Friday, 3 December 2010

Chapter 22 A foreigner at home

You’ll have seen the words ‘ajaneb’ and ‘foreigners’ a fair bit in this blog. To the extent where I have finally broken the habit of writing ‘foreigner’ with an ‘o’ instead of an ‘e’. Thank you spellchecker.

Yes, we are foreigners here. A group of British and American people, and me – a Lebanese girl with a Palestinian mother. This came as a surprise to me because, despite being from the neighborhood as it were, I am still considered a foreigner.

I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because although our two countries are separated by a mere line on a map, there are worlds defined by politicians that exist between us. A Lebanese passport will never make its way across that border and it’s very difficult for a Palestinian to get a visa to Lebanon.

Maybe it’s because our geographical closeness does not imply a shared history, just separate ones that collide from time to time.

Maybe it’s because our linguistic and cultural closeness is not mirrored by a closeness in experience and social evolution.

I don’t know. All I know is I’m a foreigner.

The only difference between me and my colleagues is that I understand what people are saying to me as I walk down the street.

A few days ago I was taking a picture of the posters and flags lining the nearby university walls in the run up to their student elections. A policeman came up to me and demanded to see my phone because ‘it is forbidden to take pictures in Nablus without the permission of the police.’

He is talking about me to his superior on the phone.

I reply to him in Arabic yet he insists on speaking to me in broken English.

‘Show me the picture’ in English.

‘I didn’t take one’ I reply in Arabic. I really hadn’t, the posters were too far away for the camera on my phone.

‘I saw you take one’ again in English.

‘Speak to me in Arabic I am from Lebanon.’

‘Yes she is a foreigner, but she speaks Arabic’ he says into his phone.

‘I am not a foreigner, I am Lebanese!’ I interject, frustrated that he’s not even listening to me, let alone believing me.

Finally he actually looks at me and begins speaking to me as opposed to my general direction.

Yesterday, walking down to school I pass a group of teenage boys and get the obligatory ‘fuck your mother’ from one of them.

I turn around and ask ‘Why? What are you being so rude for?’ in Arabic.

The culprit immediately ducks behind his other friends in embarrassment.

‘Oh! We thought you were a foreigner,’ came the contrite reply.

‘So if I was foreign it means you forget your manners?’ I shoot back in annoyance.

Here we all are. Rubbing shoulders in the souk and passing each other on the street but we’re not connecting.

Proximity by itself does not breed relatability.

The Nabulsis feel the foreigners stick to themselves instead of really engaging with the culture while the foreigners feel isolated by the reactions they receive.

If anything, the proximity drives us all further apart although I do feel like the longer we are here the more accepted we are. Maybe that's the key.

On a wholly different note, if you are planning on visiting Nablus, carry tissues with you. Most public bathrooms won’t have any.


  1. thanks for your honesty - my activist friends tell me only of the warm and loving welcome they receive..

  2. You can tell the foreigners - they're the ones with tissue boxes... *giggle*

  3. Haha and the ones that munch on falafel in the street. Considering how many falafel stands there are, you don't see anyone eating while walking. Except us... making a mess.

  4. I've always thought of this when i'm struck by the inevitable question of: had it been possible, would you go back to Palestine?..I would feel like a foreigner you pointed out: different social evolution...I'd rather carry my country in my heart than feel my country can't carry me in its heart :)
    Loved the post!

  5. Thanks for the comment Ammoun. I feel that way about Lebanon sometimes actually.

    Being part of diaspora means you can carry your culture with you but it's hard not being able to develop with it.

  6. Wow Sara, so very powerful. Glad I'm taking the time to catch up on your blog. Still can't believe the way the police man reacted to you. That happens to me all the time, well the photo taking much so that I've resorted to only taking photos with my iPhone. Very rarely do they ask to see the photos... Anyhow, on a wholly different note, hope that you are receiving a much warmer welcome by now. I still don't understand why the children would feel the need to speak to the foriegners that way..Excuse my ignorance, but aren't most foreigners there to volunteer?

  7. Hi Dani :)

    Yes most foreigners are here to volunteer but there's still decades of mistrust to contest with added to a sense of national pride which says 'we don't need you'.

    Nablus is different from Ramallah which acts as a base to loads of NGO's so it's full of foreigners. Nablus a lot less, to the point where even our attention will be pulled and all conversation stalled at the sight of a blonde head.

    Generally people are fantastic and we are constantly being woken up by people bringing us food in the early hours in the morning and our neighbors inviting us in for home made knaffeh.

    I didn't realize photo taking in Lebanon would be a problem. Is this everywhere?