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.”


“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