Although the global coronavirus pandemic is keeping people detached like never before, it’s opened up space for new interactions. For instance, out of necessity for the welfare of its citizens, the Israeli and Palestinian governments have reportedly ramped up their cooperation to alleviate the COVID-19 spread. On a more personal level, video communication technologies have enabled anyone with internet to fill their innate human desire to connect during these uncertain times.

Earlier this month, I was honored to help lead a discussion on this topic between my American millennial peers and a presenter from Zimam: a Palestinian grassroots youth movement. This program, hosted by Boston Partners for Peace and IPF Atid, was my second time interacting with Zimam. As a writer, I’d like to share more about why I seek to learn about the impact of this organization and, more broadly, contemporary life in Palestine.

Finding an escape

One of Mais’s favorite childhood memories is the first time she visited the public library in her hometown of Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. On an afternoon shortly after her tenth birthday, her aunt led her to the large, Ottoman-era structure that served as a cafe in the nineteenth century. As Mais walked across the garden, entered the front door, and gazed up at the towering stacks, she felt as if she had discovered the world’s largest palace. She browsed the shelves with fascination, leafing through poetry from her town and the other side of the globe, examining histories published in the last year and hundreds of years before she was born.

After narrowing down her options, Mais carried a pair of novels to the check-out desk: One by a local author, the other, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.

When Mais returned home, she began the Palestinian book but quickly put it down: It was too depressing, too similar to the bleak tales her family discussed at dinner. A too-harsh reminder of real life. Then Mais cracked open Robin Hood; suddenly, she was not in Palestine, but in Nottingham, and time washed away.

Mais returned often to the corner of the library where English-translated books resided. She read American classics by Steinbeck and Dickens. She daydreamed about attending Hogwarts, wand in hand, the robe of a young witch rippling over her legs as she meandered gothic, torch-lit halls. She pretended to be Elizabeth Bennet navigating family quarrels and romance in England’s Regency period. Mais began writing, too, filling notebook after notebook—first in Arabic, then, as she learned English, in a blend of languages.

In literature, Mais found an escape, as many of us do. The world she escaped from, however, was not one most of us would recognize.

Seeking the right language

Over the course of my Jewish upbringing, Israel education was a constant. At home, at Hebrew school, and at synagogue, I absorbed countless stories about my people’s millennia-old ties to that land, the many traumas we experienced in exile, and how, in wake of the Holocaust, Jews carved out a sliver of earth nestled against the Mediterranean Sea: a safe haven in the holiest of soil, the soil God promised Abraham his descendants would inherit for eternity. 

During adolescence, these stories coalesced in my mind to form a lucid image of Israel. But, as I eventually learned, to truly understand it, one must also listen to and learn a completely different set of stories about the same place. 

Observe Israel’s founding from a different angle: what Jews call the War of Independence, Arabs call the Nakba, or catastrophe. In May 1948, hours after proclaiming statehood, Israelis fended off a slew of attacking militaries and, despite starting on the defensive, expanded their frontier. As they did so, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. 

Likewise, we can look at Israel’s growing military prowess in a less flattering light, one that illuminates serious human rights violations. The clearest example is the West Bank occupation. At present, more than two million Palestinians live in that region, where their suffering is immense. While it’s important to recognize Israel’s need to defend itself, it’s important to acknowledge Israel’s abuse of power. Consider this testimony from Breaking the Silence, an organization of more than one thousand ex-soldiers in the Israel Defense Force who served in occupied territory. Intimidation, humiliation, dehumanization.

Though I developed a strong interest in learning about the conflict, I felt I lacked the necessary language to discuss these issues with any sense of confidence, much less authority. I voiced this frustration with friends whose professional lives focus on Israel, and all of them offered the same response: to truly understand the occupation, you need to see it for yourself, and you need to meet the people it impacts. That’s why I jumped at the chance presented by Israel Policy Forum, an American policy organization dedicated to advancing the two-state vision, to visit Israel and Palestine last summer as part of a young professional delegation—to listen, to interact, to equip myself with the tools to engage more deeply in these issues.

Life in occupied Palestine

As Mais came of age in the West Bank, Israel’s occupation brewed over her like a dark cloud. Sometimes it descended low, encasing everything, its noxious vapor inhaled with every breath; sometimes it hovered high above ground, distant but always casting a shadow. 

For Mais, the occupation meant soldiers were always present, always patrolling her neighborhood, always wielding machine guns, always watching. It meant hiding under the kitchen sink as gunfire erupted outside, her aunt’s arms shielding her, the metal roof creating the auditory illusion that shots were going off within the walls. 

Occupation was the sound of her mother screaming as Mais, at the age of three, escaped the house and wound up in the middle of the street, staring at an approaching tank, too young to fear the hulking vehicle. It was her mother’s weeping after she grabbed her child from the road, her mother’s stammering voice as she said, You could have been killed, you could have been killed . . . 

And it was the aching for human rights and statehood enjoyed by the Israelis down the road; a hunger for the world to see the Palestinians as a people deserving of those privileges. 

When Mais reached her teenage years, a health scare gave her more troubles to cope with, to crave escape from—and an up-close view at one of the major issues festering in Palestinian society. One summer morning after finishing ninth grade, Mais ran her fingers over her stomach and noticed it had ballooned. Eventually, pain in her torso convinced her to go to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a tumor had latched itself to one of her ovaries. The mass was benign, but extracting it required doctors to remove the ovary as well, and left a large scar seared on Mais’s stomach. 

Word of the operation got out; the story warped as it spread across town. Sometimes, when Mais was in public, people she barely knew approached her to ask if she was the “sick girl.” She began hearing whispers, often in the confines of her own home: What if she’s infertile? Who’s going to marry a young woman who might not be able to have his children? Who would want to be with someone who has that ugly scar across her body? 

There was sympathy as well as shame and judgment, and it all made her feel worse. Mais lost interest in school, in her social life, even in books. She feared that another tumor would sprout, this time a cancerous one. Her sense of rejection led to more fear: that she would become an outcast; that she would never know romance; that she would never kiss the sweet-smelling head of her own baby.

Discovering new narratives

In July, I arrived in Tel Aviv for a week of interviews, briefings, and field tours, all centered around the two-state solution and its future from a multitude of perspectives. Following several days inside Israel proper, our delegation entered the West Bank and headed toward Hebron. After walking through a military checkpoint into the city, I encountered a twenty-six-year-old named Mohammed who spends most of his days selling small, glittery handbags on the street. His father was a tour guide many years ago—travelers flock to Hebron to visit its religious sites—and as a child, Mohammed picked up English by following those groups around, listening to his dad wax poetic about the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Oak of Sibta. Mohammed wants to study business, but his family is broke, living day to day, so he spends his time ambling through town, searching for anyone willing to barter. Besides, he noted, he can name plenty of educated Palestinians who can’t find jobs in their languishing economy

Later we shuttled to Bethlehem, where I met a shop owner also named Mohammed. Right across the street from his store is the cement barrier wall that separates Israel and the West Bank. Mohammed said Bethlehem’s economic woes, exacerbated by the barrier and travel restrictions, make it difficult to scrape by, and nearly impossible to save money. 

A Palestinian businesswoman (who requested anonymity) agreed with Mohammed when we spoke at the famous Walled Off Hotel, designed by Banksy, the enigmatic and elusive street artist. The hotel, which has but a narrow, cracked street separating it from the barrier, boasts the “worst view in the world.” Banksy’s artwork is seen all around the building. In the lobby, cherubs hang from the ceiling with gas masks over their mouths; a children’s carousel revolves around a model watchtower; a marble, Greek-style bust rests in a corner, his mouth covered by cloth, a cloud of tear gas swirling about. 

With a relative who has served as a high-ranking official in city government, the businesswoman had a strong command of the West Bank’s political environment. When asked to name any up-and-coming Palestinian lawmakers to keep an eye on, she laughed ruefully: “No, there is no one,” she says, throwing up her hands, “there’s not a single name I can share with you.” This is a concern I heard from many West Bank residents and tracks with recent polling. It offers an accurate window into the Israeli-Palestinian future, including waning support for the two-state solution from not only Palestinian youth, but their Israeli counterparts as well. 

Following our stop at the hotel, we took a short walk to Aida Refugee Camp. Established in 1950, Aida was erected on less than one-tenth of square kilometer, and though its population has swelled, its confines have hardly grown. Aida did not look like a typical refugee camp on the news today. There were no pitched tents or makeshift houses in sight. Instead, it felt like an extension of Bethlehem, only less clean and more cramped, as if giant hands grabbed its sides and gently pressed everything together. And it is not a place where displaced people regularly come and go; rather, it is a place of stasis—one where many residents experience every stage of life. 

Atop the front entrance rests a large metal key: “the key of return,” an emblem of Palestinians’ aspiration to return to the land from which they were uprooted during Israel’s creation. This fervent desire is seen all around. It is seen on signs outside shops. It is seen in the explicit graffiti on buildings. And it is seen on the children’s soccer jerseys, which all have the number 1948 (the year of the Nakba) emblazoned on the back.

Residents invited us into a recreation room for a screening of Ambience, a local movie recently featured at Cannes. The short film depicts a pair of teenage boys attempting to record a demo for a music competition, but the noise all around them—the thrum of construction, the quarrels of neighbors, distant explosions—makes their endeavor impossible, so they turn their microphones outward into the cacophony and produce a new beat with the sounds of everyday life. The director, Wisam al-Jafari, was on hand, and I asked him what he hoped people like me—white, American, Jewish, outsider—would take away from the film. 

“We want you to see that we are people, too,” he said. “We argue, we want to make art, we dream. We are trying to take our daily challenges and make something beautiful from them.” 

In Ramallah, situated near the center of the West Bank, we sat down with representatives from Zimam, a grassroots youth movement that coaches students how to advocate for a democratic, pluralistic Palestine through leadership training, non-violent activism, and artistic expression. Across the table sat Mais. After introducing ourselves, she and I quickly bonded over authors we both admired, as well as the struggles and joys of being a writer. And then she worked backwards, recounting a swirl of memories, detailing moments of great anguish and vulnerability.

It took Mais years to recover emotionally from her operation, she said, but in time, she emerged from a deep depression, rekindled her love for the written word, and received a scholarship to study English Literature at a Palestinian university, where she currently studies. There, a friend recruited her to Zimam. Seeking a community, she joined and saw not only value in learning the intricacies of politics, but ways she can make an appreciable difference in that arena, too. 

Although writing about politics and other local issues felt difficult at first, eventually the words began to flow—about her struggles as an Arab woman living in occupied land, about the occupation itself, about the internal problems with which Palestinians must grapple. Her involvement with Zimam now extends beyond writing articles. Mais spoke proudly of the time she helped preserve Palestinian terrain that Israeli settlers sought to take. By law, Israelis can take over uncultivated sections of the West Bank, and soon after Mais joined Zimam, a settlement close to her tried to do precisely that. In response, she and fellow students traveled there and planted dozens of olive trees. Upon inspection, the government saw the area was indeed cultivated, and denied the settlers their request. Through such efforts, Mais said, she has found a sense of purpose.  

Her background, opinions, and ideas, in concert with dozens more I heard in Palestine, offered much-needed perspectives that I’ve heard too rarely in the United States. Like Wisam (the film director) and many other Palestinians I interviewed, Mais possesses a fierce yearning to be seen. She wishes to make art, to dream, to channel her struggle into beauty. As I pondered my own asymmetrical view, my perception of this place and its peoples began to sharpen, and I’m reminded how valuable stories can be. Clashing narratives in Israel and Palestine have calcified over time, fomenting hostility, resentment, and mistrust. But stories can also liberate us from this path. They can foster empathy and friendships. They can spark action and introspection. They can mollify fatalism and despair. My faith lies in their power.