Otherwise occupied

15th August 2008 at 01:00
A group of teenagers from Israel and the Occupied Territories found their own space in Scotland recently

Tartan tat and shortbread are what the heritage industry peddles to tourists - but, for one remarkable group of visitors, Scotland promised something far more profound.

Some teenage visitors are trying to convey what "Scotland" meant to them before they had set foot in the country, and one word comes up again and again.

Bar a single mention of "men's skirts", the stereotypes (ghostly castles, Nessie, tartan-clad warriors) are conspicuously absent. Instead, a picture builds up of a place that offered, above all, "space". The word comes up repeatedly among the 15 youngsters. One 16-year-old boy, Yazan, was hoping for "a very large space of shocking green grass".

Little wonder, since their daily lives are characterised by a lack of space, by the physical restrictions of segregating walls and the mental block of one-sided histories. These young people are representatives of Windows, an inspiring project that brings together children from Israel and the Occupied Territories - Christian, Jew and Muslim alike - in a struggle against the bloody divisiveness that wrecks so many young lives in the region.

Windows has worked with hundreds of young people since its foundation in 1990, but holding meetings is a headache: permits need to be arranged, parents are reluctant to let their children venture out, and holy days from Friday to Sunday make it difficult to get together at weekends.

One Windows group, made up of aspiring journalists aged 13 to 16, has been around for two years, but in that time has managed only seven meetings, each for a day at a time, between its Jews from Tel Aviv and Muslims and Christians from Jaffa and Bethlehem. This group came to Scotland last month to make up for lost time with a fortnight of intensive workshops designed to overcome mutual fears and hostility.

Strikingly, the group fluctuates between two distinct moods. At times, they are everyday teenagers: they succumb to giggliness and break off into clusters of hushed gossip. Several Harry Potter obsessives say the best thing about the trip was a visit to Alnwick Castle on the way to Scotland - it became Hogwarts in the film adaptations - while others cite a visit to Edinburgh's branch of Hamp;M.

Another side emerges, however, when they speak about the purpose of Windows, in front of several people whose donations helped fund their trip. They talk eloquently and with frankness about the difficulties of growing up amid the problems of their region. One Palestinian girl calmly expresses her hope that, having endured the Holocaust, Jews will remember how they have suffered and "stop doing it to the Palestinians every day". Amid the bonhomie which the group clearly enjoys, this moment of tension is all the more striking.

Such instances are common when the group meets. The aim of Windows is not to provide diversionary activities that gloss over the hardships of life in the area, each member is encouraged to be honest about their feelings.

"They can have very difficult discussions, and then play outside together, because they know that's part of the process," says Rutie Atsmon, Windows' founder and director.

"We've learnt to listen and try to understand what the other side is saying - even if we don't agree," says Yazan, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem.

Not everyone is at ease talking to a newspaper. Yazan does not want to give his surname, while a 16-year-old Muslim Palestinian prefers not to have his name printed at all, nor his picture taken. This boy, who lives in a refugee camp, says it can take two months to get a permit to leave, so being part of Windows gives him a chance to meet people he would unlikely mix with. His most striking observation about Scotland has been the sight of people from all backgrounds going about the mundane chores of everyday life. "I see the people living together in peace," he says. "Why couldn't we?"

The trip came about after Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, learned of Windows while on a trip to Israel 18 months ago. Windows survives entirely on donations and it took a huge fundraising effort and 120 separate benefactors to get the children to Edinburgh, where they met local youngsters.

"The kids from Edinburgh said it was an amazing experience," she says. "They had been learning about the conflict in school, but hearing it from children their own age had a huge impact."


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