Men in leather jackets were waiting on the other side of the barrier next to battered yellow taxis. Each offered a friendly smile and a hearty “Salaam alaykum!” (Peace be upon you.) All of them seemed to know Yusif. One offered us a free ride into Jayyous and chatted cheerfully with Yusif along the way.
As we rolled deeper into Palestinian territory, my stomach calmed wonderfully and my whole frame relaxed. If there was danger here, I hadn’t found it yet.
The driver dropped us off in front of a house where half a dozen men were sitting in a circle of white plastic lawn chairs on the porch sharing an ornate nargila. Yusif greeted everyone and introduced us as we joined them. The house belonged to Amjad, a barrel-chested mechanical engineer with a neatly-clipped black mustache. One of the other men asked me in English where I was from.
“Oklahoma,” I said.
“Ah.” He looked confused. “You are Japanese?”
I smiled and shook my head. Another man in Egypt had made the same mistake. “No, not Yokohama. Oklahoma.”
“So you are from America?” Amjad asked. He had a booming voice, and his question might have sounded like an accusation if not for the amused expression on his face.
I paused. “Yes.”
He laughed. “You are ashamed?” I wasn’t ashamed, but I said nothing. It seemed wise to keep a low profile until I had a better idea of what was going on. “Do not worry,” he said reassuringly. “It is a good country. Good people. Just your government is bad. Arab people, we understand bad governments. Our governments are very bad.”
Yusif shook his head. “It seems like the nicest people have the worst governments.”
“Ah, Oklahoma!” the other man said, finally putting the pieces together. “Yes, Oklahoma City. It is a dangerous place?”
I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Cowboys? Indians?
“Wasn’t there a bombing?”
“A—? Oh, right. Yeah, well, there was one bombing.”
“But it was a very big bombing, yes? Many people killed.”
“Sure, it was very big. But it was one bombing almost ten years ago.” We were in occupied Palestine, and this guy was worried about Oklahoma being dangerous? I supposed that was what happened if you knew nothing about a place except its bombings.
Just then a goat came limping up the stairs and shyly peeked around at us. A man shooed it away, and it looked so startled and goofy, I laughed out loud. No one else did.
Yusif whispered to me, “The goats are living under the house because Amjad’s brother and father have been kicked off of their land by the Israelis. They have nowhere else to put them.”
I nodded, chastened, and made a mental note not to laugh at any more goats.
A man with a large black beard and kind eyes soon walked by on the street and said in a sonorous voice, “Salaam alaykum.” (Peace be upon you.) Everyone answered, “Wa alaykum al salaam,” (And upon you be peace) as he joined us in the circle. He was wearing a long white robe and a keffiya, the black-and-white checkered head scarf made famous by Yasser Arafat.
Yusif said something to him in Arabic. He turned to me. “Ah, you are new here.” He bowed his head politely. “Ahlan wa sahlan. You are very welcome. My name is Suleiman. Yusif wants me to sing for you. Is this OK?”
He took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts. “Do you know about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba?”
“Of course. They’re in the Bible, right?” I wondered why he was bringing up a Bible story.
“Yes, they are in the Bible. They are also in the Quran.”
“Oh.” I felt chastened again. After two months in the Middle East, I still knew almost nothing about Islam.
Suleiman smiled. “Yes, in Islam, we believe Solomon and his father David were wise rulers favored by God. But in Arabic, we call them Suleiman and Daoud. And Yusif” — he leaned back and indicated our blond British friend — “is Arabic for Joseph. Same same.” I nodded. Suleiman seemed pleased. “Listen, I will tell you the story.”
He cleared his throat and began to intone in that not-quite-singing, not-quite-speaking way people recite the Quran. Everyone else stopped their conversations to listen in. His voice was deep and clear and mesmerizing in its expressiveness as he swept us away to the wisdom and poetry of ages long past under desert moons and painted tiles. In my mind, Bible stories had always been associated with long, itchy Sundays in hard wooden pews. But his song and the setting transformed the old stories into something startlingly human-scale, rich, and real.
When he finished, everyone enjoyed a moment of reflective, appreciative silence. I smiled and thanked him, and he nodded graciously. Someone got up to make another pot of tea, and conversation resumed.
It was baffling to see everyone so full of energy and good humor, with smile lines around their eyes and warm welcomes for wandering foreigners, when wars and occupations were going on all around. They seemed to be enjoying a nice, carefree time on the porch with friends and neighbors drinking sweet tea in the clean night air, not unlike we did in Oklahoma, as the last lights faded from the coastal plains far below.
I could only shake my head and laugh at myself. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew this world.
You can read Part 3 of Chapter Two here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.