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Palestine: Life in the Eyes of Two West Bank Students

Categories: Middle East & North Africa, Palestine, Arts & Culture, Digital Activism, Education, Human Rights, Ideas, Refugees, Youth, Blogger Profiles

Linah Alsaafin and Heba Awadallah are students at Birzeit University [1] near Ramallah in the West Bank, who started a blog together a year ago. Called Life On Bir Zeit Campus [2], 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 [4] – which lies between Gaza and Hebron and is today known to Israelis as Kiryat Gat [5] – in 1949, a year after Israel's so-called war of independence. My dad's family were shunted to the Khan Younis [6] refugee camp in Gaza, where my grandparents are still living. My mother is originally from Ramallah's twin city Al-Bireh [7], 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 [8] 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 [9]. 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 [10] 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 [11], 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 [12]“.]

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 [13]. The PWW threw its first Poetry of Palestine night at La Vie Café [14], 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 [15] 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 [17] [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 [18]/Bil'in [19] 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 [20]. Gaza's version of the World Cup [21]. And the USA universities’ walk-outs, which we dubbed ‘burnations [22]‘. There's a tag for favourites, or I would have mentioned each one :)