A Zeitoon Afternoon

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of an extended visit with the Zeitoon family.   Zeitoon women make up six out of the eight students in my lower level English class here at TYO.  Last term, they rarely came to class, and when they did all six would stroll in at the same time (usually late), babies in tow, laughing raucously, never-ever remembering all 26 letters of the alphabet.  Whenever I heard their booming voices echoing in the hallway outside of my classroom, I was always filled with simultaneous dread and pleasure. The Zeitoon family is from Balata refugee camp, the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the West Bank.  People say the problems that pervade the camps in the West Bank are worse in Balata because it is smaller and more crowded - more 25,000 people live together on one square kilometer.  Balata is where the first events of the 1987 Intifada took place, and it is also where the Second Intifada turned into an armed uprising.  Balata also happens to be the home of about fifty Zeitoons.

So last Sunday afternoon, I made my way over to Balata camp to spend time with Mona, Sameera, Samar, Fawziyya, Nisreen, and Salam, my Zeitoon mothers.  I had a meeting at TYO at 5:00, and I assumed that two and a half hours of lunch and socializing in a language that I cannot speak fluently would be more than enough time.  Of course, I should have known better.

After arriving at Mona's house and sitting for an hour with the twenty children and grandchildren that filled the tiny sitting room, Mona explained to me that we were going on a special trip to a "nadi" or club.  The club, she explained, is a members-only club for the rich, influential families of Nablus.  "Are you members?" I asked, confused and somewhat incredulous.  Was I missing something? "No, we are not members," Mona explained.  "You see, the club is closed on Sundays.  But my mom and dad live at the club.  My dad is the security guard.  He has the key."

Every Sunday for the past fifteen years, the whole Zeitoon clan has taken over the fields and patios of this exclusive country club, leaving the cramped spaces and cloying smells of Balata refugee camp behind.  As Mona explained to me, "everyone needs a change of air every now and then."  Of course, Mona is  right, but I couldn't help but be amazed at the good fortune of this family that in so many other respects seems very unfortunate.  Dispossessed of land and home, subjected to life in a dangerous and impoverished refugee camp, the Zeitoons get to spend their Sunday afternoons sitting among the rose bushes of a swanky Nabulsi country club.

So what I thought would be a two and a half hour lunch with the Zeitoon ladies turned into an eight hour extravaganza with Zeitoon uncles, aunts, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and cousins.  As I watched the multitude of Zeitoon children running around, riding bicycles, bouncing balls, and swinging on swings, I happily surrendered to the reality that I would not be able to leave the club anytime soon.  There were no cars in sight, and the only way home was by way of a Zeitoon cousin who drives a taxi. And anyway, I didn't want to cut short the one day of the week when the Zeitoons get to enjoy themselves outside.

Together, the Zeitoons and I ate six huge trays of home-made oozi topped with sour goats milk yogurt.  We drank cup after cup of sweetened tea, black coffee, and various soft drinks.  The men of the family sat on one side of the empty parking lot under a loquat tree  smoking argileh.  The ladies sat on the other side of the parking lot with the babies, toddlers, teenagers, and other youth of the Zeitoon clan.  The division of labor in the family was clear: the ladies took care of everything.  They prepared the trays of food, set up the tables, fed the army of children, cleaned the tables, and organized whatever needed to be organized.  Meanwhile, the men sat, smoked, and ate.

Finally, at 9:30 at night, when the mosquitoes and the cold-night air no longer made sitting outside comfortable, the family started to consider heading back to the camp.  They packed me into the first shuttle back to the city, my hands overflowing with fresh loquats and a new basil plant.  I went to bed that night stuffed to the gills and smiling, feeling lucky that I got to share in a little bit of this crazy family's fun.


Mary is an intern at TYO Nablus and a participant in the Kalimatna Initiative.