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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A celebration, a released traded prisoner, a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare

I am about to eat some traditional local food, purchased in the tiny neighborhood market a couple of days ago. Would you believe – ramen noodles! Or the local variation, anyway. They are called Indo Mie, and I am guessing they are from Indonesia, although I can’t seem to find it on the package. They have the little seasoning packet, although it’s three seasonings, bumbu sauce, chili sauce, and a liquid oil and curry sauce. I can’t wait, as soon as they cool off a little. I have to confess, I am a ramen noodle addict. Seriously.

So while I wait for them to cool a bit, let me backtrack and catch you up on the last couple of days. This morning, I had my individual tutoring class with Halima, one of the art teachers. I brought a catalog from another exhibit that featured the work of Fatima Abu Rumi, whose work is currently on exhibit here. Since the text was in English as well as Arabic, and Hebrew, I thought we could focus on a few of the words, and then Halima could read the text in Arabic later to get a better understanding. But Halima was clear that she didn’t want to do that, she wanted to focus on more practical conversation, like shopping. So we went into practicing a conversation about asking about size, price, and color in looking for a blouse. And this led into a conversation about traditional and modern clothing, head scarves, etc. I mentioned that I was fascinated by the variety in women’s style of dress, and that it didn’t seem to be a generational thing. She told me that she only started wearing a head scarf about 9 years ago, just because she liked the idea. (and, she said, because it’s easier to get ready in the morning, you don’t have to worry about your hair!)

Okay, I’ve tried the noodles now, and they are good! Better than the ones at home, with the curry flavoring and the kick from the chili. I may have to bring some back home with me. I wonder if they’re allowed by customs. Oh, and I did find the tiny print indicating where they were made – Saudi Arabia. So much for my guess.

After the clothing conversation, Halima had something else she wanted to explain to me. First she said police, then drew a square. It’s like charades. She eventually managed to convey the word jail to me. Then she mentioned Shalit, the Israeli Jewish soldier who is being released today in exchange for about 1000 Palestinian prisoners, 500 now and 500 a month from now. I know about it, it certainly is big news in Israel, but my own info has come mostly from US sources online, not from any discussions with folks here. Until today. Well, it turns out that six of the released are Israeli Arabs, not Palestinians, and one of them is from here.

This is what Halima eventually managed to convey to me, that on her way to work here today there was a lot of traffic , people coming to see the released prisoner. The other staff kept hanging out the window, reacting when they heard honking horns and firecrackers. (but there are frequently horns as well as firecrackers, and I don’t think they actually had anything to do with the prisoners). Eventually everyone went back to what they were doing. I have no idea if the guy arrived, or what happened. Someone told me that he had been in jail for 20 years for killing someone.

Jamal, with whom I’ve already had conversations about Jewish -Arab relations, said quite clearly that he has no sympathy for the returning man, that he is a murderer. I am very curious to learn what others here think.

Kamle, Saids’ secretary, who has supposedly been coordinating my English classes, said there wouldn’t be a class today, everyone was too wound up. But everyone else in the class said they were planning to meet with me, and so we are meeting at 4pm, in about 45 minutes from now.

As I write this I am pondering whether to bring up the returning prisoner as a topic of conversation. I think I will just ask them what happened, did he arrive, and see where it goes from there. And then we’ll play 20 questions!!

Last night we had an amazing experience. (I feel like I keep saying that!) We were invited, not just us but the whole gallery staff, to a party. It was for a man who used to be one of the community service people here (he had supposedly sold some pirated books, but he denied it.) The man, in his thirties, had been diagnosed with cancer, but last week doctors told him he didn’t have it after all. Hence, the party. I don’t think anyone had a clue how big a party it was going to be. It was at a function hall. Well, not exactly hall, it was outdoors, overlooking the city. It was a huge crowd, I was later told 700 people. We’d been told earlier that it was a lamb barbeque, and Lilli warned us that they might slaughter the animal there, that was a common thing. That led me to remember the sheep’s eye I’d once been offered in Casablanca after they slaughtered the animal on the roof, which I declined and have always felt guilty about, hoping I hadn’t terribly offended them.

Last night, there were platters of lamb skewers, steaks which I believe were also lamb, and meatballs that I think were lamb too. But no slaughter, at least not at the event, at least not that we were aware of. Of course they kept offering us more and more. .And there were at least six or eight different kinds of salads, vegetables, hummus, etcetera. I ate a lot more than I should have. It was all delicious.

After we’d finished, we moved to another table closer to the stage, and there the waiters were serving dessert, some very rich baklava- like layered pastries, but with cheese. I had two!

We had also been told that the party might be segregated, men and women apart. But that wasn’t true, either. It certainly would have been a very different event if it had been. I wouldn’t have minded, it would have been interesting.

Before the party, we had gone, first, to Said’s house, where we met his wife and youngest son, Bashir, who is 15. His house is incredibly beautiful, architecturally, and is decorated with all kinds of wonderful art. His wife, Sihan, is an elementary school principal. She had worked with the man whose non cancer we were celebrating, when she was a science teacher. He, whose name I have forgottn, is a history teacher.

After tea and candies and a tour of his house, including his studio, we left for the party. The staff had collected money, and we contributed too, for a gift. They bought a vase and a lamp. I can’t imagine what he must have received if all 700 guests brought gifts!

After the party, Said and Sihan said they wanted to take us on a driving tour of the city. We went all around to the other side of the hills on which Umm el Fahem sits.The view was exquisite. He then told us there was a small Jewish community nearby, with whom the people in the city had a good relationship. It was not exactly a kibbutz, but a moshad. There, people own some things, like heavy equipment, collectively, but not their homes.

We came up to the entrance of the community, which was gated. Said spoke to the guard, who said he couldn’t let us in then, that we could come back during the day. As we were pulling out, another car, of residents I assume, pulled up and asked if they could help us. Said explained that we wanted to visit the place, but that the guard had said to come back, and that was fine, he was doing his job. It was all quite cordial.

I thought we were heading home (it had certainly been a busy enough evening for me) when Said said that we were going to their house to drop off, Rawan, their 17 (almost 18!) year old daughter, who is one of the staff people here, and one of my English students, and pick up Bashir, their 15 year old son, to bring him to the pool at the country club, where he swims 3 times a week. We are invited to go too, to use the pool or machines, on one of the women’s days.

Next, Said took us on a tour of another neighborhood, newly built, of immense houses. They explained that they were multi-family houses, either parent-son families, or multiple brother families. He drove us into the driveway of one of the biggest, said it was ok, the man was his friend. The friend promptly came out and invited us in. His business was selling livestock, often to Jewish families. It had been his father’s business before his.

His young wife, carrying a baby, served us coffee and apple juice. Said had already told us that the man had two wives. The first one hadn’t been able to get pregnant. Each wife had her own house within the compound. I asked if the two wives were friends. Said said, of course. Suzi said, you’ll never convince me. Said said something to the young woman, who laughed. Boy, would I like to continue that conversation. What we did find out was that having more than one wife was legal (really, under Israeli law?) but uncommon.

We continued on our drive. Before long, we passed a couple out walking, and Said rolled down the window to chat. More friends. They apparently also invited us in, but Said declined. A minute later, we passes still another couple, who also invited us, and we accepted. The ones we had declined joined us as well, and soon we were a group of about ten, including the son and daughter of the folks whose home we were at, and a neighbor who I am thinking was also a brother!

We had some very interesting conversations with our mint tea, dates, and almonds, and I’ll pick up again in a while, after my English class.


I’m back, a couple of hours later.


I wanted to mention a few things about our second visit to the friends´homes. Most of the conversation was in Arabic, so we obviously missed a lot. But we had some interesting conversatons with individuals, and a few times, with the group at large. Said k new that I was interested in finding some live Arabic music. It turns out that the father of the house directs a performance of music and dance every year in Haifa, and that it’s next week. The son produces it. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be great, and you can bet that I am going.

At one point, everyone in the room erupted in laughter. Said then explained to us that someone had mentioned a woman being pregnant with twins. And Said misunderstood that it was the mother of the family. She looked to be about 50 years old. Said said maybe she could give some advice to his wife, because he still wanted more children in addition to their five. Turns out it was the daughter who is pregnant, not the mother, and that his friends are going to be grandparents. Everyone was immersed in laughter at the idea that it was the mother who was expecting twins.

To the extent that I could interpret their interactions, it seems like the women were entirely on an equal level with the men in their conversations. The women did not seem in any way subservient, although they did do all the serving of tea, coffee, etc. But that isn’t so different from American society.

The class this afternoon was interesting. We read the brochure and discussed the vocabulary some more. Mohammed and Rawan are both active participants. Layla and Eiman much less so. Eiman has told me she is shy about reading, self conscious because she has difficulty pronouncing some letters. And yet she isn’t shy about speaking, only reading. I ask her how she would feel about practicing if it was just me and her, and she says that would be much better. So perhaps we will try that. Now Layla is saying she is shy and doesn’t’ want to read either! And yet they both seem to want to come, this is totally voluntary, not something they have to do. So since I am meeting individually with Halima, because of her working schedule, I feel like I should offer Eiman the same option, and probably Layla, too, if that is what they want. I think I, personally, would feel the opposite, less shy when among friends than just one on one. But, I have the time, so whatever works for them.

We did play 20 questions again, and it guessed pomegranate (which we were eating during the class) correctly this time, and then, water, as well.

We also did speak a little about the prisoner trade situation, which I brought up, and my sense was that they all were pleased and proud about the local man being released. It will be interesting to speak with others, like Said, and hear their perspective.

When I mentioned that I’d see them tomorrow, they said, no, there’s a strike tomorrow, everything, gallery included, is closed. The reason for the strike: protesting violence in the city. Not Jewish-Arab violence. The fact that violence in the city had been increasing in the city in general, and demanding that something be done to stop it. It turns out there was a tragic killing here last night, in the early hours of the morning. Mohammed attempted to explain it to me, with the help of his electronic dictionary. It is a story of Shakespearean proportions. It is absolutely incredible that two events, this and the return of the prisoner, have happened here in Umm el Fahem on the same day. And that I could have been totally unaware of both, if people hadn’t explained them to me. Until tomorrow, at least, when I would have discovered the gallery closed and the city shut down.

Here is the story as I understood it from Mohammed. What we have found online differs in some details, and doesn’t have as many details.

There were two families. The daughter of one, a well to do family, was in love with the son of the other, a poorer family. The father of the girl refused to permit the engagement of his daughter. The two ran away. The girl spoke to her mother, who convinced the father to allow the engagement. The pair returned to their homes, and the girl’s father agreed that they could marry if the boy was able to build a house for them within a year. But, either he, or people he hired, went to the boy’s family, and shot his father and his two brothers. The brother in love with the girl escaped unharmed. The father and two brothers died. The boy returned home. The girl and her mother and the boy and his mother all survived. The girl’s father has disappeared.

This is what happened today, along with the welcome home of the prisoner, in Umm el Fahem. While I had a leisurely morning, took my clothes to the laundry, taught my students, ate pomegranates and ramenesque noodles, and played twenty questions.

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