Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Chapter 7 Abu Khalde

Lounging in an arm chair on our terrace balcony in short sleeves it’s difficult to believe that less than a week ago I was looking dejectedly out of my window onto a cold and rainy day. The weather in this morning is perfect. A cooling breeze skirts around us as we sit quietly, admiring the rolling hills of Nablus that make up our view. I feel peaceful.

Our moment of contemplative silence is in part enforced by the fact that the electricity has been cut since 7:30 this morning. An electricity cut can be the result of many things: years of conflict taking their toll on power plant production, a shortage of government funds that anyway are being allocated to other services and the pockets of government officials, or even the weather causing the electricity lines to short.

But these are not problems in Palestine that affect electricity. In fact it is a rare occurrence for the electricity to cut here at all. Unless of course one has run out of credit and must top up his electricity account. As was the case with us.

Naturally it took us a fair bit of time and fiddling with the fuse box before we figured this out. Once we had run out of switches to test and our internet withdrawel was starting to itch, we realized there was only one thing left to do: go ask the landlord.

As we made our way down from our fourth floor flat, the smell of cooking wafted up towards us. One of our neighbours had left her door open as she prepared lunch for her family and the smell was mouth watering.

We reached the ground floor and knocked on the landlord’s door. It was opened by his wife who, before even asking our names, had ushered us in with words of welcome and sat us down in the good living room on the comfy couch.

“Sit, sit” she said smiling warmly as her husband came in from one of the other rooms.

Abu Khalde is the one of those endearing older men whose personalities shine through their eyes and who always speak their mind. He liked his stomach, that much was clear from the moment he strode in and welcomed us reproachfully as if to say ‘why has it taken you so long to come and say hello to me.’

Within minutes we had cups of sweet tea and pieces of chocolate cake in front of us.

There are no errands in Palestine. Only visits where things sometimes get done. We sat with Abu Khalde for an hour; the electricity conversation lasted all of two minutes.

‘You need to top up’ he said immediately, completely dismissing that there could be any other problem then moved on to a topic that was much closer to his heart.

‘You see this scar?’ he pointed to the offending thick purple line that ran angrily up his leg winding around his knee towards his groin area. ‘This is from smoking.’

He had had open heart surgery a few years earlier which involved taking an artery from his leg.

‘Three packs a day.’ He shook his head regretfully. That was not his only health problem; he was also a diabetic following a strict dietary and pharmaceutical regime.

When the conversation moved onto the peace talks he said simply ‘what difference do these talks ever make? Nothing will change.’ Despite carrying both Swiss and Jordanian passports, in the eyes of Israel Abu Khalde was nothing more than his state issued ID card.

‘They know everything about you with this card. Everything. Where you live, where you work. Everything you have ever done in your life!’

A self professed ‘international man’, Abu Khalde had been a big time banker in London even speaking at conferences and was now happily retired in Nablus. Nablus has been quiet for years and, according to Abu Khalde, it would remain so.

We chatted with him for a while before going back upstairs. By this point the weather was oppressively hot, as it had been for the past two days. Our long sleeve cardigans were sticking to our backs and arms and all the water we were drinking was going exclusively into sweat production.

Our electricity did not come back and the heat had sapped all our energy. Crowding into our kitchen we undertook a cooking bonanza.

I began chopping onions for the loubieh bi zeit while one of my flatemates Julianne mixed flour with cocoa into a lovely paste that would soon be a chocolate cake. We were chatting with Rose and Jon when the knock on the door came.

‘Hello!’ came Abu Khalde’s voice booming through the door. He had come to check up on the electricity but mostly to have a chat. Climbing the stairs was difficult for him and he collapsed into a chair breathing heavily.

‘Turn down the fire’ he commanded me before taking a look at our supermarket choices and declaring them all a waste of money. ‘Next time tell me, I will get you the good stuff’.

The oven in our kitchen was temperamental and Abu Khalde took it upon himself to keep us posted on the cake’s status as we worked.

‘tsk tsk… the cake is on fire’ he would state calmly as the unreliable gas valve caused sudden raging flames and the rest of us panicked.

‘By the time you finish your loubieh I will have gone to sleep and woken up tomorrow morning,’ he grumbled as I stirred the mix of onions, beans and garlic.

‘But the company is lovely is it not?’ I countered.

‘Yes that is true’ he said cheering up a bit.

He treated us like family despite having so recently met us all. Like a surrogate uncle. He did not join us for dinner as his diabetes meant he could not eat in the evenings but sat with us on the table and chatted. Jon and Julianne had acquired a working level of Arabic and he delighted in correcting them as the conversation flowed easily around the table mixing between Arabic and English.

It was a lovely dinner and by the time Abu Khalde took leave of us the electricity was back and all was right in our little apartment.

The temperature of the hot water in our shower can only be described as cold and there seems to be a never ending flow of dust into the house but it is an easy home to settle into. As we turn in for the evening I look forward to tomorrow and realize this is how I want to end each day. With enthusiasm for the next.

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