Friday, 18 August, 2:00 a.m.
I cried tonight. I left my flat after iftar to return to the University. The Palestine National Youth Orchestra was giving a concert, and I was invited by Alaa to attend. I caught a taxi. When I told the driver “Alakadamia men fahdlik. Qadeysh?” (The new campus of the University please. How much?), he knew immediately that I weren’t from around here! In broken but quite passable English he asked me where I was from. America, I told him, in my own broken Arabic. He smiled, and offered the words I have heard a hundred times: “you are welcome, welcome to Palestine. Your Arabic good.” He asked where I was from in America, and what I was doing here. When I told him I was teaching English (at first I mispronounced and said I was studying English!) at An-Najah he smiled broadly.
“My daughter, she is student at An-Najah.” He couldn’t tell me what her major was in English, so he called her on the spot and asked. He then reported: “She studying to be layer.” It took me a few moments to realize he meant “lawyer.” He continued, “she is my life, she is my future. I not finish education, so everything for her.” I said, “she sounds like a great daughter.” He replied, “she tell me she will make my dream come true. She make me cry.” And at that moment, my eyes filled with tears. I told him about my two daughters and one son, and as two fathers we connected on that deep emotional level. It was really amazing. Just five minutes in a taxi and this man and I became friends. This happens a lot in Palestine.
The next two and a half hours were also tear-provoking, as I listened to some of Palestine’s brightest kids playing Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and some weird modern, atonal piece by a Swedish composer that featured an Oud, a Middle-Eastern guitar-like instrument. One kid in the horn section and another cellist could not have been older than 10. The orchestra did an excellent job with some very challenging music. At the end of the concert, after two curtain calls, suddenly a family rushed in from the side. The father was carrying a cake that had some kind of sparkler flaring, and he began singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs. Spontaneously, the audience and orchestra joined in, to the surprise and delight of the young woman bassoonist. She began crying as her father blew her a kiss, and she blew one back. I misted up again. I really missed my kids in that moment.
There is one element of this experience that I really have messed up on. The days of Ramadan, the fasting and praying, are all about moving closer to God. But the nights of Ramadan are all about family and friends, and I’m here alone, my family 6000 miles away. Tonight was the first time that I ventured out after iftar. I decided after the concert to walk the two miles back to my flat. It is a lovely cool night, and the whole walk was downhill! As I walked, I was just amazed. It was 11:30, and every store was open. The streets are strung with colored lights. Families were everywhere, as were groups of young men and women cruising. Restaurants and cafes and hookah joints were filled with people. Some important soccer game is happening (Palestinians are soccer fanatics), and it seems every television in Nablus is tuned to it. Every few minutes a roar or team chant erupts as something exciting happens in the game.
In class today, I asked the students to share what a typical day in Ramadan is like for them. The importance of family and friends was paramount in all the stories. Most people stay up all night. Iftar and As-Suhor sort of merge into one all night “breakfast.” After iftar, everyone roams around visiting family and friends. Children go out and play. Young people go to clubs and hang out. It was especially poignant to hear the young men talk about helping their mothers and grandmothers prepare for and clean up after the meals. Imagine if you can a month-long Thanksgiving holiday – that kind of captures what the nights of Ramadan are all about.
Children are really something here. They are quite precocious, very friendly, and incurably curious. Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on my veranda (yes, I have a veranda, which doubles as the clothes dryer!) reading Quran. I am attempting to follow the Ramadan custom of reading the entire Quran in 30 daily segments. Suddenly, I was set upon by three children, two boys and a girl. “What’s your name?” turned out to be the only English these kids knew. I introduced myself and tried to talk a little in Arabic. Suddenly, they were teaching me Arabic. In fact, with all due respect to Dr. Tayyara, it turned out to be the single best Arabic lesson I’ve ever had. My teachers were only just a little beyond my level!
The little girl and one of the boys quickly grew bored of teaching Arabic to an old man and went back to their play. But the older boy, Omri, had noticed the book in my hands. He looked closely and said “Quran?” “Nahm,” I said, “I am reading Quran.” He was fascinated. He literally stood and looked over my shoulder as I read. “An-Nisan?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. He had recognized the words as Surah (chapter) Nisan. Then he asked, “mumken aqura Fatiha bika?”- may I recite the Fatiha for you? The Fatiha is the first surah of the Quran, and is important to Muslims approximately as the Our Father is important to Christians. Omri then chanted for me, in beautiful liquid Arabic, completely from memory, the Fatiha.