Makin’ Groceries, Makin’ Friends!

In New Orleans, people refer to shopping as “making groceries.”  In Nablus they should just call it “making friends.” 

We execute grocery runs twice weekly for our intern abode.  In the past two and a half weeks, I’ve volunteered, been assigned, or otherwise just gone to the market at least a half dozen times already.  This is not unintentional.

Making groceries in Nablus is an exciting process.  First comes the phone call to our friendly driver Munir who appears out of nowhere in his always spotless taxi.  Hopping in Munir’s cab begins an adventure in culture, language and, well, friendship.  An enthusiastic teacher and overall personable man, Munir is quick to extend a greeting in Arabic, remembering my name ever since I offered it the first time we met.  From greetings, Munir gently eases the conversation forward, speaking slowly and clearly, always pushing the limits of my fledgling Arabic vocabulary.

The first stop on our tour de food is Sami’s fruit market.  Like Munir, Sami needn’t have met me more than a single time to greet me with a warm welcome from then on.  His smile is infectious and his warmth keeps the open-air shop cozy, at least in spirit if not temperature.  Before reaching for a bag, I reach first for Sami’s large and calloused hand that he inevitably extends across the counter.

For all I know, Sami’s perch is permanent, wedged tightly in a narrow passage between the counter, which holds the electronic scale, a fruit vendor’s sole instrument of necessity, and a row of canned goods behind.  Sami’s girth extends almost from counter to back wall, but, then again, so does his smile!

I bump around the small market with whomever is on grocery duty with me, collecting small green bags of fruits and vegetables, piling them on Sami’s counter.  When we are finished collecting, the tallying begins.  Having yet to start my formal Arabic lessons, I look for vocabulary wherever I can, and Sami’s checkout counter makes for a fantastic impromptu classroom.

Sami, like Munir, is a willing and able teacher.  As he gently sets a bag down on the scale, he asks me first to name the contents in English before sharing the Arabic counterpart.  Soon, hopefully, I’ll beat Sami to the punch, offering him the Arabic word before it passes his lips. . . though I might have to keep glancing at my hand scrawled cheat sheet for the next few weeks!

We hump two or three bulging bags of fresh and colorful produce across two busy streets to a little supermarket.  Walid, the proprietor, greets us with only the slightest grin which suits his dark mustache and always-black outfit well.  Unlike Sami, Walid is reserved, contained, calm, though equally helpful and undeniably kind.  When a can is just out of reach, Walid finds another that previously escaped my view.  A moment’s hesitation when looking at a shelf brings him quickly to my side for assistance.

When I eye a big white painters bucket filled with pickled peppers, Walid and his colleagues are all too eager to offer me one.  In part to satiate my obvious desire, and, likely, in part to see my eyes swell up at the incredible heat!  I don’t mind as I am usually offered a cooling pickle shortly after, but, not of course until the burn has already crept up to my forehead and down to my stomach!

From Walid we collect a half-week’s worth of dry and wet goods.  Milk, eggs, bread, lebneh, juice, pop, salty cheese, Corn Flakes (Nestle, not Kellogg’s, sorry Battle Creek), red beans, white beans, chick peas, canned full, and, my favorite, a half kilo of fresh ground espresso.  The later Walid does not carry but is happy to procure for us, sending his assistant out into the evening to fetch a small bag of this finely ground chocolate colored powder.  The coffee arrives a few minutes later, freshly ground, still warm in the bag.  Walid is sure to let everyone sample its warm aroma before dropping into our growing pile of goods on the counter.

Like at Sami’s, and anywhere else we use group money to make a purchase, a receipt is requested and made out by hand.  The Arabic words followed by unfamiliar numerals look like some sort of ancient poetry, written solely for our eyes!  In a way, it is.

By the time Walid begins drawing up our unique culinary poem, Munir has usually reappeared and begins loading our many bags into his trunk.  If we are late, he has no problem spending a few minutes exchanging words with the other men in the store.  His friendliness is clearly not reserved for TYO Interns only.

Back in his car, Munir inevitably asks where I would like to go.  I do my best to eek out “I will go to TYO,” in Arabic, the transliteration of which I won’t dare to try!  Driving slowly through the night, Munir approaches each turn cautiously, asking me what to do next.  “Left or right?” he implores and I do my best to respond, setting off a string of laughter from any other Arabic speakers in the car.  Munir does not chuckle, but sees to it that after a few attempts I’ve corrected, or at least mitigated, my pathetic pronunciation.

No, my language acquisition skills are nothing to write home about and picking up Arabic isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  But as for making friends here in Nablus, well, its about a easy as makin’ groceries!

– Adam

Adam is an intern at TYO Nablus.

“3 for 5, for Obama!”—Strolling through the Old City and other first week exploits

To all my friends who scoffed at my choice of foreign language studies in university: four years of Arabic is finally paying off, big time.  In our capacity as teachers at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, we interns have ready access to translators and volunteers who help us to overcome language barriers in the classroom. Outside the center’s majestic walls, however, it is up to us to convey to the people of Nablus our thoughts, good will, and commitment to the community.  Pointing, smiling, and nodding can work wonders, but having a foundation in the language of the local community definitely enhances the cultural experience of living in Palestine.

Between strolling through the bustling old city souks and stopping to chat with storeowners, getting to know the women in my week one aerobics and computer classes, and just taking the time to admire the rolling hills from the sixth floor balcony, I’m quickly learning so much about the people here.
What strikes me the most about the Nabulsis is how welcoming and gracious they are: an hour’s stroll through the old city reveals how misguided many Americans are in their perceptions of Palestinian hospitality toward foreigners. Sure, while walking through the old city last week we interns got a fair share of curious stares, but that’s to be expected when you’re the only two blondes and redhead in the general vicinity.  As we proceeded past the aroma of spices, nuts, and Nabulsi kanafeh (yum!!) we were approached by several locals who wanted to welcome us to Nablus.  One particularly friendly owner of a nearby sweet shop stopped to introduce himself and to hand us each a little candy for the road. Perhaps the most amusing moment occurred as we passed by an older gentleman selling ka’ek by the road (ka’ek is a type of bread topped with sesame seeds): assuming correctly that we were Americans he exclaimed in Arabic: “3 [ka’ek] for 5 [shekels]…for Obama!”

As we meandered up the hills back toward the center, we stopped at a local supermarket to buy some pita bread (Arabic: khubez).  The owner was pleasantly surprised when he learned that I spoke Arabic and that my Mom’s family was originally from Jaffa. He then initiated a lively conversation about Jaffa’s famous oranges—best ones in the world apparently—and encouraged me to visit Yaffa before I returned to the States.  With a dry smile he remarked that Jaffa is a city to which he can never return but joked that he wouldn’t turn down an orange from there if I got the chance to go.  This exchange illustrates another noteworthy trait about Nabulsis and the Palestinians in general: they are among the most resilient people I have ever met.  The upbeat atmosphere at the old city markets, the pleasant exchanges between locals in the street, the hospitality of the women in my computer and aerobics classes such positivity in the face of constant adversity is truly inspiring.


Leila is an intern at TYO Nablus.

Kalimatna: The Palestinian Disabled Union

I walked in from the noise and heat of the street to the shaded and cool office not a minute too soon, as I’d speed-walked from TYO to the city center in record time.  I was immediately greeted by a lovely girl sitting at the front desk and the director of the organization who was seated across the desk.  We had met a few days beforehand and he warmly extended a hand to me in welcome.

Haya was already there and taking photos of two men who were flipping through profiles of the Union’s members, looking for candidates for the Paralympics that were going to be held shortly.  As we chatted, I was brought a cup of tea.  Palestinian hospitality is really not to be beat.

The Palestinian Disabled Union, snug between two large buildings, is located with just an unassuming sign designating its presence. I’d passed it dozens of times before on minibuses from the bus station without noticing it.  The office is small but welcoming and intentionally so—one of the persons with whom we spoke said that she could only be herself and feel comfortable inside of the glass sliding door of the Union.  It serves its function as a place for advocacy for disabled persons’ rights, for organizing events and classes for disabled persons, but also crucially for a place for disabled Palestinians to gather in comfort and camaraderie.

All of this I was able to gather by speaking with the current director of the Union, watching a film produced by the Union and speaking with two of its members.  Both the director and the film projected a positive image of their work there, focusing on the empowerment of disabled persons in Palestine and, having worked with the mentally handicapped in Peru, I was familiar with and appreciative of this tone.  The film was a montage of images of capability—the director driving his car, a young blind girl singing the short film’s song, pictures of sports events featuring those in wheelchairs.  The director elaborated on the union’s activities in securing classes for its members at the local university that met their needs, organizing other types of classes specially for its members, organizing sports events and much more.  After all of this, I was left with a very positive impression of the state of Palestinians with disabilities.   It seemed to me that there was work to be done, but that progress was being made.

This impression was not entirely negated by my speaking with two of the members, but I began to come to a fuller understanding of the life of those who are disabled in Palestine.  Both of our interviewees seemed to really feel their position as disabled persons in relation to the greater Palestinian society as being, essentially, a handicap.  Having a physical disability in Palestine, they explained, affects your job prospects, your prospects at starting a family, even your ability to walk down the street comfortably.  I have no illusions about how difficult it is to be handicapped in America and I’m sure that many of the concerns would be similar even across such a geographical, cultural and linguistic divide.  I did begin to think , however, about how many places in Nablus were handicapped accessible.  Of course this could just be a question of means rather than a question of intention, but what my two interviewees spoke of led me to believe that it was not just a means-based issue, it was an issue of ignorance of the subject.

Regardless, my two interviewees were happy to be able to be in a place like the Disabled Union.  A place where they were accepted, understood and considered.  Through the Disabled Union they’d each found employment and one had joined a basketball team for the wheelchair-bound.  If each did not exactly hold an optimistic view of their future or place in life, they seemed to do what Palestinians have become adept at—adapting to their situation while striving to improve it.


Bieta is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.