Ramadan

Yet another week has flown by at the speed of a Japanese bullet train. 

It has been a week filled with fun; I’ve had a picknick at a park with my students (where I also got the chance to lose badly to one of them in air hockey, and ride the bumper cars for the very first time in my entire life), enjoyed probably the best falafels ever at a restaurant appropriately named “King Falafel”, hung out at the Old City, and had traditional Palestinian couisine (home made of course).

I’ve had interesting conversations about life, values and religions; taken idle walks at the settlers’ side of the city to wonder the paradox of a city full of life versus the there so empty streets and almost a total silence I have not experienced since I visited our summer cottage in Finland; a silence so intense that you have to pinch yourself to ensure the time has not frozen. 

I’ve had loads of tea at the earlier mentioned and nowadays so familiar rooftop surrounded by a bunch of children so many I lost count of who was who; all siblings, ages ranging from an infant to late teens; everyone smiling at me shyly. Whilst speaking to their mother with the help of her son to translate, looking at the son carefully picking up one of the youngest just in time before she got the chance to fall on her still unsteady feet, I realised I am going to miss this raggedy bunch of kind, hospitable people, who always are ready to give and share from what little they own. 

Glancing to my left the Palestinian side, on my right the barb wires of the Israeli Defence Force to mark their territory – and me there right in the middle of it; the blond Western woman without a hijab, basking in the sun and sipping tea as it were the most normal thing in the whole world. 

I’ve chased the ice-cream truck for a 2,5 shekel cone, forgetting that I’m a) a woman, and b) 42 years of age. I’ve laughed as I’ve walked with the ice-cream in the scorching heat, trying to fight it melting before I could finish it, and failing miserably at the attempt, managing to drop some chocolate flavour on my newly washed shirt. The teenage boy escorting me home, his cone already long gone, laughing at me and with me. “You eat too slow! Sun more quick!” 

The Ramadan started yesterday. For the locals it means a period of fasting; no liquids or food passing through their lips in the daylight hours. It means emphatising with the poor who have no food or water; it means kindness to those who have less; and it means learning to control your physical needs, to humble yourself and get closer to God. 

For me it means respecting the local customs without participating to the fast myself; it means I’ve abandoned my balcony as my regular smoking place, as smoking is also prohibited as it would break the fast. I’m smoking at the inner courtyard instead, where nobody can see me. I also have my breakfast there at a “normal time”, whereas the Muslims have theirs before the sunrise (around 3.30 am). 

Tonight I’ll join my first iftar (Arabic for “breakfast”, or the first meal of the day), having been invited to the local hostel at sunset, the moment when the city becomes alive again. Ramadan is a month of fasting; but it’s also a month of giving and celebrating. When the sun sets, the celebrating begins under the festive light decorations that remind me of a miniature version of Las Vegas. 

Here too, it seems that at least during Ramadan, the city never sleeps.

Yesterday’s iftar at our guest house with its international residents. Not a bad job from the French guy, making the infamous maqluba (Arabic for “upside down”, what is what the dish is all about). I didn’t however participate to the feast as I had a humongous Domino’s pizza to finish. How very mondaine of me. 

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A Palestinian wedding

I can’t believe it has already been a week since my last posting. I somehow naively imagined my life here to be that of a hermit; just sitting in my humble chambers after the days’ duties, typing away in a scent of cardamom-flavoured coffee, smoking a cigarette or two during the creative process.

Being someone who is used to alcohol being an essential part of the equation of fun (“Fun without alcohol is just pretending” – as the literal translation of the Finnish saying goes), I braced myself with the expectation of at least a partial boredom during my stay here.

How wrong could one be.

I’ve received more invitations than I have time – my social calendar is fuller than it ever was back home. I’ve entered this what can almost be called a celebrity-like bubble; the invites keep coming at a steady pace, ranging from invitations for a cup of tea to late lunches at people’s homes, shopping trips and tours around the city, to popping in a cafe after dark when the streets become alive – for something so sweet my dentist would have a stroke, all this and more stealing time away from my studies (much to my Arabic teacher’s nuisance I might add – although she has always remained patient and kind even though her student yet again hasn’t revised properly).

My first invitation was to one of my student’s uncle’s wedding (never mind that I had never met the uncle in my life). I received a piece of paper with the name of the venue in Arabic to give to the taxi driver; in addition I called my student from the taxi to let her give instructions to him as to where to drop me off and at what cost. What could go wrong, right?

Arriving happily at the destination, chatting away with the curious locals outside the wedding place, I receive a phone call from my student asking where I might be; she was waiting for me outside and couldn’t spot me (which is almost impossible; my blond hair makes me an ever-shining beacon not easy to miss).

Of course the taxi driver had dropped me off to the wrong venue.

With the help of almost the entire wedding party, I got ushered to another taxi and off I was again, acomppanied with vigorous waves and smiling faces, this time to the correct location.

A Palestinian wedding isn’t like a wedding in Europe or any Western country for that matter; the men and women celebrate separately, physically in different halls. The only man to enter the womens’ area is the groom together with the bride; they exhange the rings (leaving me wondering if they repeat the ceremony to the men too) and a few dances, after which the groom disappears, leaving both the single and married ladies to have fun.

I wish I had some photos I could post; but I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures; and as soon as I entered the “ladies’ hall” I understood why.

A remarkable number of women were not wearing their hijabs; their hair, now visible, were beautifully done and they were wearing dresses that were surprisingly revealing, accompanied by shiny jewellery and make-up that glittered and glamoured. A female DJ put up some Arabic tunes and surely the whole dance floor filled up with gorgeous ladies.

I’m not much of a dancer even under the relaxing influence of alcohol; and yet I got pulled into the dance circle – sober, horrified and so out of place I felt like a bull in a china shop. Whereas the Hebron women moved their hands in delicate twirls and their hips in alluring swings, I felt I was doing something resembling a combination of the chicken dance and the conga. Luckily the DJ spotted my agony and mercifully changed the tunes to Beyoncé’s “All the single ladies”, which gave me the opportunity to revive even some of my long lost dignity before exiting the stage.

Whilst walking back to the main street with a couple of my students, a taxi driver pulled off in front of us, opened the window and started a rapid monologue in Arabic, enthousiastically waving something in his hand.

To my astonishment, it was the same taxi driver who had dropped me off to the wrong venue a good three hours earlier. To my even greater astonishment, the thing he waved in his hand turned out to be my sunglasses I had forgotten to the taxi without even noticing that they were missing.

They were Gucci I might add.

I guess sometimes being a shining beacon is not such a bad thing after all. Not if it means attracting honest and kind people.

Safe

Living at what can only be called a conflict zone (Hebron itself being divided to two sectors: H1, controlled by thme Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, administered by Israel), I can honestly say that during all my travels – both within and outside Europe – I have never felt as safe as I do here.

Sure, there are some challenges to a female Western blond traveller, who, unlike roughly 99% of the local female population, does not wear a hijab; and I would be lying if I’d say I draw no attention to myself when I roam the streets of Hebron alone. However the attention is pleasant and in my opinion, also non-invasive; it is not atypical to be greeted with “welcome, welcome” and a friendly smile, as I pass by some street vendors.

Some others, more proficient in English, may stop me on the street to ask where I am from and what am I doing here. After my answer, the same friendly smile: “welcome, welcome”.

Children at the windows of their homes or on the streets licking ice-cream cones, smiling shyly and waving enthousiastically: “hello, hello, marhaba!” Some others following me, trying to strike a conversation in Arabic (where, alas, so far, my response has been limited to “ma b3raf 3rabi” – I don’t know Arabic).

Yesterday, when wandering the narrow paths of the local souq and bazaars with actually no other purpose than to just absorb its unique sphere, I spotted a young man looking at me and as he did so, a broad smile brightened up his face. He started making his way towards me in the crowd, keeping his eye contact as he approached with great determination.

“Hello! I have seen you before!” 

Granted, it’s not hard to remember me here for the reasons stated above; but as it happens I also remembered him from my previous visit.

“You have time? You come to my roof to see beautiful Hebron, beautiful view! I will make tea!” 

This may well be the quintessential stereotype of a situation a lone female traveller may encounter in a strange culture; getting an invitation from a stranger (male) to follow him somewhere away from the crowds; even preferrably to a dark, quiet alley. And of course, in this case the lone female traveller should politetly decline and quickly remove herself from the situation, preferrably to a herd of tourists to act as her shield.

Three minutes (and what seemed to be a hundred stone steps and one dark alley) later I was, naturally, sitting on a mattress on his rooftop, drinking some sugar flavoured with a hint of tea (they do like things sweet around here).

To my left I spotted an (empty) Israeli rooftop guard post covered with a camouflage net; to my right some water tanks with man-made punctures in them (according to hear-say, the work of the settlers trying to chase the Palestinians away). I had landed in the epicentre of the H1/H2 border between the Palestinians and the settlers.

I don’t want to sugar-coat this; and can’t emphasise this enough: this is a conflict zone, where shootings and stabbings are almost considered a daily routine.*) If you enter the H2 area, you may see even the non-military settlers carrying some serious guns (a really bad joke about the mantra that everyone recites when leaving home – keys, wallet, phone – is apparently in the settlements more like keys, wallet, phone, gun).

You will pass a checkpoint guarded by Israeli military forces and they will most likely demand to see your passport and entry permit/visa.

And yet, seeing all this and experiencing some of it first hand, I have yet failed to feel threatened at any situation.

“Welcome, welcome. Marhaba.” 

*) This happened last week, only a few kilometers from where I live.

Exploring the environment 

I were to start my Arabic lessons and English classes on Tuesday, which, conveniently enough, left me the Monday to explore my new environment. Together with my coordinator, we took a servees (a shared taxi of a standard price of 2,5 Shekels – or EUR 0,63) to Ein Sarah, the main street of Hebron.

I’d never dare to drive a car here; not even a rental. It seems like there are no actual traffic rules, it’s basically just first come first serve. (When in doubt, just honk.) The one with the most guts gets to drive first; I’d probably be waiting my turn politely until the dawn like some first-timer at a British roundabout.

We had a brunch at a local cafe, which was clearly catered to Western needs; instead of the cardamom-scented, almost tarlike cup of black Arabic liquid gold, I was served with also from home a very familiar – and a bit too mild – latte. The savoury pastries I picked at random were delicious though, and gave me a hint of what the local cuisine might have to offer. I was – again – happily surprised to find out one could smoke at the cafe! (Contrary to populair belief, this blog has not been sponsored by any tobacco companies. Disclaimer: smoking can seriously damage your health. Don’t start.)

After getting to know my “hedquarters” (i.e. the learning centre I was to both receive my Arabic lessons, as well as to give the English ones), me and my coordinator split ways after a quick crash course of the most important Arabic words. Instead of taking the cheap and trusted servees back home, I decided to walk instead.

Needless to say, I got lost.

All of the sudden the density of the people walking on the street increased exponentially. The sounds of the streets became amplified; the cars crawling at a snail’s pace with their drivers seeming to permanently lean on their horns making their way through the human masses. Street vendors advertising their products in a language that I could not grasp at all; they may as well been shouting profanities for all I knew.

Small chidren turning their heads at almost an owl-like proficiency, trying to steal one last glance of that a bit awkward-looking, clearly non-local blond woman, (who desperately tried to look like she knew exactly where she was going) before their mothers gently tugged them by their arms to haste them to move along towards where pretty much everybody seemed to be heading to, or returning from: the local vegetable market. The familiar odour of garlic and onions mixing with a more mystical scent originating from the spice shops made me a bit light-headed in all its intensity; I stopped for a sip of water, taking it all in, when something attracted my attention.

An old man sitting at a street corner, clearly oblivious to all the surrounding noises, was calmly reciting the worn Quran resting on his lap; and yet somehow, despite the cacophony that had embraced me, I could hear his serene voice in the middle of it all. As I passed him he gave me a gentle, almost toothless smile, and looked at me knowingly as to say: you will be all right girl.

And surely I was. All of the sudden I could make the outlines of a familiar mosque, which I knew to be near my residence; I allowed the crescent moon to guide me and before I knew it, I was back home again.

The eagle has landed

I had googled myself silly about the possible “challenges” that could arise when landing on Tel Aviv. It was strongly suggested that I should refrain from mentioning Palestine at any cost, and just “stick to the tourist story” instead.

I don’t like lying and am, in fact, quite terrible in it. My golden middle way at the passport control was to tell that I’m heading to Jerusalem, and that I am planning to do some writing whilst in Israel “and surrounding areas” (this is me doing some writing!). I was even a bit disappointed as the security officer didn’t even seem to be interested to hear about my elaborated half-truth; he just sighed, printed out my stay permit the second he heard me uttering the word “holiday”, and said “welcome to Israel” in such a monotone way even Kimi “the Iceman” Raikkonen would have raised his eyebrows in surprise.

I landed to Tel Aviv at the crack of dawn yesterday and managed to get a sherut (shared taxi) to Jerusalem, which indeed was my first destination (see how I would had not been lying before!). Trying to score a servees (shared Arab taxi) to Hebron turned out to be a pain though; I was way too early. Dismissing the option of waiting several hours with my two (!!) heavy suitcases, I took the easy way out and hailed a private (Arab) taxi – or actually, he hailed me. After some serious haggling (he wanted me to pay 300 shekels, I got it down to 190 like the pro that I am) we were on our way, and spent the next 45 minutes that it took in pleasant, although somewhat broken English conversation.

Having had two hours of “airplane sleep” the night before, I was quite happy to spend the day at the accommodation apart from a very small trip to the local corner shop where I scored some emergency food (noodles). I was happily surprised to hear that my “shared accommodation” wasn’t shared at all (at least, not at the moment), so I have my own room with a balcony (smoker’s paradise).

This morning I made a cup of coffee, took my “stroopwafels” (Dutch waffles) my colleagues gave me before my departure, and flip-flopped outside to have my “East meets West” -breakfast. I could hear the cars honking (as they always seem to do here!) and with my first sip, the second morning prayers filled up the air in their whole chaotic serenity.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and smiled.

Preparations for my great journey

Ok, let’s get something straight: I had little to none previous experience and/or information about Palestine.

The only things I knew were pretty much the conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinian, and the fact that Palestine was a Muslim country.

I had never traveled to a Muslim country before.

I really don’t know what I expected. I kind of assumed – in a batting-my-eyelashes-blond -kind of a way – that there might be some points to take into consideration when it comes to clothing (wasn’t really planning to walk around in my bikini either, but hey). But when I got the instructions  from the organisation, I had to gasp in disbelief (to be fair, this just shows how little prepared I was).

“Dress code in Hebron is conservative. You can wear Western clothes but they should cover you, including your arms and legs, fully.”

A quick mental scan through my wardrobe revealed that I own no such clothing whatsoever.

For those of you who don’t know me, I love my dresses and high heels. I only own one pair of trousers (jeans), which I mostly use only if I’m gardening (or if laundry day is way overdue and you’ve reached the point of either jeans or your wedding dress – and let’s be honest, it’s been a tight race between trousers and the latter). The rest of the time, no matter if its freezing or scorching hot, I walk around in my just-above-the-knee-height dresses and skirts.

None of which I apparently could use during my stay in Hebron.

At this point I realised that I’d have to renew my whole wardrobe, and ended up half hyperventilating, half laughing out loud hysterically.

I hate shopping. This may make me an atypical female (praise the stereotypes), but I really, really do hate it. I normally just make these seasonal ninja-like attacks twice a year, armed with a shopping list including possible locations where success would be granted with as little effort as possible. These biannual two to three hour missions always leave me sweating, swearing and in an acute need of a glass of wine.

Thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet though, I managed the garderobe renewal without any panic attacks, and am now safely armed with seven ankle-long dresses, thin cotton cardigans and several scarves.

I guess I don’t have to worry about the sunburns usually so typical to my olm-like complexion. It’s actually kind of a relief not to be having to work on my tan, as all previous attempts have ended up me resembling a lobster about to be eaten anyway.

In addition – and to my mother’s horror I might add – I ordered ID tags (or, as the military amongst us know, the dog tags). Partially, because…well, you never know, but mostly just because I think they look pretty cool.

I’ve made my travel notification to the Finnish embassy, saved the closest Finnish embassy (Ramallah) number on my mobile, booked my flights and paid my accommodation and Arabic lessons fee.

I’ve also practiced walking around in the maxi-length dresses; turns out it’s quite difficult to manage without stepping on the hem and ending up on the floor face flat, which for obvious reasons is something I intend to avoid when on the location.