At about 7:00 p.m. Doris and I took a walk through the dark, wet streets of the Old City, not feeling hungry enough to look for a restaurant, but needing to stretch our legs. I expected it to be deserted with all the shops closed, but was pleased to see some stores still open that serve the local residents instead of the tourists.
When we got to where the street we were on would have taken us into the Jewish Quarter, we took a turn to see if we could make a loop and return through the Muslim Quarter by another route. I halfway knew where I was going, but soon it looked like we were at a dead end. A clump of boys were playing there and paid us no mind. Approaching them, I could see that there was an opening to our right leading to another street. “Street” may give you the wrong impression. These are more like alleys, just wide enough for a car to get through, but barely ever used by cars. On either side are doors or other alleyways or shops, and underfoot are ancient, uneven stones that serve as pavement.
So we took this opening as it headed in the right direction, Doris walking beside me so that we filled the narrow space. I heard people coming up behind us, but Doris didn’t hear them, so I grabbed her arm to pull her aside to let them pass. This startled her and made her jump, so one person behind us, seeing our alarm, spoke to us in English to reassure us. It was a woman carrying a small child, and a man was with her. She saw I was wearing the traditional Palestinian scarf called a “kafiyya” so perhaps she assumed we were friendly and asked us where we were from. In turn, she offered that she was a math teacher living in nearby Beit Hanina, but was visiting her parents’ home in the old city.
We admired her child, and after a few more pleasantries she invited us for tea to come in for tea. Well, we knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and that the invitation was sincere, as Palestinians frequently offer this kind of hospitality on the spur of the moment. But we politely said, “Really?”, before following her inside. We climbed a couple of flights of stairs before reaching her parents’ apartment. She shooed the kids through one door, shut another door, and quickly tidied up a small but nicely furnished sitting room. We sat down, and she told someone to bring us tea, which soon appeared from behind a door, brought by her Ukrainian sister in law. Every once in a while a child would appear, curious or crying, or just overflowing from the adjoining room. It was clear that we were occupying valuable space, and our hostess explained that there were 21 children plus assorted adults in the next room! The reason for such a crowd was that it was the eve of their day off, and most 6 of her siblings plus their children were in the family home.
As we could tell that the kids were bursting the seams of the other room, we didn’t let ourselves stay too long, but we were so grateful for this opportunity to see what the average tourist never sees, namely the gracious, overcrowded, tiny apartments of the Old City. We finally asked our hostess’ name: Sabreen. She is a math teacher in a public middle school. A graduate of Beirzet University, she spoke quite good English. Her major had been Mathematics with a minor in Economics, and she had a two year post graduate degree in Education. One of her brothers is a doctor and another a dentist. All are doing well, raised in this two-room apartment by loving, strict, and educated parents. Now Sabreen sends her kids to a private school (International School in Beit Hanina) so they will learn English and have the tools needed to leave Palestine in order to have a future.
We had lots of questions. Mine were about her experience as a public school teacher, because I have heard that the public schools are not good, students there are not motivated, and the atmosphere is chaotic. This, in spite of there being a strong emphasis on education in Palestine. What I gleaned from her answers was that the kids are under so much stress every day from seeing soldiers, and being delayed at checkpoints, and living in crowded conditions with parents or single moms who don’t have time to give the children enough attention, that they have trouble in school. But she gets them to listen to her by first allowing them to talk about how they are feeling. She has 25 students in each of four classes that meet four days a week. She teaches calculus, algebra, geometry, etc.. She said she loves these kids and they love her, and I believed her because it showed in her beautiful, open face and smile.
The kids from the other room began to appear one by one, and we knew we had to leave. But Sabreen wanted to give us her email address, and we readily complied. Then 4 of the kids showed us the way back to the street, waving and shouting, “goodbye!”