A Conversation That’s Been Had (a story from a bus in Jerusalem)

[Preface: This is the final installment of The Leftern Wall July Story Journal (I know, it’s no longer July). It is a bit longer than usual, but worth reading every word. Thank you all for reading, listening, submitting. Next month (this month), the projects will continue, will be different, but will hold on the human core that was featured in this past month. In the meantime, I think I need take Amani’s advice, and be silent for a while. -MRZ].

Guest writer: Amani Rohana

It’s been a while since I had a real conversation about “the conflict.”

Lately, it seems like all that people around me are talking about is “the conflict.” In the university, coffee shops, grocery stores, and bus stations, Hamas, Gaza, Arabs, and the IDF have become the hallo and goodbye of every conversation. Yet, it seems as if they talk about it without really talking about it, summing it up by stating what has been said on the news that day, what their neighbor told them happened yesterday, and what they were taught to believe is true since childhood. It is understandable why one would refrain from talking about what exists outside of one’s routinized understanding, fearing that new information might challenge the ground which one has attempted to create steadiness. I wonder if there exist such grounds.

It’s been a while since I had a real conversation about “the conflict.”

Lately, I’ve been refraining from having real conversations in general. Having lived in Jerusalem for the past four years, I have come to learn that conversations are not the strongest aspect of this old, weary city. It only takes a walk in the street to realize it: this city’s silence is louder than its conversations. I was once disturbed by it but, nowadays, I find myself wishing that more people would be silent.

It’s been a while since I had a real conversation about “the conflict.”

Lately, I am just tired of having conversations about anything. Every once in a while, when I find the strength to leave my university dorms in the French Hill, I am advised by my concerned mother not to speak in Arabic in public. Given the limited resources provided to challenge that fear, I choose not to speak at all. Sometimes, however, you are forced into a conversation, and by that, you are forced to choose between your own conversation and that of others, knowing that either way, you are going to have to bear unbearable consequences, which would include, in the best case, longer, more dreadful conversations.

I was waiting for the bus when the lady asked what time it was, and when she couldn’t figure out my accent from the few words I exchanged, she kept talking until she was sure I was Arab. For the past 4 years, being an Arab usually meant that I was spared whatever “conversation” is about to come. Lately, being an Arab means the exact opposite. It means that inevitably, things are going to happen, I am going to be asked to talk about my “Arabhood,” about how moral the Israeli “Defense” forces are, and about how good it is to be a “citizen” of the Jewish state. The lady talked for about 10 minutes, and finished by saying that “we” are the people who are suffering from all this, when I said that I agreed, she made sure I understood that by “we” she meant both “them” and “us,” Arabs and Jews, and when I said I didn’t think she meant otherwise, she felt comfortable enough to assert that “we” wouldn’t have suffered so much if “they” didn’t kidnap “our” boys.

It’s been a while since I had a real conversation about “the conflict”, about the conflict I am feeling towards my “Arabhood,” about the despicable acts of the Israeli “defense” forces, and about how bad it is to be a “citizen” of the Jewish state. Lately, I am choosing not to speak, because I feel that the people who should are choosing to be silent, and those who are speaking are only making it worse.

It’s been a while since I had a real conversation about the conflicts, and today I was given the opportunity to do so. It was not intended to be inspiring and hopeful, because, simply, I am neither inspired nor hopeful. But, for the sake of those reading, I will end this with a conversation I did not have, and which I think, is one of the most real conversations about the conflicts. 

July 27th, 06:00 pm

Line 19- City Center, Jerusalem

Orthodox Jew: Are you an Arab?

Arab: Yes. Wow you speak Arabic?!

Orthodox Jew: Yes, I lived in Argentina for a while and many Arabs were living in my neighborhood, so I learned Arabic.

Arab: Nice. I am from Jerusalem.

At this point I thought to myself: this could turn out to be one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever eavesdropped on.

Orthodox Jew: Really? So you were born in Jerusalem?

Arab: Yes. But I am a Christian.

“BUT I am Christian.” This was too familiar, and too old. Put more accurately, what the guy was trying to say was: I am not Muslim, and at this point, I could feel my eyes rolling back in my head. I looked at my watch and thought, well, I still have 30 minutes to get home, and it is still too early to lose complete interest in this conversation. Most importantly, whatever this turns out to be, it will definitely be better than to give in to the nonsense our driver is listening to, loudly, on the Israeli radio stations.

Arab: You know, I see that Israel is my country, and I don’t really care for…

From the start, I could hear that the guy was not good with words, however, I was not sure if it was because he was scared that something will not come off as “right” or if he was just trying to be easy on his new Jewish friend. At this point though, he was obviously struggling. One thing for sure, he was not even trying to be politically correct. When he couldn’t find the word he was looking for, he just motioned aimlessly with his hand and said:

…for, for them. I even applied for an Israeli…

I was starting to feel impatient, and wondered what the Jewish man was feeling. This time, it didn’t take too long for the Arab guy to find his lost word:

..how do you call it? Oh yes, citizenship! Israeli citizenship.

He was not met with the same enthusiasm, and all that the Jewish guy said was:

Arab: You know, I’ve lived around Muslims, and I didn’t like them. Then I lived around Jews, and I liked them a lot. They are just better.

Orthodox Jew: Well, some people are good, some people are less good. Maybe you had the chance to meet only the less good Muslims and only the good Jews. Both can be either. I know a lot of people, Muslims and Jews, and they are all just wonderful.

I have to admit, while this should be the trivial answer to give, I was impressed, especially given the current situation. The Arab guy did not give up though, I know I could not be impressed for long, I am still in Jerusalem after all…

Arab: Yes. But you know, I think I have Jewish roots, maybe my great grandpa or great grandma were Jews, I don’t know.

Orthodox Jew: Could be. Are you married?

Arab: No.

Orthodox Jew: Not good. How old are you?

Arab: 27. I’m old.

Orthodox Jew: Wow, you should have taken a wife at the age of 20. You should start looking for a good girl to marry and have children with. That is very important.

This guy was obviously more interested in a having a conversation that is more about the religious aspect of religion, not the nationalistic one. His Christian Jerusalemite with the Israeli citizenship friend however, had other plans in mind.

Orthodox Jew: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Arab: Yes, a boy and..

Orthodox Jew: You mean a brother.

Arab: Yes, yes. A brother and a sister.

Orthodox Jew: Nice, what do they do?

Arab: My brother is working and my sister is still in school. She is doing her Bagrut exams, you know, the Israeli.

Orthodox Jew: Is your brother married?

Arab: No.

Orthodox Jew: One day. How about your parents? Are they alive?

Arab: Yes.

Orthodox Jew: Thank God, that’s the most important thing. What is your name?

Arab: Anton.

Anton then starting telling his new friend about his visit to the Western Wall and how he felt “something weird” as he went there to pray. He said he was planning on going to see someone that is “like” his new friend to learn more about the Judaism and asked what this “something” he felt might mean. The Orthodox Jew, whose name I did not learn as Anton did not find it important to ask, dismissed the question and rather talked about God the almighty, who will soon end this war and bring peace to all people in the region. We arrived to Anton’s destination and right before he stepped out of the bus the Orthodox Jewish man whose name I did not learn wished him a good day and said:

…Be sure to work on that Arabic, Anton, so next time we meet, you can tell me what you really want me to know.