It was heard all over the city. The tiny pitter-patter of feet on the roofs seemed to drive even the most insular out from their homes. Doors opened and closed, murmurs of speculation mixed with joy echoed down the stepped passageways linking the parallel streets. But me – I just stood silently among the squashed figs on our patio, glad that the first rain of winter had finally arrived.
Now, it may seem strange, and typically English, to start a post with a weather update but since I’m now hand-washing my clothes in the bathroom of a flat I share with 5 Palestinian girls, I would prefer it if the burning Sun didn’t increase the amount of time I need to spend bent over a bucket with a bar of soap. Though I try to tell myself such tasks are character-building, urbanisation ’s not always a good thing, you know.
Unfortunately, however, it didn’t signal a drop in temperature but merely an increase in humidity, so that, after a couple of hours venturing round the Old City with a fellow student, who’d offered to show me the best kanafa place in town and the secret castle, I was even sweatier than usual. In case I’ve neglected to say previously, kanafa is what Nablus is most famous for, as well as its olive oil soap, with it holding the Guiness World Record for the largest kanafa. Served from huge metal plates at points all over town, it consists of white stringy cheese, topped with a thatching of sugar and sometimes a bit more sugar for good measure, fresh from the oven. Palestinians know presentation’s overrated, with random chunks being served on plastic plates, speedily hacked from the tray, and taste’s what it’s all about since it’s hard not to take a spoonful without a childish grin forming across your face.
I once asked someone how often people eat kanafa, as the kanafa places are always packed yet this is far from a healthy treat and leaves you with a bit of a brick in your stomach. I was told it depends on the person but usually between once a week and once a month, though more in winter. So I remembered these words with a ting of guilt the following Monday night, having had three servings in three days.
To be fair, desperate times call for desperate measures and, being home alone for the weekend while my flatmates went to Jordan, with the hope of them being able to get back in with a renewed visa, not hearing back from the Blind Centre about whether we could live there, and bumping into the PA spy/friend of our landlord who said we had to be out by Monday morning, I wasn’t far off considering just hiring a donkey and tent for the time being. It would certainly make the uphill march to uni easier and more entertaining, if also a lot more entertaining for the other students who are only just starting to stop staring at us and whispering every time we walk into the canteen.
Fortunately, if not for me for the donkey, I didn’t have to resort to such measures as, the next day at uni, I bumped into Salwa’s flatmate and learnt that there was a spare bed going in a flat up from theirs. On Monday morning I got in touch with Salwa and she said she wanted to speak to me that afternoon. The optimistic part of me shouted ‘I have a place to live with local students!’, the pessimistic part of me shouted ‘I’ve done something to offend her and she wants to tell me off!’. However, things were better than expected, since not only was there a flat I could live in but she was moving in there too and it was as cheap as chips. In fact, if you spent £1.50 on chips, every day of the week, it would work out cheaper than chips.
After we went to look at the place, she invited me to go with her to visit her uncle, who was in hospital pending an operation. I checked what I should say beforehand (‘thank God for your health’) and was pleased to find her Mum was visiting too, who greeted me with a smile warmer than Nablus’ sticky climate and sweeter than Nablus’ sticky treats. Her uncle was from Gaza and had presumably been allowed entry into the West Bank because of his health. I also met various members of the family who were keen to hear about what I was doing here, and met other members on her uncle’s phone, via photos and videos of his house in Gaza. I took the opportunity to be able to praise the two things that you can praise without fear of being offered them – children and houses. Before we left, one of her other uncles took us for kanafa. Now, I’d already had a serving that afternoon since we’d all decided it was just what we needed after a day of running around with different sets of keys and possible living arrangements, but Salwa said it would be rude to refuse. And so there it went down in history – the time I had kanafa three times in three days.
Living with the girls has turned out to be amazing. I’m free to come and go as I like (though I did once get back late to find them waiting for me before they ate and got a concerned phone call from Salwa one night to check I was ok), yet have an open door to a fairly constant flow of Arabic. The first few nights we all sat round in one of the bedrooms, where they’ve pushed the three beds together, and helped each other with our studies, exchanging words in English and Arabic. Without realising it, I was studying til 10 each night and my head hit the pillow like a rock. I now also have a new favourite tv programme – ala ma zaman, though mostly because I like the theme tune and the acting’s not so shocking. One day I might even be able to grasp what’s going on from what’s being said rather than the various angry faces, raised voices and slapped faces.
Living there is also good for my ego. Every day I get told at least five times that I’m loved. Samah is the most excitable, constantly referring to me as ‘qalby’ (my heart), and once literally jumped up and down before kissing me on the cheek. The other day I wrote ‘sukr’ on the porridge pot we’re keeping the sugar in and a picture of teeth, because I always joke with them that they’ll soon have none left, given the desert spoonfuls they pile into every cup of tea, and Shima wrote ‘We love you’ on the top and made me get my camera to take a photo of us with our fingers in. On taking out the rubbish, they tell me they want to marry me because I make the perfect housewife and Samah said that if she was a boy she’d marry me. Of course, I realise it’s largely the novelty of living with a foreigner who can teach them English but it’s nice all the same.
In fact, I could easily practice polygamy here. I was amused when I once got proposed to by a taxi driver in Morocco but it shows how times are changing, since last week I was unceremoniously proposed to on facebook. ‘My rapper friend’, as he’s known to my fellow students, is perfectly uncreepy face to face but often gets a bit carried away on facebook, with me having to end a lot my answers to his questions with ‘as a friend’. Our conversation took on a more serious tone suddenly one evening, as he asked me ‘Can I tell you something?’ My heart sunk a little as I told him to go on, and he proceeded to declare his love for me and how he was seriously thinking about marriage. I replied with a polite ‘No thank you, but it’s good to be friends’ and things haven’t strayed into such territory since.
I am also currently having to dodge a certain falafel stall in town, where I was initially pleased to meet a guy who couldn’t speak any English. Foolishly I gave him my number, despite already having to beat away offers to ‘practise Arabic’ at his home and my missed call list has subsequently rocketed. I also nearly ended up in a relationship with an Eritrean the other day, who I excitedly exclaimed the few words of Amharic I know to when I met him as I was walking down the street. When he asked me if I had a boyfriend, I gave a confident ‘Yes, of course!’, only to later discover that he had actually asked me if he could be my boyfriend, when he exclaimed his surprise and joy at my desires to liaise with him, and went into rather too much detail as to what this would involve. Fortunately, I quickly backtracked, making it clear that I had a boyfriend in England and said my goodbyes.
Perhaps a little tired of improvising my way out of relationships and ready to escape town, I headed to Ramallah that Saturday, to meet the girl I’d previously skyped. I was surprised to find Ramallah to be a cute town, with old-fashioned streets branching out from two small roundabouts, in almost a dual-webbed fashion. The town centre was certainly much different from the modern city I’d been told about, though the architecture of the outskirts is possibly less traditional, and I did see a couple of ‘Star and Bucks’ cafes. As we came in, I also caught a glimpse of KFC and chuckled at the graffiti scrawled on a nearby wall beginning ‘Free Palestine’ and ending ‘from KFC’.
It was both refreshing and illuminating to meet Rima. As we sat in a deserted female-only café and engaged in fragmented conversation as she smoked shisha and I awkwardly drank a bizarre concoction of various fruits and milk through an oversized straw, I discovered that her parents thought she was at college. Her frustration at the restrictions on life as a woman here, and particularly being gay in such a religious and heterosexual society, were apparent. She was even frustrated by her photography course, where she was made to take photos of flowers and dull objects when she really wanted to take photos of people and even her interesting takes on potentially dull objects were viewed skeptically. We went to a park in the town, that displays a variety of different Palestinian trees and plants, and, after faking approval at the, admittedly rather dull park, I was amused to find she thought the place ridiculous and we both agreed there at least needed to be a bit of grass to make it more park like. We laughed about the irony of me trying to get a visa to stay in the country while she wanted nothing more than to leave.
It was therefore unsurprising the next day, when it came to my turn in class to say what I’d done that weekend that I ended up having a discussion-come-argument with my teacher about conservative Palestinian society. I was explaining how I’d met a girl who really felt the restrictions of life here and he was arguing that Palestinian society is no longer very conservative. His argument revolved around the Western influence here and he thought he’d scored a point when he found out she didn’t wear the hijab. I argued that she’d even had to lie to her parents in order to meet me, and he replied that some families may be restrictive but that if he had a daughter he would be more liberal. He kept asking if that was everything, and I kept swallowing what I really wanted to say but then I burst out ‘But women always have to marry men here!’ Well if his eyebrows could have furrowed anymore, they may well have caved into his face. I attempted to explain using the word I’ve picked up to mean ‘gay’ here but since the only terms in use are ones that have dual meanings, such as ‘similar’, or ‘to be changed’ (for transgender and transsexual), it is typically hard to express such concepts and even if people may be catching on to what you are saying, since many believe such things not to exist in their society because they are unIslamic, they may well still be confused. So, probably sensibly for our first lesson on a Sunday morning, I abandoned my feeble attempt at activism and explained that women may only leave their families’ homes here if they are married.
In retrospect, he may have had a point. It’s important to remember how hypocritical such statements can be if cast accusingly, since it’s not so long ago that England was as, if not more, conservative and in 50 years time, at the speed society is evolving, relations and customs will be a lot different here and in other places, where people attest to feeling such restrictions. Yet what tickled me was not the conservativeness of society here but his refusal to acknowledge that such conservativeness existed since, as a male, restrictions on your behaviour are few and far between and easily flouted. Also, when I suggested to Rima that things are slowly changing, I did feel a tad useless, since I’m sure she is quite unconcerned with what life will be like when she is 69. And then, in Palestine of course, the most pessimistic may even question the point of making predictions about what life will be like here in the future. We had a meeting with a couple of men from the British Embassy that week, given our pending visa issues, and, though they were as unhelpful and unwilling to give any advice as predicted, they did give us an interesting insight into the current political economic situation in Palestine. Their opinions on the current balancing act between increasing the UN’s recognition of Palestine as a state and keeping the US happy, if it is to help Palestine out economically in the future, were particularly interesting. They didn’t actually paint a particularly positive picture of Palestine’s future. Hmm, Palestine is certainly a country in which I feel having friends in high places, and in even higher places, is of little use.
Yet still many argue that, in such situations, it is necessary for different movements to unite and recognise that they are all fighting for liberalisation, if for different types. And so it was off to a Palestinian queer party in Tel Aviv I went the next weekend, organised monthly by Al-Qaws, to experience the underground overground.
To get to Tel Aviv however, it was first necessary to go through Jerusalem. Yes, that place of Christmas tales, donkeys, kings and more complex biblical tales my mind has neglected to retain from school assemblies. I planned to spend the night at Bet Haj Ibrahim. This is a house whose visitors only learn of it through word of mouth. A kind of informal hostel where you leave a donation at the end, having been served copious amounts of food (admittedly mostly soup but then beggars can’t be choosers), told various tales and met a variety of ‘interesting’ people. I had instructions of how to get there, which got me very close until the bus dropped me in a random place and I sauntered aimlessly down a street. A couple of enquiries later however, I found myself being invited into the front seat of a minibus. I looked behind me to find that I was actually in a school bus, and so greeted the children and teacher, who was ensuring their safe passage home, pinching myself a little, before being dropped off at Bet Haj Ibrahim.
My visit was less eventful than my flatmates’ visit prior to mine, in which they had met a woman who announced she had come with the Holy Spirit, to which my friend had to awkwardly reply that she had come with the girl currently in the toilet. To be fair, I had actually been unsure where I would venture that weekend until I had a restless night’s sleep where I kept dreaming I was having to speak Arabic in different places and consequently waking myself up from the mental strain. When I finally managed to get off to sleep, I dreamt I was at Haj Ibrahim’s and so decided, in a moment of spiritual karma, that I should go there. So perhaps I was in fact the crazy visitor that day.
I did however meet an ‘interesting’ character named Ernest, who had been at the house for a while and was on a mission to find out about true Zionism, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Articulating his opinions with a slow Texan drawl, we discussed the pros and cons of liberalism, although the word itself never cropped up, with it taking a while for me to cotton on to the fact that by the ‘corruption’ he kept referring to, he actually meant ‘freedom’. Professing to desire world peace, he praised the religious extremes, in which the corruption of the West was kept at bay, and people were in tune with their God. Yep, the unreligious corrupted life is certainly evil, what with all those ‘chiiild moleeesters’, ‘peeedophiiiles’, oh and not forgetting those misguided people who live without boundaries – the ‘hoomooseexuals’. I suddenly realised why he’d spoken so negatively of Tel Aviv, and decided this was not the right person in which to confide the details of my current mission.
Jerusalem is beautiful. But it is also insane. Completely stark-raving mad. In fact I’ve nick-named it ‘Mad Madge’ from the Arabic ‘Medina Majnuuna’ (‘crazy city’). I find one religion can be enough to get my head around, and that two is certainly plenty, but three all within 0.9 square km of each other?! It didn’t help that the first part of the town I stumbled into was the Jewish quarter. Finding myself confronted by postcards glorifying Israeli soldiers and t-shirts saying ‘Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you’, I felt an unexpected surge of anger. There was something particularly wrong with the military kippahs – symbolic of the way religion is being unashamedly used to excuse the atrocities being carried out here. I actually stood there writhing for a moment, feeling quite claustrophobic trapped in the winding souks. But then I continued and, within a minute, found myself in the Arab quarter, only apparent from the appearance of Arabic writing and the items for sale – Hands of Fatima instead of Stars of David. I immediately relaxed and was surprised to find that I suddenly felt at home. I was even able to get a discount off the tourist price for a can of coke by charming one ageing shopkeeper with my Arabic placations. Yet still in some shops there were ‘I love Palestine’ t-shirts being sold alongside ‘I love Israel’ t-shirts, a few times I began to speak to Jews in Arabic without thinking and wasn’t at all sure if people would have any issues with this or, in fact, if I should. And then I was in the Christian quarter with random tour groups of people carrying out ritual ceremonies through the town and me thinking that the world really had gone insane.
So it was perhaps good that my first visit to Jerusalem was brief and that I was now off to Tel Aviv. Of course, I still had mixed feelings about this, with the inaccessibility of this region to most Palestinians. In fact, even though East Jerusalem is still technically part of Palestine, the majority of Palestinians, at least those without the relevant pass, are unable to visit due to the checkpoint being situated between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and so it’s with a twinge of guilt that I tell my flatmates of my travels. But I morally excused myself with the fact that this was strictly a research trip and I was, after all, to be attending a Palestinian party, if one that had to take place in Tel Aviv because it was morally, if not legally, forbidden in the West Bank. Maybe it’s more than Jerusalem that’s a tad insane…
Like, for instance, my plan that I would just take all my stuff with me to the Palestinian Queer Party, make friends with someone and just crash at theirs, since my couchsurfing plans had fallen through.The party was located close to the old part of the city. I had the address and a hand-drawn map, copied hastily off Google, and for the few hours prior to when it was supposed to start I wandered off in search of the sea and around town. I admittedly got a few funny looks sat on the beach fully dressed, with a burberry cap (I didn’t realise quite what I’d done until after I bought it, ok) and my backpack while everyone else showed off their tan lines, but I’m milk not chocolate and would rather not become strawberry jam. The party was due to start at 5 and so, after some more aimless wandering of which I was starting to get rather tired and my feet rather sore, I got directed to a place where there was no sign of a club. The only indication that I might be in the right place was that the name of the street was graffitied across some buildings, but it appeared so run down I actually started to wonder if I’d been led on a false trail and that the actual location was somewhere else. After being redirected numerous times to the same place, once in a taxi where the driver pointed to a door that I knocked on and opened, only to discover that it was actually someone’s house who then told me that the parties were usually on the other side, I gave up, since there was no sign of life there, and went to a hostel I’d written down the name of as a backup plan. There were actually no beds at the place but I think I looked so disheveled by the time I arrived and requested so desperately if there was not even a couch I could sleep on, that I got a sun lounger on the roof for nine quid.
After recomposing myself (read: having a cup of tea), I went out again, this time at a more normal time for a party to start, despite what had been published, and was pleased to discover that one of the buildings that had previously had the appearance of little more than a garage had sprouted metal security fences and a bouncer. Two minutes after walking in to find the place consisting of twenty Arab men and a couple of women who turned out, on closer inspection, to be men, I fled in search of some cheap Dutch courage and returned a little later to find more people to hide amongst. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d gate-crashed a private party but I was actually not the only international there and so ashamedly befriended a couple of Canadians to dance with for the time being, after being rejected by an Arab man who’d I’d thought would be an easy target since he was dancing alone but perhaps I was cramping his style.
It truly was a celebration. The Arabic music was amazing and I’d already been taught some moves during a random bedroom dancing session in Jenin so wasn’t a total fresher. The place got more crowded and there was no holding back by anyone when it came to dancing, and boy can gay Arab men dance. It was so refreshing to see people just enjoying themselves after having spent a month in such an emotionally controlled society, on the outside at least, without judgments being made and rules drawn up. I’m pleased to say, after being abandoned by my fellow internationals and realising that no-one here cared at all what I was doing, I just joined in with all the dancing and found myself making friends with some very interesting Socialist Jews, who I preceded to explore some other areas of Tel Aviv with after. Not only did I discover that the post-11am ban on the sale of alcohol only holds true if you have issues with getting dodgy vodka from the dodgy corner shop but they made me think about what the solution actually is for Israel and Palestine. One was an activist and a human rights lawyer, with a major crush on David Beckham, who believed that Palestinians should be allowed back into the current Israeli state, while another was a former Zionist settler whose friend had converted him to Socialism. He now believed that the Occupation should be ended but that two separate states should exist, though the tone was kept light, with my friend randomly bursting out into wails of Leona Lewis’ ‘Bleeding Love’, which he’d seen on Britain’s Got Talent.
That night in the club though, as I danced to Arabic music and watched Palestinian drag with gay Socialist Jews, I wondered if maybe a solution was not so out of the question. Hell, if it had been a musical, I’d have most probably burst out into The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. Fortunately for my classmates however, I was unable to pick up the Arabic for ‘drag queen’ over the blaring music and so planned to strictly limit the tales of my weekend to ‘Al-Quds (Jerusalem) medina majnuuna’ if my teacher dared ask me the following day.