Monday, October 17, 2011

Baptism Celebration: Palestine Style

One of the difficult things about living in a foreign country is knowing that I'm missing out on a lot of important things back home. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, school plays, weddings. I am not able to leave the Middle East until my term of service is complete - July 2012 - and so I'm not able to go home to be a part of these important events. The bright side is that I get to experience many of these events in Palestine, giving me a whole new appreciation for the differences between my home culture and the culture that I'm living in.

Yesterday, my youngest host-sister was baptized. Layal (which sounds like "lay" + "áh" + "l") is two years old, and definitely a handful. She's your typical wild, rambunctious little girl who loves to steal, put on, and hide mommy's makeup; go buy bread from the bakery next door with her sisters; throw shoes across the room; and grab the back of her older brother's shirt and slide along behind him as he runs around the house.

So anyway, yesterday was her baptism, and I was really excited to see exactly how baptisms work in the Palestinian Lutheran church. The thirty second version is: we went to church; Layal wore a puffy white dress; her Godparents held her through the whole service, and then brought her up at the end; the pastor did the whole "pour water on your head three times" thing; the end!

But of course, in typical Palestinian fashion, that was nowhere near the end of the celebration. After the service, we had about 20 minutes of picture-taking time. Layal and siblings. Layal and parents. Layal and extended family. Layal and strange visiting German. It was slightly tedious, especially for a squirming 2 year old who just wanted to go play in the dirt.

After the pictures, we went and had cake in the church's reception hall along with everyone who had been in the service. Now, considering that we had four groups visiting the church yesterday (two from the US, one from Germany, and one from Sweden), there were A TON OF PEOPLE! I felt a little bad for the visitors who hadn't learned the whole "keep food in your hands at all times or else you will be given more food" rule. Basically, they would eat their entire slice of cake, and within 30 seconds, someone would run up to them and offer them another piece, which would always be refused, but shoved into the guest's hand anyway. Then, the cycle of eating an entire slice and being force fed would repeat. I, being the experienced world traveler that I am, ate 3/4 of my slice of cake, and kept the remaining 1/4 in my hand. That way, when someone tried to give me cake, I could say that I already had some, and show them the piece in my hand.

People are always quick to learn about the poverty in other countries (so they think "we should eat everything given to us so that we aren't 'wasteful' "), but we rarely learn about the culture (which dictates that our guest should never leave hungry). Having an empty bowl, plate, cup, or hand is a signal that says "I ate or drank everything and so I must still have room in my stomach." You signal that you are full by leaving a bit of food or drink; this says "I am so full that I cannot even finish what I have!" While it may seem wasteful to a Westerner, it's actually quite the opposite. Leaving a little food on your plate means that you won't get an entire other serving, which you would either leave on your plate (wasteful), or eat and feel sick (also wasteful). So basically, this social cue actually helps avoid food waste. Smart, right?

After our cake time, the family went back to our house and had lunch. Now, in the States, when I say "the family went back to our house," I'm usually referring to my immediate family, because all of my other relatives live in different parts of the country. Here, when I say "the family went back to our house," I mean every single family member in the history of the universe. We had grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles,  nieces and nephews, cousins, second cousins, and any other relation you can imagine. "The family" consisted of over 60 people, which considering the size of our house, was a bit of a challenge.

After about thirty seconds, I was exhausted, and it was difficult for me to stay downstairs and socialize for as long as I did. While my Arabic is improving (ever so slowly), it is still exhausting to try and follow conversations when I have very few clues as to what is going on. Luckily, my host mother's parents live in the US (Brooklyn, actually), and so my host-grandma and I chatted about the differences between life in Palestine and the US, namely about how everything, especially clothing, is so much cheaper in the States.
"Its the sales!" confides my host-grandma knowingly, "All that seasonal wear, it must to go, so they sell for next to nothing."
"Absolutely," I agree, "you may not be on the cutting edge of fashion when next October roles around, but who cares if you can save 60% on your heavy winter coat?!"
My host-gma explains, "In America, maybe problem to not have fashion coat. Here, no matter. Looking pulled together matters, not exactly what you wearing. We don't have ...what it means... name brands? Most of Western fashions is not appropriate for wear here anyway, so we don't follow closely. I go shopping at many sales, and when I visit Palestine, I bring years number of clothes to my daughters."
We laugh and joke and commiserate over how much we miss Target and Kraft Mac & Cheese. Unfortunately, the host-grandparents are only here for "a short visit." They arrived in July and they will head back to the US in early November.

Around 3pm, after about two hours of lunch, I went upstairs to my apartment to take a nap. The party was still raging downstairs, but I was nodding off. I figured I would be back down in an hour, and no one would even notice that I was gone. I woke up at 8pm, 5 hours later, and by that time everyone had gone home. I guess I was more tired than I thought.

I am always surprised at what huge celebrations we have over every event, and how many people always seem to be in attendance. The size of the families, and how close they are, always amazes me. I don't know my mom's brother's wife's siblings... in fact, I don't even know if she has any. I would never invite them to a party that I threw, and even if I did, they definitely wouldn't come!  I love the familial support system here, and even though I'm only a host-child and not a blood relative, I love that everyone treats me as part of the family. I can't wait for more celebrations with this wonderful group of people, and I'll be sure to tell you all about our awesome parties!

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