My eyes open around 7:00 and see a small amount of light coming in through the windows above my bed. This is a sure-fire sign that Eli (my roommate and friend) is eating breakfast. After absentmindedly skimming social media for a few minutes, I rise from my heavily-blanketed bed (the winter has started, and our home is surprisingly chilly) to join him. I start the day with a chuckle – Eli is sipping coffee with leftover spaghetti from last night, having decided to opt out of the usual hummus and bread. I am a few minutes behind him, as this is the one day a week we go to different volunteering sites: Eli to the school and myself to Meals on Wheels.
We chat together about our after-volunteering plans for a few minutes, and then Eli gets up to shower. While eating breakfast, I throw on a podcast. This morning, it is a Radiolab episode discussing the events of mass hysteria that followed fake radio broadcasts proclaiming War of the Worlds alien invasions in the U.S. and Ecuador. It’s a fascinating piece that ends up delving into our tendency as humans to be drawn to horrifying news events in order to be pacified by the calm, commanding voice of the objective news reporter.
I’m still chewing on this idea as I crawl into the warmth of my bed – not to sleep, but to spend about thirty minutes trying to get the Arabic flashcards I’ve been making on my computer squared away. After clicking around for a while and watching a YouTube video, I accomplish half of my goal. I have yet to figure out how to “flip” the cards I’ve made on the Anki flashcard app on my phone. Later.
I glance at my watch and realize that it’s time to shower. I get that done, get dressed, wander out to the living room to strum out a few notes on the ukulele, and then throw on my headphones and begin making my way to Meals on Wheels. In the U.S., Meals on Wheels is a program that delivers food to the homes of people who are unable to get out on their own due to age or disability. The program in Ramallah is similar, but backwards. Each Tuesday, Abu Ali hops into a large van (oftentimes with me) to pick up the 20-30 elderly folks (mostly women) and bring them to the Ramallah Women’s Center for a delicious home cooked meal.
When I am about a third of the way to my volunteering site, the Women’s Center’s van happens to pull up next to me and Nawal signals me in. Nawal is the leader of the Center, a women who strives day in and day out to do the most good possible for the residents and visitors that depend on the Center. She does this work masterfully and with limited resources. She, Abu Ali, and myself chat on the way to the Center after making a short stop at a dukaan (shop) for Abu Ali to grab a small to-go breakfast.
This morning, I decide to forego riding along to pick up the program participants in favor of being present with them as they sit in the Center waiting for the meal. This is a wonderful time for conversation and storytelling. While waiting for the first car-full to come, I spend a few minutes chatting with the kitchen staff: Shahar, Em El-A’bed, and more. They provide me with a glass of tea and I wander outside to a spot that, if you were to visit the Women’s Center on Tuesday morning, you would likely see me sitting. It’s one of my favorite places in the city, as it is a relatively quiet space filled with green – a nature-filled oasis in the middle of the metropolis. Here, I sit quietly to think, pray, read, and reflect.
After about thirty minutes, I see the first group of women pull up in the van. I help a few up the steps and then situate myself next to the group. The topic of conversation wanders from topic to topic, covering things like: cell phone difficulties, things planned for the upcoming holidays, family all over the world, beautiful places to visit in Palestine, and the recent escalation in Gaza. Sometimes, we just sit quietly and listen to the clamoring sounds emanating from the kitchen.
A curious sight – a crew of uniformed governmental officials – enter about forty-five minutes into our time together. It turns out that today is the Palestinian Civil Defense’s volunteering day. Medical practitioners among them start taking blood pressures and one man gives a presentation on safely heating homes in the winter. The Meals on Wheels cohort is captivated, asking many questions and exclaiming when another horror story (on, say, an accident with an indoor heater) is told.
During the presentation, one of the leaders of the Meals on Wheels program, a woman named Selwa, spoke to me about their work. She said that, for the program participants, this program is nothing short of a lifeline. “We need connections as people, and many of these women are lonely because the family is working or gone,” and Meals on Wheels facilitates meaningful relationships between these individuals. And, of course, an ajnabi (foreigner) from Minnesota.
After the uniformed officials left, I help deliver meals. Today: chicken, potatoes, and carrots all slow-cooked together. As usual, it is nothing short of delicious. I grab my plate and happily wolf it down (as an aside, one of the women told me a few minutes before I look like I have gained weight. I think it might be the loose sweater I’m wearing. But, if she is right, I know a large contributor is this scrumptious weekly lunch). After picking the bones clean, I add them to the bag that Leila – one of the women – collects every week to feed the cats outside her house.
I sit and chat for another hour or so, then leave the Center to meet Eli and Majd. Majd is one of the educators at the School of Hope. She teaches art, and is herself an artist. Today, Majd is showing two posters at the Palestinian Museum at Beir Zeit University not far from Ramallah. She created them for the Qalandia International’s Solidarity project. In them, she tied the plight of the Palestinians with other peoples in order to communicate shared values and desires for liberation from injustice. On the way to the university, we pick up two of her friends. One chats with me most of the ride in Arabic (Majd tells me after that he does not know a lot of English, and therefore was excited to talk to a foreigner in his native tongue). He’s a jokester, and we rib each other while trying to stay in our seats on the windy, hilly city streets.
Upon arrival, I am immediately struck by the beauty of the Museum. It’s architecture reminds me of some sort of trapezoidal structure meant to mimic the topography of the mountains around it. The group sits outside for a few minutes to have a smoke (as usual), and then we move downstairs for the presentation. All in all, there are twelve posters communicating Palestinian solidarity with seven countries/places: Yemen, Syria, South Africa, Venezuela, Western Sahara, Africa, and Ireland. Majd’s pieces are beautiful and haunting – see below, words do no justice. There were postcard-sized representations of the posters to take, and hers disappeared first.
Following the exhibition, Eli and I wandered through the exhibit upstairs showcasing traditional Palestinian cross-stitching. Then, we all pack into the car (four deep in the back!) back to Ramallah. After thanking Majd profusely for the ride and for sharing her wonderful work with us, we open the door and promptly make our way to the couches, where I promptly begin to stare at my computer for an embarrassing amount of time while trying to think about how to write this newsletter. Writers block persisting, I decide to make a hummus, hot pepper, and labna (yogurt dip/spread) sandwich. Maybe I’ll find inspiration there.
It worked. Not long after eating, I begin typing the first paragraphs you see above.
As an aside, one thing my cohort and I have learned is that onions and hot peppers are particularly potent here. After cutting peppers, the oil can remain on your fingers for hours, rendering an itchy eye occasion for screams of pain and profuse crying. Eli has taken to wearing gloves when cutting peppers. I did not today.
Having gotten a start on my newsletter, I begin to get ready for the weekly workout with a local organization called Right to Movement (RTM). I go every Tuesday, and every time I get crushed by this punishing hour and a half. Having worn glasses all day, I take them off and, as is my habit, put in my right contact.
Pain. Curse hot peppers. Put in left contact. Pain. Curse them again.
After the tears stopped, I walked the car-filled streets to the gym. This workout is a particularly difficult one, in part due to the sprints and part to the nagging presence of hot peppers in my stomach. Lesson learned. When the workout finishes, ya’tik al’afia (a hard-to-translate phrase that here basically means “good job”) abounds and we take our mandatory post-exercise group picture. I and four other friends (three local, one international) walk back together, making for a conversation in both Arabic and English. My international friend, a woman from Holland, decides to check out a shop to look for a gift for her boyfriend’s family. I decide to join her. The shop worker (and owner’s son) explains the history of the place and even brings us upstairs to the antique museum that is filled to the ceiling with old trinkets, furniture, etc. from all over the world. His father was an avid collector, and his habit served as the motivation to start the shop. While in conversation, the worker and I connect in a special way because that he attended the School of Hope when he was a child.
After taking our leave, my friend and I part ways and I make my way back. Not long after walking through the door, someone tries to get in. No cause for worry, however – we were expecting our friend Ibrahim. Generally the door is unlocked when we are around during the day and he just walks in. He’s become that kind of friend. Eli goes to bed soon after in anticipation of the early morning and long school day before us. Yet, Ibrahim and I have not seen each other for two days. Which, to us, is actually quite a long time. As such, we sit and catch up for about an hour and a half, covering almost every topic imaginable. This is one of the best ways to end the day, in my opinion. Ibrahim is an engineer with a full day tomorrow and as such leaves around 10:45.
I’m tired. So, I read a few pages of Braiding the Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and turn out the lights. Cozy in the dark, I say “thank you” and then drift off.