Well it certainly feels like I’ve been here longer than 11 days. Possibly because I’ve eaten more than three times the recommended amount of falafel and houmous for such a period. I’ve also got back into drinking coffee, which seems to happen everytime I escape the land of Nescafe. My sugar intake has increased too due to the heat that, being stupid foreigners, we march to and from uni in every day, and the pastries and sweets that tease me every time I walk past a bakery or little kanafa/baklava stall. But, to be fair, my fruit intake has also increased, with figs making me grin like a 5 year old being given chocolate and, in a world of equilibriums, this surely cancels out my sins.
The first day we were due in uni was Sunday so, having just arrived in our new playground, we obviously spent the first few days exploring and having wild nights out. Hmmm… it seems that an awareness that you have nine months in which to satisfy any such desires for adventure encourages you to engage in such boring activities as cleaning, furniture reshuffling, siestaing and only venturing out into the world to buy food for survival. I put it down to the heat. Having spent the summer in very unsummery Cumbria, I have not once felt in the slightest bit chilly since leaving England. To my amusement, the others have requested air con to be turned off in class and have worn hoodies on Samr Nablus, a point on top of a hill that gives a great view of the city, claiming to be ‘cold’.
Sunday forced us out at a sociable hour, however, and I spent the morning’s orientation nodding my head to a flow of what I knew to be Arabic but could have unfortunately been Icelandic and not any clearer. But what I didn’t need to be able to speak fluent Arabic to understand was that the university is ridiculously beautiful. It’s composed of two campuses and the newly built one, funded by Saudi money, stands on the side of a hill, with the grounds descending in stages to an external theatre that overlooks a huge valley. We all stifle a laugh when students here say that surely English universities are grander. For those that don’t know, we go to SOAS – a university that could be compared to The Leaky Cauldron in terms of its ability to fade into the background.
All our classes are on the new campus and though this means we have a 50 minute, as opposed to a 20 minute, walk to uni, and everytime I go outside I have to shield my eyes from the harsh reflection of the Sun off the light stone floors, my discovery that for 40p I can have Arabic coffee and a chocolate croissant for break more than makes up for this.
On Monday we were due to have a meeting at the uni with the head of department but just as we were about to set off, we found that the uni was closed due to a transport strike. Preceding this, there had frequently been riots at night throughout Palestine due to rocketing prices combined with high unemployment and a government which most Palestinians feel prefers placating the Israeli government rather than representing them. Though we were greeted by the car horns of wedding celebrations when we arrived in Nablus, those before and after us entered the city amidst burning tyres and, once, youths in masks.
I came to be glad that the meeting was cancelled, however, despite initial Western feelings of irritation at the sudden changing of plans.
Firstly, we made the most of our early rise by stumbling across a centre down the road from our flat that teaches blind women how to be more independent. We could well have been long-expected guests, as opposed to nosey neighbours, the way we were suddenly the centre of attention, being shown the ingenious sewing machines that the women were taught how to use, the resulting children’s clothes that were, at least according to my broody flatmates, very cute, and the braille typewriter, with one of the women writing our names and both the Arabic and English braille alphabets. It sounded like a really great idea, funded partly by profits from the clothes and partly from donations. Ten women lived there at a time for at least 16 months, after which if there was no longer work for them and they had a family to go back to, they returned home. We must have been there for at least two hours, mostly speaking Arabic since only one of the women could speak a bit of the English. Great practice therefore but, as time went on, we all found ourselves trying to catch each others eyes to silently communicate a plan to leave, as our heads began to turn to mush.
Due to the nature of Arabic hospitality, we were treated to especially sweet tea and also fruit. Now usually a plate of fruit is a welcome relief from the draining heat but either guavas here aren’t as sweet as in other countries or the ones we were given were just ridiculously ripe because we all bit into it and pulled the same startled expression as the bitterness hit us. The others succeeded in forcing the rest down them but, unable to contemplate such a task, I regret saying that I took advantage of the nature of the centre we were in and hid the rest in my pocket to be later disposed of. They insisted that we visit again and we definitely plan to but next time I’ll be opting for the grapes.
The evening of the 10th September will certainly stick in my mind for quite some time. We were going to meet some of the others at Samr Nablus and so flagged down a taxi to save us from the long climb up. Nablus city centre revolves around a roundabout (referred to as the ‘dawwar’) and, as we passed through here, we could see crowds of people further up and a police van blocking one of the roads in the distance. We then turned up nearer to the crowds and suddenly found ourselves amidst a panic of traffic all screeching to exit up the road. I looked to the left and all I could see were people running in all directions as gun shots sounded. Our taxi revved up to get away, sounding its horn at the car in front as we raced through the red light to get away from the trouble. We still went to Samr Nablus and there discovered it was perfectly normal for guys to have pictures on their phones of them and their former gangs posing with machine guns. It’s also normal to see large posters of young men with guns and the Palestinian flag throughout the city. These are of numerous martyrs, most of whom died during the intifadas, and act as a grim reminder of what is, in the daytime, actually an easily forgettable conflict to passers-by. Certain things occasionally remind us of the reality of the conflict here, such as being told not to enter the dawwar passed ten because everyone clears out due to patrols by Israeli soldiers, who frequently perform raids on homes, and it’s when you’re talking to people here and the topic of other countries comes up that you’re made aware of the great restrictions placed on people. It’s hard not to feel angry at such injustice. Especially when I discovered that a daughter of a family I visited that weekend was engaged to someone from Gaza but was now unable to visit due to the restrictions placed on travel from the West Bank to Gaza and vice versa five years ago.
Later that night, listening to the sound of the riots from our balcony, we learnt that the gun shots had been the sound of the police firing warning shots into the air to disperse protesters. Things had apparently kicked off a bit more when the mayor had been injured by crowds throwing stones and speculation on the internet about the beginnings of a third intifada arising, since the riots took place in other cities, made things sound a lot more spectacular than they actually were. One thing we discovered on the net though did make us proud to be temporary Nablusians, as the taxi drivers had impressively spelt out ‘idraab’, meaning ‘strike’. Nice touch.
Wednesday, on the other hand, is a day I aim to forget. Meetings and tests signalled the end of a summer of mental rest. It’s enough to say that the two hours in which I struggled through Arabic listening and grammar were the equivalent to not having swum for years and suddenly been thrown into a lake of mud and being told you have two hours to get to the other side. If it wasn’t for the coffee they brought us near the end, I think I may simply have used my test paper as a pillow.
The weekend definitely cheered me up though. Used to travelling alone, yet doing everything with other people since we arrived, my feet were itchier than normal (pardon the expression) and I felt I needed to go explore somewhere outside Nablus on my own. I decided to start at the top of the country, in Jenin, and found a guy who had a couch, was under 30 and lived with his family, so had limited opportunities to be creepy. Turned out he was a rapper (the Arabic for hip hop being ‘hiib hoob’) and my poor attempt at rapping his lyrics mean I now have the interesting homework of learning my first Arabic rap. He was actually not at all creepy and his family typically welcoming. Cue much tea drinking, fruit munching and also my first proper Arabic meal – rice wrapped in grape leaves and stewed. Everyone here is really patient at speaking Arabic with you, even though it often means they need to speak the written language of fusha, instead of the spoken language of amir, in order for you to understand. So, even though Nisar, the rapper, and his niece Rania, could speak some English, I spent from Thursday to Saturday afternoon constantly speaking and listening to Arabic. I got drilled on my pronunciation and knowledge of household objects and fruit and veg, and was particularly chuffed when I helped one of the boys from their extended family, who we visited the next day, with his English homework in Arabic. I do love being welcomed into random families. You get treated like both their daughter and a dignitary, though I always try to move away from dignitary and further into daughter territory by helping with the food and cleaning. At first this always requires persistence as they insist I sit and have everyone do everything for me and, to be fair, I usually stand aimlessly in the kitchen at first, lacking the skills of a true Arab woman. But once I’d been awarded the job of official dish rinser and proved myself at least capable of carrying things to and from the living room, I became more integrated into the family.
It’s also very draining however. This time more than usual as well, due to the intensity of Arabic learning I experienced, and just adjusting to different ways of living. Like, for example, grasping the technique of using the toilet without loo roll but with a contraption in the toilet that squirts water upwards. A sensible device when plumbing can’t cope with paper and perfectly easy to use when sat on the toilet properly. However, when you find the seat to be wet and so squat and think you’ll be clever and use it but then the water flies out the front of the toilet because you’re not actually sat down and you instead end up with wet trousers just as you’re about to go to sit down and eat with the family, it’s not so great. Thankfully, under-my-breath cursing was only temporary as I discovered my t-shirt was long enough to hide any dodgy wet patches and I was more careful next time. I also found myself in a little trouble when the next day I was offered some peanuts and, after my feeble attempt to turn them down, simply had them poured into my hand . Now I possibly detest peanuts more than any other food and have steered clear of snickers after one unfortunate bite when I was young. Suddenly I’d have given anything to be back with the bitter guava and, after weighing up the feasibility of disposing of them via other means than my mouth in a room full of groupies, I began to slowly nibble on them. Fortunately, attention was diverted to the new jumpers that had arrived from China, since the family owned a shop and the husband had been to China to send over goods, and so I slyly deposited the peanuts into my pockets in shifts. My flatmates have since assured me that the family were probably fully aware of my devious undertakings, especially since when I sat down some kept rolling out and having to be surreptitiously replaced. I was also on the verge of passing out by 10pm on Friday since, more conscious of eating in a respectable manner and not too much or too little or from the wrong place or in the wrong order, I probably ended up having only a few spoonfuls of the ridiculously tasty rice (and I must admit, some chicken, since my vegetarianism must be abandoned on such occasions). Eight hours of Arabic speaking and listening, much daydreaming when Arabic became too fluent to even snatch words, visiting other family members and walking across soily, clumpy fields in flipflops in the dusk to look at other fields, possibly, then proceeded and so, by the time we got home, I was silently ecstatic when we finally got falafel, houmous and fool (a beany dip).
The family were truly lovely though and I’ve been invited back for eid ad-daha (the eid of sacrifice) in a months time. Since this festival involves the sacrificing of a sheep, and lamb is harder to hide in the pockets, I expect I’ll have to eat meat again but am nevertheless very excited about being invited (apparently if I don’t come, Nisar will take hold of my hair and drag me there) to celebrate such an important time of year with the family.
Rania, Nisar’s cousin, since he’s the youngest of a large family, actually studies English Literature at An-Najah and so I’ve since met up with her on campus to practice both English and Arabic together. I was limited in my ability to help her understand institutionalism, though I did teach her the word bias and the phrase ‘it’s six and two threes’, but she’s definitely helping speed up my acquisition of the local dialect, which is much different from standard Arabic. I was a bit gutted to discover though that there’s three different words for ‘now’ that people within an hour’s radius of each other use and at the moment I feel like I’m at the bottom of a very large mountain, especially being thrown into hours of lessons taught in Arabic. But with perseverance (and 40p croissant and coffee trips) I’ll get there. Inshallah inshallah inshallah.