A native Nablusi born in 1985, Haneen Masri coordinates English-language programs for Project Hope in the refugee camps and the ancient city of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank. Haneen is a survivor of the 2002 Israeli invasion, and the continuing occupation. After I visited Project Hope, Haneen took me on a tour of the old city.
In the shaded stone alleys, I notice that all the shops are staffed by men, and the few women I see in public wear hijab. But Haneen Masri’s auburn hair is uncovered. She wears a long-sleeved country & western plaid shirt with shiny snaps, jeans, and discrete silver earrings.
Since Muslim women’s head coverings have become a target for so much suspicion and animosity in Europe and North America, I ask Haneen how she feels about the hijab. She hesitates. It’s not an easy topic. Then she replies, “The number of women in hijab has increased a lot here since the intifada and the invasion. I think for many it is a statement. We hear all the time from the Israelis and the Americans that Islamic people are bad, we are terrorists. They want us to feel ashamed of who we are. But we have no reason to feel ashamed. We are people, good and bad like everyone else. The hijab says I am Muslim and I am proud. I also think that it makes people feel safe. Under the occupation no one is safe. Who can we trust? Our family. Our traditions. When you don’t know what will happen next, you turn to what you do know. The hijab is something we know.” Why doesn’t she wear it herself? Haneen responds quietly, “I don’t require it to know who I am. My mother chooses to wear it, but she has not asked it of me.”
Graduating from school with top honours, Haneen won a scholarship to study languages in Jordan, where her grandmother lives. After living most of her life in Nablus, Haneen’s grandmother went to Amman after her husband died. At 75, she is afraid to return to occupied Palestine.
To visit her, Haneen has to get through several checkpoints, then the border. Since buses can’t cross the checkpoints, she has to change three times. People used to go to Amman for the day, she recalls. “But now, even if everything goes well, if the Israeli soldiers are calm and happy, maybe you can get there in six hours. If the soldiers are bored or in a bad mood, you may have to wait for hours, standing. They don’t respect us. All they know in Arabic is Stay back, Wait, Go – they shout at us. Many of them are younger than me. It’s very humiliating.”
I ask if she has ever met an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier or police. She thinks a moment, then replies, “No. I’ve seen some on TV, but I have never met one.”
At university, Haneen’s major language study was Italian. “It’s a beautiful language, the language of opera. I would love to go there sometime, to Italy. This is my dream.”
Aware of the yawning chasm between dream and reality here, I ask if that would be possible. “Possible, perhaps,” she says, “but very difficult. First, because of the occupation it is not easy to travel out of Palestine. Second, it would be very expensive. And third, even if I could get a scholarship to go there and complete my education, as a Muslim girl I have to live with my parents or my husband. We have our traditions, I couldn’t go from place to place alone.” I don’t hear any complaint in her response, just – this is how it is.
A few months after we met, Haneen was selected for a summer exchange in Europe. Without parents or husband, she travelled with other Palestinians to Belgium, Germany and Spain.
Sitting with Haneen Masri on the curved stone balcony at Project Hope, we can see most of Nablus. In a warm September breeze, with muted city sounds floating up from below, it’s possible to imagine for a moment what this place might be like if it was free.
On my own travels, sometimes I asked Palestinians what they would do if the occupation ended. I asked this because I know that, regardless of how deeply the it damages and thwarts people’s lives, it hasn’t yet succeeded in arresting their dreams. This is part of what Haneen Masri said in response: