Holding together the seams


Um Khalil has chronic headaches. Her tooth needs filling, but that will just have to wait. Her two adolescent boys changed school this year, and she is squirreling away pennies for those cold winter days when they will need to take a taxi to its distant location. She is glad her husband has finally found work, but who knows how long that will last. He’s not known for holding down jobs.

Three months ago, the landlord came for a visit. He gave the family one week to come up with the nine months of back rent they owe. When he returned, there were young men from the neighborhood there to “persuade” him to back off. Just in case, Um Khalil has made friends with the neighbor, who also just happens to be the landlord’s son.

This is how Um Khalil copes, managing from day to day to escape the specters of hunger and homelessness. It was bad before, but it was never this bad, she says. (All names of family members in this article have been changed). Daily, she pieces together what resembles a manageable life.

But when do those fragile seams burst? Is there a point where the fabric of Palestinian society will rend and tear under the incredible weight of uncertainty, immobility and poverty? “All along, we have assumed that the family is the ultimate cushion,” muses sociologist Liza Taraki. “But we don’t really know how elastic the family is.” Nor, says Taraki, has there been much effort put into measuring where those holes appear and mending them before it is too late.

In Um Khalil’s Ramallah house, the changes are measured by the massive 50 kilo bag of rice sagging in the hallway and grape leaves cooked with chicken, rather than a traditional filler of more costly beef.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, in the Hebron village of Beit Omar, change is measured by an ongoing family dispute. The husband wants to emigrate to Canada. “At least there I might have a chance,” he says. His barbershop in town brings in little cash; he owes back rent on the shop of more than a thousand dollars. “There is no life here and I just don’t know how to take care of my family,” says the father of three in his late twenties.

His wife does not want to leave – assuming they could. She knows what it is like outside; they lived in the Gulf for several years. “At least now, we are all together. Things are hard here, but we have our families and there are people who can help us. Out there, we are all on our own.” Perhaps the most traumatic moment for this family happened earlier this year when they were forced to sell the gold that was the wife’s dowry – a personal safety net in case of tragedy – in order to make ends meet.

A recent study by Birzeit University Development Studies Programme found that 31 percent of males polled said they would be willing to emigrate outside if given the chance. By this December, nearly half of those polled said their family had been forced to pawn the wife’s gold dowry, up from 28 percent in February last year.

“What is happening is a reorganizing of priorities,” says Taraki. “If we assume that each family has an agenda, then that agenda is being rearranged.”

Repeatedly, the few studies conducted on how families are changing show that the greatest impact has not been among the previously poor, but in the Palestinian middle class. While the poor are using the same sources of aid to get by, the “new poor” are finding themselves destitute.

Taraki has tracked the Palestinian middle class from its beginnings in the mid-eighties through its heyday in the time of peace agreements with Israel. “They were more educated, upwardly mobile, white collar employees, professors and so on,” she says. “And especially in Ramallah, they found their ideal niche.”

Before the Intifada, the town of Ramallah was known for its theme cafes, fast-food joints packed with English-speaking teenagers and even several bars. Today, there are a few restaurants that still fill up nights, but going out to eat or smoke a traditional water pipe is now a luxury. “It used to be more relaxed,” says Nidal Hasan, owner of the popular restaurant Stones. “Now we stay full to 11, but after that people start to go home.”

Records kept by the bureau of statistics show a mass exodus from recreational activity since the start of the uprising. While the number of Palestinian visitors to West Bank and Gaza Strip museums was nearly 7,000 in the month of September 2000, visitors plummeted to 112 the very next month. The remaining records follow a trajectory of life struggling to sputter back to normal – rising in March 2001 and crashing again in June – but the total number of museum-goers in all of last year barely rivals the visitors in that final month of the Oslo years.

Under conditions in which 51 percent of households has reduced the quantity of food consumed, the middle class has not escaped unscathed. Birzeit University, for one, has been paying its professors half their usual salary for 18 months. The only group that has not suffered a pay cut, in fact, are those salaried by organizations receiving international funds.

“For the middle class, lots of cultural practices have been severely compromised,” says Taraki, adding, “although they are making great efforts not to give in.” She says that anecdotal accounts tell of a shift away from expensive private schools to government schools, and even the removal of some children from school entirely. The Birzeit study backs this up, finding that 34 percent of Palestinians with bachelor degrees said that they are unable to afford a proper education for their children (over half of those with high school degrees also felt this strain).

The shifting priorities of the middle class has wider repercussions in society, as it spells a deteriorating social welfare system that traditionally relies on gifts and loans. A recent report by Oxfam found that this summer the majority of villagers – sixty percent of Palestinian society – had entirely depleted any savings they had. Instead, they are getting by through credit extended at the local store and gifts given by more well-off families.

But that credit is fast running out and the lack of resources is sometimes a matter of life and death.

Through the narrow alleys of Ramallah’s Old City, Um Khalil’s sister-in-law lays in a cold, drafty room with arched ceilings. Next to her bed is a banged-up metal oxygen tank, connected by a slim plastic tube to her nose.

Seven months ago, Faten was feisty and active. Never-married, she cared for her elderly parents and helped Um Khalil with the household chores. But somehow an infection set in. Now she believes that a misdiagnosis and the wrong medication has damaged her lungs. When she removes the tube of oxygen for only a few minutes, her hands begin to turn blue.

A draft flows through the stone room as Faten’s nephew comes to check the metal tank. There is a curfew in town and a lengthy discussion ensues over whether to wait until morning, or to bring a refill now. “If we have to, we’ll call the ambulance to bring it tomorrow,” he reassures her. Anxiety fills the sick woman’s dark eyes.

Convinced that incompetent doctors have set her on the shelf, Faten wants desperately to get to Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital. But as a West Banker, she must get special permission to travel there. More difficult is the prohibitive cost. One night in that hospital, she says, will put her out nearly $200, and the battery of tests she requires are sure to keep her there awhile.

But looking at Faten, one cannot escape the feeling that without proper treatment, this woman in her thirties may not live much longer. Every day she asks her brother about the request sent to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s offices asking for a gift to buy her hospital care. Every day all he can tell her is, “Soon, God willing.” Even the Palestinian Authority is having trouble extending support.

As Faten waits, Um Khalil has taken on the new responsibility of caring for Faten and her husband’s elderly parents. Both of her adult sons work to sustain this extended family, but even their employers can only pay them “some of the time.”

Um Khalil managed one such dry spell by not paying their electricity bill and sharing power with the neighbors. Their telephone line has been cut since May when the family decided that they could not afford the $125 needed to keep it connected. According to the bureau of statistics, families today average three unpaid utility bills, another form of informal credit subtracted from municipal budgets.

But these negotiations come at a cost. Um Khalil misses talking to her married daughter in Hebron, whom she can no longer visit because of the long trip. Another married daughter lives nearby, but works full-time as a nurse, as well as managing her own hectic household. Um Khalil’s world has shrunk to the neighborhood around her.

This smaller community has other implications, as well. One 29-year-old Nabulsi man interested in courting a Bethlehem sweetheart bemoans the checkpoints. The last time he tried to visit her, he was arrested on the way. How are things going? He shrugs. “Bethlehem is under curfew,” is the only thing he can say.

His mother is also searching for a bride for him, and the way things look, this man’s match will be made in the traditional fashion: through family ties. He doesn’t mind, but his story whispers of an easy return to old ways.

While Palestinians polled by Birzeit tell of heightened solidarity within their neighborhoods, they also say that there are increased disputes. Still, one finds little documented evidence that crime, another sign of social breakdown, is on the rise.

In Rafah, one of the poorest Palestinian towns, police say the number of reported cases remain the same. “There are small problems between families,” says religious leader Ghazi Hamad, who recently met with the Rafah police chief. “But mostly when people encounter a problem with drugs or stealing, they handle it right away themselves. They don’t go to the police.”

Bureau of statistics crime records show a correlation between the strongest years of the Palestinian Authority and the number of crimes reported to local authorities. In 1997, there were only some 9,000 files opened by West Bank and Gaza Strip police. Only one year later, however, a whopping 22,000 charges were filed with authorities. But ever since, the number has declined, and during the Palestinian uprising, no crime statistics are available at all.

“From the start of the Intifada, the police haven’t been able to keep records,” says a bureau of statistics spokesperson. “They have been chased out of their offices and we have not been able to collect the records from them either.”

Hamad, for one, say he is not worried that the difficult economic and political times could spur a social breakdown. “People’s social relationships are very strong. There are more associations, more people looking out for the families of prisoners and martyrs. People have found that they have to help each other and in general, people are maintaining their relationships despite the absence of authority and rule of law.”

But again, the question is: at what cost?

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report.