Years and years ago during the 1970s and the 1980s I got to know some of my neighbors. I lived in Israel, very close to the Gaza Strip.
Taleb lived in Gaza City. He owned at least one truck and he had several workers who worked with modified garden hoes scraping manure from the cowshed into sacks, walking them up a plank and dumping the manure into the truck. Sometimes he would have his workers scrape the manure from the chicken coops after the chickens had been sent off to slaughter. The whole operation was very low-tech. Taleb sat waiting for his truck to fill up with manure and his workers waited for Taleb to give them the signal to stop loading.
One day he invited some of the kibbutz members who were dairy and chicken farmers to come to visit him in Gaza. It was a formal invitation. We all wore our very best blue dungarees and biblical sandals, piled into a van and arrived at Taleb’s house. Only it wasn’t a house. It was a mansion. Once inside we were invited to sit on huge ottomans and pillows, and from nowhere there appeared trays laden with watermelon, grapes, almonds and pistachios and all manor of sweet cakes, baklava and kannafeh and coffee and tea. Taleb, the manure merchant, his face like creased leather, welcomed us into his home.
It was time for an oil change and other preventive maintenance for the Mack R-600 I drove and operated for the kibbutz. I had become the “official” tractor trailer operator, having convinced the various member boards of the economic benefit of the investment.
Adam was the mechanic who stood in the pit of one of the official garages that serviced Mack trucks. The garage was a branch of one of the large trucking co-operatives in Israel at that time. The garage was in the town of Rishon LeZion.
It was towards the end of the workday. I asked Adam where he lived. Jabaliya was the answer that came back. I asked Adam when he finished working and he said that as soon as the Mack truck I had brought in for service was done he also was finished with his shift. I offered him a ride back to the Erez Crossing, which at that time was nothing like the Erez Crossing of today.
During the ride back he told me that he and his wife and children lived in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Unlike many of the Arabs from Gaza, Adam didn’t smoke and his Hebrew was excellent. He allowed me to improve my Arabic and in no time at all we were at the point where Israel prior to 1967 met Egypt prior to 1967, namely the Gaza Strip under Israeli military control. I was very familiar with the various “nooks and crannies” of the Gaza Strip, having served countless days of military reserve duty there.
I asked Adam if I could take him to his home. The huge Mack R-600 entered the narrow roads of the Jabaliya refugee camp until Adam pointed to his home. It was a small shack with a corrugated tin roof. There was a battery that supplied the electricity for the television and inside his home curtains provided the partitions for the rooms.
Adam invited me in. As if I was back in Taleb’s mansion, from nowhere there appeared large platters laden with fruit, watermelon, grapes, and smaller plates with almonds and walnuts and pistachios. Adam told me that his wife was preparing coffee.
On the way back to my kibbutz I thought about the abject poverty of Adam’s family. I thought about how despite the fact that he and his children and his wife lived in poverty they showed me the greatest hospitality.
I visited Adam several times again. I got permission from the kibbutz directorate to bring some used children’s clothing and fresh fruit grown on the kibbutz to Adam and to his family. On my last visit Adam told me that I could not come to see him in Jabaliya again. My shock must have been visible, as I began to apologize if I had in any way offended him or his family. No, he said. “They” threatened my family and promised to lynch me from a utility pole if “Yahood” would visit again.
Halil lived in Gaza City. Fluent in Hebrew he had been to university and was a mechanical engineer by profession. I met Halil in the town of Kiriyat Malachi, at a shop that repaired and maintained truck air conditioning units. Halil was one of the mechanics there.
I took Halil back to Gaza City twice. Both times he bade me stop at a certain intersection, stating that he would walk the rest of the way. He told me that he felt fortunate to be able to work in Israel, and even though his profession was mechanical engineering, he made a decent wage working as a mechanic who repaired A/C units in trucks.
Halil said that he liked meeting Israelis and talking with them, and that one day, Inshallah, both peoples would be able to work and live side by side.
Abed owned and operated a Caterpillar 950 Wheel Loader. The farm management had hired him to do some excavation work from the quarry behind the fence that surrounded the kibbutz.
I drove the MAN twin steering axle with the 30 cubic meter “bed” that transported the rock and sand from the quarry to the construction site in the kibbutz. A number of new homes were under construction.
Abed was an artist with the Cat 950. He dug and loaded in such fluid motion that it was poetic. Back and forth and not a scratch and not a jolt from the loading of the 25 tons of material.
From time to time Abed drove the Cat 950 to the construction site where he graded the rock and sand I had dumped. The effortless motion of the huge construction vehicle, the expertise with which he worked, the diligence and professionalism and pride in a job well done.
We sat in the shade and drank water and he shared his pita and olives and a slice of cheese with me.
THOSE days are gone now. We are no longer able to sit, human being with human being, one from this side of the Gaza Strip, the other from that side. We are able to exhibit that humanity, to have that conversation, to sit with one another only on neutral ground, like right here in the US. And, even here, there are those who would do anything to stop us having these kinds of conversations. Person to person. Human being with fellow human being.
I remain optimistic. It is my nature to do so. I live with the hope that here, in the US, there in Israel and Palestine, one day we will be able to visit each other, sit together and share conversation, coffee and friendship.