How does one enter an abyss? It’s seems as if it wouldn’t matter—whatever your point of entry, the abyss will swallow you whole. Unfortunately, the subject of conflict in Jerusalem is as abysmal as gets. Thus, with what and where should I begin? It seems to me logic is confounded. So I begin where my heart tells me to—a story of erev Shabbat.
I’ve been waiting patiently now for an hour for Abed to arrive. He is an Arab colleague of mine, with thick eyebrows, a shaved head, pointed ears and a beauty mark below his right eye. He works as a lawyer for the NGO where I volunteer as an English teacher.
I was once in the shade but now the sun has moved, and I’ve finished my complementary water. This light breeze is not enough. Where is he?
In fact, he is waiting for me at a table across the street, and we finally lock eyes. He waves me over. Doesn’t he realize I’ve just ordered a new beer? He waves me over again. I force the whole beer into my belly, and make my way to him.
Today he is wearing shorts. It only takes a short time working among Arabs to realize the men almost never wear shorts. Apparently, as I was once told, it is considered feminine. I knew he was liberal, but shorts in Jerusalem!
“Mah nishma?” he says.
“Shu Akhbarak?” I respond. We both smile and settle into English.
He sees the book in my hand that I’ve been using to study colloquial Arabic.
“Take a look,” I say handing him the medium sized paperback. He flips through it and seems interested and a little perplexed by it.
“The Arabic is transliterated into the Latin alphabet. Look, I’ll read it for you: ‘Wen Sahbak, ya Abu Yusef….’
He smiles and asks, “Can you read Arabic?”
“Yes yes, I can read it. But you see, it’s easier to write your spoken language with the Latin alphabet. I know you know this. It’s why many Arabs send text messages and write on Facebook in a standard transliterated language. Or isn’t it?”
He reluctantly smiles in agreement. “So tell me, why are you learning Arabic?” he asks.
“Well, I may live here in Israel one day, and I think everyone here should know Arabic.”
“Well, also, Arabic is actually quite a lucrative language to learn. It can basically guarantee me a job in the States.”
“What kind of jobs?”
“For example, international businesses, or jobs with the government. Who knows, maybe you are helping to train a CIA agent.” I know with this last comment I’ve made a mistake. His sour expression tells me I’m right.
“What’s wrong with the CIA? Would you like Al-Qaeda to prosper?” I ask.
“Of course not. But I don’t like their—how do you say—their methods. I think too many innocent people are harmed by them.”
“And Israeli counter-terrorism, what do you think of their methods?” I know the question is loaded. I know he will say likewise for Israeli counter-terrorism. But I wish to hear him speak about it. Perhaps he will give me a point of view I’ve never heard.
“Again, I think they harm too many innocent people.” I’m waiting for the anger, but Abed remains calm.
“Do you have a better method of counter-terrorism? Can’t you at least agree that Israeli counter-terrorism is more humane than those of the surrounding Arab countries?
“Yes, but it’s not enough. Israelis and Americans toss away their moral values at the first sign of danger, even though they boast about having them.”
“Well, perhaps the phenomenon of terrorism obligates them to do so, at least in some minor way. I don’t know of any country that has found a way to do counter-terrorism humanely. Do you?”
He pauses to think about this, but can’t provide a name. “It doesn’t matter about what other countries do. Perhaps everyone is wrong here. I don’t care. There needs to be a different way. They must stop transgressing innocent people’s rights.”
Perhaps Abed is right. And I’m sure he knows far more than I do about what has been done in the name of counter-terrorism to the Arab community. Has Israel done all it can? Has it really utilized its entire famous creativity to the task of subduing terrorism while ensuring its moral values aren’t compromised? I don’t have the answer, so I can’t respond. Together we sigh.
The slight orange tint of the sky tells me our little rendezvous is almost over. Shabbat is descending on Jerusalem. Our conversation about counter-terrorism has surprisingly had little effect on his mood. Abed still remains light-hearted. I, on the other hand, am a bit shaken, though I don’t let it show. I’m shaken because I realize how little I know about Israeli counter-terrorism, and yet I somehow feel proud of it. Too often we talk as experts on subjects we truly know little about. I’m left with an overwhelming urge to become more informed, and knowing Abed is a gentle-hearted and fair man, I proceed to further my education.
“What’s it like being an Arab in Jerusalem? Do you really feel this racism and discrimination that people talk about?”
I truly don’t know how he will answer. But he is smart. And instead of telling me of his experiences, he proceeds with a demonstration.
“Do you see that waitress over there?” he asks. “Ask her whether I am a Moroccan, a Persian or an Arab. If she says Arab, I will buy you another beer.”
I’m sure she will know he is an Arab. To me it’s too obvious. But his confidence makes me uncomfortable. As I call her over, he is smiling, and shaking his head.
“Excuse me, but do you see this handsome man I’m sitting with, do you think he is a Moroccan, a Persian or an Arab?”
She takes one look at Abed and laughs. “He is a Persian of course. It’s obvious.”
Abed and I nod to her, letting her believe she is right, and she walks away confidently.
I’m ashamed. I don’t want to look at Abed. To see his cheeky I-told-you-so smile. He knew that undoubtedly, this waitress would never assume he was an Arab. How could this man, who is wearing shorts, drinking beer, and speaking with a perfect Hebrew accent, be an Arab?
Abed had demonstrated to me at least one facet of what being an Arab in Israel is like: It means living under the burden of stigmas and stereotypes. It means you are an outsider categorically.
He bought me the beer anyway, and I drank it with a silent shame flickering within me.
When it’s time to go, Abed helps me find the Synagogue where I am to meet my friends. Despite being from the North, he knows Jerusalem very well.
We shake hands.
“Shabbat Shalom,” he says with that cheeky smile of his.
Our hands still gripped together, I respond with as much as sincerity as I have ever said these two words before. “Shabbat Shalom.”
(FYI, the names in this blog are generally pseudonyms. The stories, however, are all non-fiction.)