Friday, 2 November 2012

TV stars

We got an unexpected invitation to a celebration this evening. It was to thank retiring Mayor Adly Yaish and his councillors for their work over the last 7 years and to welcome the new team of councillors led by Ghassan Shaka'a.

This took place in a large country club about 12km west of Nablus. Surprised to find a TV crew set up with satellite dish and other paraphenalia.

Very pleased and surprised to see Bassem Shaka'a on the stage. He has had several medical conditions recently. In 1980 while he was Mayor of Nablus, he lost both his legs when Israeli settlers booby trapped his car. It was from this incident that the Dundee-Nablus twinning was founded so we owe a lot to him. Tonight he again showed his amazing courage and determination by participating in a public event despite his frailties.

His nephew Ghassan Shaka'a - who is likely to be the new Mayor - specifically welcomed us to the event and said, in English, that he would invite the Lord Provost of Dundee to Nablus at the earliest opportunity.

Then we got a text from a friend in the Old City of Nablus "Hello. We watch you on TV now. Convey greetings to Lord Provost :)"

So they did catch us amongst the audience. Perhaps not too surprising as we do tend to stand out somewhat because there are still very few internationals in Nablus.

We were pleased to meet many friends of Dundee in the audience - who will be known to some readers of this blog - including Dr Aloul, Abouna Jusef, Father Ibrahim, and Saed Abu Hijleh.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


We are a little embarrassed by the surfeit of fruit that we have accumulated in recent days.

We are eating an awful lot of fruit but we are perhaps buying a bit too much. This is certainly not extravagance in terms of money. Fruit here is generally of a very high quality but reasonably priced.

Our heavily laden bags normally cost no more than £7 to fill. Shopkeepers have chosen their best products for us and given us somethings for free.

When we needed a small amount of olive oil to last for our final few days, the local shop was able to offer only 1 litre bottles. So they went to their house, filled up our little 250ml bottle and refused to take any money.

Mayor designate

We were invited to meet Ghassan Shaka'a whose list of independent candidates won 10 of the 15 seats on the Nablus City Council in the recent local elections. This means he is almost certain to be elected as the next Mayor of Nablus.

He asked us about the new Lord Provost of Dundee. He allowed us to film him and expressed his gratitude for Dundee being the first city to twin with Nablus all those years ago. He spoke of his uncle - Bassem Shaka'a - who initiated the twinning.

We left with very positive feelings and an expectation that Nablus and Dundee will work together to find new ways to develop the twinning relationship.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gather in the olives

It's time to harvest the olives throughout Palestine and we did a very little bit to help in the village of Burin just south of Nablus.

Other internationals come here to help because Burin and nearby villages are some of the worst affected by violent Israeli settlers who have illegally taken over the hilltops to build new settlements.

Fortunately this season has been fairly quiet but some incidents have been reported.

Such a pity because it is a very tranquil setting with the steep hillsides of the village covered in olive trees which have given a good crop this year.

Mike enjoyed climbing a tree to pick the highest fruits though felt somewhat apprehensive as Bilal started pruning the branches below him (though not the one he was standing on ...).

Picking olives is quite hard work because you have to reach and seek the sparsely arranged fruit and pluck them off mostly individually. So a tarpaulin is spread beneath each tree in turn and the olives are dropped on to this to make it easy to gather them up.

Leaves and rotten fruits are discarded, the best kept for the kitchen and the rest sent to be pressed into olive oil.

The first rains of the season came while we were there. Quite refreshing and in such warm weather you dry out quickly. A bonus is that the dust on the trees is washed off making the picking process more pleasant thereafter.

Meeting Namareq again was a highlight - she visited Dundee in 2005 as part of the twinning delegation and was able to show us her olive trees, her husband and her children.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The calm of Eid

Before Eid, Nablus was frenetic even into the early hours of the morning. But when Eid started all became calm.

Not entirely quiet for the mosque continued with its special Eid prayers. And although the streets were practically deserted, the car drivers still found a need for horning from dawn onwards.

We took a walk through a deserted city. People who saw us stopped to talk or shouted greetings from their cars as they drove past. All really friendly.

The Old City was definitely not its usual self. Shops locked, streets almost deserted although the houses were full of families visiting each other.

In following days, shops started to open and Palestinians living in Israel with full Israeli citizenship came to shop and visit family. This was particularly evident in the Sama Nablus park which is high up on the hill of Mount Ebal - about half the cars there had the distinctive yellow number plates of Israel (and which are normally prohibited from entering Nablus) rather than the green plates of Palestine vehicles.

Eid al Adha

It's really just like Christmas here but more so.

We are in the middle of Eid al Adha and everyone is involved. People are visiting their families and their friends, buying gifts, eating and talking.

Thursday night - the last night before Eid - was stunning. Religious people had been fasting all day but this was not apparent. Streets were shut to make space for more stalls and more shoppers. Everyone came to shop. We left our flat at 11pm with Rami as our guide and just wandered through the Old City and City Centre. Almost every shop was open - and the extra ones.

Everywhere was crowded, hard to get around because of the throngs. We gave up at midnight but others apparently carried on until 2 or 4am.

It was noisy and messy, piles of packaging strewn everywhere - even Scottish rubbish (see photo). But when we came back tomorrow every bit of it had been swept up and removed.

People were so excited. We stood out like sore thumbs and everyone welcomed us, asked How are You? and What is your Name? Some of they younger boys were a bit too boistrous - following us and wanting to talk - but all in high spirits and friendship. We became one of the toys of Eid.

Even the mosques were ready for Eid with special prayer calls.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Michael Marra

We were all extremely saddened by news from Dundee of the death of Michael Marra, Nick's brother. His was a wonderful talent which did Dundee proud and also recognised the wider world and made people laugh, cry and think.

We have contributed to another tribute so let's just say here that we will miss Michael Marra and feel so sad for Nick and other members of Michael's family.

Jess drew this olive tree for a card we sent and we include it here because it represents our feelings better than many words.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Checkpoint Checkpoint guns and questions

Nick and I unfortunately had to leave our companions after just one week, due to other commitments back home. Our flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt was scheduled to leave at 04.30 on Tuesday morning so our wonderful guide and fixer of problems, Shaden had arranged for us to be picked up in Nablus shortly after midnight.

After our sad farewells we set off for the airport. This should be a fairly straightforward journey as Nablus is not very far away from Tel Aviv. In addition our driver, Karim, is a Samaritan and has an Israeli ID card and his taxi has an Israeli number plate.

What could be more straightforward. Well, almost anything as it turned out. On this short journey we were stopped twice, both times by gun carrying soldiers. The first was on leaving the (Illegal) Israeli settlement of Ariel. There we had to open our suitcases as the guards somehow found my book "A Sunday at the pool in Kigali" a potential threat to Israel - even though none of the guards appeared to speak or read English.

The soldiers were also inquisitive about a ceramic dish I was carrying home. They decided to exhume Nick’s toilet bag, just in case he was carrying some giant open razor. Alas they found nothing and we allowed to continue our journey. The whole thing was rather silly.

Once in Israel proper we were again stopped at another checkpoint outside Tel Aviv airport. This time it was a bit more scary. We didn’t have to get out of the car, but the gun carrying guard was very persistent and intensive in his questioning of just why we had been visiting Nablus. Nick was the one who bore the brunt of their questioning. The concept of twinning and making friends was clearly beyond the salary grade of this particular guard.

We didn’t really know the full names of any of our hosts in Nablus, apart from Mr Yahya Arafat, and we felt this was probably not a good name to divulge. In the end they were happy with the names of Shaden, Riyad and Ahmad.

This time Karim our driver was also intensively questioned and he had to go into the little cabin to get his ID checked. Eventually we were waved on. The stop did not last all that long, but the uncertainty was very unsettling. Especially with guns around.

We kept thinking what could they do - send us back to Nablus? Arrest us for making friends with Palestinians?

That we did make it through to the airport on time was in no small part due to our very own personal Good Samaritan, Karim. He was aware of the possibilities and kept telling the Israelis that we were his friends and that we had visited his village just outside Nablus. Without his help, not sure how it would have all ended. Cannot image an Israeli taxi driver from Tel Aviv (the other option open to us) would have been so kind and helpful.

But inshallah, we did make it to the airport and there were funnily enough no problems in there. We just sailed through security. Our thanks to Karim and it is so good to know that the kind and friendly traditions of the Samaritans are still alive and kicking in 21st century Palestine. Pity that they seem to have disappeared in Israel.

(Contributed by Alister)

Monday, 22 October 2012


Palestinian electricity has been fragmented and inconsistent. NEDCo (the Northern Electricity Distribution Company) has been created to sort this out. Our host here, Mr Yahya Arafat, gave us a tour of the company and explained its objectives.

Electricity was supplied by municipalities, each receiving its supply from the Israel Electricity Company (IEC) but agreed to form a company to take over this role.

So NEDCo started with 94 separate feeds from the IEC, at different voltages and at different prices. They are rationalising this.

More importantly, they are setting far higher standards for transmission and for safety with a substantial emphasis on good customer service. Although only operational for 2 years they have already built new infrastructure, new customer service centres and higher levels of response.

Better still, they have reduced the prices that are charged to customers even though the prices they pay to the IEC have increased. This is achieved through greater efficiency and a more methodical approach to charging customers and following up all losses including non-payment.

The presentation we were given by the General Manager - Eng. Salam Zagha - was very interesting, with an overview of the company. The Board room was full of company directors and managers who then showed us the staff of HQ, the Nablus Branch Office and a local sub-station.

Nablus Fire Department

Yet another warm welcome (not a pun) from the Fire Fighters of Nablus. Jamal the Fire Chief came over from the Municipality especially to see us and many other fire fighters gathered round as we admired the fire appliance from Dundee that had been donated by the Fire Brigade Union in Scotland.

They described to us some of the challenges they face - like the very narrow streets in the Old City and the refugee camps - and the challenges they might face - like an earthquake or political instability.

We were amazed that the Fire Appliance from Dundee could not be used because Israel prohibited it. Such control extending so far into Palestinian operations is still quite shocking.

The solution was to purchase a new left hand drive Volvo chassis and transfer the cab, tanks and kit onto it. The Mayor had described signing the cheque for this upgrade. At least it might give the equipment an extended life. But some new hoses are still needed.