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