Tuesday, February 16, 2010
BAGHDADI PROPOSAL DRAFT MANUSCRIPT
BY LURENE GISEE
OCTOBER 2000 – JUNE 2007 WORK PERIOD
That October Day Of 2000
I decided I had put off seeing him for too long. Ten years. Now was the time to go. Right now, which is the only thing a clock can say.
There is no other time.
That’s right, no other time. Not for you and me. Did you ever see a clock, Dear Reader, which told you it is literally 2 p.m. yesterday? No. There is no such clock in the universe. It was right now that October day in San Francisco, the same “now” it is now as you begin this story about the day I was…
Landing In Jerusalem
…quite literally, out of the fog and into the English day’s last light on a British Airways flight heading from London to Tel Aviv. It was still October 6, 2000. By coincidence, the anniversary date of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “It’s a national holiday in Egypt,” an Egyptian man remarked to me before I left home. “It was a victory for us.”
Victory? I looked at the entertainment screen in front of me, which tracked the plane’s path over Europe. We were just now flying over Yugoslavia, its maddened people streaming to and from the tear-gassed streets of Belgrade to evict their monster, Slobodan Milosevic. Somewhere among them as well, the country’s ghostly multitude from bloody massacres and rapes.
How does it happen? I felt strange knowing I was over the sites these crimes had occurred. How do modern men turn against their neighbors to commit such atrocities, time and time again?
I looked down at the open book on my lap. Still René Descartes. I lay my head on the seat cushion and drew a deep breath. Always René Descartes. I turned my eyes to the clouds now below us.
I was going to Jerusalem. Jerusalem will always be Jerusalem, a city as known for murder across ethnic and ideological lines as it is for King David, Jesus, and the call for Allah. The city of religion. The city of religiosity.
Today, there was a chilled mood on this plane. On September 30, Ariel Sharon of the conservative Israeli Likud party decided to take a walk around the al Aqsa Mosque with armed escort, and Palestinian riots subsequently erupted, and continued. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, but quite planned. Yasser Arafat knew fully of Sharon’s plans to tour the area that day. Israeli leader Ehud Barak was issuing ultimatums. American Secretary of State Madeline Albright and French President Jacques Chirac were vainly trying to quell the riots through diplomacy. It was too late. The new Intifadah had begun.
The Kurdish Cabdriver
“Perhaps you can call on your cellular phone? The man’s name is Shabi Gamlieli,” I said to the cab driver. I was now on the streets of Jerusalem with several other occupants of the cab.
“Oh! That’s a Kurdish name!” he said, navigating his way through the narrow, dark streets of Jerusalem with several other occupants of the cab. “You should have said so earlier. I’m a Kurd,” he said, smiling at me in the rear view mirror.
Intermittent flashes of light played on his face. A domestic worker with whom I shared the rear seat, a Pilipino woman, was bitterly complaining about not being dropped off first. The cab driver continued to address me as she complained, like she wasn’t there.
“I wouldn’t have thought of it. Yes, Shabi is from a large, Kurdish family, originally out of Iraq,” I said, still rummaging through my purse for lip balm.
“How in the world are you in Jerusalem visiting a Kurdish family?” he asked, looking at me in laughing astonishment. “And now, of all times! Don’t you know what’s been going on here the last couple of days? Where are you from? You’re not a Kurd…”
“San Francisco. Last time I was here was 1990.”
“Ten years. What were you doing then?”
“Studying at the Hebrew University on Har Azafim. Rothberg School. You know the campus. It’s across from Hadassah Hospital near…”
“I know, I know.”
“I always lived in Jerusalem. I took some road trips, though. Northern Israel, Eilat, Cairo.”
“Oh, you made it to Cairo.”
“Sure, but it was dicey. All my Israeli school friends pulled out at the last minute. There was a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus just prior to the trip.”
I looked at his face in the rear view mirror and saw his eyes shift down and to the left. He gazed at me intensely for five seconds, a newsreel seeming to run behind his eyes.
We were on a dimly lit section of a street for a few seconds. I could barely see his face, but made out the slight smile on his lips. Seconds later, we were driving past the walls of the Old City. My eyes were drawn to the part of Damascus Gate I could see from my perspective. We by now had dropped off the last passenger, and I was the only rider left.
“Do you speak Hebrew, Kurdish?”
“I remember a little Hebrew. The letters, how to spell my name, sound things out. It’s never spoken in San Francisco that I overhear; I mean, it’s not commonly overheard like Spanish. On the rare occasions I whip out a Hebrew book for old times’ sake while sitting in a Fillmore Street café, people either ignore me, have no interest at all, or give me brief, but strange glances. It’s not like Italian or French where people step up and tell stories about their travels. Never could understand why it seems to stand so alone among languages, either. Really alone….but maybe I just don’t know….Oh, and no Kurdish. I heard it from the old guy at the dinner table sometimes at Amminidav, though.”
“So, they come from Iraq.”
“Iraq. In the wedding picture, Shabi’s dad was fully armed with primitive guns. Had to be the 1920s, I guess,” I said, leaning slightly forward. “I must have looked at that picture a hundred times and I still can’t imagine what life must have been. Shabi’s mom was young and little and skinny, standing next to his dad. He was formally dressed in a kind of tribal attire, ready to say the vows, fully loaded with weaponry. They’re still together.”
“Of course they were armed,” he said, turning onto the road to Amminidav. “In Iraq? It was enough to be a Jew. But a Kurdish Jew?” he raised his right hand in a mock stop signal. I was sitting so far forward that a distant observer would have thought we were telling secrets.
I reclined back in my seat, digging in my purse for cab fare. I had no currency. What kind of idiot goes to a rioting Jerusalem with no currency in hand, I thought to myself momentarily. I’m such an idiot. SUCH an idiot.
I looked up again toward the front. “Well, history says the Jewish groups in Iraq would get along alright with the surrounding populations for a while, but things would eventually swell up in some new rage. Then, they would calm down again. Life became intolerable, though, after the talk of Zionism. Same all over the Arab world; God only knows how many Jews were strung up by the neck in Damascus, Baghdad…”
“I know. The same, the same,” he said, slowing the taxi down as we approached a security gate.
Just as we slowed near the gate, the idea flashed through my mind that Arab governments and a high proportion of the residents of those countries seemed not to understand the difference between ethnicity and political culture; Arabs might be an ethnicity spread across the Mideast, but the difference between an Arab in Kuwait and one in Syria are quite notable because of the different political details within the two nations.
In fact, it was an idea that also ran through much of Jewish history – the vast cultural and lifestyle differences, for instance, between a Yemeni Jew and an American Jew -- but I kept the thought to myself because we were approaching my destination. I felt I knew more than many Americans did because of my time at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but most of that was learning about how much I did not know.
What is Jewish history for me? Jewish history is a belief in effort, even in the darkest and filthiest of human rooms.
I snapped out of my thoughts to focus on the thick assortment of trees and bushes near the gates of Amminidav. They did not have a security gate ten years ago, I privately noted.
The Arrival; Shabi in Amminidav
I was standing with one foot on the dirt of Amminidav and my other leg on the second stair leading to Shabi Gamlieli’s house. I was surrounded by leaves too large to grow on the land of most American homes on the beautiful pacific coast. I remembered in a flash the image of Shabi’s Iraqi hands watering just these plants when they were little, the look he’d get on his face when the garden tools were in his hand, tending flowers and shrubs. Shabi and Tova probably never had the same attitude about those plants. Funny how these things come to you in the wake of a divorce.
The plants had grown up since I’d left Jerusalem. How powerful a little plant can be with human memory! You don’t think it’s in your mind filling space until a time arises and makes its demand that you remember. Maybe you pass the flower bed of a strange front yard one day and find yourself thinking your grandmother used to space her plants using just that number of inches, and at that, some memory of her fragrant, fresh bread seems to fill your mind.
A dim light was pouring out the kitchen window onto those leaves now, and onto Shabi’s gesturing hands as he complained about the price of the cab fare with the driver. His face was ostensibly focused on the driver, but underneath his expression I was feeling some kind of tension. He didn’t like having to dig up the fare, for one thing.
When we got into the brightly lit kitchen, all the smaller memories in my head of living in this house came back. There was the full swimming pool in the back, the olive tree, the artist’s studios, the in-law apartments, the stone back deck.
The endless sun. This handsome, agricultural Israeli right near me.
Shabi Gamlieli loved earth, plants, dirt, olives, water, sun, wind, and desert. Every Baghdadi I’ve met – even the few I’ve known who were ridiculously wealthy from work in or on one of the world’s major cities – had some corner of his mind on the garden shovel, no matter what was otherwise taking his attention.
Shabi and I spoke at eye level, so he was about 5’8. He had silky dark brown hair, and large Iraqi eyes that you could not ignore during conversation. It would have been hard for me to lie to Mr. Gamlieli, or to hide anything for long. To have that kind of tie with another person remains to me a sophisticated achievement in life. By that standard, I have few.
I have to remain on this point for a moment. Here was Shabi’s face again. A face dances.
His eyes could be looking at yours like they were Las Vegas billboards promising big, big money – ‘I never knew until today how fascinating I truly was!” you’re thinking. If you’ve ever sat on the patio with Shabi on a sun-filled Shabbat, you know this is true.
You also know Shabi’s eyes could be avoiding your entire face, as if, deep down, he felt sorry for you, and you didn’t warrant attention.
That’s not all. His eyes could assume complete vacancy, like a bored, Montana traffic cop who’s hearing again the echo of his fault-finding ex-wife’s mom in court. (He lost miserably, by the way.) At times like this, you realize you’re not good looking, and that you might as well get off your useless ass and act now. Maybe you’ll make something of yourself.
When I was a visiting student, Shabi often had guests on Shabbat. They would be sitting on the stone patio in the bright sun drinking juice and laughing. The Baghdadi would speak for minutes at a time without stumbling on his words or being interrupted by his captivated friends. People loved telling him their most dramatic life stories. Especially women, because he would listen, and women’s lives in every country are often inadvertently or deliberately overlooked.
Whether a parent needed an ear or not, they could count on Shabi and Tova’s swimming pool being crystal-clear, and the house and yard being clean; The kids could have fun in safety as Mom or Dad sat nearby. That’s the way it was.
I am not sure how Tova felt about this all, though. We had good relations, but I never felt like I knew her well. I only watched her talking to her kids, picking up the house.
On that note, the Gamlieli family – all of them – seemed to believe that their homes were meant to serve their friends and visitors. This was the second half of 1989. This was just before the fall of the communist world. I might be saying hello to an Israeli settler, a prominent local physician, an international businessman from Tel Aviv, or a Baghdadi housewife from a nearby moshav with four kids -- all in the pool behind us. After the fall of the wall, however, and my return to America, things changed greatly for Israeli society. It became a new population. Russia opened, the Soviets were no more.
When I discuss my Hebrew University days, I am talking 1989-1990. The Berlin Wall fell a day I was on campus in Jerusalem. I am becoming my grandmother’s voice when I write about these things. I have to talk about not just Israel, but changing national ties, rules, borders and understandings within Europe just like she did.
Once in a while, the air over Shabi’s yard would be quiet for a stretch. I would hear him somewhere in the back yard fussing over a plant, his Hebrew/English lettered cigarette pack would be abandoned on the patio table. I wonder why such five-second memories remain in my mind when so many other things have not.
Shabi had a core perplexity in the sense that he kept some things to himself and you were not sure why he chose what he did for nondisclosure.
You might ask a simple question. He would give you what seemed a rehearsed, distant smile when he was in this mood.
It looked to me like he was using such isolated periods to think, and to read. He seemed to prefer history books and memoirs by political statesmen he admired, many of whom were Israeli. He especially admired Yitzhak Rabin.
I remember Shabi and myself talking about American diplomacy once or twice – it wasn’t often – and I would have an intuitive feeling his mind just stepped back to check the landscape before making the statement he just did. Or maybe it was some color that arose in my mind….I’m not sure; It’s an ineffable thing and hard to recall accurately. The sure thing was he seemed to want to be careful how he sounded to a visiting American student, which is who I was back then.
He was a devastatingly handsome negotiator. He could have been a con artist if it was the only choice available to him in Iraq. If he’d been living the impossible life of his father, navigating his way skillfully over the invisible tribal lines of that country, he might well have been one; Learn to con, hide and lie, or learn to die. Suit yourself. Nobody’s going to stop you from having a personal intention in life.
Mr. Gamlieli, however, was not a con man that had to trick border guards to get to the other side alive. Shabi had a country, and it was a country that wanted him and everything for which he stood. There was no other country – or idea -- that he would have wanted to inhabit.
I have to say “idea” because as we enter the 21st Century the very notion of the nation-state is twisting itself to something we can’t see; Haiti and Cuba are both island nations, but they’re not even close to the same government structures, the same ideas.
I mean, let’s face it: Today’s aspiring nation barely needs a coherent idea underneath it to function militarily. But we need a coherent idea. We need another method of organizing and defining space altogether. It’s going to have to be outside the structure of a nation-state, territory, refugee camp, reservation, or what have you.
I don’t know what that new definition of space will be. Nobody does that I’ve read or heard. All we know is that it’s time to reform the space we occupy into something that works for a greater percentage of the world’s population, millions of whom are destitute as dirt, poorly educated and under the boots of dictators. But if a new concept of human organization involves the same old remittances of big chunks of cash or military power by the United States, Western Europe and the economically powerful areas of Asia, then it won’t work for long. It never has.
I often came back to thinking of the countries surrounding Israel, however. I still do, because the Arab world needs a completely new view of itself. Not the European view of 1637, the Russian of 1920, or the American of 1776 or even 1965.
It needs a clear and unique view of itself. This ongoing obsession with the Jewish state is a red herring. Deep down, we all know that. The Arab world must begin to reorganize itself on solid, philosophical principles when it comes to daily life, international relations and economic management, not Islam. Islam is a religion, not a school of accounting.
Still, it was not politics that had me in Jerusalem that night. It was Shabi. I had an overflowing bin of good and pulling memories about him and his family. This was what got me on the plane. He’d been asking me to visit, but more insistently when Tova walked out. I had been telling myself I loved him, and that it was time to fly to Jerusalem, to sit down and to listen.
At first glance, there was the same house. I was in the same living room.
This room was still your average Israeli family of 1989. It was still Tova holding Hagar in her arms watching an American or European movie with Hebrew subtitles. It was soda and popcorn from goofy monster Hebrew paper sacks. But the calm began to dawn on me.
The real change that hit me was in the kitchen. There were no spoons sitting on the counter with steaming food on them, no Israeli treats half eaten, still sitting on chocolate smeared napkins. No coffee ready to be made in two minutes for guests, with a few grounds spilled on the counter by an old silver spoon. The feeling of something not being there was less a large set of letters on a blackboard in front of my face as it was a harmless summer bug swirling near my head. Hardly noticeable, but it was there.
Looking into and around his face, I saw the friendly ghost of his ex-wife, Tova. She was still piddling around with supplies in the cabinets.
“I wish you had made it to Jerusalem before,” Shabi said, looking straight to my face.
He put his hand on the American cigarette box and moved them closer to himself. We were at the kitchen table talking.
“When Tova left, I was hoping you would be in Israel soon. It was a terrible time. I tried hard to find out what her problem was. I didn’t understand what she wanted, or what was wrong. The kids were good, the house was good. We had enough money. The sex was good. I tried and tried to talk to her.”
He set his hands in a questioning position and shrugged his shoulders upward.
It may as well have been me shrugging my shoulders, too. I knew nothing. Was that part of the reason Shabi wanted me to return to Jerusalem?
“I finally accepted Tova’s decision,” said Shabi. “I saw I was not going to change her mind. I said, ‘Okay,’” he lightly slapped his hand down on the surface of the table. “’If you want to go, go.’”
He had the floor. I sat looking at him like I was watching a rehearsal and would give my review at the end of the set. I didn’t mention anything about how I’d impulsively made the trip to Jerusalem, finally, or how some people were calling me crazy for making the trip when I did. Why would I? To inspire gratitude?
Looking at the man in front of me at the table, holding his pack of American cigarettes half-consciously, I felt that any talk with imagery of San Francisco would have been off. Too soon.
I do not think he realized how noticeable was his frequent grabbing of the pack to bring it either within his grasp, or to a different spot on the table. He didn’t have that nervous tic before. Why did he smoke American cigs now, anyway? What happened to the Israeli pack of Time?
I could not believe this was the same man I knew ten years ago. He kept talking.
“I gave her the money I had to give her,” he continued, leaning forward slightly. “I had to give it to her. There was no use arguing about it.”
He raised his hands to the air weakly.
“Now, some time has gone by. I am okay. No – I’m glad! My life is better alone, but…”
He paused to consider his next words about his youngest daughter. His eyes bore into my own for some seconds.
“Hagar is angry with her mother. She will not speak to her now. I told her, ‘Hagar, my dear, you cannot…’”
He let his eyes move downward for a moment to recall the moments of talking with his daughter. “…’Make separation…with your mother. You can’t do it. You have to make things alright with your mother.’”
I was looking at a home without Tova and seeing one too vague. I can’t remember a color or sound to it.
I can’t say Shabi uttered those few sentences about Hagar’s distancing from her beloved mom with satisfaction, but I could see it was nonetheless his one-inch of consolation. Why? Because for now. Hagar was sympathetic, sticking by dad. Those kinds of anger don’t last, but for a few days, they make the bruises hurt less.
But it was an artificial consolation to Shabi. I could tell that by his face as he talked. It didn’t fool me, and it didn’t even fool him, deep down. Even now, I wasn’t seeing an expression of distaste toward Tova or a disrespect of their years together. I thought I was seeing, rather, his satisfaction that some things were not winnable or touchable in a divorce. Hagar was it.When I was going to school in Jerusalem and staying with them all, adored Hagar was nine years old.
Shabi admitted that he had been tough with his kids as a policy. The chores had to be done carefully, and done on time. He felt it would be better preparation for life in Israel, which by that time had been in war with the Arabs after war backed by communists after war perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists. Wars and fights without end.
But Hagar was comparatively spoiled by both Shabi and Tova. She had her little schedule of household chores, tasks for the upkeep of the yard. But Hagar’s childhood was filled with play with her parents and siblings, and by games with her friends on the Moshav. I remember Shabi used to take Hagar with him on nearly every errand he had. She looked just like him, and she was always at his side. The olive, Iraqi skin. The thin build. The classic, almond-shaped, brown eyes. so typical of Baghdad. Daddy’s girl.
Tova would keep her tucked close, too. They would watch American and European movies dubbed in Hebrew many evenings with Hagar snuggled up with her on the couch. I remember the silly snack containers that would be lying on the coffee table. You didn’t have to read Hebrew to picture the buying scene at the grocery isle with Hagar and mom. All kids are the same this way, aren’t they? Their little hands up in the air, pointing toward some bright, cartoonized box. Penguins, dogs, elephants -- all depicted as wanting whatever it is inside the box.
“Where is Hagar, speaking of her?” I asked.
“She’s in India with Tamar. The traditional trip after leaving the military. Do you know?” he said.
“She will be home in some weeks. She’s having a good time.”
I suddenly threw my head back in laughter. “Wait. The same Tamar she used to play with all the time when she was little?”
“Hagar and Tamar. Tamar and Hagar,” I chanted.
I was glad we were laughing, but I’d already noticed a dim pattern since I’d been sitting with Shabi. He would begin with a statement of despair. I don’t remember the particular statements, but his shoulders would be slumped, his hands might be gesturing surrender, as someone who’s run out of good arguments. He would stay like this for five or six minutes.
Then, something would strike him as cheerful and he would snap into that mentality for a time. After all, there were four or five things nobody was noticing about this issue that were clear and colorful….Then, he’d drift into a state of distraction, mumbling something to himself in Hebrew, getting up, searching a kitchen drawer….Then, as if a light had clicked on, he’d proclaim something philosophical he forgot to mention about the passing of time, how some fact of life surfaced then submerged again like a submarine; how his children had become adults, the weird days after Tova moved.
We hear so much fluff about the victorious Israeli, but that’s all it is; a dinner table conversation at 3 a.m. that’s irrelevant to the day ahead in this floating country. Maybe a little of the Israeli is puffed up, but it never seems to last long if things aren’t right in the home. Everyone is the same this way.
Okay, I told myself, Shabi was alone now. Typical post-tragedy stuff, but I was no expert. I’d never been married. I knew it ruined some people, set others free as they’d never before been. Shabi was not yet 50.
We’d been talking for hours. We were yawning.
The Israeli took his sweater off the chair and put it on. After all this talk, he was cold. We talked more. We continued talking until four in the morning. Finally, he looked at the clock.
He hoisted my large suitcase from the living room through the door of Hagar’s room.
“I don’t know why you come to visit now after all this time. Yom Kippur is beginning tomorrow. We can’t go anywhere.”
He placed the suitcase near the wall. He straightened himself and looked at me.
“I remember Kippur. No, I didn’t think of the holidays when I got my ticket, and the travel agent didn’t mention it. They’d sooner mention Carnival then Kippur. But it’s alright. I can use the peace and quiet. I love being back in Jerusalem. I’m sorry about the outbreak of hostilities just now, though.”
“Bad for the economy, too. Do you know that I had my hotel rooms booked for these next two weeks and every single guest cancelled? I ordered some curtains from a man in The West Bank. I already paid for them. But now, he cannot deliver them. Everything is stopped. We all lose money. And more people will die,” he said, his voice trailing off as he lumbered into his bedroom.
I fiddled with my belongings. It was dinnertime for me in San Francisco, and I didn’t know how I would sleep.
There was a large photo of Hagar hanging on the wall. She was leaning forward on her right leg; hand on her hip, looking dynamic and chic. Her personality emerged from that picture, and, knowing Shabi and Tova, and the way the family was in ’89, it would be exactly the kind of photo of Hagar they would both want to show around the Moshav.
I fell into some sort of slumber, but it was the weird, otherworldly kind of sleep you get after a long, international flight.
I remember seeing people with shawls walking down the little streets. Shabi and I were driving to his parents’ home around the corner. We had gone there many times to eat a decade ago, always on Fridays.
We walked in and the first, most obvious differences were how attractive the children had grown up to be, and how old Shabi’s father now appeared to be.
He had memory, mobility and sight problems. He was 93 now. One eye had been clouded over since he was a young man because of an eye infection he’d had as a child in Iraq. Someone in the old Kurdish village used a folk remedy for an eye infection. It ended up clouding his eye over for life. The old Jewish Kurd was sitting at the head of the table in his Keepah and shawl nibbling at some bread.
As various family members straggled in, they hurriedly kissed him and his wife, who was puttering around in the kitchen. Just the sight of it brought memories of other Jerusalem families to my mind hurriedly. Memories of families where one member was a survivor of the European Holocaust, would sit silently at the table, and the rest of the kids learned to live normally around the living evidence of it for the rest of time.
That was not quite the story with this living room, though.
When I saw Shabi’s mother scramble into the dining room, I looked at her and smiled.
“Shalom,” I said. It was one of the few things I said to her, now or ten years before.
“Shalom,” she answered with a large smile. She motioned me to the table.
The Kurdish matriarch still wore a great deal of gold around her wrists and neck. She’d always had a kind of Kurdish look of wealth and status about her. Being old had not changed her look. Even with the variety of immigrants we have in the United States, I have yet to see an 86-year-old woman dressed like this in the streets of an American city. I doubt I ever will; the Kurds we do have here are probably quite modern in their habits. The old, tribal looks of Iraq are a lost, lost world for Jews. Not in books, perhaps, but in reality, it’s gone.
A tall, dark haired man with a cast on his right leg entered the room.
Even if he’d been in a full-body cast entering an auditorium full of men his age, he’d easily be the most noticed man by the women. It was Herzl, one of Shabi’s brothers.
When I was a student at The Hebrew University, my Israeli roommate in the dorm room, Rachel, nearly fainted when she saw statuesque Herzl. Thick, rich, curly hair. One of those chiseled faces that one sees so often in fashion magazines on male models that it doesn’t seem real.
I couldn’t help noticing my face reddening slightly. I never knew what to say to Herzl. Whatever the tint of my face, though, Herzl did not seem to notice anything except I hadn’t been at the table for ten years.
“Lurene! Shalom! It’s been a long time since you’ve been around. Welcome back to Israel.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling meekly.
I liked the small amount of Herzl’s architecture I saw in his houses. Why? Elegant.
Israeli architecture, according to the careful words I read of those who practiced it, gave me the feeling that Israel had arrived in the world, and that it was a state with something fresh and positive to say for itself.
Interestingly, Herzl had built his own family’s home with a large window facing the nearby Arab village. I had the idea that he wanted his kids to grow up being aware of the inhabitants of Israel – all the inhabitants of Israel.
Various third-generation members trailed in. One young man, Herzl’s son, gave all in the room a kiss. He stopped at me. His hair was tied back in a ponytail, and he had every bit of Herzl’s six-foot-something height. I couldn’t remember what he looked like when he was a boy.
“Do you want a kiss, too?” he smiled.
“Yeah,” I said. He gave me a fast kiss on the cheek. Herzl’s daughter was there, too. She was helping her father with his crutch. She only quickly smiled. She had no memory of me.
Shabi’s mother set a piece of pita in front of her husband who was sitting, weak and frail, at the head of the table. The Indian assistant, a woman who might have been in her early 30s, had assisted him in sitting down. Dimly witnessing the family festivities, he broke a portion of the bread and passed the rest of Shabi. Shabi took a portion and passed some to me.
“Bread. Bread. There is always bread we share, for all the history,” Shabi said in a low, matter-of-fact tone as he chewed.
This would be the food as I remembered it. A bowl of steaming red Kubeh soup was set on the table. Kubeh is a beat soup with leafy vegetables and semolina-coated meatballs. There was also a large dish of white rice glimmering with olive oil. I sat looking at the filling, delicately spiced Iraqi favorite.
A Kurdish Jew in Iraq
On the living room wall, there was that old photo of Shabi’s parents the day they married in Iraq, maybe in the late 30s. I’ve forgotten. Whenever it was, I knew life for a Kurdish Jew in Iraq had been a tightrope. When this couple brought themselves into a new Israel about 1951 or 1953, they would know for the first time relative political and economic security even though it was no American suburb in those days.
Iraqi Jews were significant both in the Mideast and in the complex mix of Jewish history. According to an article by the Wall Street Journal June 30, 2003, a high Mesopotamian priest in Babylon once “ruled as the supreme leader of Eastern Jewry.”
“Known as the Exilarch, he settled all disputes brought before him by Jews living as far away as India and Spain.”
The article reports the descendants of Iraq’s Jews today are in various areas of the globe.
“They include such influential business leaders as the Saatchis of London, the Kadorie family of Hong Kong, and the Jordache and Sassoon clothing clans of the U.S.”
Most of the Gamlielis were educated and carried inside themselves a sense of history and self-worth. There is more to the story of Iraqi Jewry, but to what extent Shabi’s family played a direct role in it, if any, I did not know. I did know that most if not all of those Jews who vividly remember Jewish life in Iraq are either dead or, like Shabi’s father, extremely old. There may be a small Jewish community still in Iraq, but I am not clear on this today.
I’m no historian of Jewish affairs, but if Iraqi society loosens up the chains of dictatorship, I think we will hear more about this significant population of Jews, scattered as they are today around the world. There are pockets in areas like Los Angeles and London, but an outsider like me needs to dig hard to find the stories. The fact that I can tell these stories about a few personal relationships with Baghdadis, like this one, put me at both an advantage, and a disadvantage, I’ve often thought. Disadvantage because people will expect me now to know things I don’t know. I have no prayers or poems from 1896 to tell.
Why should anyone care? I am not sure, but I did care. It wasn’t a waste of my time. They were from the land that had the Garden of Eden, or so the bible says. That’s at least a good starting point for an American.
“Go ahead, dear, eat while it’s hot. We don’t wait for a full table these days. We’ve become less formal,” Shabi said, bringing my mind back to the plate.
I noticed again the young, Southeast Asian woman helping Shabi’s father at the table. So much had changed since the Berlin Wall came down. Israelis now had Asian labor everywhere, though that did not exactly connect to events of a decade ago. The new workers were often from the Philippines, China or other areas of Asia.
Economically, it had consequences for Palestinians. The old “Arab work,” as many Israelis used to dismissively call it, was now done by these guest workers.
This economic shift was due to the policies of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian terror machine as far as I could see, as well as the smiling readiness of third-world labor to work in Israel without engineering violent political tantrums.
So, having gone through of all that, I was one of the few Americans in Jerusalem that night, or so people kept telling me.
I’ll never quite forget being at that table. It had a “now” feeling about it, and it gives that sensation when I recount it. New-age healers often advise their clients to focus on “now” when meditating. Is it not an inescapable fact that “now” is a distinct memory sometimes?
It might have been just that kind of now during those days in Jerusalem. I know because of the feeling I have when writing these words.
Shabi and I finished eating, and left the house. We found ourselves going to the home across the street from Shabi’s home, where his brother used to live with his wife before their divorce. Now, the lot had two homes, the new one built and owned by Herzl.
Shabi knocked at the door of Herzl’s former wife, Michal, who still lived in the older home. [Pronounced, Mik HALL] She greeted us at the door. She had white, shoulder length hair and was dressed in a combination of styles; her clothing was loose and inspired by a mix of 1990s India and 1960s Berkeley. Her jewelry was unique and handmade by her. It stood out for its unique shapes curling around her neck and dripping from her ears.
“Michal, you’re beautiful,” I said, giving her a hug while still at the entrance area of the home. I looked down at the multi-colored, hand-made rug on the floor. In fact, the rich colors of a rainforest at twilight were everywhere.
“That’s a lovely rug.”
“I bargained three days for it in Turkey,” she said softly, leading us into the living room.
She said this softly not because she was adopting a special tone to refer to the rug, but because this was her essence. Even though Michal had gained about fifty pounds since the days I saw her ten years ago, her music somehow remained. Now I understood why.
It was her way of moving, and the way her voice sounded like a low-toned renaissance harp. She may not have worked in radio, but she could have easily.
We all sat down in a sunroom at one end of the house. Michal brought us some local, red wine and set out a bowl of pistachios. We began to discuss politics as we looked out on small Arab village two or three hills over. What a window!
“Barak set a 48-hour ultimatum for an end to the violence,” said Michal.
“I heard,” I said, sipping my wine. “I think he issued that ultimatum, October 6, yesterday, while at the same time three soldiers were kidnapped by the Hezbollah on Mount Dov. I heard they were taken into Lebanon. Is that right?”
“I heard that, too. Then yesterday, the Palestinians attacked Joseph’s Tomb in Nabulus.”
I raised my eyebrows a bit. I hadn’t expected things to intensify quite this quickly, but I knew the least.
“It will die down,” Shabi said, leaning back in his seat. He waved his hand dismissively.
I was quiet for a few moments and then said, “Ultimatums. It could feed the fire, couldn’t it?” I popped a nut into my mouth.
What’s with the 48 hour thing, anyway? I have seldom heard of demonstrations that were quelled by statements like this, I thought privately. I was surprised Barak made that move.
I leaned back in the chair and looked at Michal. I wondered what happened between her and Herzl, but would never consider asking her about it.
“I normally would not be here for Yom Kippur and Succoth,” she said in her velvety voice. “I always traveled during the holidays. We were planning to go to the Sinai this year.”
She lit a cigarette. When the small flame arose from her lighter, I saw her large, mysterious eyes had not changed over eleven years.
I tried to turn the talk to American tabloids, to lighten the atmosphere. Maybe we were sick of politics. It was a special day, anyway, Yom Kippur.
Waving one hand like the airy Californian I was, and holding my wine with the other, I joked about American culture, quipping that Hollywood glamour girls who had breast augmentation were vain. I don’t remember how I’d skated over to that subject, but I thought it would lighten the air of the room.
“I don’t know. The surgeons worked wonders on me after my breast cancer operations,” she said calmly.
I hushed, and fast. I was afraid to show any shocked or morose expression, or to even continue joking. When I think back to this conversation now, I think I should have done it differently, asked her for a few details later about the cancer she evidently survived.
“So, you were talking about a trip to the Sinai? That’s exciting, Michal! Why aren’t you going?”
“Oh, no. I can’t go now. It’s too dangerous for an Israeli to go to Egypt right now,” she said, turning her face to Shabi. “I am so disappointed. The Sinai is incomparable. The Bedouins are wonderful people. All the plans had to be cancelled.”
“When the Palestinians make a demonstration, everything stops. It is bad for all the economies in the Middle East,” Shabi said.
“I wish we were complaining about the religious again,” Michal said smiling.
She was talking from the perspective of those in Israel who lived in a secular world. They casually complained about devoutly religious Jews. “Now, we’re hearing people say “Kill Arabs” again.”
Michal said she often heard the Moslem call to prayers from her home because the nearest Arab village was visible from some spots in the Moshav.
We continued talking for another ten minutes, but Michal showed me some of her hand-made work in jewelry. I would’ve have bought two or three pieces in a hot minute if I’d had the money on me.
Shabi and I left Michal’s home a few minutes later. She had no notion of how seriously the little chat had wedged itself in my mind. I made a big effort to hide my feelings about what I was seeing. It was a woman who’d already lost a portion of her chest smoking cigarettes. Why was she hastening her demise?
It was one of the mysteries of the trip, like so many, that I’d never answer.
It got to be eleven.
How did life get leaden?
Just minutes past,
I heard my music.
I couldn’t face the
Only goal my life
The goal of fire
Looking at the tree.
The Shapeless Nature of Free Will
Shabi and I, alone in the house, settled down to sleep through the holiday. He was in his room. I was in Hagar’s room.
I had my radio with me, and quietly explored around the bands out of curiosity. I was getting Arabic broadcasts, one or two in English. Nothing in Hebrew. Not on Kippur. All Israeli border crossings were closed, including Ben Gurion airport and the ports in Haifa and Ashdod. Public transportation wasn’t running.
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, and they fast. They spend the day quietly in bed, putting aside all business and social activities. I am not Jewish, but I at least know people don’t “celebrate” Kippur like they do Succoth.
When I think of the two times I have observed this day, I see it as time working a bit more visually, like the space on your kitchen table. That is, in your mind, you move the chunky items around a bit and you see what you didn’t before. “Ah, that’s what I was looking for!”
Days, months, jobs with their endings and beginnings may or may not have the same shape you saw for them before. For me, that’s the power of a day without food and media.
I’d always heard that if you’re visiting a Jewish home on this day, regardless of your religious beliefs, you’re not to be excluded or shut out of the house you’re visiting.
I think in practical terms, though, this probably applies to Israelis visiting other Israelis, or friendly foreigners visiting Jews.
I wanted to sleep now, but my cycle hadn’t left San Francisco. What a long, quiet night and day it was. I thought about everything surrounding me. The moon, the quiet. The night sounds around me, which is to say no sound at all. Jerusalem could get so quiet at night, and I could feel the complete solitude of the place, not what people imagined when back in the United States.
So much time to think. More time uninterrupted than I could get at home. In the United States, one is somehow always surrounded by a cartoon-like certainty of the future, always on its way toward you. You in particular, too. In America, there is this feeling we re given from childhood that a beam of light is around the next corner as the sun is rising. The culture is about “what could happen when…”
But here I was now in Israel, which symbolized more than just history; Israel was developmental centuries ahead of its poverty-mired, substantially undereducated Arab neighbors.
This was not the Jerusalem of prime-time news. It was much closer to the Jerusalem described in areas of the Old Testament, a city of contemplation about the thin air in front of you. What could my life be? What do I want it to be, and who is opposing my ideas of what it could be? One could imagine sitting here that right and wrong were concepts eternally undefined. Life waits patiently for substance from events, and human decisions.
In spite of the guidance provided by different standards of law, right and wrong are empty patches of air waiting for our ideas to fill them with yeses, nos and half-blind choices made in the quiet of the ancient city’s night. It is either the root of criminality or the clean air of freedom. The world never thinks of Jerusalem as containing the raw elements of freedom, but it always did and it does.
Freedom is not the thing we think we are trying to uphold every day to maintain in the United States by a material standard. Our material abundance is part of what we fill our freedom with. There is nothing wrong or immoral about material goods. No. But it’s not freedom itself.
How few ideas of our own creation we are born with! I don’t think it ever occurs to us because we are hit with so many purposive templates from the cradle on. Beneath those templates are the great, undiscovered vacuums every human being holds within. All these years, all these words, and only now did I have something concrete in mind about the true invisibility, danger, and shapeless nature of what we call free will.
I tried to fall off to sleep, but I couldn’t hope for much since my consciousness was adjusting to the time zone. I got into a state of pre-sleep, though. Because a good, healthy sleep never followed it and I instead sat up again, I wrote what I was seeing in my mind during that otherworldly holiday night.
It was a fuzzy, snow-like static when I closed my eyes, though there had been no bright light I was looking at before closing them. This snow-like image seemed to be surrounding me, or so I imagined….white, waved, broadcast-like veins seemed spaced evenly. When I closed my eyes, my entire field of black vision was taken, as if my eyes were open and these white static things were filling the room from ceiling to floor. Transparent, non-material, like light behaves sometimes.
In fact, perhaps this is what it was. A more substantial light. A heavy light. Why was it there? How did it happen? What interpretation, if any, ought I to have given it? How can I recall it? Thin, horizontal, waving columns, like sheep’s wool, or maybe thick clouds. Powdery but unreal….No, the more I thought about it, this imaginary substance behaved like a heavy light, staying in a rational configuration......
I don’t remember if I truly slept, but I found those notes in my suitcase and saved them. These were my thoughts, foolish as they may sound today, on Yom Kippur night in October of 2000.
Jerusalem, like other famous cities in the world, can be quite uneventful in day-to-day life. Let’s be plain: Jerusalem, just like Paris, Athens and San Francisco, has its mundane corners, too boring to merit attention.
October 8, 2000 could have been that kind of day. Shabi and I were walking around the popular Ben Yehuda area. We initially stopped by the small Arab village of Abu Ghosh, but everything had closed. Striding by, we nodded to an Arab storeowner of 50 years or so sweeping his front steps. His head remained cast down revealing his thick, ash-colored hair. His eyes met ours, but for only seconds. His sweeping seemed to lack purpose. It was like watching a dejected, but frightened man walking along, shuffling his feet.
I guessed he was ordered to close shop that day. He would certainly be losing money on this traditionally profitable day. I suspected he and other merchants were under threat of the Arab organizations directing this new Intifadah, like Hamas, and the PLO. But who knew?
We drove into town. Here in downtown Jerusalem, there were few tourists and only a few Israelis compared to the usual post-holiday crowds. It was nice for me because there were few long lines. Even the cafes had plenty of space if we would have wanted to enter one.
Shabi and I kept walking along. A man stopped and looked at us. He was young and had dark, silky hair. He was just the kind of handsome man in his early 30s who always caught my eye. He was laughing with his friends.
I heard some Russian. Looking at some merchandise, I turned my head and smiled. Wow! Was he ever handsome! Guys like that run into me at home in my dreams! I don’t know what I could possibly say to him, and I was thinking of what to say in Hebrew, or if I could remember anything more than the alphabet from my one Russian class so many years ago. (I took the class not so much because I was fascinated with speaking the language of the other side of the iron curtain, but because I was attracted to the bizarre-looking alphabet.)
Shabi then approached me from two storefronts back. The man’s eyes widened, then narrowed. His warm expressions disappeared. He looked terrified, but aggressive, too. His tone now reminded me of a young father trying to protect his 13-year girl.
“He’ll kill you. He’ll kill you!” the man said loudly. With his friends surrounding him, he mimed a knife moving aggressively across his throat. “Come with us. Please. Please don’t stay with him.”
He stretched his arm and hand out to me. A nervous, tight arm and hand. I stood in the middle of the street, immobilized. My mouth was open.
He reached out his hand toward me. “Come with us now. Please! This man will kill you. I am telling you!”
Shabi was a handsome man by any standard. He had the classic features seen on the streets of Baghdad. Rich, olive-toned skin. Prominent nose, thin build, silky dark hair with a slight sweep of gray. He was naturally affectionate, and demonstrative, like most Iraqi Kurds in Israel I’ve ever met. Now, I had to watch him being abused on a Jerusalem street, treated like a criminal. Shabi? I was watching this man who virtually took care of me when I was a student ten years ago?
How could the Russian-speaking man do it, and even more, how was I watching this now without comment? How?
Some gesture Shabi had made on the street had set this seemingly charming man off, had turned this handsome, raven-haired bachelor from the picture of a spring-like day to something like a gathering tornado sky in the American Midwest. I was too stunned to do anything whatsoever about it. It tackled me now, this new world. I hadn’t arrived ready to see this. What I was supposed to do?
This man, who assumed Shabi was Palestinian, was trying to shield me. He thought I was a tourist about to make a grave mistake just days after the outbreak of new riots.
Shabi said nothing. He just stood there in the street, smiling. He reached his arm out modestly, motioning me to snap out of my shock and disbelief and come along with him. Pay no mind to this man, he was saying with his outstretched arm.
The young Israeli, still surrounded by his Russian-speaking friends, who now were helping him, finally let his arms drop in resignation.
“I tried to help you,” he said half to me, half to his friends. I walked on with Shabi, stunned and quiet.
I think back to that scene today and I think of two startlingly different worlds that were not truly there except in our minds and our memories. In our vast panic, they were all too there. The sheltered world free from terror that the young Russian thought he was offering, and the world that man probably once lived within and was trapped within, quite opposite me in the old Soviet Union.
After all, I have another innocent face that comes to my mind when I recall that day in Jerusalem, but this one on photo paper. Politically innocent as he was then, at least.
The picture was taken by San Francisco photographer Lloyd Francis of Anatoly Sharansky, as he was known around the world then. He was standing with a group of protestors in front of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco in 1984. People were holding signs reading, “Let Our People Go.” It was a reference to Soviet Jews being held from crossing borders to emigrate. It’s odd to think back today that there ever was such a thing as a Soviet Jew, and that they were captives of Soviet power until communism faded. Natan Sharansky was a famous Soviet dissident in that era.
By 2000 when I was revisiting Israel, I think Sharansky had a seat in the Israeli Knesset.
What was unbelievable to my ears was to have gotten used to thinking of him as a prisoner of international circumstances, as a lifelong victim of dictatorship, and then to see him arguing in the Knesset with lawmakers who did not agree with his views, and to see him having to be elected to maintain his history as a hero – in a way. But this is the flash, cartoon way I was seeing it in late 2000.
The natural process that takes place with political change. Mr. Sharansky, like all people, became a twig in a rampaging river in the wake of the post-1989 changes. He arrived in Israel a symbol of freedom, and is today a debater with others legitimately opposing him. It’s almost funny.
Men like Sharansky may steer their own course to some extent, but clearly, it’s not possible to determine the entire course. Things get more challenging after the attainment of freedom. One’s flaws are recognized. I remember this young man on the 2000 Jerusalem street the way I remember Sharansky, in some way. As an American, I can’t stop the association.
I also can’t suppress another memory when I try to write about that day in Jerusalem.
In that same period of the Cold War when I was a student journalist in the Bay area, I interviewed a Soviet diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in that San Francisco building with another area photographer, Howard Ford. We were thrilled to have the permission to visit the Soviet diplomat, Gennady German, at the consulate. It was to run in The Chabot College Spectator. The interview went okay, but yielded no real news. The news was that we got the interview at all. The man we spoke with, of course, was not from a democratic system and was not free to say anything he wished to say. We knew that.
It’s more than safe to say that, like Sharansky, that man pictured in my collection may exist, but not as the man we photographed in the Cold War 1980s.
Now, I especially wondered who that man who thought he was “saving” me from murder by a terrorist was in those years, and who he was that day with Shabi nearby. I didn’t doubt the fact that he’d honestly been trying to help me, but did he not realize that Jews come from multiple continents, including Arab countries? Clearly, he did not. The new Intifadah had begun just days – virtually hours -- ago.
I turned my head to Shabi as we walked away and started to say something, but his face was set. He was now pretending nothing had ever happened.
Shabi never commented on that scene. Worst of all, I had to live with the idea that day of how open and attracted I had been for the first minute or so to this handsome Israeli from Russia. Forget Shabi!
The Russian man was from a time and place an American couldn’t see for a good deal of the 20th Century – the Soviet world. The fantastic face he had, the mannerisms, there was that “something extra” pulling me I still don’t want to admit, and it’s from a great deal of my own American history. He was the man, in the abstract, I was never allowed to know, and never will know. It’s no longer possible.
What was I thinking? I had to picture myself on the plane again, walking from San Francisco’s Financial District, all because I wanted to see this Baghdadi and nothing else was good enough at that moment. I hadn’t cared about anything else when I got onto that plane to fly over the rioting streets of Belgrade and land in the rioting land of Israel. Nothing else mattered.
I still can’t bring myself to tell this story in conversation. I wonder who I think I am sometimes. It may take two and three and four decades before a scene like that on the streets of Jerusalem becomes impossible, though.
We like to think our personal lives are a separate thing from international affairs. But that’s never true. Never, never, never!
Iraqi Jews, as Shabi is, are a community within Israel with one of the most clearly recorded, significant histories in Judaism, but even in Israel, new immigrants arrived, Jewish or not, from places like the old Soviet Union almost completely uneducated about Jewish history, or any other. Or maybe they are simply unaccustomed to an unthreatening life. I can’t help noticing they’re lost sometimes.
This chunk of the consequences of the end of the great Cold War was playing itself out clearly within all parts of the world, I now saw – and in the midst of the new Intifadah, of all venues!!!
I wanted to know that new Russian-Israeli! I still wonder what his life had been. Were his thoughts anything like mine once were about Russia? Dismal and set? Convinced things would always be as they were?
But this abrupt event also demonstrated more clearly than anything what life Shabi lived as an Iraqi Kurd in Israel, and how endless conflict with Arabs manifested itself on the streets of Jerusalem between its residents. It’s right in your face if you’re on the streets of Jerusalem.
Maybe our brains are too feeble to demonstrate complete non-prejudice in the midst of violence, when we suspect there may be just seconds. I’ve noticed that over the years about all societies, and absolutely about all battlefields, be they virtual or literal.
I awoke the next morning and saw Shabi taking on the phone in the kitchen. I wandered around the back yard looking at the pool, the olive tree, flowers. Shabi had always been meticulous in the way he maintained his property. It was as if he was always expecting his guests to traipse strait from his door to the doors of the local media to give quotes and pictures away about his home. More on that later….
I think this frantic cleanliness was mostly habit, the way he was raised, the way he was used to seeing things at home when growing up. I never asked Shabi or his siblings the details of their childhoods, though. Not much, at least.
I do not today recall how I spent that morning as it turned into an early afternoon, but I remember growing sleepy. I lay down on Hagar’s bed sometime around 2 or 3, but wasn’t genuinely sleeping.
I heard the door swing open. I snapped my head up and saw an armed young man in Israeli army fatigues staring at me, slightly confused. He stood like that for about ten full seconds staring at me. Then, he quickly shut Hagar’s door and disappeared.
It was Yeriv, Shabi’s silent son.
I walked into the kitchen. Yeriv’s weapon was on the table because he had thrown it down to the table as soon as he was in the kitchen. This is one thing I grew accustomed to in the old days, doing a lot of normal things, like chewing nuts, in the presence of a long military weapon sitting on a table or a couch. It’s hard to imagine a house in, say, Lansing, Illinois being this casual in the presence of military weapons. You began to ignore it.
No matter what’s sitting on the kitchen table, though, the most important thing in any family’s house is the relationships it contains. That old idea came right to my head when I saw now the respectful way Shabi stood in the presence of his son, and the way Yeriv’s posture seemed posed to truthfully explain his day to dad.
“Hi Yeriv! I guess it took you a few seconds to recognize me. It took me five or six seconds, too,” I said with a smile.
“It’s been a long time since you’re in Israel, Lurene,” he said.
That was all he said to me, too.
Strange, but anyone who really knows Yeriv would know it’s the only thing he’d have been likely to say. If I were to write here a long and interesting series of quotes between myself and Yeriv, Israelis who know him would know right off I was lying.
I never knew Yeriv Gamlieli, never really spoke to him, even in 1989. Yeriv was the least verbal son in Shabi’s family, as far as I knew. He didn’t discuss how he felt about things, or give an impression of like or dislike when in conversation. He seemed, at least to my glance, wholly dedicated in his service to the Israeli military. He was one of those rare-in-any-country one-woman men, too. The girlfriend he had in ’89 was the girl he married. Her name was Yaffat.
What Yeriv thought about the start of the new Intifadah, his parents’ divorce, his life in the military, the price of tea in Tel Aviv, I’ll never know. It’s the way Yeriv was. Well-mannered, civilized, and silent.
Men like that remain men like that to the day they lose consciousness for good, no matter what language they speak. If I think of him these days at all, I remember him as a recognizable Israeli type; the clever Baghdadi survivor who’s smarter than you think he is and hides it. What business is it of yours, anyway?
Not all Israelis are that way, but I’ve met a number of them who are hidden by nature and, for that reason, I’ll never quite know them. Neither will you, exactly.
Being Christian and American, as I am, is like a life-long festival when set against other ways of living in the world, but there are other festivals. I always thought Americans, especially if secular-living, should take the trouble to attend them now and then.
Why? It broadens your brief awareness on earth. You will not compromise your secular lifestyle. In fact, you may even appreciate your own days more fully, whatever they may mean. Holidays are windows of understanding.
The holiday I’m discussing in this case is Succoth. This is the week Jews construct and eat in outdoor booths called Sukkas. It’s a harvest holiday that reminds me vaguely of the American Thanksgiving because it is an agricultural festival. It is focused on food. Modern Jewish society is sooner recognized for financial and academic professions, but ancient Jewish societies are another story.
The holiday’s booth has at least three walls made of whatever material the celebrants choose, plastic usually in this modern era, and the roof is constructed with cut vegetation. In the Moshav, this meant leaves and branches picked up from the surrounding grounds. Succoth is considered a social week, and it is usual for the Israeli family to host visitors one evening, and to be guests for another family the next night.
I remember small crowds eating under the Sukka, political debates and jokes being fired back and forth from animated diners. If it is not raining, kids sometimes like to camp under the Sukka with their little friends during the 7-day festival.
Sukkoth is an opportunity to meet people; at least it was for me as a visitor. Shabi’s mother, with assistance from other women in the family, prepared the large meal as she always had. We all sat to eat more Koober and share bread.
Israelis can’t escape politics. The meal was buzzing with talk of separation from the Palestinians by way of a wall. I remember that because of the animation and gestures of the debaters as their food steamed in front of their faces. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. My Hebrew was never good enough to make sense of an impassioned political discussion. I remember hearing the name Golda Meir, though, and seeing hands gesturing a separation. I do not want to speculate on the conversations that Sukkoth night.
It got me thinking in predictable circles, though. Seeing his hand gesture, I couldn’t help thinking of the Berlin Wall that fell while I was a student in Jerusalem from 1989 to 1991. I’ll never forget the day. I ran out to the streets expecting to see crowds of some sort. There was no crowd, though. In reality, you can’t compare such events.
The Arab world is eager to step into another historical light, though, so we are going to continue to hear phrases like “Apartheid wall” or “Jerusalem’s Berlin Wall.” Not to imply one can’t have legitimate debates about such a wall, because it is, no matter what you want to call it, a serious diplomatic development. I am only saying here that it is not bearing the boots of South Africa’s Apartheid, dictatorial Russia, wartime Korea, European fascism or 1932 Selma. Bogus comparisons cloud thought. False analogies, spurious allegations, and foolish insults set the Palestinians back.
Yasser Arafat was sure no Nelson Mandela.
Some of Shabi’s brothers were under the Sukka branches. Over a table with rice glistening with local olive oil, freshly sliced onions and steaming Koober, I saw Avner, Shabi’s brother, vigorously making a case to his brother Herzl on the other side of the table. Was that his name? Or was he Avraham? Whoever he was, he was speaking amplified Hebrew. His eyes changed expression with every half-sentence, or so it appeared to me from not quite three yards off.
Judaism is the religion of words and images conveyed over centuries of history -- the image of Jewish tribes crossing the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s Egypt, the image of stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, and so on. In this sense, I’ll never erase the image of the wild gestures being made over the Succoth table regarding the wall. During all of this, there were the traditional rituals and prayers being said at the head of the table where Shabi’s father was sitting. His wife was to his right. Another of Shabi’s brothers, the oldest one, Nahum, was to his right in a white Keepah.
I watched Nahum bending down to kiss his father’s hand. To me, it looked ancient and mysterious. He was about five feet six and had whitish hair cut close to his scalp. I never noticed him laughing. He was usually either quiet, or enunciating a direct point in especially precise wording. He was articulate; I did not have to perfect my Hebrew to understand that.
That’s why I was confused when, before the final portion of the meal was served inside the house, Shabi approached me, stretched his hand toward this same man, and said in a loud voice, “Lurene, sit here. This is Nahum. Nahum is a very important man to know.”
I looked at Shabi for a moment, then turned my head to his brother and said hello. He invited me to sit by him, as Shabi just had, so I did.
We proceeded not to talk to one another while sitting together for the next 20 minutes or so. Nahum talked to one of his brothers on his right, and I watched the news in front of me on television, which was broadcasting pictures of the Intifadah as it continued to unfold. I did not know why Shabi introduced his brother as “important” and I did not know why I should care. When we were ready to go, I began to follow Shabi to the car.
“Lurene, say goodbye to Nahum,” he said.
With a pastry in my hand, I turned around and looked at Nahum. He was in conversation and didn’t seem even to realize I was leaving.
“Oh, bye Nahum,” I said, swallowing some food.
I did not step forward to shake his hand and barely looked at him any further. I came to Jerusalem to see Shabi. Not his brother.
I didn’t realize, however, that I had been seated next to Nahum because Nahum had requested it from Shabi. This brief meeting with Nahum would turn out to be one of the most important – and disastrous – for me, personally, in this fateful trip to Jerusalem.
Shabi dropped me off in downtown Jerusalem one day shortly following Succoth. Now that I reflect on the issue, every trip to a foreign land I’ve ever taken includes a memory of aimlessly wandering world famous streets, seeing a lot of people who seem to have nothing pressing to do. They are just out wandering to see what happens.
In such hours, which I never seem to record, new sights and sounds present themselves to my mind of their own accord, using as they do their own means of transport.
One thing that always gets the attention of the traveling American is the sight of foreign families and the vastly different way they relate to one another as compared to American families. I found myself looking at the way Ultra Orthodox Jewish men talked with each other on the streets of Jerusalem; I am not an expert on Israeli religious affairs, of course, but sometimes the men I would watch would argue passionately for minutes at a time, strenuously. If I were to study them a little more, I would be interested in learning more about how Ultra Orthodox men resolve problems between one another. Everything from small financial debts to major weddings involving somewhat incompatible families.
Once or twice when wandering the streets there I would ponder for just a few moments the idea that millions of these arguments, pointless or not, were wiped out in Europe and I wonder what some of them were. I also wonder if they float invisibly somewhere among us. During the editing of this memoir, my nephew, Drasil Helzer, reminded me that another idea remains: Can one truly kill a human argument before it is resolved? Does it not always raise itself again?
“Don’t go to Damascus Gate today, please,” Shabi said as I got out of the car, looking me straight in the eye.
“I know. I know. They’re burning American flags in Damascus,” I said, setting off with a wave of my hand. I was dismissing his advice. I wanted to see more arguments in the streets I couldn’t understand.
When I think back to this gesture now, I think of how stupidly self-confident I was. “I know, I know” always turns to, “I wish I’d known.”
I walked and wandered in Jerusalem. I think I took a photo of a Nigerian man in a stunning, white suit as he sat reading a newspaper. I spoke with random young men, who always seemed to approach me if I paused at a window front, as I passed by an outdoor café, as I strolled on a nearly deserted Ben Yehuda street. The weather was clear and mildly warm.
Yet, it was not so crowded. This is one of Jerusalem’s most traveled streets by pedestrians on temperate days like this. I can’t adequately describe the oddity of seeing it virtually deserted near high noon. I thought of seeing New York’s Times’ Square with two billboards, its dressed mannequins in store windows looking at you, but few real eyes.
I entered one store, but had to allow the security man at the door to search my purse and coat. One naturally doesn’t want to go through this more than a few times unless on a serious shopping spree, so I didn’t enter many buildings.
The most pleasant sight that afternoon was in a park. Two people on horses rode leisurely past me. I liked the sight of it, and liked thinking about people walking past me enjoying the scene, too. Jerusalem frequently offers such scenes.
By and by, I first found myself standing about 150 yards in front of the Western Wall. I looked at it from that distance for about 15 minutes. That is what people come here to see, to do. They want to think about whatever they need to contemplate in front of the Western Wall. Their lives, their choices, their consequences. I could not help contemplating, too, but on that day, I could not keep on the subject. It was like hearing two drunken men argue about the California tax code inside my head. I don’t even remember what I was thinking outside that; I do not want to lie and claim I had great thoughts about the world because I was at Jerusalem’s sacred site. I tried, and nothing came. So here I was at the Western Wall, my eyes temporarily resting on the Ultra-Orthodox men in black hats leaning forward and back. Eventually, I snapped out of my trance and left the sunny area. I began wandering through the old city. My eyes were so attracted by the sights in souvenir-stuffed stalls that I was not watching my direction.
Then, the music started to change. The cheesy attractions in the stalls changed, too. The street became a dark, narrow alley. Very dark. It was two in the afternoon on a sunny day ten minutes ago….
Arab men started shouting at me as I walked past. Some nearly pulled me into their small closet stores by the collar, making comments about my features, my desirability, making it seem my only choice was to enter their store. There were hands grabbing at my clothing every three seconds.
It’s a strange feeling to be American in East Jerusalem, lost in this chaotic part of the city. These are not streets in the American sense of the term, even though this is what they’re called. This was the so-called “Arab Street.”
To me, the expression “Arab Street” was another way of intimating there was no such thing as accountability in the Arab world. No such thing as political independence. Have you ever walked on an undemocratic street? Some of us never quite have. Some Europeans know something about this, though.
I wonder what it’s like for them to visit a place like East Jerusalem. To be forced, if only for a few minutes, to revisit some aspects of the culture of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century.
But I guess that’s another issue because there I was that day. The Cold War was over and this was some of what was left of the shrinking, old world. The protests of Palestinians against Israelis are not only the closest thing the Arab world can claim to free political expression, but are the shrinking slave world, still open for exploration.
I was now among the enslaved, for lack of better terms. I need to emphasize that inarticulate concept strongly because it could be that someone in my family four generations out will be reading this, will wonder what it was like to walk in such a world.
As I write this portion in 2005, I have to remind tomorrow’s reader that Arabs were making their opinions public for the first time ever as I walked in Jerusalem that day, when and if they could properly vote, that is. The Arab world was trained for total obedience, not independence. Thus, when I hear, Arab Street, I hear the fact being confirmed that free expression was far, far down the horizon for the average, or even the educated Arab man.
Arab women? Oh, forget most women! If free expression was a far horizon in those years, gender equality was their unrealized space age.
Yes, the Arab Street, and here I was, lost. Lost!!
“Shit,” I said to myself silently as I looked around myself. Why do I always do this?
Last I checked I was strolling along Ha Shalshelet in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s old city. What was I daydreaming about? My cat? What I was going to eat next week? The price of coffee in today’s Fillmore?
Whatever it was this idiot was not thinking, I’d wandered rightward without looking. Now, I was on Suq El Khawajat, maybe 125 feet into the Muslim Quarter, close to the boundaries of the Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters.
Unless I turned around, I was going to have to walk through a good portion of the Arab Suq to reach the Christian Quarter, which I could have reached by turning left on Aqabat Es Saraya. The portion of Christian history I would be facing would be just as foreign to me as this, though. I would be near Greek Orthodox houses of worship, an Ethiopian Coptic Monastery and a Lutheran Church, all of which I knew the same amount of nothing about. Christians like me don’t know Christian history.
It doesn’t matter, though. I wouldn’t have made it right then to the Christian or Armenian Quarter, anyway. I couldn’t turn around; I was surrounded with the consequences of my own idiocy.
Suq El Khawajat is dark and paved in stone as streets were in past centuries. The market stalls were just feet wide. One man, old and hunched over, tried to lure me into his closet-like shop with a piece of bread as if I was a passing bird. This was a way Arab shopkeepers tried to lure customers. I remembered just then, in that hall-like street in which I was now trapped, that American flags were burning just this moment in Damascus.
I thought about how one can recognize Americans on a foreign street by their jaunty walk; I could not hide now. My heart quickened, my breaths grew shallow. I darted into one of the stalls just as I felt a hand desperately grab my shoulder.
A man lunged at me, pulling my body close to him in a bear hug. He started kissing my face.
“Quit! Stop!” I said, trying to remove myself from his arms.
“I am so happy you are here! Give me your hand,” said the stout, Arab man, looking to be about 55. He was in tattered sandals and clean-shaven.
He grasped my hand then pulled me into another suffocating bear-hug attack.
“Please, step back! Get away!” I screamed, backing up.
“I love you. You come to my store! I love you!”
“If you love me you’ll show me a seat and give me some tea so I can stay a while and look at your merchandise. We’ll talk,” I blurted out.
I looked around the small store like a foreigner with souvenir money to burn. It was the only strategy I could think of at the moment. I had to protect myself. It’s hard to believe I was doing this again, but I had just 120 Israeli shekels, or about $30. I couldn’t buy a night in a hotel room, a gun, a tank of gasoline, or even life insurance. Now, for the first time in my life, I understood the true value of negotiation skill. Deal or die. That is life sometimes. No wonder the Jews are still known for finance; they negotiate and survive. It’s about bargaining, not money. This is the way I view it today.
But, again, this was October of 2000, Jerusalem’s oldest Arab streets and merchants. The pot-bellied man fumbled with a small aluminum saucepan of water and his haphazard supply of tea. He was scared and excited that I was here.
I quickly devised a strategy. I knew asking for tea would convince him he could calm down. I was intending to stay for a while, he would tell himself, to do business the old Arab way. The way it was done before these current hostilities, at least.
Just then, a tin canister flew from the poor man’s hands and to the dirty floor. An assortment of hard candies flew out in different directions. He threw his worn hands up. His face wore nothing but fear.
“Oh. I’m so sorry. I was going to offer you some candy with your tea. I’m so sorry, sorry so much,” the man whispered, nearly in tears. He was picking up candies from the ground.
“Please, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t going to accept any candy, anyway. I don’t care for it right now. Can I sit on this stool while I look around at your lovely merchandise?” I said.
The man stood up straight and looked at me square. “Sami Sharabati,” he said, smiling widely.
“Okay, Sami. I’ll be kind of slow in making up my mind. Hope you don’t mind. Don’t burn yourself on my account.”
Sami stood with the jar of tea in his plump, brown hands. His clothes were too worn and his sandals looked at least five years old. His large brown eyes looked at me mournfully, though he didn’t seem aware of having that mournful look. This made it all the more intense, somehow. I was probably the only American he’d seen wandering the dark passages of Souk el Khawajat since the start of these new riots. But here I was, sitting in his shop, on his tattered stool, even saying I wanted to look at his merchandise! I might buy something!
Sami set down a fresh, steamy cup of tea on the counter near me. I was well covered by my clothing. Now I was thankful for that, even though I was looking at the clean, white fabric of my coat touching the filthy floor. The truth was, I had worn clothing more modest than usual not because I’d planned to wander along Khawajat, but because I thought I might be wandering among religious Jews. The ultra orthodox were sensitive to everything around them, as tourist guides were quick to point out. I was still thinking of steps for negotiation.
“I’m not bothering you too much, Sami? I know you must be busy these days.” It was the old game of making a statement the opposite of what the truth is, and forcing the other person to admit the obvious.
Sami looked at me with slight surprise.
“Business is terrible. We’re almost starving when tourists don’t come.”
I paused for a moment to think about what best to say.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have known. See any change coming?”
Sami turned his head to his shelves, moving small items around. “I don’t know,” he said in a small voice.
I let fifty seconds pass while my eyes roamed the shelves. With each passing five seconds, I began to feel more secure. We were talking about merchandise now.
“I sure like the robe up there. Hey, what about those rugs? No. No. Not those ones. The little, colorful ones there. I’ve got to send these abroad, you know.”
We discussed all sorts of items. I didn’t have nearly enough money, but as long as I talked about it for a while, then purchased something, he wouldn’t feel like he was wasting his time, and I could delay walking back out to the old street.
I also wanted the surrounding shopkeepers to see me talking business in their commercial neighborhood.
After 45 minutes or so, I finished my tea and purchased a wall tapestry, small and inexpensive. He gave me his card before I left at 4 p.m. – high time to get going with things being what they are. I don’t want to get caught in the old city as night fell.
But the merchant wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet. As I stood with my right hand on my hip and my handbag over my shoulder, Sami painstakingly showed me every postcard he’d ever received from a Western tourist. There were all kinds of cards. Old tourists from England, France, Australia, the U.S.
“Please send postcard when you get back. Please. I want to put it up here with the other postcards,” he said, his hands out in demonstrative gestures toward the collection. “Here is my business card. Here, take it and put it away. Don’t lose or forget,” he said.
“I won’t, Sami,” I promised, walking out.
My strategy of trying to establish myself as a woman who had clear business with this particular shop might have worked, because I was able to slip out of old Jerusalem’s Arab quarter completely undisturbed. Some merchants raised their eyes at me as I left, but that was all they did.
When I think of Islam these days, I think of two categories of Moslems. The first image is of the working man like Sami. Assuming he is what he appears to be, I can bargain with Sami. I can understand Sami, and he can understand me.
The second image is the man full of hate, a real citizen of no country, Arab or otherwise. One can try doing business with him, but I wouldn’t advise it. He’s in the process of destroying everything many of his countrymen have tried earnestly to achieve since the 1920s.
What this second Moslem’s passport says has no ideological meaning for him, so it shouldn’t for us. He’s a citizen of the borderless, non-geographical nation of militant Islam. It may even become an increasing presence in the 21st Century – holding office, determining the course of elections. One day, it may even have a seat at the United Nations, if the organization still exists on that day.
It’s a wild, seemingly paranoid idea, but it’s not outrageous to think it when an organization like Al-Qaeda has so much sympathy in the Mideast and North Africa and even within some political movements in the United States and Europe.
Al-Qaeda is only part of the story. Who would have predicted in January of 1979 that Iran would be a revolutionary Islamic state by 1980?
We need to take Islam seriously and not make the mistakes we made with the rise of Communism. By 1950, that gutter ideology and that unintelligible book by Karl Marx took over half of Europe.
We in the West have a problem in late 2000. It’s not unwise to view an organization like Al- Qaeda taking their seat through blackmail one day at the United Nations, to see our diplomats having to shake their blood-soaked hands. Nor is it unwise to project the coming rise of some new kind of anarchy. Yes, anarchy. An extra-governmental movement that revivifies an unenlightened world. Let’s at least be clear on what that means.
It’s not that 7th Century laws don’t work. In the sense that campfires will cook hot dogs as completely as microwaves, these systems of government actually do work.
They’re inadequate for the demands of the modern Arab, though. Put Western civilization aside for a moment: Why are these dictators perpetually providing horses for their own freeways? Is this an exaggeration? Maybe, but only “maybe.”
I like what the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said in 1930 in his work Revolt of the Masses. He said reality “hesitates, walks up and down, and is uncertain whether to decide for one or another of various possibilities.” Gasset was reminding readers then that anything could happen. It’s still true. It’s never too late for the Arab world.
It’s the idea of Israel being a cancer in Islam’s heart that is a red herring. Oh, it will be the Arab world’s incessant excuse, but they can’t survive philosophically as is. It's always the same story: Some terrorist group makes a threat or kills crowds of people. This has happened multiple times by October of 2000 and the Arabs get the same amount of nowhere through this road. Something explodes, and we react. That reaction is a false direction for today’s Arab. That's what we need to recognize. Not to imply one victim is more worthy than another, but most victims of terror in those years were other Arabs.
What those newly freed dictatorial regime residents want is someone who can look at the virtual abstract painting that is their new future and define it for them. To explain the green canvas with a black square painted in the middle at the European art museum, that big space looking back at them. It terrifies some.
Today is a fill-in with the contents of your mind world. It’s a world that allows viewers to come to mutual agreement on the existence of phantoms, things and concepts that were never really there in the classic sense. It’s a new world of staged truth. The burden is on the audience to suspend disbelief in the right areas, and create it in others. This is the modern world we die in, the air we’re not able to leave. The pressure is terrible.
Where do the mobs in the streets of Baghdad think they’re getting when they rip off their own art?
Arab leaders fear nothing as much as they do the idea of Israel moving to Madagascar and Moslems the world over waking up and realizing they’re dirt poor, uneducated, and inhabiting some of the world’s worst slums.
Terror organizations, or governments like that of Iran, would rather hide from their own brothers than talk.
All the other components of a successful civilization – an economic system, diplomatic talent, an assortment of strong, reliable allies, a sense of humor -- are not things they can do with their present structures. They deserve more from themselves.
Leaving the old city, I hurried to the place where the bus going to Amminidav was picking up. When it arrived, I dug in my purse and found that I only had four shekels. It wasn’t enough for bus fare.
I looked at the driver, a thin man in his 30s who seemed eager to get on with things.
“I’m sorry, but it seems I’m a little short of fare. Can I just deposit an extra amount the next time I ride the bus? I need to get back to Amminidav.”
“Too bad! If you don’t pay fare, you don’t ride,” he snapped, closing the door quickly. He sped off down Jaffa Road like a New York cab driver on New Year’s Eve.
I stood for a few moments with my eyes wide and my jaw hanging open. Now what?
I had enough for a phone call, so I went to a pay phone near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and called Shabi. Thank Universal Circumstance again and again and again that he was near the phone.
“Shabi! I’m stuck downtown. I ran out of money and can’t get on the bus. The guy wouldn’t let me on.”
Shabi sighed. “Alright. Take a cab here. I’ll wait.” #
When I got back to Shabi’s home he was irritated with me. Had I explained the reason I let myself get so low on shekels, he might have thought about the fact I was calling him at all. But I never explained, or so my notes indicated.
The reason I didn’t want to tell him is because he’d specifically warned me not to go to Damascus Gate. I didn’t want “to be told I’d been told.” After all, I then reasoned, I did not go through Damascus Gate. I mistakenly entered the Arab quarter through another route. I’d been careless. I wasn’t watching my direction.
Had I mentioned this to Shabi, he would have had to spend the next hour lecturing me on how I could have been killed and don’t you know what’s happening in this country and what did you think you were doing and who did you think was supposed to help you….? I don’t know what else. He would have been right, though. The old city is not nearly as dangerous as Gaza or the West Bank, but it still wasn’t a place to wander in October of 2000.
To be fair, though, I don’t think anyone would have been indifferent to the news of what I’d done that day. If it had been my mother, she would have called me “dumb as grass.” If Shabi had known, I might have learned some novel Hebrew words that night.
A great number of the world’s Moslems are not interested in becoming enmeshed with terrorism, and do not share the ongoing hatred by the Arab world of Israel and Jews.
With journalism being what it is, however, and news consumption abbreviated, relatively reformist Arabs will continue to be lumped in with radical Islam by most of the world’s population.
How could it be different? They’re today a hopelessly weak force, unseen in documents and unheard on mainstream news reports. Even in the West. In the disputed zones, seeing a charred body hanging from a commonly-used commuting bridge is all you need to know on a Tuesday morning.
But one can be optimistic. We can assume there is a judicious segment of Arab society that exists, and hear their non-substantiality like we hear the silence between two notes in a tragic opera. We can presume intent to the deliberately unplayed sound.
This is what they have to continue and surpass. I honestly believe enlightenment is possible for the Mideast. Possible. Moslems are capable and reasoning as other people the world over.
Riad Adame was a taxi driver when I met him in downtown Jerusalem in 1989. We started talking and became friends. He was at the time unmarried and not particularly involved in the Intifadah that was going on.
Not that he discussed his beliefs with me. He simply was not very involved in politics as far as I could tell. He was a Moslem, perhaps only religious in the sense that so many Americans are active in Christianity. They celebrate Christmas with trees and presents, Easter with colored eggs, but go to church only when a wedding invitation comes along.
I took the trouble to see him while visiting Jerusalem because these are probably the kinds of Arab men who are worth the trouble. I was not in such agreement with Mr. Adame, mind you, but believed he was worth the risk I took that day to have lunch with him in Jerusalem. To me, Riad is the hope of the Arab world. Why?
Riad lived on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. We would get together for lunch sometimes back in my days as a student at The Hebrew University, and that’s about all I remembered in October of 2000. There was no intimate relationship between us, and neither of us pursed the possibility.
We met in downtown Jerusalem somewhere intending to head to Mt. Scopus, where the Hebrew University is located. It was where we always used to hang out when we occasionally got together for coffee and snacks ten years ago, since I had lived on that campus part of the time I was a student there.
Riad and I tumbled into a cab. Our eager cabdriver, Sami, talkative guy, began wandering around East Jerusalem as we were on our way.
“Do you know this is only the third fare I’ve had today?” Sami said.
It was about 2 in the afternoon. He said it had never happened to him before in Jerusalem. We explained as we sat behind a tractor that was blocking the street. The operator had Arabic music blaring from the speakers. Nobody spoke for a few seconds as we waited for the tractor to complete its move.
Sami lit a cigarette. I thought of how, in the Bay area, not only would this tractor in the road be vigorously resented by other cars, but would have by now been reported by a traffic reporter on “All-News-All-the-Time: KCBS.” I couldn’t help inserting it.
Once the tractor moved, we had to get past a checkpoint for security, since we were dining in East Jerusalem. That was new. I once lived on Mt. Scopus. Though it was during the first Intifadah, I never had to go through a checkpoint to get to East Jerusalem until now. Maybe I just did not know they existed before. Maybe he occasionally used the checkpoints for his own purposes. I’ll never know, though. I could go on all week like this.
We got past the soldier questioning us easily. Of course, numerous incidents of terror had yet to occur. Things were tense, but had we been going to lunch some weeks later, it would have been a different afternoon altogether.
We sat in a restaurant with a large, outdoor eating area. The waiter, dressed in freshly laundered white cotton, was running about the large area swatting a white tablecloth at a stray white cat. The cat was tattered, skinny and desperate. The waiter roamed around the unoccupied tables looking for the morsels of dropped food to make the ground less inviting to strays. Even then, the fact was your nose straight up plain: there were no clumsy customers sitting there. The cats begged in vain.
Suddenly, I laughed, but not boisterously.
Riad raised his face toward mine.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Because that cat is starving and no one’s going to notice that here today. No way.”
He shrugged while taking a quick look around himself.
We sat eating local favorites now, drinking Arak from Ramallah. I told Riad about my adventures in the old city a day or so back, and how I had been kicked off the bus because I had spent my fare with the merchant in East Jerusalem’s old city.
“I’ll remember that story,” Riad laughed.
War makes new things funny. We kept eating.
Riad pulled an envelope out of his pocket and slid it toward me on the table.
“I’ve been saving these for you for ten years. I knew you’d come back to Jerusalem one day,” he said, his eyes meeting mine.
The photos he took of me leaving Jerusalem! It nearly shocked me, seeing myself the day I left Israel to return to the United States in June of 1990.
“Speaking of that,” Riad said, “Why are you here? Nobody else is. Look around yourself. We’re the only ones in this restaurant today.”
“The new riots started just before I got on the plane, Riad. It was too late to change my ticket even if I had wanted to, and I didn’t. I thought it was going to be like the first Intifadah, if that even. Sort of a long, day-to-day demonstration. But this time, it seems a lot different.”
“I don’t get involved with politics," said Riad, “but there are problems with life here. I can’t get a passport. Not without a lot of waiting and other problems. I cannot get housing, even if I have the money. We’re second-class citizens.”
I leaned back in my chair and looked at his face. I had the glass in my right hand. He continued quietly.
“It couldn’t go on much longer without…” he paused and leaned forward, “something like this happening. I’m not part of it, exactly. I’m telling you now that you’re here, Lurene, that this explosion could not have been avoided.”
“Is it all civil rights?”
“Not all, no. And, you know, America isn’t helping. The American Congress is biased toward Israel, toward Jewish problems. Never Arab problems,” he said.
As an American, I knew there was more to the story than that, but I wasn't going to argue with him here and now. I didn’t see the point.
"What if some in Congress stood up and brought these issues up in some different way, more prominently this time?” I said.
He looked at me plainly and humorlessly, as if I’d just asked what a slight change in the price of olive oil would do.
“It doesn’t matter what the American Congress does now,” he said dully, his eyes unblinking as he pointed them toward mine. “It’s too late now. It’s too late.”
I kept my eyes to my plate for a few minutes. I sipped more Arak.
“Well, that’s enough politics. No more politics. You don’t seem as well, Lurene. You’re drinking Arak,” he said.
“Oh, I’m okay. Not sleeping well, that’s all.”
“You never married.”
“Never got around to it,” I quipped.
“You aren’t missing much. Marriage is okay sometimes, but it’s not as great as you think it’s going to be. I don’t know. I have kids now.”
“Five, you mentioned.”
He paid for our lunch. We left the beautiful, deserted restaurant. The drive back to Jerusalem’s center was easier than the drive into East Jerusalem. We hugged goodbye sincerely. I still have the photos.
I understood what Riad was trying to tell me, but what was he saying that I really needed to hear?
Riad was repeating the Arab quest for freedom. But there’s a difference between non-captivity and pure freedom. The two are not the same. Non-captivity is the less complex condition, the most self-righteous, and the less demanding. It's being in the state of Hosni Mubarak or Saddam Hussein and being, well, let alone. Nothing more. You're not going to discover oxygen or write a symphony. Your kids will swim at the same depths as you and your grandparents did.
Freedom, on the other hand, is harder to understand and harder to achieve. Most of the world’s population is content to live alongside it…somewhere. The Palestinians are in this kind of pit.
Riad asked me to write a brief email to the American President’s office, so I did so on November 15, 2000. While most of his brothers in the Arab world were known for violence and thuggish means of protest, Riad reached out another way.
It didn't matter whether I agreed with his opinion or not. I agreed greatly with his means of trying to express it, and found it easy to help. I wrote a simple message for the White House, likely ignored, but marked down with others that day as coming from East Jerusalem. I received a simple, correspondence acknowledgement from Washington. This is what my November 15, 2000 note read:
While in Jerusalem October 6 through October 20, 2000, I was able to speak with some Arab residents of Jerusalem. They asked me to relay the following:
1. They do not feel the United States has been a fair broker on their behalf. They feel that the United States favors agreements biased toward the Israeli government;
2. They feel the problem is largely one of civil rights for Arab residents of both Israel, and the so-called occupied territories;
3. They do not feel the American administration has been helpful in tempering Israeli military actions against Arab residents.
I hope this letter is helpful to you.
With highest regards,
Lurene K. Helzer
So that Riad would know his request that I write the note was not ignored, I sent him a copy of the short letter and a copy of the form acknowledgement from the White House, which was dated November 15, 2000.
I wanted to quickly write this letter to you while I have a few minutes free at work. I wanted to let you know that I appreciated your comments as we had dinner October 19 in Jerusalem, and have told some people here what I learned from you, and from others who share your position regarding civil rights in Israel.
I am presently working on an essay regarding my experiences. I also intend to write a brief letter to the White House.
Of course, in that case, it will be read by White House staff only. Every letter helps, though.
I will write you a bit later about more mundane matters!
I had no expectation of a special or unique response from the Bill Clinton administration, of course. The American White House gets probably hundreds of letters like this every day.
When I reflect on it now, though, I think of how it’s not common for the average person of any ethnicity to attain freedom, be aware of the state they’ve achieved, and then use it wisely. In this case, I am discussing a man barely acquainted with the ideas of freedom who was using it quite confidently.
It doesn't matter if I agree with him or not. I don't care if he wanted me to write a letter to the American president arguing something I do not agree with.
I care that an Arab from East Jerusalem, instead of bombing a bus that day, or pretending to agree with someone who was going to bomb a bus, was asking an American to write a letter to a democratically elected president. Any democratically elected president.
I want the people of Iraq and Syria and Egypt, furthermore, to read about Riad's request that day, and know that he was heard even as he requested it from the bloody streets of Jerusalem.
These are the private ideas I had while listening to Riad, but I left them off the table. I wonder now if that was what I should have said, anyway.
The Palestinians, it seemed to me, have become known around the world for committing acts of violence to achieve the non-captivity they think they’ll achieve in an all-Palestinian land.
But I have always thought that if the Palestinians get the country without Jews they say they want and leave actions similar to Riad's out of the mix, they’ll face a society oppressed by centuries of tradition, Arab dogma, old sayings, family duty, religion and totalitarianism. They'll be in the same gutter. Read about Riad. Riad saw the path and he was walking it by himself. He didn't need my approval.
This is the memory of my 2000 lunch with Riad Adame in an East Jerusalem of more bloody conflict. I still think it stands up to other lunches of my life for its unleavened meaning.
-- END EPISODE FOUR --