I’ve escaped now, wrote this in my Tartus hotel room with Angela and her mom, braless and belly full of ice cream. We’re nearing the end of a beautiful road trip up the coast, all fresh oranges from dark green trees and mountains sheltering blue beaches that I didn’t know Syria had.
I had to spend a night in Jerusalem because I left Jalezun Saturday and had forgotten that it was Shabbat and that the border would be closed. I wandered around New Jerusalem because I’ve realized that I can’t make myself very interested in old buildings (so uncultured) and I’ve already been to the three main holy sites. There were so many Americans, mostly younger teenagers looking like Urban Outfitters catalogue pictures, flirting and buying expensive frozen yogurts and ten dollar falafels (one dollar in Ramallah, fifty cents in Syria). I immediately judged them to be superficial and hated them for their decadence in the face of occupation. But I know that my dislike mostly stems from (as is often true of too-critical people) seeing the same faults in myself. Because I recovered quickly from the culture shock, I walked through the mall and wanted to buy a gauzy pink dress, felt awkward wearing sneakers, bought a seven-dollar beer instead and eavesdropped on Americans.
I guess I’m being extreme, but I feel guilty for wanting to live and study in this region but can’t live for more than two weeks in the lifestyle that many rural people live. Which is not to say that there weren’t times in which I was happy there, because three of the kids were absolutely hilarious and the family was so warm and welcoming. I just can’t handle what so many Arab girls handle, which is staying in the house all day and washing dishes and cleaning and holding babies. The few times I went to Ramallah I had to be back by three pm, and sometimes got chaperoned. I know that they want me to be safe and that they care about me, but I couldn’t do it, which is why I left sort of suddenly and ran back to Damascus. I guess I feel guilty now because I am lucky enough to be able to run away or to get to choose where and with who I want to live and what I want to do, and I don’t feel like I made any tangible impact upon the lives of the two women in the family.
But while I was there the kids and I went a few times to pick olives in the mountains, which was refreshing because of the air and sad because a settlement is being expanded right above their neighborhood. It loomed over us as we picked, and when we were walking down I almost grabbed onto the fence for balance because I didn’t realize that it was electric (the warning signs faced inwards, not outwards). I’ve read and heard a lot about the settlements, but being there and actually seeing them was startling. It’s hard to drive for fifteen minutes without seeing a set of clone houses with cream walls and red roofs, always looking down from the hilltops. Some of the family’s olive trees had been cut by the settlers and they think that the Palestinians at the olive press stole some oil from them, so the jugs that we went home with were a disappointment.
Some of the family land had been stolen to build that settlement, but now two relatives that I met are doing manual labor for its expansion. I felt that they were digging their own graves, but they said that they had no other options because there is no work in the Palestinian Territories, and occupation or no, they had to feed their families.
It’s my third time in the Middle East and my first experience with real culture shock, the hard kind, the kind that makes you want to run to a nice cafe with toilet paper and internet, and sit skyping or facebook stalking for hours.
I’m in the West Bank, near Jalazone, near Ramallah, staying with a conservative family (family friends of a friend). They are the nicest people, first of all, a huge family by American standards and a normal one by theirs. But being here, being a girl here is incredibly claustrophobic. It’s very hard to go anywhere by myself. The women eat seperately from the men and spend the entire day on housework. And my time as a guest has expired so I’m learning what it’s like to do laundry for a family of 9, to bake bread every three days (they burn old clothes as kindling…my American heart quivered as I watched the nylon melt), to be expected to cook a different meal every day and never serve leftovers. There’s so much work that there is no time to think.
And it has me thinking about tradition, and how women are expected to live in a traditional society. It’s hard. I can’t stand it, and I want to change it, but I’m also conscious that I’m an outsider and I have colonizer’s blood. In the traditional lifestyle family is the central, most important part of social life. Everything revolves around family, visiting family, cooking for family, talking about family, and fighting with family. The problem is that there are very definite women’s and men’s worlds, and so you don’t find men helping out in the kitchen (and all of the meals are so huge and complicated that they can take 5 hours, not to mention the clean-up) and you don’t find women in the street. All of the socialization takes place in various homes, playing with babies and serving each other countless cups of tea and cookies and nuts. Relaxation comes finally, late at night in front of Turkish soaps dubbed in Arabic (Forbidden Love is the one on everyone’s lips–they gossip more about its characters than they do about each other).
There’s a lot more that I want to say but I don’t have time. I told them that I was going to Bethleham today because I needed some time alone (there is a severe shortage of that) but I’m reveling in the glory of the internet and the English language. I guess what I want to say is that I’ve lived a sheltered life in the Middle East until now. My other friends, Syrian, Jordanian, Moroccan may or may not speak English but they understand American culture to some extent and share many of my ideas about what makes a good life. And so being here is showing me a side of this region that I had never been submerged in. inSodma iqtisodia, and I might have to peace out early and head back to Damascus, the land of the free. I’m dying for a beer.
There are three, so far, words that I have learned in Syrian colloquial for nostalgia (wa7ish, 7anin, and shuqi). I’m wondering what the nuances of meaning might be.
Wa7ish also means wild, and I think has the same root as monster, so maybe it’s that fierce, drunken nostalgia that meets you in a dark spinning room and paralyzes your body in the corner as your mind unrelentingly plays films of regret.
7anin to me sounds delicate, sweet nostalgia like tasting orange blossom water in a dessert and wishing to return to your nine-year-old body happily eating at an exotic restaurant with your parents.
And shuqi is the nostalgia that I love to bathe in, indulgent, flavored with the melancholy of listening to the favorite song of a former (but still adored) lover, heavy with longing but not bitter—savory actually.
On an entirely unrelated note, Mazzin (my badass colloquial tutor) taught me how to make muttebah (a roasted/mashed eggplant appetizer) and I made it tonight for Angela. She very much approved, so here’s the recipe:
4 small eggplants (about the length and width of my hand, maybe yours too? If they don’t sell them at your local stop-and-shop/foodland/farmer’s market try a Japanese one cut into two or three pieces or a normal one cut into two or three)
3 heaping spoonfuls tahini
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
juice of half a lemon
pinch o’ salt
If you have a gas stove, stick a fork/metal object in the fat side of the eggplant and roast it on low heat, rotating until the eggplant is soft and skin is burnt. If you don’t have a gas stove I think you could put an oven rack over the stove and put the eggplant on it and rotate it, maybe on medium heat. When the eggplant is ready, put it in a dish of cold water and peel off all of the skin. Repeat with the other eggplants and place them all in a bowl and begin to mash (I used the bottom of a cup for this process but it’s possible that you have a more advanced tool) while still keeping some chunks of eggplant. Add the garlic and salt and make sure to mash it well. At this point I realized that my eggplants were still a little raw so I added some olive oil and cooked them for 5 min on very low heat, you might not need to do this but I found that it made the garlic smell very good. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix very well. I promise that it tastes better than it looks, so enjoy!
I’ve been saying to people that I’ve been in Damascus for two weeks but as I sit down to write this I realize that a month has already passed.
Time passes differently because I am not actively ‘doing’ anything. I’m not enrolled in University or working or interning or even volunteering. The act of not doing was incredibly stressful at first, guilt and anxiety strangled me for the first two weeks as I looked for NGOs and opportunities came up mostly dry. But now I’ve relaxed, I spend my morning hours on cooking experiments, my afternoons studying or exploring, and my evenings with friends. I guess my goal here is to live—Angela and I got an apartment in a Druze/Christian/Iraqi (in order of chronological appearance) neighborhood with no Westerners (though we found out later that it’s notorious for prostitution), but I find myself coming to the Old City every day anyway, for internet or social occasions or for the Danish Center’s library with the kinds of books that a Brown student would be expected to like (The Politics of Gender in Modern Kuwait, Women in North African Media, ect.).
I lied a little, I am doing ‘something’ in the sense of a ‘something’ that has a constructed meaning of productivity. I take four hours of Arabic colloquial lessons a week with a vibrant Palestinian man named Mazzin. He has graying dreads and a jolly qirsh (belly) and is guiding me through cooking disasters (and teaches me how to make miracles, like fresh cheese from raw milk, lemon juice and salt).
The social scene here at first glance is exciting and colorful and tastefully (and sometimes distastefully) drunk, but it has strange undercurrents of business. There aren’t many Americans in Damascus (I’ve only met five, and four were friends of a friend) but it’s incredibly popular among European travelers and Arabic/politics students. I don’t pretend to understand or believe in Principles of Economics but this could be thought of in terms of supply and demand– there are many men in the Old City who work exclusively with foreigners and throw parties where they don’t allow their Syrian friends to enter. And even outside of that circle (though the edges of the circle are nebulous), it’s easy here to meet intellectuals and artists, novelists and dissidents and musicians. It’s easy because I’m American, I’m a girl (see note for complications of this statement), and I’ve heard of Marx and Foucault. These aren’t necessarily the qualities that I like to flaunt to make friends in the US, so the fact that that matters so much here makes me uncomfortable. Brown has a neurotic relationship with elitism, I’m realizing, because the elites here don’t make an effort to hide it, they’ll say to you directly, (in English)‘what does a villager know about fine wine’ or (in Arabic) ‘what does a donkey know about ginger?’ And my liberal heart cringes and I can’t help but to think of the speaker as backwards for wanting to keep elitism to the elites. Which maybe makes me more of an elitist than they are?
Last thing, funny thing: when I first got here I had short hair and everyone thought that I was a boy whose voice hadn’t changed yet. It’s been liberating to be male, or ambiguous here. Unless I wear something feminine I don’t get verbal harassment (well, unless the plethora of ‘konnichi wa’s’ or ‘nihau’s’ count) or lewd looks in the streets, and even then it really isn’t much. Who’d want to marry a masculine woman? And it makes one consider the way that hair is fetishized in this society…but I’ll leave the considering to you.
I’m happy to be back, sure, but the sense of loss is greater. I’m in an America that I never knew to begin with, Pittsburgh, PA and so I hardly feel at home.
In Morocco I love miniature adventures but here I lay out in the yard and read or bake and reminisce. And so today I’m going to explore Pittsburgh, starting with the Andy Warhol museum. I need to find some excitement…
Thursday was a drunken mess. One of my friends here became friends with a graduate of the American School where we live and have class. This guy, Mo, sleeps all day and goes clubbing all night, actually. We called him at ten pm and he was just waking up, joined us for a breakfast beer at the Tanger Inn (the old hangout spot of beat writers, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell that but for a picture of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs on the wall—now it’s full of tourists and techno and well-dressed Moroccans).
He took us to a club and it felt surreal, big hair, expensive liquor, prostitutes and hip young Moroccans. And I feel that I can’t dismiss this side of Morocco in spite of my first instincts.
Between clubs, we had a snack of snails boiled in herbs from a nearby stand. You have to pick them out of their shells with a bent safety pin—they weren’t bad but let’s say I’m sticking to the street soups and donuts.