“Okay ladies, again I will remind you that knives should only ever be pointing towards the floor. Please stop waving them around in the air like that!”
As I wait for Shahd to translate that into Arabic, I look at my American co-teacher Mara and say under my breath, “Someone’s gonna lose a friggin’ eye in here.”
Teaching a cooking class for a group of seven Palestinian women has become an arduous task filled with cultural misunderstandings and an unexpected lack of decorum from women who barely speak above a whisper outside the classroom. After another class in which I am constantly asking the women to stop slicing the air in front of each other’s faces, I am frustrated. The students don’t seem to respect the class and just want to goof off. My three-month long teaching internship in Palestine is off to a rocky start. I find myself daydreaming about going home, or at least to a beach. The Mediterranean Sea is only a hop, skip and a few IDF military checkpoints away from here.
At the end of this particular session we are sitting around the two dilapidated tables we’ve pushed together for our dining room experience. As we eat our penne allanorma (one of our international
dishes that week) the women chat animatedly amongst themselves. Mara understands more Arabic than I do and is catching bits of their conversation. My mind drifts to the beach. When the women start asking us questions via our translator, I snap out of my reverie and try to pay attention.
Our students ask us when we plan to get married and have children. We are old enough after all. Mara and I tell the women that our parents encouraged us to go to school, to travel and to establish our careers before starting families. They all begin talking at once. Shahd tries to quickly translate what our students are saying.
Rasha begins to explain to us that while she does have a family she still manages to come to the center to study English, take aerobics and assist with the Arabic reading program for children, in addition to participating in our cooking class. It’s no surprise that Rasha is the first woman to have something to say about our choice to remain single in our twenties (especially me at the ripe old age of 27). Rasha is one of our most outspoken students. She is also a bit of a diva. Rasha refuses to chop garlic and onions because they make her hands smell and she won’t handle raw meat. She does more stirring than cooking in the two classes I spend with her each week. Rasha is the opposite of what I expected a Palestinian woman to be.
Only women are permitted to enter our class and most feel free to remove their outer layers of clothing and scarves among the group. Today, under her many folds of traditional garb, Rasha is wearing tight black leggings and a bright turquoise v-neck top with cutouts along the arms. Across her chest the word Foxy is stamped onto her shirt in metal studs. She is revealing enough skin to get herself in serious trouble if she were to step outside in that getup.
Class ends and the women pile their layers back on, covering their skin and eventually their hair. Distinctive styles are concealed, and vibrant personalities are subdued. Now they are prepared to re-enter the real world - a man’s world. Rasha is the last to leave and says to Mara and me, “I wish I could dress like you girls.” We look down at our conservative attire – baggy t-shirts and loose linen pants – and we know that as foreigners we are dressed appropriately for the culture. However, the women in our class would never “dress down” this much in public. We are comfortable, and they are constrained.
Few people see the real Rasha. The drama queen. The fashionista. In another time and place, she is just a young woman laughing in a coffee shop with her girlfriends. It becomes obvious to me that these women do not come here to cook. They come for the freedom to be women, to have opinions, to be understood and often just for the gossip. This is where Palestinian women are revealed to me and I’ve come to understand that they are a lot like women I already know.
- All names in this story have been changed