Yesterday, I met with someone to IEA to discuss some secretarial work I'll be helping out with in my volunteering. We put the documents on my computer, and then began to talk a bit. I asked her how long she'd been working for IEA, she asked me what I'm doing here aside from the volunteering, and we proceeded have a short, lovely, friendly conversation where we learn much more about each other than I imagine either of us generally volunteer upon a first meeting. She is tall, and was dressed in western-looking clothing, but with a head scarf. She has a bright and friendly face, and was eager to talk to me - she is close to my age but our lives are very dissimilar. She told me that she has been engaged for three months and will marry in May. When I asked how long she has known her fiancee, she told me, "Three months." Then she described how he came to her family through the recommendation of a friend and for three months he would visit her home with his parents, and they would sit together and talk. Then, she went on a short vacation to Egypt and when she came back he asked her to marry him, and told her she had to decide right away. She wanted to wait a week to think about it, and he told her she could wait for one day. The next day her parents called his parents to make the arrangements. She told me that she was scared at first, but now that they are engaged and she has more opportunities to get to know him (they are allowed to call each other on the cell phone now, for instance), she feels more and more confident about it and she loves him. They are looking into a house in Jerusalem, in the Old City, where she has lived all her life.
She then told me that his grandmother passed away today, and she will go to the funeral. She described funeral rites which sound like sitting shiva, but for three days. She told me that it is a sad year for her family as well - a few months ago her cousin, who was 28, committed suicide. His brother found him hanging by a rope. He had recently been released from a Jewish prison where he had been since the age of 16. Her grandfather died a month later, and they think it was due to grief. She said that they go on living because they believe that G-d is good, and they believe that death is sad but is also good. She said she is looking forward to the joy of the wedding but hopes that no one else dies in the meantime because it will push the wedding date back, and because it is so sad.
She also asked a lot of questions about me. I told her about Daniel and she said that in Islam it is forbidden for men and women to live together, and it is shameful. But she didn't seem judgemental at all, which surprised me. I expected to feel somehow embarassed or ashamed at living with my boyfriend, but she seemed open and curious, recognizing that there are cultural differences between us and that my lifestyle is valid to me and to my frame of reference. She wanted to know why we lived together and if we liked it. She asked how long I'd known Daniel, and how we'd met. She asked if I knew his family. She asked if I loved Daniel, and if he was the first man I ever loved. She asked if I thought we would ever get married. And I answered all of her questions frankly and truthfully, because I appreciated her own willingness to share with me. We parted smilingly and with promises of getting together soon - I think we will become friends, which will perhaps be hard but will also be deeply good.
In a lot of ways I feel that I am missing out on a lot of opportunities to explore Israel because Daniel and I both mostly surround ourselves with other foreign students, and often in English-language social situations. However, even if we aren't exploring every opportunity that ever existed, I think we are still learning, and that more and more learning is to come in the upcoming year.