Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River Valley, in Palestine, there are some of the oldest cities in the world—Jericho and Nablus. The latter was Abraham’s first stop on the Holy Land, and where God promised these lands to him and his descendants. Like the name of the nation, that of Nablus, too, changed with events: Schem, Tel Balata or Flavia Neapolis are all names of the same valley between the Ebal and Gerizim mountains, which grew as thousands of refugees fled from the occupation of their territory in 1948.
On May 15, 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence —known in Palestine as Nakba, catastrophe—leading to around 700,000 people becoming refugees between 1946 and 1948 (the number of refugees today numbers around five million). Many of these refugees sheltered in temporary tents that slowly changed into small cement houses—those who were expelled from their homes still kept their keys, and even, hope.
The hope is that the name of Palestine returns to being the name a free country, as it was in the days of Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC, and as witnessed by later historians. This hope is guarded in those keys, symbolising the doors to freedom. Only those centuries in which imperialist dynasties rested, supported by biblical orientalism, has the name changed. However, the coastal cities of the current state of Israel serve as a radiography of these lights tattooed on the keys that the refugees have, such as Ibrahim Abdullah Jamal, who lives in the largest camp in the West Bank—Balata.
Balata, with thousands of houses agglomerated in an area of only 0.25 square kilometres, is also an archaeological zone. Among the ruins of what is believed to be the first settlement of the city of Nablus are the old temple complex and the walls of the city. These surround Jacob’s Well, where the Gospel of John places Jesus Christ resting while talking to a Samaritan woman and where the book of Genesis describes a land that Jacob bought to build on, and Joseph’s tomb.
Joseph’s tomb, revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, as well as by Samaritans, is a point of further friction in the religious history of the place. Although there is no reliable information confirming, Jews believe that Joseph, one of the 12 children of Jacob, is buried there and therefore consider it a sacred tomb. With the military and political help of the State of Israel, the place is now recognised as their own. In 1967, the Jewish state took the West Bank and the tomb became a place of worship only for Jews. Muslims were prohibited from entering, although it is believed by some to also be the tomb of an 18th century local sheikh. In spite of the Oslo Accords of 1993, which stated that the tomb fell under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority, the Israel Defense Forces guard the site and prevent the entrance of Muslims. This has led to several conflicts, especially since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000. Currently, the enclave is an island in the archipelago of Jewish territories that fill the West Bank.
In the West Bank settlements (of which there are more than 200, with more than 700,000 inhabitants), Palestinian villages and towns sprout among 19 sheltered refugee camps (with a population of more than 800,000). All of these are known for being bastions of the Palestinian resistance—a resistance that is reflected in the numerous cultural centers that work there, promoting riots of peace and tranquillity in the middle of conflicts. This is precisely what one in Balata, the Yafa Cultural Center, is trying to do.
The Yafa Cultural Center is named after one of the coastal cities in historical Palestine, Yafa (beautiful), as it was called by the first Canaanite settlers. Zionist forces expelled most of its 70,000 inhabitants on May 13, 1948, forcing them to flee by sea to Gaza or Beirut, or to inner cities such as Ramla and Lod (which also ended up being occupied) or Jerusalem. A large part of the newspapers and books published in Palestine were printed in Yafa, where there was a widely developed industry, and also from where citrus fruits were exported across the world. Yafa lost its people with Nakba and the military occupation, even though the UN partition plan had not assigned the city to the Jewish state. Thus, as it became part of its government and after the passing of the Absentees’ Property Law, the industries and its cultural fabric were lost, scattered over the lands their settlers had to roam around. Roaming around, expelled from their place of birth, the people of Yafa joined those from Haifa and other adjacent villages in the Balata refugee camp. In 1950, UNRWA, the United Nations organisation working for Palestinian refugees, built this provisional camp, with tents, to accommodate 5,000 people. However, it has been a long time since that number increased and the fabric used as partitions have fallen. Nowadays, the walls (though still weak) are of cement. For the people living here, these houses continue to be temporary, as they hope to return to their homes. This is where they live, but not where they are from, they confess with pride. Several generations have already been here in the camps; however, in the lands that were usurped, they maintain their signs of identity.
One of the identity symbols of anyone from Balata is the enormous key that opens the bolt of the abandoned house in 1948. Besides, passion for football causes the team of the camp, Markaz Balata, to serve as a common identifier. On the other hand, the incursions of the Israeli army, the continuous arrests and the shootings help to define the enclave, a square made up of three streets and several passages, so narrow that it is almost impossible to walk through them. In fact, to move furniture from one place to another, or even to take out a dead body from some of the buildings, it is necessary to use the terraces and move whatever is necessary through the ceilings of the houses in the camp.
The camp does not have orchards between its cement, but rather an oasis of calm, the Yafa Cultural Center. Since its founding in 1996, it offers diverse activities in its headquarters, next to one of the UNRWA schools, and between graffitied alleys. There was a time when about a thousand boys and girls enjoyed activities such as summer camps, dance, photography or film classes. An interest in the last led them to direct their own short films and to exhibit, during several years, some of the movies from the film festival called AMAL, hope.
The hope of keeping the center as an enclave of cultural resistance makes the institution stand, in spite of the difficulties, due to different crises that caused aid to the Palestinian population to diminish. This is how one of the coordinators of the center, Ibrahim, who was only 11 years old when it was created, remembers its founders—who are either deceased or jailed in Israeli prisons—such as Nasser Awis, convicted for belonging to one of the militias in the camp of Balata after being imprisoned in 2002.
It was 2002 the year that Ibrahim began to rank. It was because of a projectile that killed two children at his side and left other people injured. That day, one of the Palestinian combatant flanks carried out a suicide bombing at a hotel in Netanya where 30 people died and 140 were injured. Retaliation spread throughout Palestine and Balata returned to being filled with tanks, to which the smallest ones responded by throwing stones. Ibrahim could not attend the funeral of his friends because he spent two weeks at the ICU.
Ibrahim’s father was born in Haifa and his mother in Tantura, a seafaring village connected to the previous one and that the partition plan placed within the Jewish state. Like more than 400 other villages, Tantura was destroyed and occupied, and most of its 1,500 inhabitants massacred, reports Ibrahim: “The Zionist brigades slaughtered and executed all but two men, saved by a miracle.”
Another miracle happened in Tantura. At present in the lands of the maternal village of Ibrahim are the Kibbutz Nehsolim and the Moshav Dor. When the first settlers arrived, they occupied the abandoned houses and then built new ones. Legend has it that when the excavators tried to destroy the mausoleum of the famous local sheikh al-Majrami, the blades of the bulldozers fell apart. That is why, today, this maqam, mausoleum, still stands.
Ibrahim still stands, despite his personal and social difficulties. He continues at the Yafa Cultural Center with the same excitement he began with as a child, aware of the progress. Now, the center’s objectives are the promotion of a cultural, artistic, humanitarian, egalitarian education, with the support of voluntary work and with psychological help for those who need it, always keeping in mind the history of their people and the right to return. However, the economic difficulties and the external pressure against the aid to Palestinian are making the center suffer and the number of courses and programmes have declined due to the lack of necessary minimum money to sustain these.
Necessary for Balata, as for any other refugee camp, the Yafa Cultural Center is a bulwark against isolation, a place of protection and relief that leaves hope and that is projected in the illusion of those keys that await open again, someday, the bolt that was once separated from them.
Moncho Iglesias Míguez is an award-winning poet and novelist from Galicia, Spain. Moncho has been teaching and living in Palestine, China, and Bangladesh, among other countries.