We Are All Alike, We Are All Different

Seven North American interns have recently taken the TYO Center by storm. Our passion: to bring uninhibited joy and confidence to the precious children of Nablus. Our struggle: to do so with the broken bits of Arabic vocabulary we possess. The beauty of it all: 1) the smiling faces of the little boys and girls who come sprinting through the TYO entrance with such eagerness; 2) the international and local staff, translators and volunteers who support our sentiments – extending a hand to help in any way they can, whenever they can; 3) the thought of what a transformative experience this will all be. Despite our varied backgrounds and dynamic personalities, we are linked by a strong enthusiasm for the work we are doing here. Yes, we are all different, but essentially, we are all alike.

One of the primary goals for my English class is to challenge my students to realize this dichotomous concept – of owning one’s individuality while embracing what unites us. As “tweens”, children tend to get bored easily and act on impulse, create negative distractions; they are full of new hormones, emerging rebellion, and often times suffer insecurities. So while it is important to help the children build confidence in who they are as individuals, I must also give them new formulas and techniques for understanding others. This is not to say that in two months times I will be able to break them out of age-old habits, habits like continuously  questioning self-worth, forming cliques or teasing. However, I will certainly try my best to foster social interactions that will challenge them to break down barriers – and in turn build bridges – where (insh’allah) many of them will find that they can meet half way. I am seeing great progress already.

– Samin

Samin is a summer intern at TYO Nablus.

The Kalimatna Initiative Presents “This is Nablus!”

Over the course of 2010, seven American and three Palestinian youth worked together to document the city of Nablus through photography and videos of the people, places and things that make it special. The following  multimedia presentation is the final result of the Kalimatna project.

Check out “This is Nablus!” on Prezi!


The Kalimatna Initiative, meaning “our words” in Arabic, is a youth-led cultural diplomacy project whose goal is to introduce the culture of Nablus, Palestine, to the world.

Intern Journal: Evidence of a heated rivalry

There is a fault line that runs through the city of Nablus, dividing friend from friend, brother from brother, parent from child, and neighbor from neighbor.  What could be this controversial issue that has its iron grip on an entire city, you ask?  It is a universal phenomenon capable of arousing passions and igniting tensions around the globe: soccer!

The evidence of a heated rivalry, which is on the tip of everyone’s tongue in Nablus, is woven into the fabric of the city itself.  “Real Madrid!” proclaims a piece of graffiti on a wall between the Old City and the university.  “FC Barcelona!” the jerseys hanging in the clothing shops retort.  “Beep, bip-bip-bip, bip-bip-bip, beep, bee-eep!” announce the car horns of the fans of whichever team has tasted the sweetness of victory on game day, as they motorcade through the streets waving flags from their car windows, reveling in their team’s moment of glory, and broadcasting their excitement to as much of the city as possible.

As one might suspect, it is difficult to spend any amount of time living in the city of Nablus before being questioned about one’s own loyalties.  “Real Madrid or Barcelona?” an interior design major at an An-Najah National University asked my Kalimatna Initiative partners and me after we finished filming an interview with him.  I have overheard a few other conversations on the same topic, most of them resembling the following:

-“Barshalona wala Real Madrid?[Barcelona or Real Madrid?]




Alhamdulillah! [Thank God!]

When our Kalimatna Initiative partner Hasan, an enthusiastic Barcelona fan, mentioned to Adrienne and me that a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match was approaching, we seized the chance to get in on the action.  On Monday night, Chelsey, Samee, Ashwini, Adrienne and I headed to Hayat Nablus, the city’s main recreational complex, to watch the highly anticipated game with our Kalimatna partners Hasan and Khamis, as well as Hasan’s family and some other friendly company.

“Barcelona or Real Madrid?” asked our taxi driver, Munir, on the way to the game.  “Barcelona!” chanted most of my fellow American colleagues.  Up until that point, I had managed to avoid the question, but as we were rapidly approaching a crowd of mixed fans, I knew I could no longer feign neutrality.  “Barcelona!” I offered optimistically, since so far, that had seemed to be the right answer.

Sure enough, my answer was well received, and when we poured out of the taxi, we were greeted by Hasan, bedecked in an FC Barcelona jersey with the Catalan Senyera painted on one side of his face and an FCB flag draped over his shoulders.  We entered a terrace full of enthralled soccer fans with their faces glued to the screen, while waiters in crisp white button-down shirts occasionally slipped through the crowd to fill a request for coffee or to replace the charcoal on a patron’s argileh.  An FCB flag flapping gently at the top corner of the screen suggested the owners of Hayat Nablus had their hopes set on the Catalonian team, too.

Every time Barcelona scored a goal, the team’s fans in the crowd went wild, with friends embracing each other and slapping each other on the back, Hasan and Khamis hoisting Hasan’s little brother in the air, and enthusiastic chants breaking out across the patio calling for another goal, inshallah, until the Hayat Nablus staff members wielding bright flashlights finally compelled the crowd to return to order.  The voice of the Arabic-speaking sportscaster boomed from the screen, and I laughed at his dramatic portrayal of the game as a timeless event to be recorded in the annals of history.  However, the 5-0 victory for Barcelona that night was indeed pretty spectacular, and even though I understand Nablus to be pretty even split between the two teams, my experience that evening was indisputably tilted in favor of Barcelona.

“You will never forget where you were while this historical match was taking place,” boomed the sportscaster (not necessarily in those exact words), before prattling off a list of momentous historical events, including John F. Kennedy’s assassination, whose gravity he considered comparable  to  the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona rivalry.  I laughed again, shaking my head in disbelief, but later conceded to myself that there was a kernel of truth to the sentiment.  Last Monday’s soccer match might not go down in world history, but it was an evening that I myself will surely remember for a long time to come.

– Julie

Julie is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Scenes of Nabulsi life through doors and signs

I have been through the Old City of Nablus a handful of times in the past few weeks, and each time I find myself awash in a wild mix of colors, textures, smells, and sounds.  Once I enter the marketplace, I usually end up weaving my way, wide-eyed and awestruck, through its maze of clothing shops, vegetable stalls, and bakeries until I tumble out from its dusty alleyways back into a sunlit city square.  For the mere sake of processing the sensory information that barrages me each time I visit the Old City, I was glad to be imbued with a sense of purpose and accompanied by a Palestinian peer, Khamis, last Tuesday as I ventured back into the Old City to fulfill an assignment for TYO’s Kalimatna Initiative.  Our mission: to photograph doors and signs in the Old City as part of our multimedia kit presenting Nablus to an international audience.

Speaking in an improvised blend of Modern Standard Arabic, Palestinian dialect, and English to determine our walking agenda, we set off from TYO for the Old City: wrapping our way through residential areas before entering the marketplace to eventually wind our way out to the major artery of Faisal Street.  We wandered into a neighborhood that even Khamis had never visited before, and where the children playing outside, figuring anyone wielding a camera must be a foreigner, chimed “Hello, how are you?”  Some children shouted eagerly, “Suwwarini!  (Take my picture!)”  For those who happened to be playing in front of a door, we happily granted their request.

We found some of the most intricate doors at the local spice factory, on a building next to the National Hospital, and on several of the residences we walked by.  We both breathed murmurs of admiration as we passed one doorway rimmed with marmoreal columns.  As far as our quest for signs, I interpreted the term in the broadest sense possible, snapping photos of not only the elegant albeit rusty blue-and-white calligraphic street signs but also of several pieces of graffiti art, including the slogan “Palestine forever,” a mosque, and an intriguing silhouette.

By narrowing in on a couple of very specific themes, I felt that I was building a special relationship with the Old City that can only exist when one becomes familiar with the oft-overlooked details that garnish its residents’ daily goings-about.  I was made more easily aware of certain points of interest that might have been lost in the rise and ebb of city’s movements but were able to occasionally pop out from my peripheral vision on this excursion.  For instance, as we clambered down a stone stairwell, Khamis pointed out an old hammam to me, now mostly fallen into disrepair and occupied by a flock of chickens.  In a world that expresses itself as a stream of living moments, I also delighted in capturing fleeting instants of beauty and tension in a still frame.  (Such was my justification for stopping to take a picture of a pair of quarreling cats stuck in a hair-raising, mewling staring contest.)

“Tired?” Khamees asked me at one point on our walk.  I wiggled my head from side to side in a head bobble, implying, Yes, but ma’alish (it’s okay).  Once again, I felt myself swimming in sights, sounds, and thoughts, but rather than feeling that my energy had been drained from me, I felt that pleasant fatigue that comes from soaking in every sight and sound in my path until my awareness has become thoroughly saturated with the scenes of Nabulsi life.

Julie is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Kalimatna: The Palestinian Disabled Union

I walked in from the noise and heat of the street to the shaded and cool office not a minute too soon, as I’d speed-walked from TYO to the city center in record time.  I was immediately greeted by a lovely girl sitting at the front desk and the director of the organization who was seated across the desk.  We had met a few days beforehand and he warmly extended a hand to me in welcome.

Haya was already there and taking photos of two men who were flipping through profiles of the Union’s members, looking for candidates for the Paralympics that were going to be held shortly.  As we chatted, I was brought a cup of tea.  Palestinian hospitality is really not to be beat.

The Palestinian Disabled Union, snug between two large buildings, is located with just an unassuming sign designating its presence. I’d passed it dozens of times before on minibuses from the bus station without noticing it.  The office is small but welcoming and intentionally so—one of the persons with whom we spoke said that she could only be herself and feel comfortable inside of the glass sliding door of the Union.  It serves its function as a place for advocacy for disabled persons’ rights, for organizing events and classes for disabled persons, but also crucially for a place for disabled Palestinians to gather in comfort and camaraderie.

All of this I was able to gather by speaking with the current director of the Union, watching a film produced by the Union and speaking with two of its members.  Both the director and the film projected a positive image of their work there, focusing on the empowerment of disabled persons in Palestine and, having worked with the mentally handicapped in Peru, I was familiar with and appreciative of this tone.  The film was a montage of images of capability—the director driving his car, a young blind girl singing the short film’s song, pictures of sports events featuring those in wheelchairs.  The director elaborated on the union’s activities in securing classes for its members at the local university that met their needs, organizing other types of classes specially for its members, organizing sports events and much more.  After all of this, I was left with a very positive impression of the state of Palestinians with disabilities.   It seemed to me that there was work to be done, but that progress was being made.

This impression was not entirely negated by my speaking with two of the members, but I began to come to a fuller understanding of the life of those who are disabled in Palestine.  Both of our interviewees seemed to really feel their position as disabled persons in relation to the greater Palestinian society as being, essentially, a handicap.  Having a physical disability in Palestine, they explained, affects your job prospects, your prospects at starting a family, even your ability to walk down the street comfortably.  I have no illusions about how difficult it is to be handicapped in America and I’m sure that many of the concerns would be similar even across such a geographical, cultural and linguistic divide.  I did begin to think , however, about how many places in Nablus were handicapped accessible.  Of course this could just be a question of means rather than a question of intention, but what my two interviewees spoke of led me to believe that it was not just a means-based issue, it was an issue of ignorance of the subject.

Regardless, my two interviewees were happy to be able to be in a place like the Disabled Union.  A place where they were accepted, understood and considered.  Through the Disabled Union they’d each found employment and one had joined a basketball team for the wheelchair-bound.  If each did not exactly hold an optimistic view of their future or place in life, they seemed to do what Palestinians have become adept at—adapting to their situation while striving to improve it.


Bieta is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Kalimatna: Arabic to Arabic Translation

I started studying Arabic during my sophomore year of college six years ago.  Arabic is a very difficult language even for the most gifted language-learner, and given the fact that I am not a gifted language-learner, I think I’ve come a long way.  I spent last year in Jordan reading and studying a variety of classical Arabic texts, which ranged from pre-Islamic poetry to Quranic exegesis.  Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Given the high level of my reading abilities, you might assume that I can speak and understand Arabic with equal facility.  Unfortunately for me (and for the vast majority of Arabic students) that is not the case.  In fact, whenever I open my mouth here in Nablus, I am barely able to utter a sentence without someone breaking into laughter.  “What is so funny?” I have demanded numerous times.  “You sound like a child,” or “you sound like a cartoon character” is often the response I get.  The secret about Arabic (that very few people tell you when you start the language) is that in order to be able to both read and actually communicate with people, you have to learn what are essentially two different languages: fusha (classical Arabic) and amiyya (the spoken dialect).

Unfortunately for me and for other American students of Arabic, fusha is pretty much the only language taught in universities in the U.S.  So when we come to the Arabic speaking world bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to practice our Arabic, we find that no one can understand us, we can’t understand anyone, or that we just sound ridiculous (like the characters in the cartoon programs or like someone from the Middle Ages).  Needless to say, this can be endlessly discouraging. That’s why I’ve decided that the ability to laugh at oneself is the most important attribute for any student of Arabic.  Otherwise, you are doomed for severe depression for the rest of your life.

During my interviews for the Kalimatna Initiative these past few weeks, I’ve tried to keep in mind this “most important attribute.”  It helps me feel not too bad when I ask my questions in carefully prepared Arabic and the interviewee stares at me blankly, blinks for a few seconds, and then turns to Hassan (my Palestinian partner) who then “translates” what I said from Arabic-to-Arabic.  “That’s exactly what I said!” I often squeal after he has re-posed my question.  He smiles back at me with laughter in his eyes.  I glare at him for a second and then sigh, secretly nursing my hurt pride.  At least he could understand me.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.

Balata Refugee Camp: fieldnotes and reflections

Last Saturday my friends and Kalimatna partners Mary and Khamees met with the director of the Yafa Cultural Center, which offers programming similar to TYO for children and youth in Balata refugee camp. Since almost half of the kids in my art and storytelling class come from Balata, I tagged along. After the director’s introduction to the Center’s activities, two young men took us on a tour of the camp. Balata is 1 square kilometer, with more than 20,000 inhabitants. It is the smallest camp in the West Bank in land size, but with the largest population. Like so many camps, it was created in the 1950s for a population of 5,000-6,000, and the infrastructure has grown disproportionately (and haphazardly) with the population.

What follows combines our guides’ commentary with my thoughts during and after the tour.

Walking through narrow alleys that many U.S. Americans would not even fit through, I wonder what I am doing here. How can it be that tours of refugee camps even exist? The shabby but temporary tents that the word “camp” evokes are nowhere to be seen—just buildings crammed between and on top of more buildings. The guide points out the window to the first building erected in the camp decades ago. It now faces a wall to another apartment, less than a meter away. Again and again we are told about the lack of privacy and fresh air in the homes here. Sunshine cannot get inside, so lights are kept on all day.

Uncomfortable that I am taking in people’s living quarters as if they were a tourist attraction, I turn to the other young man from the Yaffa Center, Ahmed. “How often do you give these tours?” I ask. Every day, more or less, because there are lots of interested internationals, he says. (A curious response since Nablus is purportedly a city unfrequented by foreigners). Then I ask how he feels about leading tours for these visitors. He says that he likes to show people the conditions of the camp. He studied journalism and he knows that the media coverage of Palestine mostly only shows one side of the issues.

“You don’t have to be born in Palestine to believe in the Palestinian issue,” he tells me. “It is a matter of the heart of all human beings.” Ahmed talks about poverty, the right to return, and the change that foreigners can make from “the outside.” I am reminded of my time in coup-led Honduras, where so many interviewees trusted foreign journalists to tell the world “the truth.”

The tour ends with so many of my questions unasked. In particular, how do Ahmed and the others at the Yaffa center envision change from within? This question is always difficult to answer, but here in Palestine, where community (the basic unit for internal change) has been so intensely and purposefully fractured, I am at a loss to know where people’s answers will begin.

Additionally I want to ask what he is proud of about Palestine. I realize that my feeling of conspicuousness as I hugged my Nikon around tight corners of Balata’s alleys comes from my focus on what is lacking in the camp. It seems absurd to walk through such an impoverished place while knowing the way I and others richer than myself live. Yet it strikes me that perhaps people in all places like to show and describe where they live to visitors. In that sense, our tour is no different from the time years ago when I showed some friends from England the Amish sites of Pennsylvania. Of course Ahmed and the others declare life in Balata to be nearly unlivable, but there is also something here that they recognize as theirs—something to be proud of. Though I didn’t ask the question, I can guess at the answer: the people.

– Kara

Kara is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative. The views expressed in Kalimatna blog entries are those of the author; TYO does not take positions on Middle East policy.