SOW Team Journal: Ahlan wa Sahlan, Ahlan Beek

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We have been welcomed at TYO for three weeks now and are starting to feel the warm fuzzy feeling of home that so many of our interviewees have described.  It’s not the delicious food, or the cozy surroundings, but the many people we have met that have opened their hearts to our presence, welcoming us without question.

I can speak for all of us when I say that we are truly amazed by the extreme generosity, patience, and kindness of everyone here.  Whether it was the grocer who carefully helped us bag and carry our items, making sure to call our driver when we had accidentally left a few bags, or the man on the street that bought our team fruit cocktails as we were filming his family, or the tailor who fixed our pants and gave us an extra pair free of charge, the list goes on.

Not to mention the patience of the volunteers, interns, and staff members we have interviewed that have shared their thoughts, their passions, their hopes, openly and honestly.  I think Luai, a volunteer at TYO, said it best of why he has continued to come back to TYO each year, “These people are my family, we learn to trust each other, to love each other, no matter what their background.”

As a documentary team, I had thought that it was a careful boundary to bring cameras and ask so much of strangers, especially across language and cultural barriers. I had thought it might be invasive if we didn’t ask permission. I had thought I would at least be questioned of my presence, but maybe this is a quality instilled by my “stranger danger” upbringing.  It seems as if everyone we’ve met has given us the trust and care that every human desires. It is incredibly refreshing.

TYO has created this wonderful community of love and openness that I only hope to see duplicated everywhere. Everyday I am amazed at how intertwined TYO is within the community.  We have already met so many people affected by the work being done, all priding the power of trust and active involvement in creating a healthy community.  It is beautiful to see an organization built for and by community members. I look forward to the many more people we’ll meet and the sights we’ll see. Thank you to all who have welcomed us! We are honored.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead

Words by Sarah Osman, Photographs by Andrea Patino

You’re Welcome, Thank You!!

The phrase rains down like a torrent from balconies, rings out of store fronts like a dinner bell and is thrown from car windows with more gusto than a used McDonald’s wrapper: 

“You’re welcome, welcome!!”

It must be the national motto of Palestine or perhaps just the phrase of the week. . . for the umpteenth week in a row.

No matter where we go, or what neighborhood we’re in, no matter whose car we get into, or where we’re going, the greeting is always the same.

“You’re welcome, welcome!!”

If the speaker paid attention in English class, sometimes this greeting is complemented with, “Welcome to Palestine!”  If he has seen a few too many American movies, the phrase can end in any number of grammatically, or contextually, inappropriate ways.

But the “Welcome” is always there.  And, it is always sincere.

At first, it can be a bit off-putting.  When a group of young teenage males come running at you across the street, you do not immediately expect the encounter to culminate in an exchange of smiles and handshakes.  Certainly not if you went to school in Boston, or grew up in New York.

Born and raised in the American Midwest, friendly greetings are, to me, as common as cheese-topped casseroles. Educated and enlightened in New Orleans, sweet homely welcomes have a place in my heart right next to king cake and beignets.

Even so, I’ve traveled enough to expect that any shopkeeper who persistently beckons me over is looking only to make a sale.  When I finally give into such summons, and am inevitably presented with a small sweet, it is honestly startling that instead of peddling me goods he simply insists, “You’re welcome, welcome!!”

There are a lot of misconceptions about this part of the world.  A lot of misgivings, misinterpretations, and missed opportunities for understanding.  Some would probably even go so far as to say that the Middle East is just plain backwards.

Well, as far as greetings and salutations go, yeah, it’s a bit backwards.  I’ve always been accustomed to, “Thank you!,” followed by,  “You’re welcome.”Here in Nablus, you’d better get used to being greeted with, “You’re welcome, welcome!!”

And what can you say, but, “Thank you, thank you!!”

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Do Whatchya Wanna!

There aren’t too many jobs in the world where people ask their boss if they can take on more work, and she readily allows it.  As TYO interns, we are not only allowed to develop projects of our own, but are encouraged to do so!  We’ve come as interns, recent graduates, and young professionals.   We will leave (not too soon, thankfully) as coaches, teachers, artists, and league commissioners.

Having received my work assignment by e-mail before heading to Palestine, I worried about all the blank spaces that pocketed my class schedule.  In order to preempt what I was sure would be long lazy days, I packed a bag full of epic novels and slung my travel guitar over my shoulder.  By the time I left in April, I was sure that I would be not only incredibly well-read but also be ready to take on the open-mic circuit.  Six weeks in and I’ve only barely put a dent in my bookshelf while the guitar has collected more dust here than it does at home!

So where does all that time go?  Everywhere, and anywhere!

Since our first day of orientation, we have been encouraged to take ownership of our classes and our role as interns.  The four of us newbies were each shown an empty classroom, and told to make it our own.  We were given basic class outlines, and instructed to devise curricula.  We were introduced to our volunteers, and encouraged to develop friendships.

What we were never asked to do was take on an extra piano class, start a soccer league, make connections in the community, or finish a mural.  But all of this, and more, has happened.

Too many people go to work each day only to go home again at night.  They do nothing that isn’t explicitly asked of them, contribute comparatively little to their employing organization and are bound by rigid, though often abstract, responsibilities and expectations.

What a treat it is to work here at TYO amongst an incredible group of people, striving to fulfill and incredible mission, with an incredible amount of support on so many levels.

When Leila’s piano class overflowed with students the first few weeks, she decided to add a second class.  I’m not entirely sure if she ever asked permission, or just did it, but either way, it’s happening, and that many more kids are getting that much more exposure to the beautiful world of music education.

Through his Big Brother course, Colin quickly recognized that the local youth are deprived of opportunities for socially-productive physical exercise.  So, he went about writing a proposal for a soccer league.  Volunteer Coordinator Ahmad has helped secure translators for the league, Outreach Coordinator Futoon helped recruit kids, Sports Teacher Haitham has generously loaned us equipment, Intern Coordinator Chelsey has provided all the support in the world and Center Director Humaira signed off on our procurement form for two new soccer balls, without which the league would be a mere mirage!

A few weeks ago, Humaira was overheard musing about how she wished that the mural outside was finished.  Without delay, Chelsey organized an impromptu lesson in mural-making from the art teacher, Rimach.  By the time the weekend rolled around our fingertips were cut to pieces and our skin felt like lizard hide.  However, the long stagnant mural was finally completed and we all got a little bit more Vitamin-D, from working outside, then we have in weeks past!

The cut fingers has made it tricky to play music, but who has time for that when I could be reviewing reports with Ahmad or helping Core Child Teacher Maram write her weekly update in English!  Reading is more tactually possible but there’s always the volunteer who’s anxious for a guitar lesson or Facilities Assistant Um Ibrahim who’s ready to chat, nevermind that she and I share no more than four words in any given language!

But then again, at then end of the day, when lesson plans are finished and my computer is turned off, I’m free to lie on the couch and reflect, watch year old episodes of Treme in lieu of attending Mardi Gras, or just stand outside and wonder whether the beautiful mountainside is real, or merely a Hollywood backdrop.

If you’re ever bored here at TYO you could always ask someone if they need help with anything, or, then again, you could just do whatchya wanna!

Intern Journal: My dentist is going to kill me!

This past Saturday delegates from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) visited TYO. Humaira, TYO’s Center Director, greeted the MEPI representatives with an enormous platter of kenafah, a local pastry made of Nablusi cheese and drenched in a honey-based syrup.  All fine and well for the MEPI visitors who needed to only have a few bites and move on with their morning tour of the TYO Center.  The same can’t be said for us interns who were left to handle the remains!
Throughout the afternoon, a few kilos of leftover kenafah slowly disappeared from our apartment kitchen as bits and pieces were broken off to be shoveled down guiltily but with the utmost pleasure!

And so goes snacking in Palestine, where no occasion, event or meeting begins without a welcoming tea.  Though the flavor differs, sometimes it’s Lipton traditional, sometimes a fancier sage brew, the special ingredient is always the same.  Sugar.

Served in tiny glasses, usually with ornate patters of metallic leafing, the tea is inevitably pipping hot and lip-pursingly sweet!  I have started to wonder whether taking it without sugar is considered back luck, or just a plain social aberration.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the delectable pick me up.  It’s a great way to kick off Arabic lessons, a tour to the local An-Najah University or a meeting at the Yaffa Cultural Center in Balata Refugee Camp.  It only becomes a problem when you do all three things in one day, one after another.  The sugar shakes aren’t easy to, well, shake!

During out last Arabic lesson, Dr. Fawaz insisted we each enjoy a plateful of small pastries with our tea.  Again, the key ingredient being sugar.  Before leaving, we had a pair of candy bars forced on us too.  A single one simply wouldn’t have sufficed as a parting gift!  And for what?  Showing up to a lesson!? Why thank you!

While grocery shopping last week, Walid insisted that Leila and I try a bite of his halawa, a crumbly treat of sesame-paste and, you guessed it, sugar!  After a half an hour of shopping, we had nibbled so many free samples that we felt compelled to purchase a few slices to bring home to the other interns.  Walid conceded that it is best taken with coffee in the morning.  Who am I to argue with his wisdom?

So, for the past week, I’ve been breaking off sweet halawa chunks as a preface to my morning cereal.  Having quickly grown accustomed to the practices of my all-too-gracious hosts, the coffee I pour myself for breakfast has taken on a sweetness that I would normally have spat at had it been served to me back stateside.  But, now, I have nobody to blame except for myself.  I wouldn’t even be able to say how many scoops make it into each cup, because within only four weeks I’ve resorted to simply pouring straight from the bag!

Just yesterday, our facilities manager, Yasser, insisted that we take the rest of a farewell cake upstairs to snack on.  Thankfully, without too much persistence, he assented to our pleas that the last thing we needed was more sweets!

I am continually amazed at the graciousness of the Palestinians.  Their welcoming hospitality is filled with warmth, generosity and sincerity.  Their kindness is unyielding, their sweetness unabating. And, well, I think I might just have figured out the secret.

But, my dentist is going to kill me!

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: In Search of Desert

As a person from the West arriving in the Middle East, there were a few preconceptions, some a priori “truths” that whether through ignorance or lack of exposure managed to hitch a ride in my suitcases as I anticipated what I was about to see. Thankfully, honest reading, research, conversation, and general open-mindedness undercut the possibility of me marching around here with sunglasses tinted by predictive cultural, social, or political biases (such a fashion/affliction seems to plague many of us “Amurrricans”). Instead, I was determined to let my experiences here inform whatever judgments I might later arrive at, and that mindset has been liberating and wonderfully beneficial. However, somehow in this process, I forgot to address my misguided and mythologized sense of Palestine’s geography, topography, and climate.

In short, though acknowledging the Mediterranean’s obvious proximity, I still came here expecting to see a land primarily of desert, a landscape that somehow reconciled visions of Aladdin, Lawrence of Arabia and nightly newscasts with Brian Williams, with a bit of those Biblical rolling hills thrown in just for variety. Stupid, I know, but some childhood imagery refuses to go down without a fight.

Living in wintry Nablus and traveling around the West Bank the past three weeks, much to my foolish surprise I came across beautiful, hilly countryside, chilly winds, and the city’s occasional flirtations with rain and hail. Though unexpected and pleasant, I must also admit, I was a bit disappointed not to see more of that romanticized Arabian panorama.

And then, Chelsey took us four interns on a hike to Wadi al Qelt this past Saturday. Stepping off our bus and crossing the highway, within five minutes we came to the majestic canyons, dunes, hills, and the crumbling valleys groaning with old age that I had hoped to see out here. We explored for hours, hiking virgin trails at times, free to roam along what was effectively an untouched, unpopulated preserve. It was a beautiful day, a great day, and I hope my photos below can do the place some justice.

Until next time

Stay fly

– Colin

Colin is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Intern Journal: Ana Adam!

Yesterday marked the beginning of our formal Arabic lessons here in Nablus with Dr. Fawaz, a professor at the nearby An-Najah University.

Dr. Fawaz has graciously invited us to his beautiful home for our first few lessons.  Seated in his comfortable living room, Mathilda, Colin and I introduced ourselves in English before we began.

Wasting little time, Dr. Fawaz jumped right into the lesson, pointing to himself and declaring, “Ana Fawaz.”  With encouraging eyes, we were each ushered into repeating the phrase, replacing “Dr. Fawaz” with our own names.

After ensuring that we had mastered, or at least come close to, the correct pronunciation for introducing ourselves, Dr. Fawaz moved onto introducing others.  With careful movement of his eyes and hands, he was able to convey to us how to say, “He is ___”, “She is ___”, “You are ___,” and “We are ___.”

Again, all of these phrases we were encouraged to repeat ad nauseam.  The once unfamiliar sounds quickly taking the form of a novel nursery rhyme.

From introductions, we moved on to identifying objects in the room: table, window, door, book, pen, chair, paper and tea.  Once Dr. Fawaz had presented these words, he turned the floor over to us students, encouraging us to engage each other in elementary conversation.

Half an hour into the lesson we had each acquired the ability to string together a half dozen complete sentences, and remarkably, Dr. Fawaz had used less English than I normally hear in my fifth grade English class!

For the remaining time, Dr. Fawaz offered to us the word “wa” or “and” in Arabic.  With this simple conjunction, our ability to construct complex sentences instantly emerged as we could link two distinct thoughts together.

Sure, our grammar may not be perfect.  Or, to be honest, it’s essentially non-existent at this point.  But, as Dr. Fawaz continued to stress, grammar is secondary to language.  To learn to speak, one must first master the words, the sounds, the language itself.  Only once this has been acquired can we then turn our attention to the correct structure of sentences and paragraphs.  Focusing on grammar first would be like trying to build a house with all mortar and no bricks.  It’s just not going to work.

I bounded out of Dr. Fawaz’s house giddy with excitement, feeling like a child to whom a whole new world had been opened.  I hopped in Munir’s taxi and instantly felt inclined to introduce myself, despite our friendship of over three weeks.  I found similar joy in identifying the car’s windows and doors by name.

Childish?  Yes.  But, isn’t all language acquisition?

We do not try to teach toddlers “i-before-e” nor do parents get upset when their youngster points to a robin and proudly declares “bird red.”  We don’t worry because the structure, the tenses, the spelling, the form will inevitably come in due time.  For now, only the language itself is important.

Dr. Fawaz has taught Arabic and French at the university level in America.  He currently teaches English to university students in Palestine.  Additionally, he teaches methods and pedagogy, teaching others how to teach language.  It is beyond generous of him to take time out of his day to teach a gang of kids from the other side of the Greenwich Meridian how to say, “My name is ___.”

But, then again, I think I might just understand.

When one of the participants in my English class for TYO Staff came in sick, she and I went over the word for cough and other symptoms of a cold.  As the rest of the class filtered in, she announced, “Adam gave me words,” proudly showing off her new vocabulary.  All I did was identify her symptoms in English.  However, the delight shown on her face from being “given” new words reminded me in part why I am here and what I have to offer those hoping to learn a new language.

In the same way, I would imagine that the joy on our faces will not be lost on Dr. Fawaz when we arrive for our next class and introduce ourselves for the umpteenth time, proud to do it in Arabic.

“Ana Adam!”

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

PS: TYO is looking for Summer 2011  interns–check out the application today!

Makin’ Groceries, Makin’ Friends!

In New Orleans, people refer to shopping as “making groceries.”  In Nablus they should just call it “making friends.” 

We execute grocery runs twice weekly for our intern abode.  In the past two and a half weeks, I’ve volunteered, been assigned, or otherwise just gone to the market at least a half dozen times already.  This is not unintentional.

Making groceries in Nablus is an exciting process.  First comes the phone call to our friendly driver Munir who appears out of nowhere in his always spotless taxi.  Hopping in Munir’s cab begins an adventure in culture, language and, well, friendship.  An enthusiastic teacher and overall personable man, Munir is quick to extend a greeting in Arabic, remembering my name ever since I offered it the first time we met.  From greetings, Munir gently eases the conversation forward, speaking slowly and clearly, always pushing the limits of my fledgling Arabic vocabulary.

The first stop on our tour de food is Sami’s fruit market.  Like Munir, Sami needn’t have met me more than a single time to greet me with a warm welcome from then on.  His smile is infectious and his warmth keeps the open-air shop cozy, at least in spirit if not temperature.  Before reaching for a bag, I reach first for Sami’s large and calloused hand that he inevitably extends across the counter.

For all I know, Sami’s perch is permanent, wedged tightly in a narrow passage between the counter, which holds the electronic scale, a fruit vendor’s sole instrument of necessity, and a row of canned goods behind.  Sami’s girth extends almost from counter to back wall, but, then again, so does his smile!

I bump around the small market with whomever is on grocery duty with me, collecting small green bags of fruits and vegetables, piling them on Sami’s counter.  When we are finished collecting, the tallying begins.  Having yet to start my formal Arabic lessons, I look for vocabulary wherever I can, and Sami’s checkout counter makes for a fantastic impromptu classroom.

Sami, like Munir, is a willing and able teacher.  As he gently sets a bag down on the scale, he asks me first to name the contents in English before sharing the Arabic counterpart.  Soon, hopefully, I’ll beat Sami to the punch, offering him the Arabic word before it passes his lips. . . though I might have to keep glancing at my hand scrawled cheat sheet for the next few weeks!

We hump two or three bulging bags of fresh and colorful produce across two busy streets to a little supermarket.  Walid, the proprietor, greets us with only the slightest grin which suits his dark mustache and always-black outfit well.  Unlike Sami, Walid is reserved, contained, calm, though equally helpful and undeniably kind.  When a can is just out of reach, Walid finds another that previously escaped my view.  A moment’s hesitation when looking at a shelf brings him quickly to my side for assistance.

When I eye a big white painters bucket filled with pickled peppers, Walid and his colleagues are all too eager to offer me one.  In part to satiate my obvious desire, and, likely, in part to see my eyes swell up at the incredible heat!  I don’t mind as I am usually offered a cooling pickle shortly after, but, not of course until the burn has already crept up to my forehead and down to my stomach!

From Walid we collect a half-week’s worth of dry and wet goods.  Milk, eggs, bread, lebneh, juice, pop, salty cheese, Corn Flakes (Nestle, not Kellogg’s, sorry Battle Creek), red beans, white beans, chick peas, canned full, and, my favorite, a half kilo of fresh ground espresso.  The later Walid does not carry but is happy to procure for us, sending his assistant out into the evening to fetch a small bag of this finely ground chocolate colored powder.  The coffee arrives a few minutes later, freshly ground, still warm in the bag.  Walid is sure to let everyone sample its warm aroma before dropping into our growing pile of goods on the counter.

Like at Sami’s, and anywhere else we use group money to make a purchase, a receipt is requested and made out by hand.  The Arabic words followed by unfamiliar numerals look like some sort of ancient poetry, written solely for our eyes!  In a way, it is.

By the time Walid begins drawing up our unique culinary poem, Munir has usually reappeared and begins loading our many bags into his trunk.  If we are late, he has no problem spending a few minutes exchanging words with the other men in the store.  His friendliness is clearly not reserved for TYO Interns only.

Back in his car, Munir inevitably asks where I would like to go.  I do my best to eek out “I will go to TYO,” in Arabic, the transliteration of which I won’t dare to try!  Driving slowly through the night, Munir approaches each turn cautiously, asking me what to do next.  “Left or right?” he implores and I do my best to respond, setting off a string of laughter from any other Arabic speakers in the car.  Munir does not chuckle, but sees to it that after a few attempts I’ve corrected, or at least mitigated, my pathetic pronunciation.

No, my language acquisition skills are nothing to write home about and picking up Arabic isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  But as for making friends here in Nablus, well, its about a easy as makin’ groceries!

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.