Thursday, April 14, 2005

Amman, Jordan

'Whallah, I'm waiting for you' he said when I called him up. 'Where are you? I'll come and pick you up.' I sat outside the big hotel, enjoying the sun, and trying to read, but I was too excited.

In the pictures I saw on his blog he reminded me of my friend Yuvla, whose ancestors came from Aden. But in real life he was different: his hair was light-coloured, blondish. He said it's his Palestinian side. Not long afterwards we were sitting in the roof balcony of a trendy, cozy café, overlooking the old city. The wall was painted with huge blue flowers. I felt strangely at home. He told me of his countless ideas for projects. We talked about ourselves, and about Iraq and Jordan, about the American and Israeli occupation, about Jerusalem and Amman, Baghdad and London. About Palestine and Israel. About families and religions. It was so much in such short time. I was telling him how hideous the separation Wall is.

'Ya akhi the physical aspect is not the real problem. We can overcome this' he said. 'When I grew up all around me were symbols of huge invincible power, palaces and security forces, walls and fortresses. And then one day when the ideas behind them were gone, all these symbols of power crumbled, because nothing was holding them up anymore. We can take down the wall. We will open it in a few places and paint it with nice colours and it won't even look too bad. It will be very easy. It is the thinking behind the wall that we have to dismantle. The mental walls.'

* * *

It was almost dark when we passed Salt. The taxi started following the turns of the road, descending sharply to the Ghur, the Jordan valley. I was still overwhelmed by meeting R and N. I thought how lovely they were and I wanted so much to return the hospitality.

There was something so confusing and contradictory about the whole experience. What happened seemed so simple, so easy, so straightforward: you read someone's blog. You write them an email. You drive to their town and spend a few hours with them. And this is how it felt. Yet the fact is that in this place it sounds completely unusual, crazy even. 'And you weren't afraid?' someone asked me later. Most Israeli Jews belive they live in an environment that is essentially different from them, a region that will always stay hostile. They think of Israel as a stronghold. I asked Yuval, who was sitting next to me in the taxi from Amman, if he thinks we could ever rid ourselves of these notions. 'You're asking when will Israelis realize that they're not so different from the people around them? That they have much more in common with the Arabs that they believe?' he shrugged his shoulders. 'Don't know, Akhi.'

The car kept descending. I kept thinking, quietly. I don't have an answer. The idea of a continuity from Amman to Jerusalem filled me with hope. I don't want to think about Israel as a gated community, 'our villa in the jungle' - to use former PM Barak's expression. I think surrounding yourself with walls of suspicion and fear is the worst thing you can do to yourself. And the irony is that all the physical and mental walls couldn't cut Israel off. What started as an East-European project became thoroughly Middle-Eastern. Some of this can be seen as tactics of cultural appropriation; this is not the only place where colonizers adopted elements of local culture. Most of it, however, was not calculated and conscious, but the result of a 100 years of contact with Palestinians, and the large numbers of Jews who came to Israel from Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt and other Arab countries. Listen to our music. Eat our food. Watch the way we speak. We can't escape it.

A few years ago my uncle was visiting us in London, and we went for a drink in Brixton. He soon started his racist rants against Arabs and Moroccan Jews: 'What do I have in common with those people? I'm from a totally different culture!' He shouted, waving his hands in the air. 'I'm European! I'm European!'
I looked around the pub. Nobody was shouting, nobody was waving their hands. I thought to myself: maybe you want to be European, but thank god, you will never be one. It's too late: you're Middle-Eastern. It's time you admitted it.

* * *

When R told me his father left Jenin for Jordan after '67, something inside me clenched. Just the previous day, I was walking in Jerusalem, and I found a book in the street. I like finding things on the streets - like it too much, some would say - so of course I picked it up. It was a 7th grade textbook, one that I remembered well from school. I opened it at random, and found a piece about the refugees from the West Bank in 67. It was written by a Israeli soldier. I leaned on a stone fence and read.

...we left Jenin and headed for Nablus. We were terribly tired. Suddenly - a strange thing happened in front of our eyes: the empty and deserted roads started to fill with life: refugees!

we looked carefully at the faces of the adults and asked ourselves:
- Who of them was a member of the murderous gangs before '48?
- Who of them stole the border in recent years to attack people and property?
- Who of them is a Jordanian soldier that had quickly changed his uniform to civil clothes?
- Who of the children is already poisoned with hatred towards us?
- How will the children remember this strange encounter with IDF jeeps?

What level of self-persuasion is necessary for someone to look at families fleeing their homes, and only think of them as murderous enemy. What level of self-denial is needed in order for a soldier in a military jeep, watching children walking barefoot to the border, to feel that he is the real victim of the situation, an object of hatred which he does not deserve. The piece is titled 'It's Hard to be a Jewish conqueror' (sounds like a parody, I know). A few lines below, I found myself reading the well known mantra:

We knew well: we did not start this war. We did not harm them, we did not expel them, we did not hate them. We did not know why they were leaving...

I took the book home. On some level these things were ingrained in me, long ago; it's important to confront them.


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