I am at a conference in Palestine hosted by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. By extension, American taxpayer dollars afford the apple Danish I stuff in my mouth. I am hungover and mope around the refreshment stand. A base creature, I am foraging for the two things I desire when sweating out a night-before: food and sex. I stave off the urge to fall asleep with an instant coffee that shakes in my hand.
In front of me a man traipses across a platform; his lisp is amplified through a cordless microphone. He’s shaped like a pear, or, given the belt that runs a fat black stripe above his generous belly, perhaps he resembles a bowling pin. His white bald head shines in the florescent light. In brief, he’s a person you can’t imagine ever getting laid (again). He asks us to sit. I pull out a chair near a woman thumbing through a pocket sized book. At first I thought it was Civilization and Its Discontents but it turns out it’s only Harry Potter. I think it’s magic how I find myself here, pouring a large glass of chilled water from an Evian bottle.
I used to believe the dichotomy of developing versus developed countries came down to using one’s left hand to wipe or using toilet paper, wearing or not wearing a seat-belt. However, Palestine is a gray zone with enough rampant consumerism to make your average American middle class family jump for joy, yet shaking someone’s hand with the left (wiping) hand is considered insulting.
In this gray zone, in militarily occupied Palestine, the order of the day is announcing a generous envelope of dollars for Palestinian non-profits. The twenty odd representatives of organizations listen attentively to the rules of the grant to be disbursed. Women are discriminated against in Palestine, the man says, therefore the kind Americans seek to remedy this by increasing women-run small businesses. The same goes for youth, who, in a patriarchal society virtually speak only when spoken to. To wit: politicians rarely listen to young people until their hair falls out like the man on the stage. The jargon is noted on papers made for the occasion, empowerment, capacity building, and income-generating activities. As the conference is in Arabic I understand only half of what the man says, particularly the jargon and the pronouns they and us.
Then I see her across the room, the only girl white enough to be a foreigner. We lock eyes.
During the coffee break I drag my heels over to her. My nonchalance is studied. She is dressed to the nines with a blouse open at the throat. Upon closer inspection I am sure I could make myself small enough to slide down between her breasts. When she speaks she closes her eyes, allowing me to survey her face without feeling self-conscious. In front of her folded hands she hasn’t even doodled marginalia on her papers. In sum, she looks professional, a co-worker you would mentally undress at the office. A two minute fantasy at the water cooler never to materialize.
The golden rule of conversation between two foreigners here is to talk about where we are from and the ridiculousness of choosing to live in a country where all the locals would leave if they could. She is from Lithuania, arrived last week, and found a job doing exactly the same thing as me. I try to remember a detail about Lithuania but come up short. I tell I’ve been here for two years. In candor I say that I would have never imagined the job description entailed so much bureaucracy, so many useless meetings in lavish conference halls. I confide in her, because that’s what I do when I feel like shit, that I am ready to leave. She said that her roommate told her this: The first year you hate the Israelis, the second year the Palestinians, and the third year you’re gone. I tell her it took me half that time. She touches me lightly on the hand and giggles. She has a silver molar.
The conference begins again. I take my seat at the other end of the hall. It’s cold. In Palestine, a developing country they say, air conditioning is seen as a luxury. Therefore pumping it in full blast denotes class. I shiver and think how her two small nipples must be hard across the frigid and sexless expanse of the room.
We make eye contact several times, especially when others laugh at the jokes told by the bureaucrat with the microphone because we don’t understand them. She forces a laugh, her smile wreathing her perfect, un-hungover face. I complete the outline for this story between furtive glances at her breasts and the door.
In conclusion the man asks: Any questions?
I ponder the injustice of it all. How can a band of Americans waltz in here and dictate policy to a knot of note taking Palestinians? Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned room as the country is being colonized, while America slips an envelope of money into the pockets of several Palestinians and turns around and arms Israel to the teeth?
Finally, I question why I must get so drunk at night to stay sane in Palestine. I think of the absurdity of why she is over there and I in my pants with all these people and layers of clothes an obstacle between us.
After the conference I get her number and never call her.