Ray Hanania

Vacation blues, cigars, and the Middle East conflict

I do my best to try not to be 'Arab' when I travel -- just so Alison doesn't give me that look. Like can't we just be nobodies? Not the 'Arab writer?' Not the 'Arab activist?'

One of the biggest problems we have is deciding where to go on vacation. Alison and I can never seem to get away from the Arab-Israeli conflict — even when we try to find a good place to go on vacation.

I always want to go to Palestine, and she keeps thinking about Israel. Okay, fine. Let’s go. We can go to “Israel.” I won’t make a big deal on my immigration forms and write “Palestine” when asked where I’m from. Israeli security might not appreciate it. Those border guards don’t have a great sense of humor, do they?

But then, like all Arabs, I give in and agree. Sure, let’s go to the Zionist Entity — er, I mean “Israel.” So I surrender in the family debate. Isn’t that what the “man” is supposed to do in a marriage — give in?

But then that opens another door into conflict. Okay. We decide to go to “Israel.” and then Alison makes a point about asking if it will be safe.

Safe from whom, or what?

Me, of course. I know exactly what the question is all about. When an Israeli brings up the issue of safety, it’s about those terrorists, the Arabs. It’s never that we might get mugged by an Israeli criminal walking the beaches in Te Aviv.


Paralia beach in southern Crete (illustrative photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Paralia beach in southern Crete (illustrative photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The whole idea of traveling to the Middle East ends up in a debate about security and who’s responsible for the violence. Alison doesn’t come out and blame me or the Arabs, of course. But it’s implied. It’s not safe. Not because Israelis are out there building settlements, confiscating land or oppressing Arabs. But because the Arabs won’t accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and continue the violent harassment … and on and on the thinking goes.

So, why think about it? Why even argue about it? Arguing is no fun. It’s bad enough that I get so many angry letters to my columns in Israeli newspapers from women not married to me, let alone have to deal with the controversy from a Jewish woman who is.

So, we end up going places where the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t come up. I mean, it’s supposed to be a “vacation,” and vacation means to get away from something. And the common denominator in my marriage is conflict. Most of the time not our conflict. (We do get along great.) But what brings Arabs and Jews together better than “conflict?”


So we pick places like the Dominican Republic or even Paris, France. Although Paris is considered “too pro-Arab” and that usually starts a new discussion. Or should I just call it a debate?

I do my best to try not to be “Arab” when I travel — just so Alison doesn’t give me that look. Like can’t we just be nobodies? Not the “Arab writer?” Not the “Arab activist?”

Fine. But there I am on the beach, watching the topless women walk past and smoking my cigar. Alison doesn’t mind me doing either. Just don’t bring up the Middle East conflict. It seems like a worthy trade-off. I get to stare at topless women and smoke a cancer-causing tobacco roll, as long as I don’t bring up the Middle East.

Can’t we just live our lives for one moment without having to bring up the Middle East conflict?

And sure enough, the guy and his family next to me start talking about cigars, and I offer him one of my Cubans — one of the main reasons to go to the Dominican Republic, by the way. Cuban Cigars. They’re the best.

(By the way, how come Israelis and Palestinians don’t produce cigars? Oh oh. That might throw the idea of smoking cigars into the conflict category, and next thing I know, my wife will say is I can’t smoke a cigar. What kind of an Arab man am I anyway?)

Oy vey!

Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (L) argues with right-wing MK Michael Ben Ari (R) about cigars (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (L) argues with right-wing MK Michael Ben Ari (R) about cigars (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

So I give the guy in the lounge chair a Cuban cigar and light it, and the first thing he asks, “Are you from the Middle East?”

Turns out he is a watch manufactirer from Paris who happens to be Jewish. And the next thing you know, we’re talking the Arab-Jewish talk thing. We’re talking about everything, trying to avoid the politics of the Middle East. Hummus. Stuffed grape leaves. Falafel. The beauty of Jerusalem. How we both wish there was real peace. If it were up to us, one Arab and one Jew both savoring Cuban stogies, we would have the whole conflict resolved and put to bed.

But it’s not up to us. And as we lounge in our chairs, reminiscing about the beauty of the land and the ugliness of the conflict, in between a few topless women strolling past, my wife walks up and asks what we are talking about.

“Not the Middle East, sweetie!”

About the Author
Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist and former Chicago political City Hall reporter. His father is from Jerusalem and mother from Bethlehem. A Christian, Hanania's wife, Alison, is Jewish. He has two children, Carolyn Haifa, from a previous marriage, and Aaron, who is Russian Jewish. Hanania writes regularly for Creators Syndicate on Middle East issues and for the Saudi Gazette every Sunday. He is the managing editor of The Arab Daily News online ( During more than 35 years in journalism, he has also hosted several live radio talk shows. He performed standup comedy with the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, lampooning his Arab-Jewish marriage, and is the author of several books including "Arabs of Chicagoland" (2005), a historical look at Arab settlement in Chicago, and “I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America” (1996, 2006), which humorously explores his experience growing up Arab in America.