I was out walking in the snow when I saw a group of young men who made me begin to doubt the wisdom of my strol.
They emerged from a hookah joint housed in the bottom floor of a large buildin in downtown Ramallah, the seat of the government of Palestine. I was the only woman around, the only person around on the deserted, snow-gray streets. Just me and the red-eyed men rifting out of the café toward me.
It had been snowing for days. All across the West Bank, there was an extended power outage. People washed with water heated on a gas stove and huddled around their propane heaters. We had two; the larger one we lovingly called our R2D2, and the smaller one we delighted in calling by the brand name etched onto its metal plate: ORGAZ. I was still cold. No matter how many blankets I layered around me or heaters I crouched in front of, my feet and nose stayed cold. I was angry cold. Bored cold.
The anger, fueled by the cold and pent-up energy, made me feel restless and twitchy. I bundled up, put some plastic bags over my shoes to help keep the hree feet of snow out, and announced to Prince Charming that I was going for a walk. I left with a quick "bye!" without giving him much time to respond. I heard him manage to eke out a "be safe!" and I was off.
My cabin fever was quickly replaced by wonder. Glittering snow banks smothered the garden and turned trees into bowing swans. Getting from our apartment's vestibule to the street was tricky. I had to find a way around and through the snow banks. Having grown up mostly in moderate climes where a few inches of snow a year was the norm, I had no snow-walking skills to draw from. Each step I took was a new experience. My foot would sink down six inches, then when I lifted up the other foot that first one would sink down another ten inches into the snow. I hobbled my way out to the street, where the snow was less thick and a truck had made a pack-snow indentation I could follow.
I threw my head back and gazed at the sky to take in the joy of being outdoors, finally. It was still snowing, gently, not the thick blizzard of the last few days. When I got to the main street, I could turn left, or I could turn right. Left would take me away from the city center. Right would take me towards the city center, Al-Manara, where there's a monument with four stone lions that has become the iconic backdrop to many Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation. I turned right. The city was feeling a little post-apocalyptic-deserted, and I was hoping I'd bump into someone in the center, anyone, a friendly face. I imagined we'd gesticulate to each other about the eauty of the now; it would be easy even though we might not speak the same language.
But instead of a friendly face, I saw the men. Unsmiling young men, maybe seven, with more behind them, jacked up on icotine. One puff on a hookah pipe was, I'd heard, the equivalent of smoking a bundle of ten cigarettes, so if they'd been smoking all morning, well, it was s if they' alread smoked hundreds of cigarette that da. Restless energy coursed through their wiry bodies. I'd heard these oung en called "shebab." I wasn't sure what it meant. It seemed to denote "outh," but the connotation was "unemployed, disenfranchised, hopeless, able-bodied oys and men who must roam the streets because they have nothing else to do." As they emerged from the café, I was reminded of a scene from the 2007 movie I Am Legend, where Will Smith's character is stalked by bloodthirsty mutants who hibernate in clusters in dark corners of the city. They moved slowly in my direction, as if meandering, but their bloodshot eyes, I noticed, were intensely focused. On me.
Suddenly I felt very self-conscious. Afraid. My active imagination quickly supplied me with headlines of the "Brutal Gang Rape" variety. I had a friend who'd been sexually harassed on the street not far from here I was. I looked around, behind me. No one. Just me and the shebab grouping. Get a grip, I thought. These are not bloodthirsty mutants. These are people, just like me, curious. It's human curiosity to want to see the foreigr alking by herself in the snow.
ut I had to take action. I couldn't continue my walk nwards, knowing I was getting farther from home and that I'd have to walk past the shebab again on my way back. I'd be scared the whole time. I couldn't turn around either, not without an interaction. I didn't know how they'd take it. It might be okay. Or they might follow me back, harassing me the whole way, finding out where I lived. They might just leave me alone, thinking I was scared of them, which was true.
Either way, they'd have effectively ruined my stroll, and the thought made me angry. I wasn't going to let these guys ruin my outing. I was so tired of sticking out on the street, of being the foreigner, of being looked at with an inscrutable combination of lecherousness and discomfort. I was an oddball. An American woman who wasn't afraid to go jogging on the streets, show my knees, or yell curse words at wayward bus drivers.
So I bent down, packed some snow together, and, smiling, hurled ball of snow at the man closest to me.
My snowball glanced off his legs. is reaction took a moment. Surprise. Then delight. Whether malicious or kind, I couldn't tell.
I was betting that the bridge-building power of a good snowball fight was universal. e gathered up a snowball of his own, and pitched. is was no lo. The speed ball hit me square in the face, the impact leaving me breathless. I couldn't feel my mouth or nose anymore. When sensation started to come back, everything stung. I tried to smile, hoping that's what my mouth was doing; I still couldn't really feel my face. Bleak pain. Oppressed young men of the West Bank have one weapon left. One way to fight back, vent frustration, protest, cause damage. Stone throwing. They learn young and, as observed by horrified Israelis, can do impressive damage and some even claim there have been several deaths resulting from stone throwing. I'd picked a snowball fight wit throwin experts. I gathered my second snowball and made what I was hoping would be seen as a spirited throw, a game attempt by the obvious underdog. But instead of cheering me on, one of the bystanders joined his fellow shebab and chucked another snowball at me. Then a third joined the fight against me. At this rate I'd be unconscious within moments, was my only slightly hyperbolic thought.
I had to win allies, and fast. I opened my arms wide, palms up, trying to figure out how to get some of these guys on my team. My Arabic was meager at best, but in the moment I remembered how to ask for help. I tried the phrase, pointing to two others who hadn't gotten involved so far. I gestured, inviting them to my side. I tried to say some numbers I'd learned, Arabic to express that I needed more people I my team.
They understood. I could see it click: of course. A fair fight. Three against three. Quickly a couple of them joined my side scooping up snow and throwing icy projectiles at the other shebab.
Chivalry wasn't dead. Disparity would be addressed. Justice might win.
I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. And despite my aching face and earlier apprehension, I started to have fun. More customers of the hookah cafe joined both teams.
After what I shall diplomatically refer to as a tie, we ended the game. Our hands were cold, blood was pumping, spirits were high. We were all one team, just a group of young people playing in the snow. I waved goodbye, said "Ma'a Salama."
I walked home no longer angry cold or bored cold. I'd found a friendly face. More than one.