Strangers & Surprises
Based on my previous post, there’s clearly a recurring theme happening here. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m still in a transitional phase (although when you think of it, isn’t Life one big continuous transitional thing? Sorry, it’s a rainy day with Radiohead blaring in my ears…).
This summer, as many of my friends and family know, I spent a little over two months in Haifa. What a strange place and time it was. I’ll delve into my experience as well as the women I met and photographed, who taught me much more than I expected to learn, another time. For now, a brief trip to the Old Country.
Unfortunately, I was only able to travel to the West Bank twice this summer—once to surprise relatives the evening before Eid Al-Fitr, the other for a beloved relative’s funeral two days before leaving the country. If I should ever finish this damn master’s project, I would like to dedicate it to Khalti Asia—one of the greatest women I’ve ever known. Strong, gentle, selfless, kind, beautiful. These adjectives don’t even begin to do her justice.
But, still, I will go back a little further. To my first visit—and the journey home.
About two or three nights before I left Haifa for Beitin, the small village my parents grew up and where I spent three years of my own childhood, the infamous Qalandia checkpoint burned. I sat up late, glued to my laptop, watching images of thousands of people marching from Ramallah towards Jerusalem. I watched a wall of flames rise, there on my screen in a relatively safe Arab neighborhood in Haifa. I felt a little nervous about traveling to the West Bank after that, since I would have to go through Qalandia, but things quieted down. Or at least as much as they can in that region.
God, it was so quiet when I got there.
I was dropped off on one side of Qalandia with a few others at dusk. Anxiously, I looked around for signs of soldiers. But there were none. I was too nervous to stare too long at the watch tower so I kept going forward, through the deserted checkpoint. No sign of anyone. Aside from me and a few others, no one else was coming or going.
I went on. Then, I saw the charred signs of the mayhem from a few nights earlier. It looked like what I imagine Hell looks like the morning after.
I had to keep moving so I could (hopefully) find a taxi in Ramallah that would head towards my village. I clamored into a taxi van that dropped me off in Ramallah and, by then, it was dark. I asked people on the street where the cabs could be found—it’d been five years since I was last in Palestine and the garage where cabs used to be looked empty. They pointed me in the direction of an empty parking lot.
There, I found a small wooden bench under a tarp and sat with other women, also waiting on cabs to return them to their villages.
Eventually, they asked me my age. When I answered “27,” one, who didn’t look older than 20, laughed and said, “We thought you were 17 and wondered why you would be traveling alone!”
The women and their children—which I later learned where made up of daughters, mothers and mother-in-laws—all warmed up to me quickly. As it was the last night of Ramadan, when the prayer call rang out in the otherwise still night, they all went under another torn tarp in the corner of the lot, spread out hummus, falafel, chicken, yogurt, bread, water and soda and broke their fast. One young woman came back to the bench to invite me and the older woman sitting next to me. I kindly refused but she wouldn’t return to her group without me, so I joined them.
They shared whatever food they had with a total stranger.
As a “thank you,” I offered to take photos of them and gave them my contact information. The younger women and their children were excited to have their photos taken as the older women watched.
And, naturally, I had to take a selfie with them.
They knew of my plan to surprise my aunts but were determined to take me back to their village for the holiday and return me to my family later. I graciously thanked them but was firm in my resolve to get home. So, they told me I had to call someone. After I did and told them someone was coming for me, they kissed me, filled my purse with chocolates, wished me a happy holiday and took off. Even the older woman who sat next to me for the duration of our wait (I was in the lot for at least an hour and a half), handed me a plum before getting in her van (I kept it and ate it three days later on my way back to Haifa).
I called the only aunt whose number I had and she sent a cousin who lives in Ramallah to look for me. He took me to my aunt in Ramallah’s home until my uncle, who was already in the city to attend the funeral of a youth killed in the Qalandia protests, could bring me to Beitin.
When I arrived at my aunts’ home, well after midnight, I assumed my mother had informed them I was coming. When I knocked, I heard one say to the other, “Who could that be?” She poked her head through the curtain.
The surprise was not ruined after all.
I like telling this story because, to this day, I’m still so moved. The kindness of strangers in what is becoming a less personal world is something I cherish. That was my surprise—or friendly reminder.