When in Palestine

I’m not normally open to spiritual enchantment, I don’t normally eat meat, feeling we have evolved beyond the point of such unnecessities. Even if I were to eat meat, I would normally flee from any lamb-oriented dish like a herd of antelope smelling lion in the air. I normally hate babies. We’ve already established that I hate peanuts.

I am therefore a little concerned reflecting on the week I’ve just had that some ulterior being has taken possession of my body. Like in the episode of Doctor Who where the aliens use the MPs’ bodies in an attempt to take over the world. Though I hate Doctor Who. Or maybe I don’t now…

I think it all started with the arrival of Eid al-Adha’ (The Eid of Sacrifice). Having experienced my flatmates fasting in the week leading up to it, I decided to give it a go myself and so enthusiastically announced one night that I would fast on the Thursday (the day before the start of the 4 day celebration). I admit my motives were not purely selfless. I expected it would score me brownie points both with my flatmates and Salwa’s family, who I would be visiting on the Thursday and celebrating Eid with. I also couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt hungry, with not fasting and eating the amount of a fasting person each evening after the 5pm Call to Prayer, suspected that with Eid would come even more feasts, and so figured a bit of a fast wouldn’t do me any harm. I decided too that the inevitable offerings of meat from the freshly slaughtered sheep would be more palatable on an empty stomach.

I’d actually been looking forward to the challenge all week until I heard that water was also off the menu. ‘Really?!’ I’d exclaimed down the phone to Salwa, when I decided to double-check that the rumour was not simply a myth. She’d chuckled and confirmed my worst fears but told me I could do as I liked. ‘No, no’, I’d responded, ‘If water is forbidden, no water shall pass my lips!’ and put the phone down feeling rather like one feels having discovered the directions they were given have not taken them to the right place after all.

As it was though, a day’s fasting was not a particularly difficult task. I ate so much the previous night that I literally felt sick and wondered if I would ever feel hungry again. I got up at 10, and so already only had 7 hours left, took the service taxi to the bus station (so as not to waste any energy or water on walking) and by the time I got to Salwa’s aunt’s home it was 2. They say one of the reasons for fasting is that it allows you to be closer to God, and on the bus to Jenin I did feel kind of calm and silently content. Having had to forfeit my vegetarianism on occasions, it was nice to feel in control of what I ate for a day, but I suspect my stomach was also just pleased to have space to breathe finally. But then, as I told the numerous visitors who exclaimed joy and surprise on discovery of my fast, it was one lazy day in late October, not 30 days in the middle of summer.

The days before Eid are rather like the few days before Christmas. I couldn’t help being reminded of Oxford Street as I’d battled my way through the centre of Nablus that week, to find the usually quiet cafes crammed with families hungry for falafel or shwarma, and the typically sedate souqs packed with shoppers searching for gifts. Jenin was no different. I found myself on a hunt with Salwa for three chickens. The first two places we went to had run out, the third only had two, the fourth only had small ones. Finally we found a place and averted our eyes and ears as they took three live chickens from the cage. I’d say RIP but I know they never got the chance. The first two we took to an Old People’s Home in the town and the other we invited home for dinner.

This was simply preparation for what was to come. That night I was helping with the washing up in the kitchen and was told to go outside by Salwa’s cousin to see. After five minutes of watching people looking at the car, I decided there was simply a problem with the car and in fact nothing to see. Since I would certainly be of no use, I went to return inside. But I stopped in my tracks as the boot of the car opened, and most certainly stared, with my mouth probably slightly ajar. Poking their heads out of the boot, looking rather dazed, and definitely cramping, were two live sheep. They then proceeded to be taken out of the car and tied up outside the house ready for the next day’s slaughter. I mean sacrifice. When asking the women that night when the two sheep would be killed the next day they had laughed. Apparently ‘sacrifice’ is the correct term.

The first morning of Eid, I found myself surfacing at 5am. An extended version of the Call to Prayer was playing out, with chants of ‘Allah Akbar’ proving to be a more soothing alarm than my phone’s usual incessant beeping. But what really brought a sleepy smile to my face that morning was this call mixed with the sound of thunder in the background. As if God himself was showing his appreciation. With the rain came the realisation that I had just felt spiritually enchanted.

I certainly didn’t feel enchanted however when it came to being huddled outside with the family at 7am, listening to the sound of knives being sharpened. Never have I heard the word ‘kawf’ (‘fear’) used so much in one morning. Not in reference to the sheep, oh no, but in reference to me. Perhaps it was the way I changed the side I was stood on, as they brought the sheep closer to the drain, the metal hook, and me. Perhaps it was the way I was staring intently at the wall just to the left of the scene. Perhaps it was the way my eyes lingered for just that bit too long on the knife. But my insistencies that I was not scared certainly fooled no-one, even though I made myself stand outside and watch the whole process, turning down any offers to go inside. But thank God I thought. Yes, thank God I didn’t eat breakfast.

I was spared witnessing sheep number 2’s sacrifice since the grandma was making bread. The smell of fresh dough is far superior to the smell of blood and guts and so I sat on the steps, happily watching with a few other family members who obviously felt the same way. Now, I find watching bread-making to be hypnotic in the same way that watching water running or fire burning is. I could sit there all day watching the process as the grandma pulls dollops of dough from the huge doughy pile in the dish beside her to create a circular queue of dollops waiting patiently to be rolled and then stretched in a wooshing arm-to-arm technique, before being tossed on the gas-heated dome, turned a few times and then reunited with their classmates. In fact, I found bread-making-watching made me happily philosophical for a second time that day, and don’t think Salwa’s mum had previously been presented with the idea of the bread-making-process as a metaphor for the life cycle of a human being.

Or maybe it was Tal-Tal’s presence that was making me contemplative about life. Tal-Tal (or Taala) is Salwa’s aunt’s two-week old baby. I don’t do babies. I fear I sound like Miss Trunchbull when I say this but they just all look, smell, deposit faeces and whine in exactly the same way. But for some reason this one baby had me walking round the room in circles, pulling funny faces and making stupid sounds all Eid. Maybe I was changing but I suspect I was just happy to finally find someone I could speak better Arabic than.

I returned outside to watch the women helping chop up the meat and learnt that, even after giving away a decent amount to those unable to afford it, the two sheep equated to a 6 months’ supply of meat for the whole family. I imagine however that if it was consumed at a rate similar to that of Eid, this calculation would seriously decrease. At 10am I got my first taste. I think I managed to only consume three little pieces, simply dipping my bread into the dish and only taking meat when I felt I was being watched. Having simply been stewed with onions, even Salwa declared it was not zarki (the term constantly used to describe food as delicious). Afraid I had been scuppered though, I replied ‘Why?!’ in a surprised tone.

That evening’s meal was the greater event and I’m relieved to say it was far zarkier. A barbeque crossed with a picnic, we sat round on the floor in a circle as usual but on a mat outside, while the dad passed onions, tomatoes and lamb fresh off the grill. We also ate it with the bread baked by the grandma that morning, which was not the usual pitta but more akin to tortilla wraps, though times ten in terms of taste. So yes, that was the time I ate lamb and didn’t run away.

In addition to my tolerance of lamb, I also felt my spoken Arabic improving over the days, with a constant supply of various conversations in Arabic to choose from. That night after the barbernic I found myself being quizzed by the father and other family members and had to concentrate so hard, deflecting away questions with answers from different angles, that I felt the adrenaline rush through me and was poured extra tea to keep me going. I even had political discussions in Arabic with Salwa’s uncle about the current situation in Syria. I discovered a new favourite Turkish soap about nurses and played Arabic word games. Arabic Chinese whispers (‘broken telephone’) proved amusing and I fell asleep thinking in Arabic and proceeded to dream in Arabic.

On the second day of Eid a variety of relatives were to come and visit throughout the day. Salwa therefore spent most of the day in the kitchen. I popped in to visit her when I felt guilty but was often brought back out to drink tea and sit and converse with the various visitors, being quizzed on who they were and coming out with things like ‘your sister’s dad’s brother’, as my brain tried to figure it out, rather than the obvious ‘your father’. Since people were all visiting at different times, it meant that we drank copious amounts of tea. At 10 pm, there was water boiling on the stove yet again and my exclamation of ‘more tea?!?!’ was met with laughter. Salwa’s aunt reassured me that she was just heating water for her water bottle.

There had also been plates of mixed nuts brought out at various points throughout the day. In the habit of always agreeing that things are zarki when asked, I assured the mother they were zarki indeed before having the chance to explain that I didn’t actually like them. I decided though that since I was likely to be presented with nuts on many more occasions during my time here that I should probably just learn to like them. Admittedly there weren’t peanuts but I discovered that pistachios and walnuts actually aren’t all that bad. I even began to wonder if I’d previously tried to eat them without removing the shells.

On the third day of Eid, we got to take a trip to visit Salwa’s neighbours. We had already eaten the most amazing pizzary bread baked by the women and were then presented with makluba (literally ‘turned over’ since it is rice and vegetables cooked in a pot and then turned over onto the dish). Well I was rather stuffed. I then proceeded to be force-fed biscuits, lemons, popcorn, sprite, more tea, nescafe and Arabic coffee. The media would have you believe that in Palestine the term ‘explode’ is most likely to crop up in relation to a bombing. This is false. The only ‘terrorists’ I’m yet to come across are found in the kitchen.

On the last day of Eid we picked olives! The olive harvest in Palestine takes place in October and the previous weekend I’d gone to a village between Jenin and Nablus with a friend from uni and couple of volunteers to help a family pick olives. Though we ended up going to a village not bordering any settlements, where people were able to pick freely, foreigners are often asked to help because every year settlers disrupt the harvest by throwing stones at harvesters and even pulling down trees, and the presence of foreigners often helps deter such behaviour. After just a short while journeying out of town, olive trees cover the hilly landscape, though less than a third of the potential harvest is harvested each year since the quantity far outweighs the man power.

It made a refreshing change to be able to get stuck into doing something physical and I was pleased to be given an excuse to climb trees without shouts of warning chasing after me. The olives were picked either by hand, whereby you loosely grasped the branch and brought your hand down to pull off the olives, or with a plastic ‘brush’ that you simply brushed the branches with, creating the effect from afar that the tree was being given an intense makeover. Either that or a good de-nitting!

A couple of people returned to Nablus at two but three of us (one of whom was staying with the family and helping for the whole harvest) stayed til the end of the day. By the time we’d finished picking it was too late to get a bus back and so we spent the night in another village with the family. To get there, we all piled into the taxi – 4 in the back and 1 on top with the six sacks of olives we’d picked that day. It was hard to tell how far away the village to which we were going actually was, since we crawled along at walking pace with the weight causing the bottom of the taxi to scrape over the numerous speed bumps. From the roof of their house however, we could see that we were surrounded by settlements, with their characteristic stronger orange lights, rather than the energy-saving white ones of the villages. Extending from one of the settlements was a similarly lit dual-carriageway, along which cars were speeding uncharacteristically fast, and we were told that this was only for settlers, allowing them direct access to Tel Aviv. The mother also talked about some of the times Israeli soldiers had come into town, sometimes taking children, and how she feared constantly for the safety of her own. Before coming here, we’d been told that most of the trouble occurred in the countryside, where land was constantly being encroached upon, but until coming here, so close to so many settlements for the first time, it hadn’t quite struck me just how visible it was so that it now felt as if this village was trapped amongst them. An occupation within an occupation.

On a lighter note, I almost managed to win the favour of the grandmother. We all know grandmothers to be notoriously difficult and understanding their croaked words can be a challenge even when speaking the same language. To the other two girls, she frequently made threatening hand gestures and an evil expression that made us doubt whether, if alone, she would not be following through with her threatening intentions. However, my quiet ways, baggy clothes and refined acting at pretending I knew what she was saying (i.e. when something said in comical tone, laugh; when something said in angry tone, shake head acknowledgingly) enabled me to slowly creep into her good books. She was the only member of the family who spoke to me in Arabic over the others and she even gave me half of her banana at breakfast time, though the others laughed when I automatically flinched and looked her way on dropping my bread on my lap. I am afraid to report however that I failed twenty minutes before leaving. She had grunted and pointed at her pocket and so I had taken my phone out of my pocket, wondering if it wasn’t good for it to be sticky out from my leg in that way (!?). But I took it out in such a way that it somersaulted into the air and landed smack on the floor, making me grin and chuckle foolishly. She rolled her eyes, tutted, adopted the menacing grimace and held her hand up, with me unsure as to whether it shook for dramatic effect or due to the effort of holding it up.

But boy does Salwa’s grandma love me. By the end of a week of complimenting her cooking (to the extent of calling her ‘the bread expert’ and telling her it was the best bread I had ever tasted), learning to understand her croaky tone so that I could reply to her questions, the care I took to be ridiculously polite and subservient around her, and ensuring she always saw me leave the house suitably covered up (one time she did have to yell ‘Dress!’ as I went to run out of the house with shirt in hand), she would gaze at me affectionately and she told the women how much she liked me. Granted, one of the reasons was because I was ‘simple’ but if that’s a good thing here then I will take whatever comes my way!

Since Salwa’s family’s olive trees surrounded their house in a moat of soil, there were no settlers from which we had to defend ourselves and the only things being thrown were olives in olive fights. Everyone from 8 year old Mahmoud to the Grandmother was picking olives from some part of the tree and I got stuck in, pleased to be able to be of a least a little help to this family that had given me so much. The next day, having spent 5 nights there and having class the day after, I was going to leave rather than get up at 6 the following morning to go back with Salwa. However, I got drawn back into olive picking that morning and felt so happy under the leaves in the Sun with what now felt like my second family, that I couldn’t bring myself to leave and so announced that I’d stay til the next day and leave with Salwa, as long as that wasn’t a problem. Since every one of them had asked me why I was leaving and implored me to stay, I figured it was unlikely to be so. So I picked olives for the rest of the afternoon, realising that sometimes it’s nice to be looked after.

And as if that wasn’t enough I am now the proud owner of a pair of pyjamas with the family name on the label. An Eid gift from the clothes shop they own in town. They are fleecy, especially for winter, and the top even has a fleecy hood and says ‘melody angel’ in glittery lettering on the back. I never thought I’d say this but I think they really were just what I’ve always wanted.

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About balooinblue

I like to ponder, wander and occasionally absconder
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