Thursday, June 14, 2007

Slowly, Slowly...


A few weeks ago, I was sent out on an errand in the Old City of Beit Sahour. I had no idea where I was going, or even what I would say when, or if, I found the shop in question. All I had to go on was a piece of paper with a bunch of Arabic written on it by a hand that I could barely read. These "directions" were accompanied by a crude map of semi-straight lines, resembling a MENSA mind puzzle more than anything drawn remotely to scale. Comparing the map to the winding streets around me, I couldn't help but reflect on the notion that straight lines are a cultural impossibility in this part of the world. While people may be more straight-forward in general, I have come to entirely accept that absolutely nothing in the Middle East is as it first appears. For example, the most crude, triple bolted metal doorway with blue chipped paint and rusty hinges will unexpectedly give way to the most amazing Alice in Wonderland garden, complete with green grass, flowering fruit trees, swimming fish and cooling waterfalls. On the other hand, the most friendly taxi driver can suddenly turn into the most venomous of human snakes. With so many winding, unexpected possibilities just waiting to reveal themselves along the way, I have discovered that the only way through a tunnel of limitless possibility is to not to be in too much of a hurry. All I know is that sooner or later, I'll eventually make it to the other side because, after all, everything eventually works out.

With this in mind, I have had no choice but to accept the fact that my small, daily errands are far more about the journey than the destination. Allowing for the possibility that there is a miracle of some sort or another laying in wait in every nook and cranny of the dusty roads here, I've become less inclined to panic when it seems as though I am free falling without a net in sight. It's in these moments that I feel inclined to remind myself to simply accept what is right in front of me, taking it all at face value, if not with a grain of salt. By not holding too tightly to the "oh shit" handle in the rickety taxi sardine car, I am able to surrender to the possibilities of the unforeseen. Yes, I may meet my maker in this taxicab going over a cliff in Bethlehem if the breaks give out, but why obsess over the intangible randomness of what-if's when I could just as easily chat with the woman sitting next to me. Who knows, maybe we both survive and become best friends? So, instead of wringing my hands with anxiety and worry, I relax, let the road take me, and attempt to be as outgoing as possible in a language that I can hardly claim as my own.

For the record, I have grown rather accustomed to sounding like an intellectually challenged person when I attempt to speak Arabic to others. Beyond struggling with the language, I rather prefer the analogy of stumbling like a blind person running a three-legged race alongside a war veteran with one leg. I'm still trying to figure out how not to over-pronounce certain "H" sounds, when to make my "H's" more flemmy, and when the flem factor does not apply. I also take supreme pleasure in butchering all words that start with something like "ghayine". Apparently there is an "R"-like sound somewhere in the middle of it, and it must come from a place in the throat that I am convinced does not exist. Fortunately, I have no problem trilling my "R's". The best part is that, more often than not, when I'm searching for a word in Arabic, my brain defers to the next best language it happens to know: either Spanish or Italian. Sometimes in the midst of a brain cloud, I just throw words out there. Like, the other day, when I tried to tell the woman in the sewing store, "Look, I have a piece of paper for you", I said it in Spanish before my brain could find it's way to the next level of really bad Arabic.

With the crude map in my hand, I made my way to the sewing store, whereupon I immediately deferred to my less than fashionable routine of making a thorough ass of myself by saying in Arabic that I don't speak Arabic very well. I always inwardly laugh at myself when I say this, because it never fails to stop my interlocutor from looking at me up and down, for some reason closely examining the size of my hips, chest and waistline. Because of this, I've started to wonder if my physical proportions alone are indicators that I'm just joking, that I really do speak Arabic, but that maybe I am actually deaf, and the Arabic spoken to me must be launched at 20 decibels higher than usual? Maybe they think that because I look hungry, I must not know how to hear when people call me for food? Whatever it is, it's enough to gather a small crowd of gawkers, who all want to witness the "maybe-Arab-maybe-not" foreign girl flounder her way through a basic conversation. The response to "I'm sorry, but I don't speak Arabic very well" is met with a rapid firing of something more in Arabic, to which I respond (in Arabic): "I'm sorry. Please say that again slowly, slowly..." Still, the volume thing cracks me up every time. I'm yet to figure out why it is that "slowly, slowly" is taken for "Please, for the love of God, scream at me in Arabic. No, it doesn't freak me out AT ALL. I really love it..."

So, there I was trying to win the language game of semi-lucid self-expression, when the wheels on my brain lost their traction, and I sped off into Spanish before I could bring myself back. Woops. The woman in the sewing shop looked at me kind of funny, and then looked at the other woman in the shop, who was sitting on a green plastic chair in the corner. In Arabic, the woman on the chair said, "Where are you from, girl? Are you Spanish?" I told her that I was from America. "But you have the face of an Arab." Having heard this before, I thanked her and told her that my mother was Italian. "Oh. Italians are like Spanish," she said as she examined my face, hips, chest and waistline. "You could be both. Do you speak Spanish?" In Arabic, I told her that I did know a little Spanish. Then, out of nowhere, she jumped up from her chair, and all Arabic was abandoned as the woman told me in broken Spanish the story of how she lived with her husband in Honduras for 10 years. The woman insisted on making me a cup of strong coffee so that we could sit down and jam for a little while in a language we both knew. As if my brain wasn't thoroughly over stimulated to begin with, the woman would talk to me in Spanish and then translate to her friend in Arabic.

In the weeks since I left the store that day, word has traveled fast that I am the American Spanish girl who works on the women's micro-lending project and asks strange questions. Since then, women from all over town have been stopping by the place where I work to say hello, tell me about their individual experiences in Honduras, and ask (in Spanish) if there is any work I can give them to do here because they need to make money for their families. I tell them that I am only a volunteer, that there is no money in the organization right now, but to please be patient, something will come soon. I don't want to set my community up for disappointment, so I don't tell them that I'm working on a fundraising project for them, but it's not going to happen overnight, or as we say in Arabic, "slowly, slowly".

Ironically, when the women ask me to speak more "slowly, slowly" in Spanish, I don't raise my voice with the hope that they will understand.

Such is life in Palestine--moments full of strange and bittersweet irony, with something unexpected always around the next bend. My daily meditations include the prayer that I will allow myself to remember ways to surrender my fixed yet ideal notions of what should be, accept the evidence of what is, and do my best to leave it just a little better than I found it.

3 comments:

EA said...

Hi, I'm really appreciating your writing and the fascinating journey you are on. Thank-you!

El Guapo in DC said...

You do have the face of an Arab...

Jessica said...

Micro-lending? Hm - a certain best friend of yours' fiance's aunt teaches the concept at Tufts and has been to many a developing nation. We must discuss...