Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Prisoner Release

My kitchen is clean. My phone is lost.

It's somewhere in Ramallah, and it's still ringing. adsfvjnd;fgjnwd;gjb.

What a day to lose your phone, while your mother and grandmother are venturing into the West Bank for the first time to meet you.

I'm trying to plan four days of English classes so I don't have to think about it while they're here. It's going to be an interesting few days. There's a big meeting full of important people on Monday, regarding building rights, so Al Aqaba will be going crazy then. Haj Sami told me the village doesn't have enough money to feed everyone lunch.

And then there's this weekend....I left the first part of this post on the desktop of a computer in the Popular Committee office in Bil'in, I intended to come back and finish it, but as usual I hopped in a Service to Ramallah on Saturday morning without much thought. I'll retrieve it next Friday.

I've been told my tone in this blog is nonchalant. I think it's that there's so much to talk about, and I don't find much space for emotion. Or I think emotion is best left behind in the high school livejournal. I don't really know. But looking back on this weekend I realized I need to say this...

There are so many instances where I stop and think, "holy crap, I'm in Palestine."

Then I think, "yeah, ok..." and I go about my day. Usually it happens when I'm walking out of my apartment, or getting into a Service those moments I want everyone I know to be with me, and see what I see. Those are moments when I feel so happy and blessed, and on the flip side, anxious about sharing this experience in the most beautiful, eloquent way, at least doing it justice.

Then there are moments when I feel like I've been dropped into history. Like when I went to Kobar with Mohib and the Turkish reporters to see three Palestinian prisoners welcomed home after the Shalit swap. These events were happening all over the West Bank and Gaza, but the media was paying special attention to Nael and Fakhri Barghouthi, who had served the two longest terms, 34 and 33.5 years. Nael had been in prison since 1978 for taking part in an operation that killed an Israeli settler/soldier near Halamish, a West Bank settlement.

This is Nael.
It was a fairly quiet reception, full of hugging and kissing, and knafeh. As soon as I entered the reception area, I recognized him from the news, and my first thought was "who's that movie star?" Among all the other thoughts swirling through my head, like, "why am I in Kobar surrounded by old men?" and "where is the bathroom?" and "would these Turkish reporters think me gluttonous if I took another plate of knafeh?"

That was a place where I felt uncomfortable whipping out my "activist" camera, but I wanted to take some kind of record, if I couldn't fulfill my momentary dream of being, presumably, the only American "reporter" to interview Nael. The moment passed, and we went back to Ramallah.

That was about a month ago, and last night made for an interesting sequel. I was sitting in the office in Bil'in, composing the first half of this post, and Kefah came in and told me "the wedding" was tonight. The wedding...Nael's wedding? I thought it was last week...? No, it was tonight. Did I want to come? Of course!
So I got in a car with Kefah and two other guys, who are related to the Barghouti's somehow, and we went barreling down to Ramallah. Kefah turned around and asked me if I knew anyone there. No, I'd just met a younger Barghouti (was was, incidentally, ridiculously attractive) at the reception. Ohhhhh. I realized why Kefah had asked. I would be the women's party. This could either be really awesome or really awkward. I considered taking my bag with me if I wanted to bail and stay with my friend in Ramallah. I took a leap of faith and left it in the car. Kefah and the guys went off to the men's party and I took up a post in the back of the massive party hall that accommodated all the women of Kobar and their friends. Everyone was dressed colorfully, sitting at tables draped in white table cloths. The invitation had been made public, so that made me feel less intrusive, but I realized, as I watched the only other two blondes being escorted around by little Kobar girls, that I probably looked a little suspicious. The groom was a famous ex-prisoner, and I was a lone Westerner with no connections here. Kefah dropped me the name of his aunt, but I'd forgotten it already. I made an effort to look pleasant and move a little to the music.
Nael and his bride processed in, and all the women ululated. (I just found that word, it's onomatopoetic!) I wished I had my camera, but it was in the car, and, again, I felt suspicious. If I were a spy, I'd be the worst-disguised spy in the world, but I couldn't shake it. I shifted from right food to left foot as the couple took their pictures and the dancing begun. They were so happy. The wife was from Nalin, and was about 40. She'd been in prison for at least a decade. It's amazing how unremarkable these prison sentences are starting to sound.

Here's a roughly-translated account and picture of the wedding I just found online. It's actually really sad, talking about Nael and Fakhri's parents, who both died while they were in prison. Naturally, it was their mother's dream to see her sons married.

After about a half hour, one of the families in front of me gestured for me to sit down. We made conversation for a little while, they were from Ramallah, not Kobar. The woman who had waved at me was actually from Colombia...? Afterwards I wondered why I didn't speak to her in Spanish. It would've been a much better conversation, though now if I try to think in Spanish it turns into some Spanish-Arabic hybrid.

Anyways, most of that family went off to dance, but I was joined by two girls, who were very sweet. They were Barghoutis. From Kobar. One wore a hijab, one didn't. They both studied at Birzeit, and invited me to visit the campus. I wanted to visit Kobar again, so I got their numbers, and I just realized that I lost their numbers with my phone. asgkvnadrgihbadflhbsdgf.

After about an hour, Kefah called me, saying the guys were ready to leave. I said goodbye to my new friends, and we ran out into the rain and piled into the car. They stopped at a shawarma place because I'd only eaten chocolate all day and was feeling a little queasy. Kefah wouldn't let me pay. It was a great shawarma, and I made a mess of it in the car. I asked Kefah what he did for work, and he said nothing, he used to fix tires but now he wants to study in the States. He's taking English courses from AMIDEAST, and recommended I work there for actual money. Aye. It doesn't sound very interesting though.
We got back to the Committee office in Bil'in, and I went back online. Then Haitham and Mustafa came in. I decided to go with them and make some visits. I took the office apartment key from Kefah so I could come back and crash in the visitor's room, but I took my bag because I suspected that I would be offered another place to stay. The visitor's room was fine, but kinda lonely.
Mustafa dropped off Haitham, then took me to Iyad's house. This wasn't the house I remembered from last year, it was the house they were in the process of building, and it was SO nice. Iyad was sitting with his family around a makeshift stove full of burning coals. We sat in a circle and chatted. I inquired about the new baby's name, and they replied, "Yaman." I thought, oh no, Yaman is that really spoiled kid in Al Aqaba. He taught me "biddesh! biddesh! I don't wanna!" But this Yaman was a baby-baby, and an adorable one at that. He kept getting passed around, to the little kids too. I notice here that everyone is good with babies, and there doesn't seem to be an age of childhood where babies get "uncool." Yaman wore a lavender and aqua snow suit, and he looked like a marshmallow peep. They gave him things to play with, flashlights, cell phones, then Mustafa gave him a cigarette, which he held between his fingers and flailed around, making everyone crack up. I remembered Iyad's daughter Mayar from last year, when I visited Palestine for the first time. She'd showed me her English book, and I remember she was so sharp.
Mustafa and I left, and went back to his family's house, the Abu Rahma's. I wasn't sure if they'd be like "heyy, welcome back" or "ohh, you again..." especially since Alham, like I mentioned a while back, is like Veronica Lodge, or I don't speak her language so I'm intimidated. Maybe both. But she and I and her brothers and their wives hung out around their coal stove, and it was established that I wouldn't sleep at the office, not good, I would sleep here. Mustafa got me to smoke a cigarette, which brought me up to four cigarettes in one week, which is...a record. All the men offer me cigarettes here. They're really surprised that I don't smoke. But I enjoy argheelah so I smoked more of that, and it made me light-headed and a little queasy after a while. Iyad came and joined us, joking that our friend, Abu Abed, was supposed to be home to his wife at ten and now it was twelve-thirty. She had probably locked the door on him, and this became a running joke through the night. Like Ikram's Jawwal phone card that was over-scratched. No one could read the activation numbers, so they tried everything, guessing the combinations, shining a flashlight through it, calling Jawwal, and in the end it was a wasted 20 shekels. But it was a community effort, an entertaining one at that.
At one point, after the argheelah hit me, and I'd agreed to sing a new Arabic song for everyone, Mustafa handed me one of his pet snakes and I freaked out. I'd seen them and held one of them before, but the combination of the nausea and the stage fright and surprise! have a snake...was just too much. Really, not a fan of snakes.
Anyways, once the animals were locked away, we went from the porch to the street to barbecue some chicken. We spent the next two hours just hanging out and cooking and eating around the fire. Mustafa tried to make me eat the chicken heart. I wonder what it was like growing up with him as a brother. We threw chicken pieces at all the cats around us, and I arranged a stay for myself, my mom, my mom's friend and my grandmother at Iyad's house after the demonstration next Friday. Abu Abed and Mustafa insisted on feeding us lunch, and hosting us. I glanced at Iyad to see if he disagreed, or was trying to pass us off, and he looked at them and said "andek 3sha," you get dinner," meaning, "we feed them makloubeh and they stay with us."
At one moment, probably around 3am, I paused and thought, "holy crap, I'm in Palestine." And it wasn't the same feeling as walking outside my apartment, or wanting all my friends to be there with me. I was already with friends. Even though I couldn't understand most of what they were saying, and they kept referring to me as Markojan, which is a leave/flower/vine thing. At one point Iyad felt compelled to translate a joke for me, and I didn't get it. He said it was Abu Abed's joke, and everyone caught onto my confusion, and started cracking up. There was nothing to get, it was a stupid joke about donkeys. I realized Abu Abed was the butt of many jokes, when someone brought up the time he sat under a drain pipe and said it was raining. They cracked up again. One thing led to another, and soon everyone was ROFLing uncontrollably.

I lost track of the reason, but the feeling was contagious. We laughed non-stop for a good twenty minutes.

After Helme and Douaa, then Iyad, then Abu Abed, then Mustafa had all left, Alham and Ikram and I got ready for bed. As we settled in, Ikram asked me out of the blue, "shoo ismi?" what's my name? and I swore in my head. I hated when this happened. I couldn't remember. She was more withdrawn than the others, certainly compared to Alham. "Ikram," she said, and I felt so bad.
Then Alham bequeathed to me a pair of red bellbottoms and a bracelet and two rings. I gave her my earrings from Jaffa. Then she pulled out her photo album of ger friends and pictures of her from her brother Helme's wedding. She is really, really gorgeous. Like, whoa.
We turned the lights off and the girls chatted for a while. It was another mental snapshot, hearing sisters pillow talking in Arabic in the dark. I wanted to contribute.
They kept talking.
"Shoo biddek Markojan?" she said impatiently.
"Arif ismich" I know your name.
The girls howled with laughter.
Their brother grumbled at us sleepily from his bed in the living room. Then we fell asleep.