Like many people, despite being unable to resist bopping along to Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’ whenever it comes on the radio, I forever find myself irritated by the examples of irony it gives. Rain on your wedding day is, at least in England, expected, while in America it is perhaps more suitably described as unlucky. A traffic jam when you’re already late simply exemplifies the effects of an increasingly capitalist world in which everyone is always rushing about everywhere at the same time in increasingly unnecessarily large motors.
You would think, being from America, that she would have been able to come up with more suitable examples but it seems catchiness and record sales won out.
So I thought I’d come up with some more suitable lyrics from the most complicated country I am yet to experience, as well as some peculiarities that have stood out to me in my first five months here…
‘…pruning smiley faces onto trees that are right outside a prison’
The placing of a prison next to a university appeared to me a little strange. Maybe it was intended as a ‘It’s here or there…’ statement, maybe it’s used by professors as a threat to dozing students, since it would require only a little push to send one rolling down the hill, out of class and into the corrugated iron storage containers that are used as cells in this car park jail, but, whatever the reason, I won’t miss having to walk passed armed soldiers to get to lectures.
I also won’t miss not being able to walk on the pavement because wide trees and bushes have been planted in them. This begins outside the prison and then continues up the pavement along the university. I can understand the possible aesthetic advantage of having narrow trees planted at intervals along a pavement, but having them so large that to walk along the pavement requires either the narrowest of physiques or a machete to hack through the branches seems to be taking the concept a little too far.
But, as if these things were not enough, someone decided it would be a good idea to prune the most macabre of smiley faces into the prison bushes, giving them the appearance of naughty boys on the verge of being caught getting up to no good who stand whistling and smiling innocently at any passers-by, their hands hiding their sling shots behind their backs.
‘…having to battle through a crowd of girls in the bathroom every time you want to wash your hands, who hog the mirrors in order to touch up their piles of make-up, despite wearing hijabs to attract less male attention’
‘Haram’ is the term used to describe anything forbidden or not looked upon kindly in Islam. Though subjective to a certain degree, things such as drinking, dressing skimpily and kissing in public would be considered ‘haram’. Hence, when we went to the cinema the other week to see Twilight: Breaking Dawn (not my choice, may I add), in the middle of the film we had to endure five minutes of a blank screen where, presumably because it had just been released, they hadn’t been able to cut the haram scenes out and so had simply stopped the film while these scenes were playing. Similarly, just as the Turkish soaps start to get interesting, my housemates shout ‘haram’ and change the channel before their innocent eyes are subject to such corruptive images. I did try telling one housemate that it would be educative for her later in life but I just got hit for that comment.
The effects of this society on me became apparent when I caught myself tutting one night at a character on TV wearing a rather revealing dress. We also all stare in amazement if we see a woman smoking or a girl at uni with a guy (or even, one time, a whole crowd of guys around her!!) and note if there are a particularly large number of girls not wearing hijabs one day.
But, if you’re going to be haram, at least be out and proud. Never have I seen so many high heels and skinny jeans in one place. I doubt that here hair is viewed to be more alluring than fluttering eyes and a tight ass, and many from the older generation agree with me on the clear contradiction.
‘…paying for a visa that allows you to live under Occupation’
On entering the airport in Israel, the majority of us were given three month visas, with the plan then being that the university would apply for residency permits for us so that we could stay until the end of the academic year. However, by the time we actually got any news of whether we were going to be able to do so, our visas were nearly expired and we were beginning to fear that we would either be stuck in Nablus without a visa, and our exiting the country becoming ever the more complicated as time passed, or have to leave with the possibility that we wouldn’t be allowed back in.
When news of a visa finally came, it was explained that there’d been a long wait because there were not usually requests made for international students but that we’d been granted year visas. We rejoiced and went off to the ministry to hand in our passports.
Two weeks later we went to collect them and the visa, having to pay again more money for the world’s most expensive stamp. We were pleased to see that the visa was until the end of August and not just until the end of our studies but then noticed that it was only for the West Bank or, in Jewish terms that are used to get around having to use Palestinian names, ‘Judea and Samaria’, which excludes Jerusalem and Israel. I was more amused than anything else that after all this waiting we’d been given a visa that only allowed us to stay in areas in which there wasn’t much need for a visa anyway. I was also haunted slightly by a version of myself in 6 months’ time as a slightly tamer Robin Williams finally emerging out of Jumanji. I struggled to feel too pissed off, since it is hard to complain to people, who are indefinitely trapped in such a situation, that for a few months you will have to stay in the West Bank just like them, after which you will fly off back home to your free life. But anyway, that was the time I paid to live under Occupation.
‘…going to university to learn but spending 25% of the time being examined’
Never before had I realised that it was possible to have two lots of final exams in one year. One set of final exams for the first term and one set of final exams for the second term. Called final exams because they are the last of three sets of exams in each term and test you on everything you have learnt that term and therefore already been tested on in the preceding two exams. Since we have four classes this means we end up having 12 exams a term, however, since half the class were absent over December, we are now having last term’s final exams at the start of this term and so will have 16 exams this term. The advantage of this is that you have so little class time in between each set of exams that there’s hardly anything more to study since the last time you were examined; the disadvantage being that if you actually took the exams seriously and revised as you would revise for an exam in England, you would find yourself constantly stressed and all your time taken up by revision. Thankfully we have only to pass this year and the results don’t count towards our degree and so it is only competition between ourselves, and the fact that the professors here are always happy to announce who has failed dismally, that motivate us to at least revise the night before.
‘…living in a flat with Arab girls where no-one cooks and no-one cleans’
It would seem that, contrary to popular male opinion, Palestinian women do not belong in the house. When living in a flat without bossy men or bossy family members, girls are more than happy to let the housework go to waste. I really don’t blame them. If every time I went home I had to engage in unpaid work, even spending holidays in the kitchen while my brothers ate the food I’d prepared and then ran outside to play while I washed up, I would certainly not go out of my way to do the same jobs where no-one was forcing me to do them. Unfortunately, even though I am rarely in a situation where anyone is making me do such tasks, I also lack the self-motivation to do so when it is not imposed. The flat is therefore currently tittering on the hygienic side of grimy. If I was planning to be here all year, I may put more effort into attaining a higher level of cleanliness but, for a short time, I am happy to simply wear shoes indoors and rinse the dishes once again before I use them.
Our poor efforts were, however, cast into light when Samah’s mum stayed over two nights. One night, at 9pm, she suddenly announced we were all going to clean. I looked up from my laptop in horror. ‘Now?!’ I exclaimed, ‘But it’s 9 o’clock!’ She raised her eyebrows at me and proceeded to walk around the house wiping her finger along different surfaces, holding it up to me and saying ‘Shoo hada?’ (‘What’s this?’). When she did the same thing to the sticky, stained table on which I was studying, I had to put effort into swallowing my tea before I burst out laughing. Thankfully, we were able to postpone any imposed cleaning by insisting that it wasn’t her job to do and that we would make sure the place was spotless once our exams were over. Thankfully too, due to the constant flow of exams, we should be able to keep using this excuse for the foreseeable future.
Cooking is not quite in the same dire state and, when the house was full, we even developed a cooking rota. Unfortunately, however, I picked the day when my housemate fasted and so, if I chose to cook tea for the more reasonable time of 6 o’clock, had to endure moans of hunger from her, as well as from my other flatmates who, for some unknown reason, would not bother to eat breakfast or lunch. The last time I and another student from London, who now lives with me, cooked for them, they ate so much bread and hummus before we served the food that they were too full to eat any and I had to practically restrain her from engaging in violent behaviour. Now, since here students study for three and a half years, only two housemates remain – one who appears to subsist off bread, hummus, falafel and shwarma, and one who has mastered the basics of cooking but didn’t read the small print when her Mum told her to add salt and so any food she cooks, however deceptively tasty it may appear, gives one the sensation of swallowing a mouthful of sea water.
So I now survive off my own food, which is admittedly bland and repetitive but at least not poisoned with salt and oil, and then run off to friends’ houses every once in a while to fill my belly with tasty home-cooked Arab dishes.
‘…pink straws, holding hands and arse-slaps where homosexuality is taboo’
I always find it amusing how in places where homosexuality is at the least socially frowned upon, if not also illegal, people are much more willing to be affectionate with their friends. In Palestine, although not technically illegal in the West Bank, the topic is ‘socially difficult’, as I was told by my professor when trying to explain to him the idea for my dissertation. He then went on to put his comment into practice by not mentioning the subject of my topic again to me and, when I decided to focus on the effect of the Occupation on the Palestinian women’s movement instead (I’ll combine this with gay rights next year in England) he acted as if this was what I’d been going to do all along.
Guys here will therefore happily hold hands, yet in the West such a practice has become associated with ‘feminine’ or ‘gay’ behaviour and risking one’s ‘masculinity’. I also doubt in the West that guys would be pleased to have their drinks served with large pink straws, as were the drinks we ordered once from a café near the uni.
And it’s not just the guys. I’ve never had my arse slapped so much. At first I just thought it was my football friend finally coming to terms with her sexuality but then my housemates and one of my housemate’s sister and cousin started doing it. However the flat arse-slapping abruptly stopped once I began asking ‘Why are you hitting my arse?’ and they would insist that I didn’t use that word, at which I would reply that I would have to keep using the word arse if they were to keep hitting it. They would then either burst into giggles, hit me, or make me assure them that I hadn’t used the word in front of their parents.
It’s perhaps also ironic that it was at my flatmate, Samah,’s house that I learnt the names for the body parts that they don’t teach us in class. Whenever I go to my other friends’ houses their families rarely, if ever, question me about my religious beliefs. I’ve talked about religion enough times with them and their friends but never really to their parents. Samah’s family, however, had me engaged in religious debate before my second sip of tea. I was at first happy to do so in order to practice my Arabic but by the end of the next day I was worn out by such discussion. Therefore, that evening, I was less than thrilled when Samah told me that the village English teacher was with her uncle and wanted to talk to me about Islam. ‘I’ll talk to him if he wants to practice his English,’ I said, ‘but just not about religion. I’m bored with religion because talking about religion with men here is like sitting in a lecture.’ For this, I got a slapped arse from her aunt (though in an affectionate kind of way) and Samah unfortunately chose to tell the teacher what I had said word for word. ‘Bored?!’ he boomed, as I stood there bracing myself for what was to come, ‘How can you be bored with religion?! Religion is everything!’ When I proceeded to explain that this was subjective, I was subjected to a long lecture on why it was not opinion but fact, as Samah sat beside me whispering apologies.
It was unexpected, therefore, that it was at Samah’s house that night that I ended up dancing to Black Eyed Peas with her aunt, sister and cousin and felt it my duty to inform them that Fergie was not actually singing ‘My lovely lady lips’. Of course, I then had to explain what she meant by lumps and before the night was out both sides had developed quite a haram vocabulary in the other’s language.
‘…delivering an angry speech and setting fire to the occupying nation’s flag before wishing everyone a Happy New Year’
I decided that for New Year’s Eve I would stay in more liberal Ramallah, where alcohol is permitted and I had even heard rumours of the existence of some form of nightlife. In the end, neither of these things actually mattered since the option of pancakes and films beat dancing with creepy Palestinian guys, and when I found some Taybeh beer in a shop (the only Palestinian brewed beer) I remembered how much I hate beer and that this would probably be even worse than normal, certainly not good enough to stomach downing in the shop before returning to the street.
We did force ourselves to venture out at 11.30pm, however, and were surprised to find a stage in the middle of town with a largish crowd and traditional Palestinian dancing taking place. Though Ramallah is supposed to be more modern, I still noted how it was only men stood together in the middle, while at the sides were a mixture of men, women and families.
The dancers were rapidly replaced by a mixture of random characters who gave the appearance of just having appeared from among the crowd, and a number of them had kuffiyehs wrapped around their faces in such a way as to mask their identity. What I recognised as nationalistic music from the days of the recent Gaza-Israel war began playing and one of the figures started working the crowd, shouting things about the Palestinian land and blood and tears. I was able to understand enough to get the basic message.
The Israeli flag was then brought onto the stage and I suspected what was about to happen before I saw the flame. It was actually all rather exciting and I was having much more fun than those celebrities invited to spend their New Year’s Eve stood around the dance floor on Jools Holland, trying to look as if they couldn’t hope to be any place better than with the rest of the year’s celebrities, and Holland’s highly irritating voice, to see in the New Year.
And as if that wasn’t enough excitement for one New Year’s Eve, we were treated to not one but two fireworks at the stroke of midnight, with less certainly being more in this case. Yet it still felt a rather odd atmosphere in which to be wishing each other a ‘Happy New Year’. Perhaps ‘Victorious’ or ‘Valiant’ New Year may have fitted the tone better, or at least ‘Happy New Year’ followed by ‘inshallah’.