Sunday, July 19, 2009

Encountering Shabaab in the City of Kanafeh and Martyrs

This weekend I—along with tens of thousands of other people – took a bus to Nablus to attend a street festival surrounding the setting of a new world record: the unveiling of the largest kanafeh ever made.

What is kanafeh? Only the best dessert ever invented. It’s a pastry that is essentially made of flour, sugar, and cheese and cooked in giant pans over huge coil burners. It's not for everybody—the haters, as I call them, think that it is much too rich; they say it is "like eating pure sugar." But fans of kanafeh are not shy about expressing their fierce love of the golden, mouthwatering, multi-textured, succulent dessert. Are you listening, American entrepreneurs? Open a kanafeh shop in your neighborhood and make a fortune—I guarantee it!

Arriving an hour after the official start of the festivities, I learned that the 1.5 tons of kanafeh were wolfed down within a matter of minutes in an anarchic free-for-all; some people even vaulted themselves into the tray and mushed their feet around in the stuff. I'm not sure if this was out of some chaos-induced primal instinct or just the rumor that there was a set of keys to a brand new car submerged somewhere along the 75 meter long runway set up to house the record-setting pastry.

After hearing of the totally brutal and unceremonious consumption of the kanafeh, we (a crew including myself, my British ex-roommate, two Americans, and a Swiss) were less disappointed that we had missed the event. We headed over to one of the most famous kanafeh places in Nablus, where a sizable crowd was clustered around a pan of kanafeh, which has the socially magnetic power similar in scope to a keg at any college party in America. Which reminds me to tell you that alcohol is not sold in Nablus, so if you absolutely need to drink there, make sure you bring the booze in from outside and drink it inside–with the curtains closed! I cannot overstate the importance of that last part. If there were two words I could use to describe Palestinian social culture, they would be: "People talk."

After trying to savor our squares of kanafeh the best we could, and after talking to two indefatigably curious students from Al-Najah university for what seemed like forever, our group headed towards the biggest park in Nablus to smoke argeela and chill out for a bit, given the stress of pushing through crowds for the past hour. Although our presence as foreigners in Nablus had already turned a few heads in the streets, it did little to prepare us for what happened at the park.

Within a minute of entering the park and strolling up to the table of argeela vendors, we were surrounded by at least twenty Palestinian teenagers all clamoring to have their picture taken with us. One boy in the crowd was wielding a clunky disposable camera coated in some sort of thick waterproof plastic shell; he pointed and shot as I put my arm around two, three, four of the shabaab (Arabic for "youth" which often used when addressing a group of boys).

At first the experience was a bit flattering. Here was our 15 minutes of fame! We were getting our hands shaken and our pictures taken; we were like a rare celebrity sighting to these kids who were utterly bubbling over with enthusiasm. Curiously enough, the park seemed to be filled only with shabaab—no females and very few older men. But then again, perhaps my perception is such because my line of sight was completely blocked by a wall of teenage boys.

When we sat down in the grass to smoke, and as our 15 minutes became 30, then 45, and as the shabaab swelled to probably over 60 boys, the experience became much less charming. While we sat on the ground and passed around the argeela hose, we were encircled by a towering crowd of gelled-up, peppy Palestinian teenagers with ridiculously tacky belt buckles; they stared at us like we were completely nude. They all were chattering, shouting, pressing in on our backs—on the left, a guy played us a guitar riff (someone mentioned that it was a cover of Akon) while on the right, some guy unfurled his pet snake to show off. The testosterone in the air was nauseating.

The overdose of attention was making us feel more stalked than loved at this point. Finally, we decided to take the touchy step of getting park security to tell the shabaab to scatter and leave us alone. When the walkie-talkied guard showed up to tell off the shabaab, it was obvious that it was in response to our own request, and I sensed that some of these stares of adulation and wonder in our direction had morphed into something more like confusion and scorn. Unfortunate and tragic, yes, but at least the crush of bodies was gone and we could chill in relative peace.

Yet no later than a half hour later, the shabaab had somehow managed to surround us again and they seemed louder and closer than ever. A dose of fear crept into me, wondering what this keyed-up crowd of boys that had us utterly surrounded would do now that they knew we wanted them gone. I offered one of them a grape and he took it unsmilingly and crunched on it in such a way that the juice squirted onto my face. Probably a coincidence, but a storyteller cannot resist making such connections. I was starting to feel very uncomfortable amongst these Palestinian Guidos—they could not be described as hostile, but I'm not sure they could be described as friendly at this point either. Finally, when a pebble from God-knows-where landed with a clang on the ashtray of the argeela, we made an exit from the crowd not unlike beleaguered politicians pushing through a mass of paparazzi and press.

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