Monday, February 16, 2009


It has come as a surprise which things here in Palestine have been adjustments and difficulties. I was warned about things like having variable electricity, little or no heat, having to handwash clothing, and things of that nature. I presumed that people walked more often than drove, went without eating meat or any kinds of fruits and vegetables which were not readily grown in the area, were accustomed to making do with little or no energy to heat their homes and do their housework. These things may be true (and I know for a fact are) in many places, but I must admit that I'm living fairly comfortably in the home in which I am staying. Though there are some minor inconveniences - only showering in the evening when there is hot water, using powdered milk instead of the real deal (learning to cook with it has been a task all its own), drinking bottled water rather than from the tap "just in case," not being able to put your clothes in the dryer leaving one with stiff socks and undershirts (don't judge, I said these were minor inconveniences!) - on the whole I have quite a good standard of living. I mean, in Australia we didn't heat our houses or use the dryer either, and I'd venture that a large portion of the Western world doesn't either (the UK and France, for example, or Japan).

No, on the other hand, the adjustments have been much harsher because they came from unexpected directions. Getting used to the extremely extroverted and familial social structure has been a little trying on someone stuck in her Western and "individualist" ways. Whereas normally I would hole up for several hours a day and just read or lie down and think, now I am constantly aware that I am part of a family which is not my own. I am reminded that my hostess is to be thought of as my friend or as a sister, for example. Here we have a crossing of cultural social queues. I am told, "You are a part of the family." This was spellt out to me as meaning that I should "just be myself," to eat or drink what I want when I want, to change the channel on the tele, to play the piano when I feel like it, to take a stroll around the yard in the sun. However, as being part of the family, I feel that I should step in and try to help with the dishes or the housework. I'm immediately stopped though with a gentle "No darling, I don't need any help. Go rest." There's a tightrope feeling of being part of the family and of being a guest - I'm a family member in comfort but apparently not to be bothered by housework, which is an awkward line. Maybe it's my white female guilt. I'm also still trying to learn how to politely refuse seconds and thirds at meals without seeming like I don't like the food. My Arabic isn't good enough to say "If I eat four pitas and three chickens daily I will certainly gain 50 pounds and then die of cardiac arrest." On that note, explaining vegetarianism to Middle Eastern people has proved interesting. It's definitely a very Western phenomenon which does not translate well into the way of living here. Following on the previous comment, I haven't learnt how to say "corporate agribusiness" in Arabic. That one may be a while in coming.

Sometimes I feel frustrated that I can't learn the language faster. When I go walk through town to get a Coke or a snack from the store down the street, I always feel weirdly vulnerabe by my highly visible status as a foreigner, and by the fact that when I pass a shop and the guy in the doorway calls his friends inside to come see, I don't really know what they say as I pass by. And though most people smile and respond "marhabten" when I say hello in Arabic (probably pleasantly surprised that I speak at least a little Arabic), there's that awkward feeling that single women feel in American cities as they pass a crowd of young men who all stop to watch as she walks by. Ruba said that when she first came to Zababdeh she had a similar experience, and as the villagers get to know you it will pass. I know this is true so I try to just smile and walk through the bustle of young boys on bicycles to get home and listen to Arthur Rubenstein's performance of Chopin's Nocturne 19 in E Minor. It sometimes takes a forcible act of calming to remind myself that it will take some time before I adjust, and to relax enough to realize that this is all just the beginning of a larger journey in which I will find comfort and purpose. I'll learn the language, I'll figure out the social queues, and I'll be happy with it.

A big part of the adjustment is just the realization that, well, to quote Dorothy, "We're not in Kansas anymore." Last night I strolled down towards the village to get a snack and walk off dinner. I looped up into the more residential neighborhood of the village in hopes to avoid more curious eyes. This of course only served to arouse the interest of shopkeepers and drivers, who continued to honk the same as people on the main street. I wandered through the town, always vaguely heading Northwest with the aim of ending up back on the main street. I finally looped around and came out right beneath the Mosque. Immediately as I passed beneath the tower the nighttime call to prayer began. As I walked up the street with my bag of Pringles and the prayers ringing out above me, I realized, "I am living in the Middle East..." It was an odd moment of clarity and confusion, or as Ruba said (and I have occasionally thought) : "one of those times when you think, what am I doing here??"

And as they say, this too shall pass.

Until next time, good night and good luck.

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