Part One: Meeting Adam in Amman
My first morning in Amman began unexpectedly at 5:00 AM. For one hour, “Allahu Akbar,” rang out from the nearby Al-Hussein Mosque, signaling the start of the Eid il-fitr—the three-day-holiday after the month of Ramadan. Those who went to Amman’s principal Mosque that morning would receive a most welcome guest, King Abdullah. Near their beloved king, a young bespectacled man of Moroccan origin, with shoulder-length dark hair, and a long unshaven face, was crying. He was crying because, though he is not a religious Muslim, he cannot escape his spiritual Sufi upbringing. And when closing his eyes, he recalled past Eid il-fitr prayers in the Mosque of his hometown—the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
I first met this former Jerusalemite, who was then wearing a black backwards cap, a black t-shirt and blue jeans, during a hot and dusty day in Amman’s downtown market. Adam — his self-chosen nickname — abruptly approached me and my travel partner, Sarah, a frizzled-haired blonde, in Amman’s nearly empty marketplace.
“Hello, do you need any help? Today most of the market is closed. You know it’s a special holiday?”
I turned my body away from him. “No thank you. We don’t need any help,” I said, thinking I’d been cheated enough in Jordan.
“Are you sure? I can show you around Amman. Not as a tour guide or anything. Not far down the road is a castle, or I can show where is the museum. I mean it, not as a tour guide.”
Adam sensed our fear. “I’ve just come back from India,” he said smiling, “and when I saw her,” he pointed to Sarah’s puffy blue pants, “wearing those ‘Ali Baba’ pants, I thought I might have someone to talk about India with.”
Sarah and I had no real plans, and everything seemed closed for the holiday. I took another look at this stranger: His long hair, baggy clothes and backward cap made him look American. His slanted big black eyes behind black-rimmed glasses were like my grandfather’s.
He wasn’t too let down when I told him we’d come from Jerusalem.
“I’m from Jerusalem too. Wow, this is great. Ata medaber ivrit?”
I’m surprised to see a smile on his face. Isn’t being a Hebrew speaker bad here?
“Na’am. Bahki Ibriyye, bas ana bahki Arabi ahsan min Ibriyye,” I said, feeling a bit of shame for lying.
The half-truth had two purposes: (1) I wished to speak Arabic with him to practice my own, and (2), it shrouded my identity as a Jew. It would prove to be a lie in vain.
We headed straight over to Adam’s favorite café in central downtown Amman, and nestled ourselves into a small balcony. He ordered for us, and a young boy brought out Kirkde, a bittersweet purple drink, and subyoh, a refreshing coconut shake, and one water pipe. On the large flat roof parallel from us, I noticed a ragged dog escaping the heat in a small sliver of shade.
“What’s this neighborhood in front of us?” asked Sarah.
“This is a Palestinian camp. You can see, the neighborhood is built in the Palestinian style,” answered Adam.
Once Adam had answered, I was surprised I hadn’t come to this conclusion before. Before us was a hodgepodge of cement blocks with flat roofs built chaotically on the side of a mountain — it’s like a cut-n-paste job from East Jerusalem.
“What’s it like for Palestinians living in Amman?” I asked Adam, expecting to hear a sob story.
“Everyone working on the streets is Egyptian. They are treated poorly. The Palestinians own the shops. They haven’t worked by their hands for years,” he said, with contempt in his voice. “The owner of this shop is from Hebron.”
It was not the answer I was expecting, and I knew I was with someone who was going to be blunt and honest.
Until this point, I was still unsure if Adam had ulterior motives. I wondered when the pitch for a 100-JD trip to Wadi Rum would happen. But as we continued to sip cool drinks and smoke nargilah, this eager stranger revealed his whole life as if before a biographer.
He was born in Jerusalem to a Sufi father and a Jewish mother who converted to Sufism. Because his father was temporarily expelled from Israel during the first Intifada, he lived some of his youth in Iraq and America. His father is a very religious man, but comfortable with the fact that he isn’t. What pained his father was, though Adam had scored top marks for science, he had barely scraped by Arabic.
Now, because of his refusal to serve in Israel’s army, Adam, like his father before him, has joined the ranks of Palestinian exiles. To this point, we shall later return.
“I’m sorry that I’m the only one talking. I just hate to ask people personal questions when I first meet them. So I talk and talk.”
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure him. I passed him the water pipe so he knew he wouldn’t need to talk any more.
“I’m enjoying hearing about your life. It’s nice to find someone who within the first minute of meeting me hasn’t asked for my FBI file,” I said
“Ya, you know, I just want to connect with the people, not the stereotypes. There are three questions I never ask when meeting someone: What’s you name? Where are you from? And what’s your religion?”
I’m comforted by Adam’s humanism, and saddened because I’ve hidden my own identity from him. Later he would say, after day three when I finally told him I was Jewish, “from the moment I saw you, I knew you were a Jewish.”
Being such a humanist, I wasn’t surprised when he told us about his peace activism. He claimed to have helped set up a peace village in southern Portugal.
“The problem with most peace organizations in Israel is that they just have people talk. Then, a few weeks later you forget about the person, and go back to your life. And when war starts, whatever you spoke about is meaningless and you return to your old story.”
“Talking is the first step,” I countered. “You can’t just expect people on opposite sides of a conflict to move in together on a whim. I know firsthand that through simple meetings and conversation, hatred and stereotypes are eroded.”
He wouldn’t budge. “Talking just isn’t enough,” he said.
When the coals on the water pipe had been changed a couple of times, our drinks long since finished and the ragged dog had moved to a new sliver of shade, I found the courage to return to a previous topic. I wanted to take advantage of my time with Adam.
“Why would you have to serve?” I asked Adam. “Arab-Israelis aren’t obligated.”
“It depends on who you are,” he said.
It was a weak answer. We proceeded to debate how Israel is drafting new legislation just to make national service an obligation, let alone army service. Perhaps it was because of his once Jewish mother, or perhaps he was simply lying.
The truth is, much of what he said to me that day is lost. When I took out a little notebook to take notes, Adam rescinded me. “ It’s okay with me, but in general you shouldn’t do that. Some people here might think you’re a spy or something.”
“A spy for whom? The Mossad?” I asked, wishing I could be sarcastic.
“Ya…Maybe. You know, people here really believe in that stuff.”
I wasn’t too surprised to hear him say this. The Mossad is blamed for everything in this part of the world, from the Holocaust, to shark attacks in Egypt. Even Adam would later reveal that he thought that the Mossad was behind the 15 murdered Egyptian border guards nearly a month ago.
My taxi driver into Amman the night before, who spoke perfect English, had revealed to me that Pepsi really stood for “Pay everyone pence save (IE help) Israel.”
While we were on the topic of conspiracies, I decided to finally seek an answer to a burning question.
“I’ve noticed that in almost every bookstore in Amman you can find center-placed copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion next to Mein Kamph. Do people who read these books really believe them?”
Adam stooped his head and his big black eyes peered at me from above his glasses.
“Unfortunately,” he said, then paused……”They do.”
Of everything that happened in Amman, I think this revelation has contributed most to my nightmarish unease since my return. Those hellish books are on every corner, reminding you wherever you go of a mass ignorance and hatred. However, at the same time, Adam was the first hopeful Palestinian peace activist I’d personally met.
But that day, I had traded a society of hatred for one good peace activist, and I still feel the unequal weight of that scale.
Part Two: Anti-Semitism, incognito
On my final night in Jordan, and the third and last night of Eid il-ftir, Adam decided to take Sarah and me to the edge of Amman. He insisted that we travel up a tower from which to view the entire city.
When we arrived, both Sarah and I were surprised to be standing in front of an amusement park, with a large tower at its center. The park itself seemed like a charitable donation from a small town in the American Mid-West—rides you might find in a carnival Salvation Army store. Yet it seemed all of Amman was present, wearing their nicest outfits. Teenagers without the fee to enter risked barbed wire gashes and security brandishing wooden batons to sneak in.
I discussed with Sarah that we would do as Adam wanted that night, as guests who disdainfully eat undesirable food with a smile on their face—out of love, I might add.
The atmosphere was more chaotic than electric. There were long lines everywhere: the highway, the park entrance, the food stands–every imaginable place a line can form (except the men’s bathroom which was guarded by a mote). But these lines were just illusions as the masses of young men, who roamed in packs of 4 or 5, pretended as if the procedure of a line was beyond their comprehension or education.
Our first task was to wait on line to scale the tower for the panoramic view of Amman Adam wanted to cut the line, but I refused.
“Don’t you realize we will never go anywhere if we wait on line?” Adam said to me, as we watched three young boys illegally advance themselves.
“I’m sorry, but I refuse to cut,” I said, imagining us as representatives of the West.
“I was once like you,” said Adam. “But I learned there’s no other way.”
On the back of the snaking line, a group of little girls began asking about our origins. I told them we were Americans, and then I inquired into their origins. To my surprise, we were standing in line behind Syrian refugees.
When Adam heard they were Syrians he became visibly depressed. “I just can’t stop thinking about why they’re here,” he said. But these sweet little refugees didn’t depress me. They looked happy at the moment, which made me happy, too. Shortly, however, I would join Adam in his depression.
Minutes later we were no longer at the back of the line. Around us had swarmed groups of young men curious about who we were. In Jordan, when faced with questions about where I’ve come from—Jerusalem—and how I’ve learned some Arabic—studying in Israel—I’ve defensively lied, saying respectively: “I’m a Christian,” and “ At an American University.” I wondered how this Palestinian resident of Amman would respond.
“I am from Jerusalem,” proclaimed Adam proudly. “And they,” he said pointing to Sarah and I, “are from Bethlehem.”
Knowing our origins was not enough though, and they continued to pester us. The combination of pestering and waiting became unbearable for me. I couldn’t stand and watch another group of boys cut these young Syrian girls. I begged him to let us just leave and he eventually agreed.
As we were walking away from the line, it dawned upon me why he’d said we were from Bethlehem. He wanted us to be Christians. I asked him, and he confirmed my suspicions.
Sometimes, I am unsure my fears about anti-Semitism in the Arab world are grounded in reality, or the reality painted by the media. Many in the West undermine Jewish fears of anti-Semitism by saying that it’s simply our inability to cope with anti-Zionism. But here, at this amusement park in Jordan, it was not my Jewish fear, but the fear of a Muslim Palestinian from Jerusalem that changed my identity from Jew to Christian.
This however, was simply the introductory lesson.
At the end of the night, after Adam had successfully demanded from the park’s manager that we be escorted directly onto the tower ride, a line of busses waited across the hectic highway to take us home. After dodging a few cars, we entered an almost empty bus. Many of the future passengers were crowded around an adjacent car, dancing the dabke (traditional circle dance). As we waited for the bus to fill up, some men began smoking cigarettes inside the bus.
“This is usually not allowed,” Adam said of the smoking. “But because it is the holy Eid, they are permitted.” I thought, what a silly thing: because it’s a holiday, public health should be jeopardized. But then Adam continued: “All of this behavior by those men, it’s all connected to the Eid. They usually wouldn’t act this way. You know, they are just excited.”
I didn’t believe him. But I couldn’t blame him for defending a city he’d grown fond of.
Soon the bus filled up and we found ourselves surrounded by the young pestering men we tried to escape in the park. Sarah and I sat beside each other and Adam behind us. I felt a distance between Adam and I sensed he could feel it too. I think this distance had formed because Sarah and I were fed up with Amman, but it was still his new home and these young men were his people. Sarah and I sat faced forward and directed all the young mens’ questions to Adam.
When Adam told the young men he was from Jerusalem, there were cheers. It’s possible the entire group was of Palestinian background—60 % of Jordan is—and I wondered how many of them had never even been to Jerusalem.
When the boys began to sing and chant, drawing ire from the other passengers, I thought Adam would try to hush them. Instead, he took lead of these chants, which I realized were all of a nationalistic Palestinian nature, such as, “To where? To Ramallah!” A song about returning to Palestine and chasing away the enemies (there are many different versions).
A few days earlier, as we sat on the café balcony in the midday heat, before which soared the large Palestinian camp, Adam told me he had run a school in which he had fired teachers for focusing on the Naqba and returning to Greater Palestine, rather than the future. Yet here he was leading the chant with these young boys. He would say later that is was for their sake. But the emotion and passion he used, bursting out from lulls of silence, spoke otherwise. I believe, distanced from his traveling guests, his heart attached itself to these boys who sang his songs, spoke of his villages, and longed the same longings.
The singing stopped when a brawl almost ensued. The boys now focused their attention on the stranger who had lead and conducted their nationalistic choir. Curious to see how Adam would speak with these boys—what other surprising nationalistic things might he say?—I harnessed my limited Arabic to follow along.
‘Yes, yes, we are all Christians,’ I thought nodding my head as Adam continued with the charade. But, then, though I couldn’t follow how it came up, I heard the mention of his formally Jewish mother’s maiden name—Sherkowski.
“Shuu?” asked one of the boys about this foreign name.
There was not even a pause of thought before Adam said, “Messihi.”
Under this simple fib exists an abyss upon whose precipice stand Jews/Israelis, and reflexively the Arab world. Adam demonstrated to me that not only should prudent Jews hide their identities in Jordan, but even an Arabic speaking Muslim, born in Jerusalem, feels it prudent to hide the fact that his mother was once Jewish.
As he walked us home through the empty streets of downtown Amman, I sought an explanation. “
Did you tell those boys on the bus that your mother was a Christian?” I asked Adam.
“I said I was a Christian,” he calmly responded as we continued walking along the street. “I’m pretty sure I heard your mother’s name, and that you said its origin was Christian.”
He thought about it for a moment, never pausing his stride. “I do remember. You’re right.”
This was one of those times I wished I were wrong.
“So why’d you tell them that?”
He paused again for a small thought, though his legs continued. “It was just easier that way. You know, better to avoid trouble when it can easily be avoided.”
My heart sank, I walked, and bowed my head in silence.
The night before, Adam, Sarah and I were sitting on a bench in the center of a large roundabout at the top of Rainbow Street—one of the centers of West Amman’s nightlife, where a beer can cost around 40 shekels (around 10$).
It was a busy night. Many were out enjoying the cool breezy weather, reminiscent of nights in Jerusalem.
“I always tell them, look what’ve you built here. You’re never going back to Palestine,” said Adam, in reference to Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
We had been discussing how prevalent and potent Jordanians of Palestinian origin still spoke of a return. How, when you walk the streets of downtown Amman, you’ll most likely hear Palestinian resistance music. Or if you ask strangers where they are from, even if they are two generations removed from the Palestinian expulsion, they’ll first mention their grandfather’s village or city.
When Adam said, “look what you’ve built here,” he was referring to places like Rainbow Street, which as we walked through its walls made of Jerusalem stone, and host of sleek cafés and restaurants, Adam had asked me, “doesn’t it remind you of Jerusalem?”
Back on the bench, my mind was occupied with two little boys who were aiming plastic guns at oncoming traffic. Sarah asked, “Why are the younger generations still so caught up with the Naqba?”
Adam grunted, and then answered, “Their grandfathers come to them with the keys and house deeds still in their hands.”
Maybe it was because of little boys brandishing plastic guns, but I wasn’t satisfied. I felt this obsession on returning to all of Palestine is just self-destructive. Rainbow Street was just one example of how, if Palestinians wanted, they could succeed in starting anew.
“Why can’t they let the young generation move on from the past? It’s so self-destructive how they dwell on this bitterness. They’ve risen a whole new generation to live in a bygone era with a hopeless dream,” I asked, suddenly impassioned.
Adam looked away, towards the busy oncoming traffic. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “They would forget but Israel doesn’t let them. Every few years Israeli violence makes them wonder about who Israelis are. That’s when they go to their grandfathers and ask, ‘Who are these people killing us?’ And like this, the cycle continues.”
I knew Adam was right in some respects. Current violence always stirs up the past. Imaginations stretch beyond generations, and we imagine that the people who abhorrently massacred past generations are guiding the murderous hands of today. I wonder, were there a long peace without communication, would hatred fester or subside?
The nature of the Palestinian Diaspora, within and beyond Israel, reminds me of a poem by Stephen Crane:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hand
And ate of it
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is biter-bitter,” he answered,
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
Palestinians–scorned, abandoned, and dispossessed—have not assumed the wretchedness of this poem’s creature, yet may empathize with him just the same. The creature, devoid of everything, has but one option—to enjoy the bitterness of his own embittered heart. Palestinian refugees, consumed with longing for their old lands, are enjoying the bitterness of their hearts. And many of their children have grown up eating bitter hearts thrice daily.
Similarly, I know of another group of people who were spurned from the Land of Israel. They too, for more than 2,000 years, never ceased their thrice-daily prayer to return to their land. Everywhere they went they were treated as second-class citizens, which always fortified their hope for return. They still haven’t forgiven the Romans for expelling them. For two millennia, all subsequent enemies of these people were said to hail from the Romans. And even an actual return to the land hasn’t been sufficient: they still hope to fully return in spirit and geography.
And so, from the four corners of the Earth, and even from the “Holy City” herself, songs of return to Jerusalem persist, with no end in sight.