To Risk Love in Palestine
Neïla Khalil - 01/04/2008
Constrained between the culture of disapproval and the Middle-Eastern mindset of men, love is a tormented issue in Palestine. Women fighting for better living conditions, recognise that love is their priority despite all the factors that can thwart it. A woman can meet her ideal man, but there is not enough space for them: a woman can’t be seen with a man and publicly declare that she loves him.
The culture of disapproval encloses love, and religion specifies that a man and a woman who meet without being relatives or married, are sinners.
Feelings and issues are often dissimulated when living under the rule of fear. Many taboos are infringed, though softly and quietly. However the great dogmas of the Palestinian society, those forbidding any debate on issues such as establishing sentimental ties or virginity, are discussed by young women. They do this only to let off some steam, never in view of a revolt against their family or social order.
Whereas some women explain the conservation of virginity as a religious or personal conviction, others feel that it constitutes the judgement to which a woman is bound on her first wedding night. She must prove her innocence, to avoid staining her family’s honour and thus sign her death sentence.
As for love and sentimental relations, even if these don’t exceed the stage of tender words or a single love letter, they could cost a young woman her life. The statistics of women’s associations in Palestine state that 12 to 15 women are killed each year in the country.
According to Rania Sanjalaoui, a social assistant, the majority of the victims were killed by their families who suspected them of having a sentimental relationship with a man and presuming that love always leads to sex. This consequence is actually refuted by forensics who state that most victims were still virgins. Thus love is extremely difficult within the Arab world. It is condemned both by society and religion and can cost a young woman her life. It is therefore understandable that young women prefer to maintain secret relationships in order to run the least possible risks, as love is still worth the risk.
Some elements are still missing in the mechanisms of our loves:
Despite the fact that she’s only 32 and is considered one of Ramallah’s most brilliant journalists, Nibel Thaouabtah affirms: “I feel my body is wilting away and that I won’t have the chance to enjoy it. I have no partner in my life and I just gratify myself by writing on love“.
Thaouabtah has been editor in chief of the monthly magazine Al- Haal (The State of Things) for the last three years and runs the television unit for the Centre for the Promotion of Information of the Bir Zeit University. She joins her fingers on her elegant body and adds: “I’m haunted by old age. That’s why I do physical activity everyday and I eat carefully.”
Love has more than a story to tell in the life of Nibel, so she gathered all the stories that she and her friends and relatives lived and turned it into a novel, to be published in a few months: “I weighed up all the experiences I and my friends and relatives lived, and added it all in a mould of pain which I called novel” she observes, despite the negative consequences that the publication of this novel could entail for the author, considering that her origins stem from a conservative village milieu. Her family still lives in the village of Beit Fijar in the Bethlehem district, South of the West Bank: “You don’t talk about love in our conservative society and I feel that Arabic culture today resents this image of love”. Then she adds: “”I feel very bitter when I read the great tales of passion in Arabic history, such as the love of Kais Ibn Moulaueh , and of the great freedom he enjoyed compared to our modern day experience. At the time, a poet could cry out his passion on roofs, and usually spent most of his time in front of the tent of his beloved in the face of her tribe. Back then, love was highly respected, unlike today. Many of us have experienced love and had a taste of its disillusionments. I don’t believe in ideal love because there is always a missing element in the mechanisms of love. In our societies, you need to fight to save a sentimental relationship and crown it with a marriage. Unfortunately, the flame often fades out in the uproar of these social battles”. She follows with a sad look: “In the university where I work, I often come across students who look so obviously in love. I see them sitting one next to the other looking frustrated. I know that if they were in a park in England or France, they would at least hold each other close, but this is forbidden in a country ruled by habits and traditions, by religion and by all the taboos which do not allow for two people of a different sex to have a relationship. In a word, our Arabic societies kill love”.
To love is to wait
“Love is a pleasure: someone understands you, fears for you, but it can also entail, as far as my experience goes, a long wait”. Thus Fedia Massoud, 23, defines love. Fedia fell in love with the son of her neighbours, Mohammed Mokded when she was finishing high school. In return, he loved her even more, she says. They did not meet at the restaurant or at the cinema, she adds. In the society of the camp where she lives the range of freedom for this kind of relationships is practically inexistant. Fedia and Mohammed live in Balata in the district of Nablus.
This is the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. “I started noticing his admiring look, she recounts, and his interest in me. We lived in the same overcrowded neighbourhood and his sister was a close friend of mine. His elegance and self-assertiveness always caught my eye: his family is very poor, so he worked at night at the central market to pay off his university studies”. Fedia remembers that “the first time he talked to me was once on our way to school. He stopped me and declared his love. I just smiled back and didn’t say a word, so he understood that I shared the same feelings. On the following day he sent me a message through his sister where he told me that he loved me and he wanted to ask for my hand as soon as I graduated from school and once his university studies were finished. Our relationship lasted seven months. He used to see me on my way back from school. Sometimes we would wave hello, have a quick chat or swap letters. I seldom went to visit his sister, that is my friend and on that rare occasion we could sit together and speak undisturbed. This happened when his mother left or was busy as we didn’t want her to find out the reason of my visits because she would have thought ill of me. Our Arabic uses and customs don’t allow a girl and a boy to speak to each other. One day, to my surprise I found out that the Occupation Forces had arrested Mohammed at dawn. By the morning, the news had spread in the neighbourhood and it literally shocked me. Mohammed was attending his third year at the faculty of Literature and he was due to pass his exams. His detention meant that he was going to lose a whole year and I didn’t know how long he would stay in jail. I spent a horrible period of sorrow and distress. I graduated with a lot of trouble but got 70/100, much more than I hoped for, but today I thank God I made it despite the suffering I had to endure.”
She follows: “The second bad news I got in my life after Mohammed’s arrest was his conviction to five years of jail for his adherence to a faction of the resistance. Back then I felt I could die. The first letter he was able to send from prison was addressed to his family, but in that same envelope there was a small message for me, and he asked his sister to give it to me. It said: “Five long years stand between us. I won’t ask you to wait but I will love you forever. Follow your course, mine is too long”. I thought about it for a week and sent him a letter through the International Red Cross in which I told him: ”I’ll wait for you. I won’t marry another man but you.”
In the last four and a half years, Fedia has gone through many troubles. Pretty and in the age of marriage, she had to reject many suitors. Her mother insisted upon knowing the true cause of these reiterated refusals, as she wasn’t convinced by her daughter’s pretexts. “When I told her the truth she was surprised and started asking questions. She wanted to know if we had met face to face and where. I reassured her and told her I knew how to protect myself, that nothing physical had taken place and that Mohammed was serious about our relationship. My mother started crying; she cared for us and had suffered a lot to raise us after our father’s death. She had to go and work in a factory in Nablus to spare my four brothers and I from poverty.
We ended our discussion with her insisting that my brothers should be kept out of this matter, otherwise they would have changed their opinion on Mohammed and I risked spending my days cloistered in the house.”
Then she continues: “Mohammed will come out of prison next autumn 2008. He will have spent five years in jail during which we managed to live thanks to the hundreds of letters we exchanged with the help of the International Red Cross and his sister, who has kept our secret. I’m furious for the time our letters take to reach their destination. Correspondence between prisoners and the Red Cross is extremely slow and can take up to three months.”
Fedia smiles and straightens her hidjab which she wears with obvious care: “I finished my History studies at university and I hope to find a position as a teacher soon. All we hope for, Mohammed and I, is to get married after his release. This waiting is exhausting and we plan to have at least five children, obviously after he finishes his university studies”.
Love encounters in a third city
Hiba Radhouane, aged 24, is living a love story which she sees as simple. However her society calls for the simplest relationships to be planned and organised as if committing a crime or conducting a battle.
Hiba is from Tulkarem. She’s in love with Aous, a young man from Jenine. They met during a volunteering activity within a Non Governmental Organisation. The flame of their passion grew during a meeting which grouped the sections of this association. Hiba graduated in accountancy and works in a private society in Toulkarem. As for Aous, 29, he graduated in physical education seven years ago. He worked, for short periods, in various fields other than his discipline, and is still looking for a job in a sports club or as a school sports teacher, but in vain.
They just met a year ago, says Hiba who hopes that her boyfriend will find a job soon so he can ask her in marriage and make their relation public. It would end this stressful situation they endure every time they feel like seeing each other, speak to each other for an hour or two every month, or even more. “Our relationship lives thanks to the Internet and the phone which allow us to communicate. When we want to see each other, we have to plan it for days. We go to Ramallah, I come from Toulkarem and he comes from Jenine. We meet at a restaurant for a couple of hours then we go back to our homes. He can’t come and see me in Toulkarem because it’s a small town and we couldn’t go together at the restaurant or at the park because if I was to be seen in his company, it would create a lot of hassle for my parents and would certainly ruin my reputation.
Some time ago I told my mother everything as she was starting to have some doubts because of all the telephone calls and messages I received on my portable. She was understanding with me because she’s quite open: she meets a lot of people in her job as driving school instructor. She promised me she would keep the secret and wouldn’t tell my father who works in the USA where he’s had a novelty shop for the last two years.
Practically every day my mother asks me to pressure Aous and ask my hand officially, even before he finds a fixed term job. She’s ready to help us economically and she says she feels stressed and anxious at the idea that a relative could see me with Aous in Ramallah and could tell my two brothers, who though younger than me, would not hesitate to react violently. They could even push my parents to force me to quit my job and stay at home. I can’t even think of that”.