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.