Postcards from Palestine: Prologue

A Palestinian flag in Sebastia

I had practiced what I would say to the border security at Ben-Gurion upon my arrival into Israel. I’m visiting a friend, an American, who lives in Jerusalem (memorize the address) and attends the Hebrew University. He is getting his Masters in Cultural Studies. Our plans are to see the old city, go to the beach, dance in Tel Aviv. Here’s a list of the words you shouldn’t say.

I was supposed to find a male security agent — the women are notoriously harsh — and as M said, just don’t dress like you’re going to an Occupy rally. Wear your best suburban mom clothes and you’ll be fine.

We were especially nervous because two friends who were on their way to visit M years before were detained and questioned by Israeli border security in London, maybe for some word they said or didn’t say, or for looking too much like they were comfortable throwing rocks and burning tires. For whatever reason, they were separated, intimidated, strip searched, their phones taken and combed through. They missed their flight and had to be rerouted through Jordan, traumatized from the experience.

So, to be careful, I went through five years of WhatsApp messages and emails between me and my best friend, deleting hundreds of mentions of his real life. I did a search for Palestine, Ramallah, West Bank, occupation, Allah, any words in Arabic, even for Israel — any hint that I might be aware of what’s happening on the other side of the wall or interested in exploring it further. Some messages were so hilarious, or so beautiful, or so sad, that I couldn’t bear to delete them so I forwarded them to M for him to keep and send back to me once I made it through.

In the end, the security process was smoother than the time my husband and I went to Toronto and I was asked, and answered honestly, if I had ever been arrested. I picked a male agent, he looked at my passport as he was talking to his friend in the booth next to his, stamped it and pushed it back to me without so much as a “shalom.”

Walking to baggage claim I sent M a Whats App message with crying laughing emojis — after all of that, not a single question, and he wrote back, in English and Arabic — Welcome to Palestine, dear friend!

*****

The web is a bit tangled, the path that brought me to M and M to the Holy Land and then eventually me, on a 10 day vacation from my life and my husband and my three year old, to see him and the life he had built in the West Bank since his arrival there five years ago. M and I met through a work colleague who had grown up with him — the first memory either of us have of each other is St. Paddy’s day at the South Street Seaport, Styrofoam cups of beer, my long leopard print dress and some drunk agro-bros who harassed me in line for the bathroom. Over the next ten years we roamed the streets of New York together, drinking, smoking, “aggressively observing” passersby, pointing out “CWLTSFs” (couples we’d like to see f**k), finding M guys to flirt with, and most importantly, watching films together. At the IFC, Angelika, Regal at Times Square. We’s each pay for a ticket and then make it a “creature feature,” our inexplicable term for two (or three) for the price of one. I’d pour Andre champagne or screwdrivers into plastic water bottles and we’d get bagels from the place next to my house on Carmine Street. We’d stumble out of the theater five hours later, our drunkenness peaking hours before, our eyes not used to daylight. When I think back on this time now I am floored by our freedom and flexibility of movement. My boyfriend, who would soon become my husband, was living in London — I lived alone, had a job at a non-profit that paid me next to nothing and that required no thought beyond 5:01pm. And of course, no child.

The Library, circa 2010

How M ended up in Palestine involves a mutual friend named Kathryn and her dear friend Samira, a Palestinian American, who coincidentally shared with me both a home state and a birthday. After living in America for thirty years Samira made the journey back to her mother’s homeland, fell in love with a man she met at the Jerusalem Hotel, and moved there. M met Samira through Kathryn, went to visit Samira, and fell deeply for the land or the people or the food or the sun or the dancing or the boys, or the feeling of being somewhere that means something. A few months later he bought a one way ticket and has studied or taught or written enough to get by, living on the third floor of a flat in Ramallah, becoming fluent in Arabic and a treasured, teased member of the bustling community there ever since.

Despite my friendship with M and our daily WhatsApp voice messages back and forth to each other — an extended, ongoing conversation I can dip into when I’m on the train, putting on makeup, clomping down the street in my heels to my next meeting — I boarded the plane in Newark knowing very little about the history of the region, the conflict, what I would see. I say this with embarrassment and also forgiveness. Though I refuse to use the word “complicated” for reasons I’ll explore later, the truth is that it is very difficult to engage in a conversation about Israel and Palestine with more than one person and receive similar information. Everyone with a perspective on the issue who I had ever spoken with quoted different stats, used different examples, and generally left me reeling, confused and exasperated. Trying to research the issue results in the same onslaught of contradictions and puzzlements. Just agreeing on a timeline of historical events can be challenging. I would soon see that even this was a tactic deployed to discourage people from further inquiry and understanding.

But I trusted M. I trusted him as a friend, one of my dearest friends, as a resident of Palestine and a fully fluent observer and witness to one of the oldest and most charged conflicts in the history of humanity. I trusted him as a student and scholar of the region, and of apartheid and post-colonial studies. (The part about him studying at Hebrew University was true). I trusted that my going there, to his homeland, to the homeland of contention, would give me the knowledge I would need to form my own perspective, to shift through the opinions to find the facts, and then to turn those scraps into an opinion I could claim as my very own.

People spend their lives researching and studying this region and it’s people. I got a 10 day glimpse and a 10 day crash course in the background and current reality of the situation. I’m no expert and I fully expect that many responses will be people coming at me with their facts and their truth and their answer to prove that I don’t have the right to my own. I can’t promise I will go head to head with anyone in that matter because I do not think this is a conversation or an argument or a battle that can be won. If you have seen what I saw, you will know there is no winning here. There are only human beings, trapped in two prisons a few meters from each other, each with beating hearts and the desperate, uncomplicated will to survive.

This series of reflections is an attempt to paint a portrait of the hearts I saw, up close and through glass walls and in metal turnstiles, in marketplaces that once were bustling and five star Israeli restaurants; to celebrate my experience there by recording it; to honor the requests of the Palestinians I met to serve as a witness; to give a peek through the crack of the wall that Israelis and tourists to Israel are not allowed to cross; to dispel the self-promulgated myth that “it’s complicated (and thus I cannot have an opinion on it)” and to prove to no one but myself that though the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is rife with passion and sorrow, history and blood, the essence of it is actually very simple.

My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, writes:

Tell me about despair, yours,

And I will you tell you mine.

It doesn’t matter who goes first.

Postcards from Palestine is a travelogue in nine chapters.

Mom, consultant, resistor www.jessicajamesconsulting.com