An introvert in a strange land

I am an introvert. (I assume that’s not much of a shock to most of you.) And I’m quite happy being an introvert; it works for me.

Unfortunately, I seem to be living in a land of extroverts—or at least among people who value the kinds of behaviors I would normally associate with extroverts (while I’m thinking of Palestinian culture specifically, many of these factors hold true on the other side of the wall):

  • During Eid al Adha, I was invited on a day trip to Wadi Qelt and Jericho with the mothers’ group from the university. It was a long day; we visited several monasteries, hiked for a couple hours, sweltered in the hot sun. By the time we got back on the bus to return to Bethlehem that night, I was exhausted physically and mentally. But the mothers were not. They cranked up the music, danced in the aisle of the bus, talked and told jokes the entire way back. Of course, as the special guest, I had to join in—otherwise they would have assumed I was angry, or that I did not enjoy being with them.
  • My upstairs neighbors have given me a standing invitation to join them for dinner each night, and my next-door neighbors would love to have me come for lunch or tea or to watch television or just to talk. They worry that I sit at my desk too much, and that I don’t go out at night: I must not like it here; perhaps something is wrong. I’ve tried to explain that I like being quiet, and that after a day of writing, or lecturing, or visiting friends, I need to be alone to pull myself back together. Being alone, however, is perceived negatively; it’s something to avoid.
  • Palestinians love small talk. When you meet a friend, neighbor, or complete stranger, there’s a litany of ‘how are yous’: How are you? How are things going? How’s your work? How are you doing? How’s your family? And you, how are you doing? And my Arabic teacher is always reminding me that I should repeat myself to really sound like a local: The shop is near, it is not far; the shop is open, it is not closed; I am busy, I am not free, I have work, I am busy… Words, words, words—there is a constant barrage of conversation. And, though perhaps this is beginning to sound repetitive, if one does not join in the conversation, people think something must be wrong; perhaps you are sad, or angry, or sick…
  • I’m so glad I have my own apartment, because if I didn’t, I would never be alone. People stop to talk on the street, whether they know me or not. If I sit on the benches in one of the courtyards at Bethlehem University, a gaggle of women students will be sure to sit down next to me to chat, even if empty benches are available.  At the gym, if there are two empty treadmills beside me, the next woman to come in will take the one right next to me (and of course, will want to talk – the idea of listening to an iPod, etc., is foreign here in more than the obvious sense).

I am not complaining about these cultural expectations. It is lovely to know that people really do care about you; they are not asking how you are to be polite, but rather they want to know that things are well with you. It’s lovely to have neighbors who watch out for you and want you to be happy. The hospitality, neighborliness, and community-focus of life are some of the best parts of the Middle East, ranking right up there with kanafe (a sweet cheesy dessert) and ancient churches and camels.

But this culture is exhausting for an introvert. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to shut my curtains, turn off the lights, and pretend I’m not home for the rest of the day; I think I hear several books calling my  name (and luckily, my Kindle is backlit!).