Abroad, too, the weeks and months drift by; events remain the same. Riots, crises, conflicts and discoveries follow one another and resemble one another. Life goes on, and finding nothing new under the sun, man attempts to change the sun.
-Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem
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.”
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.
“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. I love America. Especially 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?”
He looks at my nose, my eyes. “Twenty…six.”
“Will you marry next year?”
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.”
“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.
I have a room here in Palestine. In my room I have my water bottle I bought on a rainy day early last spring on the Jersey Shore. My parents and brother and I were visiting my grandparents at Easter. My grandfather can’t walk more than a few steps now. We love him and struggle to see him like that. He feels worse than he has to because he lets himself get dehydrated. It’s very hard on my grandmother to care for him all the time. After a while in the living room, with the TV turned up high, we get a bit of cabin fever. When it’s cold and cloudy like it was this Easter we don’t really want to go to the beach, so we go the mall. That’s where I bought my water bottle.
I can sit in my room here and notice my bottle and remember that afternoon with my parents and brother and how we laughed about how we dislike the mall. That afternoon my brother moved an expensive copy of the Bible to the “Religious Fiction” section of the Borders Express.
On my desk here I have a postcard of the Cloisters in New York. I lived in Inwood off and on for nine months and spent afternoons in Fort Tryon Park reading short stories and noticing the seasons changing. That’s where I read the first story of Dubliners and thought of how cruel the sun is to leave us as it does after the summer. How quickly it seems to lose interest. Of course the first cool day feels great. To be warmed by our bodies inside of wool or cotton rather than the fire of the sun. We warm ourselves! But by March we are very cold. The park is also where I sat and thought of how Tegan too cooled to me. I walked through the park when my heart was still beating hard knowing I was moving to Palestine. I walked there before I told my parents.
From my room, I hear fireworks most nights. The first time I was very scared. My first night here I heard booms from the street. After the booms I heard bottles breaking. I was nervous and didn’t know what I could be hearing. It wasn’t fireworks. It sounded like demolition maybe. I didn’t know what demolition sounded like. I went to sleep.
My second night here I was taken out for argelia and tea. We smoked a block from the huge ugly wall those who follow events here, hear so much about. It’s covered in political paint: slogans, maps, promises. That night my hosts drove me home. We turned a corner and found Israeli soldiers blocking the intersection to my building. One of them pointed his rifle at us and screamed “lech lech lech” (go go go) as he approached our car. It was dark. I think he was scared. The other soldiers kept focus on the men down the block. The men down the block stood behind dumpsters tipped on their sides in the road to block the army jeeps. They knew the soldiers would come that night. The dumpsters make booms as they are pushed on their sides and bottles fall out and break. It hadn’t been demolition.
We made a three point turn and drove away from the fighting. I was in the back seat and shaking. We drove to the back roads. I asked my host if he was scared. He told me only a little, and that Kevin Costner was one of his favorite actors. I thought of Field of Dreams and playing baseball with my father. On weekends he took me to the little league field and pitched to me and hit me ground balls. There were no soldiers on the back roads. When I got to my apartment my hands were still shaking when I unlocked the door. And still when I locked it behind me.
The third night here I stayed in. I spent the night with my laptop. I like telling people that Barack Obama gave me my laptop. A year ago I was in Poplar Bluff working for the campaign. I spent days organizing democrats and nights reporting numbers and printing canvassing materials. By the end of the campaign I had a guard with a gun at the office twenty four hours a day. It was also a scary place to be at night. I don’t tell many Palestinians that Barack Obama gave me my computer. Many would not be impressed. It was the third night that I first heard fireworks. I didn’t know they were fireworks. I did know there had been street fighting the night before. I thought the new booms were guns. I would have enjoyed a quiet night, and think many others might have also, but a wedding calls for fireworks here, and the show goes on. The happy nights and the terrible ones both come with booms.
Many years on the Fourth of July, my parents took my brother and me to see the Pittsfield Mets play in Wahconah Park. They were a triple A team, full of young, hard-working players chasing their major league dreams in a park named after a princess of an exiled and exterminated Indian tribe, in a city depressed by addiction and the closure of the General Electric plant. After the Fourth of July games, fans could walk onto the field and watch the largest fireworks display in the county. I remember feeling the booms in my ribs and leaning against my parents. I only came up to their chests then. After the fireworks we would avoid the heaviest of departure traffic by going through the back streets of residential Pittsfield. In that neighborhood, fat old white women watched us pass from their porches where they had also watched the fireworks. On those car rides home, I usually fell asleep.