I have a new woman in my life. At the start, as with all good relationships, everything was dandy. I made sure I always had my phone on me so that she could reach me, I made sure I got back from uni early enough to spend quality time with her, and I even complimented her on her cooking. She made my favourite food the second day I’d moved in and told me she didn’t always need to know where I was, since I was free. For the first month, everything went smoothly and she was even telling me how she didn’t know what she would do without me. We’d even begun to borrow each other’s clothes. However, as with all relationships, things began to change.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love my Nablusi Mum. I randomly found the family through the owner of a shoe shop in town and, despite some initial minor embarrassments regarding the Dad thinking I was hiding from him every time he got home at night, they really are the perfect family for me. They live on the fourth floor of a block of flats at the top of what is literally named ‘Hill Street’, meaning that I get exercise, a beautiful walk to school and a breezy refuge from the mozzies. They just speak Arabic, so that even when I feel I’m being carried out to sea in a wave of linguistic complexities and have lost sight of the shore (the desert island of fluency vanished a long time ago – maybe it’s located in the Bermuda triangle), I have to keep swimming, or at least treading water. And, the Mum long ago rebelled against traditional Nablusi culture, exchanging her hijab for manicures and highlights, meaning that, if I so wish, I am able to go around flicking my hair in a shampoo advert manner without anyone batting an eyelid.
In fact, the Mum soon became my hero. I discovered that it’s not only foreign girls that the shababs (young guys) like to irritate but that Palestinian women who choose not to confirm to traditional dress codes (ok, she goes a bit further than simply not conforming) get their share of sleezy remarks. When I asked her if her husband, who’s a lot more religious, would prefer it if she wore the hijab and didn’t wear short-sleeves, she said that he would but that she didn’t want to, so tough. I nearly shouted ‘halleluiah’ and wondered if there was some way I could bottle her defiance to sell in the girls’ toilets at uni.
Yet, unfortunately, she is in a sense less free than other more conservative women. Since the age of 17, when she got married, she’s been a housewife and, though she is a tad obsessed with cleaning (I once tried to persuade her that, since she was ill, the bathroom would survive a few days without being detolled but to no avail), she detests cooking and constantly complains about how bored she is. It doesn’t help that she only has three boys, between 13 and 18 years old and, though they’ll go out to fetch food on demand and the oldest will make the dad’s coffee and even occasionally hoover, washing the dishes and cooking anything other than fried eggs seem to remain solely the Mum’s responsibilities. To be fair, I get the sense that she doesn’t help herself out. There’s an Arab saying which questions why you’d expect your son to do anything for his wife when you’ve done it all for him as he’s grown up, and this is rather applicable here. Though she complains about the mountain of dishes in the sink, she told me that she doesn’t get the boys to wash up because they’d make a mess, yet when I was looking after them when the parents were away and I told them to wash up after themselves, they did it without making a mess or arguing. Nevertheless, she’s certainly taken for granted. The other day when we were sat at the table to eat and she was still up making tea, one of the boys called out to her. I was expecting him to tell her to come and sit down to eat with us but instead he was telling her to give him a cup with a handle.
However, as with everything here, her situation is more complex than it at first seems…
I remember first moving to Nablus and feeling like the occupation was hardly felt here, yet now it’s visible everywhere. For example, when you go to the shop you have to decide where your moral stance is regarding the buying of Israeli products. There are some people that don’t buy any Israeli goods, then there are those who only buy Israeli goods if there’s no alternative. There are those who just avoid buying products from settlements (though this requires knowing the areas because they often make it look like an Arab product by not writing in Hebrew on the packet) and then there are those who buy anything, saying that Palestinians are the ones who work in the factories anyway and so are the ones who will suffer first if people stop buying the products. And though my new walk to school, overlooking the valley of Nablus, is breath-taking, the settlements stick out like boils and take away from the serene effect. Hell, even when another student hand-made a birthday card for a friend, in order to make it look like Nablus, on the front of the card she included the Israeli watch tower that stands at the top of one side of the valley overlooking the city. The effects of constant occupation can perhaps be equated to the effects of clouds in England. When you live there all the time, you begin to forget that they’re there every day, making life just that bit gloomier. Occasionally (or frequently) it rains and thunders, and you’re reminded of the poor weather but, for the most time, it’s only when you leave the country for somewhere warmer and look up at the bright blue sky that you hold your Dunlop’s paint colour code up in the air, look at the example of ‘sky blue’, and feel a tad duped.
Caught up in feminist readings, and starting to once again become sick of the patriarchal culture, I blamed the Mum’s boredom on the source of the average traditional housewife’s boredom – the husband. Since she had married at 17, I presumed marriage had caused her to finish school early, yet I discovered that her dropping out of school coincided with the first Intifada and the forced closure of schools by the Israelis. The age of marriage also dropped at this time and the number of marriages increased, sometimes because, due to the poor economy, fathers were keen for someone else to look after their daughter, and sometimes it was seen as a way for a better eye to be kept on women who were increasingly breaking traditional boundaries and joining the resistance movement. There was also an increased pressure to create new families, and with them new Palestinian children.
I don’t know the details of her marriage and she claims to not be smiling in any of her wedding photos because she was ill that day but I do know that, since she’d been forced to leave school the year before finishing college, when the schools and universities reopened, she ended up not going back. Not going to university is, she tells me, her biggest regret.
This was revealed to me at the start of a rather heavy conversation in which I learnt of the time she’d had to step over a room full of sleeping soldiers, who used their house as a base during the second intifada, in order to get milk powder for her son. And this was before she told me about the time seventy shababs were killed in the old town by Israeli air strikes and the smell was putrid because, due to the curfew that was placed on the city’s residents, their families had to leave their bodies to stew outside for thirty or forty days. She couldn’t remember the exact number. And then the conversation was brought to a close when she said I should speak to her aunt, whose son was a martyr, and I said that I wouldn’t want to upset her aunt, and then she thought for a moment and agreed it might be a difficult subject for her to talk about, before placing her head in her hands. I had at first sat their awkwardly and then, when it was clear she was crying, nervously put my arm around her. It transpired that her cousin had been a close friend and five minutes before she’d seen his death announced on the news, she’d told him to call her back in five minutes.
So it would appear that the source of the Mum’s boredom was a mixture of both patriarchy and occupation, as is the case with many women here. Except now the Mum had a new toy – Me.
It’s great that the Mum talks so much because, if given the choice, I am perfectly happy to sit in silence, which is not great for language learning. If I try and sit in the bedroom, which I share with the youngest two boys, in order to study away from the blare of the TV, I get ordered to come and sit in the living room, and so, rolling my eyes and taking a deep breath, I collect my books to go and sit with the family, admittedly learning more than I expect I am learning from trying to memorise a few lines of a poem from the Jahili period (which, by the way, I don’t know why we’ve been studying for so long, since it means ‘period of ignorance’).
The first week, I was actually beginning to feel like the mum’s escort, accompanying her around town on demand.
My second night at the house, we went to the little supermarket on Rafidia street – a more modern area of the city, leading up to the new university campus, that stays busy later into the night than the more traditional old town. Because she’d broken her thumb, I was given the job of following her round and round and up and down with the trolley, placing items into the trolley on demand. The moment of the night was probably when she picked up a bag of frozen Chinese veg, asked me if I liked Chinese food, which I said I did, but she said she didn’t and put it back in the supermarket freezer, along with my hopes of a break from maqlooba (the traditional Palestinian dish of greasy rice and vegetables).
The moral support trip to the dentist was memorable. I thought I was just expected to keep her company while she was waiting but then she ordered me to follow her in. I at least got to truly come to terms with her fear, if also develop a minor phobia of my own, as I witnessed the dentist hammer her tooth, her legs stiffen and blood fill her mouth, to the sound of mouse-like whimpers emitting from somewhere beneath the blood.
I always like going to the grandma’s because she has internet and gives me the little orange fruits that taste like mango. I also liked going to the cousin’s and then her aunt’s because they really do like to cook and make gorgeous Palestinian puddings (ok, the one that tasted like watery cereal wasn’t quite as ‘zarki’ as I enthusiastically exclaimed but the chocolate cake was to die for).
So at first this was all great, and I still love it. However, the fractures in our relationship started to show when I began to get ill. I’m not a fan of being told what to do, I’m not a fan of being ill, and being ill seems to take away any inhibitions I have about speaking Arabic so that I become as blunt and stubborn as the bolshiest Arab.
I got flu and she told me I had to go to the doctors. She told me to take medicine. I told her I just needed to rest and that her sons had got better without an injection in the arse. The next morning when I had almost recovered to full health you’d think I’d walked on water and there were those whispers of ‘I told you so’ lingering in the air that appear without any words having been spoken.
The next week I got a stomach upset and she forced me to drink a potent concoction of yoghurt, garlic and flour and then, attacking me when I was too weak to resist, forced some tablet or other on me for good measure. She later asked me if I wanted to eat and exclaimed ‘Why?!’ in tones of utmost surprise when I said no. ‘Because my stomach hurts!’ I replied through gritted teeth.
The next week I got a splitting headache, culminating from months of increasingly frequent migraines. She said it was the spring air, despite me telling her that I’d had them as far back as winter and that it was probably my eyes being tired and that lenses should help, as it had done for the day I play football. She told me I probably had low blood pressure and that if, after a test, my blood turned out to be fine, it must be the spring air. I told her it was probably my eyes and I would see how I was at the end of the week. She muttered something inaudible about me being stubborn, at which the son smirked, and I only just managed to stop myself shouting, ‘Me!? ME!?’
And it’s not just when I’m ill. Though insistencies of my freedom are all very well, I’m often asked at what time I’ll be returning home before I’ve even had time enough to figure out what day of the week I’ve woken up in.
I once told her that she was like my Palestinian Mum but then quickly backtracked as, given she is only in her thirties, I thought she may be a tad offended, and so said, ‘Well, maybe more like an older sister’. A few days later she told me that even if I saw her as a sister, she thought of me as her daughter. This was all very lovely and RomCom at the time but I’ve since come to realise that it’s true. The guest status that once pardoned me from inclusion in the line of suspects for the mystery of the soggy teabag left on the kitchen worktop is long gone. There are no longer apologies for the morning choruses of ‘QOOM!’ (GET UP!), as the whole house engages in the challenge of waking the deep-sleeping fourteen year-old. Now when I was the dishes, instead of the Mum insisting that I needn’t do it, I’m told to make sure I wipe the worktop down after I’m done.
Yet my promotion (or demotion) to family member status has made the boys more relaxed with me. I often find myself catching the eye of the eldest when the Mum or youngsters do something, and exchanging smirks. I once found myself having to stare with intense fascination at the newspaper used to cover the table when we eat, in order to stop myself erupting into fits of giggles, having caught the son’s eye as the shorter than short Dad placed one plastic chair on top of the other in order to be at a comfier height with the table. And, finally, I have managed to get through to the youngest son. For a month, he only ever grunted or replied moodily to any attempts I made to talk to him, and I would sit and watch TV only to feel the pressure of his intense stares. But I tried once more with attempts to talk to him and this weekend he even laughed at my bad joke, said goodnight to me and, once, asked me if I’d had a good day.
The first Arabic saying I learnt two years ago, in a little bare-walled room on the fourth floor of Vernon square, was ‘ الأقارب عقارب ’ (‘relatives are scorpions’). At the time, I scribbled it down enthusiastically, memories of years of having my hair pulled out by my brother filling my mind. But now I think I get the meaning better – like scorpions, you only feel someone’s pinch when you get close to them. However, though relatives may at times claw at you so much that you want to kick them to the other side of the desert, scorpions don’t teach you Arabic. Scorpions also don’t cook for you (even if simply warming the bread to go with yet another round of hummus), don’t ask you how your day was, or try to look after you when you’re ill (even if against your wishes), and scorpions certainly don’t gather round with you to watch Arab Idol on a Friday night, thrusting offerings of various snacks at you hurriedly brought up by the sons from the little shop at the bottom of the building, at the order of Mother Scorpion.