Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem

Yom Hashoah at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge

Details יונתן יעקבי • CC BY-SA 3.0 - Wikipedia

My friend Shadi’s  brother Laith  is a tour  guide

He studied for years, and trekked all around Israel with his fellow students — north, south, east and west.  Some of the students  Jews, some were Arabs, and one guy came all the way from China.

“It’s like having a masters degree in the history and geography and culture of Israel,” he says. “Plus, you have to know how to tell a good story.”

He got his licence during COVID, but with the tourism industry on lockdown, he only started working for real in the last year or so.

He loves it.

Today, he drove with three other guides to the Israel/ Jordan checkpoint at Beit She’an. Their group was due to cross over on the Sheikh Hussein Bridge around 10:00 am. 

The guides were all tired because they left early to beat traffic, and the coffee they got on the road  was awful.   

“It tasted like a donkey’s ass,” Laith told

Me. “It was so bad we pulled over and threw it out.”

The driver  – Muhammad – took responsibility: “I am breaking my fast, so God is punishing us.”

They reached the checkpoint by 9:30 am, and already the air was crackling with heat.  Only April, but a real scorcher.

The security officer got on the bus.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Laith  and the others said that they were tour guides on their way to pick up a big group due to arrive.

They displayed their official Israeli tour guiding licenses for the officer to see.

He yawned.

“We are already late,” Muhammad said.  “Could we go please?”

The security officer shook his head.

“Show me your IDs,” he said, slowly, languidly.

The guides all took out their personal IDs.

The guard took his sweet time with each card.

The engine was on and the air con was working but through the open door the guides could feel the heat, hot and heavy like  stale breath.

“Why is your ID damaged?” The guard asked Muhammad.

“My kid messed it up. But you can still read my name and see my photo”

The guard yawned.

“Everyone off the bus.”

The heat was unbearable outside, and the sun beat down on their heads as the guard led them to an interrogation room.

Laith  was livid.

“This is nonsense,” he shouted. “We are tour guides representing Israel! We are like ambassadors for the country!!! We  are about to meet a huge group and this is their first time here in Israel, and the first thing you remind us is to talk about is the  racism in this country ?”

Laith is not a quiet man.  In fact,  his  neighbors have complained when he’s on the phone with his family because he’s loud even when he’s trying to be quiet.  And now he was full-on furious  – and shouting for real – so inevitably, the security officer’s boss heard him shouting.

Nu, what’s the problem?”

“This donkey took us off the bus because Muhammad’s ID is slightly damaged.”

The supervisor looked at the ID, and shook his head.

“Come on,” he said to the first security officer.  “You can see his name and his photo. What’s the problem?”

The first officer shrugged.

“Just because we are Arab doesn’t mean we are terrorists!” Laith said.

The security officer and his supervisor were silent.

The supervisor waved the guides through the checkpoint.

“This isn’t the first time I faced racism at the checkpoint,” laith told me. “But this  is the first time I feel like I made my point.”

They got to the Sheikh Hussein Bridge  and waited  for the  group with several other guides.  They drank Arabic coffee and smoked together,  laughing, swapping stories, passing the time in sparse patches of shade.

(This time Muhammad abstained from joining them for coffee and a cigarette.

“Maybe it was bad luck when I drank coffee this morning,” he said. “We don’t need more curses now.” )

“It was actually really pleasant to wait together,” Laith told me. “We were all speaking Arabic and from different parts of the country — you can tell by our accents and dialects, and it was really nice, like brothers. “

A woman with long black hair and flashing black eyes and a megawatt  smile approached the group and waved.

“She looked Arab so I said ‘tfadali’ – come join us,” Laith told me. “‘I don’t speak Arabic,’ the woman answered in Hebrew. ‘Oh you look Arab,’ I told her. ‘I guess I am,’ she said to me. ‘’My grandparents are from Iraq.’”

“Where are you from?” She asked the guides.

“They’re  from the North, they’re  from the South, and the rest of us are from Jerusalem,” Laith answered.

“Oh it’s so tense in Jerusalem!” The woman said. “And another terror attack  this morning!”

“God have mercy, I hope the men will be ok,” one of the other guides said.

And then, from all around,  an earsplitting  howl engulfed the group.   From  the earth and the sky and the air and the trees, it was everywhere, almost too horrible to bear.

And Laith remembered.  This was the siren for Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The guides  all put their coffees down, ground their cigarettes into the dust, and stood.

“We all bowed our heads,” Laith  told me. “And with the heat and everything  my head was going to explode. I wanted to close my ears because even though I am loud I am

sensitive to certain sounds, but I felt it might be disrespectful.  So I didn’t, and I let the sound fill me.”

When the siren ended, the woman beside them was in tears.

“I know today can be emotional,” Laith said. “Are you ok? Did you lose someone in the Holocaust?”

“No no – it’s just, with all the pain and suffering and divisions here in Israel, I am so touched to see all of you — Arab men! — standing for our siren and respecting Yom HaShoah.”

Laith was silent a moment and then he responded: “Thank you. You are  right, it isn’t simple.  It isn’t easy to have empathy when we face racism every single day here, but  at the end we are all humans, and need to understand each other’s pain.”

The woman wiped her eyes.

“You’re right,” she said. “And I will remember what you said forever.”

“The thing is,” Laith told told me later. “We all need to live together. And sometimes that means we have to fight back against racism and stand up for ourselves,  and sometimes it means we have to stop for a minute and show respect for what someone else has faced.  I hope one day it’ll work both ways.”

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.