In Jerusalem, there are Arab taxi drivers, and there are Jewish taxi drivers, and they both drive the same kind of taxi — white, with a yellow sign — and they both say “Baruch Hashem” — which is Hebrew for Praise be to God, and “Kus emekkkkk” – which is Arabic for “your mother’s vagina.”
The only way to know for sure if the taxi driver is an Arab or a Jew is by his name, or by what language he uses when he talks to his wife.
And that’s the funny thing – for how much we hate each other sometimes, we look alike. We use similar syntax. We shrug our shoulders and roll our eyes the same way, and praise God’s glorious name, and curse each other’s mother’s vaginas.
And yet – there’s this sense of the Other. Of wanting to know – is he a Jew? Is he an Arab?
I guess it boils down to tribialism. And trust.
“You know,” my Jewish friend told me once, “I can’t trust Arabs. I just can’t. They’ll be nice to your face, and then stab you in the back.”
“You know,” my Arab friend told me, “All those Jews are the same. Liars. Sneaky. You just can’t trust them.
I don’t buy into this – I think people are people are people, and there are good people and there are assholes. And if we look for good people, we’ll find them. They’re everywhere.
(The assholes will find us, too… no need to look for them 😉 )
Anyway, one night I was barrelling through the empty streets of Jerusalem in a taxi – the driver’s name was Sami – and we spoke in Hebrew for a few minutes before my phone rang. I looked down and saw it was a friend of mine from the Muslim Quarter.
“Marhaba,” I said in Arabic, “Wssup,” and then we switched to English – until we said goodbye:
“Masalaame” I said when I hung up. “Bye, yo.”
“Do you speak Arabic? the driver asked me in Hebrew.
“No, not really – I know a few words.”
“Why were you speaking it?”
“I was talking to a friend who speaks it.”
“You have Arab friends?”
“Sure.” I answered, wondering where he was going with this – because in Jerusalem, things get tribal fast. I still didn’t know if he was an Arab or Jew – but I knew he was drawing lines. And it was up to me to show him why I reach across.
“No, really – how do you know Arabs?”
“I live in the Muslim Quarter a few days a week.”
We were stopped at a red light, and he turned to face me.
“I’m doing a book about the Old City – I’m living in each quarter for a few months and writing about it.”
“Aren’t you afraid?” he asked.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m not afraid.” And then I decided to tell him whole truth – about how I was once 18 and standing in front of Damascus Gate, and about how they threw stones at me, and about how there was blood and about how I was scared… So I told him, but I also told him about how one day I got tired of being afraid so I got over it, and I realized that the people in the Old City were just people as as vulnerable and hurting and hopeful as anyone else. Just like me.
And that’s why I stopped being afraid.
“I have to tell you something,” he said in Hebrew. He cleared his throat, and then said something to me that I didn’t understand because it was in Arabic.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means, ‘On my behalf of my people, I am sorry for what was done to you.'”
He turned around and looked at me again. “Really,” he said. “I take responsibility for this.”
“You don’t have to,” I said. “You didn’t do it.”
“My people did it, and I love my people, and I am responsible to them, as they are to me.”
“I get it,” I said. “And I’ll take responsibility for all the shit we’ve put you through, too.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“And thank YOU,” I replied.
There are assholes, and there are good people.
And there are way more good people then there are assholes.
And a weight lifted — for me, and maybe for him as well — he was quiet and so was I as we drove through the streets of the city we share.
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