Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Making Connections

I spent my first few weeks in Nablus feeling like I wasn't connecting with Palestinians as much as I wanted to. Before going on, I will say that when I arrived in Jerusalem, I was warmly welcomed- no, that's not a big enough word- embraced is more like it, by a wonderful Palestinian family. The generosity and hospitality shown me while I was with them was overwhelming.  They gave me my first taste of Palestinian hospitality. Again, I have to correct my language. They served me a banquet of hospitality, not just a taste, through the many ways they extended their love towards me- sharing their home, giving me things I might need in Nablus (most notably a warm winter jacket which has kept the chill away on cold windy days) and even driving me to Nablus when it was time to come. They continue to extend their love to me.

In saying I didn't make connections in Nablus, I'll admit that it had a lot to do with me retreating into my shy self and not doing too much to make the connections happen.  Yes, I was teaching, so I was meeting Palestinians, but it takes some time to build relationships, y'know?

At the same time, while perhaps not connecting with Palestinians, I was connecting with the other volunteers. It has been refreshing to be around other internationals who understand the context I come from. A relief, really. It is nice to be with people who have at least some of the same cultural references that I have.

As I get to know my students, the people at Project Hope, and others around Nablus, I'm starting to feel connected. And I'm finding sometimes unexpected common cultural references. Maybe I should say I'm finding unexpected references to my culture or the cultures I know.  I don't know too many Palestinian cultural references yet... I didn't expect any of my teenage students to say their favorite musicians are Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, or Avril Lavigne. Justin Bieber, however, was not a surprise. I didn't expect one of my tween students to say his favorite song is "We Will Rock You." I didn't expect the game Jeopardy to come up in one of my classes today.

Uncertain what the reaction of Palestinian teens would be, last week in class I used a reading from the book my Catholic Social Teaching students and I created last year. After I read a selection with the teens, I asked if they wanted to read more that my boys from home had written (yup, they're still my boys, even though they're no longer my students). Yes, they wanted to read more. I told the girls I'd also try to get some girls' writing to read.

I told the class a little about the book. "It's like Freedom Writers," said one girl.  This made me smile. Another unexpected familiar reference.

"Freedom Writers is actually what inspired our book," I told her.  Now the class is working on doing more than just reading something kids in the U.S. wrote- we're trying to set up pen-pal relationships between teens here and teens at home, though a computer rather than a pen and paper will likely be the means of communicating. It is exciting to think that the connections I'm making may facilitate other new connections.

Many of my teen students speak pretty good English.  But even with people with whom I have little common language, I know the connections are happening. I know because I see the grin on the face of my kiddos when I arrive at one community center and my own face can't help but return the grin.  I know it when I receive a firm handshake from the men in my night class. I know I am connecting when my few words of poorly-pronounced Arabic elicit surprise, praise, and, well, sometimes laughter...we're laughing together.

Yesterday one of the other volunteers read a poem to us that she'd written with a blurb about all of us. I was described as "serious" (we were all described with one word, not just me). Though I am serious, sometimes too much for my own good, I was a little sad that that was the word used to describe me. I think my students might disagree, since I jump and move around as much here as I did in my classes in India (regardless of the age of my students or the amount of moving they are doing). Being silly breaks down the barriers. I don't act goofy with that specific purpose in mind. Mostly I just want to enjoy classes as much as I hope my students will. As we let down our guards together, both the serious and the silly come out.  

And so I am making connections. I am experiencing so much joy in my day-to-day interactions, while knowing there is a depth of pain below the surface that I will likely never fully understand. A friend from home wrote to me today that if he were here he would "want [his] retinas to burn with Palestinian pain." I am thankful to witness the pain sometimes, so that I can at least try to understand it.  I came here to try to understand it.  I am equally thankful to share the joy of daily living, to witness the resilience and resourcefulness of Palestinians, and, like the threads on a loom, to weave myself into their lives and allow them to be woven into mine. 

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