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Palestine: Life in the Eyes of Two West Bank Students

Linah Alsaafin and Heba Awadallah are students at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the West Bank, who started a blog together a year ago. Called Life On Bir Zeit Campus, the blog takes an incisive and entertaining look at student life and Palestinian politics amongst other topics. In this post Global Voices interviews Linah Alsaafin – who jokes that blogging saved her from more destructive paths…

Linah Alsaafin (photo used with permission)

First of all, Linah, can you tell us a little about your family situation – as I know it is complicated.

My family and I are holders of British passports as a result of spending about 10 years there (my first ten years!). After brief stints in Abu Dhabi and Virginia, USA, my parents decided it was time to go home. When we first moved to Palestine, back in 2004, we were living on one year renewable work visas, as my dad is a journalist (his credentials had to be issued by Israel). I am a third-generation refugee; my grandparents were ethnically cleansed from their village Al-Falujah – which lies between Gaza and Hebron and is today known to Israelis as Kiryat Gat – in 1949, a year after Israel's so-called war of independence. My dad's family were shunted to the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, where my grandparents are still living. My mother is originally from Ramallah's twin city Al-Bireh, and that is where we settled.

A year later in 2005, reality caught up with us when my traveling older brother, the only one of my siblings to be born in Khan Younis, was told by Israeli authorities on the Allenby Bridge that he couldn't cross through to Amman in Jordan because of his Gaza ID. The next four years were tough on him, since he couldn't leave Ramallah or even its outskirts for fear of being arrested by the IDF. As you know, Palestinians with a Gaza ID are not permitted to be in the West Bank, and vice versa (unless you have a special permit from the military, which are notoriously difficult to come by). We felt bad whenever we went to Haifa or Akka, visiting the rest of our homeland that is now dubbed “Israel”, because he was missing out.

In 2009, our world came crashing down, when my dad, whose movement around Palestine was made easier twofold because of the foreign visa and press card, was arrested at the Erez checkpoint on one of his routine visits to Gaza. The Israelis revoked his credentials, dismissed his visa, and told him that they knew he had a Gaza ID and would henceforth be treated as one. We now obviously couldn't renew our visas, so we finally opted to receive our Israeli-issued IDs, which took away so many of our basic human rights – freedom of movement, ability of my family to stay together, etc. It was hard to accept that my dad would never return to the West Bank. To make matters worse, my mother was inexplicably issued a Gaza ID, even though she still had her old West Bank ID. My other brother, sister, and I were issued West Bank IDs, culminating in our unbelievable calamity. This meant that she could not travel to Amman with us to visit my dad, who had finally settled there. If she did, the Israelis would take one look at her Gaza ID and deport her straight to Gaza. She immediately got in touch with the Israeli organization Gisha, who strove to get her to visit my dad and come back “legitimately”. That year was pretty shitty for all of us, but finally, in late 2010, my mother won her case of reverting her ID back to a West Bank one. [For the full story read the post "Reunification of My Parents".]

What made you decide to start a blog?

It was about a year ago, back in February 2010. Remi Kanazi, the Palestinian-American poet, came to Ramallah to give the first part of a spoken word poetry workshop for the Palestine Writing Workshop. The PWW threw its first Poetry of Palestine night at La Vie Café, where Remi and Tala Aburahmeh performed. My friend Heba Awadallah and I were simply blown away by Remi's performance. He articulated so many fundamental points of Palestinian identity, the Israeli occupation, and imperialism so eloquently and angrily that there was no question of not being inspired, particularly since it echoed our very own sentiments and frustrations, inadequately expressed. We decided that we had to have a commodious outlet, or Freudian theory would have dictated that our frustrations would then be channeled in dangerous ways such as participating in normalizing dialogue with our Jewish Israeli cousins or becoming suicide bombers. A blog was decided. We're both a bit technologically challenged, but Blogger assured us that it would be easy.

Heba and Linah, who use the name Arabiat (photo used with permission)

Do you and Heba – calling yourselves “Arabiat” (Arab girls or women) – take turns posting, or do you write posts together?

We spend a lot of time together, so we'd talk about the next post and then I'll write it up. We were so enthusiastic at the beginning, bursting with ideas, but Heba never posts unless I tell her to, or in the rare case that there was an event in Ramallah that she went to and I didn't. We both don't like politics, but I write about the incompetent leaders and their failures because you can't disassociate politics from Palestinian society, and because of my belief that not enough students in the West Bank care enough/express their views about the political situation beyond the tiresome Hamas vs. Fateh diatribe. It's not all politics though, but university students should be involved in some kind of reformation or to advocate some sort of “Yes we can” change. Scratch that, they should advocate awareness. BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], people!

Do you have a sense of who is reading your blog? Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write?

At first, we harboured secret dreams of having wide masses reading our blog, but that fantasy floated away pretty soon. From the beginning, it was mainly about writing for ourselves though, just to voice our opinions about a number of things significant to us – the “not so dear to our hearts” university and its disillusioned indifferent students, the political landscape, cultural events, basically anything to do with Palestine that we're interested in. Later on though, I found out that we actually have solid followers, and even received emails from various individuals telling us how much they enjoy the blog, from an Israeli activist who participates in the Nil'in/Bil'in protests to a PhD researcher who recently moved to the West Bank. Fellow students from the English department also read it. Needless to say, I've started to shamelessly flaunt the blog at any given opportunity.

Is there a blogging community in Ramallah, or at Birzeit University? Do you ever meet other bloggers?

I know there's a vibrant blogging community in Ramallah, but when I manage to master Twitter then maybe we could meet up. I'm more interested in the blogging community in Gaza – they have some fantastic blogs out there. But I don't reach out, I've never really thought about it. Hmm…Well basically it would be like meeting a novelist, say “Hi I like your book” and then have nothing else to say except for each person waxing lyrical about their own blogs. That's an interesting idea though.

Do you have a favourite post?

Norman Finkelstein rapping. Gaza's version of the World Cup. And the USA universities’ walk-outs, which we dubbed ‘burnations‘. There's a tag for favourites, or I would have mentioned each one :)

  • BChangeWinds

    May Allah strengthen you, and protect you

    Your voices are heard from the outside. You are not alone. The day will come for your Freedom, it’s a matter of when, and you are already part of this change

  • dprosenthal

    ‘So called’ war for independence – the UN, with the blessing of Arab members, granted Israel a tiny bit of land for their own country. The war began because the surrounding Arab countries attacked the new nation, with the promise of driving them into the sea. It didn’t turn out that way but someway Israel became known as the aggressors. Did you ever wonder what might have happened if all those neighbors had just let them have that pitiful little piece of land and just ignored their existance?

    • Freedom

      “pitiful little piece of land and just ignored their existance?”

      Its either you are so ignorant or you are acting dumb?!
      that “pitiful little piece of land” is extending day by day!
      that “new nation” is like a hungry monster! it wont have enough until it takes over every inch in Palestine!
      The surrounding Arabs didn’t attack Israel but fought for their right of existence!
      I really can’t understand people like you who ignore true facts and believe bunch of lies about patriotic Israel!
      I am Palestinian who lives in the West Bank and I live through the hell Israel is creating for us! that so called security wall that was built to steal more lands? or those check points which are positioned to torture us?
      wake up!

  • http://israelseen.com steve

    It is a bit sad that the need to perpetuate lies such as “ethnically cleansed”.. Apparently the need to create a false narrative that has been passed on to the children is part the war of words. It would be refreshing to actually have a blogger express the whole truth for a change about life in the West Bank.

    What you read and what you experience of life in the West Bank is profoundly different from this interview. Apparently the writer was more interested in propaganda then the truth. Sad comment for Global voices.

    Finkelstein

    • http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com Linah

      Hello Steve, how’s life under that rock of yours?
      This whole ‘ethnically cleansed” hullabaloo is really a figment of our imagination, something more along the lines of “a land without a people for a people without a land” huh?
      Almost 800,000 Palestinians were -ta dum!- ethnically cleansed in 1948. It was called Plan Dalet.

      But I suppose the 6 million Palestinian refugees present day in the diaspora are just clones recreated in Arizona labs.

      And live in the West Bank is just peachy, thanks.

  • http://israelseen.com steve

    Hi Linah,

    Silly childish retort. Sarcasm only gets you so far. If you continue to buy in to all the conspiracy theories your narrative suggests then you will never be willing to make peace. READ READ READ. Not just what makes you feel self-righteous about your narrative but some of the truths that defy and more often discount much of what you said.

    I understand your disappointment but look around at your leadership and then ask who has failed whom.

    Respectfully,
    Steve

  • http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com Linah

    I wonder what credible truths you have been reading up on? Please enlighten me. I truly feel sorry for your delusional self if you honestly believe Israel as the bastion of democracy, freedom, and equality. But that’s to be expected from someone who has never had to live under the subhuman deplorable occupation and has no qualms lecturing me about my conspiracy laden history.

    I’m fully aware just how much the “Palestinian leadership” has represented the basic rights of Palestinians, but I think we can both agree that they are nothing but self-serving money grabbers. The farcical PA lives to legitimize the Israeli occupation, natch.

    I see you haven’t commented on “Plan Dalet”. Who needs to know their own factual history now, especially something this momentous which resulted in the creation of Israel. Or is Ilan Pappe just another biased self-hating Jew?

  • http://israelseen.com steve

    Linah, When you stop calling names and mature a little maybe we can have an intelligent conversation. Until now all I have heard from you so far has been radical mainstream rhetoric instead of a more complex truth that is far more accurate then you portray.
    Ilan Pappe who no longer lives in Israel is not interested in a two state solution. He is more interested in the end of the State of Israel. It is a position, but not one that we who live here are interested in.

    I have been to your city and others in the West Bank. Your portrayal of reality is so infused with hate that it is almost impossible to think clearly and address reality. You have a right to be an angry young woman. But this is not a helpful place to have an honest discussion. Propaganda does not enhance peace, sincere people do from both sides.

  • http://lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com Linah

    Steve, give up the patronizing. Think of what you’ve been accusing me of. I cannot have an intelligent conversation with a Zionist who breezily dismisses that ethnic cleansing did not take place 63 years ago in Palestine. Believe what you want to believe, but don’t you dare think you can sanctimoniously impose your false rhetoric and propaganda on me.

    Toodles.

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