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> Abortions in Palestine during the First Intifada
> The Hamdan Family in Anata
> ظاهرة المقهى الرياضي
> Sports Cafe: Sport culture, fruitful discussion...
> Extended Families of Beit Sahour
> Tribal Quarters at Bethlehem
> A romance in Beit Sahour
> Street Vendor
> Coffee Shop Owner
> Paper Salesman
> Maisa Khreimi: Working under the Shadow of the Wall
> Aida Bandak: Stories of the olive tree and lost land
> Seize the moment” - The Story of Nivine Sandouqa
> Susan Atallah: A Land of Testing
> Ismail Mukbil: A life story of patience and hope
> Ala Owaineh: Clinging to the tiny battered twig of hope
> Terry Boullata
> Maha Abu Dayyeh
> Hania Bitar
> Jizelle Salman
By Suha Sabbagh
Times are changing in Jerusalem. Close by Damascus Gate, in the open stall bazaar or Peddlers' Market, a woman from Gaza is selling women's undergarments. Um Hatem is a new breed of vendor, one of a rising group of women involved in self-generating income initiatives, which are fast becoming a feature of the market economy.
How does the image of Jerusalem rank on the sensual map of the Middle East? The answer is: rather low. Jerusalem is usually perceived much differently to Arab capitals like Damascus or Cairo whose women are imbued with sensuality. A seemingly religious city, Jerusalem needs, according to Um Hatem, an infusion of sexuality. It is interesting to note that it is Gazan women, long considered as the most conservative of Palestine's women, who are introducing this shift in the political economy of Jerusalem.
I was struck by the discrepancy between Um Hatem's appearance, that of a very traditional middle-aged peasant woman dressed in black clothing, and the nature of the goods that she was selling: ladies underwear and nightwear for women who are conscious of their sexuality: red and black lacy panties, plumed nightgowns and silky bras, all displayed visibly on her stall. She laughingly informs me that not only her customers, women dressed in Islamic dress, but she too wears these silky numbers.
What is the sensual map of the Middle East? "My products (women's undergarments) are Turkish, some are Egyptian, some are the work of Gaza and Israel, and some are from Dubai and Syria," says Um Hatem.
Turkey and Syria stand solidly in the camp of countries that rank top when it comes to the sensuality of their women. Foreignness here represents a sexualized other, alluring and desirable. Turkish women are associated with Ottoman rule. Light skinned with round faces "like the moon" (the character of Maysaloum in Soraya Antonius' novel Where the Jinn Consult), their sexual identity is highlighted because of their belonging to the earlier ruling class. With the rejection of the Ottomans, Syrian women replaced Turkish women and were employed to subvert the domination of the Ottomans' female beauty standard. Fair-skinned with light-colored hair and eyes, Syrian women are still considered in Palestinian culture as the most alluring. In contrast, Um Hatem speaks about "the work of Gaza and Israel," suggesting that these places do not have any inherent sensuality but are just places of production.
Um Hatem clearly reflects the oral culture that predates the values of the political struggle in this city when women took second place to politics and became desexualized through dress. The women are also aware that they do not conform to the ideal norms of the Islamist/literate culture. They rather represent a woman's popular culture. Although she was born in 1951, Um Hatem clearly represents an ancient culture of Palestine in which meaning is derived from language orally transmitted from generation to generation. The best example is the language of the folktale, the Palestinian 'hikayat', generally told by old women to children. Using the language of this culture, Um Hatem says:
"I seduce women with garments so that they will buy and I tell them what to buy. I tell them, ‘Take this my darlings so that you will seduce your husbands so that they will love you and you can manage them [big laugh], and so that they will not marry a second wife.' They buy the red and brown items. They say, 'By God we are going to buy, they are really nice garments.'"
A real folk heroine, Um Hatem seduces her female customers who in turn seduce their husbands. At the end of the transaction she has greater buying power while her clients have more power over their husbands. And what about the vendors' own husbands? In fact, many stall vendors deny the presence of a man in their life. They are seducers who are not seduced while the customers are both seducers and seduced.
The discrepancy in prices between the West Bank and Gaza, where Gazan products and imports sell for a much lower price than in Jerusalem made it possible for women vendors from Gaza to specialize in garment products. The Damascus Gate stalls were assigned by the Jerusalem Municipality for day use to alleviate the pressure of too many vendors hindering the traffic at the entrance to the Old City.
The 20 female vendors from Gaza whom I met there have been sleeping over their stalls in the open air for over a year. They must be away from the house for over three months at a time. Some carry goods in excess of 20,000 shekels. The baby clothing and alluring women's undergarments that they carry compete well as they sell at acceptable prices.
This way of life is a health hazard. In winter the weather is extremely cold and sanitation is a problem. But the stalls are unguarded at night, and solution has yet been found to make it possible for the women to leave the stalls at night and sleep in a group home. The stalls are unguarded and the women cannot leave their goods. The municipality has ignored the basic problem of housing.
I was struck by Um Hatem's determination and that of other vendors to withstand the difficult conditions of vending. I wanted to know about her motivation.
Um Hatem's interview shows that she derives her support and her definition of herself as a woman vendor from the way in which her kin and neighbors define her. During the interview she quotes statements made about her by her neighbors. "They say men didn't do what I was able to do, I raised men from selling chickens." Doing can be interpreted to mean "doing for her children" as in what her money can give them: a university education, Nike shoes, a television, and even a decent wedding. The following ironically self-depreciatory understanding of her work shows her view of women's power: "My work may look nothing compared to that of a man who pours cement. The strength of a woman is in managing on little, in her ability to pick khubaizi leaves and fry them to feed her children."
A new sense of community and cohesiveness emerges among women stall vendors in the stall market. The challenges of Um Hatem's new role are shared, as is the experience of living in stalls not too far from one another. In the process of earning an income these women also create a new role for women, yet if the conditions for this new role remain as difficult as they are at present, their experience will bring about a backlash and women who seek to participate in the market economy away from home will face more social opposition.
The Jerusalem Times
June 25 1999