I’m not a masochist, but I don’t have a problem with Yasser stroking my neck with a razor knife.

Yasser has a barber shop in that area of Jerusalem, which is just behind the wall. This is on walking distance from my home; for me it’s easy to get there, and his price is far below what I would have paid elsewhere.

Yasser in his barber shop, May 2017

Yasser in his barber shop, May 2017

Yasser is a Palestinian Bedouin, from a Jordanian family, born in Ramallah. He is married and has seven children. I met him through Ahmad, about whom I wrote previously. I’m very pleased with his hairdressing expertise, and over the years in which I frequent his place, we became friends. Although his muscular appearance could deceive, he is a soft hearted and welcoming person. When I have my hair cut, I usually get coffee or a soft drink, and occasionally a milkshake, or a whole meal.

Yasser’s barber shop is a place of social encounter. Many men just drop by to say hello, have something to drink and/or groom their hair. I love to visit Yasser, and did so on Jerusalem Day, the Israeli national holiday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

Life in an urban refugee camp

Yasser’s salon is in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, which is the only Palestinian refugee camp located inside an Israeli-administered area.

The Shuafat Refugee Camp is on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier; adjacent to the Shuafat neighborhood of Jerusalem, which is on the Israeli side of the barrier. When you drive from French Hill to Pisgat Ze’ev, you can easily see it on your right, with high apartment buildings, behind the concrete wall.

Entrance to Shuafat Refugee Camp, May 2017

Entrance to Shuafat Refugee Camp, May 2017

The neighborhood was established in 1965 by the late Jordanian King Hussein. The intention was to temporarily house in the Camp around 1500 people, residents of the Old City of Jerusalem, during its renovation. They were forced to stay in the Shuafat Refugee Camp after the June War broke out in 1967, and Israel captured and subsequently annexed the Old City, together with most of the Arab parts of Jerusalem.

There is no systematic registration of residents, and their number today is estimated to be at least 20.000; possibly, much higher. Not surprisingly, housing is crowded and the streets are packed.

Though residents pay taxes to the City of Jerusalem, municipality services are limited. The water systems have breakdowns, sewage occasionally floods the streets and makes the neighborhood smell badly, and garbage is hardly collected. In fact, Adam Teva V’Din, an organization protecting Israel’s environment and public health, has recently submitted to court a petition on behalf of the residents, demanding that the Jerusalem Municipality upholds its duty to provide them with basic sanitation services. Also the electricity system has breakdowns. People are poor, living conditions are bad, with alarmingly low building standards, and dirt and rats are all over. Not surprisingly, drugs and criminality are blatant.

Primary education is provided by the Jerusalem municipality, UNWRA and private organizations. For secondary schooling, most children need to travel through the Israeli checkpoint, to other parts of Jerusalem, since the school in the nearby Palestinian village Anata does not have enough place for all. Israeli health care providers, UNWRA and private institutions provide basic health services.

Anatot Road, Shuafat Refugee Camp, May 2017

Anatot Road, Shuafat Refugee Camp, May 2017

The latest research study from 2012, found that inhabitants of the camp are primarily focused on work within Jerusalem. However, unemployment is estimated to be around 25%, since many have difficulty in obtaining an entry permit to the city.

The Shuafat Refugee Camp has been in the news for its ongoing tension, as it is stuck between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 2011, a big checkpoint opened at its entrance. In rush hour, queues in front of the checkpoint may take an hour, or more, turning the whole area into one big traffic jam.

Israeli army forces are present at the checkpoint, and enter the camp on a regular basis; especially when there is unrest upon which soldiers fire gas bombs. Soldiers check to see if people have resident permits for the camp, and may arrest those who don’t have such a permit. Thus, not only camp residents are blocked from entering Israel, but non-residents are banned from entering the camp as well. Each time there is Israeli military interference, Yasser and others close their shops, which could be several times a week.

Since last month, there is an Israeli police station at the checkpoint. Yasser tells that police started to fine cars parked on the sides of the road leading to the checkpoint, probably for security reasons, as if there were other places to park. Unfortunately, they do not do much about the drugs and other forms of criminality in the area.

Looking at the half empty cup

Yasser used to work in ladies hair salons in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. This lasted until about a decade ago, when without an entry permit, he – like many others – wasn’t allowed anymore to enter Israel. Now, he makes a living as a hairdresser for men and boys. He also does cupping therapy, putting cups on the body and through suction, the skin is drawn into the cup by creating a vacuum. He believes that financially he is better off here than in Jordan, but still in the camp living conditions are difficult, and the daily life under occupation is tense and frustrating.

Yasser tried many times to get an Israeli entry permit, but without success. He once received a permit for a week to look for work in Jerusalem, but he didn’t manage to get a job in such a short time, among others since getting a job in Israel requires an Israeli contractor to go through a lengthy administrative procedure. The reason for the decline of his request of a permit, remains unclear. As far as he knows, he has no police record, apart from the incident in which he was halted on his way to work with a razor knife in his pocket, which he had just bought to do his job as barber. This resulted in his detention for a couple of days.

Little story: Clients visiting the barber shop are regularly surprised to see a western looking guy in this Palestinian establishment. Meeting non-Arab Israelis in this neighborhood is out of the ordinary. Not expecting me to speak some Arabic, they usually ask Yasser who I am. Hereupon, Yasser tends to pull a practical joke, by responding that I’m Bedouin; that my father, who came from a local tribe, married a foreign woman and emigrated. Clients then look in disbelief, but when I approve Yasser’s words in simple Arabic, they quickly make friendly contact.

 

At such an encounter, one of the clients put on some music, and decided that they’re going to show me a dance. This was in the middle of my haircut, but who cared.

 

Dancing in the barber shop

Dancing in the barber shop, Aug. 2015

 

They started Al-Dahiyya, a Bedouin version of the dabka, danced by men only, and asked me to join. I did so for a few moments, until it felt too strange for me as an Israeli Jew to dance in a Palestinian barbershop.

Despite the many difficulties, Yasser remains positive about the possibility of peace, and about Israelis in general. If it was up to him, Jews and Arabs would live together in harmony, and he’d be fine with Israeli rule over the whole of Jerusalem and Ramallah too.

Yasser cannot visit me, but in recent years I have invited him for my birthday parties in the area administered by the Palestinian Authority. This time it’s his turn. I wished him the best for his 35th birthday. He was surprised that I remembered; especially, since for Palestinians birthdays are not that important, and he completely forgot.