The thrill of being back on the road hit me as I caught the bus to Jerusalem, finally on my way back to Palestine. Then a bus to Ramallah, sat next to an insatiably chatty man, another bus to Nablus with a bulky guy whose insistent offer of chewing gum I was unable to refuse, a taxi up the steep climb to Hill Street, and a final ‘sprint’ finish up four flights of stairs with my suitcase, brought me to the flat in which my ‘Palestinian family’ were waiting.
It was as if I’d never left. Though the youngest son’s voice had deepened, and they now had a widescreen TV and a new washing machine; the chipped mug I’d adopted was still there, the pile of newspapers, used as temporary table cloths, were on the side, and, after a big hug and a quick scan to determine how much I’d need fattening up, it was back to the usual evening chatter over the flow of Arabic soaps in the background.
The daily occupation updates were back too, as the mum informed me that she’d had no sleep the previous night because the Israeli soldiers had been on the streets, searching for three kidnapped settlers. I felt ashamed of the excitement that came to me with such news, as if it was worth there being trouble in the town just to make life more interesting.
She believed that the kidnappings were simply an Israeli conspiracy to increase tension between Fatah and Hamas, which basically means that Palestinians spend their time arguing amongst themselves rather than joining forces against the more pressing issue of the occupation. I wouldn’t beg to disagree, since Israel is currently threatening to impose sanctions on Palestine if a unity government consisting of both Fatah and Hamas is formed.
I was only to be in Nablus for a couple of nights though, much to the mum’s disappointment, as I was soon to adopt a wild life in Ramallah! The most modern of the Palestinian cities – alcohol, nightclubs, mixed swimming pools and even ‘ajanib’ (foreigners) awaited me! Well, I may be exaggerating a little… Life has actually remained quite tame, since I’m sharing a flat with three Palestinian girls, and so, though I’m rather enjoying the ability to walk down the street with hair down and bare arms without being stared at so much, I still have to get changed in the bathroom so as not to ‘embarrass’ anyone and nights are filled with cooking and chit-chat.
At first I’d planned to only stay with the girls for the first two weeks until I found another flat, since sharing a small room with two people, one of whom snores, wasn’t promising to give me the best two months’ sleep, but it seems all the rooms up for grabs are being given to other people and the extra Arabic isn’t going to do me any harm, nor a bit of company.
Admittedly, one of their friends insists on using me for English practice, which would be fine if it didn’t mean that I was simply subjected to long monologues in fluent English about random incidents in her or one of her friends’ lives, and these girls are proving harder work than my previous Palestinian flatmates. I did succeed in impressing one of them with my pasta-making skills last night (simply didn’t cook it for as long as the average Palestinian and added onions), and one at least laughs at my attempted jokes, but I occasionally find the girl who I found the flat through, and who studied English, looking at me in a searching way when I’m sat reading, as if my normality disappoints her. Or maybe the snoring-induced lack of sleep is simply driving me to paranoia…
My days are filled interning with an organisation that works to increase citizens’ participation in the political process and promote women’s role as leaders in society, among other things.
I was rather excited when I turned up for my first meeting, having been convinced for the last couple of months that it would fall through, and was even more taken aback to be shown to ‘my office’, with a pretty view and a couch that I already know I’ll never use because another office looks right onto it. To start with, I’m to help search for funding opportunities before learning how to do project proposals. There’s also been mention of doing more exciting things like interviewing success stories and going along to a meeting at the American Embassy but I wait and see…
For now though, I must admit that it’s a tad lonely in the office with the empty couch and the unchanging view, and the most significant part of my day is attempting to dispose of the ridiculously sweet tea I’m given by a random man, who spends his day sat at reception/getting shouted out to make drinks, without him noticing. I know I should probably just tell him I don’t take sugar but I find it awkward enough that he makes it for me in the first place!
So I was actually relieved when the weekend came and I was able to run off to Nablus. The mum was so pleased to see me that she even approved my choice of clothes to be good enough for the ‘party’ we were going to (random restaurant opening with a good singer and much-appreciated fruit), and I got to spend my first lazy Muslim Friday sleeping until midday and eating lunch with the family, who now know me well enough that I can reject constructs of marriage and child-rearing and only receive a grin and a playful slap, rather than an interrogation and a look of horror.
My social life is ironically always much improved in Palestine (perhaps because sitting around drinking tea counts as a social activity!) and that Saturday it was the farewell, pre-wedding party of one of my best friends from the previous year, who’s leaving to get married in Jordan after Ramadan. Unfortunately, I only discovered in the morning that it was to take place in a proper hall and was to be a huge affair, rather than a little party in her house. And so it was with a rather embarrassed shuffle that I made my way to the front in my mucky converse, carrying a pillow. To make matters worse, there’d even been a moment when I asked her aunt if I could leave my bag and pillow somewhere, for her to think that I wanted to give the pillow as a present and was asked what was inside it! I then had to explain that it wasn’t a present but that I’d turned up to the party with a pillow for no apparent reason.
I’ve been to a few of these things before and had simply presumed that the brides looked as they looked in everyday life, just a little more made-up. Well, how surprised I was to see walking into the hall a total stranger! Fake hair and eyelashes, a mask of make-up, heels and a puffy red dress made unrecognisable the friend who I’d bonded with over our love of flat shoes and dislike of make-up. I had to scan the hall for her relatives just to make sure I’d come to the right party.
The hall itself also presented the eye with rather a lot to take in. Never in my life have I seen so many shades of pink and purple in one place. I decided, however, that there was just enough pink to counteract the purple, and just about enough purple to counteract the pink.
And then it was back to Ramallah… and I was actually quite pleased to see the girls after a lazy weekend recovering. After a sleepless night of loud snores and mosquitoes, I was a little less amenable this morning when my roommate insisted I get up to eat the breakfast she’d made with her, but I tried to remind myself that she means well and she does make a pretty good omelette.