My mom was a born again Jew—her response to my brother’s conversion to Christianity, and my unwavering commitment to Atheism. In her continuing effort to have me meet and marry a Jewish man, during my vagabond years she suggested I to go see Israel. She said it was the most beautiful place on earth, an oasis they’d turned from desert wasteland into paradise. She had taken the guided Hilton Tour. My mother never really saw Israel.
The moment I got off the plane I knew something was wrong with the place. Bullet holes riddled the walls of Ben Yehuda airport, which had plaques commemorating this or that war or terrorist encounter. I had traveled much of the world by then but had never seen anything like this. Military men and women, some no older than teens were armed with Uzi’s; grenades hung off breast belts lined with bullets. On the ride to Tel Aviv, the public bus was packed with soldiers. The French girl next to me leaned over and whispered, “Are those guns real?” Clearly even she thought it odd.
I rented a flat in the heart of the city for a month, and used it as a base to travel from. Using public transport and walking, I explored most of Israel and Egypt, spent hours on buses and in cafes watching and listening. A lone traveler, I was continually invited to join diners, and occasionally even into people’s homes to partake in authentic meals and enlightening conversations. Most everyone spoke English, and after a while an image of the people began to emerge. However, it was my strange encounter with a Islamic man that brought into sharp focus the plight of the Middle East, and ultimately, the world.
My last full day in Israel I took a bus north, toward the Lebanese border to explore the beach town of Naharia. I felt him staring at me from where he sat a few rows back. He was in his early 20’s, dark curly hair, swarthy, handsome. He was dressed in jeans and a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, but wore the traditional Islamic headdress with a black cloth band crowning a red and white checkered bandana that cascaded over his broad shoulders and down his back. The intensity of his gaze unnerved me. I assumed he was on his way to Lebanon, or the West Bank, but when the bus finally got to Naharia he go off too, and I got scared.
I tried to convince myself he wasn’t following me. I window shopped and then got some lunch in a very public café. I saw him meandering around town, often stopping to chat with small groups of men, but almost every time I caught sight of him he looked over at me. Eventually he went into a shop and I ran across the street and tried to disappear into some woods. The low pine forest was only a few hundred meters thick. The blue/green Mediterranean glimmered beyond the trees. When I finally sat down on a log at the edge of the forest I was sure I’d lost him. I dug my toes into the warm sand and looked out at the dazzling sea. The deserted beach was silent. Then I heard twigs breaking underfoot behind me as someone approached.
The Arab man came out of the woods a few yards from me. The thought of running seemed absurd. He could have caught me in a flat second if he wanted to. I stood up, spun around, and tried to make myself as tall as possible. Then I looked him straight in the eye and said in my harshest tone, “What the fuck do you want?” Cussing, speaking before spoken to, and looking a man in the eyes are things I’d been told Islamic women do not do.
He stared at me, startled, but didn’t respond. He probably didn’t speak English. And I didn’t speak anything but.
“Leave! Or I will.” I pointed back through the forest. He didn’t move so I started to walk away. I was scared out of my mind.
“Please don’t go.” He spoke softly, his voice deep and throaty. “You’re an American, right? I just want to talk to you.”
“I’ve just come back from the States.” His accent was English, but richer, more sultry. “I was two years in Boston, at university there. I’ve been back in country three weeks now, and I am missing the hell out of good conversation.” He smiled then, thick ruby lips curved into a gentle grin.
I don’t know if it was his tone, his easy manner, or his striking green eyes that made me stay. He kept distance between us, and slowly sat cross-legged on the sand in the spot he had been standing. Curiosity overrode every other feeling. I’d never spoken at length with an Arab. An opportunity to speak freely without the prying eyes of others could be educational, to say the least.
“I’m from Lebanon, but in my heart I’m an American. What about you? Where are you from?”
“L.A. Hollywood,” I clarified, since many outside of the States had no clue where L.A. was, but everyone knew Hollywood. The conversation spun from there, unraveling like a well worn sweater, venturing down the road of trust, slowly revealing ourselves.
He’d recently graduated from Harvard—not just for the prestigious MBA, and the connections to society’s elite, but also to study our people. He’d returned home to take his place beside his father, a wealthy statesman of some note, and it was going to be his job to advise on how best to “work with the infidels,” meaning the U.S, according to dad.
Strange mix of anger and fear. “I’ve never considered myself an infidel as an American. I thought that title was meant for Israel, or Jews in general.”
He laughed, but not like he thought it was funny. “And that’s exactly what Islamic leaders want you think. They will say anything to get media support. They ask for a little of the West Bank here, a little of Jerusalem there. After all, who can deny them since they’ve been there for thousands of years and have no where else to go?” He shook his head in shame. “Historically, Muslims have been ruled by tyrannical fundamentalists. The wealthy few distort and then push their twisted brand of religion to keep people ignorant. They preach from birth that in order to be faithful it is the duty, the responsibility of every Muslim to convert or kill all infidels. Through killing, the individual becomes divine, and will thus spend eternity in heaven basking in Allah’s glory. All who don’t believe as they do are targets, so the ultimate goal is the annihilation of everyone who cannot be converted.”
The sun set as he spoke, and murky twilight replaced the light. Again he shook his head. Profound sadness filled the space between us. In the States, he’d become agnostic, a humanist, he told me. Integrating with our mix of cultures and beliefs taught him we all basically feel the same things, want mostly the same things—a safe, supportive environment where our needs are met so we can thrive.
“My fanatical father insists it’s business as usual—finance the current regime and whatever one replaces it. But how can I support ideology like this and sleep at night? How do I stay here and marry into a faith I no longer believe, and raise my kids to rise above the ignorance that surrounds them? Reason, logic, sanity are all washed away with the fanatics who will sacrifice their children, or raise them to hate, and the killing never ends.” He sighed heavily, his despair visceral.
I sat against the log, not three feet from him, tears streaming down my face. I had no idea what to say. I was there because of my fanatical mother. She blindly believed Jews had imminent domain to Israel, had single-handedly turned a desert into a flourishing country, and chose to see only the beauty there.
“You’ve seen a different world,” I said to him softly. “You’ve become a different man. If you can change, you can help others change.” I shut up then. Platitudes at best. I sounded like my pollyanna mom. I had no idea if change was possible with religions talons buried so deeply into the psyche of his people.
We left the beach a short while later, as it was getting dark. We both had buses to catch to take us home. He told me to leave first, walk back without him, as it wasn’t safe to be seen together. A Muslim prince alone with a white western woman in public wasn’t proper, yet, he said with a wink.
I knew I’d never see him again, and was surprised by a stab of regret as I stood to exit the scene. Only a few hours in his company, and I felt certain I could love this man. Without embracing or a parting cheek-to-cheek kiss we said goodbye, and I ventured into the small pine forest towards town.
Unfamiliar with infatuation, I had the surreal sensation of missing him on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv, and still the next day on the plane home. He’d given me a view into the plight of the Islamic people, and a deeper understanding of the struggle of Israel, and ultimately the world against our fundamentalist neighbors. And he unwittingly gave me a profound sense of hope, knowing he, and others like him were out there.