By Paul Adams
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, October 4, 2002
I was taking a break one Sunday when the Israelis pulled their troops back from the Muqata - the compound in Ramallah where Yasser Arafat has been held under siege on and off for ten months now.
It was an unseasonably hot and humid day (35 C), and I had taken my son to the swimming pool. Nuha called me again and again but my cell-phone rang uselessly - unheard in my bag at the edge of the pool.
Nuha is what we call in the trade my "fixer" - a word she dislikes, perhaps because it carries a slight flavour of corruption. She prefers "media assistant", which is what it says on her press card, or simply "translator".
Most journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict use an Arab fixer. Inside Israel proper, travel is relatively easy, and you can usually find someone who speaks English, so a foreign journalist can operate without much assistance. In the Palestinian Territories, however, you need someone who knows the lay of the land -- to dodge Israeli checkpoints and army patrols, if nothing else - and if you don't speak Arabic, you need the help of someone who does.
When Nuha couldn't reach me on Sunday, she decided to go down to the Muqata on her own, just to look around. Before she was out the door, however, she got a call from a Swiss television unit that wanted her to accompany them.
It is typical of Nuha that she would have been ready to bolt out and head to the scene of the action, at some risk to herself, even before she had found a paying client (or, as in this case, before a paying client found her).
"Does that woman ever sleep?" another reporter asked me the other day as she arrived to meet me one morning at the American Colony Hotel - the media's favourite Jerusalem haunt - greeting the staff individually and waving to tables of journalists and diplomats breakfasting in the courtyard.
She is a force of nature - restlessly moving from project to project. One morning, she was uncharacteristically late for our 9:30 rendezvous at the American Colony. When she arrived in a cab, a bit breathless, it turned out she had just flown in from Amman, Jordan, where she had used the American dollars she had earned fixing to purchase valuable textiles, which she would re-sell at a profit.
"Fixing" is not a career, of course, and most people come to it from some other line of work, often in the case of Palestinians, because they have run out of other options. In the past, Nuha has been an English teacher and, during the Madrid peace negotiations, a press officer to the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi.
When the intifada broke out two years ago, she and her husband, who is an expert on oriental textiles, were running a shop in Jewish West Jerusalem. As the communities polarized and the tourist trade disappeared, the business collapsed.
That led to her to fall more heavily on yet another sideline: teaching Arabic. It was one of her students, Neil MacDonald, CBC television's correspondent here, who suggested she try her hand as a fixer. It was Neil, too, who first suggested I work with her and I am enormously grateful that he did.
Since then, we have had many adventures together. We've clambered through orchards and over rocky hillside paths, sometimes with crackle of gunfire close enough to unnerve us. We have driven between Israeli and Palestinian lines in taxicabs, protected only by the letters "TV" taped on the hood and windows. One time we were caught in the middle of a firefight in Bethlehem's Nativity Square.
Nuha is more courageous than I. She used to go around without a helmet or flak jacket, until The Globe and Mail bought a set for her during the fighting last spring. More than once I have cautioned her that she does not want to die for the glory of The Globe and Mail -- my own credo (sorry, boss).
Once, I did see her lose her nerve - though only for a moment. Last April, we were trying to get into Jenin refugee camp, the scene of fierce fighting a few days earlier. The Israelis had lifted the curfew for a few hours so Palestinians were moving in and out of the camp and we tried to join the flow. Perhaps the flak jackets gave us away. Pointing their machine guns, an Israeli army patrol shouted for us to halt. I kept on going but Nuha raised her hand and yelled shrilly in fear -- and I stopped in my tracks.
The Israelis told us to get out of the area. Two minutes later, with the patrol out of sight, Nuha waved down a Palestinian man and his family in a pick-up truck. She lay under a tarpaulin in the rear box and I squished down in the cab, which also contained the driver and two of his daughters. Why they risked their safety for us, I do not know, but we successfully raced into Jenin camp, right past the patrol that had stopped us moments earlier.
Nuha's relentless movement may in part be a way of dealing with the claustrophobic conditions of life the conflict has imposed on the Arab population here. She and her family live in an exclusively Arab section of Jerusalem called Kufr Yacov annexed by the Israelis after the 1967 war.
Although the mayor of Jerusalem and the Prime Minister of Israel like to talk about this expanded city as the "eternal undivided capital of Israel", Kufr Yacov is cleft from the rest of the city by an army checkpoint with all the accoutrements of an international border post. What this means is that while Kufr Yacov is part of Jerusalem and Israel from the point of view of Israeli law, it has de facto become a part of the West Bank city of Ramallah, which is frequently under Israeli military curfew.
It also means that Nuha's children, Zainab and Abdel Nasser (yes, Abdel Nasser), are often unable to go to school. And her husband often cannot get to his work in Jerusalem. When there is fighting in Ramallah, most people in Kufr Yacov are afraid to venture out of doors.
Curfew or no curfew, fighting or no fighting, Nuha goes out almost every day. At the checkpoint they know her and she knows many of the Israeli soldiers by name. Until a few months ago, when the checkpoint was closed to traffic - an increasingly frequent event - like other Palestinians, she would walk out over trails through the nearby hills. But many of these have been sealed off lately with barbed wire.
The increasingly cramped circumstances of their lives have led Nuha and her family to think of moving - perhaps to a home on the other side of the checkpoint, closer to central Jerusalem. Her husband has even begun musing about emigrating. Who knows? That might be the right thing for her family; but it would be a pity for her community. If there is ever a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians here, the Palestinians will badly need her kind of energy to rebuild their shattered society.