Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Optimist and a Soccer Fan


On an April night in 2011, it was explained to me: in Palestine, the optimists go to prison. Standing with Amjad in front of his family’s store that night, we watched white taxi vans race around the El-Aizeriah streets. Boys and men leaned out of the windows to show off flags that caught the air and showed each other who they were. Palestinians love flags. Perhaps this is a symptom of statelessness, but the West Bank is full of them. They are mounted on the dashboards of taxis, and decorate coffee shops. They are tied to the rebar that pokes out of the concrete roofs of houses that seem to be simultaneously both under construction and crumbling. The whole West Bank seems to be simultaneously both under construction and crumbling. On this night, the important flags were from Spain.

I had been invited to watch a ‘clasico’ soccer match. FC Barcelona was playing Real Madrid. On my way home to Abu Dis from Hebrew class in Jerusalem, I got off the bus early to meet Amjad. The male population of El-Aizeriah seemed to be evenly divided between the teams.

As I got off the bus, Amjad was rigging a Madrid flag onto his friend’s car antenna. “David! How are you man? You are for Real Madrid!”

“Of course I am.” He walked over and gave me a dramatically fervent handshake. Amjad always shook with both hands to my one, and smiled with excitement like each greeting was the first time he had had the chance to put all his handshaking preparation to practice. “Good to see you.” I said. “I am coming right from Jerusalem so I have my Hebrew stuff and some Scotch in my bag if you want some later.”

“OK man, we will see.”

I knew I could be honest with Amjad. When I first met him he asked me what my religion was. I liked to explain to Palestinians that I was like a salad. I had ancestors from all over Europe. Some were Catholics, some were Protestants, some were Jews. But me? I am not religious. Then I changed the subject to them, ‘And you, what is your religion?’ When I gave that line to Amjad he explained that he knows the difference between Israelis and Jews, and its fine that I am a Jew. He responded to my question of his religion, ‘I just believe in God.’

After closing his shop, we walked up and down the main street facing friendly interrogators wanting to know whom we supported. When we said Madrid we were either embraced as kin or told of our degeneracy. Amjad enjoyed the enthusiasm, “It is good, you know, to have something to care about. Something to think about other than politics. Our lives have so much stress, we need something else to do. In football, you can win.” I nodded, and couldn’t help but agree.

After a few minutes, we came upon a tall thin man standing alone in the doorway of a restaurant. He was light skinned for a Palestinian and wore wireframe glasses that gave him a bookishness far removed from his tight t-shirted peers. His stature allowed him to see right over other men. It appeared that he was looking at something far away.

Amjad seemed to know everyone in town. After they shook hands, the tall man greeted me in English. He and Amjad spoke briefly in Arabic that I didn’t make out. Amjad turned to me and explained that the tall man doesn’t like soccer. “He thinks people are forgetting about what is important. He was in prison until before one month.” I looked at the tall man and smiled. I remembered a leftist politics professor in college who believed soccer was the true opiate of the masses. We said our goodbyes and kept walking.

“Do you want to drink a shot?” Amjad asked.

“Sure, but where?”

I followed him off the main road and away from the streetlights and team flags. We stopped on a footpath shadowed from either side. To our right was the church built where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. To our left, the entranceway veranda of a mosque. One black leather sandal remained where worshipers leave their shoes at prayer time. The patio was covered in floral tiles. “OK.” He said.

I took out the bottle and handed it to Amjad for the first swig. “So, I never thought I would drink at a mosque.” I said.

“Everyone knows. No one cares.” He passed the bottle to me and walked a few steps back toward the light to get a look up and down the street. Just to be sure that no one cared. “I used to do the call to prayer here when I was younger.”

“Really?”

“My father is a religious man. He reads the Koran, so I used to come here with him. But I am not religious.”

I pass the bottle back. “So do you really care about the game tonight, or is it just for fun?”

“That man who was in prison, he is an optimist. He cares about politics. He thinks we can change things with the Israelis. So he tries to fight for us, and they put him in prison. Everyone else watches soccer.”

- May, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Houston and Hussein Live in Palestine


When I first arrived in Palestine, Saddam was everywhere. He stood inside frames watching bakers bake their bread. From behind a thin layer of glass or gloss he smiled at passengers in taxis.


One night, with a head full of beer from a visit to Taybeh, I was riding back to my boss’ flat in Ramallah when we came upon a wedding party. From dark and empty hills appeared an illuminated dance floor covered in men. Above it all, spotlights shined on a stone house, its front wall covered with a plastic banner of Yasser Arafat and Saddam holding hands above their heads. The two dead men had brought their good wishes for this new union of the living.

A few nights later, as I was settling in to my life in Abu Dis, a local man from the university took me on a welcoming tour of the village. We visited his father’s store where he sold old watches and Chinese alarm clocks and batteries. On the wall hung a picture of his father as a younger man, wearing the mustache and beret of a Palestinian police official and shaking hands with Chairman Arafat. As Radi’s father prepared thick coffee for us, Saddam sat imprisoned under the glass of the shop counter. He wore the full beard of his final days, screaming muted protests, Koran in hand.

“You see Saddam?” Radi asked.

“Oh, yes, I do.” I had noticed as soon as we walked in.

“We like Saddam very much. We do not like George Bush. The American people we like very much. We love them. You are welcome here.” He lit a cigarette.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping the conversation would move on.

He smiled. “Saddam was a police man. He did good things for Iraq and for the Arabs. Look at Iraq now. Is this what George Bush wanted?” He was speaking as a professor confidently presenting his research. He gestured with both hands, one held his cigarette, the other a cell phone.

His father brought us the coffee. As I brought it to my lips, steam and cardamom filled my nose.

Radi pulled on his cigarette. “Saddam helped the Palestinians. He never forgot about us.” He continued his praise, but his phone had started to ring, and I could barely focus on the lament of Mr. Hussein’s defeat to invasion as it competed with a whole other kind of American power. The cell phone cried out, “And IIIIIIIIIIIeeeeIIIIIIIIIIIIIII Will Alllllwaysssss Love Yooouuuuooooouuu!”

“Ahh, it is my wife,” he answered and told her he would be home soon. “Are you ready to go?” He asked.

I said that that would be fine, thanked his father for the coffee, and we stepped out of the shop and into Radi’s car. 

“So you like Whitney Houston?” I asked.

“Yes, many people love her here. She makes us remember that life can be beautiful.” And then he drove me home.

- February, 2012

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Impossible Rain


By November, rain begins to fall in Palestine. The first drops give everyone something to talk about. The thirsty land, long given up hope, opens its eyes and fills the air with a sweet breath.

It’s been weeks since Gilad Shalit went home, exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. I had a class today about quantitative analysis, but I still can’t make sense of 1027 to 1.

During my time in the Middle East, there was nothing like running through the hills of Jerusalem on a cool November afternoon. The wind filled my body and the sun touched the back of its hands to the skin of my face. I could never run in Abu Dis, where I lived. People would have thought I was crazy. So I took the bus to Jerusalem where I wouldn't be noticed. Had the people in Abu Dis known I took the bus to Jerusalem to run in long loops through Jewish neighborhoods, they might have still thought I was crazy. I used to run through the hills of Rahavia, down Gaza Street, past banks in stone buildings and an Ice Cream shop with outdoor swings. Sometimes on the way back I passed the Prime Minister’s house, where on the sidewalk in front of large metal gates, the Shalits sat under a tent, insisting their son not be forgotten. When I was running, I always kept to the other side of the street, feeling some guilt that I was expressing my youth, my freedom, my health, while their son sat somewhere else, alone.

The night those first prisoners were sent home, I crouched over my computer with a sore back in my dorm room here in London. I stared at the glowing pictures of busses leaving the prison gates before dawn. I wondered if the rains had started, and if the air smelled sweet to the men on the busses.

Toward the end of my first year teaching in Abu Dis, I visited the house of one of my students. I met his mother and brothers and sisters and cousins. His uncles came and went from the house every few minutes. They talked about their football league and their team's odds in an upcoming game against a club from Hebron. His uncle who coached their team was sure they could win. The house was full of plaques and tributes to my student's father. He had been in prison for 11 years, and was there still. I didn't ask any of them why. Anas showed me candid camera videos of Japanese pranks, and explained that Arabs like comedy, and love to laugh. Later in the afternoon we drove on a narrow road newly paved over with smooth black asphalt to a monastery built into a dry brown hill. We looked across the valley where a thin stream of water ran gently along its bed, and saw four young men in a cavern hunting desert game. He told me, "They will get around, and kill it with their hands." We took pictures and he helped me get the bus home.

When I saw the first pictures of Shalit, being walked by so many big men back to Israel, I smiled for his family, no longer in Jerusalem.

As I traveled from one news site to another, Skype alerted me that Anas had gone offline. I still haven’t figured out how to turn off that function. His picture flashed in the upper right corner of my screen. In the image, he rests his head on his right thumb and first two fingers. His eyes are dark and tired, paused in an unfocused stare at something beneath the camera. As soon as it flashed, it faded away, and I sat staring at the blank screen. I thought of his family in their house full of plaques. We had spoken a few weeks before, but I never bring up his father. I don't know if he came home that night, but if his oldest son was on Skype, it seems impossible.

video
                                                                (Video: Sun Shower in Abu Dis)
November, 2011.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On the Town


One night, on the bus back from Jerusalem, my phone vibrated in my pocket. “Hi Ahmad, how are you?”

“David, I am very good. I am very good. Where are you?”

“I am in Abu Dis now, on my way home.”

“Do you want to do something? I too am here in Abu Dis.”

I wanted to go home. I wanted see if there is more news about yesterday’s protests and violence for Nakba day, I wanted to look at facebook and take my shoes off, but Ahmad almost never calls, and I felt like I should see him. I had written to him the night before to see if the posters I had been seeing hung around Abu Dis the past few days were of a man he introduced me to. The man was murdered with thirty six bullets on a busy street the week before. A blood feud between Abu Dis and the next village had reignited after a broken truce.

“Ok Ahmad. Are you in the junction?”

“Yes. I am exactly in the junction.”

“Ok I will see you in two minutes.”

Ahmad’s face has been thin from fasting since Ramadan almost nine months ago. It was just over a year ago that we met. “David, I am Ahmad. You don’t know me, but I work at the university also, and I have seen you. You work with the Bard College.” We met through mutual Spanish friends who were living in my building while spending a semester at the university. Tonight, I spotted him, talking with two other young men leaning against a grey sedan. I greeted him, “How are you Ahmad? It has been a long time. How are you doing?”

“Ahh David. My friend. It is good to see you. I have been thinking of you.” He turned to his friends, “This is David.” We shake hands and exchange hellos. “Would you like to go to the café?”

“Yes. I want to eat pizza.”

“Ok. We will go there.” We invited his friends to come along and when they thanked us we said goodbye and turned around.

“So how are you? I wrote you last night because the man who was killed looks so familiar. I thought maybe I met him through you.”

“No David, you thought he was Iyad who took us to Jerico. The man who was shot, he was a driver. He is a poor man. It is so sad what is happening here. These people are ignorant people. They try to make the law with their hands.”

“Yes it is sad. It feels strange to see his face on the posters. I guess I didn’t know him. But I recognize his face.”

“You know this is new in Palestine, in Abu Dis. This did not happen before, families killing each other in Abu Dis.” We walked into the café to find it empty of customers. “There is no one here, its like we are in curfew.”

“Can we still get pizza?”

“I will check, if we cannot, I can take you somewhere different.” He asked the two teenagers standing behind the brown stone counter with a smooth marble top. We were in luck, so Ahmad ordered. Before sitting down we each took a soda from the case. I had a can of Fanta, Ahmad a glass bottle of sprite. One of the guys working was mentally retarded. As we turned away from the counter he handed us two straws. We said thank you. As we turned away again he held out a bottle opener and raised his chin and squinted, looking at our faces over the flesh of his cheeks, scrunched up as two mounds. Ahmad placed his Sprite back on the counter to be opened. We said thank you again.

“He is doing well,” Ahmad said. “His mind is not perfect you know, but he is doing good I think.” We sat down on firm couches under a brown tapestry. “I am not happy here in Palestine David. Really I feel depressed. There is nothing fantastic in Abu Dis.”

“You used to say you loved it here.”

“I know. I used to love it. I don’t know why I am unhappy. I was blaming myself for this.”

“You were blaming yourself for being unhappy?”

“Yes. You know I was in Spain during the winter. I could have stayed there illegally. I could have married Diego too. You know, we are both straight. But for the law to stay, I could have married him.”

“Is gay marriage legal in Spain?”

“Yes, come on, Spain was the first in Europe to make this law. Is it the law in United States? I think in Louisiana.”

“No, not in Louisiana.”

“But I know a woman who was there eighteen years. She said it was very common in the cities there. It was like normal.”

“I’m sure being gay is in some parts. But gay marriage is only legal in a few states.”

“Europe is amazing. The people are very free there. With their bodies. They will go on the beach with nothing. In Spain I saw this. They will go on any beach. In America it is only in their clubs that they will go like this. It is the law. If you go with nothing on the beach they will arrest you.”

“Yes, it’s not like Europe. We always wear a bathing suit.” Another group entered the restaurant – three men in their mid twenties. They were each unshaven and sat down on other couches around a table. They looked exhausted in the way one does during a long flight, enduring the work of stagnation. They ordered two water pipes of sweet flavored tobacco and instant coffee.

“Ahmad, do you think that the fighting here will continue, from yesterday, from the Nakba day?”

“Yes, I think there will be an intifada. I hope it will not. But I think it will. Because of the political situation here. There is no future in Palestine. The future is blackness. I see only blackness.”

“Yeah, it’s bad.”

“Why did Fatah and Hamas come to work together? They are surrendering.”

“You think so?”

“You cannot go ten meters without a settlement or a checkpoint. I want to tell the Israeli government to take and give, take, and give. Don’t just take! Look at what is happening in Abu Dis. Families are killing each other. They are shooting. No one can stop them. There is no Palestinian security, there is no Israeli security. Give us something!”

Our pizza arrived. I knew not to expect much from pizza in Abu Dis, but it still looked beautiful, the shining yellow cheese bejeweled with salty canned vegetables: red and green peppers, kernels of corn, brown mushrooms, sliced green olives. I could never understand why they cover pizza in colorful but mushy and salty vegetables in a place with so much cheap and delicious fresh produce. Perhaps they are worried it would rot; business did seem slow. We started eating.

“I am so depressed here David. I tried to change it. I went to a church. I went to a mosque. Do you believe me that I went to a church?”

“You prayed in a church to be happy?”

“Yes I went and lighted a candle and sat there but it didn’t work.” He paused. “Do you know b-12 vitamins?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“I went and bought b-12 vitamins and took them. They are for your spirits. They are to make you feel excellent. I tried them but they did not work. I feel like it is hard. I am still looking for my girl. I am twenty nine now. I feel like I am getting old.”

“Man, you look like you’re fifteen.”

“That is because my face is thin now. Do you remember last year when we met?”

“You looked good then and you look good now Ahmad.”

“Thank you David, really, thank you.”

We went to the counter. I tried, but Ahmad paid. He insisted, “I invited you. You deserve something more than thirty eight shekels. You are my guest here.”

We thanked both the guys at the counter and turned to the door. I pushed it open and stepped out into the air. I breathed in deeply through my nose. It was cool for May, and that was a nice surprise.

May, 2011.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Teen Movie


Photo: Robin Kilmer
I started reading the news the day Mohammad Al-Dura appeared on my porch. He was in his father’s lap, on the front page our paper. I had known Palestinians had arms and legs, feet for stepping on flags, hands with fingers for pulling triggers or ignition chords. But their heads had always been masked. Rather than eyes or dimples, they had featureless cloth, sometimes a black and white checkered pattern wrapped their heads, other times it was just black or white, like bank robbers or the Ku Klux Klan. Mohammad and his father though, they had faces—one a man, and one a boy, and their hands held each other. I was fifteen, and closer to the boy than the man. My mother explained the pictures: screaming for help, cowering in terror, still. That day, my mother made me read the news. Every day after, the news itself did. I desperately wanted the violence to stop. Through my camp, I had been registered for, and was eagerly awaiting, a trip to Israel the following summer. I would hike Masada, swim the Dead Sea, and celebrate Shabbat in Jerusalem. The trip was eventually canceled, and America was about to get scary too. In less than a year, during Spanish class, the towers fell.

I must say, the weeks following September 11th were a good time in my life. I was running varsity cross country, and for the first time feeling that I had come into my own within the high school social world. A senior from the team was teaching me stick, letting me drive his Jeep without a license. My mind was never far from the towers though, and times were strange. At a candle-light vigil for the victims, I saw my father join others in song for the first time. When I was a toddler he would sing “Chicken” along with Mississippi John Hurt. That evening, he sang “God Bless America,” although I don’t know what he would have meant by the God part. At night, the wonder of the stars had to compete with the wonder of the planes, criss-crossing our sky and blinking with terrible new potential. But none of it compared to the wonder of growing. I was sixteen, and one Saturday afternoon stepped out of the shower and noticed, to my surprise, that I had abdomen definition and burgeoning visible pectorals. My right hand tracked the growth of my chest every morning in homeroom as I recited the Pledge of Allegiance with, for the first time since kindergarten, a sense of earnestness and awe. The Berkshire Hills turned orange and yellow, ever oblivious to the other changes of the day.

The week after the planes hit, our team had a party. We each drank several two-ounce shots of cheap vodka around a kitchen table in Stockbridge— I was the first to take mine. That night the alcohol ran through my blood like nothing I had felt before or since. I was light and nimble and warm as the world around me pulsated and bent. The next morning we rose and drove to the high school where we joined the effort to paint a 1500 square meter American flag across the hill in front of the building. A few days later, the whole school was photographed sitting around it for the newspaper.

The weekend the United States began bombing Afghanistan, I was in New York. The city was still covered with pictures of the missing, the dead—our dead. Every corner had flowers, phone numbers to call if the pictured were spotted, prayers. I spent that Sunday afternoon making out in Central Park with a fling from camp. We found grass in the sun and then let our sixteen year old tongues take over. As we walked out of the park, Fifth Avenue was waving hundreds of flags. It was Columbus Day weekend, and I was excited by the new air of the new season and the rare occurrence of a hand in mine.

That night I took the Long Island Rail Road to Great Neck for a seventeenth birthday party. It was a crowd of camp friends, many of whom had not seen each other for over a year; with our trip canceled, we had just spent our first summer for a while in different places. In a furnished basement, we drank whatever watery beer and no-name liquor we had—I was angry at a friend who drank too much too fast and spent the rest of the night drooling over the toilet. Some of the other girls held her hair back as she vomited; I told her she fucked up our chance to hang out. The television in the corner talked about the opening hours of a bombing campaign against the Taliban. Later in the night a few of us found a spot down the street, obscured by a pine tree, to smoke pot from a water pipe.

When the weekend ended, and I returned to Grand Central, a middle aged white man with dark hair, a blue shirt and jeans, stood in the great hall holding a sign over his head: “Death to the Taliban.” His display, in this center of the world, did not bother me, or it seemed anyone else. He smiled with bravado and hope, and most of us smiled back. It tickled me as I got on the train.

The Taliban fell quickly as our soldiers lent fire power the good guys of the Northern Alliance. The news was excited:

“The men can shave again! Look at how they fill the barber shop!”

The months passed with college visits and anticipation. When I visited Bard, the students wore strange sunglasses and cursed in class. A white sheet hung from an Ivy covered building with, “Free Palestine” hand painted in dark orange. When I visited Syracuse, there were signs advertising a discussion of “Life in the IDF,” with recently discharged Israeli soldiers. The war in Afghanistan was reported quietly enough for most of us to ignore. Reverence for the morning pledge depleted, and people in the government started to talk openly about a war with Iraq. My community divided between “No Blood for Oil” and “Bomb Saddam.” Two of my friends were arrested in town for protesting against a war without a permit. They loved that they were arrested and the story of their detention was more brutal with every telling. One of them later joined a sniper unit.

I didn’t go to many protests, but decided to make a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Now that I live in the West Bank I hate every filmmaker I meet. I was eighteen and traveled around the northeast taping interviews with young Israelis and Palestinians studying and working in the states. I asked them about their home and their conflict. I heard testimony from a Palestinian college student in Portland Maine about sneaking around checkpoints to enter Jenin and find much of the city in piles. He talked about soldiers who took over his cousin’s house to use as a base, piled the family’s clothing in the center of a room and defecated in it for days. I listened to a red haired Israeli tell of losing his grip on sanity staring into the night on guard at his base. After I turned the camera off, he told me the soldiers used to compete for who could masturbate most in a shift. Two months after our interview, as a civilian, he watched a bus explode outside of his home in Haifa, and then carried bodies out of it.

The weekend the United States began bombing Iraq again, I was with Palestinians in Westchester. They told me that the Arab satellite networks were reporting large numbers of American casualties and a strong Iraqi defense. They weren’t sure who to believe. After the interviews, I joined them for a cigarette. One of the guys was hung over, and took me to the dining hall for greasy French fries.

That spring I spent hours most afternoons in the editing room. I would drive home excited, listening to Guru rap about American ghettos, and feeling that somehow, I was taking my stand: against the war, against the intifada, against the occupation. In May of 2003, I screened my video in the high school auditorium. My family was there, my friends and some of their parents came, my teachers came, and some teachers who I hardly knew showed up out of interest. The movie ended with hope: there were good people living through this conflict, most wanted peace, and they all had faces. The project was well received and I was deeply happy to share its stories and take my stand. That night, lying in bed, I pressed my face against the plastic screen of my bedroom window. Rain was landing loudly against the new, full, leaves of spring, and I could smell the earth drinking. It was the most accomplished I had ever felt, and in that moment I thought, “This peace shit is for dreamers.”

I still hope I was wrong. 


December, 2010

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Feast of the Sacrifice


In Abu Dis, during the Eid, when the children have been given gifts, the parents take rest, and for two days the streets are run by boys with guns.

They stand next to boxes of yellow oranges and green cucumbers, and against the Jerusalem stone of homes, with black rifles strapped on their shoulders and pistols in their hands. They dash across filthy empty streets where on most days men drive their cars, racing from wall to wall. Sometimes the boys hide behind garbage dumpsters and shoot at the windows of passing vehicles. Sometimes they shoot each other.

Of course, the guns are toys, for who would give guns to boys?

“Bo bo bo (come here),” one of the teenagers says, parroting the Hebrew he has heard from soldiers as he points his plastic pellet shooting  weapon at me while his friends smile, impressed. Before he says another word, I take my passport from my jeans pocket and pass it to him. He pretends to flip through, and gives it back with a grin at my one-upmanship.

I have also had thoughts of what it would be like in the army.

Years ago, I had a dream. I was an Israeli soldier, uniformed in olive green, alone amidst urban battle. I was standing against an outer wall of a boxy building and glanced around the corner to see two Palestinians, one man and one woman, who I knew were ready to kill me. These weren’t anonymous fighters, but people I knew in real life, and even dreaming I knew they would never hurt me, if they could only know who I was behind the uniform. But I had to turn the corner. If I turned and spoke to them, they would shoot me before they could see who I was. So I had to shoot first.

I did it. I turned and fired at them, hitting both the man and the woman. Rather than fall dead, or even begin to bleed, they sat speaking softly and smiling to each other, unaware of what I had done to them. But they had been shot nonetheless, and would surely die in a matter of seconds. I could not take back the bullets, and panicked at the thought that as they passed from life to death, they would see that it was me who had sent them there. In my terror and humiliation, I started shooting again, and as the dream went dark, fired round after round in prayer that I could kill them before they knew who I was.

When I woke up, the sky was already blue.

November, 2010.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Bus



“Welcome, welcome. There is space. You can stand.” He says.

I step onto the blue carpeted bus. Palestinian bus. Jerusalem bound. I pay my six shekels, get my ticket, and stand at the front. The seats are filled with women from the university. The men huddle by the door.

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“America. I love America. Especially Las Vegas.”

“Las Vegas?”

“Yes. I love the poker.” He rubs his right thumb and index finger together. He raises his thick black eyebrows and purses his lips.

“Really? Do you play poker?”

He nods once.

“Are you good?”

He raises his chin and makes eye contact. “What do you study at the university?” He asks.

“I am a teacher. I teach writing. In English.”

“Ahh, welcome. Really, I love your country very much. But you make fuck up in Iraq. You make fuck up in Pakistan. You make fuck up in Afghanistan. But I hate Bin Laden. He is total mother fucker. And you, do you love Israel?”

“I live here in Abu Dis.”

“Yes, Abu Dis, Israel. Do you love it here in Israel?”

I look at him knowingly.

“What country is this?” He asks.

“I thought it was Palestine.”

He smiles a wide, toothy smile, touches my shoulder then shakes my right hand. “Yes, this is Palestine. Israel, it is nothing. It will be gone in ten years. Believe me. In ten years.”

“How? How will it be gone? Will you beat Netanyahu at poker?”

He smiles again. He makes the fingers of both his hands into guns. Lines them up with the left in front and the right in back like he is aiming a rifle. “Me and my brother, we will do it.”

“You will do what? Someone will kill you. And then what?”

“No. We will shoot them. All of them.” He looks at the floor. We roll down a hill, guided by curving asphalt, into a rocky valley. Two leather skinned men face Mecca in afternoon prayer from the roof of a two story house they have built all day. The sun is still high.

“Are you married?” He slides his right pointer and thumb down his left ring finger.

“No. I’m not married.”

“How old are you?”

“Guess.”

He looks at my nose, my eyes. “Twenty…six.”

“Twenty five.”

“Will you marry next year?”

“Inshallah.”

He rubs his two index fingers together with his palms facing down. He asks, “Are you Fatah or Hamas?”

“I am Democrats.”

“Democrats. But here, do you love Fatah or Hamas?”

“I don’t vote here. What about you? Fatah or Hamas?”

“Fatah.” He nods twice. “Hamas.” He says and squints his eyes, flares his nose, flicks his right palm open as if shooing a fly. “Do you know Ismail Haniyeh?”

“Yes. From Hamas. He is in Gaza.”

“Yes. He is a donkey. He is a big donkey.”

“That’s true.”

“You know Mohammad Dahlan?”

“Yes. From Fatah.”

“Yes. He is my father. I love him.”

“He is your father?”

“Yes. I am from Gaza. He is my father. I love him. Really.”

“If he is your father, why are you riding the bus?”

He laughs once. “He is not my father, but I do love him.” We enter the round-about in front of the settlement Ma’ale Adumim. A middle aged man with grey hair and a grey kippah drove his ocean blue sedan in front of our bus as he entered the settlement. My companion flicked his hand again.

“We are not terrorists here in Palestine. Right?” He was asking only what I thought. He knew already.

“You just said you plan on killing every Israeli.”

“No. This is not terrorism. This is an important thing.”

“So what is terrorism?”

“What Israel did in Gaza. What Israel does in Jerusalem.” He made only his right hand into a gun this time. “Every day.”

“Where do you live in Jerusalem?”

“Shuafat. My mother is from Hebron. Have you heard of the Jaber family?”

“Yes I have.”

“Do you love George Bush?”

I make eye contact. Scrunch my eyebrows. “No.”

“He is a good man! A great man!”

I elbow him lightly in the ribs and smile.

He smiles and nods. “He fucked every country.”

“And America too. He fucked America too.”

We drove slowly into the A-Za’im checkpoint. The contract security guards were changing shift. We stopped. The door opened. The whole bus emptied as we stepped into the hot afternoon, walked through the fenced passageway, showed ID to a female soldier with a brown ponytail and big hips. We stood outside the bus as the girls reentered. When we stepped back in, we took different places. There was someone between us, and we didn’t speak again. 

October, 2010.