american in palestine

Monday, December 11, 2006

why would you want to live in....PALESTINE??!!

sometimes people ask me, or wonder, why I would choose to live in palestine, given the violence and occupation.....why would anyone want to live in a place like that?? they ask....

but i think in such a question there is something missing - the value of the culture of the palestinian people is utterly negated when one equates the whole reality of palestine with the fact of the israeli occupation and ongoing illegal seizure of the land. and in fact, it is a rich, deep and beautiful culture, with a long history and a deep connectedness to this land.

i wake up in the mornings and open my door to the view of an ancient olive grove. occasionally a shepherd is there, grazing his sheep, in permanent timeless peace, in the midst of this war. if i look a little further, i can glimpse the church that is built on the spot where the shepherds were reputed to have seen the star of bethlehem some 2000 years ago.....it's easy to be transported to that time, with the ancient stone buildings, the shepherds and the olive trees.....how much has really changed in this spot since that time?

it's amazing to experience the kind of historical continuity that exists in a place like this, where people are connected to their land and to their ancestors, who are buried in the same ground that is now giving their children their roots.

it's something we don't really have in the US -- some native americans are making noble and somewhat desperate attempts to retain their continuity in ancestry and connection to the land -- but their efforts are often brutalized, beaten down and discarded by the federal government that now controls 99% of what was once their ancestors' land.

there is a kind of peace in this feeling of historical continuity. it's beautiful here, and ancient. all around me are my husbands' family - layers and layers of them - from the innermost circle, within the family's multi-layered home, where his brothers live, and his parents, each in their own section, but connected.....to the surrounding circle of uncles, aunts and cousins, and outward to the extended family that stretches on for kilometers. the family elders have a traditional governing system, which in many ways resembles the tribal system i saw and experienced when i lived in africa. if there is any disagreement or incident involving members of different families, the elders of those families will meet together with those involved to try to get to the bottom of the problem, and come to a fair resolution that is acceptable to all.

family is very important here - people usually live among their extended family, and siblings tend to be close with each other through adulthood. every day there are visits - i don't think a day has gone by without at least one relative or friend visiting. and there doesn't have to be a reason to visit, either.....if someone is passing in the area, they will inevitably stop by to say hello and have a cup of coffee.

there are lots of subtle, nuanced traditions in palestinian culture -- and LOTS of feasts (ie. celebrations/traditional holidays), and feasts leading up to feasts.....any excuse to get together with family....in a palestinian wedding, for example, there are traditionally five parties (sometimes more), and that's just for the wedding, it doesn't count the 2 or 3 parties that accompany an engagement! each of the wedding parties has a specific traditional significance -- there is the gathering at the groom's home, with the close relatives, in which there is drumming and singing, traditional song and dance. then a more formal, larger family party, usually in a hall.....there is the henna ceremony, in which the women gather at the bride's home in traditional dresses, perch the girl up on a table and sing traditional songs while they paint her hands with henna dye (a plant-based dye, used in the US for hair coloring). and for the groom, there is a ceremony where the men put him on a table and cut his hair and give him a shave, in preparation for the big day (which usually ends up in a big mess of shaving cream sprayed and smeared on the groom and all his friends). and the big post-wedding party is itself full of nuanced traditions - from the stop at the groom's home between the ceremony in the party, at which time relatives beat the man with sticks (symbolically of course), and the couple enters their home for the first time, with a sprig of basil stuck into bread dough stuck on the side of the door for good luck, to the brandishing of a sword to cut the wedding cake, to a candle ceremony where all the young women accompany the bride in a dance holding candles, while the bride herself holds two.

and it is not just in weddings and formal occasions that subtle and complex traditions exist. in the wearing of the kaffia (traditional headscarf, which most americans tend to associate with the late yassar arafat), there are a number of traditions. one that i find interesting is that if someone is in trouble, if they have made a problem with someone and are on the run, they can enter a household and tie a knot in the corner of the house elder's kaffia. if the man on the run manages to do that, he is then under that family's protection, and they will be obligated to take his case to the council of elders.

there are lots of small things like this - and many that are unknown to me, I'm sure. the culture of palestine is rich and dynamic. traditional dancing, dabke, is popular among young people, and is a beautiful and complex foot-stamping dance that is amazing to watch. traditional music, in the form of the oud (the precursor to the guitar) and flute, abounds as well.

palestinian culture is a trust culture, that is, relationships are built on trust -- another refreshing difference from the fear culture which characterizes the U.S. (although there are some subcultures within the U.S. that vary from this norm). In the U.S., relationships are based on fear - fear of being betrayed, fear of losing - people come up with complex contracts in order to protect themselves from loss, complex systems of laws and regulations that are all based on the basic premise that other people, and their motives, are to be feared and not trusted. small-town america is a bastion of the 'fear of the outsider' -- if you are _in_, then great, you're accepted and etc. .....but if an 'outsider' comes in, they are immediately suspect....and it takes a lot of work and time for that outsider to be accepted, and even when they are accepted, if something bad happens in that town, it is the 'outsider' who will be the first suspect -- no matter how long they've been in town and how well they have proven themselves.

here it is different. an outsider is a welcome sight -- people welcome the outsider into their homes, and consider it an honor for that person to drink coffee or tea, or eat food with them in their home. people trust each other (and in many cases, in the current circumstances, _have_ to trust each other, having been surrounded by this prison wall and forced into extraordinary suffering by the occupying force).

there are so many examples of the way this culture of trust differs from the culture of fear that permeates life in the US. today, for example, i had the rather annoying experience of having my bank card get eaten by the atm machine in ramallah. of course, it happened on a sunday evening, when the bank was closed. this is something that could easily happen in the united states. but here's what happened next, and how i believe this culture differs from that of the states. standing next to the machine, trying to get it to eject the card, other people who wanted to use the machine approached, and i told them what happened, pointing out the screen saying 'this machine is currently out of service'. they didn't just walk away when i showed them this, as people would have done in the states, they immediately tried to help me get my card out. and one of the guys who was nearby said, "hang on, i have a friend who works at the bank here, let me call him." so he got on his cell phone and within a few minutes, his friend the bank employee showed up to help. he wasn't able to get the card out either, and since it was a sunday, wouldn't be able to retrieve it until the bank opened monday morning. but he didn't just leave it at that. he withdrew money from his own account and gave it to me, with only his account number and name written on a piece of paper (so i could transfer it to his account monday morning) as assurance that he would get the money back. i never met the man before, and he didn't know me either. but he trusted that the situation was what i said it was, and lent me the money i was trying to withdraw from the machine, and i trusted that i would find him in the bank come monday morning, and get his assistance in retrieving the card from the machine.

now, even if something like this happened in the states, i'm afraid that i would be untrusting enough to consider it some kind of elaborate scam -- that somehow these guys had rigged the machine, and were giving me some money in order to rip me off for more......but here, that is not the way things work, and, whether cynical americans believe it or not (it took me awhile to get it through my own thick skull), most people here genuinely want to help, and are willing to help each other in this way, and many, many others.

sometimes american women ask me if i am not bothered by the sexism in the mainly muslim culture here. now, i will not deny that there is sexism, but it is a very different form of sexism than in the U.S. instead of being harassed by hoots and whistles, and glaring, hungry looks while walking down the city streets (as women in the U.S. often are), women here tend to be put on a pedestal by men -- you know, men opening doors for women, 'ladies first' in lines and etc., stepping back when a woman is approaching in the street to allow her to pass with dignity, looking down in deference when she goes by....that kind of thing. which for some reason doesn't bother me as much as the hooting and whistling. and, in my opinion at least, it is actually quite nice to not be surrounded by thousands of billboards that are all using women's bodies, usually scantily clad and looking lusty, to sell one product or another. women's bodies just aren't used in ads in that way here. and i appreciate that.

the rates of violence against women, and of rape, are much lower here than in the U.S., and there is no prostitution (and virtually no drug abuse, very little alcoholism -- which is quite an accomplishment, given the desperate poverty of much of the population). that said, of course, no misogynistic violence against women is justified, and there have been cases where women were killed by their spouses or brothers in horribly twisted logic that blamed the woman for being raped (when, in one case at least, the woman blamed for being raped proved to be a virgin, in the autopsy report). each time some horribly twisted sick incident like that occurs, it makes major media, and is publicized all over the world as an example of how sexist arab societies are. and yes, these men are sick, their actions irreparably reprehensible, disgusting and unspeakably cruel. but, unlike in the US, where 1 in 4 women are abused by their spouse during their lifetime, and 1 in 3 women are raped at least once in their lifetime (according to the department of justice statistics), here, these sick and sordid incidents of violence against women are rare, and are widely reported.

i'm not trying to over-glorify the culture of palestine, or other arab countries. i just want to point out that yes, believe it or not, there are many positive aspects to life here. there is a rich and beautiful culture, a deep connection to the land, uncommon respect for women, trust between strangers and a profound love for the family, all of which are rare in many other parts of the world.

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