Tuesday, February 16, 2010


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:

Dear Sir,

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
San Francisco

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!

Your friend,

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.


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