I arrived at the square in front of the mall and stopped to unsling my trumpet and drums. With an hour until my next class, I had time to relax and observe the city center. Because Friday is typically reserved for prayer, Thursdays tend to see the most action in Nablus. People streamed in and out of the souk to my left, and at its mouth the fruit carts were waiting in the streets with their produce arranged in colorful, eye-catching designs.
Right in front of me, a man tending a sharwarma stand suddenly burst into song, one that I recognized from weddings and parties. After a month and a half in Nablus, I now know Palestine’s Top 40 by heart, because we hear the same tunes every day: in the taxi, on the street, in restaurants, and from our students. It’s not uncommon to hear wedding songs sung in cafes or political songs chanted at weddings, nor is there a particular age associated with mainstream music: you could easily find a child and his father and his father clapping together and singing the same thing.
As I sat listening, a boy selling coffee ran up to me and rapped his knuckles across the skin of the djembe on my lap. I laughed and held it up for him to play, causing him to take a break and set the tall copper pot on the ground. I don’t know his name, but I see him all the time, badgering pedestrians to buy from him, as he used to do to me. Now when he sees me, he forgets the coffee and comes to play the instruments I’m carrying. His dad, a rugged man wearing stained cargo pants, sells coffee too, and one time he saw his son playing and rushed over immediately. I was worried, thinking he’d yell at his kid for getting distracted. Instead, he halted right in front of me, rubbed his five o’ clock shadow, and unzipped my trumpet case. I was too surprised to protest initially, but started to get up until he told me in broken English, “No worry, is safe.” I was still wary, but couldn’t help smiling as he turned it over in his hands, puzzled but amused, and trying to get a sound out of it. Finally, he handed it back, beaming. I’m a regular customer now, though I keep a closer eye on the trumpet.
That kind of behavior is commonplace here; in my experience, Palestinians are very forward and form connections with people quickly, especially internationals. This is why we’ve been so relentlessly busy: every night there’s a dinner, or a rehearsal, or a party, or a wedding. It’s as if our activity level is inversely proportional to the days we have left in Nablus; sleep has become optional, and the waking hours whip by in a blur. This past weekend I visited Jericho, Ramallah, and the Dead Sea, returning each evening to the group at Sama Nablus. Last night, they threw a barbecue bachelor party for one of Nidal’s cousin, and Nidal himself brought his oud. He strummed and sang some of the songs I keep hearing everywhere, while his brother Odai danced behind the grill. At some point, Abu quieted everyone down and asked his girlfriend to close her eyes and stick out her hands. When she did so, he placed a sparkling silver and diamond ring right in the center of her palm. That’s another wedding, and another reason to come back to Palestine.
That night I didn’t come home until two in the morning, and then stayed up playing oud until I heard the call to prayer at dawn. I woke up late the next morning and dashed to the cultural center, arms full of percussion instruments. Nidal was supposed to bring his oud for a nice final activity, but cancelled at the last minute, leaving us to face our students without a lesson plan. The kids were already excited because they knew it was their last class with us, and I could feel their energy bubbling until it reached a boiling point ten minutes in. Then all hell broke loose: all 20 of them charged Giulia and I, arms outstretched for a drum. There were only seven, so the rest of the hour was a chaotic mess as kids chased and pushed each other, while those with instruments drummed so loudly that their little hands turned red. I couldn’t hear myself shout over the din. Rather than intervene, our translator shrugged and said, “It’s better to just let them do what they want.” Already sleep-deprived, I decided that a coffee after class was nonnegotiable. But as I walked out of the cafe with my cappuccino, some guy slammed into me and knocked it out of my hands. I watched, horrified, as it hit the sidewalk and burst like a water balloon. Defeated, I found my usual spot at city center and sat, brooding over the coffee, the class, and the lack of sleep. Someone tapped my shoulder, interrupting my thoughts, and when I turned I saw the coffee boy, holding out a fresh Turkish brew. I took it, but he didn’t charge: just tapped the drum on my lap and kept walking.