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: 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.