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.

Highlights of the Week

As an intern at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, I have the wonderful opportunity to directly experience TYO’s multi-generational approach to community-building by leading an aerobics class for women of various ages and a dance class for pre-adolescent girls.  While working to help the women in my aerobics class improve their level of physical fitness and knowledge of wellness issues, I have discovered that several of the workouts popular in the United States are also enthusiastically received by Palestinian women, including Tae Bo and yoga.  As for my dance class, I focus the first half of each lesson on ballet.  In just six class sessions, the girls have learned first through fifth position, port de bras, plié, relevé, tendu, and rond de jambe. I spend the second half of class teaching hip hop, in which several of my students have demonstrated a real talent.  So far, the girls have learned how to chain together nearly 15 steps to create a hip hop dance routine.

Outside of class, I seized several opportunities to become better acquainted with my translators and volunteers this weekend.  My aerobics class translator, Hanin, had previously extended an invitation to me to visit her home, and I gladly accepted her kind offer on Thursday evening, when I joined her family for dinner.  She and her husband picked me up from TYO and drove me to their house, where I met her children and a few relatives.  Hanin had prepared a delicious dinner of foul, pita bread, kibbeh, fried tomatoes, a tahini-based dish, eggplant, and fettoosh, which we topped off with home-made ice cream cake.  Hanin and I then moved out to the balcony to chat over coffee and fresh fruit.  We sat in the stillness of the evening, breathing in the chilliness of the night air and enjoying each other’s company.  Hanin’s daughter Nana and son Munir, both of whom are close to me in age, soon joined us, and we gradually began to open up to each other.  Perhaps inspired by my revelation that it was the first time I had tasted fresh guava, and despite my protest since she had already lavished enough generosity upon me, Hanin stuffed an ice-cream container full of fresh fruit for me to take home.  Finally, her family and I packed into their car for a driving tour of Rafidia, a fun going-out district full of boutiques, restaurants, and ice cream shops where many of Nablus’s Christian residents live.

I found myself coming back to Rafidia the next evening with Adrienne, Ashwini, and Samee to meet our Kalimatna Initiative partners Hasan and Haya, accompanied by her sister Hala, for “fruit cocktails” (milkshakes made with fruit juice, ice cream, and nuts and topped mixed fruits on top) at Fekhfekhina, a fruit juice and ice cream shop.  I ran into our third Kalimatna Initiative partner, Khamis, on Saturday in the municipal park outside the Suwarna Exhibition featuring photographs taken by Nabulsi children participating in TYO’s Triple Exposure program.  There were also several other TYO volunteers helping out at the exhibit, including my dance class volunteers Ruba and Jumana.

After seeing the Suwarna exhibit, I walked with Ruba and Jumana to Rafidia to meet with more of our class volunteers—Somoud, Iman, and my translator, Farah—for snacks at a restaurant with a great view overlooking the mountains and hills of the city.  I was glad to have the chance to spend an afternoon with my volunteers outside of the classroom to learn about what subjects they were studying at the university, how many brothers and sisters they had, and their past volunteer experiences at TYO.  In turn, they took the opportunity to learn about my interest in Arab and Palestinian culture, my passion for working with children and youth, my impressions of Nablus, and a bit about my life in the United States.

– Julie

Julie is an intern at TYO 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.

Hiking the Abraham’s Path

“Rah amoot! I will die!” I announced to Khamees, who was standing next to me under the shade of an olive tree. “We will all die! For sure!” Khamees replied laughing, a playful look of fear crossing his face as he pointed to the path ahead. The noonday sun beat down unrelenting. A dead baby goat’s decaying body lay by the side of the road. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” I wondered, a drop of sweat trickling down my back.

Last weekend, the intrepid members of the Kalimatna Initiative set off in the midst of sweltering heat on a journey that our forefather, Abraham, undertook before us. Or at least on part of his journey. Abraham walked for hundreds of miles through at least five different Middle Eastern countries. We walked for one and a half days and covered approximately 20 kilometers or 12 miles.

We started in the small agricultural village of Mughayyra. The taxi dropped us off on the side of the road where we were introduced to our guide, Hijazi. The first day we walked for all of two hours up and up through green fields dotted with red poppy flowers, called hannoon in Arabic. Every now and then we stopped for a short rest in the peaceful setting of an olive grove. Hijazi shared his extensive knowledge of Palestine’s flora and fauna with us, pointing out a gazelle that ran through the meadow and the migratory birds that stopped in Palestine on their way to Europe.

The purpose of our trip was, of course, bonding and team building. The trip was timely in my opinion since Hassan, Haya, Khamees, Bieta, Kara, and I, the members of the Kalimatna Initiative, are still in the process of fleshing out what exactly the cultural guide we are making will look like. An interactive multimedia guidebook to Nablus? A compilation of the personal stories of Nabulsi youth? We have been slow to come to any conclusions. Working with people you don’t know is always hard, and working cross-culturally and cross-linguistically with people you don’t know is especially hard. I think we have all been a little hesitant with the guide, afraid to dictate to the others what we should be doing.

Inshallah, this trip marked a turning point. For all of us, including the Palestinians, hiking through the mountains and spending the night in the homes of Palestinian villagers was a first. We all wore the same sweaty clothes two days in a row, huffed and puffed our way up the same steep hills, and discovered with shared excitement the little tortoise or sulhafa that was hidden in the bushes on the side of a steep hill. I learned that Khamees is not only an extremely funny person but is also a professional clown, that Haya has never been on a walk like this before, and that Hassan is better at making labna, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches than I am. Before walking on the second day, we did “yoga” together on the side of the road, laughing at how only two of us could touch their toes.

We all marveled at Palestine’s natural beauty. Spring in Palestine is truly exquisite. Lush green pastures and wild flowers blanket the countryside. Fresh thyme known as zaatar grows underfoot, as do as number of other healing herbs. “The world is so beautiful!” Kara exclaimed. “Too bad people have to mess it up.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Palestine is so beautiful,” she replied, “but so many horrible things happen here.”

Hopefully, this project will serve as a reminder to all of us of the infinite beauty and daily good found in this region as well.

Photos of the hike can be seen here on TYO’s Flickr stream.


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