Time runs differently in Palestine-Israel, an adagio that slips by in minutes that seem to stretch for hours. I hadn’t noticed this until delegation broke, and I was left on my own to explore the country for myself. Perhaps it was the call to prayer that rang out over the rooftops five times a day, reminding us all to take a moment for God.
Despite whatever task I’d set myself for the day each morning was the same; I’d wake, make my bed, gather my notebook, pen and cigarettes and wander outside to the enclosed rooftop patio of the hostel, pausing only long enough to buy fresh brewed coffee from the gentleman just outside the door. Then, in the glorious golden sun, I would write. I wrote for hours, I wrote until I was finished – a luxury that few writers ever have the time for.
That particular day I had a clear plan; visit the Christian Bookshop near to the Jaffa Gate to see what I could find in there. I was interested in seeing if I could find some mystical poetry to read on my rooftop. The best laid plans of mice and men.. I picked my way though the narrow alleyways, dodging the hordes of tourists that were beginning their daily adventure. I loved this time in the morning in the Old City – shops freshly opened for the day, the precarious walk ways saturated with a witch’s brew of smells; the yeasty seductive aroma of freshly baked bread, the tartness of the sweet shops, the exotic perfume of the spice shops, and the mouth watering scent of fatty, grilled lamb kebabs peppered with fresh, bubbling coffee. Countless times I became disoriented by the sights and sounds, but I only had to close my eyes an inhale to know exactly where I was. I roamed through the winding streets of the Christian Quarter – it’s curves as sumptuous as a woman’s – as shop owner’s called out to me.
“Good morning,” they called out in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.
“Sabah Innur,” I’d respond in clumsy Arabic that I’d been learning from my pocket sized phrase book.
“Min fen inti?” (Where are you from?)
“Ana min New York,” I’d reply. No matter where you are in the world, everyone knows of New York.
“Ah, you must come in my shop!” This was always the response. You see, all of the shops in the Old City – indeed, the only reason to be in the Old City – survive on tourist money. Sometimes I’d wander into the shops, buying some trinket for a friend or family member back home but that day I’d had a plan. There was only one way for a single female walking the streets to respond in a respectful manner,
“Shukran, la. I’m sorry, I’m on my way to meet my husband,” and so I continued on my way to my planned destination. Sometimes, however, God has other plans for you.
As I continued to walk and exchange greetings I stumbled upon a shop packed to the stone ceilings, and exploding onto the street. It was a riot of color; silk pashminas, wool scarves, hand embroidered pillow cover and blankets, thick prayer mats and area rugs, jewel embellished ornamental boxes, Moroccan lamps, brass necklaces, purses, wallets – every imaginable beautiful thing.
“You speak Arabii,” the shop owner called out from the back of the shop, a statement more than a question.
“Shwayy shwayy,” (a little) I laughed in response. “Very little, less than a child, and my pronunciation is terrible.”
“How did you learn?”
“Everywhere, ” I shrugged. “Taxi rides, the market and a little phrase book I bought.”
“”Min fen inti?” I eyed the shop keeper, he was somewhere in his mid-50’s, standing around 5ft 10 inches, dressed in loose slacks and a light blue button up shirt. Something about his soft face and large brown, bespectacled eyes caught my attention and I stopped to speak with him.
“Shu ismek?” (What is your name?)
” Leia.” I watched his face tense in response as he incorrectly puzzled together who I was. It’d happened many times before – and afterwards – during my time there. People would hear my name and where I was from and assume that I was a New York Jew.
“What brings you to Israel” he asked, his voice ringing with an edge that made me hesitate. I’d spoken with so many people during my stay, always careful not to reveal why’d I’d come – I was on pilgrimage, that was all. Something about this man caught me off guard and before I could stop myself I responded.
“I didn’t realize I was in Israel,” I answered with narrowed eyes.
“You are in Jerusalem are you not?”
“I am in Al-Quds, am I not,” I volleyed back, causing his face to split in a wide grin.
“How long have you been here, ” he asked while gesturing that I should come into his shop.
“Three weeks, ” replied, settling myself on a squashy mat on the floor, careful to tuck my feet under me.
“Where have you been?”
“Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem, Beit Jalla, Sheik Jerrah, Al-Khalil” I rattled off, his eyes becoming sharp in response.
“Were you afraid?”
“Of being in the West Bank,” I laughed while he nodded in response. “Yes,” I responded soberly, “though not because of the location.”
“The people?” he inquired shrewdly.
“The soldiers,” I specified.
“Not the Palestinians?” he pressed me.
“Why would I be afraid of the Palestinians? They weren’t the ones pointing guns at my head and screaming in my face,” I spat.
“Why would they put guns in your face?” He smiled coyly, drawing me out further than I’d allowed to be.
“Well, ” I smiled back “they tend to not like it when you tell them their occupation is illegal.”
With that he clapped his hands together and in a stunning act of broken protocol he grabbed the sides of my face and kissed my forehead. Of course it was this moment that a neighboring shop keeper came in to visit. I froze, but my new friend had the perfect answer:
“My cousin’s wife!” he announced, “Come all the way from New York to visit our family.” I said nothing, but smiled placidly at the newcomer as Ameer (that was his name) responded to his friend in rapid Arabic, following him out the front of the store.
“Tea?” he called back at me.
“Min fadlak,” (please) So much for the bookshop – being offered tea meant that I would be staying awhile.
“Cigarette?” he offered, handing me the hot, sweet tea that I’d come to crave while there.
“How do you know I smoke?” I asked warily. As a rule, women don’t smoke and if they do it’s never appropriate to do so in public and in the company of men.
“All activists smoke,” he chuckled.
“How do you know I’m activist?” My heat began throbbing rapidly behind my ribcage. I hadn’t been discreet, that I knew, but Israel is not a country that takes kindly to activists.
“No tourist goes to Sheik Jerrah,” he quipped.
I sat for three hours that day talking talking about the occupation, Ameer’s family. and our fears for the future. I’d recounted what I’d seen in Aida, on the bus, the child’s screams. I confessed my terror in those moments, my anger, my outrage and he shared his own fear for his children, his lost sense of identity, the nightmare of watching his home invaded by IOF soldiers. We sat in silence for what seemed like hours.
“But there is hope?” I whispered.
“Yes, there is that. There is always that,” he answered gently.
“What can I do? When I go home?”
“Resist.” his voice was firm.
“You said you write?”
“Then you write. You write about Palestine, you write about Nabeel, you write about me. You write about what you’ve seen – the good and the bad… and you keep writing. Never stop. And you come back.”
“This I can do. I’ll come back as long as they let me through… and I’ll keep writing until I die.”
“You’re going to have to,” he said grimly. “Make sure that is the only way they can stop you.”
The finality of that stark statement hung in the air – the understanding that I cannot stop writing, that I will not…that the only way to be stopped is death.
“Why do you do this?” he asked, in abrupt change in subject.
“God said that we are all brothers and sisters. That means we care for each other.”
“And you believe this?”
And this is the highest truth, my friends… that we are not simply neighbors – we are brothers and sisters. Which means that we are each other’s keepers. It’s high time we began acting like it.