Hanging with the Girls—Ramallah July 4, 2011
In Ramallah restaurants have gardens, lush, often shaded, cozy or open and populated. The evening crowd gathers around seven and stays till one. I live above one of these restaurants and each night hear the mixture of foreigners and Palestinians below me—talking is the main occupation, some are on the internet; sometimes there is music or a football game on the big screen.
One of the writers in my workshop, Maya, pulled up in front of my place and invited me to go out with her. She had her infant, Mia, and her friend Reemah. They took me to a restaurant down the road with an expansive garden and tables full of foreigners. Maya ordered wine that she eventually sent back, I had some vegetables. We had coffees. Then Maya and her sister, Dahlia, who arrived later, ordered an argele. The tall water pipe was put between them and filled with lemon and mint tobacco. The women took turns drawing on the pipe and blowing the smoke into the sky above them. The baby lay in the carrier alternating grimaces and giggles, until her fatigue sent her into a fit and the party had to break up.
The next night, Maya came to La Vie, where I live, with her twins who are 3, a boy and a girl (she calls them Kiki and Kookoo. I discovered them hanging out back chasing and running away from the two dogs, Foofoo, the small shaggy white one and Tafeyah, the German shepherd. We went around to the garden and Arabic coffee and argele once again. Our table expanded as other writers showed up—a filmmaker, a poet, a novelist. They tell me Palestine is full of writers. I don’t doubt it.
While the gift of being adopted by Maya is so appreciated because she saved yesterday me when, after nine hours of writing, I was ready to be in the world. In fact I had walked down to a gym to see if I wanted to take a month-long membership. But several bulky and unwelcoming looking guys, one Russian, notified me that it would be 300 NIS which approximates $100. I took the application and hiked back up the hill with a little attitude.
As I crested the hill and looked back at the sunset behind me, my cardio presented itself in the form of walks around Ramallah with inclines that rival San Francisco. I planned early mornings before the serveeses transformed the air to thick and smelly fumes. I spend a lot of time avoiding smoke here—everyone smokes, even in these lovely gardens. But the nights have been cool and breezy and putting my chair in the right position protects my breathing.
As I sat around the table for the second night in a row, I melted into the calm of the garden culture. We sit for hours nursing the same coffee or the same argele. I read the bottoms of cups using the cell phone as the light. Sometimes the table grows quiet and everyone is okay with that; other times we are talking simultaneously, Arab style.
We don’t stay up late; we don’t spend a lot of money. The kids run around and no one is bothered by their shrieking and laughing. I try to imagine an equivalent of this at home. Could we tear ourselves away from our televisions to sit in a garden and chat? It seems kind of old fashioned, something from the Algonquin Roundtable to sit around at night in bars or cafés meeting up with other artists. It’s close to unbelievable to think that children could run freely where adults are deep in conversation: no game boy or video, just curiosity pushing them from the dog on the other side of the fence to the pond with the single fish.
The bars where I live are young and expensive. You can’t hear yourself talk. There is a “scene” that is sometimes a singles parade or a dress-to-impress after work crowd. Coffee joints have become places to bring the computer and study/write/Facebook. In some of them, if people are having a conversation, the computer patrons growl in the direction of the talking. Often it’s loners who hang out, rather than groups of women like us in the La Vie garden.
It’s a simple design, tables in a walled garden, lights in trees, room to talk; music. At home I would wonder if I had time to hang out for these few hours; if I felt like talking to someone or if I could be away from my writing, or email, or honey, or dog, or scrabble. The more I enjoy these connections, the more cynical I become about my own choices to labor away at something most times I am awake.
They say we’ve lost the art of conversation. It’s true. The art of connecting, or sitting, or unplugging. I am following Maya’s lead. Here we have a mother of three, working, going to class and volunteering to teach in the camps, taking a couple of hours to smoke, laugh and make me feel at home in a new place. As I walk each morning in these difficult hills, I plan to rethink my time at home, to figure out how she can fit these different parts of herself into her life and imagine mine with more conversation and time in the garden, even if it’s only the one in my own yard.
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