Abdallah is bouncing on the balls of his feet making chicken soup. He ladles the golden broth into a cheerful blue and white bowl and plunks it down on the table in front of me “I want to tell you about a fundamental difference between us.”
“Okay . . .”
He wags a finger at my nose, it barely touched the tip.
“You trust people!” he snorts. “You walk in here with your scarf and your bags and your blondeness, and you smile and trust people!”
“Okay, that’s true. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt,” I say.
“Ah, but I am older than you, and I. Trust. No one.”
He takes out a ten-shekel piece from his shirt pocket and slams it on the table in front of us.
“Look at this!”
I pick up the coin.
“You are looking at this coin, and you believe it! You believe what it wants you to believe. If you were selling chewing gum or cigarettes or sahlab downstairs, and I gave you this coin, you would take it!”
“Yeah, of course.”
“You would be wrong!” He jabs the space in front of us with his finger, and his eyes dance.
“It! Is! A! Fake!”
He takes out another coin. It looks exactly the same to me as the first.
“Open your hands!” he orders me. I place my hands open in front of him. My left, and my right. He places one coin in each.
“Close your eyes, and feel the difference.”
I do just like he tells me. One coin feels slightly heavier than the other—I feel its density. It matters. The other coin, now that I can compare, feels a little lighter.
“Now look at this coin!”
He points to a tiny mark on the heavier, smoother coin. I look closely just to the right of his shiny fingernail at the little emblem for the State of Israel with the word “Israel” written beneath it in Hebrew.
“Do you see that? This means it is a real coin! Now look at the other one!”
There is no emblem. No “Israel.”
“This! Is! Fake!” He snatches it from my hand and slams it down on the table. My chicken soup ripples in the bowl.
“Don’t spill!” he says, and he grabs a napkin and wipes around the bowl even though there’s nothing on the table.
“Don’t spill and trust no one!” he says again.
I take another bite of the soup. “It’s really good.”
“Okay, I know the soup is good. It is my mother’s soup. You Jews have your mother’s soup. We Arabs also have our mother’s soup. You see? We are not so different! We have mothers and they make the best soup! Now, let’s talk about you. So you are writing this book, and you are too trusting. And now, I want to tell you a story about me. You know, I am a Muslim. I was educated in a Muslim school here in the Old City. I prayed five times a day, with my father and my brothers—my brothers are scum, now. I will not call them sons of a bitch because that would be insulting my mother. But they are scum. Except the one who is dead. We never speak ill of the dead even though he was a liar and a thief and scum!”
Abdullah nods and sways.
“So, I was a Muslim, and I trusted my teachers. I listened to them when they told me gay people are haram – off limits! They are taboo! Disgusting! I believed them!”
I put my spoon down and watch him. His hands shake. His little gray mustache quivers. I’m wondering where he’s going with this, and if I need to whip out my love is love hat next time I see him.
“I believed this all my life, all my life, I swear to God. And then so much time passing, so much time believing, so much time listening to the things the imam told me about the sins of men, and what they do, and I grew up – but it took a long time. I work many years here and learn many people’s stories, and they all sank in like water through the sand. I was first stone, but then I became like sand. The truth was water. It changed me. Do you know what I am trying to tell you?”
“No,” I say.
“Well. I turned sixty. This is a big age. I turned sixty and I woke up, I swear to God, on that first morning, and I said to myself, ‘Maybe I don’t hate gay people so much. Maybe they are not so taboo. Maybe I am actually gay!’”
I dropped my spoon. The soup rippled again.
“Don’t spill! My soup is too good to waste,” he says. “So yes, I am gay. I go to the LGBT center in West Jerusalem, and I talk to people and I make a lot of friends, and I like to go clubbing in Tel Aviv! We can go sometime!” he shimmies a little.
“Wow,” I say to him. “That’s amazing. But, Abdullah, you just spent the last few minutes telling me not to trust anyone, and how to tell if someone is trying to cheat you out of ten shekels. So how am I supposed to know if what you are saying is true?”
“Ah!” he says as he turns off the soup, turns to me, and smiles for more than the blink of an eye. “Everything about me is the truth. After all the lies I have heard, and all the stories fed to me, I live the truth! I live it! Except for my hair. That is not so true. After all, I am over sixty. My hair is gray. So I dye it dense black – you know, for all the beautiful men I meet.”
This is an edited excerpt from Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem.