It started slowly. A quiet whispering that followed us everywhere we went. Hearing our names murmured around us as we walked through the Old Souq on our way to school. Slowly the murmuring became louder, bolder, eventually turning into shouts.
‘Hello Sara!’ I would hear from a random stranger.
‘Ah, you are the foreigner who speaks Arabic. My youngest niece’s friend who lives in your apartment building told her parents who told me about the one who speaks Arabic,’ said the man in the accessories shop.
‘Rose! Rose!’ the lovely American heard from a top floor balcony. She looked up into the face of a young man she had never seen before.
‘Where are the footballs today? We want to play.’ From young boys in the street now accustomed to seeing us hauling sports equipment to work.
A certain celebrity accompanies being some of the few long term foreigners in Nablus. Nablus is one of the more conservative cities in the West Bank and doesn’t get the same levels of tourist traffic as Ramallah, Jericho or Bethleham - each of which offer completely different experiences.
So we stand out.
The men and women in our group experience this notoriety differently. When Hans walks down the street he is often accosted by gaggles of teenage girls who collapse into fits of giggles each time he answers their friendly questions with a smile and a nod of his blond head.
When us girls walk down the street we often get comments that are less well intentioned. Not necessarily unkind, just fairly exotic. As there are many who still don’t know I speak Arabic there isn’t much self censorship in their choice of words.
It’s an interesting experience being a girl in Nablus. Covered from wrists to necklines we try not to make waves.
Soon after beginning our classes we received a complaint from the school. Our necklines were too low. Having thought we had all been doing a good job of complying with local customs we were taken aback and we often confer with each other now before leaving the house.
‘Does this look ok? Should I wear a scarf around my neck?’
‘Might be better, just to be on the safe side.’
The people of Nablus are wonderfully friendly and we have been taken in by many who have showered us with hospitality and goodwill. But never far from our minds is the fact that men and women are quite segregated here and we must respect that. We keep male friends at a distance and are careful to keep an eye on the signals that we give off.
Certain places we simply cannot go if we are not accompanied by the men in our group.
The longer we are here the more we understand about how things work, and the more scandalized we become about other foreigners who are not following the rules.
'Did you see that girl?? She's just wearing a t-shirt. No cardigan nothing! Her arms all out and everything tsk tsk.'
Then we catch each other's eyes and laugh.
We came here to teach and yet every day we are learning.