Saber says in a strangely light tone, as if to hide the real meaning of what he's conveying. Mustafa drops us next to Saber's home and gets off the car to hug us. Palestinians are very affectionate.

Not two minutes later, as Saber unlocks the front door, we hear three shots. They seem to have been fired rather far away, but close enough. I make a clumsy remark. So clumsy, in fact, that I can't remember it. Probably a bad joke to hide my discomfort, though I'm not good at that. "It's ok. We're home now," Saber says.

We don't talk about it anymore for the rest of the night. But I can't stop thinking about it. The shots sounded calculated, as if they'd hit the intended target. Not like a mass slaughter, more like a planned assassination.

As we drink our breakfast tea, I ask my hosts about it. Saber's reply is short, delivered in a serious tone that doesn't sound like him. "We don't talk about these things. It's happened so often, to so many people, that we prefer to forget about it."

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at info@worldcrunch.com.

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