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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pushing the Limits of "Decency"

I wanted to hug my friends good-bye.

I have been living the last few months in a fairly conservative primarily Muslim society.  By no means is it the most conservative society in the world.  Also because I am neither Muslim nor Palestinian, I have not been bound by the same "rules" as women here.  Yes, I have dressed more conservatively than I might at home, wearing long sleeves and almost always wearing a scarf around my neck.  Both have been pretty easy to do, given that it's been quite cold most of my time here.  As it's gotten warmer, I have gone out a few times wearing 3/4-length sleeves and have wondered if people thought I was dressing indecently.  If they did, no one said anything.  At the time same, no women here wore or will wear anything but long sleeves.  I understand that and I respect that. 

The last few days, it's been particularly warm.  I took a lovely walk up to Sky Nablus- high up on a mountain with a beautiful view of the city.  As I walked and got warmer, I dared to take off my scarf.  Again, I wondered, "Do people who see me think I am being immodest?"  The warmth I was feeling from walking up the hill in the sun prevented me from caring much.  

A few days ago for the first time I wore short sleeves...under a top with 3/4 sleeves.  Both, by my standards were modest, but I knew they might not be by standards here, so I opted to put a scarf around my neck.  That day I visited a student, went out with a friend, went to the last class with my teens, and then had my last adult class in the evening.  

I always call the adult class my "man class," since it's only men.  My other classes were my "teenage class" and my "sweet little girls class."  Each had its own charm, to be sure.  When I first began teaching the man class, I dreaded it, first because it took some fits and starts to actually begin it and then because of the timing of it- from 6:30 to 7:30 in the evening, the latest class latest at Project Hope.  However, once the class got going, I quickly grew to love it.  They were, as my Australian and Kiwi counterparts might say, heaps of fun.  Heaps! 

After the last "man class," we all went out together. They took me all over Nablus- to one home (of three brothers, two of whom were in the class), to the business of another, to an awesome lookout point above the city, through the Old City, to a pizza place, and lastly, in true Nablusi-style, for sweets.  No celebration in Nablus is complete without sweets! 

I so enjoyed getting a larger glimpse into the lives of the men: where they live, work, hang out.  I had learned a bit in class, but being with them outside of class was more enlightening.  I met some of their family members, and saw where some of them spend their days.  The group of them are, and have been for a long time, great friends.  That was part of what made the class so delightful- they enjoyed each other's company so much and I got to join in the fun, both during class and on the Last Hurrah night out. 

At the end of a really great night two things happened that gave me pause.  To get from place to place, we'd driven around in my taxi driver student's car and brother #3's car.  As they drove me back to drop me off at the house, because it was a warm night I took off the scarf I'd been wearing around my neck.  I figured the top I was wearing was not so revealing that it would be a problem.

A few minutes later as we were standing around talking, one of the guys asked (or gestured or somehow got the point across) where my scarf was.  I said I took it off because it was warm.  Then I paused.  "Should I put it back on?"  His "yes" answer surprised me, but obligingly I put it back on.

Then, though I was pretty sure I knew the response I'd get, I threw this one out there: "In the United States, when we say good-bye, we hug each other.  Can I give you all a hug good-bye?"  Men and women do not casually hug here. 

First since I didn't teach them "hug" in class, there was clarification as to what I was asking.  Once we'd established what a hug was, one man said, "In the religion of Mohammad, it is haram (forbidden)."  I had expected the answer, but it still made me sad.  For me, it feels unnatural to leave people I genuinely care about with only a handshake.  But that's how we said our good-byes... The next day I discussed the hugging thing with another friend and with one of my female teenage students.  Their responses were similar, that a male and female hugging here was quite out of the question.

In saying all this, let me be clear that I haven't felt particularly constrained or restricted (though I'd probably feel different were I here for warmer weather) living in a society that is more conservative than what I'm used to.  I have loved loved loved being here and have felt so loved loved loved by those I've met and come to know.  Perhaps that is why it makes me so sad that I cannot show my affection in the way that feels right for me.  I just wanted to hug my friends good-bye...

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