I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: October 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fame and Fortune

Winter? Kinda. The temperature has fallen into the fifties and sixties this past week. I make my morning coffee clumsily, wrapped in an unwieldy blanket cocoon, and long sleeves finally seem like a reasonable thing to wear outdoors. You might think that the onset of fall would kick up our girls' enthusiasm for sports a notch or two now that playing soccer no longer feels like sprinting around in the Sahara at high noon, but you'd be wrong. We're still averaging two pretend sprained ankles and three or four totally irrelevant excuses per day. "I cannot play basketball," they'll say. "My tooths, they hurt." The toothache excuse is a chart-topper, for some unexplainable reason; I don't know why they all feel that this will be the key to getting them out of sports. We're doing ballgames, not a hot-dog eating contest.

We have to carry the balls through the market most days on our way to school. Oh man. Western women get stared at a lot here no matter what, but try being a Western woman with a soccer ball. Butchers shout out "Barcelona!", young boys on the street try to snatch the prize from your hands, and fruit vendors pause their pitches to call "football, football!"

Sometimes celebrity can get wearing, though, and we often leave our sport equipment at the boy's school when we can, just as Madonna will put on dark shades when she goes to the supermarket. Think this does the trick? Think again. One old man, pushing past us yesterday with a brimming bag of apples and taking stock of our possessions, yelled out "what happened to the footbaaaaalll?" I was taken aback for a minute- who is this dude and how does he know what we usually carry? Ten minutes later, a boy I've never seen before in my life shouted "Sierrraaa!" from a third-floor balcony. I still can't read Arabic, but I don't think it would surprise me to find out that the Nablus newspapers were running headlines like "ELLEN DEVELOPS FLU-LIKE SYMPTOMS" or "AJANEB FLAT LOOKS LIKE TORNADO HIT, SOURCES SAY". (By "sources" I mean Abu Saadi, who popped up for a looksee the other day and has since been encouraging us in the strongest terms to invest in a maid).

Some pictures, all taken by Mr. Nick:
The view from the roof of our apartment.


In Jerusalem.

IDF soldiers.

The briefly-danced-upon van I mentioned ages ago.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Heat; Haram

What do a right angle and Nablus today (October, mind you) have in common? Ninety degrees. Hahahaha! I made that up myself. Side-splitting and topical.

Ninety, for those of you who unfamiliar with Fahrenheit, is a lot of degrees. So many, actually, that we had to send our students home early today after we discovered that there was no running water at the girls' school. Forty-five minutes of dabke dancing may not have constituted the most punishing sport class ever, but today it was sufficient to leave us all thirsty and sweating under the Palestinian sun. The laziness which I assume is endemic in all gym classes worldwide was doubly evident today. Some girls sat on the sidelines, only clambering to their feet heavily and reluctantly when one of the teachers told them they faced a choice between dancing and the dreaded push-ups; others, running laps as a warm-up, traced a neat spiral into the center of the basketball court, each lap shorter than the previous one.

Nobody has ever accused me of being a good dancer, but even I find dabke pretty easy. Malaa and Jivan, two of Ellen's girls from Balata Camp, brought in their dance instructors to lead the class after a fun but disorganized lesson yesterday in which they taught us a few basic steps themselves. At the girls' urging, Sara demonstrated a traditional Lebanese dance, much like belly-dancing.

"It used to be a harem dance," she told us later.

"And now it's a HARAM dance," Ellen said. (Rimshot)

Haram, forbidden, is a word you hear often in Palestine. In one of my first lessons, in an apparently misguided attempt to psych the class up for a song competition we'll be holding in a few weeks, I bellowed "WHO LIKES SINGING?!"

"NO!" they hollered back. That kinda threw me off guard. I mean, I'm both a major language nerd and an abysmal singer (my singing is illegal in thirty-five countries), and even I would probably prefer that to past participles.

"How about you?" I asked one of the bolder students. "Are you sure? Singing is fun, right?"

She shook her head. "Singing is haram!"

I'm pretty sure this is not strictly true.

Even so, after deciding to veto their song choice (some sickly-sweet croony thing from Eurovision), I'm having a hard time finding something legitimately non-haram to replace it with. I really like the mental image of fourteen teenage girls in headscarves singing Big Rock Candy Mountains, for instance, but some of the references (you know, "where little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks") might be borderline. As a general guideline, I'm trying to think of what the average American parent is fine with their kids seeing on TV. The slightest mention of sex, crisis level five. Blood and gore: A-okay.

Am I rambling? It's too hot to write. I can almost feel my thoughts frying like ethereal little eggs inside my head. Send help.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sky Nablus

Friday evening and there are nine of us crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the TFP car, a lurching green affair which seems held together more by magic than physics. Ellen and I perch on spare tires in the rear while Mohammad and Saddam narrate the drive in song, drumming with abandon from the backseat. Mohammad seems to know everybody in Nablus; he pauses now and then to shout out the window or wave at passersby.

We're headed for Sky Nablus, a half-park half-cafe stretch of light on the side of Mount Ebal, visible from anywhere in the city. The reverse is also true; standing at the railing by one of the shisha stands, with minty smoke on the air, Nablus unfolds in front of you. It's not a big city- 130,000 people live here- but it seems larger from above, all silence and light. To the west, someone told me the first time I visited, you can see Tel Aviv.

Sky Nablus is busy tonight. The benches are crowded with women in white scarves and men stroll down the drive, carrying trays of tea and coal. We double-park and disentangle ourselves to climb out and meet the rest of our group. We're maybe fifteen in total- half of us ajaneb, half Palestinians.

It's another hot night, which seems even hotter in the wake of a merciful three-day cold snap. The girls are sweating in our long-sleeved, high-necked tops, even more envious of men's light t-shirts when we leave the road and climb the stairs to a dirt path for a secluded clearing for dancing and singing. Jon's brought his banjo, Ciaran his guitar, Saddam the drum; for two hours Johnny Cash songs compete with Arabic chanting, above it all raucous laughter and its source, the messy Arablish which is our best shot at understanding and being understood.

Always welcoming, the guys from Upstairs were transformed over the weekend into our closest- well, pretty much only- Palestinian friends. "If you need anything, tell me. This is my city. I will get it for you. I have connections here," Moath tells us at least twice a day. That he knows people is obvious- Moath, nearly as much as Mohammad, can hardly take a step down the street without being hailed by a friend or waved at by a shopkeeper. And willing to help us? Last time made his frequent announcement, I was already sipping from a free cup of sahleb which he'd brought to me from Upstairs; the time before, he was taking Nick and me on a tour of Rafidia after insisting we accept gifts from the antique store. I've stopped worrying that we won't make any Palestinian friends and started worrying that the ones we have will bankrupt themselves to make us feel at home.


Sorry for the brief and belated update. I'll try to keep em coming at a better pace, but for now let me make it up with some pictures- none, as per usual, taken by me. The first three, from Oktoberfest, belong to Ciaran, and the last three are Sara's, taken in the old market in Nablus.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Generosity, Happiness

And now a word about Middle Eastern hospitality.

It's... well, overwhelming. Any visitor to an Arab home can rest assured that they will, through ambush or insistence, leave much fatter and happier than they arrived, and will probably have to waddle home and spend a week sleeping off their foodbaby. Stepping out your door is a dangerous business in Palestine, but not for Bilbo's reasons- and not, Mom, because you're going to get shot- but rather because you have to remember to budget an extra forty-five minutes for unplanned but suddenly essential housecalls. I should have prepared myself for this; staying with a family for a few days in El-Minya, Egypt, I often found myself near tears at the dinner table, a single bite of bread all that stood between me and literal explosion.

Abu Saadi, our landlord, lives on the ground floor of our building. If this fact seems insignificant to you, I guess you need to go back and read the last paragraph again. Abu Saadi and his wife, I think, are tied with around 390 million other Arabs for the title of Most Hospitable Person On Earth. The first time I met him, Sara and I had gone down to inquire about our electricity issues. Opening his door to our knocking, Abu Saadi swept us into his apartment and marched us to the living room, exclaiming "welcome! Welcome! Come in! Sit down! Why have you not come to visit me before? This is very bad. You must come down more often. Sit, sit!"

Electricity seemed the farthest thing from Abu Saadi's mind. How can one discuss electricity without food and drink, after all? Impossible. Hearing our arrival, Imm Saadi bustled in to meet us.

"Will you have tea?"

"No, thank you," Sara and I replied, having barely finished a cup upstairs.


"Thank you, we're fine."

"Really, you must have tea."

"That's very kind of you, but..."

"I will make some tea."

Clearly we were destined to have tea. The cherry cake which accompanied it was a bit of a curveball, but we took it in stride.

Abu Saadi, in spite of his recent operation which left a vivid purple scar along the length of his leg, often manages to make the trip up three flights of stairs to our apartment to good-naturedly criticize our cooking and offer his advice on everything from poorly-insulated windows to the best place in the market to buy fresh fish. Anybody living within strolling distance from Abu Saadi will never go hungry. When he's not pressing cup after delicious cup of coffee on us, he's poking his head out of his door when he hears a key in the outer lock and handing us gigantic containers of ful (bean paste with olive oil).


How often do you come home at the end of a normal day- a Tuesday, for all intents and purposes, since the weekend here is Friday and Saturday- and find yourself unable to focus on anything except how unbelievably good your life is? Maybe it has something to do with Palestine itself. I don't mean to wax philosophical, but I... well, I guess maybe it's easier to appreciate the beauty in the abstract- family, friends- and the little things when all the goodness in life IS found in the small and the intangible.

Snapshots of Nablus:

Elbows flying and headscarves fluttering, our girls running along the court during sports; my students shouting "her fault! Her fault!" amid giggles as we act out a play under the one square of shade in the school courtyard; shoes pounding, again, at dusk, during a pick-up post-lesson game of basketball; sugary sahlep and reminders of a bittersweet language love affair when I again- finally- search for words like "kış" and "edemebilirim"; tongue-twisters and laughter in downstairs Upstairs; folk songs on the banjo on the balcony, starlight above.

You can choose your own platitude to go here. Something about beauty in simplicity? I dunno. I'm happy, and they all seem true right now.


Sunday, October 10, 2010


By now, we're all used to being stared at like we're some rare species of giraffe on the lam from the Qalqiliya Zoo- probably because we're all devastatingly attractive, but I guess being the only white faces in Nablus could play some minor role as well. For the first time yesterday, we found ourselves on the other end of the goggling. Emerging from the corner store were two Westerners oh my god.

Richard and Daniel were German journalists passing through Nablus to interview Munib al-Masri, the West Bank's richest man, UT educated and the owner of a stand-out Renaissance-style mansion on one of Nablus's many hills. (More about him here; he's pretty interesting). After a few brief moments establishing just what exactly we're all doing in Nablus, of all places, the conversation took a familiar turn.

"So what is there to do in Nablus?" Daniel asked. "Like where do you go at night?"

"Uhh... Upstairs? Or Piano Bar, I guess, if that's closed," someone offered, gesturing up the street to its English sign. "There's no piano and it's not a bar, but it's not bad."

Daniel and Richard seemed vaguely nonplussed. "What about downtown? Where can you get a drink?"

We looked at each other. "Ramallah?" A moment of silence. We are fish out of water here, or what's worse, Westerners out of beer.


Upstairs and Piano Bar have quickly become the unofficial TFP hangouts in Nablus. Piano Bar is secondary, really, and in practice we only end up there if the much more interesting- and interested- staff at Upstairs decide we aren't coming and close up around eight. We- Sara, Ellen, Ciaran, Nick, Jeremy, and me, sometimes with the additions of Helen and Jon when they can escape their much heavier workloads- find our way to Upstairs most nights, and almost inevitably walk into a room empty of patrons except for an old man or two smoking silently near the door.

I have a theory, formed initially in Senegal, that the hat trick of the worst parts of American culture are often the first to be scooped up overseas- pop music, McDonalds, and Yankees hats. The last two, in general, are mercifully absent in Palestine, but Upstairs has its share of the first, and we often walk in to Mariah Carey playing over the speakers until someone voices a preference for Arabic music and the staff, who clearly agree, turn up the volume to conversation-prohibiting levels and dance their way back to the counter.

One of the waiters, Mohammad, a tall 24-year old, invited us to a birthday party at the cafe. We didn't know whose birthday it was, or who would be there, or if we should bring anything, but we presumed there would be cake and that was good enough for us. We showed up at eleven-fifteen to a totally vacant place with place-settings for twenty. "Be here at eleven, absolutely no later than eleven-thirty," we'd been warned (via Sara, our utterly indispensible translator). "We won't start without you." No danger of that when everyone else is running on Arabic time, apparently- despite being a quarter hour late, we beat the birthday girl to her party by a good twenty minutes.

There was in fact, as you will be excited to hear, cake. There was also shisha and guava juice and coffee and sahleb, which is an almost indecently delicious hot drink made from orchid flour and milk (which does not, Nick, taste like soap, thank you), along with plates full of cookies on every table. The total bill came to zero shekels; we were waved off, coins in hand, by the manager as we tried to pay. Stomachs full of cake and pockets (relatively) full of money, we waved goodbye to Mohammed, who will,insha'Allah, marry the birthday girl come summer, and (I swear to God) Saddam Hussein, a nineteen-year old who spent the last two years in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks at the IDF.

Another beautiful day in Palestine.

P.S: Have a video. Courtesy of Ellen.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

First class

"Today," Sean says, and pauses for emphasis, "will be a complete shitshow." (Sorry for the swearing in what's meant to be a family-friendly blog... but although I don't pretend to be an expert of capturing anyone's essence in print, I really wouldn't even be making a fair attempt if I censored Sean's speech).

Sean, in many ways, was not wrong. Today was the first day of class for us intrepid TFPers, and things were already falling apart in a major way. We met at the office around 11:15 to go over last minute details and prepare ourselves for the latest organizational issue. "So the Ministry assured us that we have the school," Jon told us, referring to the fancy facility next door to the boy's building where Sara, Ellen, and I were meant to take our classes. "They told us that everything's all squared away and we should be good to go today. But... Palestine. Cross your fingers."

Five minutes later, his cell phone rings. It's Kowthar, and the school has no idea who we are, and an eqally nonexistent intention of letting us use their rooms. Plan B, we're told, is bringing the girls into the boys' building until they can finagle a new location. "The parents are NOT going to be happy about this." Nope, probably not at all.

We arrived at school half an hour early to tape our rosters on the doors. Soon, kids started making their way in in threes and fours, and what ensued was... well, not chaos really, but it soon became abundantly clear that nobody had the faintest idea where they were meant to be. Twenty minutes and roughly eight hundred questions later, I found myself facing a class which included only two of the eight students on my list, but an additional eleven who hadn't, for whatever reason, been willing or able to register in advance.

I'd learned in Korea that laying down the law from the get-go makes everything infinitely easier in the long run, so the first order of business was DISCIPLINARY ACTION.

"Okay, punishments. What do you think is a fair punishment if you're out of line?" I ask them.

"Push-ups!" Ala' yells out. She's a tall girl with a black hijab, one of the oldest in my class at sixteen. Her English is noticeably better than her friends' and lightyears ahead of the younger students'. She's friendly and sweet and confident. She also won't shut up, and as I write her suggestion on the blackboard, I suspect that she will be doing a lot of push-ups in the coming months.

"Jumping jacks!" someone else shouts, with strange enthusiasm. "Laps!"


Clearly, my class is going to be a well-oiled fighting machine by the time we play Sara and Ellen's girls for honor and glory in the soccer championship at the end of term.

"Right, good," I say. "And what kinds of things will I make you do push-ups for?"

They run down the list: talking over me, being rude, not doing their work, speaking in Arabic, complaining. I think that, left to my own devices, I would have omitted the last one, but I guess they're used to a tight ship. Well, I like this even better, really. Sierra the Pitiless, future generations will call me.

Their English skills are all over the place. Ala' and her friends know everything. They shout out answers and shush the other girls when they speak in Arabic, often getting so excited that they need to get out of their chairs to make a point. We are having fun, but we're disorganized and loud. The fan is going at top speed and Israeli jets roar overhead several times during the lesson; combined with chattering and the scraping of chairs, we may as well be standing in a helicopter. I shush them over and over again. "QUIET!" I bellow. They subside, except for Nada.

"Nada!" I point to the blackboard where I've written "push-ups" in big letters. "Do you really want to keep talking?"

"But Sierra! You're so nice and good and smart." She grins at me, but stops chatting to the girl next to her. Masterfully done, Nada. I am manipulated. No push-ups this time.

With sport cut from the schedule on account of the location fiasco, class lasts only an hour an a half. It seems like ten minutes. I'm pretty certain they didn't learn a thing- I think they all could have done the present perfect exercise I had ready for them in their sleep- but we all, and I'm definitely no exception, walk out the door at four-thirty with more confidence than we'd had at the start. "See you tomorrow!" I call after them, already dreading some of these girls being switched out of my class to Ellen's lower level.


In much more depressing news, I found this map with the BBC story about settlers torching a mosque in Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem.


Monday, October 4, 2010

And now one for the illiterate

Here it is, the post we've all been waiting for. Don't worry, I'm not gonna fill it up with "words" and "sentences" and all that hippie nonsense, except to point out that a combination of laziness and a certain lightfingered adolescent in Jerusalem means that none of these pictures are actually mine. You can credit (mainly) Kitty Hinkenkemper for the ones in Kabak, Ilker "Crusher" Bayraktar for the Istanbul shots, and the lovely Sara Refai for the rest.




Labels: ,

Sunday, October 3, 2010

True or False? Nablus is boring.

On Friday, we gathered in the the living room of our flat for the first semi-formal Teach For Palestine meeting. We're eight now- Sean and Jon, the directors, and Ciaran, Helen, Sara, Nick, Daniel and me- and waiting on three more. There's a certain informality to TFP which, given the nature of the situation, doesn't surprise me as much as it otherwise might. We all have different reasons for being here, but the fact remains that we are here, in a conflict zone (however stable it may be at the moment), in a city the TFP website, not entirely generously, calls "extremely boring", for an insignificant 200 dollars a month. The focus of the meeting, in fact, had a lot less to do with our actual responsibilities than with the key element of discretion.

There will be complaints about each and every one of us, Sean said. It's pretty much unavoidable. An Australian teacher last year wore tight pants into town and prompted an avalanche of outraged parents knocking on the office door the next morning; a group went to the Wailing Wall and posted pictures on Facebook of themselves wearing the yarmulkes which are required to approach it- the backlash was even worse.

The problem is intensified by the fact that we're literally just about the only foreigners in Nablus. Everyone knows, or will shortly know, who we are individually. Celebrity doesn't come free, though, and the price we apparently pay is having our names tossed around in the city's eternal gossip mill.

"Pretend you're fifteen again and everyone in Nablus is your mother," Sean counselled us at the tail end of a discussion about alcohol. Alcohol, by the way, though available throughout most of the West Bank (and certainly Israel), is all but nonexistent in Nablus since Hamas started targeting the few establishments which sold it a few years ago. "If you're bringing back beer from Ramallah, don't carry it in a clear bag. And watch the clinking." In theory, most of these things seem obvious. Of course we shouldn't wear revealing clothes. Of course we shouldn't put into the public sphere any evidence that we're fond of drinking. But so much of it is second nature that I can easily believe Sean's prediction that we'll all accidentally run afoul of some social norm in the next few months.

Q: What's the issue with giving the cashier at the store down the road a big smile as I walk out?
A: He's a man! Scandalous.

Consensus among the volunteers, though, is that Nablus is really not as soul-numbingly boring as we were led to believe. Granted, its appeal doesn't lie in partying or checking out the (hypothetical) tourist attractions, but there's something to be said for being essentially the only foreigners in an Arab city, or sipping mint tea in the evening heat. Having been somewhere on the scale from "likely foreigner" (Turkey) to "WAEGOOK WAEGOOK AT 3 O CLOCK RED ALERT" (Korea) for over eight months now, I'm fairly used to little kids staring, wide-eyed, and old women rubbernecking in the streets. The citizens of Nablus, however, are pretty much professional starers, and have graduated to level two: yelling. There are four English sentences we all hear a good fifty times per day:

How are you?!
What's your name?!
Fuck you! (from kids, and usually followed by a fit of giggling)
Welcome to Nablus! (from everyone... Sean still gets this daily despite having lived here for four years)

"But what if you get sick of eating shawarmas and looking at Hamas martyr posters, Sierra? WHAT THEN!?" you ask. It's a fair question, really. Monotony seems a long way off still, but Nablus wouldn't realistically rank on anybody's top ten most colorful cities list (literally: the only two colors here are the pale blue of the sky and the light brown of, well, everything else). But Palestine isn't all headscarves and heat.

Yesterday, Nick, Ciaran, Sara, Helen and I went to Taybeh for:


Palestinian Oktoberfest. I'm not kidding.

Granted, we weren't exactly clinking glasses with the PLA; a good 85% of the attendees were foreigners. Looking over the sea of bare shoulders, Helen and I realized just how quickly our barometers of what is socially acceptable have been recalibrated by life in Nablus.

"Look at that woman. Short-shorts! How dare she."

"And a tank top. Outrageous."

In spite of the offense to our newly-delicate sensibilities, we soldiered on to the beer tent for our first (of many) sip of the allegedly famous local brew, which claimed to be the "Best in the Middle East". It was pretty good I guess- no Long Trail, but then again utter excellence might be an unreasonable standard (hats off, Vermont).

After pushing our way to the main event, we commandeered a row of chairs and managed to peer-pressure Nick into volunteering for the mystery competition on stage. Six volunteers from the crowd had to hold a massive beer mug (full, of course) out at arm's length for as long as they could. Nick made a good showing but didn't win; eventually, a huge Palestinian guy triumphed over a cocky, long-haired dude who had somehow managed to get away with blatantly cheating almost the entire time. I would have dearly loved to boo him off the stage, and was irrationally gleeful when his total disregard for the rules finally crossed the line to where he wasn't even really bothering to pretend his arm was straight anymore and he was disqualified. Cheaters never prosper, jerk.

We saw three musical performances: Dam, a rap group, a Taybeh-based traditional dance ensemble, and CultureShoc, Palestine's first rock-rap band. Over the course of the three, I went from "hey, this is pretty cool" to "whoa, this is awesome" to "SHHH DON'T TALK TO ME, IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT I TAKE THIS IN FULLY." I borrowed a pen from Sara and covered both sides of two envelopes which had been irritatingly floating around in my bag for three weeks- I knew they'd come in handy. I feel like I could, and probably will, dedicate an entire entry to the reflection the music provoked, so for now I'll just leave you with a YouTube video of a song by CultureShoc.

Have you noticed, by the way, how all my blog entries end awkwardly and abruptly? Well uh, this one is no diffe