It’s late at night and I had been up since 5 am. We’re somewhere in Jordan, a horizon of sand hidden in the darkness. Someone had mentioned sitting outside by the firepit. Strangers, mostly. I’m not sure where the firepit is. I’m not sure anyone is going to want to talk with me, an Israeli. I understand that.
I walk outside tentatively, follow the smell of smoke as it intensifies. I find the firepit. There are people sitting around it in groups, talking and laughing. They don’t notice me, and I take that as permission to sneak off. Then a guy I don’t know smiles at me, calls to me – join us. I do.
He’s handsome, with warm eyes, a stylish haircut, and a cool jacket. He moves with a hectic energy buzzing under his skin. He smiles easily, It is warm, enthusiastic, and sad. As we talk, I learn that he shares easily and gives friendly hugs.
We talk that day and the next.
“There is something I like to tell my friends,” he says. It is one of the first personal things he tells me.
“I tell them – I say, ‘Do you know what?’”
“You need to say ‘what.’”
He demonstrates, calling to people he knows sitting around us.
“Do you know what? Do you know what?”
His smile is huge and exuberant.
“I like making people laugh,” he says.
With the same matter of fact simplicity, he talks about being born and living in a refugee camp in the West Bank.
“What’s it like?” I say, realizing I have only the vaguest of ideas. I should read up on it.
“One word,” he says. “No, two. No, wait – three.” He smiles wryly. “Very fucking bad.”
There isn’t an ounce of anger in his voice, though he is entitled to it.
He tells me about being there during the Second Intifada.
“We had a blockade, a few months, I don’t remember whether it was one, two, three, four. I was a kid. I was nine years old. A lot of demolitions had started, a lot of fights, and killings. I lost a lot of my friends. I remember when I was a kid – the soldiers, the tanks. I remember the people, they were in the coffee shop, and the Israeli aircraft destroyed that coffee shop by their rockets. I saw people melting. Their skin, and their blood. It was like….It was so traumatic. Until now I have a nightmare from time to time, I can’t forget.
“I have lost a lot of my very close friends, and they mean a lot ot me. I know that some of them, they were throwing stones at the soldiers, but it doesn’t mean to kill. They were kids. Nine, ten, eleven years old, and they get killed by the soldiers. It’s something that – it’s terrible.
“We were coming back from school from another refugee camp, from the United Nations school, to our houses. We were in the United Nations school from the first grade to the ninth grade, we’re talking about a very specific age.
“We left the school and came back to our houses and the Israeli sniper soldier killed my friend. I was walking with my friend, he was beside me. It was really horrible. And another friend that I loved passed away in a very horrible way. He was carrying his organs after he gets two bullets in his stomach and in his belly. A few minutes later he died. I was at the mosque and people were screaming. ‘He got shot by an Israeli soldier after he was throwing stones.’ He was scared. He was eleven years old. His name is Jamil. Jamil was beautiful. He was very beautiful. And he was scared.
“Also, our neighbor. He was told, because of the blockade, he couldn’t get out of the house. He was very tired after a very long time being inside the house. He went outside to [My friend breathes in.] to smell the air – and he got shot by a soldier. And the sniper was very far away. Makes me scared, I was a kid.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m fine with it if the Israelis could kill some Palestinians every year, but not killing a lot. Like, a small amount, much better than kill a lot. Kill 20, kill 100, much better than to kill thousands each year.
“I used to hate Jews, I used to hate the Israelis because of what they did. And I can’t blame my people if they hate. But I went to Israel and I met a lot of people, a lot of Israelis, and they apologize about that. They said, ‘We don’t want to have these things again.’ Their hospitality was amazing. I know, now, Israelis from a very very different background, and I’m very proud of it. I participate in a lot of peacebuilding and conferences like that.
“I can’t make a change in the whole situation, but I’ve been trying to do something to get people to talk individually. I know the governments are bad, and they don’t do that, but the people – they could do this change individually. Because we don’t want to have this situation for the next generations. I don’t want to raise my kids in the same situation. I want them to have a better life than I have, than I had. I want the new generations of Palestinians, and also Israelis, to have better lives than we had.”
I give him a huge hug, knowing that is not enough, that nothing I can do would be enough to match this generosity in kindness, in hope, and in friendliness. I wonder if we’ll get to meet again, whether there will ever be permits. I will miss him.
A few weeks later he sends photos of rockets in the sky above Gaza, and I don’t know what to say. Tell him to stay safe. Shed some tears. What is there to say?
I don’t know if words are able to convey what I wanted to say here. Some Israelis will read this and hate him, hate us. If I have failed to tell this story to you, ignore me, and do as my friend does. Go out there. Meet people in person. Talk. Make jokes about rear ends. We are not our governments. Have hope.
Thanks to Dean, Sam S. & Alan Abbey for their work and implication with YaLa!