“The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.”
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
It’s forty years since we met for one day in October, 1980. In the café we discussed many situations. Now, after years packed away, in my hands I hold the letter you sent a few months later along with a postcard of The Tomb of the Patriarchs. I wonder what or even if you remember me.
This is what I remember.
Against the advice of Karen, a friend from New York who, with her family moved to Israel, and with whom I was staying, as well as other Israelis I decided to visit Hebron alone. At the bus station I had the choice of taking the Israeli or Palestinian bus. Despite the admonitions of the Israelis at the station, I chose the Palestinian bus. The driver welcomed me and proudly showed off “my” Rolls Royce engine. I acted impressed despite my complete ignorance of engines or anything related to a car or bus. If it doesn’t turn on, time to call AAA.
I received some odd stares but mostly I gazed out the window as the bus rumbled along. I arrived with zero idea of where I was going or what I intended to do or see. I started meandering on a dirt and pebbly road. Suddenly a small group of kids around 10 years old started following me. I felt like an oddity in a thrift shop. My paranoia ramped up so I stopped at a little store and did my best to signal I’d decided to buy them sodas. They waited outside. I came out and handed them the sodas. I remember this very clearly—one young boy reached and touched my sun-streaked blond ponytail. Then you appeared dressed in jeans and a t-shirt as I was. You spoke in broken English. You seemed to be about fifteen or sixteen. Scrawny.
With a warm, slightly demure smile you asked, “I help show you?”
I agreed and we walked and talked. I told you I was an American from New York. And yes, I was Jewish. You mentioned you had some older friends who went to Hebron University who might interest me. I agreed and we found four men, dressed in jeans and collared shirts, around my age outside the souk. They spoke excellent English. They asked why I’d come with a hint of suspicion mixed with puzzlement. I answered with my motto since I began to travel five years before, “Because I want to see for myself how the real people live.” I almost always avoided tours or guides. Eventually I’d get around to seeing the famous spots but not at the cost of meeting people. I didn’t add, “In this case because I need to bypass the propaganda both sides spew.”
One of the guys asked if I wanted to come with them for a coffee. A bit anxiously I nodded and said, “Sure.” Majed, they spoke to you in Arabic. You stood back as we began to walk toward the souk. I asked why. You said it was OK. My curiosity overrode my feelings of slight betrayal. They led me into the thriving market they called the souk. I followed the students through a dizzying maze where I could disappear and no one would find me.
My fears heightened when an Arab man wearing a thawb with a keffiyeh and agal on his head, passed by us, stopped, leaned over to me and said, “You are not afraid?” I was literally pee-in-my-pants terrified but I answered with faux confidence. “No. Why should I be?” He patted me on the shoulder. “Good, good that you are here.”
Soon we sat at a small café inside the souk. They ordered coffee for us. They didn’t let me pay. I couldn’t figure out how to explain I never drink coffee because it ignites a flare up of my colitis. I drank it while we talked.
My memories are vivid. They wanted a separate state from Israel. A two-state solution worked for them. We didn’t discuss Jerusalem. Their state must be democratic like the U.S. or Israel. They watched the Israeli Knesset on TV and they wanted a self-governing body. Even then they scorned the corruption of the PLO and expressed anger at the Saudis and Emirates for abandoning them. They did not want a king.
These men impressed me with their desires and their knowledge. And, I think, they appreciated that I agreed they should have their own state.
They walked me back towards the bus station and I saw something that, to this day, gives me pause—two young Palestinian women, one dressed in tight blue jeans and the other in a short skirt, passed us. The men, who seemed so open-minded in their thinking, spat at the women and yelled at them in Arabic. The young women were not intimidated. They yelled right back. I admired their fearlessness. I didn’t understand the exchange but I imagined the insults slinging from each side. I kept my mouth shut and tried to remain impassive.
At the station we shook hands and I thanked them for their hospitality. And then, Majed, you reappeared. We spoke some more and exchanged addresses. You hoped someday to see me in America. Feeling my gut getting ready to erupt, I took a taxi instead of the bus back to Jerusalem.
The next day, after a night spent mostly in the bathroom, I headed south to the Negev Desert and the waterfalls of En Gedi, and then spent a day lounging by the Dead Sea. Under the scorching heat I climbed up to the fortress and imagined the martyrs of Masada. I bussed to the resort towns of Eilat and Taba (not yet returned to Egypt), where, in an act of extreme doofusness, I lost my sunglasses while swimming in the Gulf of Aqaba. Each night I gazed upwards and witnessed the wavering, billion-watt stars that felt as if they were signaling a message to me. No wonder the heavens played such a huge role in the myths and religions founded in the Mideast.
After some time with my friends in Netanya, I headed toward Lebanon. A female cop picked me up while hitching and allowed me to get closer to the border than most tourists. At a kibbutz I met Broucha, a survivor with whom I spoke for hours and hours as she lay on her back from pain suffered from merciless beatings in the camps.
A very kind and friendly couple with their kids picked me up while hitching back to Netanya. They were on their way to a Hasidic wedding and invited me along. With some trepidation, I accepted. Repressing my disdain I held my tongue, but everything about it, especially the separation of men and women, infuriated me—and reminded me of the young men from Hebron U, with similar views on women I found impossible to abide.
Soon, I flew back to Paris and returned home. Your letter with the postcard awaited me. It began:
“My Friend Bruce…Oh Dream…”
Your words conjured a fond memory of that day in Hebron before settling into a feeling of helplessness. As you intimated, your plan was to escape the West Bank and immigrate to America. Without any family here to sponsor you, I wondered if you hoped I could help. I doubted I could. A few years before a friend from Queens married a Palestinian man. The immigration assholes didn’t believe they married for love. They thought money changed hands or some other nefarious plan underlay the marriage. The officials randomly showed up in the middle of the night and demanded endless rounds of interviews, all the time threatening to send the husband back to Gaza. I wrote a letter of support and helped put them in contact with a lawyer, which they couldn’t really afford. I’ve long since lost contact with the couple, but I know it took years and my friend getting pregnant before the authorities issued a permanent residency card. Majed, I didn’t think I could secure you a home in America.
I wrote back—and never heard from you again. I didn’t believe you wouldn’t answer me so I asked my Israeli friends if my letter or a subsequent one from you could’ve been read and intercepted by the authorities and confiscated. Legal or not, I don’t know, but they answered with an unqualified, “Yes.”
It's been four decades since my trip to Hebron. Outside of my café, both nothing and everything has changed in your homeland. The untenable devastation is caused by imbecilic and corrupt leaders on both sides. I can barely stand to think about it without my heart breaking. As I wrote then in my diaries I still believe: The Israelis and Palestinians have more in common than either side admits and they better figure out an answer before they totally annihilate each other.
I’ve read that “our” souk is nearly deserted because of infighting between the Israelis and Palestinians. There is a new business center where Israelis are not allowed to visit because of the onslaught of, I believe, illegal settlements which inflamed an already unmanageable situation. No idea if that ban applies to American Jews. Could we even meet? My fearlessness of youth has vanished and I no longer possess the courage to venture alone.
Majed, you are now in your mid to late fifties, perhaps bitter and remorseful. Or, I hope, as you wanted, you made it safely to America. Although I doubt it because I believe you would have contacted me. Reality makes me wonder—are you even alive? The lifespan of men in Palestine is a pitiful 53. Forty per cent smoke. Many died in the wars. Health care is, at best, inadequate. If you are still with us, I can imagine your fatigue; your exuberance extinguished.
I’ve tried to locate the older you in the café. I can’t.
Bruce Bauman is the author of And The Word Was and Broken Sleep. This is an excerpt from his newest novel, The True Story of My Fictional Life.
Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements in Hebron
It's Corruption, Stupid
The Palestinian Authority remains the best hope for establishing peace, but first it's essential to root out corruption, which is the real 21st century pandemic. Read the story about a strategically minded Palestinian activist from Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, and most contested, who's working with Americans to break the stalemate over Palestinian rights.
When Issa Amro was invited to an intimate meeting with Antony Blinken in Ramallah in May, he decided to aim straight for the heart. “As a Jew, is this your dream?” Amro rhetorically asked him. “Did you dream of seeing an apartheid state?”
A native of Hebron, Amro warned the American secretary of state of the “Hebronization” of East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. By “Hebronization” he means the extension of a dual legal system for Israelis and Palestinians, the closing of main roads to Palestinian pedestrians and shop owners, and social segregation.
“Israel is too strong to make peace,” Amro told Blinken. “That’s the problem: It doesn’t need peace. Without making occupation costly for the occupiers, there will never be peace.”