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.


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.

Meet Haya!

This week the members of Kalimatna Initiative completed our first set of interviews.  In addition to wandering around the Old City and An-Najah University talking to falafel sellers and bookstore owners, we interviewed each other!  To learn more about our wonderful team member Haya, read Bieta’s interview with her:

Where are you from?

I am from Jaffa.  We are refugees here and we live in Nablus. I am Palestinian with a Jordanian passport.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

I have five sisters and no brothers, unfortunately.  It’s unfortunate that I have no brothers, not unfortunate that I have five sisters.

Describe yourself in three words:

I am kind, open-minded and teachable.

Describe your country:

It is boring.  It’s not boring for you [Bieta] because you are not from here. It is boring because I don’t travel overseas.  It is nice geographically, meaning the weather and the land.  It is occupied.

What do you do for fun?

Facebook, reading and filming.

What do you want to do when you grow up?

I want to go to London, get experience there and come back to teach in Palestine. I want to go to Goldsmith College at the University of London to continue my MA in filmmaking.  I want to use film to talk about human rights in Palestine.

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about my friends, friendship, family, work and study.

What is the most important thing in your life?

My bedroom because I grew up there and my mom read me stories there so it’s special. My family wants me to bring my bedroom with me when I get married.

Kalimatna’s Social Media Platform

Over the last few weeks, the Kalimatna team has been working on our presence in the wonderful world of social media. We created a page on the TYO blog where you can read more about our initiative, we began documenting our journey on flickr, and we created a Twitter feed!

While the overall goal of our project is to create a by‐youth, for‐youth multimedia kit to introduce the culture of Nablus to the world, our equally significant secondary goal is to engage an international audience in our journey. Entrez Twitter!

Twitter will allow us to share information about our work in Nablus with people beyond the city’s limits. We hope not only to imbue the image of Nablus with thoughtful and positive insights, but also to draw our audience closer to us, hold their attention and garner their support in order to improve our kit through intercultural and peer dialogue.

Kalimatna’s twitter feed will share news about our work, our journey, ourselves—our 140 character mini bios are already up–and our beloved city Nablus!

Please tweet with us @kalimatna to share your ideas about our work, our tweets and what you would like to learn about the culture and history of Nablus!

-Kalimatna Initiative

Intern Journal: Thrilled to be in Nablus!

I arrived in the West Bank just a week ago, and I am thrilled to be here! Last week was filled with orientation activities, which gave me an overview of TYO’s mission and approach, the cultural differences between Palestinians and Americans, and the joys and challenges of teaching in a cross-cultural setting.  I am already so impressed by TYO’s knowledgeable and committed staff, and I look forward to learning more from them as my three-month internship progresses.

On a walking tour with Hassan and Haya, two of the Palestinian interns with whom I’ll be working on the Kalimatna Initiative, I saw the ancient market and winding streets of the old city, as well as the beautiful Turkish baths for which Nablus is famous.  Nablus’s architectural heritage impresses me as much as the dramatic natural landscape that surrounds the city – in every direction, steep rocky hills dotted with green pastures and evergreen trees jut up towards the sky.  I can easily understand why the Palestinians I have met here are so proud of this city.

Yesterday was my first day of classes.  I am going to be teaching a variety of English classes to mothers at TYO, core teachers, and university-age volunteers. Unfortunately, the stormy, rainy day kept most of my students at home, but despite the small class size, the students who showed up were totally energized and excited to be there.  I’m particularly excited to be teaching the moms.  TYO focuses on early childhood education, and because mothers play such an important role in the lives of their children, TYO also offers classes to moms.  Most of the moms I met yesterday have not completed high school, but they are committed to learning English because they want to be able to help their children.

Yesterday was also one of the first meetings for the American and Palestinian interns of the Kalimatna Initiative.  The purpose of the project is to create a multimedia guide to the city and culture of Nablus.  But what is culture exactly?  The answer to this question remained elusive yesterday as we discussed the challenges of defining and talking about culture.  To convey the complexities of culture, Chelsey, TYO’s program coordinator, drew a picture of an iceberg.  Together, the interns had to decide where on the iceberg to locate different aspects of culture, which ranged from concrete cultural manifestations such as clothing and food to more abstract concepts like family, self, friendship etc.

The iceberg exercise brought up a variety of important challenges for the group.  Even though two of the Palestinian interns have wonderful English, we had a lot of trouble defining and translating abstract concepts, such as deference to authority, work ethic, and even personal space.  This created an unequal balance of power in the group because the Americans could do the exercise much more quickly than the Palestinians. To some degree, the final answers didn’t reflect a group decision-making process to the extent that it could have.  Was the problem simply the language barrier or did it reflect cultural differences in how to talk and think critically about these abstract concepts?  As we go forward with the project, especially as we start exploring Nablus, I know that this balance of power will inevitably shift in the other direction, since the Americans will be unfamiliar with the language and culture.  In the end, the challenges of the iceberg exercise highlighted for me that patience, listening, and communication will be essential for the success of our initiative.


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

Intercultural Training in Strasbourg, France

In December, I traveled to Strasbourg, France to take part in a training course titled “Global and Effective Youth Projects for Intercultural Dialogue.” The United Nation’s Alliance of Civilizations (UNAoC) and the Council of Europe sponsored the course. The twelve participants, including myself, represented the international dialogue projects chosen by this year’s grant committee. You can read about TYO’s project here.

The training was an amazing opportunity to learn about intercultural dialogue while also taking part in it. The participants at the training came from all over the world. Through learning from my peers at this conference, I came to understand the exact meaning of ‘alliance of civilizations.’  Everyone was so passionate about their project and eager to effect positive change in their community and share it with others.

We also had plenty of fun. One night we decided to go to Kehl, across the border in Germany. We went to a coffee shop to have some tea and coffee. As we sat down, we were all speaking in English, our shared language, and some of us were engaged in side conversation in our native tongues. When the waiter came to collect our order, we realized that he only spoke German and none of us did! We started to talk with him in our mother tongues attempting to gauge whether he also understood Arabic or Croatian—he did not. Finally, through pantomime and pointing, we received our orders. It was a crazy night.

On a professional level, this conference strengthened my skills in human rights education, intercultural dialogue, monitoring and evaluation, and project management. I left the conference feeling very confident in my ability to express myself to people from other cultures and in turn to better understand them.


Imad is TYO’s Volunteer Coordinator and a UNAoC Project Coordinator.

UNAoC grant funds new Youth project

Several TYO volunteers on a trip to Bethlehem University

In late November, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Youth Fund awarded TYO a $20,000 grant for its “Speaking for Ourselves: Youth-led Do-plomacy” project. TYO’s project was chosen out of 500+ submissions for this very exciting award.

The project will engage three Palestinian and three American interns as the leaders of the project. Through extensive training in intercultural dialogue and familiarization with Palestinian culture (both traditional and modern forms), the six interns will produce a user‐friendly, multi‐media guide to present Palestinian culture to audiences around the world. For the duration of the project, the six interns will document their experience on several social media sites including this blog, Facebook and Twitter. The final result of the project will be a Do‐plomacy Manual designed by our interns to teach other youth about Nablus culture in a way that is interesting, authentic and dissolves prejudice. This tool, in conjunction with the project’s social media efforts, will address the critical problem in Nablus of being isolated from the rest of the world as well as growing divides between the Middle East and the US (and North America and Europe).

Since the beginning of December, coordinators Imad and Chelsey have worked diligently to prepare for the project’s official launch next month. Imad attended a training course in Strasbourg, France from December 12 to19 on effective global youth projects for intercultural dialogue. Chelsey continues to work in conjunction with Nell and Wynne, TYO’s Executive Directors, to recruit three American interns for the project.

Once the Manual is complete, interns will lead Do‐plomacy sessions, directly reaching at least 360 youth here in the West Bank and abroad. However, our target is truly the entire world – we will commit great energy to spreading the concept and our Manual as far and wide as possible. Likewise, we are committed to its sustainability: each spring, TYO will recruit 2 interns, one Palestinian and one American, to revise the Manual as needed based on changing cultural and political contexts.

Isabelle LeGare, Youth Programs manager at UNAoC wrote the following message to Imad following his participation in the Strasbourg conference.

“Your level of commitment to TYO’s work and Palestinian youth was extremely impressive. You worked so well in the team and acted as a “sponge”, wanting to get as much as you could from the training. Your comments, ideas and level of engagement showed that you are a true leader. I am really really looking forward to working with you in the next 6 months and beyond. TYO can count on a very strong coordinator for their Youth Solidarity Fund project.”

We look forward to advancing intercultural dialogue in Nablus through the launch of this project early next year.