Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Weddings, Warak Dawali, and Water in the West Bank

This post will be a bit different than others. I have a neat chronological timeline of my time in Hebron, which lasted three days in June, but I also took scattered, semi-ethnographic notes while I was there in unconventional prose format, and I will intermittently include them for added description of what it was like to visit Hebron. This post is more political than usual but I want to make a statement that I am not on either side of the Israel-Palestinian crisis - both sides have issues to resolve within themselves and between each other. These are only notes I took to explore different sides of the conflict. 

I got off bus 21 going from Jerusalem to Betlehem in Husan, just past the West Bank border. I didn't have to show any passport, since they aren't too concerned about having people enter the West Bank, only about people leaving. My friend picked me up, since I was staying with his warm and welcoming family, of which there were four brothers, three sisters, and an aging mother and father. They immediately brought over the neighbors baby, and the love in Arabic culture for children was obvious as they swung this complacent little baby in the air and played with him and kissed him. 

I was exhausted after barely sleeping for White Night so I took a long nap in the bedroom I would share with my friend's sisters. One of the sisters had given up her bed for me and was sleeping on a cot for the weekend!

After my nap we went to smoke shisha in nearby village overlooking Hebron.
A public garden in a neighboring hilltop village crawling with children of all ages and women in hijabs delicately wielding the jewelled and perfumed sword of the water pipe, men greeting each other and kissing on the cheek, quickly asking about phone calls and business, always a favor to be made. Everything precious in the West Bank - water, greenery, the lyrical voice of Arab Idol winner Mohammad Assaf singing for his native Palestine - present in one place, including a small area for bumper cars so that children can learn to drive the seemingly lawless Palestinian roads.

My friend told me about what it is like to work in the court in Hebron, where he deals with around 100 cases daily. He got rid of his phone so he could get some peace when he was at home, or else the cases tend to follow him home. As he greeted his friends, they all asked "Where is your phone? I've been calling you!" We also met the groom for the wedding I would attend the next day. 
The fiancé had looked exhausted and expressed that he wished the wedding to be over, that his soon-to-be wife will look like a clown in all the make-up, and he affectionately showed me photos on his phone of his fiancé posing while holding roses on a tan-colored couch, natural and delicate. Abruptly the phone buzzed and rang, and the high-pitched voice, tinged with jealousy as she heard my loud laugh in the background, was discernible. My friend leaned in to me and said "The bride won't sleep tonight because of you." And he laughed heartily.
The groom was accompanied by a good friend, Tareq, who has started a youth organization and tourism initiative in Hebron, and used to teach corporate sustainability and business ethics at the local university. I was invited to sit with the men, and throughout the engaging discussion of business, politics, and history, I would occasionally glance back uncomfortably at the silent mother and sisters of my friend at the table behind us. It was clear to me and to them that the rules are different for non-Muslim Western women, and I felt like I was straddling two worlds - the male-dominated world of business in al-Khalil (the Arabic name for Hebron) and the exclusive sisterhood among the women of a local household.

We returned home as the clock neared midnight, and on the way made intermittent stops for falafel and hummus - anytime of night and day is a good time for a feast! We got back and all sat down to watch TV.
On the television, which is always on, they switch between overdramatized Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic, even worse Indian soap operas dubbed in Arabic, Egyptian comedy shows, and Arabic pop music videos. - and of course countless commercials advertising everything you could possibly need for the upcoming month of Ramadan.
Soon enough I was invited into the kitchen and we sat down for a feast. My friend's brother had made his famous ful, a popular breakfast dish of cooked and mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic, and lemon juice. For dessert they served me slices of sweet, dry coconut cake in front of the TV.

After the food the women of the household taught me how to make stuffed grape leaves (warak dawali). They take time and care because you need to carefully roll each grape leaf, so it is a dish that often shows respect and a great deal of hospitality towards your guest.

The next day we woke up to no water, and the long wait for a shower began, which would last most of the day. 
Sitting room sipping coffee or eating fruit and watching TV. They pour expensive water bottles down the toilet in order to flush because cleanliness is godliness but the low water reserves don’t help with this ideal. The moment the women wake up they start cleaning. The mother exasperatedly says “war, war in Palestine, in Pakistan, in Egypt, war everywhere!” as she dramatically gestures at the coup in Egypt unfolding on the TV screen. Her middle-aged son clarifies for me passionately but with a serious look in his eyes that Israel steals all their water and that this is a crime - he points to the ground and indicates the underground water reserves, aquifers on West Bank territory, that the state of Israel purportedly claim for themselves. Here I see a battle of sovereignty, of environment, a war of attrition that requires patience and adjustment to hardship - no wonder the people protest, the hand of a foreign government is heavy-handed, a hand never more visible than when a lack of resources become evident in the homes of the humble middle class.
The mother says “mai alhiyah”, water is life and goes on a rant about how this problem never stops, a dramatic hand gesturing and then covering her forehead - they want me to take this issue to Sweden, to tell people of their hardships so they can get visas to lands with possibilities where they do not have to wait 5 hours for water or to cross a border that locks them in like a jail.
Eventually it is only a couple of hours before we need to leave for the wedding and I still haven't showered.
They take me to an uncle’s house to shower, laughing and smiling to make me feel comfortable and welcomed - it is special to have a tall blonde girl who speaks arabic visit their small and meticulously cared for homes - at the uncle’s house the bathroom lacks a light and we laugh heartily, a joke to be circulated around for the next couple of weeks - but sober faces then tell me this is a good thing, that I experience what life is like in Palestine.
After a quick meal of the stuffed grape leaves we made the night before, we left for the wedding, for which I wore a printed maxi dress and a navy blue shawl draped over my shoulders and cleavage. It was a segregated wedding, so I was under the care of my friend's sisters, who didn't speak any English. We entered the left side of the wedding venue, from where you got a stunning view of Hebron at sunset. Women in chairs lined up facing a stage, where the bride danced to popular Arabic tunes for her groom, who sat under an elaborate floral arrangement, looking nervous but excited. The bride wore heavy makeup and her thin figure moved gracefully as various family members gradually got permission  from a loudspeaker to join her on stage. The groom eventually left to join the men’s party and some women moved to remove hijabs and jilbabs, revealing short dresses, low backs, cleavage, and long hair that they have carefully prepared for this grand occasion. I was invited up to the stage to congratulate the bride.
As the sole (naturally) blonde woman, walking up the aisle to greet the revered bride, standing tall and skinny in her cake-like white wedding dress - kissing her cheeks caked with makeup and saying “mabruk, mabruk”, seeing her lips move and trying to mumble “inti jameela” before I’m guided off the stage, feeling hundreds of eyes of heads covered with hijabs eyeing the light shawl covering my tanned shoulders
At a later point I make the self-conscious walk up to the stage once again to accept the honor of dancing with the bride and the groom's sisters to the one english-language song played in the whole wedding, “Number one” by Helena Paparizou, which is appropriate since Helena Paparizou is actually Swedish. 

After the dance the sisters I'm with tell me there is another wedding downstairs, and we go and check it out. This room is larger, with round tables and a stage in the center of the room. Baby pictures of the bride are shown on the wall, and the plump bride rushes in, dancing energetically with flamboyant arms as she circles her new husband. The sisters talk about how this bride is so much uglier than the one upstairs. Here a pop version of the Happy Birthday song is the only English song played, but I am the only person who finds it funny, apparently the only fluent English-speaker in the room. The groom and bride of this wedding start to feed each other with cake and no one understood what is going on –  perhaps a Western idea they decided to incorporate into their wedding to appear cosmopolitan. The two weddings contrasted each other starkly and showed me that there are very different ways of planning a Palestinian wedding.

After that we went home and ate more stuffed grape leaves, and waited for men to return. Eventually the men came back, bringing my favorite Arabic dessert, kunefeh, which is soft white cheese topped with semolina flour, chopped pistachios and sugar syrup. As always, we watched TV. They brought the neighbor's baby over and the baby danced to Arabic pop songs, his two-year old arms adorably raised, his small body moving to the beat. In the West Bank, they learn to dance before they can walk.

The next morning there was no water again, but I convinced them that it was alright, and we ate breakfast and then waited for Muhannad to finish work at court. I spoke to the mother about her background and why she loves the Quran. 

The mother told me her dad was an Islamic scholar, a sheik, educated at al-azhar university in Egypt - she has 3 sisters and 5 brothers - one of her sisters is in Amman, the other in Saudi, and the third around the corner. She helped care for the sick in her family and therefore never got to pursue an education - but she says she loves science, and she gets it from the Quran. She has read the Quran 13 times and listed her favorite suras for me, and explained what each of those suras mean to her personally - she said they explained life, why there is light and learning and children - she said learning is beautiful. She has only ever traveled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to visit her sisters - imagine what the world must look like to her, a world without europe or the USA. All she knows of those continents is what she has seen on television.
A breeze from the window, the cry of a baby, the voices of women, the sun and the impeccably clean dirt-colored furniture - the humming and mumbling of an aging mother of seven children - the rhythm of a beat erupting from the colorful TV screen - carpets under my feet and the taste of watermelon in my mouth - the feeling of being alive, in a different life, a new family and a new culture - things work differently here - i respect it, appreciate it, and miss my culture - I want to show these people where I come from, wherever that may be, and I want them to respect and understand my home just as I do theirs...education  is key, and travel is the highest form of education. It is a gift that West Bank residents receive.  
The Prophet Mohammed is quoted as having said “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled.”  I wish the modern political framework didnt  fence in such genuine ideals.
During my friend’s lunch hour at court he returned home so his sister and I could go with him to his uncle’s shoe shop. We walked down streets crowded with entrepreneurs trying to sell various souvenirs of Hebron to the passing locals. I appeared to be, once again, the only woman around not wearing a hijab. We turned down a narrow alleyway and came upon the small shoe shop. The uncle was a respected man in the family, thanks to his shoe shop "Sara Shoes", named after his daughter. My friend and his sister greeted the mustached man by kissing his hands and putting their forehead to his hands. After trying on a few pairs on their insistence, the uncle gave me two pairs of shoes as a gift! The hospitality is baffling here. After the shoe shop we returned home, where the mother had made maklouba, a succulent rice and chicken dish turned upside down right before it is served. Once again, I am showered with gifts, as each sister gives me a bracelet or a shirt of theirs.

Eventually it was time to say good bye. My friend convinced the neighbor to close up shop and drive us to Betlehem - shop owners seem to choose their opening hours on a whim here. In Betlehem they took me to see The Church of Nativity, knowing it's a Sunday and thinking I will want to pray. Although I've never gone to a church just to pray, it's the thought that counts and I appreciated it. 

After this I crossed the border - the only non-Palestinian at this austere land crossing - and got a cab to Jerusalem. The cab driver was a jovial fellow, who responded with consternation when I told him I'm at an archaeological dig near the Lebanese border. "You're right by Hezbollah, right by Nasrallah!" He also told me the exciting story of Mohammed Assaf, who fled from Gaza to join Arab Idol and now fills the hearts of the Palestinian people with hope using the power of his voice, that can be heard on radios and TV-screens throughout the Arab world right now. It is amazing the kind of impact one voice can have on a diaspora!

Once I'm in Jerusalem I get a bus to Haifa for 40 NIS, and then walk over to the nearby mall to grab a coffee before I get the train to Nahariya. There, in the popular Israeli coffee shop Aroma, I engage in an intense discussion with a social worker with a philosophy degree who  tells me about Sufi beliefs surrounding the nature of god. He told me to imagine that I'm looking through a window at the sky. If god is the sky, the window glass is religion. This analogy has stayed in my mind. Eventually I finally grab the train to Nahariya and a taxi to Achziv, which I share with an Argentinian jew, and return to the Archaeological Field School in time to get a few hours of sleep before another day of digging.

The next post, which will be considerably shorter, will be about my short time in Haifa, which I hope to post later this week. I will post about my experience of Ramadan in Jordan by the weekend. Tonight the family I'm staying with is hosting a huge party and the scents make fasting so much harder!

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