‘I didn’t want to let go of her, either, but what choice did we have?’
BY MARIO URIARTE
Sentinel Israel Correspondent
Mario Uriarte © 2010
Her eyes boiled over as she searched for the right words to make herself understood. Sinan, Hana, Andrea, and I had just finished going through security on our return into Israel from Ramallah, the capital of Palestine/ West Bank. Sitting behind us on the bus were two, pretty Palestinian-Muslim girls, Aya Awad and Diala Hattam.
Each was born in East Jerusalem and attends Birzeit University a few kilometers outside of Ramallah. Diala wore a shiny, purple hijab, a black and white keffiyeh around her neck, and blue-jeans. She had eyes like a grandfather clock, which were accentuated by her fair complexion. Aya wore a brown hijab with a plaid coat and brown dress that fell to her ankles.
But what is so bad about what the Israelis do? Isn’t it necessary for security? Sinan, a Turkish-Muslim friend, said to Diala. No, she responded, the wall is not necessary. It does not cut down on attacks. So, the wall is the problem? he persisted. No, it’s the way they treat us. How? Do they refuse you service in their restaurants? Do they kick you out of their shops? No, she said with a heavy breath. They stare. They look at you? he asked. Yes, she said, but I don’t care if people look at me, it’s the way they look. I can’t explain, she said as her eyes bubbled with tears. If you don’t live here you can’t know. I know, he insisted. It’s subtle what they do. I believe he was sincere, but he came across as condescending.
The Shabbos before our trip, Benzi was translating Jewish philosophy and explaining it to Sarah and me. What you have to understand, he began, is that all philosophy begins by defining its terms. There are some abstract terms that no one can agree on how to define, so everyone has to explain how they will be using that term in their philosophy. Truth, is one of the most common examples. It is very subjective.
Why would you want to go to Ramallah? one of the Israelis who was not interested in the philosophy lesson asked me. I want to stare the devil in the eye, I responded, shake his hand and say I lived to tell the tale. He laughed and said, Yeah, I know, but why do that to yourself? You know, I explained, it’s a place you hear so much about; the capital of the West Bank; a center for terrorism. I want to see what it’s really like. I want to know the truth and for that I cannot rely on anyone but myself.
Two days later, Hana and I left Be’er-Sheva at seven to meet Andrea and Sinan on the Temple Mount. We met them at one of the mosques adjacent to the Dome of the Rock. An Islamic tour guide was talking to them explaining his view of Islam. Do not use violence, he said. The Koran is clear about this. He was an imposing figure with dark, spiky hair and dark sunglasses that seemed to hide his true intentions. Sneaking behind someone’s back to blow up women, children, and the elderly is forbidden. Muhammad is clear about this.
To me, this begged the question, what about what Muhammad did as a military leader? What about Jihad of the sword? The tour guide did not hesitate, If you have to fight someone, you come to their face. You tell them I am here, we are going to fight, and you fight, and Allah guides the victor. This is Islam.
His friend interrupted to scold a few young, Western tourists. What do you think you are doing? he shouted. This is not a bar. They are rude, the friend mumbled to himself. They are kids, Sinan said. They are rude kids, he replied. What did they do, I asked Andrea, who explained they had been kissing.
Sometimes we have to fight, the friend said returning to our conversation. We are being attacked by the whole world. Not the world, Sinan corrected, the West. The friend nodded. Sometimes that feels like the whole world. Yes, the tour guide continued, but here, in Israel, we, the Jews and Muslims, are connected. We depend on each other economically and in other ways; this, I believe. We have to make peace. Islam accepts Jews and Christians as people of the book, Muhammad is clear about this. This is Islam.
We listened for a while, but grew anxious. He’s preaching to the choir, Andrea whispered into my ear. Let’s go. We thanked the men and headed for the East Jerusalem bus station to go to Ramallah. We got lost trying to navigate the old city to the Ash-Sham Gate as it is called in Arabic, or the Damascus Gate in Hebrew and English; both names are correct. The person we asked for directions made us repeat the name, Sham Gate, several times in an attempt to improve our pronunciation. Once he was satisfied he pointed us in the right direction and declared rather loudly, We love all our Palestinian brothers, and smiled goodbye.
Once outside the Old City, getting on the bus and going into Palestine was easy. The sky was filled with patches of dark clouds that slowly swelled throughout the day encroaching on the sunlight. The gray sky bled into the cement wall and at a distance it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended.
Out the windows of the bus we saw paved sidewalks give way to dirt ones, and the litter continued to increase as we approached Ramallah’s city center. We followed our breath off the bus and zipped up our coats. Downtown, the paved sidewalks were warm with bustling customers. A friendly Palestinian recommended we see Yasser Arafat’s grave. She told us to go straight to the central roundabout, turn right and just keeping going straight until we hit it.
If you get to the building with a Russian flag and a European Union flag in front, you’ve gone too far. But Russia is not part of the European Union, I told one of my friends. That has not stopped the building, whatever it is, from flying both flags.
We stopped along the way for lunch to see if the rumors were true that the falafel and hummus were better in Palestine. We got a few awkward stares when Hana and Andrea sat with Sinan and me in the men’s section of the restaurant, but the girls did not care. The falafel was unanimously better, but the hummus received mixed reviews. Mostly, I was disappointed in the foul, the Middle East’s version of refried beans.
We continued our walk outside; taking in all there was to see.
Workers were building homes and paving sidewalks. There was trash in the streets, but it was much cleaner than Cairo. I was carrying a personal size pizza Sinan bought, but after two bites changed his mind. Andrea and Hana were vegetarians and I had recently eaten dairy, so none of us would eat it. I carried it with the intention of giving it to the first beggar I saw, but we never came across one.
The central roundabout was marked with two giant flags of Palestine and four lions roaring in different directions. We looked right and found three options; six streets converged at the roundabout. Each street was lined with stores, restaurants and mini-malls. If it weren’t for the all the trash in the streets, one of my friends said, I would think we were in Israel.
We stopped people on the street to ask for directions and eventually made it to Arafat’s grave. He rests in the ground floor of a tall, skinny building similar to the Washington monument, although not nearly as tall. Two honor guards stand behind it. The top is a plaque with Arabic script and in front were two bouquets with a flowery wreathe in between that read “Council of Europe.”
We returned to the city center and did some more shopping. A woman from Ohio approached us in a clothing store. She was wearing a hijab with a uniform brown dress from her ankles to her wrists. She was curious where we were from and what we were doing in Palestine. She explained that she born in Palestine, but had moved to Ohio twenty-five years ago. She was visiting family with her teenage daughter. The woman didn’t stay long and her daughter never said anything, but she was excited to see us there and wished us a pleasant stay.
The four of us had planed to walk around more, but the cold sent us back to Jerusalem early. We felt we had gained a sense of life in the West Bank. It was an Arab country, or territory to be politically accurate, similar to Jordan and Egypt with a lot in common to Israel. Little did we know who we were about to meet.
Returning to Israel is harder than leaving. We stood in a long line waiting to cross the check point, which is not an official border. The Palestinians have never agreed on any boarder, which makes it hard for the U.N. to enforce laws on the Jewish settlements about occupying foreign land when they refuse to acknowledge where their land is. The Palestinians will accept nothing short of the Mediterranean and are afraid if they agree to anything short of that they will never get more.
The wall, however, is within the cease fire green-line of 1967. But perhaps the worst thing about where the wall was erected is that Israel went out of their way to go through Arab villages instead of around them. Near Bethlehem, they blocked off Rachel’s tomb from the rest of the city; she was one of Jacob’s wives who is an important Biblical figure.
What was a five minute drive from Bethlehem became a forty-five minute ordeal. This was explained to us by a Palestinian woman we met in line at the security check-point, Johara Baker. She was born in the United States, but felt compelled to move back to Palestine sixteen years ago. She crosses the check-point every weekday for work. Sometimes the crossing takes fifteen minutes, sometimes an hour. Israeli security only allows three people into the metal detector and baggage x-ray area at a time.
A few guards sit behind a bullet proof glass monitoring the situation of the check-point. I had become used to Israeli security not caring about me and allowing me through without a serious check. This check-point was more like what I am accustomed to in the United States, where I am required to remove my belt, my shoes, my keys, my change, my cell phone, and then after they scan my bag they always want to look inside and most often pat me down even if I did not trigger the metal detector. At least the Israelis let me keep my shoes. This check point was a jarring experience and hard to imagine going through on a daily commute.
Once we all successfully made it through security we sat on the bus in front of two pretty Palestinian girls. Aya was holding a Physics book in English, which encouraged Sinan to speak with them. So, he said, you are able to come and go as you please? Can you go to Haifa? To Tel-Aviv? Yes, Diala explained, because we were born in East Jerusalem, so we have blue ID cards.
If you are born on the other side of the wall you have a green ID and you cannot come through without special permission, unless you are forty-four years of age or older. So, you go to Tel-Aviv? he asked. We don’t like Tel-Aviv. They are not nice to us, Diala said. How? It’s hard to explain, Diala said. It is a lot of little things. You cannot understand unless you live here everyday.
Do you ever have problems with Israel turning off the electricity or not giving you enough water? I asked. No, she answered, but they charge us a lot for it.
What is so bad with how you are treated? Sinan persisted. Isn’t some of this necessary for security? Just tell me. If they do something to make you feel bad tell me. It’s not that easy, she said. The wall is not necessary for security. I tell you that.
Have the attacks against Israel declined since it was put up? I asked being careful not to say terrorist attacks. Believe me, Diala said with pierced lips, if we, but she stopped to correct herself, if they wanted to attack they would. The wall stops nothing. I believe she was telling the truth.
Okay, he conceded, so what is the solution? Two states? She echoed his question. Two states? If someone broke into your home and forced you out with a bat would you accept half of your home and live with them after you return with the police? she demanded to know. This is our land. You are talking to two Palestinian girls. What do you think we will say?
Okay, Sinan said, but the Jews are the power now. Don’t you have to compromise and accept a separate state? Do you know you are talking to two Palestinian girls? she reiterated with a sniffle. Read history. As long as there has been Islam this has been Muslim land. We are not the invaders, she said. She is right, in a way, but it is an interesting version of the truth. In Jewish history they teach that before Israel there was a British Mandate, not Palestine, and almost all of the Jews who immigrated here did so legally, under the British Mandate. Before the British Mandate the land was part of the Ottoman Empire. You have to go back over five-hundred years before you reach Palestine. If you are going that far back why stop there? Why not go back until the land was run by the Jews, long before there was Islam or any Palestinian state. Both histories are true but different.
Diala fought off her tears and apologized for being emotional. But, Sinan continued, if the Palestinians were in charge would the Jews be allowed to stay? Would they be treated the same or better or worse than they treat you?
The Jews are not the problem, she said adamantly. I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I said. The Israelis are not the problem. It’s the government. If I were Jewish, she said, I’d move here, too. I can’t blame them for loving the land. It’s their government that has to be stopped.
Are you saying, I asked for clarification, that if Palestinians were in charge, Jews would be treated better than they treat you? Yes, she declared. This is another one of her truths I disagree with. If you look at the way the Palestinians treated the Jews during the British Mandate you’ll find a lot more dead Jewish victims than Palestinians. There were Palestinian riots against the Jews in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936 and 1939. These riots are sometimes referred to as meoraot, מאורעות, “events.” There were no Jewish riots against Palestinians during that time. Historically speaking, the Islamic world is not known for treating their Jewish residents fairly or equally.
I’m sorry, Sinan said, I just don’t understand what these little things are that are so bad. Tears boiled to the surface and Diala shook her head in frustration as she searched for the right words. As an American minority I felt comfortable pinch-hitting on this one and stepped to the plate.
What’s hard to explain is that a lot of these things that make them feel uncomfortable and unwanted are things that don’t sound bad because everyone can think of a time in their lives they were treated that way and they brushed it off, but you cannot understand what it is like living under those conditions everyday.
You tell someone that you go through the security gate everyday and your commute takes over an hour, and they think big deal. A ton of people, including both of my parents, commute an hour or more to work. But they don’t understand the difference between sitting comfortably in their car or on the bus while listening to their favorite music and standing in line in the cold or the heat and being searched everyday.
You cannot understand how uncomfortable it is to be stared at like a freak or followed in a store like a criminal. It’s easy to think big deal ignore their stares. One person is easy to ignore, but when everyone does it, everywhere you go, all of the time, how do you ignore it?
You can’t, so you don’t go to those places. The racist treatment of someone being overly polite doesn’t sound bad until it happens to you and you realize how uncomfortable it is to have a stranger doting over because they are so uncomfortable with your presence that don’t know how to act.
They have to resort to a prescribed code of conduct for their behavior and it leaves you with nothing to complain about. What does stick with you like gum in your hair is the awkward feeling that you were the one disrupting everyone’s comfort; you were the one who did not belong. They were polite; anyone would testify to that. Therefore, the problem must be you. How do you explain that to someone who has fit-in and been accepted everywhere they go for the vast majority of their life? How can they know what it’s like to live with that? The sparkle in Diala’s eyes told Sinan that she concurred.
So what is the solution? Sinan pushed. Her gaze hardened and she explained, Step one: we better ourselves. We do this through education. By average, Palestinians are the highest educated people in the Arab world. Step two: we take back our land.
The bus pulled into East Jerusalem with Diala and I still talking. This was when she and her friend formally introduced themselves. Sinan and I exchanged looks of surprise when they extended their hands to shake ours. Islamic men and women do not touch, at least not strangers. It felt like a privilege to shake their hands. I asked Diala for a picture, she blushed and nodded. I wanted one of just us two, but my friends insisted on a group picture. Then, I walked her to the street opposite the Ash-Sham gate.
Do you ever talk to Jews about this? I asked. There are a lot of them who speak out against the Israeli government.
No, she spat. They do not listen. They do not care. And the ones who do get emotional and they make me emotional. It is no good.
I stopped walking and looked into her eyes and told her, I am Jewish.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand, she said.
I am Jewish, I repeated.
Her eyelids dropped, she let out a heavy breathe, and shook her head.
Did you know? I asked. I thought, maybe, she said. But I like you more for telling me. That was very nice of you, she said with a warm smile.
She and Aya exchanged numbers with Hana, but it turns out Israeli phones and Palestinian phones cannot call each other. Their respective cell phone companies are purposefully not compatible.
Diala and I stood at the street corner saying goodbye with our friends tugging on our arms.
I need to go, she said pointing toward East Jerusalem. Yeah, I know. I have to go this way, I said pointing into the sunset. Can I call you, I asked, but she reminded that that was not an option. We waved goodbye and left it at that.
That girl did not want to let you go, Andrea said a few block later.
You know what? I said.
I didn’t want to let her go, either, but what choice did we have?
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Mario Uriarte is a San Franciso Bay Area educator, writer, and recent graduate of San Francisco Congregation Temple Emanu-El conversion class, The Course.
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