Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Palestinian Stranger: Of a Different Mind and Place

The Middle Eastern stone and masonry buildings hunched like a dense crowd at the gate, darkened in the dusk’s sun, and I stood there, my red American backpack leaning against my knee. Down the twilighted street it looked dark and foreboding.

Where might I find a hotel? It was 6:30 pm and I had just missed the last bus leaving Nablus, Palestine at 6 pm.

I was going to be stuck here all night. True, Palestinians had been courteous and friendly all day.

The people in Nablus hadn't been at all like most Palestinian Muslims who support killing civilians, not at all like Palestinians who had recently knifed to death Jewish civilians including a 13-year-old girl in her own bedroom. Or the ones who intentionally rammed into Israeli cars, trying to kill Jews. In one car attack, a 1-year-old Jewish infant had been killed.

Immediately, the Palestinian government in the West Bank had praised that Muslim attacker as a"martyr." Really sick and twisted.

My bumpy ride up from Jerusalem in the blue and white bus had been fascinating and safe. A short, black-haired Palestinian teen in the seat next to me had introduced himself and plied me with many questions about America, grinning with enthusiasm and intensity.

And for the past 6 hours, I had wandered the ancient streets of Nablus (called in the Bible, Shechum), marveling at the dead stones of that ancient past contrasting now to the lively hubbub of present day life.

Shop sellers had given me the hard sale, though had been very polite. No hostility. Probably spotted me immediately as North American. Some of the Arab men dressed American, but very conservatively, not with my colorful garb.

I saw few teen girls in the streets, only about or 6, and they walked quietly beside their men escorts, ensconced in cocoons of dark cloth with only their faces visible shaped like pert olives.

So, excited by another new adventure, though tinged by anxiety, I walked down a central street past more shops, looking for what might be an inn. Some older men in traditional dress were pulling sheep heads, slabs of meat, and sheened metal cookware from their display tables, and then pulling down the dull, metal rolling doors, locking out the night. Noisily and uncertainly came the darkness.

Would I even have enough Israeli currency for a room? Or would they take American money? What would their attitude at the inn be, if I found one?

Would they demand to see my passport? Up until now my looking more Jewish than all Jewish members on our kibbutz where I worked in eastern Galilee, had been humorous—my dark curly hair and prominent nose; also often bent close to the text of my Jewish Bible, which none of them, the actual Jews bothered to read. They wondered about this goyim who knew all about Nahum and Jeremiah.

But now I was hungry in a strange place, a mind’s distance from Americanized Israeli cities, so I walked over to something familiar, a small falafel cubicle still open.

It was a bright spot along a large dark 3-story building. The cook, a tall Palestinian youth, probably about 19, was busy cleaning a grimy grill, scraping off pea crud and the last shreds of dark meat.

But he paused smiled and said, “Salaam."

I pointed and asked, “How much?”

Behind him 2 boys about 7 and 5 were cleaning bowls and shoving vegetable shavings into a dented trash can.

Then in perfect English, the cook said he was near closing but still had enough for a couple falafels. I ordered two and stood there eating them, crunching delicious hot peas, meat, and steaming vegetables. Between a 3rd and 4th bite, I asked, "Are there any hotels near here?"

“You American?” he asked as he continued to clean and he rushed some Arabic at the boys behind him.

”Yes, I missed the bus. I came over to the Middle East after finishing college in California--am an anthropologist--actually hitched across Europe, then down down the Croatian coast, when I should have been at my commencement. Your English is very clear. You a student?"

"Yeah, I'm Ismael, recently graduated from Ramalah Friends High School, and now attend an-Naja National University here in the city. And your name?”

We flowed like the Jordan River into a young adult conversation, the kind that take place anywhere--
comparing notes on studies, girls, religion, and, finally, politics, of course. Is there any other topic in the Middle East?

He rinsed the grill and said, “I can direct you to a hotel, but if you wait a short bit longer for me to lockup, you are invited to our home; I'm sure my mother and father would be happy to provide you with hospitality for the evening. Then we could continue our discussion. I would like to ask more questions."

That night with the Abrahamic stars outside, countless in the black sky, I sat in the cook's family's 2nd story living room of a 3-story concrete home.

Ismael explained, "Our third story is still blocked off, under construction." On the wall behind us hung a tapestry with a deer and a mountain. In front of it sat Ismael’s father stocky with short hair and a pudgy face ensconced like a sheikh on a stuffed chair, his 5 children sitting on the floor by him, all watching TV.

His father didn't speak much English, and me, of course, no Arabic. So Ismael translated a few words he said to me in greeting.

A few times, Ismael walked into another room to answer his cell. The old and the new.

I sat on a low chair and watched fascinated as the white hijabbed mother first served me--as honored guest, a dish of Arab meat with red and green vegetables, then served her husband, then Ismael, then children, and lastly back in the kitchen, I guess, Ismael's younger sister and herself.

To my surprise, after conversation, they didn’t have me sleep in a side room or on cushions in the living room. As the guest of honor, the parents gave me their own large bedroom with its king-sized American-style bed covered in large elaborate quilts.

I felt sheepish being so honored, but remembered that they were no doubt practicing the Islamic rule of hospitality to strangers. Or, maybe, my skeptical side kicking in, trying to impress this American, hoping for some favor from me in the future.

The next day we dined formally on the floor in their dining room. I sat cross-legged in front of a spacious banquet of many dishes, again served first. The gracious mother ate last. Maybe, not so different from my own Thanksgivings as a kid growing up in the Bible Belt of Nebraska where the women labored most of the day in the kitchen, while the men sat in the living room watching the North/South Football Game.

The next morning Ismael didn’t have to work and took me down to the young men’s club. The open air game room was on the top floor of a 5-story building in downtown Nablus. At a pool table, 7 young adults avidly played billiards. We soon joined after introductions, but I didn’t get many balls shot before the conversation turned to politics.

Especially, a very serious guy in a rap shirt kept button-holing me, saying in flawless English, “Why does America keep helping the Jews? That’s what I want to know. Your President Trump, what an idiot! Obama was no better!"

He paused to cue a ball, then continued, "We are oppressed every day, by the Zionist dogs always telling us what to do and where to do it. And they won’t give us our land back. Look at how they are stealing our land, and settlers are cutting down our olive trees.

But we will get it back by blood and bravery. Thank Allah, praise be his name, that we have Fatah to stand up for us!”

I listened, somewhat taken back by the harsh barrage. Other Palestinians jabbed in their own knife points, bitter comments. Since I had come on this great pilgrimage leaving the U.S. behind because of my own disillusionment with Obamaism, I found it hard to know what to say. But I couldn’t stomach the Palestinians' attacks on Jewish civilians, and reminded them that Jewish people have suffered, too.

So, while we poked spheres of color into pockets--and debaters would step aside every few minutes to take cell messages, I side-stepped the anti-American barrage with mild-mannered equivocations.

They didn’t seem to really be asking for answers but only using me as a sort of political, Islamic piñata.

Gradually the conversation cooled, but then the guy wearing the old rap t-shirt asked “Why did have you come to Palestine? If you call it 'West Bank,' I'll punch you.”

Suddenly, the conversation was no longer impersonal insults; it got direct and personal.

Ismael started to come to my defense, even had the pool game stopped.

But I motioned, "No, let me respond. I'm a theist, a spiritual seeker, a Friend, and wanted to see the land where all 3 large monotheistic religions began. This brought forth mild surprise from a number of faces.

One perceptive youth who hadn't spoken yet, said, "It's more than 3; don't forget Baha'i."

"Very good point! I responded." And then continued telling them about my travels and background.

Only having been in the Middle East for a few months, I still didn’t grasp the real nature of religious people in Israel or the West Bank. How many Jews, how many Muslims, how many Christians really believed in their religious identities? Or were those only their cultural and political, often rancorous, worldview, not a thought-out lifestance.

These pool players, friends of Ismael, of course, were more religious, than the Jews on my kibbutz who were all hard atheists. One 45-year-old kibbutzim farmer worked on Jewish holy days, disking fields all day, working hard as ever on Yom Kippur, that most holy day of the Jewish calendar when no cars were seen on major highways, and even the most hardened secularist would at least reflect on his errors from the past year and make new resolutions.

But what of these modern Muslim youth with their cell phones? Only two months before, 5 Muslim fighters had come across the Jordan River and attacked 15 Jewish civilians in apartment buildings in Bet Shean just a mile and a half from the kibbutz farm where I lived and worked. Israelis reserve soldiers bullet-riddled the terrorists and fire-torched their bodies.

Would the young adult in the shades and rap shirt, who had verbally attacked me, soon pull a knife at a bus stop and stab an old Jewish lady or a Jewish child for Allah and Palestine? Or would he join a Muslim jihad organization such as HAMAS?

What did that even mean to them? Did they really believe in Allah?

While I ruminated on such questions in a side-part of my mind, I finished up with my explanation to them, "Last week while eating at a Palestinian restaurant in Jerusalem, there had been an Islamic plaque on the wall that said, "Islam is a religion of love." Would you agree with that?"

But what about the verses in the Quran which advocate the killing of Infidels—which means Jews, heretical Muslims, and us Americans. Or the drastic Quranic statement that at the end of the world Jews will try and hide behind rocks, but the stones will cry out and tell Muslims where Jews are hiding so they can be killed?"

Ismael glanced around toward the downstairs and at other buildings near the open terrace where we stood, and whispered to me, "It's best not to discuss Islam in a public place."

"Oh, okay. Sorry."

"So, what about girls?" I chuckled. "Is that an okay topic? Are you allowed to date as Muslims?"

"No," said Ismael and several others chimed in--no they "couldn’t date; dating isn't part of Islamic culture."

A stocky guy sitting near the edge of the roof on a hardwood chair and nursing his cell phone spoke up, "Look at Pakistan's Islamic government in the news today. They've banned Valentine's Day. Our government ought to do that, too."

"Not quite," said Ismael to the anti-Valentines youth. "Check the news, again. What happened is that the Islamabab High Court prohibited all Valentine’s Day festivities in government offices and public spaces and directs the media not to promote or cover Valentine’s Day."

Then Ismael turned back to me. “First, I must finish university and then build up a business--like my father did--so that I have a secure foundation; and then my family will arrange a wedding for me with a respectable girl."

“Really?” His conservative explanation jarred paradoxically with the lurid news I had read in the English-language Jerusalem Post the previous week. "What about several East Jerusalem youths who followed an American woman a couple weeks ago and attempted to fondle her as she walked down a windowless street? Many Muslim men seem to have a vulgar attitude toward women."

"Wade, keep in mind, young men here think all American women are like actors in Hollywood movies, loose and adulterous."

Finally, Ismael said it was time to go.

I thanked everyone for their hospitality, and added, "I'll work on improving my billiards' game." They laughed at that.

But at the door out, the stocky guy in the rap t-shirt walked up close to me and whispered.

"What?" I asked. I thought he was making another sarcastic comment, a parting shot at me and the U.S.--that I was getting verbally stoned, again.

But instead he repeated in a low voice, “Do you think you can get me an American visa?”

-Daniel Wilcox

In the Light, hoping for reconciliation for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples,

Daniel Wilcox

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