Dating in a city where dating is taboo is not thrilling. It’s not romantic.We don’t steal embraces and chaste kisses in alleyways. We don’t even hold hands. Sure, we often go out together — which has greatly improved our neighbors’ gossip fortunes (you’re welcome)– but the traditionally romantic parts of our relationship were held in one of two rooms, until recently.
Perhaps I should break a rule here by rewinding and dumping some info. (sorry Stephen King, guess I’ll never be a great writer). For the past several months, I have unexpectedly found myself living in Nablus, a city in the West Bank. When I’m not engaging in socially frowned upon behavior with my boyfriend, I’m studying Arabic at the University in the same city. I knew when I moved here that dating was a complicated social topic, but I had hoped to establish my home and his as a sort of private space– one where we could be comfortable in who we are.
I spent most of my time at his place, mainly because I could sleep over at his. Occasionally, I would invite him to mine when I had work to do in the evening, or an early class the next day. This also meant I could spend more time socializing with my roommates, whom I really enjoyed, without sacrificing too much time with my boyfriend.
Roughly two months ago, however, the dynamic shifted when a new Palestinian roommate join us. During the consideration period she insisted she felt comfortable with having men over, but another roommate, also Palestinian, though quite liberal, sensed discomfort. We let her move-in anyway; we needed the money and we believed her. Everything continued as normal at first.
My boyfriend visited maybe once a week. Each time I would check with each roommate before he came. Mostly I would take him into my room, out of the common area, so as not to bother the other roommates. The second month the new roommate started shutting herself in her room the moment he walked in. I knocked on her door and asked her if she was certain she was okay with having him there. I told her I didn’t want her to hate being in her own living space. She assured me everything was fine.
One day I walked out of my room to find the landlord sitting in the living room. Not just the landlord, but a girl from next door, whom the roommate had befriended. I had received no call, no warning. He asked me if I’d known that boys were forbidden in the apartment. I calmly informed him that he had not stipulated this when we had moved in. A number of foreigners lived in mixed apartments here, so I assumed it’d be the same in this one.
“Don’t you know about our traditions?” he sputtered. I spent the next five minutes, face burning, listening to him berate me for my choices.I told him I’d never do it again, rushed back into my room, packed up and left.
After the meeting I was enraged, humiliated and filled with self-doubt. I felt violated, like my privacy had been invaded. This was meant to be one of my safe spaces. I felt angry with the societal implication that women needed to be protected and, by extension, that they were incapable of making decisions about their own safety and well-being. I questioned if this meant I couldn’t ‘cut it’ in the field of work I was most interested in. I struggled to discern where the line was between preserving what you believed to be your own rights and not infringing on others’. I wondered about how to be a good ally to feminists here and whether my own outrage was justified.
While we walked down the street to his house, my boyfriend listened to me puff
my frustration into the cold air, before constructing a scenario which ended in this question: “Let’s say you lived here and you saw a boy entering the building. Could you stay silent?”
I snapped my mouth shut. In truth, I didn’t know. If I had been raised to believe boys and girls mingling in their living spaces was inappropriate; if I felt that seeing a strange boy in my apartment building infringed upon my safety, would I be justified in making sure he left? Even if it affected others? Did my right to privacy supersede theirs? What is privacy and how do different cultures interpret it? Is a right innate?
As we continued walking down the empty streets, I descended deeper and deeper into this question: What makes a right? When do I choose to defend one and let it go? I realized more clearly then what I had known in some small part of my brain. A right is decided by the will of the majority. If others do not define what you believe to be a right as such, you must fight against them, often at great cost. This becomes even more complex when considering an individual’s right in a country they aren’t a citizen or native of. Add on to this the concept of allyship and the long history of well-intentioned people interfering in the progress of another country and bungling it up.
I knew I shouldn’t extend the conflict by speaking with my landlord. It wasn’t worth the price of making others uneasy– even if they wouldn’t admit they were, even if it meant I was humiliated in front of a stranger, even if I disagreed with the method of communication. My grievance was a relatively small one compared to what others’ had to live with. I might be the subject of gossip for the year. I might be shamed or humiliated for five minutes. But I didn’t have to spend my life here. I didn’t have to conform long-term with a society I didn’t agree with, or be punished for diverging. No bravery is required of me.
Perhaps even the landlord, whose attitude I had found so disagreeable, was struggling with society in some small way. Perhaps he faced loss of face because of my actions. In order to defend his reputation, he had to make a public show of berating me. Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m being too nice. Who knows. It’is hard to tell when you’ve spent so little time in a new culture. It’s hard to know when to push and where.
Probably the best choice I could make is to throw my support behind a group in Palestine whom I believe in, but even that carries friction. One on hand, to be an ally I must support someone. On the other hand, how much of my own cultural upbringing informs who I decide to support? It reminds me of the divide I see within feminist groups about things like the hijaab. Some feminists, even Muslims in Muslim majority countries, view it as a symbol of oppression; others view it as a symbol of expression. Both can be correct, both believe the choice should be up to the woman, but who do you support? And why? And how do you support them? Is there room for nuance and how do you separate cultural influence from individual choice?
Being an ally, and choosing whom to ally with, is a difficult decision. Knowing when to stand up for your individual rights against the greater society can be difficult, too. I’m not sure if I have the right answers, but in some strange way I’m glad I’ve been forced to ask the questions.
*I should note that this should not be taken as a blanket statement on Palestinian culture, and shouldn’t be a comment on daily life here. This is intended to be interpreted largely as a personal experience which made me question my belief system.