Sunday, March 13, 2011

In the hands of strangers: Palestinian Hospitality

Some strange things have happened this week here that illustrate how different things are when seen as a whole or in the extreme. I'll write about them in due course. For now it's time to spill the beans on how easy it's been to be in this place, largely regarded as a tragic, intractable war zone. Right on the back of a most excellent weekend filled with good conversations, delicious food, meeting interesting people, and comfortable progression in the Arabic department. As anyone who's traveled in this area of the world knows, Middle Eastern hospitality has no bounds. For those who don't know, imagine that everyone you meet is a slightly autistic stalker, and then take away any connotations of fear, danger, or prurient interest. This description is immediately problematic, as it paints Palestinians in the unfavorable light of not knowing social bounds, or being so gormless as to latch onto any passerby. But as far as I can understand, society here is just that much more open. People know almost everyone they interact with on a daily basis in the markets, the streets, the neighborhoods, if you're a new face you stand out. The novelty of being a foreigner certainly heightens this, sometimes to a kind of celebrity status, but deep behind the cries of "Welcome to Nablus!" is a culture of respect that exists between people here. Simply put, almost anyone will go out of their way to welcome you and be your friend.

Now, a month in, I have a kind of routine, who I buy things from, who I stop by for a quick chat with, who my good friends are (though that last one's a toughie, as the organization I volunteer with keeps me improbably busy and I literally RUN from class to class, preparing and shooting video on my off days, more on that soon). I have my strawberry guys, who are young and insult each other. My half-yelled childlike introduction with them drew quite a crowd:

When I have time after walking home from class in the Islamic school I do a bit of language exchange with Arafi, who happens to have the excellent occupation of cake seller, which means sugar high at 10:30 am.
I literally think I have ruined my teeth forever here. Despite biking, running up stairs, and Thai Boxing, I've gained 5 pounds for the first time in my life. But we were talking about non-edible encounters.

Language is such an interesting factor in determining relationships. Depending on the fluency of the speaker concepts can either be basic or complex, and my personality fluctuates to suit. So with the vegetable sellers who speak no English I am always a comic, gregarious figure, who blunders through Arabic and mostly talks about where he's going and where he's been. With my co-teachers at project hope I approximate myself, but as a caricature, an ambassador of America which they attempt to match up with their notions about that place. It is only with a few people here that I feel I am myself, and unfortunately that's mostly a handful of the other international volunteers, who have a firmer concept, for the most part, of the variety of ways we have to be in the west. For whatever reason, to my fresh eyes, places like Palestine don't encourage strong cliques or subculture in the same way, say, San Francisco does. There are certainly artistic communities, and writers, and musicians, and other vocational preferences or lifestyle choices, but there seems to be a much stronger mainstream that bonds over similar cultural values here than in "the west."

Husam Abu Heyat (Husam, Father of Snakes!) Artist, Calligrapher, Graphic Designer, and Painter, Jenin.

But no matter who I talk to, in either a simplistic conversation in the market or a full-on discussion with my near-fluent student's family over dinner, there is a deep willingness to be understood and to share Arab culture, to share Islam. Friends and I have long conversations dissecting perceived and actual value differences between our cultures, people give me religious texts and even a English-Arabic Quaran, which I treasure and wonder how I'll be able to take it home. People use our broken language connection to grill me on what I know about the faith, and small children, after finding out I'm not Muslim, inform me in Arabic that Islam is the best. Why? Because it's the best, duh! The other day in Ramallah I sat down by a small tin-fire with some taxi drivers and one of them walked up, made a joke at me, which I responded to, then he said "Yalla let's go prey." It was Friday, the holy day, so everyone would be at the mosque. I said "sure" and he led me through the fruit markets of a city I'd never been to before, quickly cramming inside the mosque and lining up in perfect unison with 750 other men. They would grunt in assent with the Imam as he led them through their prayers, creating this breathy, huge vibration through the room, like a titan clearing his throat. Super cool. Moments later a casual stop in a bakery led to a half-hour long excellent tour spanning two buildings and rickety spiral stairs, seeing all the whirring, anachronistic machines and too-fast workers. The working class are often very young or very old here, I seem drawn to the construction and carpentry workers in the old city, who are usually chalky with plaster or sawdust. IMG_0226

There is a flip-side to all this generosity, however, which is of course the inevitable stress and claustrophobia that comes with too many social obligations. Everyone is grabbing at their phones every five minutes, and it seems perfectly acceptable for a co-teacher to stop translating the lesson mid-sentence and take a call. This coincides nicely with the fact that most phones appear have no ring-silence button and will continue to ring incessantly until the call is rejected or picked up. Indeed as I write this I have ignored 10 calls in the last 3 hours, half from unknown numbers, and half from a group of boys that have a habit of hanging out outside the door of our place here, heckling the other volunteers and yelling my name until I come shoot the breeze with them.

They speak freely with me but it usually takes quite some time until I'm not an awkward center of attention, holding up the conversation with translations and exchanging predictable platitudes about both cultures. That's probably the most tedious part of being a rudimentary speaker and an icon of westernism: the predictability of the course of conversation. Kids of a certain age ask you whether you support football teams FCB or Real Madrid (those two only strangely, like, jeeze Palestine, what's the big obsession with Spain?), or which WWE wrestler you like. They ask you if you know the wrestlers in real life, while in the back of my mind I'm thinking "wait, these programs still exist?" Older boys talk about either sex ("is it true you can sleep with whomever you want? how many girls have you slept with? Which are better, European or American girls?") or about the problems of Palestine. The sex question's getting pretty interesting, I'm just getting to the point where I can stumble through a fight for gender equality and point out that women are pretty involved in the whole consent process and generally are interesting people beyond their reproductive characteristics. Note as well the dearth of women in these pictures, largely because my life is in the public realm, where there are less interactions with women, and most women despise and detest being on camera. All my professional relationships with women are great, however, and probably deserve their own (upcoming!) blog post.

Adults talk about politics and Islam. Along these lines, everyone tries really hard to dispel the notions of Arabs as fundamentalist terrorists. But they needn't bother. It's clear, as a collective culture, that Palestinians just want to live freely and not be impoverished and humiliated. Their hearts are filled with love, empathy, and respect. I feel so much more gentleness and desire for peace here than I do in Israel. More than I do anywhere, for that matter. In respect to the occupation most people show an astonishing, life-long patience that floors me. The fact that this place isn't a gun-filled riotous shit-show all the time speaks legions to the Palestinian desire for peace. Everyone's stressed. Everyone knows someone who has died, who's house has been destroyed, who's in prison. Everyone's stretched thin financially, over-achieving but for what purpose? They're all motivated and intelligent, and daily life here is very close and satisfying, but there's the root listlessness, because they can't leave very easily, so there's an absurdity to excelling at anything. What's the point of being the best thai boxer or painter or mathematician if you can't get a job in it and there's little chance to leave Palestine to conferences or to start a business or whatever? And there's a breaking point. My friend Mamoon lives in Balata, one of the largest refugee camps. He's a thin-faced fellow with kind eyes, good natured and a good translator, waiting until he understands the beginning and end of an idea before accurately conveying the mood of it. His father died 10 years ago and Mamoon and his brothers support the family. He awakes at 6 to study English at the University until 2, when he volunteers for Project Hope for an hour or two. Then he grabs a bite to eat and works in a printing factory until 2 am, at which point he does it all over again, 6 days a week. And still he walks slow. And still he waits patiently for people to ask him favors. And still he commiserates with a silly foreigner who complains about his heavy workload of a handful of classes a day.

People shoulder the burdens of stress, lack of opportunity, inequality, violence, corruption and poverty with a grace and magnanimity that makes these things almost forgettable, and it's the power there that speaks to my heart amidst the sea of voices in this aged, blind, clumsy struggle. Forget what you heard. Palestine is a land of the best examples of human beings.


Steve said...

Just a note to say how much I enjoy your blog.

From what I understand Palestine is not well understood by the general population in Utah. I hope lots of your compatriots are reading this!

My wife worked for the Provo City library for 5 years (teen services) and still has numerous contacts there. I wonder if there is something we could arrange in terms of a cultural link? Just thinking aloud here.

Project Hope (UK) Trustee

Elaine said...

I love this post. Particularly refreshing in the context of all the unpleasant generalizing (and oh, you know, racism and islamophobia) that has been flying around the news media and internet recently.

Love it, love it. Love you.

Unknown said...

Don't forget to stop by Ramallah! That's where all the action actually happens
So glad you're having a great time.
This was a great post!