Yusif took me to the house of a man named Thaher that night to show me a small apartment on his roof. He said I was welcome to stay there as long as I liked. Azhar tagged along with us. She was young enough that she didn’t wear the hijab (headscarf) yet, but she carried a little purse and flipped her hair back like I used to do as a pre-teen, trying to look more mature than her years.
She was the sister of both Thaher and Mohammad the Charmer, and they were all children of the mayor, Abu Nael, whom I had met while harvesting olives. Abu Nael was a stout, spry patriarch with a thick grey mustache who wore a baseball cap, jeans, and a corduroy work shirt while he harvested. Yusif said he was heavily in debt from trying to keep Jayyous’s farmers afloat while the Fence was decimating their economy. Most of his 800 olive trees had been destroyed to build the Wall.
The apartment, built on one corner of the roof, had a gas stove, a sink, a foam mattress on the floor, and a shower in one corner. It was basic but livable, and I enjoyed watching the geckos that climbed around on its walls. The views were spectacular, too. To the west, four kilometers beyond the Fence, was the Green Line, the boundary between the dark farmland of the West Bank and the endless lights of an Israeli suburb. Far in the distant haze we could see the art deco skyscrapers of Tel Aviv lit up against the dark span of the Mediterranean. Clusters of lights also surrounded us within the West Bank.
“Towns with white lights are Palestinian villages,” Yusif explained, “and yellow ones are Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.”
My mouth went dry as I realized what I was seeing. Jayyous was literally surrounded by settlements. I could see at least four from where we were standing, all deep inside West Bank territory. The nearest one, Zufin, had been built on Jayyous land that was isolated by the Wall.
“They try to take the hilltops so they can keep track of what everyone is doing,” Yusif said. “The most populated parts of Israel—the Galilee to the north and the coastal plains to the west—are fairly flat while the West Bank is hilly. Aside from its rich Biblical history and important water resources, the West Bank is a valuable strategic asset.”
“But why would Israeli civilians want to move here?”
“Some settlers are ideological. They think the land has to be ‘redeemed’ by Jewish settlement so the Messiah will come. Others are ‘economic settlers,’ which means they live here because it’s heavily subsidized by the Israeli government. They can live in a much nicer home in a settlement than in Israel for the same money.”
[This is illegal on Israel's part. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory.]
“How many Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza?”
“How many Palestinians?”
“Two and a half million in the West Bank, a million and a half in Gaza.”
I whistled softly as I took in the surreal vista, with the Wall in the foreground blasting and isolating land from the village and settlements blinking yellow from every compass direction. I felt a sudden, irrational urge to cover Azhar’s eyes.
* * *
I awoke the next morning with a thrill of trepidation in my heart. The Wall in the Jayyous area had been completed that summer, and Israel had recently declared the area between the Wall and the Green Line to be a closed military area called the ‘seam zone.’ Jayyous residents had been ordered to apply for permits to access the land that fell behind the Wall.
At first they refused to apply for permits of any kind. The idea of asking Israel’s permission to access their own land was too ludicrous to contemplate. On October 19, in order to stave off expected resistance, the Israeli army had waived the application process and delivered several hundred permits. The permits were valid for three months, at which point the recipients would be required to reapply. The people of Jayyous reluctantly accepted the permits, afraid that otherwise they might be barred from their land entirely. It was a bitter decision, but at the time it seemed the lesser of two great evils.
Unfortunately, the permits were insufficient in number and distributed seemingly at random. A large percentage were made out to children, the elderly, people who were living abroad, and even some dead people. Many farmers, landowners, and workers were denied. Today, even though there weren’t nearly enough permits to go around, the new permit system might go into effect. If too many people were denied entry, Yusif said it might result in a minor revolt: stone throwing, tear gas, rubber bullets, and a possibility of escalation. He said I should be there to see it, but I should stay well back.
The scene at the gate was tense as the soldiers spoke to the anxious Palestinians. Azhar held my hand, alert and serene as usual. A cameraman who looked European was filming. The incident wouldn’t have been out of place on the evening news, and it was bizarre to see it for myself on the other side of the camera, and to see the characters around me as three-dimensional human beings instead of two-dimensional news objects. It felt like falling through the looking glass.
In the end, only a few people were denied passage that day. Some were furious, and a few wept quietly on their way home. But the outrage wasn’t enough to risk a confrontation that might turn violent. Jayyous relented. We picked olives another day.
But a pall was cast — a deep and terrible foreboding that things might never be the same.
In the evening, back in Jayyous, Yusif and I walked across town to visit Rania, a young Palestinian woman who taught English with Yusif’s organization. Her mother had doubts about Rania’s new job, and Yusif wanted to talk with her and ease her fears.
Yusif was wearing a white tunic and elegant white turban, which made him look more stereotypically Muslim than most Jayyousis. As we walked down Jayyous’s narrow main street, everyone greeted Yusif with a hearty, “Salaam alaykum!” to which he invariably replied, “Wa alaykum al salaam!” People always seemed happy and honored to see each other even if they had seen each other several times that day. Most of the men wore slacks and work shirts while teachers and college students wore pressed shirts and ties. Some of the older men sported black and white keffiya headscarves, which Yusif said were symbols of the fellahin, the traditional farmers. It seemed similar to the way American men wore cowboy hats. Some, like my grandfather, actually worked cattle. Others, like President Bush, wore them symbolically.
Younger women usually wore a hijab (headscarf) and jilbab (long, flowing dress-coat). They were master artisans with eye shadow and eyeliner, and some looked like maiden princesses. Older women wore the old-fashioned loose white headscarves and traditional black robes embroidered down the front with intricate patterns in bright red and green.
Whenever I passed children, they almost always shouted an excited “Hallo!” in my direction. Dozens of greetings bombarded me from side streets, windows, and rooftops. Once I glanced up and saw three adorable girls with big black eyes sitting on a windowsill with their legs dangling through protective metal bars, smiling and waving as if they’d spotted a celebrity, or maybe a talking polar bear.
The cool night air was redolent with Jayyous’s characteristic scent of night-blooming jasmine commingled with burnt garbage. The jasmine’s fragrance was like wedding-cake-scented perfume, thick and sweet and overpowering. Donkeys brayed and cocks crowed, adding to the idyllic effect. The houses along the street were built in a similar style, usually white with flat roofs crowned by black water tanks, TV antennae, and colorful clothes lines. Most had front stoops or porches, a balcony or two, and painted metal doors and shutters. Some were accented with decorative arches or columns, iron filigree, a Quran verse engraved over the front door or a flowering vine spilling over a privacy wall.
In the center of town, the mosque’s ornate minaret rose proud and white over its aquamarine dome. Next to it was a humble courtyard with concrete benches under small leafy trees. Crumbling Ottoman-era ruins came into view after that, then a few stores selling dry goods, soft drinks, candy, and school supplies. Graffiti was scrawled in Arabic across most of the walls. The houses in the center of town were noticeably more splendid than the newer homes on the outskirts, which were often built of bare cinderblocks.
When we reached Rania’s house, Yusif introduced everyone and then withdrew to the parlor with Rania’s mother. The interior was the same immaculate white as Thaher and Amjad’s houses. The parlor had big upholstered couches in dusty rose and gold with wood trim, but the rest of the house was furnished more simply. The bright, spacious living room with its big curtained windows had only a TV on a stand and foam cushions on the floor.
Rania invited me into her bedroom, where a Canadian girl named Amy was sitting on the bed. She introduced herself and said she was teaching English with Rania at the Jayyous community center. “But I’m hoping to go to the Gaza Strip soon,” she said. “Someone offered to put me on a list to get permission to go there. The situation there is so much worse than it is here, and it’s hard to get in.”
“She is leaving us!” Rania wailed. “And when she leaves, there will be no one to teach English with me. The girls, all of our students…” She sighed theatrically. “Amy, please stay!”
Amy shrugged. I said nothing. But something clicked in the back of my mind.
Dinner was called soon. We sat on molded plastic chairs around their white plastic dinner table for a feast of chicken and rice with fresh yogurt and farmer’s salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers, lemon juice, and olive oil. I ate until I was stuffed. As soon as my plate was empty, before I could protest, Rania’s mother heaped another generous serving onto my plate and smiled suggestively, urging me to finish it off.
“Oh God,” I whispered to Yusif. “How do you say ‘I’m about to explode’ in Arabic?”
Before he could open his mouth, I said, “Actually, on second thought, never mind. It’s probably better if I don’t know how to say those words in Arabic.”
After we left Rania’s house, we walked back down Main Street, found Sebastian, and started a nargila circle on Amjad’s porch. I’d begun to look forward to the evening ritual. The rhythm of passing the pipe, changing the coals, and replacing the tobacco was its own little time-space universe. All else fell away while we chatted and watched the night. Yusif had brought rose-flavored tobacco from Jordan, and the smell was heavenly.
I said to Yusif, “That guy Suleiman mentioned that Muslims revere King Solomon. I don’t understand. This is probably a dumb question, but I thought the Bible and the Quran were completely separate.”
“There’s a lot of overlap,” he said. “Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all started with the patriarch Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic. The Quran respects Christians and Jews as ‘People of the Book,’ meaning the Bible, which Muslims also respect. But we believe Mohammad was God’s last prophet and the Quran is the final revelation.”
“Do Muslims believe in Jesus?”
“Of course. He was one of the greatest prophets of Allah. But he wasn’t His son.”
“What about jihad?” If I was going to embarrass myself, I might as well get it all out in one go. Yusif’s views might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, but it was a start.
Yusif shook his head. “The word jihad is used wrong all the time. It just means the struggle to be righteous, to be a good person. The extremists use it wrong, and then the Western press repeats what they say. In the Quran, it says, ‘If anyone killed a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew all mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of all people.’ There are certain times when violence can be justified, but it should be a last resort. But Pamela, you see the situation here. Most Palestinians would accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel isn’t even willing to offer that.”
I didn’t know if this was true or not. I decided to leave it until I could do more research on my own. “Does the Quran say women have to wear the hijab?” No one had bothered me about not wearing one, but I wondered if they didn’t secretly think of me the way Americans would think about a French woman walking around topless.
“The Quran just says people should dress modestly, both men and women, mainly so they won’t attract unwanted attention,” he said. “The headscarf is more of a traditional custom. Actually the tight, colorful scarves most young women wear these days, I think it’s a Turkish style.” He smiled. “But personally, I like the hijab. It’s like the girl is a gift. It drives you crazy to wait, but then on your wedding night, you alone get to unwrap her.”
“But doesn’t that just hyper-sexualize the hidden parts? Anyway look what Palestinian women do to their eyes! And have you seen the women in Cairo?”
“I hear erotic underwear is a huge industry in Saudi Arabia,” Sebastian mused.
“Saudi Arabia,” Yusif said with disgust. “It’s always the worst Muslims who make a big show of repressing their women. The Saudi royals make such a big deal about having control of the holy places, and then on weekends they go to Dubai and Aqaba and get whores and gamble and drink.”
“That reminds me of a joke in my home town,” I said. “What’s the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist?”
They looked at me blankly.
“Oh, right. So the Baptists are supposedly the more uptight denomination in my home town while the Methodists are more laid-back. Anyway, the answer is: A Methodist will talk to you if he runs into you at the liquor store.”
Sebastian laughed and Yusif shook his head. “It’s the same everywhere.”
Amjad the barrel-chested engineer lived with his brother Amir, a clean-shaven, soft-spoken shepherd, and their father Abu Amjad. Abu Amjad didn’t say much. He was just a constant, kindly, watery-eyed presence who could never quite manage to flick his ash off his cigarette before it tumbled onto his flannel shirt.
One day, sitting around another nargila circle on Amjad’s porch, I was deemed to have been around long enough to be considered a regular instead of a guest. So I started taking my turn on tea and coffee duty. Amir taught me the proper method of making tea: First boil a teapot full of water along with a small teacup full of sugar. Pack another teacup full of loose black tea leaves. Once the water boils, pour the hot water over the tea leaves in the cup and let it steep for a few minutes, then pour it back into the teapot along with whatever herbs you have on hand, usually fresh mint or maramiya (wild sage). The result is a strong, sweet, aromatic brew.
When I brought my first masterpiece of tea out to the group, I found that my chair had been taken by a young man in a leather jacket whose subtly-gelled hair spilled rakishly into his dark eyes. I poured a cup for him.
“Spacibo,” he said with a smile.
“Pozhaluista,” I answered politely.
We met eyes as he raised his glass to his lips. Then we froze.
It suddenly occurred to both of us that we were speaking Russian.
“Ti Russkaya?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“Zachem ti govorish po-Russky?” (Why do you speak Russian?)
“Zachem ti govorish po-Russky?” I asked with a laugh. Hearing a perfect Russian accent on Amjad’s porch was like meeting an old friend in the most unexpected place.
“I studied in Russia for a year and a half,” he said in Russian as someone moved over and gave me a chair next to his. “And you?”
“I studied abroad in Moscow for a semester during college. I loved the language, so I continued studying and practicing on my own. Ti Russky ili… Palestinsky?” His skin was pale enough that he could have passed for a Russian, or at least a Chechen.
“I am Palestinian, of course. I am from here, from Jayyous. My name is Qais.”
“Ochen priyatno.” (Nice to meet you.) I was surprised how fluidly I was speaking Russian. My brain had apparently a chance to stir and settle since I’d last studied the language, or maybe it only seemed easier after struggling with Arabic for so long.
“Did you like Russia?” I asked.
“Yes, very much. It was… very free. Not like this place, where they say, ‘You can’t do this, and you can’t do that,’ and everything is forbidden.” I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about the culture or the occupation. Maybe both. “But I realized the subject I was studying, reklama, was not good for me.” I had to rack my brain to remember what reklama meant. I recalled an image of posters plastered on walls in Moscow. Ah yes—‘advertising.’ “So I came back to Palestine. Now I study physiotherapy at the American University in Jenin. I am happy to be back, but I miss Russia very much.”
“I miss it, too. And I miss speaking Russian, so it’s nice to practice with you. You speak very well.” His vocabulary was much bigger than mine, and his grammar and accent were flawless. He was far more advanced than he should have been for only having lived there a year and a half. With his good looks and debonair confidence, I expected him to be cocky about it, but I was pleasantly surprised. When I made mistakes, he either ignored them or corrected me gently. If he suspected something was out of my vocabulary range, he would patiently ask, “Ti znaesh shto takoe…?” (Do you know what exactly is…?) If I didn’t, he would explain, switching to English if necessary. Memories of Russia flooded our minds as we compared notes on the food, people, jokes, and slang.
After a while I remembered something that had been bothering me. “You know how everyone here says ya khuy all the time? What does it mean?”
In Russian, ya khuy means ‘I am a penis.’ I had no idea what it meant in Arabic, but I heard it all the time: “Ya khuy, please pass the tea.” “Ya khuy, where are you going?” “Welcome, ya khuy!”
Qais laughed, probably imagining what a startling thing it was for me to hear respectable Muslims soberly announce at the beginning of nearly every utterance.
“In Arabic, ya means…” He thought a moment. “It means you are speaking to someone. So if I say, Ya Pamela, it means I am speaking to you.”
“I see. Like the English word ‘hey.’”
“Da, maybe. But more polite, I think. And akhuy…” He glanced sideways at me, and I suppressed a giggle. “In Arabic, it means ‘my brother.’ Everyone calls each other ‘my brother’ here, so that’s why you hear it a lot.”
“Ah, OK, spacibo. I was just wondering, because…”
Someone in the circle said it just then, and we looked at each other and laughed.
Jayyous was a conservative town, and Qais and I were unmarried young people, which meant we’d probably never have a chance to be alone together. But our shared language created its own island of intimacy. All night as we talked, we felt like kids getting away with breaking the rules.
The next evening, a razor-thin crescent moon hovering in the rosy glow of the setting sun signaled the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Fasting in this context meant no food or drink or smoking or sex from sunrise to sunset for the next twenty-eight days. I decided to try to observe the fast, both out of respect for the people around me and to see what it was like.
Back in my rooftop apartment that night, I also had to decide what my trip to Palestine was going to be. I had expected to skip through the Holy Land for a week or ten days and then bounce on to the bazaars and castles of Syria, the nightclubs of Beirut, the fantastic carved cave houses of Cappadocia, and finally Istanbul, the Gateway to Europe on the Bosporus Strait. My passport hadn’t been stamped by Israel, so unless I got unlucky on the way out, I had six weeks to see all that and much more.
It had occurred to me, though, when Rania was so distraught about Amy leaving, that I could stay in Jayyous and help Rania teach English during Ramadan. It would be the perfect excuse to stay on without feeling like a freeloader or a tourist. I’d only been in the Holy Land a week so far, and already I’d had such a variety of shocking experiences, I’d be sorting them out for years. There was much more to learn, several people I wanted to know better, and something in the atmosphere that I deeply enjoyed—a preternatural friendliness and curiosity, artless and disarming, mixed with a healthy, humorous cynicism that I never expected.
I wasn’t ready to leave.
But coming here for a week wasn’t much of a sacrifice. Staying for another month would mean cramming Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey—by many accounts the biggest prizes of the trip—into three short weeks in the cold of December. I’d have to skip so many things I’d planned on seeing. Ancient things. Carved stone things. Crusader castles, mighty rivers, hot Lebanese guys… and all for one Stigler-sized farm town in the occupied West Bank?
My scalp prickled with a vague sense that whatever decision I made tonight might resonate for the rest of my life. It made me feel tired and irritable. I thumbed through the Syria and Lebanon sections of my guidebook one last time, sighed, and went to sleep.