Monday, September 12, 2005

Who knew I had family in Birzeit?

Birzeit University caters to both Islam and Christianity, meaning that we don’t have class on Friday or Sunday, but we do have classes on Saturday. So, I showed up for class a little early on Saturday and popped into the international student office to say hello and check my email. You can imagine my surprise when one of the staff told me that a member of my family was in the lobby, waiting to meet me.

Turns out one of my aunts (father’s sister) is married to a Palestinian man from Qalquila, and one of his nieces is in her third year of study at Birzeit. Word got through the grapevine that I was here and her parents sent her over to the international student office to find me. Now, this is the opportunity of a lifetime because a lot of Middle Eastern culture centers around the family, and most foreigners have a difficult time penetrating that barrier. B doesn’t speak much English, or at least she is too shy to speak to me in English, which means I have a great opportunity to practice my conversational Arabic with her. So, we chatted for about ten minutes and agreed to meet after my class. She seems very nice, but maintaining a conversation with her is extremely difficult because of the language barrier. She invited me over to her flat for tea and it turns out she lives on the same street that I do, just two building down.

After an incredibly painful hour of tea drinking and stilted conversation, I headed back to my apartment to have a cigarette. Then the reality of my situation hit me. I need to be very careful about where I smoke and who sees me smoking if I want to maintain my reputation with my family. I also need to be extremely careful about drinking in Birzeit (which is fine for Christians, but since I’m supposed to be Muslim it is a bit of a problem). Not to mention the problem of having boys over to my apartment. Most of the international students are male, so I’ll have to be careful about who sees men leaving my apartment. Now, I am in “no-ass land” as Nathan so fondly calls it, which means there would be absolutely nothing going on with me and said boys – but technically (for a nice Muslim girl) it is inappropriate to have classmates over to study or for coffee if they are guys – even during the day.

The next day B called me about 4 times until I agreed to meet her later that afternoon for tea again. I had work to do, so I finished everything I could do without an internet connection and saved it on my flash drive, then headed over for tea. I figured I’d have tea then head to the internet café. Oh no. First we had tea, then she insisted that I go with her to meet her friend before we went to the internet café together. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t think of a polite way out of it, plus I figured it would be good for my Arabic . . .

This turned into a two hour trip to visit her friend, by the end of which I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the café. I know she was just trying to be hospitable and introduce me to her friends, but after two hours of sitting in a room full of 18-20 year old Palestinian girls speaking to each other very quickly in colloquial Arabic I was ready to shoot myself. It didn’t help that every once in a while someone would as me if I understood, and when I said no, they would tell everyone else that I didn’t understand in Arabic. Of course, I understood THAT part. Finally, I told her that I needed to get going because I needed to call my mother in America at a certain time. Later that night her mother called me to confirm that I was coming to Qalquila with B on Thursday after my classes. I had already agreed to this, but I didn’t realize that they expected me to stay until Saturday.

One the one hand, I know that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, I have a lot of work I need to get done this semester . . . and I don’t see how I can juggle B, my classes, and my thesis research. I have no desire to spend most of the day Thursday, all day Friday, and half of Saturday with a family that I don’t know, and who don’t speak any English at all. There is no way that I can turn down their hospitality, and I could just leave Friday on my own, but I’m pretty sure they would make B leave with me, and I don’t want to spoil her visit home . . .

I need to find a way to handle this that allows me to live comfortably without offending anyone . . . I must be the only Kuwaiti-American girl in the world who has family in Palestine. I mean, what are the chances?!


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