A day in the life

Yesterday, I finished off (well, nearly) a complete first draft of the chapter on wartime rape in antiquity. As a result, my brain is too tired to think of something really interesting to write about today, so instead I am offering this: a compilation of normal and not-so-normal days of my life in the West Bank over the past week.

The daylight hours are increasing quickly these days, and the sun is waking me earlier and earlier (we had beautiful weather all January—sunny and warm)… along with my upstairs neighbors, who have recently developed a habit of tromping down the stairs to shout back up at each other before leaving for the day. I spend most mornings at my desk, sitting on the deep window archway cut into my apartment’s three-foot-thick stone walls, writing—or trying to write, anyway. My work is accompanied by a soundtrack of roosters, church bells, the call to prayer, the vegetable seller (who drives around with a loudspeaker to tell us what he’s got that day), the metal-trash-collector (who drives around with a loudspeaker to alert us to his presence), and the gas seller (who drives around blasting tinkly Christmas carols, kind of like an ice cream truck). There’s another man who drives around with a loudspeaker AND tinkly music; I have not figured out what he’s selling, though. A mystery yet to be solved.

Some days, of course, I have meetings and lectures at the university. On Friday, I met with the director of the leadership institute to arrange my lectures this spring. It’s the second time we’ve met this semester, and still no dates or precise plans have been made. These things take time here! We drank tea, of course, and talked about Pope Francis, students’ tendency to pay attention to PowerPoint slides rather than lectures and discussions, and whether getting married and having children is the only way to be happy in life (both of us agree that it’s not, though most Palestinians would think so). Meetings, schedules, work—this is all much more relaxed here than in the States; people are more concerned about relationships than tasks.

In the late mornings I try to go to the gym. There are a number of gyms in the area—mine is a women’s gym (no co-ed exercising in the West Bank). Back in November, I usually ended up exercising with two local women who would have Arabic music videos blaring on the tv, but for the past two months I’ve been alone most days. This week, however, a Spanish woman came in one day. She works with an organization that cares for elderly people or people with health problems in their homes. She told me that I should stay in the West Bank—first, because America is ‘going crazy’; people there are too concerned with money and self-interest, and it’s not a good place to live. Second, she informed me that God will be coming here to the Holy Land for three years to bless all Christians (but only the Christians). If I stay here for that time, my prayers will be answered. Unfortunately, she could not give me a more precise time frame for this event. (Incidentally, connecting back to my conversation with my friend at the university, she also told me I should marry a local man; my life would be so much better if I do. She recommended a man from Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem, because they allow their wives more freedom. I told her I’d think about it.)

I often stop off at the fruit-and-vegetable shop or the grocery store on the way back from the gym. The shopkeepers are used to me by now; the fruit-and-veg seller even gave me store credit this week (because she didn’t want to make change). The fruits and vegetables are limited to what’s in season locally, but I’m often surprised by what I find in the grocery store—Cadbury chocolate, Italian espresso, Special K and Quaker Oats. Sometimes I join my landlady for lunch with her grandson, who comes every day after kindergarten. He’s a bit shy, but he does give me vocabulary lessons (and tests me on the words he’s taught me), and we watch Tom and Jerry (dubbed in Arabic) together too. I try to work a bit more in the afternoons, clean up the dust in the apartment, do laundry, and of course I have my regular Arabic lesson once a week. This week at my lesson I read a story about a woman whose cat jumped into the refrigerator and froze to death; I wonder if I could read that story to the street cat that wanders around here meowing unbearably loudly at night, as a warning…

On Thursday, my upstairs neighbors’ daughter took me to a local salon to get my hair cut (I didn’t trust my own Arabic skills for such a tricky business!). We had an ‘appointment’ for 4.30. I finally sat down in the chair around 6.00—after my friend asked if the foreigner could cut ahead of another woman who had been waiting since before we arrived. The other women in the salon didn’t seem to mind the long wait; the hair dresser managed to carry on a conversation with everyone in the salon at the same time, and of course we had coffee and tea. I now have ‘steps’ in my hair (rather than layers), and my head feels five pounds lighter (significantly lighter than I had intended it to feel—apparently stylists here are just as good as American stylists at chopping off more than I ask for).

After my appointment, my neighbors wanted to see the results, and say ‘na’iman’ (Arabic has special greetings and responses for every imaginable situation). We ended up talking for some time about the differences between American culture and Palestinian culture, and particularly the fact that in America I live in California but my parents live in Illinois. My neighbor was quite concerned about this: why do Americans let their unmarried daughters (or sons, for that matter) live so far away from home? Here, children live with their parents until marriage (and for sons, after, as well); they live at home while they are in university, and while they’re working in their first jobs. Moving away from home is unheard of and rather unthinkable (one of the many reasons I’m glad to be living in a family apartment complex here). My neighbor didn’t seem to believe my explanations of American culture. Like the woman at the gym, I fear she thinks Americans are crazy.

Most nights are quiet in Beit Sahour, if you ignore the barking dogs (all strays), roosters (who don’t seem to understand that they should only crow at sunup), and the baby upstairs playing the piano he got for Christmas. On Thursday night and Saturday night (before the split weekend on Friday, the day off for Muslims, and Sunday, the day off for Christians), the disco around the corner entertains us late into the evening, and people having parties or weddings set off firecrackers. But by midnight, the parties are over and people are home. It’s a quiet life here in my village.