The Palestinian laborers working next door brought an end to Mya Guarnieri’s privacy. But while familiarity quickly replaced resentment, it also highlighted the vast distance between her and her temporary neighbors
I have to admit that, at first, I resented the Palestinian workers next door.
Not because they were Palestinian but because I no longer had any privacy. A writer and freelance journalist, I work at home. Most of the time, I wear my pajamas to work. Sometimes I wear a Santa Claus hat, a reminder to relax and not take myself—or my writing—too seriously. Sometimes my characters make me laugh out loud; sometimes they make me cry. And so I do that, openly, at my computer.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m watering and talking to my plants. I’m waving to my neighbors’ tabby cat. I’m doing jumping jacks. I’m dancing. I’m singing badly in English and worse in Hebrew. I’m eating with my hands.
But the shiputz, or renovation, next door brought all that to an end.
I opened my windows one morning only to find that my neighbors and their striped cat were gone, replaced by about a dozen workers. A man in a green baseball cap—who I’d later realize was the foreman—offered me a heavily-accented “boker tov” [good morning]. I mentally thanked God that I was dressed. I waved, boker tov-ed him back, and made my morning coffee with a straight face.
Aware that these men could peek into my apartment whenever they liked, I became conscious of my dress and movements. My home turned from the private sphere to the public.
It’s an old rule of social psychology that familiarity breeds liking. And that’s how it went with the workers and me. I made peace with my lack of privacy and they became a little less formal in time, too.
Oddly, none of us ever bothered exchanging names.
Before long, however, a “mah nishma” was welded onto the end of that daily “boker tov.” Later, that short exchange turned into a brief conversation about the weather. The workers took a liking to my plants and, eventually, we began to discuss those—what each one was, which were growing well, which needed more or less water.
“It’s always been my dream to have a big garden,” a worker confessed, in accented Hebrew, from the scaffolding one afternoon.
I should add that I don’t have a garden. I live on the third floor and my plants are all in industrial-sized tin cans, discards from the shuk. But, in that moment, I felt the tremendous gap between us. It was more than the distance between the two buildings. It was inequalities in education and the allocation of state resources. It was the National Priority map that favors illegal settlers over Palestinian citizens of Israel. It was the occupation. It was martial law, which was imposed on Arab citizens from 1949-1966. It was 1948.
It was the garden that, despite my blue-collar background and writers’ wages, would be easier for me to attain.
One day, when it was warm, a worker jokingly asked me if I wouldn’t mind throwing him something to drink. I smiled and laughed. But, on the inside, I felt that inequality resonate again. Why did we speak Hebrew? Why had I still not bothered to learn more than a handful of Arabic? Why had I been so intent on being friendly? Isn’t that fetishizing, another manifestation of seeing someone as an “other”?
I felt guilty.
And then, one morning—even though the scaffolding was still there and the renovation wasn’t finished—the workers were gone.
I had more privacy than ever. But I wasn’t in the mood to put on my Santa cap. It was too quiet. I missed the foreman’s salaam alaikum (he’d switched from boker tov a few months before). I missed that sense of security that comes from knowing that there is always someone to say hello to.
As I headed out for a walk that morning, I found myself noticing construction sites. People were working. Still, I wondered if it was a Muslim or Christian holiday. I passed a building that was being renovated by Palestinian men and decided it probably wasn’t.
Maybe the workers next door were from the West Bank. Maybe they had permits and the checkpoints were closed today.
Or maybe they were undocumented and had been busted? After all, there are thousands of undocumented workers who make into Israel every day. (So much for the army’s claim that the separation barrier is there for security—if a terrorist really wanted to get in, he or she could. In fact, a state comptroller’s report found that most suicide bombers entered Israel via checkpoints, passing right under the army’s collective nose.)
When I got home, I searched the news to see if the West Bank was indeed closed. It wasn’t.
Are they on strike? I wondered.
I got my answer a few hours later. I didn’t see the foreman, but I heard him downstairs, shouting in Hebrew. I leaned out my window and saw him on the phone. “…and we won’t start working again a moment before,” he said.
I was angry then at the employers who think that they don’t have to pay their workers—whether Palestinian or foreign. I was upset with the foreman who had allowed his men to work, standing on scaffolding, without helmets or safety equipment of any kind.
But, most of all, I was mad at myself for never having gotten those men’s names.