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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part five

As her time in Bethlehem winds down, Mya begins to wonder whether she really wants to move to the U.S with her Palestinian fiancé. But when the Gaza war breaks out, she finds herself being pushed out by people she had grown to trust. And yet, nearly a decade after she arrived, leaving has never seemed so hard.

Mya
Guarnieri

Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” begins in Gaza. I am consumed by the news. I scroll through Twitter with the television on, flipping between Al Jazeera and CNN. Horrifying images stream out of the Strip. Rubble. Bodies. Crowds around hospitals. People running, carrying limp loved ones. Shujaiyah.

When I can’t take it anymore, I turn off the TV, leave my phone inside, and go to the garden. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to “take a break” from the war — even if that break is somewhat of an illusion. No, I’m not in Gaza, but rockets are falling inside Israel; a few that are intended for settlements hit Palestinian areas in the West Bank. We have no siren in the Bethlehem and so there is no warning when one afternoon — BOOM, BOOM — two rockets land close enough to my house that the floor, windows, and walls shake and shudder. The neighbors — a young couple who live in an apartment down the hill, below my garden — call.

“What was that? Did you feel it? Are you okay?” we ask each other.

We pass many nights together, worrying over a bottle of whiskey, watching for rockets. Sometimes we see them tearing the black fabric of the sky. Sometimes we spot shooting stars instead. We gasp and point at them and make silent wishes.

One morning, a rocket slams into a Beit Sahour home.

The rockets make me reluctant to drive into Israel to visit friends, even though I have less than two months left here. I know the odds of my car taking a direct hit are slim. But I don’t know what I would do if the siren went off while I was driving alone. Would I stop, get out of the car, lie flat and cover my head with my hands? Or would I just keep on driving?

Smoke caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, seen on July 16, 2014. Operation 'Protective Edge' enters it's ninth day of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, as yesterday's ceasefire agreement proposed by Egypt has failed to restore calm. (photo: Activestills.org)

Smoke caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, July 16, 2014. Operation (photo: Activestills.org)

I can’t decide, so for the first four weeks of the war, I rarely leave Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. I don’t leave the West Bank at all.

A Jewish Israeli friend, an artist, who was born and raised in the north calls me from her parents’ house in Upper Nazareth one afternoon. She speaks Hebrew and, because I’m sitting in the garden, I answer her in English. She asks me if I think it’s safe to be alone in the West Bank during a war. She’s “very, very worried” about me and she’d like me to come back in — I’m welcome to stay with her — until things cool down.

I decline. I assure her that I’m fine and that I’m not concerned. I don’t tell her about the nights that I sleep on the floor, wedged between the bed and the armoire. I don’t even tell Mohammad about them.

I find myself at once appreciating and bristling at her concern.

I know that this soldier was someone’s child, someone’s boyfriend. He was alive. Now he’s not.

As we hang up, I realize that it’s not just the rockets. I’m not driving in to Israel right now because I can’t handle what I know I’ll see there: flags, soldiers, jingoistic stickers, banners, graffiti, and newspapers filled with distorted headlines. And I don’t want to catch snatches of people’s conversations, don’t want to hear things like “I’m a leftist but…” or “We should just obliterate Gaza and finish this business already,” because I know that my stomach will roil with anger.

In the beginning of August, when I finally do go to Jerusalem, it will be exactly as I expected. I will overhear a small child boast to his sister, “We destroyed almost all of Gaza.” His mother will shush him, “Don’t talk like that in public.” The stickers and banners I knew would be there will indeed be there, too, proclaiming things like, “Together, saying thank you to our soldiers,” and “Strong together, loving Israel, supporting the Israeli army.”

And then there will be the newspaper. I’ll be in the Emek Refaim neighborhood, on my way to an appointment, when I’ll duck into a small grocery store to buy a cold drink. On my way out, I’ll scan the front pages and I’ll see photos of a young couple; “Goodbye my love” will rest like a headstone below their faces.

The sub-head will read: “The last messages on Whatsapp, the shared dreams, the big hole that’s left in the heart.”

Yes, he was a soldier attacking an occupied territory. No, the conflict is not bilateral. Yes, there is a power imbalance and, yes, according to international law, Palestinians have a legal right to armed resistance. No, he shouldn’t have been serving in the army. Yes, he could have — should have — refused.

'Together, we say thank you to the soldiers.' Stickers praising Israeli soldiers adorn the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem during the 2014 Gaza war. (photo: Mya Guarnieri)

‘Together, we say thank you to the soldiers.’ Stickers praising Israeli soldiers adorn the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem during the 2014 Gaza war. (photo: Mya Guarnieri)

I’ll know all of this. I’ll also know that he grew up in a fearmongering society that brainwashes most of those who live inside its borders, and even some beyond. I’ll know that he was someone’s child, someone’s grandson, someone’s boyfriend.

He was human. He was alive. Now he’s not.

Just as I’ve wept for the people of Gaza, I will find myself shedding tears for this boy and those he left behind. I stand there, in the doorway of a grocery, one foot on the tiled interior, the other on the sidewalk. I stand there and I look at the pictures of him and his girlfriend and I read that headline over and over again “Goodbye my love” and I cry.

I can’t bear moving between the two sides right now. So for all of July, I don’t go to Israel. One day, not long after my friend called from Nazareth, I rifle through the political memorabilia I had accumulated over the past seven years — ranging from leaflets from right-wing Israeli rallies to an Islamic Jihad sash a friend brought me from Gaza — until I find a Palestinian flag. I plant it in the garden so it’s visible from the road below. I plant it in the garden so when army jeeps come roaring through the night — a likely scenario, considering that soldiers are still raiding houses in Beit Sahour — they’ll remember where they are.

Palestine.

***

I talk to Mohammad every day. I wear my engagement ring. But I don’t pack. I don’t throw or give anything away. I make no effort to sell my car.

And I don’t buy a plane ticket.

My life shrinks to the house, the garden, and the neighbors’ apartment — a young couple that invite me over to drink whiskey at night and watch the sky for rockets. I wear the same summer dress for weeks on end, changing only when I go to bed or leave the house. I move between the TV and the bench outside, where I sit and read or look at Dheisheh refugee camp while nursing hangovers and icing my still-fractured foot. My landlady often joins me, lifting my legs from the bench, sitting, and putting my feet back in her lap.

Sometimes she’s quiet as I read. Sometimes we chat. She doesn’t say it but I know she’s sad that I’m leaving; I know she’s trying to eke out some last bits of quality time together.

One afternoon, as we sit like this, she asks me to take down the Palestinian flag.

I put my book down on my stomach and look at her. “Really?”

“Yes.” She explains that, to her, the flag doesn’t mean what it used to. “I wish I’d been born somewhere else — America, Europe. Australia!” she snorts as though imagining herself Down Under is preposterous.

When I ask her why, she tells me what I’ve heard from so many Palestinians. She’s disappointed in the PA and the post-Oslo reality. She’s sick of the corruption and the lack of unity.

Palestinian Authority police attempt to prevent youth in Aida Refugee Camp from clashing with Israeli forces, Bethlehem, West Bank, September 27, 2013. The clashes were in reaction to recent provocations at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque by right-wing Jewish settlers. (photo: Activestills.org)

Palestinian Authority police attempt to prevent youth in Aida Refugee Camp from clashing with Israeli forces, Bethlehem, West Bank, September 27, 2013. (photo: Activestills.org)

She’s also discouraged by society’s increasingly religious, conservative nature. “Now, all these girls walking around like this,” she pretends to pull fabric around her face, gripping it under her chin. She opens her eyes wide and sucks her cheeks in to emphasize the scarf’s tightness.

She adds that she likes my PFLP flag — a dead giveaway that she’s gone through my collection, which is tucked away in a closet.

Before I have a chance to do it myself, she gets up and pulls the Palestinian flag out of the ground. She rolls it, hands it to me, and begins fussing over the grapes that hang over the bench.

“They’re too dry this year,” she sighs. “The only thing they’re good for is vinegar.”

She ducks into the storage closet, next to the garage, and she returns with a large glass bottle and some small pruning shears. With a snip, she clips the grapes from the vine and stuffs them into the bottle. When she finds a good bunch, she hands them to me. I limp inside, put them in a bowl, wash them and bring them back out to the garden. I offer the bowl but she wrinkles her nose.

I pop one in my mouth.

“They’re fine,” I insist.

“No, they’re not quite right.”

As I eat them, my landlady asks if I have figured out when I’m leaving.

I know that she needs to find new tenants. But I hesitate to commit to a date. Instead, I give her the date of my end-of-the-summer course and say that I’ll leave “sometime after that. I don’t know exactly.”

***

Another afternoon, my landlady comes into the garden, waters the pepper plants, the nana, the azkadenya tree and then plops down on the bench next to the door. She puts her hand over her heart. I know that, in the past, she had two heart attacks. I leap up from the bench and run to her, despite the sharp pain in my foot, calling her name.

“Are you okay?” I ask when I reach her. I kneel before her.

Her breathing is labored but she nods.

“What’s wrong?”

“The TV,” she gasps. “I can’t watch it. Gaza. The bombs. It reminds me of Jaffa, when we left. Boom! Boom!”

She is a little girl running from the army again. She is out of breath. I sit and hold her hand.

***

It’s Ramadan and every night, around 2:30 in the morning, a young man walks around the neighborhood drumming and singing. He is the musaharati; his music reminds those who are fasting to rise and have their last meal—sohoor—before the first rays of sunlight fall upon the land.

He taps on the tabla tucked under his arm — a short shot of percussion — stops, and raises his voice, “You sleepers, believe that there is no god but god the everlasting.”

He hits the drum and pauses to sing, “You sleepers, believe in your lord, who created you will not forget you.”

And then comes the staccato rhythm again. It stops and the musaharati’s voice rises, “Wake up for your sohoor, the dear Ramadan has come.”

Palestinians arriving for the West Bank walk into Danascus gate in Jerusalem'd old city, on their way to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the second Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, June 26, 2015. (photo: Activestills.org)

Palestinians arrive from the West Bank on their way to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the second Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, June 26, 2015. (photo: Activestills.org)

The tabla and singing never compete with one another; rather, they give way to one another, taking turns, weaving together as he moves through the streets.

The first notes are faint as the musaharati walks up the hill from Beit Sahour. His voice and the drumming grow louder as he approaches my apartment. As he rounds the corner that the house stands on, he passes the bedroom window level with the street. I feel like he’s singing into my window, calling to me, assuring me that I, too, am safe and will not be forsaken, like he’s asking me to rise and join the community.

So I do.

I rise from my spot on the floor and slip between the sheets. After several nights of this, his songs no longer find me wedged next to the armoire. His voice rouses me from my sleep in the bed.

***

The following week, as Israel is pummeling Gaza, a student launches an anonymous campaign against me. The writing style is distinct, though, and a few sentences in, I know that it was authored by the same girl who previously said that anyone could bring a gun to campus and shoot me. She sends her emails to most of the student body, other professors, and the administration.

She accuses me of being a Zionist, of having lived in a West Bank settlement (for the record: I haven’t), of supporting the Israeli occupation of 48 lands, of calling the military — which I always take care to refer to as the Israeli army, never “defense forces” — the IDF. She has spent hours combing through my writings and media appearances and points to an article in which an editor changed “Israeli army” to IDF as proof positive that I not only support Israel but I also support the Israeli line about “self defense.”

In the wake of the Israeli attack on a UN school in Gaza — a strike that kills 16 Palestinians — this student sends an email to hundreds of people claiming that I support the Israeli assault on civilians.

A number of students know better. They send me supportive emails, including students whom I’ve never had in my classes. They write to me privately, however, and not to the group. And I realize that no one is going to stick their neck out for me publicly. This hurts.

Still, I appreciate the warmth I get from students. “I just want to say that I wish I could have the pleasure to attend any of your classes but there was no chance,” one writes, adding that he is annoyed by the emails. “I hope one day I will have the honor of meeting and learning from your knowledge in person.”

A Palestinian child stands in front of his destroyed home in the Tuffah neighboorhood of Gaza city, Gaza Strip, February 9, 2015. Six months after the Israeli military offensive, tens of thousands of Palestinians are still displaced. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian child stands in front of his destroyed home in the Tuffah neighboorhood of Gaza city, Gaza Strip, February 9, 2015. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A former student reaches out. He calls me an “inspiration” and says he’s upset to see what’s happening but that, given the occupation and war, it’s “no surprise” that students are turning on me. He encourages me to stand up for myself, urging me to respond, to set the record straight.

I don’t. I remain quiet. And my colleagues — international, Israeli, and Palestinian alike — are, for the most part, silent, as well.

I remember that, in the spring, a few of them had warned me that the anti-normalization conversation was growing stronger in the West Bank. Some considered my presence, as well as that of other Jewish-Israeli instructors, normalization. We are making people uncomfortable, they had said. Regardless of how our Palestinian colleagues felt about us personally or as individuals, they wanted us out, I was told.

One colleague said that the university was going to start following the boycott. I reminded her that according to BDS guidelines, someone who holds Israeli citizenship shouldn’t be singled out. The boycott applies to those who represent the government or government-funded institutions. Not any Jew who holds an Israeli passport.

I think about these conversations when another long, mass email goes out from that student and is met, again, with silence.

Eventually, an administrator responds that they are investigating the student’s claims. “We are calling students on her class lists, and [until] now, nobody even knew about these allegations [until] they read your e mail…” they write. The administrator reminds the student that there are proper avenues to lodge complaints and that unless the student can prove every word in their emails, I could sue them for libel.

Still, the girl continues her campaign, sending emails on a near daily basis. She includes links not to my work but that of other +972 writers who lean toward the liberal Zionist end of the spectrum. She argues that these journalists’ writings represent me and my ideas.

Regardless of how our Palestinian colleagues felt about us personally, some people wanted us out.

She claims that she is speaking for a group of students. She also remarks in her emails that students have spotted me in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour lately and she warns that I’d better “apologize soon” if I’m “planning to visit our University again.”

I’m not sure if she’s gathered my whereabouts from the articles I’ve published during the summer or if she has, indeed, spoken to classmates who have remarked that they’ve seen me. Either way, I’m disturbed by the combination of incitement and suggestions as to where I might be found.

I tell an administrator that, I’m sorry, I can’t teach the end of the summer course. I’m not comfortable and I don’t want my presence to make students and colleagues uncomfortable. The administrator assuages my fears and asks me to hang in there a little while longer as they try to resolve the issue.

But the war grinds on, the death toll ticks up in Gaza, and the emails continue. Some members of the administration begin to express concern about my safety. Ordinarily, my security isn’t a concern for them. Now, with Israel turning Gaza into rubble, it is.

***

I refuse to lie on the floor. Every night, I get into bed and wait for the musaharti to come by. Only after he has passed, only after I’ve been tucked in by his drum and soothing words, do I fall asleep.

***

Another email from the student, more handwringing on the administration’s part, and still, I don’t book a ticket.

Instead, I find myself wandering through the tourist stores, accumulating hand painted dishes from Hebron and embroidered pillowcases. I haggle over everything, explaining to the shopkeepers that I’m engaged and leaving soon to make a new home in America. I drift through the flea market and buy random things: a used Persian rug, a Pesach plate. I pay 10 shekels for a framed, embroidered depiction of a belly dancer — Mohammad will later guess it to be handiwork from Syria or Egypt, circa 1950. I splurge on an expensive dress — an import from Turkey — to wear to a close friend’s wedding, which will take place in Beit Sahour during the last days of July. And even though I tell people over and over again that I am leaving, I can’t figure out if I’m buying souvenirs or if these objects are simply anchoring me here.

Though the dress is the lightest and most portable of my purchases, it strikes me as the thing that most roots me in the West Bank. Attending a wedding in Palestine is not just about the bride and groom, the ceremony, the reception, the music, the dancing. It’s about standing alongside the people you live and work with and among — be they strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family. It’s about being a thread in the community’s fabric and acknowledging yourself as such.

That is why my friends are choosing to go ahead with their nuptials in the face of destruction being wrought on Gaza, despite the night raids on Beit Sahour. It’s a small act of resistance — a way of showing the Israelis that try as they might they can’t tear this cloth.

As I pull a black lace dress over my head — the dress I’ll wear to my friend’s henna ceremony — I wonder how I can go to this party and her wedding. How can I eat and drink and dance with her and the groom and their families and then just pick up the next month and leave, leave the place and everyone in it behind? How I can tear myself from this cloth?

I fasten myself into strappy gold heels, sit at the vanity, and apply my make-up. I slide my face powder and lipstick into a tiny, beaded clutch, leaving my Israeli and West Bank cell phones at home along with my Israeli and American IDs.

I double check the name of the restaurant where the henna is being held and, as I lock the door and back out of the garage, I try to remember the vague directions my friend offered me.

I can’t.

I head down the hill that leads to Beit Sahour. Jordan is just visible on the horizon. When I reach the bottom of the road, I lean out the open window and call to a boy walking down the street, asking him where the restaurant is. More vague directions. I drive a bit more and ask again, continuing on until I make it to a fork in the road where a small sign nailed to a post bears the restaurant’s name in Arabic only. An arrow points me to the right.

A young man who works there is standing outside, guiding cars toward open parking spaces. I still don’t believe that I understood the directions I got on the street, doubting that I read the signs correctly. I ask him if I am, indeed, at the restaurant. He looks at me blankly before responding with a polite “Yes.”

I almost ask if the henna ceremony is taking place here but decide to save myself the embarrassment.

***

I enter the women’s side of the party where I find the bride-to-be wearing a sleeveless black dress edged with traditional Palestinian embroidery. She is posing for a photo with her future sister-in-laws. I wave to let her know that I’m here.

Several pictures later, the bride-to-be needs a break and a cigarette. She, her best friend, and I pile into my car and drive a couple of blocks to a store where we buy junk food and beer. We park alongside a half-finished apartment building that is reportedly sponsored by the PFLP. The bride and her maid of honor smoke while I flip through the radio, pausing briefly on the news. It’s unbearable and I know that none of us need to hear it right now — it’s with us even during the festivities.

How can I eat and drink and dance and then just pick up and go? How can I leave everyone behind?

That night, I leave before the party is over, early by the bride and groom’s standards but late enough that there is no one on the street to ask for directions. The sky is dark, there’s only a slice of moon hanging in the sky and scant street lights. But somehow, my little car and I bounce along the dusty road, popping over potholes, making all the right turns until we climb the hill and I’m home.

I peel off my dress, get into bed, and fall into a deep sleep long before the musaharati begins his rounds.

***

The following week, I get a one-line email from the administration telling me that it would be in everyone’s best interests if I did not teach the end of the summer course. It’s Mohammad’s parents rejecting me all over again. It’s another reminder that I cannot have a life in the West Bank as long as there is an occupation, as long as there are refugees, as long as Palestinian citizens in Israel are treated as second class citizens.

Hours after I receive the administration’s email, I book a one-way ticket to Florida.

Several days later, I’m at a café with a few girlfriends when I get the news that the airline has cancelled my flight because of the war. I rebook with my friends at my side asking me why I’m not making it round-trip. It’ll be cheaper, they argue.

And don’t I intend to come back to Palestine? They ask. I can always change the dates, they insist.

And if I do come back? I counter. I’ll have to book a one-way ticket to the U.S. eventually. Or will I just keep booking round-trip tickets to Palestine indefinitely, forever calling the airline and changing the return dates, coming back to visit the West Bank, only to do it all again?

I keep it one way.

***

With the war unfolding on my TV screen, with the land devouring its own inhabitants, there is nothing left to do but break down my house.

I bag most of my clothes and shoes and bedding and drop them off at the YMCA, where volunteers are collecting things to send to Gaza. I take more than half of my books to a store in Jerusalem, hoping to get a decent price for them or at least a credit that I can use… when? If I come back? I get a paltry 90 shekel credit for a car full of books, the owner claiming he can’t use most of them.

I know that I’m being ripped off but I don’t care. I dump the books and drive back to Bethlehem faster and lighter. In the week that follows, I box up the rest of my library and take it to the DHL in Bethlehem, where I fill out Israeli customs forms and remember that though this is “autonomous” Area A, Israel in control.

Nervous about taking it through the airport, I dump most of my political memorabilia, including the Hamas flag I’d snagged at a campus rally. When I go to take the garbage out later that day, I find that much of the paraphernalia is gone. But the familiar green banner is still there, its white letters now gray — the flag has been trampled, kicked about, walked upon, and lies filthy on the ground.

Palestinians demonstrate supporting the resistance in Gaza Strip, in Nablus city, West Bank, three days after a deal signed by Israel and Hamas ending a 50-day of the Israeli attack, August 29, 2014.

Palestinians demonstrate in support of Hamas during the 2014 Gaza war, in the West Bank city of Nablus, three days after a deal signed by Israel and Hamas ended the 51-day war, August 29, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

I cannot part with the Persian rug I bought at the flea market, though it will serve no purpose in Florida. I cannot get rid of the heavy, synthetic blanket emblazoned with peacocks — a kitsch piece I spent 15 shekels on, which kept me warm during my first and only Bethlehem winter. So I ship them along with, and against my better judgment, my heavy juice press. The dishes from Hebron are boxed up and sent along, too.

Before I actually pack any of these things I snap photos of them and send the pictures to Mohammad asking him “What about this?”

And this?

And this?

The rug he understands. The juicer, well, we can buy another here, he says, and it’s not worth it to ship.

But the blanket? Mohammad draws the line in his gentle way. It’s heavy, it’s large, and we really won’t need it, he says.

But don’t you remember that we used it here, in this house, in Bethlehem? I insist. And during the snowstorm!

Ta’aban. Of course. But it’s way too hot for Florida, dear. I promise you we won’t need it.

I box it up and take it to DHL anyways.

I jokingly ask Mohammad if there’s some way I could bring my landlady with me. I ask him what he would do if he came to pick me up and she peeked out at him from behind me, “Marhaba!” Hello!

My landlady doesn’t want to come to America with me but she does have her eye on a few things — my TV, electric heaters, and radiators. She enters without knocking on a Saturday morning and immediately starts talking prices — prices that are uncomfortably low to me. But, I reason with myself, she lives in poverty and what else would I do with the stuff?

Still, it’s Shabbat. And I’m sad about moving and overwhelmed by how much I have left to throw away,give away, or pack. I can’t handle it right now.

I’ve spent the morning walking from room to room, looking at piles of random things. To throw away those right-wing leaflets and the Islamic jihad sash? And what about the Hamas flags I snatched from campus? To take the paraphernalia with me and risk being caught at Ben Gurion with it? What for? I don’t support Hamas or Islamic Jihad. But they seem like important things to hold onto. Should I ship them via DHL, where the box will pass through Israeli customs and could be opened and inspected?

“Please,” I say to my landlady. I stop pacing and stand at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her on the landing. I don’t think about what I’ll say next. I just say it: “Not now. I don’t do business on Saturdays.”

“Why?” she asks. “Because you’re Jewish?”

“No,” I volley back. “Because it’s the weekend and I’m tired.”

She lets it go at that and heads back upstairs. Before she closes the door behind her, she reminds me that I promised to come spend some time with her before I leave. She wants show me her family photos, the few that remain from Jaffa.

***

I wait until my last night to pack the clothes that I didn’t send to Gaza. My closest girlfriends come over for one last dinner — mine has become the apartment that our circle always gathered in — and to keep me company as I stuff things into the two suitcases I’ll take to Florida with me. They depart with my dishes, pots and pans, glassware, teas, spices. My neighbor, the one whose wedding I’ve just attended, calls her husband to pick her up. Rather than taking her home, though, he joins the three of us to drink whiskey late into the night.

It’s past one when they leave. The taxi will be here in five hours. I look at my half-empty bags. The send-off dinner and packing party haven’t given me any sense of closure, maybe because I didn’t even manage to pack. It feels like another night of entertaining and I can’t believe that there isn’t another to come.

I text Mohammad and tell him I’m very sorry but I can’t do it, I can’t leave. I can’t move to Florida.

He asks me why and I come up with something ridiculous, the type of break-up attempt you only make when you’re half a bottle of whiskey down: I know you prefer dark-haired women and my natural color is auburn. And there’s grey coming in now, too, and you know what? I’m tired of dying my hair.

I’ll never be what you want me to be.

And I have quit studying Arabic, too. You really want to share a home with a Hebrew speaker? I love singing along to Dikla and I’m not giving that up — occupation or not!

Eternally patient, Mohammad calls and convinces me that I am indeed what he wants. He’ll take my auburn hair — when he met me I hadn’t yet started dying it and, from his side, it was pretty much love at first sight.

But I’ve gained weight, I protest. The war, my broken foot. The neighbors and their whiskey!

He insists that he likes my curves.

And what about my Arabic?

You speak good Arabic, he says, in Arabic.

No I don’t, I protest, pouring myself another drink. And fuck Arabic anyways. If your people reject me, I reject your language!

Beseder, Mohammad answers in Hebrew.

We go on like this —  me raising “concerns” and him shooting them down — as I place one piece of clothing after another in the bags while talking. The next thing I know it’s 3 a.m. and I’m packed.

My excuses are all gone. I tell Mohammad the truth. “I just can’t leave.”

But I know that it’s time. My car is gone, my job is gone, my love is gone.

He tells me to get some sleep, says I’ll feel better in the morning. “I’ll see you soon, dear,” he says as he hangs up.

***

My alarm goes off two hours later. I make Nescafe and go out for one last coffee in the garden. When my landlady comes in, my cat — who is scared of her — runs off to hide. We had agreed to have coffee together before I go but I have got to get my cat into the soft-sided carrier I am taking on the plane with me. There are still a few small things to pack, so I ask her to leave. Maybe because she doesn’t know how to say “I love you, don’t leave,” she refuses, insisting on staying in the apartment so she can see me off and close the door behind me. We fight like mother and daughter.

I’m protesting, “You don’t respect my boundaries!” when the phone rings. I look at the number — it’s the taxi.

My cat is cowering under the bed.

“I don’t have time for this now,” I tell my landlady. “Please, my cat is scared of you. I have to get her into the carrier, please just go away for a second so I can get her into her carrier!”

She retreats to the top of the stairs and I coax my cat out of her hiding place and into her bag.

The taxi calls again.

“I’ve gotta go,” I yell into the house as I struggle to pull my two suitcases outside, the cat carrier dangling from my arm, along with my laptop bag and purse.

“Okay,” my landlady says.

This isn’t the goodbye I imagined.

***

Omar, the same East Jerusalem taxi driver who took me to the airport in late May,—helps me with my suitcases. And then we’re in the car, moving down the street. We pass the right hand turn I would make if I wanted to head to Beit Sahour, the road I took the night of the henna party. We head towards Beit Jala, where we’ll roll past that army base, and merge onto a road that takes Israelis to and from settlements. When we see the checkpoint, we’ll cobble together a story to tell the soldiers in case they ask us any questions—we’re on our way to Ben Gurion from Har Homa.

“What if they ask to see my ID?” I ask. “My address is still Kiryat Yovel.”

“You stayed at your cousin’s last night,” Omar answers. Some Palestinians call the Jews their cousins; I’m not sure if his pun is intentional or subconscious.

“I stayed at my cousin’s,” I repeat. Silently, I wonder if they’ll ask for my “cousin’s” name. I realize it’s unlikely.

Chances are, they’ll wave us through.

The tires growl as we roll over the rumble strips. We slow down, and bounce over the speed bumps. I hold my breath.

Omar nods at the soldiers as we pass. They nod back. We’re through.

An Israel taxi parked in Kiryat Shmona. (photo: (Jotpe/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

An Israel taxi parked in Kiryat Shmona. (photo: (Jotpe/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

I don’t know I’m crying until I feel the tears dripping off my chin. The realization makes me cry harder. Omar glances at me in the rearview mirror; his face reflects my pain.

“Oh, please don’t cry,” he says in Hebrew, his brow knitted with concern.

He concentrates on the road for a bit and then looks back at me.

“It’ll be okay,” he tries again. “Aren’t you excited? You’re going to America and getting married!”

America — a place I left for a reason, somewhere I haven’t lived for nearly a decade, where I have few contacts and even fewer friends. And just a few hours ago my house was full of conversation and laughter. And our wedding. Who will come? My friends won’t be there to share our joy.

I cry harder.

By the time we’re closing in on the airport, Omar has switched to the same approach he uses with his elementary school-aged daughter. “Who’s a big girl? Who’s a big girl?” he asks me in the rearview mirror.

“Mish ana,” not me, I groan in Arabic.

“Ken at ken, ken at ken!” Yes you are, he insists in Hebrew.

As we approach the checkpoint at the airport’s entrance, Omar warns me that we’ll get the Arab treatment because he’s from East Jerusalem. We cobble together a story again, one that fits my Israeli ID. He quickly memorizes my old address in Kiryat Yovel and we agree that he picked me up there and we came straight to the airport. I dry my eyes and blow my nose into my shirt.

After we clear the final checkpoint, we pull up to the curb. Omar puts my suitcases on the sidewalk and offers me his hand.

Ben-Gurion Airport. (Shutterstock.com)

Ben-Gurion Airport. (Shutterstock.com)

I take it and he grasps my hand with both of his own.

“Good luck,” he says, in Hebrew. “And may God be with you,” he finishes in Arabic.

I can’t answer without crying so I nod.

He opens the door to his car and looks back at me. He punches his fist into the air, “Remember — you’re a strong girl!

I nod again and watch him drive away.

I manage to load all my luggage on to a trolley, check the departures board, and head toward the line. I slide my passports — Israeli and American — out of my purse along with my flight confirmation. And, just before I present everything to the security guard, the tears start again.

“Nu, what’s your problem?” he asks. He eyes me suspiciously — the suitcase, my cat in her carrier.

“I’m leaving.”

He shrugs. “Okay, but you’ll return, right?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t think so.”

He softens. “Don’t worry, miss, we’re not going anywhere. You can always come back.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. Hm

      Do you believe that you are not an occupier because of your leftist politics? How do you reconcile living on Palestinian land in a Palestinian home when you are not in fact Palestinian?
      How do you reconcile lying about your Jewish roots and living as a Palestinian?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Karl

      scared to speak Hebrew….. might as well be in Raqqa

      Arabic girl telling fairytales about your “loving israel”….. hey folks, am i the only one who remembers that when Hitler experienced his preliminary electoral success, the FIRST thing he did was massacre his strongest, earliest supporters. Google on “night of the long knives”, folks.

      Reply to Comment
    3. carmen

      Mya – this is a difficult and sometimes shocking lesson to learn, but you’re better for it because you know who your real friends are and who are the people important to you. If you lose a so-called friend or even a family member, you’ve lost absolutely nothing. Don’t compromise yourself to keep the so-called friends and family members comfortable; you’ll never be happy if you do and I say that from experience. It wasn’t easy, but following your own path never is. Best wishes to you both –

      Reply to Comment
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+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

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