Cross-cultural partying

For some reason, I’m unable to write about my daily happenings without feeling like what I’m writing is boring. For this reason, I won’t go on about the house party we held this weekend, or the visit to my friend’s bar. What I will, however, write about is the Arab Christian engagement I attended in Bethlehem on Sunday.

A very good friend of mine from Jerusalem decided that it would be a great experience for me to see an Arab engagement and invited me to his cousin’s. At first, I was very confused. “This is their engagement party?” I asked, “Or a party at which they get engaged?” 

“No,” he responded, “First his family asked her family and now they are having a party and they will get engaged at the party.” So, eager to see exactly what was going to happen, I took the sherut from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Sunday after work and my friend picked me up and we drove to Bethlehem. Just before the checkpoint, I realized that I had forgotten my passport at home and, because I’d been robbed of everything a while ago, the only form of ID I had on me was my Israeli bus pass which might not necessarily work as the checkpoint was an entrance immediately into Bethlehem, meaning it was off limit to Israelis.

However, after asking to see our IDs through a window and asking what my name was to ensure it wasn’t Israeli, the soldier at the checkpoint waved us through without a problem and we drove to the Paradise Hotel where the engagement was being held.

Nervous that I was over dressed, and feeling awkward because I had never met the couple of the night, we walked into a large event room where everyone was well dressed, there was a huge number of people, and tables set out with white rose-and-candle centerpieces. We shook hands with six members of the families of the fiances and said hello (“I’m his friend…” I awkwardly explained my arrival). My friend led us to our table, where we were promptly served with beautifully wrapped chocolates with little wire butterflies on them, and the French girl accompanying us and I exclaimed multiple times about how much it seemed like a wedding, not an engagement.

Something was announced in Arabic, music was played, and everyone in the room got to their feet and started clapping. Bewildered, I did the same and my friend’s brother said “the couple are arriving” – and so they were. The happy couple stood on a dais and the crowd congregated around them, us as well. Then, a priest spoke for a while in Arabic and what I assume were some prayers were conducted as the crowd murmured “amen” in unison. There was also some singing and then what I think was holy water was sprinkled on them. Finally, the priest instructed the couple to exchange engagement rings, which they put onto each other’s fingers.

As I said, it seemed as though it could have been a wedding.

We sat back down and the festivities started. Music was played and the man of the night (is there a term used for male fiance?) was hoisted onto someone’s shoulders and his fiancee lifted up on her chair, dancing in the air for a good 15 minutes or so. The three guys I was with joined the festivities but I, still feeling a little awkward, remained at the table with the French girl and watched the dancing. Then some Arabic finger food was served, champagne was opened, and waiters came around serving us cake. I was stuffed.

By about 8:30pm, the last song was played and we congratulated the happy couple and left. Unwilling to go home, however, we drove through Bethlehem to Beit Sahour where we stopped off at The Tent for some argila, drinks and a giant plate of french fries to appease me. I asked my friend again and again if it was appropriate for me to go in wearing a knee-length skirt and was firmly chastised and told “don’t be stupid. You foreign girls are more complicated than Arab girls. It’s not backwards here, you can wear whatever, you don’t see what the Arab girls wear!”

The drinks were cheap and good, our waiter was unbelievably slow, and we had a good time. We piled back into the car at 10 and headed back to the checkpoint where I nervously waited for the female soldier to check my ID. After asking my friend where he was from and demanding to see the ID of the 3 passengers and myself, she waved us through – without even checking my bus pass! That was the third time I’d entered the West Bank without a passport, but the first time without any other form of ID either. And every time, I find myself feeling nervous at the checkpoints. There’s something about them that is just so hostile, even without any negative experiences.

Inshallah my easy journeys in and out will continue. However, this will probably only happen if I start bringing my passport with me all the time because, as my coworker stated as he firmly chastised me for being so stupid, “Your luck will not always be so good.”

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