It’s hard to picture, right?
When someone studies abroad in Buenos Aires or Rome or Beijing, there is an associated imagery that friends and family can call to mind, a basic recognition of extravagant food or sweeping architecture or colorful dances. Whether or not these are stereotypes, they provide a foundation for shared excitement and inquiry — is the pasta really that good? Have you visited Insert Famous Place? How’s the nightlife?
But when I tell someone I’m studying abroad in the West Bank — or to put it more shockingly, in Palestine — it’s a different story. What can anyone picture? Inevitably, most minds will jump to images the media provides: barbed wire, a concrete wall, angry young men with stones. Military trucks against a field of olive trees. This imagery is real, of course. But it doesn’t offer a foundation for any meaningful conversation, for any inquiry beyond the shallow “Wait, is that safe?” that people love to toss at me.
And so it’s my responsibility to fill in the pictures, to push people beyond their initial perceptions, to share the excitement of my life here. But where do I start? I struggle, and I have put off writing this piece, mainly because I don’t know exactly what I want to tell people. Like anyone reporting from abroad, I want you to see the images you don’t typically see in newspapers and online, the pictures that don’t come to mind — but in the case of Palestine, that category is huge and heavy.
First of all, you don’t see the Palestinian step aerobics class, where women in hijab leap in the air alongside women in tank tops and old men in tracksuits. They count alternately in English and Arabic, bobbing and sweating to top hits from the “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack. You don’t see the 10-year-olds building Lego robots in their after school clubs, or the high school kids trying on dresses. You don’t see the people camped out in coffee shops with their newspapers and laptops, or the cozy cobblestone rotundas adorned with Christmas trees in winter. You don’t see my host family’s little dog Honey dressed in her pink sweater, or the girl next to me on the bus jamming to Kanye.
A good part of me wants to focus on these mundane images, to retaliate against people’s skepticism of my safety with a barrage of normalcy, emphasizing what I really shouldn’t have to — that the West Bank is a place full of ordinary people doing ordinary things.
This is true of course. But it isn’t the only aspect of Palestine that I can or should share, because to do so would be to neglect another category of things unseen. The green West Bank IDs, for instance, that so many of my friends carry in their wallets, preventing them from driving a mere 20 kilometers to visit Jerusalem. The rows of turnstiles and metal detectors that those individuals who can visit the city must pass through on the way there. The blonde teenager who hops onto the bus in her IDF uniform, her rifle swinging just two feet from an old woman’s face. The students, my classmates, running for cover as the military showers tear gas and rubber bullets onto our campus, classes interrupted and windows shattered at the whim of some soldiers.
These things aren’t ordinary by any means. But they are an equally significant part of daily life here, such that to recount the quotidian inevitably touches on both the mundane and the wholly unjust. This fact carries its own associated tragedy, for it means that a restricted and precarious state of living has been normalized to some extent, has stagnated to the point that the barbed wire and the military vans can form as much a part of your daily routine as the aerobics class.
So maybe this is what I want to tell people for now. That this place is alive and ordinary in the face of oppression, but that this doesn’t mean that we can simply accept the status quo. The mundane aspects of life in the West Bank should instead remind us that nothing with the weary label “Israeli-Palestinian” occurs in a political vacuum, nor in constant sweeping violence, but rather in the context of real people and daily life. Caught in the simultaneous swirl of the wholly ordinary and the wholly unacceptable, there are ID cards and sweater-wearing dogs and cobblestones and tear gas and newspapers and gyms and Legos and olive trees and universities.
So picture that.
Allison Mandeville is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .