Old City, Jerusalem – Yousef sat on a plastic chair inside his Christian quarter store; the Jerusalem winter weather was too unpredictable for him to remain outside and anticipate prospective customers. The Jerusalem native took another puff of his cigarette, and, upon seeing me, gave the traditional Islamic greeting:
“As-salamu alaikum wa rahmatullah. Kif inti? (“May the peace and mercy of Allah be with you. How are you?”)
“Hamdulla, Yousef. Kif halak alyawm?” I replied. (“Thank G-d, Yousef. How are you today?”)
Smiling, he answered, “Baruch Hashem.”
I first met the A-Tur resident three months ago while I explored the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Unlike most shopkeepers in the area, Yousef’s initial reaction to seeing an American was not: “Come to my shop. I give you the best prices.” Instead, the 52-year-old invited me to sit.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Ana biddi taalam arabi.” (“I want to learn Arabic.”)
“So, let’s talk.”
For anyone who knows me, this story comes as no shock. Just a typical day conversing with our presumed enemies, allowing them to speak for themselves rather than watching the media stroke broadly over the nuances of a complex reality. But others may be reading in dismay – a Jewish kid walking through the Muslim and Christian quarters to speak with a devout Arab Muslim (whom some may call Palestinian) with no security other than the Divine protection of his blue and white tzitzit swaying through the Bukhoor-filled air? Yes, that’s me – and Yousef and I spoke a lot.
We spoke of the hardships to maintain an income to support his family of three, and about how he sometimes walks away with less than $50 of sales in a day, and how the municipality advertises mainly for the Jewish quarter while shopkeepers in the Christian and Muslim quarters can only pray that G-d leads tourists to their stores.
We spoke about peace in Israel and Palestine, and he held his head high and exclaimed, “I live in the best country in the world!” And which country is that? “Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land… The Land of Peace!” He chuckled, pointed to a sign that read: “Jerusalem: City of Peace,” and laughed, “One time I saw a bird poop on that sign, and that’s the truth about peace in this country; anyone who says there is, is full of crap.”
When I mentioned that I traveled to Bethlehem to visit the Tomb of Rachel, he suggested that I take off my kippah and go see the rest of the city, which is in Area A under the control of the Palestinian Authority. I explained to him that I would still look Jewish because of my beard, and he jokingly responded, “They won’t be able to tell that you are Jewish – everyone in Hamas has beards, too.”
Concerning the rockets fired by Hamas and other terror organizations from Gaza and Israel’s retaliation, the causalities on both sides and innocent lives lost, Yousef bemoaned, “It’s all politics – Jews, Muslims, Christians – we are all just people trying to follow the word of G-d.”
It seemed too good to be true: an Arab holding a misbaha (prayer beads) and a Jew wearing a knitted kippah and Blundstones, speaking calmly in Jerusalem, Al-Quds, the heart of the conflict, a stone’s throw from the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, sharing a Coke and a memory as minarets blast the Salat al-‘asr (late afternoon) call to prayer and an Imam chants the Quran on the radio. Yousef and I were alone in his store, no one was in sight. He could have attacked me, and no one would have known, but instead he continued speaking, telling me about his desire for peace and regretful smoking habits.
I thought Yousef may have just been putting on a show, so I asked him if he would rather the land be Israeli or Palestinian, whereupon he responded valiantly, “It is written in the Quran, ‘God will give the land to the good people.’ This is a religious land, and as long as everyone keeps to the teachings of their Book there will be peace. But now we have politics,” he sighed, “and every decision is based off of money. Look at Abbas, if he receives $1,000,000 he will keep 80% for himself and leave the other 20% for his struggling people. His children are not the ones burning tires and throwing rocks; they are living nice lives in Europe. Forget the politics that divide us,” Yousef concluded. “Rather, let us join in conversation with our brothers and live together under one God.”
In my eyes, Yousef is a “good Arab” who displays a desire to live in peace and maintain a normal life. In contrast, I have also interacted with 17-year-old Mohammed, who promised he would kill me if I return to his store; Anas, who, when wished “Masaa al-khair akhouy” (good night brother), responded “You want war;” and the many young children who have given me death-stares, yelled “Yahud!” or bumped me, simply because I traversed the Muslim quarter as a Jew. Let us use dialogue as a method for peace, but please do not use this blog post as a basis to do something unsafe.