“My roommate is Jewish and gay!” he tells me, “I’d never been to America, I’d never even left Gaza. I’d never met a Jew before, except the soldiers at the checkpoints, and I’d never met a gay guy before either and now I’m living with one! And all that happened on my first night in New York City!”
I want to tell him that I’m sure he really has “met a gay guy before,” but I don’t say anything. I don’t want to ruin the novelty for him, so instead I say, “Well Mahmud, this is the first time I’ve ever met a Gazan.”
He tells me about his program which brings Palestinians and Israelis together for a semester — one of these peace programs.
“My roommate says we are studying at NYJew,” he says.
His green eyes widen when dinner arrives and he sees the giant plate of hummus surrounding an oily pile of fried mushrooms.
“Yes, it’s just like at home,” he says, looking down and then looking up at me, like I’ve opened the door to a magical new world. “I’m coming back here as much as I can!”
I watch his hands as they pull the warm pita out of the basket and tear a piece off. Scooping the hummus up, he makes sure to grab a mouthful of the mushrooms.
“This place is so busy all the time,” I say looking around at the noisy, packed tables.
“I’m glad our food has become so, how do you say it, trendy? Is that right?”
He’s still wearing his coat even though we are inside.
“I’m still so cold,” he says “I’ve been cold for weeks. It never gets this cold in Gaza, not even in the winter. I had to go out and buy this.”
He runs his fingers over the jacket, which still has a Forever 21 tag, “I didn’t want this color, you know. It’s the olive green color; it reminds me of the IDF, of the checkpoints. At home, my friends would say it’s the color of the enemy, but it’s keeping me warm here.”
The men wearing those jackets are men too, I think, but I don’t say that because, on this November night on the Upper East Side, we couldn’t be farther away from the worlds we both know.
“One thing they don’t have here,” and he looks around, but I can see what he wants. I grab a bottle from the table behind us and pass it to him.
“Shukran, but it won’t taste like home. My father gives jars of oil to the whole neighborhood from his olive tree.”
“Try it,” I say. “In my experience, everything is possible in New York.”
But he’s right — food here just isn’t the same. It’s flavorless compared to what we get back home. In his home and in my home or maybe my home is his home and his home is my home.
“But you’ve done your degree, right?”
“Yes, I studied Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I just graduated. I handed my last seminar paper in two weeks ago.”
“You are so lucky! I can’t wait to be done with seminar papers; they are the worst.”
“I so prefer an exam. At least you know when an exam is over, but I always feel like I can put more work into a seminar, like it’s never fully finished, you know? It could always be better.”
He rips off another piece of hot pita from the basket and I wonder if he considers this breaking bread with the enemy.
“And you write plays? I want to write too, but now I make films. I want to make films about my people.”
“Can I show you something?” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and shows me a video of an art exhibition that he organized at his university.
“They tried to shut us down,” he says. “Hamas tried to prevent us from having the exhibit, but I pulled all of the strings I had.”
The camera takes me through the exhibition, displaying paintings of Gaza done by students. A remix of “Give Peace a Chance” is playing in the background and Mahmud has cleverly arranged for the artists to stand in front of their paintings, providing short soundbites about their work and life under war. The video is well-edited and has beautiful continuity. I almost can’t believe he did the whole thing himself.
“We want everyone to know that we are just regular people,” one of the artists tells the camera. “That we have normal lives and want to live in peace.”
Then you shouldn’t have voted for Hamas, I think, but I don’t say that.
The camera closes in on a picture, a portrait really, of Arafat. I can feel the wrinkles in his skin as they jump off the canvas. He’s not like in photos, or on TV when you see him animated, gesticulating wildly, speaking about the Israeli oppressor and Palestinian freedom; here, he looks decrepit, like a tired old dream of what was or could have been.
“This is really well done. You should post this,” I say, when the clip ends.
But then I think he could get in trouble for posting this video. His family could be in danger. He can’t even post pictures of himself with the other participants in his program on Facebook.
“You know my father was educated in the West and returned to help my people. He founded his own organization to raise money to build roads and schools and when both Hamas and Fatah asked him to run for office, he refused. ‘They are all crooks’ he said, and he kept building his company. My father is a boy from a refugee camp who lost his home and rose up and gave so much to his people.”
“That’s a lot to live up to,” I say, thinking of my own mother and her vast accomplishments.
“Yeah, I guess.” He looks down at his phone and closing the clip of the video. “But I will give to my people too. I will make their lives better. I love my country.”
Suddenly, I’m acutely aware that he is younger than I am and I wonder if an optimist is just a pessimist without experience.
His eyes make their way down to my chest so I draw them back up to mine.
“So what have you done in your program so far?”
“We went to DC last month. I really loved that. We went to the Holocaust Museum, which was hard on the group.”
“For me,” he says, “that was Nakba. Seeing those pictures — it reminded me of the stories my grandmother used to tell us when the Israelis came in 48 and took our homes. Nakba was like our Holocaust — that is why I think there should be a Nakba museum in Washington because that was the experience we had as a people.”
My muscles seize up — I’m making a fist under the table. Really? I think. You’re going to make that false equivalency? You’re really going to compare the systematic murder of civilians targeted by race in the world’s most lethal death machine to a war fought over territory? Really? You’re going to say that Jews herded into ghettos and gassed to death is anything like Israel’s war against all its neighboring countries? How did that happen? How did this comparison become so skewed?
But I don’t say that. I nod and smile and take another bite of this delicious hummus, because we are in New York, on the Upper East Side, in 2016 and because no more people need to die over this and because I want peace in our time before there is no time left.
“That’s good that they taught you Arabic,” he says.
“Your language is so hard. I hate Tanwin. I swear noun cases are a form of torture. But beautiful, mind you, so beautiful. Just difficult is all.”
“Agreed,” he says, pouring olive oil all over his plate, “Noun cases are the worst. I would have more pictures to show you, but the Zionists took away my phone at the border check.”
He says Zionist like it’s a dirty word.
“But, yes, Arabic is hard, even for us.”
And then I remember the scariest moment of my life — right before my Arabic final two years ago when the war broke out. I got the call and scrambled to pack everything into a bag as I called my best friend. She stopped me from breaking down and sent her husband to come over and pick me up.
“Take this,” he said, pulling a wad of cash out of his wallet. “It’s always good to have cash.” I collected my things but I couldn’t remember where I put my military ID. He helped me find it and it we stuffed my gear into a bag and then rushed to the car.
“I don’t have a uniform,” I stammered. “And I haven’t used a gun in almost three years.”
“Just breathe,” he said, calmly. “They will give you everything you need when you get there. Just throw your things in the car and we’ll figure the rest out on the way.”
On the freeway the siren went off — it was the first rocket in Jerusalem. “It’s time guys,” he said. He pulled over and we ran to the ditch beside the road. In an act of futility, we lay flat on the ground with our hands over our heads, like those videos of children practicing for the bomb in the Cold War. I put my hands over my best friend’s head and she put her hands over mine. She dragged the dog behind her on the leash, making her get low like her owners. Her husband followed quickly behind both of us and, before I knew it, his body was lying, not on top of his wife, but on top of both of us. He was lying on top of us, shielding us from the blast.
The siren rose and fell my friend counting down the seconds. The ground shook and I could feel the roadside pebbles pressing into my cheeks. And then there was no blast, nothing around us. We touched our bodies, just to be sure. We were all okay — even the dog.
“You okay?” he says, seeing me stare into nowhere.
And I’m wondering what we talk about anyway. We are from different sides of the line, different sides of history and we clearly have completely different ways of telling it — we’ve been taught different things. How much could we ever have in common and how would I feel if I were having hummus with a German SS officer, but then again would I? No, I wouldn’t, and yet Mahmud is here, having hummus with me on the Upper East Side. So he may think that Nakba is the Holocaust, but at least he doesn’t think I’m a Nazi. He still asked me out for dinner and maybe more. So I’m wondering what we talk about then, the weather? Sports?
“You alright?” Mahmud, puts his hand on mine and he’s staring at me, but I look down at my plate.
And it angers me, but I remain silent because I want there to be a Nakba museum. I really do. I want them to make a Nakba museum and mourn their collective loss and present their collective narrative — even though I hate that word — and figure out if they can agree on how it looks, how much it costs and where it goes. Who will fund it and who gets a say in what the exhibits look like and how it’s presented. We, Jews, always have an easy time figuring those details out so I guess it wouldn’t be hard for anyone else. If there are two Palestinians, are there three opinions?
“Emily?” he says.
Why am I so angry? Maybe because he uses the word Zionist like it’s a curse and I am not just a Zionist — my entire life is about Zionism. I moved to Israel to serve in the IDF. It was an honor to serve, and my country makes me whole, but separates me from others and from him. I can tell he’s waiting for me to look him in the eyes.
And I know it’s wrong but I can’t help but feel like he, and they, fired at me, at my friends, at my country. And that we pulled out of what some called the “French Riviera” of the Middle East and all we got was rockets against our cities and democratically elected aggressive neighbors.
I lift my face slowly and look directly into his widening green eyes and then I swear, at that moment, the sounds of the busy restaurant fade away and I hear waves of warm water crashing against a shore. I see small children playing on soft sand, but only from a distance, as if through binoculars. I can almost hear them giggling as the bigger one takes the little one’s hands and starts whirling him around in circles. They are spinning out of control and then land gently on the soft beach as sand flies around them into the air. Now they are lying like starfish, washed up on the shore, looking up at the sky above and rolling over with laughter. One starts tickling the other, and their laughter echoes over the waves until the sound of planes flying overhead gets closer. They stop and look upwards, in awe, pointing at the elegant fighter jets darting through the sky, but then there is fire and smoke.
“Emily? Are you alright?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Did I say something?” He lifts his hand off of mine, but leaves it open on table.
“No, you’re fine,” I say. “You’re great. It’s okay.” And without thinking I put my hand in his. And now we are facing each other, holding hands, but not saying a word.
We look down at our hummus and the stack of pita and we sit in silence because neither of us say what we are thinking and what cannot be said — that next time, which could be any day now, he could be on the sandy beach and I will be the one wearing the green jacket.