In honor of Ramadan — a month that means so many things to so many people, but to me will always mean nightly feasts in Jayyous — I’m posting the last excerpt from my book that I plan to post on this blog: the conclusion of Chapter 3: Behind the Fence.
To read all posted excerpts (including all of Chapters 1, 2, and 3), go to the online Table of Contents on my website.
Ramadan blessings to all!
CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE — Part 3
When Ramadan was almost over, I called Dan to see if we could hang out one last time before I headed back to Jordan. He said he could pick me up at the Gates of Azzun and drive me to the bus station in Jerusalem whenever I was ready. I said I couldn’t thank him enough.
“By the way,” he said, “did I ever tell you what happened when I was leaving the West Bank last time?”
“Yeah, well… The checkpoint near the Green Line had been moved, and I didn’t notice. I drove straight through. Army Jeeps started chasing me with their lights flashing. Somehow I didn’t notice that, either. I was listening to music, you know, kind of distracted. Finally they put their sirens on and ordered me to pull over and get out. When I got out of the car, they were all aiming their guns at me.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face. “What happened?”
I could tell he was still shaken up, but he just laughed and said, “I told them in Hebrew that I was Israeli. They looked very relieved I didn’t look like a terrorist.”
My head dropped into my hands. My God, if that had gone badly…
* * *
Near the end of November, a silver sliver of moon signaled the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid al Fitr, the three-day Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. At first I could hardly bear to eat in the middle of the day because my stomach was so shriveled from fasting, but soon my natural appetite began to come back. Two neighborhood boys sang jubilant calls to prayer from the mosque’s minaret, and by the end of three days, I had eaten my weight in the signature dessert of the holiday, a syrupy pancake folded over sweet cheese called qatayef.
Packs of kids occasionally set off fireworks to celebrate the holiday, which set my teeth on edge, and some of the boys got toy guns for their Eid presents. I’d played with plenty of guns as a kid in Oklahoma, both fake and real, and the guns of the Israeli soldiers literally ruled these kids’ lives. It must have been empowering to get behind one now and then, even a fake one. Still, every time I saw a munchkin emerge from a side street carrying what looked like a rifle, my heart jumped into my throat.
If the hospitality gauntlet of Jayyous was bad during Ramadan, it was positively oppressive during the Eid. I couldn’t walk ten feet without being invited into someone’s doorway with a cry of “Tfadaleh!” (‘Come on in!’). The five-minute walk across town could easily take two hours. It was like walking through wet tar. I was torn between feeling exhausted by Jayyous and knowing how terribly I would miss it as soon as I left.
At the end of the first Eid day I joined the men on Amjad’s porch. Qais was there, back from Jenin, and Yusif, and all the usual suspects, talking and joking and being outraged and delighted, sometimes both at the same time.
Before I left, he asked when I would uyezhaesh (leave) from Palestine. I told him I planned on leaving after the Eid was over. He asked if I would ever vernioshsya (return).
“Konechno,” I said. (Of course.)
As I said it, it occurred to me that it might even be true.
The Last Picnic
On the last day of the Eid, I made my rounds saying good-bye to everyone I knew in Jayyous. It was impossible to see everyone I wanted because each family insisted I stay for lunch, or a snack, or dinner, or dessert, or coffee, or fruit, or all six. I saved Amjad, Yusif, and Qais for last because I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
I was ridiculously behind schedule by the time I got to Rania’s house. After Rania and I said tearful good-byes, Rania’s mother waved and said, “Ashufik, ah?” (We’ll see you, yes?)
I put my hand over my heart. “Always.”
She looked startled. Rania turned to me and asked, “What you say?”
“I said ‘always.’”
She laughed her girlish laugh. “Ah, Bamila, she does not know this word. For us it is a kind of… how you say… sanitary napkin.”
“Ah.” My face flushed. “Well, for us it is, too, but it’s also a word. How do you say ‘always’ in Arabic?”
“Ah, daiman!” Rania’s mother said. “Yes. Always. See you always.” She laughed.
When I got to Amjad’s place, my second-to-last stop, I was overjoyed to see that Qais was already there watching TV in the living room. He stood up when he saw me.
“Where have you been?” he asked. “I came here specially to see you.”
As I fumbled for words in Russian to explain, I finally realized. Until this moment, I had merely noted that Qais was tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, funny, and kind. But there was nothing I could do about it. This was Jayyous, after all, and I was just passing through. But such thoughts had only masked feelings that were suddenly undeniable.
Amjad and Amir soon showed up and sat with us for a last evening chatting together and watching the world go by. When it was time to go, I wasn’t sure how to say good-bye to the brothers or express what my times on their porch had meant to me.
As I opened my mouth to try, Amir suddenly asked, “How many brothers you have?”
“Um, just one,” I answered, taken aback by the apparent non sequitur.
“No.” His eyes smiled. “You have three.” He looked at Amjad, and Amjad’s eyes smiled, too.
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Maa al salaama, ya akhuy.”
Qais and I slowly walked toward his house for a last nargila together. Along the way we ran into the mayor and his son Mohammad the Charmer, who shook my hand and said all the warm, poetic good-byes I had learned in Arabic and some I didn’t know. I smiled gratefully through stinging tears. It was impossible to imagine I might never see these people again.
Yusif and Shadi were hanging out on the porch when we got to Qais’s place. They were talking about a barbecue planned for the next day near a cave on Jayyous’s land. The more they talked about it the better it sounded until I was practically fidgeting in my chair I wanted to go so badly.
“It’s really a shame you won’t be there,” Yusif said kindly.
“I know,” I said miserably. “It’s just that Dan is picking me up tomorrow to take me to Jerusalem so I can catch a bus to Jordan.”
Qais, never one to be perturbed, said, “Invite him to come, too.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? I called Dan, and he agreed to join us the next day.
Yusif slept over at Qais and Shadi’s house that night and arranged for me to stay with them. We slept on foam mattresses in the living room floor with Qais positioned as far from me as possible. (Yusif and Shadi took it upon themselves to be the haraam police.) The electricity went off at midnight, and we stayed up talking by the light of an oil lamp for another hour. Qais reached over once to trim the wick and brushed his hand against mine. We met eyes and smiled. It was a maddening taste of what might be possible if only it weren’t impossible.
In the morning Qais and Shadi, wearing white cotton undershirts, wet and combed their hair in the sink on the front porch with its little broken mirror, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Shadi and Yusif seasoned pieces of chicken and put them in a bucket. Other folks brought tea and veggies, a small grill and a nargila.
Dan drove in and joined us, and we all caravanned out to a spot whose view was unsullied by the Fence or any settlements—one of the few such places left. We made our way to a clearing with a soft, pretty view down into a valley, and Shadi showed me a little cave where they’d stored provisions. Someone dragged an old mattress out, and one of Qais’s cousins did amateur gymnastics on it. Qais told me he’d studied kickboxing in Russia, and he showed off some impressive spin kicks. The big boys threw one of Qais’s nephews around like a football, and he laughed and laughed.
After we thoroughly tired ourselves out, we sat down for a rest. Qais told me his classes would start again in Jenin the next day, and he’d be leaving early the next morning. “I was going to leave last night,” he said, “but I couldn’t miss this.”
“When will you come back to Jayyous next?” I asked.
“It will be a long time, probably.”
He half-smiled. “Because you won’t be here.”
Dinner was called soon. We feasted on grilled chicken and onions and tomatoes, hummus and olives and fresh yogurt and pickles and tea. We used bread to scoop the food and threw chicken bones and olive pits behind our heads with a careless feeling of infinite space and plenty. Qais and Dan, a Palestinian and an Israeli, chatted in perfect Russian — Qais with his dark, intelligent, slightly mischievous black eyes and Dan who’d been brave enough not only to venture into enemy territory but to find friends there.
After dinner we walked around and talked and picked wildflowers. I took a picture of Yusif, Qais, and Shadi with their arms slung around each other, smiling as freely as children against a backdrop of olive tree hills, feathery clouds, and a powder-blue sky.
I tried to capture the larger image of the day in my mind, a fleeting feeling of being flooded by good fortune, of stumbling into a place so exotic yet strangely homelike, witnessing for myself that even in the middle of one of the most protracted and ugly conflicts on earth, moments like this were still possible.
My three weeks in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey were a lovely blur infused with missing the Holy Land so badly it was an almost physical pain.
As soon as I got back to California, I felt desperate to share what I had learned and find out what it meant. Whenever Dan was hanging out with us in Jayyous, it seemed like the whole conflict should evaporate any second, shriveled and shamed by its own depraved pointlessness. Yet thousands of highly-qualified people had been working on the problem for decades with no end in sight. I wanted to understand why.
I got my first clue when I began talking with friends about what I had seen. Some were skeptical, which was understandable. Others refused to believe things I had seen with my own eyes. Several, who had never been anywhere near the Middle East, informed me that I was naïve and I must have been brainwashed. More than one made vicious generalizations about Arabs and Muslims that they’d never dare make about any other race or religion. It was so bizarre to see friends turn into different people around this issue, I almost began to question my own sanity.
Then I talked with Michel, my Lebanese ex-boyfriend, who had grown up in Beirut during the wars. I poured out my stories to him, and he smiled knowingly. When we’d been dating, he’d never talked about the conflicts he’d lived through, and now I understood why. Trying to explain that kind of situation to someone who had never been in it was virtually impossible. I also joined Arab student groups on the Stanford campus, and they welcomed me as one of their own. It was such a relief to find people who understood the feelings and experiences I had been through, with no explanations necessary.
But I also wanted to understand the mentality that lived on the other side of this strange psychological wall. I audited a class on the history of Zionism, attended Israeli film festivals, spoke with Jewish professors, attended every lecture and discussion and read every book I could find, and joined an Israel/Palestine dialogue group. I had to research furiously to keep up, and soon it was impossible to see things in black and white. The deeper I dug, the deeper I saw there was to dig, right down to foundational questions of human nature itself. I’d never studied half as hard for anything when I was a student.
By spring there was no question in my mind that I would go back to the Middle East as soon as I could. The longer I was away the more I missed the place, with its olive trees and ancient seas, sweet herb teas and night-blooming jasmine, cute Israeli filmmakers and crazy British Muslims, dark jokes and devastating lessons. Things were happening in Palestine while folks in America sat around arguing and intellectualizing about it.
By summer I’d have enough money saved up to live in the West Bank for about six months. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. Yusif had left Jayyous and the English teaching program had been discontinued, so that was out. I was ready for something new anyway, probably in a city rather than a village. I just needed an excuse, a contact, something to lash my raft to while I figured out the lay of the land.
It arrived in the form of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian medical doctor and politician who gave a talk on the Stanford campus in March. His presentation laid out the facts clearly and brilliantly, and when hostile audience members asked insulting or absurd questions, he kept his cool and handled them with reason and confidence — exactly the way I hoped I could some day.
Dr. Barghouthi had co-founded a new political party, the Palestinian National Initiative (Al Mubadara), in 2002 as an alternative to the corruption of Fatah and the Islamism of Hamas. About half of Palestinians, he said, identified with neither Fatah nor Hamas, and Al Mubadara was an attempt to build a reformist, inclusive party to fill that vacuum. They were committed to non-violent resistance, providing public services, building international support for Palestinian human rights, developing democracy, and negotiating peace with Israel based on international law.
I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, if anything. But if his methods worked, it would be thrilling to see them in action. If they didn’t, I wanted to understand why, even though I also feared that understanding. It was terrifying to think my cozy view of the world — my beliefs in things like human rights, fair trials, and respect for other cultures — might break down out in the real world of politics, violence, and implacable ideologies, or the wrenching emotions of the place might destroy my ability to reason altogether.
I hoped I’d be able to swallow my heart and stare down my assumptions and adjust without going crazy or sinking into cynicism and despair. Either way, I wanted to know. The Holy Land was the most intriguing combination of colorful and friendly and devastating and insane. I couldn’t imagine a better university of human nature.
Dr. Barghouthi did a meet-and-greet at the end. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said, “I’m thinking of moving to Palestine, and I might like to volunteer with Al Mubadara.”
He smiled kindly. “Take one of my business cards. It has the number of my office in Ramallah on it.”
I took one and held onto it like a first-class ticket.