Tag Archives: relationships

Forbidden Love?!?!: How dating someone made question how I defined rights and culture

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.


The suddenness of religiosity

There’s something to be said about the theory that we become more religious as we near death, or as a friend nears death, or death becomes a greater statistical probability (even if that probability is still very small).
Suddenly, you’re grappling with the metaphysical and philosophical questions you try to avoid in your daily life because you know very well that you don’t have the answers to any of them and hope that you’ll some how absorb them over the course of trying to live.

It starts when you start focusing on them– on those questions– that religion slips in. “Is he okay?” is one of those questions. Inevitably, especially if you’re imaginative (and aren’t all of us really when we are anxious), you come up with scenario. What so many portrayals of this process don’t get is it’s never linear. It’s never bad to worse. It’s bad, better, worse, worst, okay. At some points you focus on just keeping it level at “okay”, even while your heart clenches and burns.

Periodically, as your heart oscillates between hammering and painful twisting, you start making deals.  You don’t even have to name a deity or a creator. You just hope for some temporary influence over the world. You give up things; you sacrifice the hypothetical.

I don’t need my dream job, you say to the universe. I don’t need him to be with me.
I can give up this plan I had for myself, or this treat. I promise I’ll do something to return the price to you.

This is when you are less than okay. When you’re okay, you can tell yourself he must be too.
He must be okay because he’d make the safe choice, because he’d get lucky, because it couldn’t possibly be as bad as you imagine. Then a small voice in the back of your head says “What if he’s not?”

And you say, he is. He probably just doesn’t want to talk to you.

“That’s highly irregular,” the voice retorts.

Then you begin to wonder: What could he do that would lead to radio silence?

Drink too much and fall asleep? Decide that, actually, he wanted to break up with you? Cheat on you?

That’s when you realize, you’d rather he just cheated. That’s when you deals start taking on another form. You say to yourself, I can take that. I can take him cheating as long as he’s alive. I can take him breaking up with me. I can take never seeing him again, as long as he’s alive.

You keep checking your phone. It’s obsessive. Your heart leaps and sinks like a sine graph every time you do, and every time you do you pray that this otherworldly force has taken your deal, no matter which one.


So, we broke up: Strategies used in getting over my ex

Break up is a little bit like war.  I can hear you all groan. I know, it sounds a lot like a platitude. “Love is a battlefield”  and even if you put your heart back together it’s never the same and all that nonsense. Just hear me out.

It’s something a lot of political science majors learn in introductory classes. In each war strategists begin fighting using tactics learned from previous wars– sometimes with little regard for how ill-suited they are to the current one.

Stage One:  The bad analogies, similes and metaphors stage

I remember the day we broke up; I cut my toe in the shower.  It bled way more than it had any right to, given it was such a tiny little thing. The whole thing was made worse by the fact that previous to the shower I am pretty sure we were going to–well, anyway, a couple of days later it formed a scab because that’s the body’s response  to being attacked in that way.

I remember looking down at it and thinking “am like that scab. am like this clumsy shower cut. Sure it hurts now, but I’ll heal and soon I’ll barely be able to see the scar at all.” You see, it’s all a healing process.

Looking back I question those thoughts. Did I find them reassuring or did I think this in some sort of mopey-haze? Really Leah, really. You’re like a cut? You can do better.

You see  that’s why I needed a makeover. I wasn’t just cutting my hair, I was transforming myself. I was becoming a new person. The post-breakup makeover is classic. Everyone’s done it because we believe we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re a new, better version of ourselves with a swishy dress and a dramatic haircut.  This way you can look in the mirror and avoid your sad, sleep-deprived eyes and remember that change is coming. It might take a little longer and it’ll probably be more painful than a haircut, but it’s possible. It’s possible to feel whole without this person.

Stage Two:  Do everything (which is really the culmination of stage one)

I hate moping. I hate it. I feel pathetic and the day just seems to lengthen into a dully, pixelated infinity. The day after we broke up a friend came from Taipei and we did all the conventional emergency-recovery things: ate pizza, watched movies, painted nails, re-hashed the break-up too many times at too many different angles.

Then, after I spent my moping-allowance, I threw myself into every activity I could think of. Rock climbing? Sure. Try this new food? Absolutely. Hike a mountain? I’d love to. Attend art events, write a play in 24 hours– all while working– yes to all of these things.
If you wanted a study buddy or someone to be scarily enthusiastic about your idea to visit a cat cafe, I was your girl. No idea was too silly, too scary or too intensive for me. I need to make up for lost time, after all! Time I spent at home or time I spent thinking about a boy who could just toss me to the side. It was my time now– time for the cliched independent woman speeches, time for the indignant dismissals of my ex, time for dreams and ideas and way too many energy drinks.  Oh yes, I was motivated, fierce and exhausted. 

Oh man was I tired– no number of “you can do this” playlists could remedy the exhaustion. Of course this stage of the break up I was also gifted with super endurance and super focus, something I’d be thankful to have now, so I didn’t seem to notice the exhaustion until stage three.

Stage 3: Reality

The first two stages are great coping mechanisms, but eventually you have to contend with, well, reality. Sure you cut your hair and, sure, you climbed to the top of the rockclimbing wall despite being terrified but those things only temporarily alleviate the pain.

I found myself desperately scrabbling for something to keep my mind off of it and I discovered that some of the coping strategies I used just didn’t fit. I listened to strong songs about recovering from a cheating ex– but, while they helped immeasurably during my first break up, they felt strangely hollow this time. This break up wasn’t the result of cheating. I didn’t feel the same righteous anger. I inspected our relationship and I couldn’t find the flaws I found in the first relationship. I was fighting using my old strategies and this, well, this was a different war.

No matter how hard I tried to maintain my anger (much of it borrowed from friends), my enthusiasm (also borrowed) or my rallying calls for change, the reality is change doesn’t happen that quickly.  There isn’t a panacea for break-ups.  There are no shortcuts; the only way is through.

So don’t criticize yourself for not getting over it fast enough. Don’t worry if your last break-up routine just doesn’t seem to help.  Maybe last time you went out every night, but this time you don’t have the energy. Maybe last time you met one-hundred thousand people, but this time you don’t really feel the need to socialize. That’s OK.

Ultimately, what helped the most was taking everything at my own pace and acknowledging that the break-up activities that helped last time might not be as helpful this time. In the end, it wasn’t the haircut or the thousands of hobbies or the angry soapbox speeches that helped so much as freeing myself to just feel sad for a while.  So, I did it. I changed my strategy and I moped. I moped, I moped, I moped. I wallowed in my own pathetic feelings. Then when I got tired of moping, I stopped. I stopped and reflected.

I’m not going to lie and say that I discovered everything in my life was perfect without him. I’m not going to claim I felt instantly healed, but since then I’ve slowly started engaging again. I’ve dedicated myself to a few activities I feel passionate about. I’ve made a small circle of friends  I can rely on.  Most of all I reminded myself that everything was truly going to be ok– and that is one way break ups are nothing at all like war.