Notes from the Field: Zamnning

This piece isn’t about cooking in particular, but rather about a space where I spent many days working when my children where still very young, and when working with two six months old babies was practically impossible at home.  This was my sanctuary, and with my reocrrucing visits I discovered a  microcosm that was worth examining.  At the risk of sounding judgmental, or having the piece misunderstood, I chose to write it with  a comic, and imaginative point of view. This is meant to make you laugh, and if you know me roll your eyes at my science nerd self.  It is also meant to offer indirect commentary on societal trends and relationships. Since I gave birth to my twins,  my relationship with coffee changed. A good cup of coffee brings about a great sense of safety and security; it is a legitimized break from everything that waits for me to get done.  At the end of the cup of coffee there is much to worry about, but at the beginning…the promise of a break is seductive…. 

This article first appeared in This Week in Palestine in May 2013, issue no. 181

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

8:30 am, Tuesday. The weather is fairly amiable, fall is finally settling in in Ramallah, and everyone is enjoying a much needed respite from the hot weather. The watcher sits on her favourite table at Café Zamn, also known as her observation point in this particular habitat. She has a full and busy day of watching and working. People watching is much like bird watching. You must be still, quiet, silent. You must blend in with the environment you are observing. For this particular habitat, the perfect camouflage is a laptop, books, and headphones. The headphones will help fend off a particular species of Café Zamn patrons or Zamners called Socializist totalus. Socializist totalus is a super friendly subspecies of human beings. Often, they are NGO workers based in Ramallah who travel throughout Palestine fully believing that, one day, their NGO-ised work will save it.

S.Totalus visit this particular habitat for one objective, to engage in its most favourite activity, socialising. This includes small talk, a bunch of “how are you’s,” when they could not care less about how the subject of their socialising activity is actually doing or feeling. Their physical appearance can vary from trendy to normal. They mostly congregate in the smoking area, where they chain-smoke and chat at ridiculously high rates. A special subspecies of S.totalus is S.totalus wanderitis, commonly known as the wanderers. They do not belong to one particular congregation or table, but actually wander from one to the other, chatting away with any species that will listen to them.

Amongst their species, the wanderers are the non-conformers, as they like to engage with other species and do not stick to their own, a “birds of a feather flock together” in reverse. Their preferred targets are Activus foreignorus, and Fakes actives, two very talkative and colourful Zamner species, which today of all days are abundantly present. The watcher is overly excited, despite the humongous pile of work she has to get through. She cannot help but look up quietly every now and then and watch who just came in. She has been trying to catch a glimpse of A.foreignorus and F.actives for the past few weeks, but the habitat has been overly crowded with Brandus totalus and Workus officionalus. Thankfully, today, Zamn was truly budding with all types.

Observing A. foreignorus is quite satisfying. Members of this species come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and hairstyles. One thing they do have in common is a loud voice and an assumption that no one is listening to their conversation. A.foreignorus is a migratory species not native to this habitat. Based on their indigenous homes (mainly North America and Europe), it is absolutely understandable that they assume that no one is actually listening to what they are saying to their fellow A.foreignorus or any other species that they mark as good for communication (they pick their communication partners based on the lack of language barriers).

Sadly, they are highly mistaken and have yet to adapt to this new habitat, where a sense of curiosity to hear other conversations happening at nearby tables is built into the genetic makeup of the indigenous species. This is after all Palestine, and everybody’s business is everybody’s business. But I digress. A.foreignorus has become more visible in this particular region in the past few years. Scientists hypothesise that this sudden surge in this particular species of Zamners is directly proportionate to several factors: easier migratory conditions, better travelling routes, and a far friendlier climate for new species. One also cannot ignore that the large number of NGOs sprouting up serves as a perfect nesting place for such species. It will be very interesting to consider what social and evolutionary changes happen due to their presence.

A.foriegnorus is usually accompanied by a native species F.actives. F.actives is a direct product of the gradual evolutionary decrease in activism. Most F.actives are offspring of a disappearing species, True actives. T.actives is marked by a serious commitment to activism as a lifestyle. Sadly, with the death of the leftist movement, the disappearance of grassroots movements, the increase in the NGO-isation of the Palestinian cause, and its boosted dependence on international aid, T.actives have retreated into smaller, almost negligible, communities where they choose to focus on child rearing, career building, and, in many cases, dream house building. Their resultant offspring are a bunch of self-proclaimed activists who actually belong to a universal group known as Bobos, or Bourgeois Bohemians. Their physical appearance is palatable, clean, and trendy. Sometimes they have multiple piercings, and other times not. F. actives have an intrinsic tendency to organise the next Palestinian uprising on Facebook by employing the very powerful resistance tool, Twitter.

F.actives is considered to be a mutated form of T.actives. The mutation has been amplified by environmental factors such as occupation and a vacuum devoid of the leadership that could ordinarily help organise such wasted talent. Most of F.actives are intelligent, smart, and have received degrees from world-class institutions. They are normally seen socialising with A.foreignorus. Some are friends who met in some small liberal arts college where they pursued their bachelor’s degree. Coincidentally, both species do belong to the same universal group, the Bobos.

9:00 am, Thursday. Zamn is brimming with all types of species. But today the watcher is particularly excited to locate several flocks of Brandus totalus. B.totalus is, in essence, an evolutionary descendant of the peacock. Their physical appearance is that of complete beauty, but please keep in mind that beauty is relative and it is in the eyes of the beholder (scientists have yet to reach a conventional set of beauty standards). This species in particular shows off with a fully branded appearance, with a Louis Vuitton bag, Burberry shoes, Hermés scarf, and Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses (conveniently worn inside). This species is specialised in the art of showing off.

B.totalus travels in small or large flocks, and when an unassuming individual is caught alone, they are usually standing tall, head high, eyes completely covered with the latest brand of sunglasses bought at full price. (By the way a shrewd businessman friend of mine once told me that if you are ever to buy any merchandise on sale, it would have to be sunglasses, as the profit margin goes up to 300 percent. Again, I digress.) This particular posture is what has been labelled amongst behavioural scientist as the Peacock Post (PP). The PP is meant to attract attention of other species. It invites visual admiration, and repels strangers from attempting any form of direct contact.

B.totalus females are particularly experienced and have mastered the PP as an evolutionary defence mechanism of some sort (scientists are still not sure what exactly it defends against). The females of this particular species are quite interesting. As a friend of the watcher noted to her (a friend who like the watcher belongs to Workus officianalis, a very hard working and industrious species), when she comes in contact with the B.totalus females they are often discussing the difficulties of child rearing in the presence of nannies, the challenges of philanthropic and charity work in Palestine, and how difficult it is to do work outside of their indigenous habitat.

Zamn was brimming with B.totalus today. A morning ritual of theirs is to drop their offspring to school and come enjoy a morning coffee and an idle chat together. But the real treat came around 10 a.m. when a young female B.totalus arrived and plopped herself down on the couch right beside the watcher. Young B.totalus are fabulous to watch: loud, full of life, and totally trusting of their surroundings. The mix of English, Arabic, and sometimes even French is music to one’s ears, and one cannot help but notice that the young are usually well educated, because no matter what happens in Palestine, education remains a top priority.

This particular young B.totalus was discussing a familial situation with her mother, loudly. The details of the problem went something like this: the young woman was annoyed by the curfew set by her father who works in Saudi Arabia. She was arguing that she is now 23 years old and refuses to lie to her parents and, therefore, they will have to come to terms with her going out and staying out late (the disputed curfew time was 11, she was trying to push to 12. VERY REASONABLE, the watcher thought). She then expanded her argument and declared that her father sent her to Palestine to come in contact with her roots, which she has been doing by socialising at cafes and restaurants (notice the roots for this young lady are at cafes and restaurants in Ramallah). He was also apparently hoping she would find herself a very kind, well educated, ambitious, well-to-do young man who she could take as a mating partner. She then exploded into asking a very obvious and valid question, how could she possibly do that if she was under curfew and was asked to work and socialise only during the hours when the sun was up. Please note that B.totalus prefers to mate with its own or other species they mark as acceptable, such as F.actives or Workus officianalus (as long as the potential mate fits their minimum criteria of financial stability and appropriate social status).

The conversation carried on for about 45 minutes while this young female argued over Skype (A new means of communication for this generation. Whatever happened to written letters and home phones where families could have all types of arguments in the privacy of their own homes and the silent pages of handwritten letters), at which point the watcher could no longer focus on her lecture notes and decided to pack and leave. B.totalus had succeeded in marking this particular area as her own.

8:00 am, Tuesday. Tuesdays are an excellent day to observe Workus officianalus. This species is studious, industrious, and is always trying to get something accomplished in the midst of waves of cigarette smoke, sips of cold coffee (left untouched for a while as they busily typed away on their laptop). W. officionalus treats Zamn as its office and is present almost daily, particularly in the early hours of the morning. They spread their belongings over a fairly large space, order food, and feel free to clear their plates. They immediately detect any disruption in Internet signal and will demand a quick fix (sometimes their demands can get a bit aggressive). Many of them carry more than one bag, a couple of files, several books, and one set of headphones. They are always requesting the music volume to be turned down as they are on a serious deadline. And some may even have such a special relationship with the wonderfully friendly Zamn staff that they have documents dropped off and picked up from behind the desk, further supporting their impression of Zamn as a library or office.

Their general appearance is clean and sometimes elegant, although many of them who are experiencing particular pressures at work may have the occasional “unravelling at the seams” look: uncombed hair, dark circles, pale skin, dry lips, and a general do-not-talk-to-me vibe. W.officionalus hold different positions and come from different backgrounds. There are the journalists, the young professors, the NGO program coordinators, the writers (some excellent and well known writers belong to this species), the sociologists, the scientists, the graduate students finishing their PhD work in Palestine, the young foreigners trying to learn Arabic, editors, CEOs, general managers, publishers, small business owners who have yet to acquire an official space for their business, graphic designers, young entrepreneurs, bloggers, Tweeters, and the list goes on and on. They all share one passion, typing on their laptop at a high rate (a lot like what the watcher is doing at the moment), vacillating between typing, writing, reading, and occasionally taking a break to talk. They travel in small groups, two to three at a time. Behavioural scientists theorise that this is necessary to accommodate their space requirements. And they only come to Zamn with members of their own species. After all, isn’t Zamn their office space, their library, and their place of work? Some will not only work at Zamn but will even hold appointments and office hours.

W. officionalus has indigenous as well as migratory members. The watcher is a self classified W.offcionalus daughter of two honest and hardworking T.actives, friends with many A. foriegnorus, F.actives, and B.Totalus.  I have used Zamn as my office for many months, it has been my refuge away from two toddlers, my space to think, write, prepare lecture notes, and grade. During this time, I could not help but make the observations I share with you, so allow me to end this piece with the following statement.

I only write this out of a place of utter love and admiration for Palestine in general and, most importantly, for Ramallah in particular. Be that as it may, Ramallah appears to be a bubble, immune to the Israeli Occupation practices and effects felt in other cities, villages, and refugee camps. The city even sometimes appears totally aloof to the refugee camps that are within her own periphery or just outside her borders. And while other cities are ailing under the Occupation, Ramallah seems to be thriving culturally, economically, and socially. She has also, unbeknownst to her and by no personal choice, become the melting pot for all types of NGOs and governmental organisations. People also flock to Ramallah from other Palestinian cities for work, business, education, etc. She appears to be rich while everywhere else is poor, which generates quite a bit of anger and discontent. Many imply she is Palestine’s whorehouse. Some have gone as far as calling her Palestine’s whore. But we must all remember that Ramallah’s charm is her open arms, her welcoming nature, and her ability to accept all of us (different species) as part of her diverse makeup. This piece is intended for all of us to examine and reflect on ourselves, laugh, and remember that it is this exact nature that allows a chemist like me feel comfortable writing a piece like this. And this is for all of us to remember that we make Ramallah what it is. We are major contributors to the bubble effect we criticise her for. So here is to you Ramallah and the friendly staff at Zamn (thank you for letting me sit there endlessly). Salut!

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