It turns out I’m living with quite the rebel. In fact, this city seems to be full of carefully concealed rebels just waiting to be discovered. And discovering them I am, in one of those beautifully random weeks that Palestine has a tendency to spring upon you.
It all began when I chose to ditch the football to hang out with my flatmates at a cultural festival taking place in Birzeit, a town 10 miles from Ramallah. No sooner I had roamed into the centre than I heard my name being called and turned to find my firefighting DJ friend, from a village 100 miles away, standing above me on the steps. Birzeit was clearly where it was all going down! It then turned out that her feminist mother was also in town who, on seeing me, gave me the warmest smile and pulled me into an unexpected hug that made me feel all warm inside. Suddenly I found myself representing their village, Arabi’, in the ‘flower of the countryside’ competition, which involved me tagging along with the crowd behind their banner and doing lots of clapping as they sang traditional wedding songs.
After watching representatives from the villages then explain their traditional costumes and, of course, giving loud cheers to my village Arabi’ (Represent!), I pulled myself away with promises to visit them soon to go chill on the swings with my flatties. I was starting to feel quite the local and keep insisting to my friends that I must look Palestinian by now (“I bought these jeans in Palestine!” I say) but they just smirk and raise their eyebrows in that mocking manner.
The night also helped us get over initial flatmate-unknown-territory syndrome. Maybe it was just the chance to hang out together outside of the house, my beautifully-executed role as the old shop-keeper that finally made them all laugh, or perhaps my surprise at my roommate’s desire to go to the party that would have left us stranded in Birzeit for the night. Whatever it was, I’m grateful that I no longer catch my roommate looking at me in that inquisitive way anymore.
So I’m pretty chuffed with my luck at finding this place really. My roommates have an entertaining, if unorthodox, double act going on in which they call each other ‘wife’ and engage in slapstick behaviour, and they’re all pretty cool, having rejected the idea of marriage for the near future at least, and having come to Ramallah to work and increase their spaces of freedom away from their families.
They’ve also introduced me to a great game they play to pass the time in town. Out roaming after ‘breakfast’ on the second night of Ramadan, we kept going into upmarket shops where they would surprise me by exclaiming how cheap things were after asking for the price, saying things like ‘Is that all?’ and ‘Wow, so cheap!’. I guess the game would be called poor man’s bluff but it’s going to take me a while to learn how to keep my face straight enough to play.
The most rebellious of my flatmates however is most definitely the roommate with the previously inquisitive stare. On our own one night in the flat, we decided we couldn’t be bothered to cook and instead went to the shop to get the equivalent of having a takeaway, which is making ‘nawashif’ – lots of things to eat with bread, such as humus, eggs, beans, cream cheese… I make it sound healthier than it is.
Anyway, in a night of truth-telling, I learnt that she’d kissed a girl but didn’t like it, drunk wine mixed with lemonade, and never knows what to make of the English because it’s hard to know when they don’t like something (finally, the inquisitive looks explained!). So I admitted that I’d kissed a girl and liked it, had drunk wine but wished that I’d had some lemonade to mix it with, and that the other girl’s snoring had been driving me a little insane. I then learnt that by the end of the first week that she’d lived with our snoring roommate, she’d also wanted to kill her, and I was assured that you get used to it. Slowly but surely I am.
And the revelations continued. The day after our house-trip to Birzeit, I went to meet the one gay friend I’d made here last year after my feeble attempts to break into the underground gay scene. Maybe I have priest written all over my face, because suddenly she was confessing that the name I’d known her by was fake and I was introduced to her real self. It was then off to Birzeit again to meet another gay friend of hers who has since introduced me to her gay best friend (who has a car with a sweet sound system!!). Suddenly I have more gay friends in Ramallah than I had in my first year of uni and, of course, they’re all wonderfully creative and refreshingly sarcastic!
The fun also didn’t stop there. As if living out a dream, my roommate invited me to stop by her mum’s factory on our way back to Nablus for the weekend. ‘But what does she make?’ I asked. Only chocolate!! Well, it would have been rude to refuse…
Fortunately, this was two days before the start of Ramadan and so I was given a quick induction before I began putting sweets into wrappers (and occasionally into my mouth). I was then paid far above the minimum wage in a bag of chocolate that was literally forced upon me, even if I’d have had the will power to turn it down, and have decided that, if all else fails, working in a chocolate factory will be my back-up plan for life.
Work has also improved dramatically to the point that I’m half way through getting my head around one project before being given another to read up on before we have a meeting on it. With hope increasing of elections being round the corner, we’re to be presenting a project on improving political coverage and ethics in the local media to the British Council. I’ve also been asked to help compile a proposal for some projects designed by local youth, for the US Consulate (my trip to Jerusalem becoming ever more hopeful), alongside coming up with suitable topics to present to possible funders. I’ve even been given the key, to guard with my life, so that I can open up the office on days the receptionist’s not here. Though I’m still trying to figure out where the line between increased responsibility and exploitation gets drawn, I would much rather be exploited than underused and I’m looking forward to having the run of the office to myself for a couple of hours in the morning, which should mean that I finally get to use my couch!
And, what’s more, since it’s Ramadan, I no longer have mugs of ridiculously sweet tea to dispose of! Alhamdulilah!
Living here during Ramadan is turning out to be easier than expected. Having fasted for the first two weeks of Ramadan last year, I decided that I’d been there, done that, and got the headaches, and so, in order to be a productive member of society this month, would forego fasting with the people. I was therefore prepared to be breakfasting in the bathroom so as not to eat in front of my flatmates but discovered that my rebellious housemate doesn’t even fast (though is doing two days on and two days off this year, just for the hell of it as far as I can gather). Therefore, on the days that she doesn’t fast we make breakfast after our roommate’s gone to work and sneak it into the bedroom before the girl opposite us wakes up. We then sit on the beds, feeling rebellious for having breakfast.
Apart from the cold shower after work that makes me want to dance with happiness at being clean, the breaking of the fast is my favourite part of the day. I love the way the streets become emptier the closer to 8pm it gets, the way the rush to prepare everything in time gets more intense, and then the way we finally all sit cross-legged around our mini feast as the call sounds and we tuck into a date, then soup, salad and finally whatever dish we’ve decided to prepare that day. Since my Palestinian cooking skills are lacking, I get put on salad duty, which is just fine with me. I also occasionally get asked to taste the food to see if it needs more salt but, since they’re slowly starting to realise that my salt consumption is far below Palestinian standards, I may soon be sacked from this role.
I still have a lot to learn/remember though. For instance, there’s a general rule here that you should only ever compliment someone on their house or their children because anything else may result in them feeling the need to give you it. Of course, I had to forget this and compliment the grandma on her wacky trousers, only to spend the next half an hour insisting that I meant they looked nice on her and that, however nice they were, they just really weren’t my style but thank you very much! By the skin of my teeth I managed to escape turning up at the grandma’s every weekend to be asked why I wasn’t wearing her trousers.
And though Ramadan isn’t too trying and my housemates insist that they don’t mind me eating in front of them, I try my best not to, and so once in a while get caught with a mouth full of bread and sin written all over my face. I also forgot about the sahoor the other morning (the meal at about 4am before the fast begins again for the day) and so when our housemate knocked on the bedroom door to wake my snoring roommate, I just shouted ‘whaaaaat?!’ in my grumpy mid-sleep, rather than the polite ‘enter’ that would be the norm. They laughed about it the next day though, so all was fine.
My appearance has also come to resemble that of a spotty zebra. What with my half brown, half white arms, increasingly large number of mosquito bites which I just can’t leave alone, and a spotty nose from all the chocolate (and shisha).
And, of course, life in Palestine is life in Palestine. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know how I’m supposed to react when I get told over breakfast that, the previous night, settlers kidnapped and burnt to death a 16 year-old boy, or how to deal with the anger on reading that Israel are using the three supposedly kidnapped settlers, whose bodies have now been found, to increase airstrikes in Gaza; simply because they’ve decided to accuse Hamas of the kidnappings and Hamas is most prominent in Gaza. Even though the ‘kidnappings’ happened in the West Bank! As if a whole nation should be bombed from above for the crimes of a few!?
And, what’s more, Palestinians are now being frequently kidnapped by settlers, even cake shops are being broken into by Israeli soldiers and raided for money, the frequency of checkpoints on the roads is increasing so that the already long, hot journeys that take there toil on people fasting during the holy month are made even more arduous… And I struggle to deal with the frustration I feel about the fact that when settlers get kidnapped, the world knows, but when Palestinians get martyred on a daily basis, as was happening last week, and 16 year-olds get burnt to death, barely a whisper is heard. Such news often even gets demoted to the end of Palestinian news articles. And don’t get me started on the irony of having to give ‘thanks to the American people’ for a project funded by US AID! I guess the American people should also be thanked for funding the missiles being sent into Gaza…
My housemate told me yesterday though that they just need to be patient. Personally, I have never met a people more patient and strong, and after 66 years I feel that a little bit of impatience would probably be more conducive.