The New Year comes and passes. It’s January 2014 and I’ve been living in the territories for almost a year. But rather than becoming more comfortable in my new surroundings and feeling like my usual curious and adventurous self—I am the woman, after all, who has traveled some 20 countries, mostly alone—I find myself turning inwards. I prefer to stay in Bethlehem, close to home.
This is not me.
The occupation and the checkpoints, particularly the flying checkpoints, have something to do with the change: on my way back to Bethlehem from Ramallah one afternoon, a flying checkpoint pops up near Jabaa’. As the soldiers take the IDs of everyone in the service taxi, I don’t know what to do—do I give them my American passport or my Israeli teudat zehut?
In theory, I could be headed from Qalandia—which is technically part of East Jerusalem—to Hizme, which is in Area B. I’m legal here, I tell myself. Or am I? I try to picture myself on the map that shows the zones: A, B, C.
Where is Jabaa’?
Where am I?
Who am I supposed to be right now?
It happens again as I’m driving back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem one afternoon. I’m on the little, rolling two-lane road that takes me to Beit Jala. Usually, I glide by the small army base on the edge of Beit Jala and from there, it’s a short drive to Bethlehem and I’m home. But today: when I bank the hill, I see soldiers standing in the middle of the road—a road I’ve never seen them on—checking IDs as Palestinians drive into Beit Jala. But why? If checkpoints are about security, then why would they be scrutinizing Palestinians headed into a Palestinian area? Are they looking for someone? Are they making sure that no Jewish Israelis are headed into Area A? Are they enforcing segregation?
Whatever the army’s doing there, I panic, slam on my brakes, and make a U-turn in the middle of the road, just meters from a soldier. As I speed away and he grows smaller in my rearview mirror, I realize the stupidity of what I’ve just done. I realize how suspicious it must have looked.
I also realize that I’m not sure how I’m going to get home. If there’s a flying checkpoint outside of Beit Jala, surely things will be tight at Checkpoint 300, too. There’s one more way in—a settler’s checkpoint that leads to a road that eventually splits and takes me to Beit Sahour, which neighbors Bethlehem.
But what if there are soldiers at that fork in the road, too?
I call Mohammad and ask him what I should do.
“Go back to Jerusalem, have a coffee, and try again.”
“What if the soldiers are still there?”
“They won’t be—they won’t stay forever. By the time you get back, they’ll be gone.”
Intellectually, I know that this is true. I’ve seen flying checkpoints many times before and I’ve seen them disappear as quickly as they appear. But something inside of me has changed and I find myself less able to use my head and reason through things. All I know is what I feel and I feel like the soldiers are everywhere.
If checkpoints are about security, why do they scrutinize Palestinians headed into Palestinian areas?
Indeed, they showed up at a neighbor’s house recently—even though we live deep in Area A—asking about another neighbor’s rifle. Not only do they seem to be everywhere, they seem to know everything, even what people have in their private homes.
No, under occupation, even homes aren’t private.
I feel like the soldiers will never go away, they’ll stand there on the road between Jerusalem and Beit Jala forever and that’s the route I always take, that’s my “safe” road, and now they’re there and I’ll never get home.
But the incident at the container, the flying checkpoints—these aren’t the things that make me think that maybe it’s time to move back to Jerusalem.
It’s the undercover policeman at Qalandiya that makes me start to question reality and my place in it. After that moment, I no longer trust my own eyes. I’ll become suspicious about everyone around me. I will catch myself peering into cars at red lights, wondering if the woman in the hijab next to me is really a woman in hijab. Or is she undercover? Or some sort of collaborator? That “vendor” on the side of the road—is he selling cauliflower or collecting intelligence?
I will wonder if my colleagues are actually Shin Bet agents. I will recall the time a journalist interviewed me; he was accompanied by a friend. I’ll think of another similar interview. And another.
Why was I always being questioned in pairs?
And I’ll think of acquaintances living unaffordable lifestyles on tiny, freelance incomes. Eating out, traveling. Where are they getting their money from? Who are they, really? What are they doing here?
I’ll catch myself, realize how absurd my thoughts are, and laugh it off. I’ll understand that it’s some sort of aftershock from the jarring experience at Qalandiya, from being certain that I was going to be pulled out of my car and shot dead.
But, no matter how much I’ll try to reason my way out of it, I won’t be able to shake the feelings that stay with me after that January afternoon:
I’m on my way to Ramallah via Jerusalem and I’m next to the wall, on the “Israeli” side. It’s a two lane road, full of speed bumps, and traffic is crawling towards the Qalandiya checkpoint. A young man springs out of the passenger side of an old, battered white car that’s coming from the opposite direction—away from Qalandiya. He is tall and thin with black hair. He looks Palestinian and he dresses like someone from the territories.
He starts to “direct” the cars. He stands in the middle of the road, puts a hand out to stop traffic coming from one direction and then gestures to cars coming from the other direction to move forward—essentially turning a two-lane, two-way road into a two-lane, one-way road. But they just have to merge back into one lane further up the road. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not easing the congestion at all.
Wallahi, I swear to God, he’s just making it worse. What is he doing? I think. It’s like he’s creating the traffic jam.
I remind myself to have patience. But after 15 minutes of standstill, I get to thinking about the hours upon hours that I’ve lost making the trip between Bethlehem and Ramallah—a trip that, Palestinians tell me, used to take about half an hour, before the checkpoints and settler-only roads and bypass roads that are routed around settlements. I’ve heard one variation or another of the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.
I feel my frustration and anger rising. I’m clenching my teeth, breathing fast. I try to slow my breath down. Inhale. Exhale. I picture, in my mind’s eye, a fellow I often see on the service taxi.
From eavesdropping, I’ve gathered that he works in Ramallah and lives in Bethlehem. He speaks Arabic, English, and French fluently. Whenever I take the last service taxi from Ramallah to Bethlehem in the evening, he’s there in the back, tapping away on his computer, completely engrossed in his work. He is resistance. He refuses to let the occupation steal his time, productivity, or composure—not even when we passed the man hogtied on the side of the road.
I’ve heard the same sentence come from countless Palestinians: we can get our land back, but we can never get our time back.
I try to summon this man whose name I don’t know, to channel this person I admire. But I can’t. I’m not a Palestinian keeping my cool under occupation. Staying dignified and calm is not my resistance. No, I’m an impatient, pissed off Israeli—the traffic jam is irritating, the wall enrages me and the checkpoint does, too. Not to mention the bullshit laws that prevent Mohammad and me from having a normal relationship. If it weren’t for those bullshit laws, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this traffic jam. Or maybe there wouldn’t be a traffic jam in the first place. This would all be open and free.
So I honk.
I honk at the young guy, the man I’ve mistaken for a shebab, who is snarling traffic. I honk at him and he turns and looks at me with such anger and hatred and disgust that I’m scared even before he starts moving toward my car.
He reaches my window before I have a chance to lock my doors. He quickly looks to his left and right—presumably to make sure no one can see what he’s doing—before he snakes his Israeli police ID out of his pocket and pushes it up against the glass just long enough for me to read it. I realize that he’s a Jew and an undercover cop.
He glances to his left and right as he slides his ID down my window and back into his pocket. His eyes move towards my door handle. My hands move faster than his, though, and hit the lock a split second before he lifts up on the handle.
Finding my door locked seems to upset him even more than my honking. He’s banging on my window and shouting at me in Arabic to get out of the car. As he’s pounding on the glass, I become certain he’s going to shoot me. I realize that he’s mistaken me for a Palestinian and I know that anything can happen to any Palestinian anywhere between the river and the sea. And I’m not sure how much my protection my Israeli ID would afford me right now—if this policeman is so angry that a “Palestinian woman” would dare honk at him, then imagine how he would react to discovering that I’m a Jew and a “traitor.”
Before I can decide which language to use to beg for my life, I hear myself screaming over and over again—at a level that shocks me, at an inhuman pitch I didn’t know I could produce— in Arabic: “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police” screaming and screaming until he finally moves away from my car and goes back to fucking up the traffic.
The scream has taken over my body. My body is a scream and I shake as I pass Qalandiya checkpoint. I shake as I drive through the refugee camp. I shake the whole way to Ramallah. Not a tremor, but a full-on shake, my body rattling, shivering, my words echoing in my ears “I didn’t know you were police, I didn’t know you were police!”
My vocal cords are sore for days.
I don’t give Mohammad an ultimatum. I simply say: either we move forward or I go back to Jerusalem. Because I could handle all of this if we were really together. But I come home to an empty house. I go to bed alone and I wake up alone. I eat dinner alone. I eat breakfast alone. I drink my morning coffee alone. I have no one to say good morning to, other than the people I pass on the street and my landlady, who by the way, is spending more and more time snooping in my apartment. Not only have I caught her in my place, I’ve come home to find my closet ajar, contents spilling out. It’s only a matter of time before she finds something or puts all the clues together—surely, by now, she’s heard me speaking Hebrew on the phone or has found the hannukiah and Hebrew books I hid as best I could. It’s only a matter of time until I come home and, worst case scenario, find PA people waiting to arrest me and hand me over to the Israelis. Best case—she puts me and my cat out on the street.
I tell my love: I can’t go on like this. If we lived under the same roof, this would all be worth it. But, alone, there’s no reason for me to continue here in the territories.
He agrees that it’s time to move forward. But if there’s no open dating before marriage in the territories, there’s certainly no living together. So moving forward means getting engaged and that means that it’s time for me to meet his family. That includes, of course, his father—who was in the PLO, back before it went soft, and whom Israel deported from the West Bank in the early 1970s. (He returned with and worked for the PA, of which he says, “The best thing I ever did was retire.”)
Mohammad wants this meeting but he also dreads it. He’s excited for me to become part of the family but he’s worried about how they will react to my background, which we can’t hide. We’ll have to tell them eventually but, he decides, it will be better not to tell his parents right away.
“Let them meet you a few times, get to know you, accept the match, fall in love with you, and then we’ll tell them,” he says.
Our first meeting will take place at the end of January. I’m excited and tell my girlfriends, who help me brainstorm possible outfits. I’m still studying Arabic, squeezing in classes before and after work. Now that I’m going to meet Mohammad’s parents—who don’t speak English—I take my studies more seriously. I labor over my homework and sometimes do extra exercises; I practice my embarrassingly bad Arabic with Mohammad and my landlady.
I pester my best friend, who I’ll call Dima, for new words and phrases and write them down in the little notebook I keep me with at all times. Dima is, technically, a refugee—like my landlady, her father’s family fled to the West Bank from Jaffa in 1948. And, unintentionally, Dima is picking Hebrew up from me; when we’re alone in the car or on our long distance runs in empty parts of Beit Sahour, she teases me by peppering her language with “ma?” and “ken.”
Despite her suspicions, my landlady and I still share a close relationship. I tell her about the upcoming meeting, too. As the end of the month draws near, she opens the door that divides the upstairs from down and pops her head in to my apartment every day: “Are you engaged yet?” she calls down the stairs. “When is the meeting?”
“Tomorrow!” I tell her one afternoon late in January as I put my purse and satchel full of student papers down. I’ve just gotten back from work. “I’ll go to Ramallah after I teach my morning class and we’ll have lunch.”
My landlady is so excited she giggles and claps before closing the door.
I make myself a cup of tea, sit down on the couch, and call Mohammad to hammer out the details about tomorrow. Where will we meet? What should I wear?
“Actually,” he begins, “I have something to tell you.”
I stop breathing. I already know what he’s going to say, even before he’s begun.
“My father was excited that his eldest son is finally getting married. So, this morning, he started asking me questions about you. He asked about your religion.”
“You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?”
“No. I told him you’re American. But he insisted—”
“And what did you say?”
“That you’re secular. But he asked, ‘What is her family?’ And I said, ‘Well, her mother is Jewish.’”
And Mohammad’s father called our lunch date off. The match, he says, is unacceptable.
So there will be no engagement. There will be no marriage. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach—I’m crying and gasping for breath at the same time. I can’t talk. I hang up the phone and slide off the couch. I’m on the floor, on my hands and knees, trying to get some air.
‘You didn’t tell him that I’m Jewish, did you?’ — The match, he says, is unacceptable. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
Mohammad calls back.
“What do we do now?” I ask.
“I can’t go on like this.”
“So we move forward.”
“How? How?” I ask. “It’s impossible without your family.” We can’t just openly defy them by moving in together. Palestine is a small place and word would spread fast—we would shame his parents. We need their support.
And with the economy the way it is, we also can’t afford to go against their will. His parents are building a traditional Palestinian house—a floor for each son—and as Mohammad feels that it’s his duty to “open a house” for us, we need that apartment. The occupation plays a role in all this, too. It crushes the economy, which means that people are more dependent on their family networks, which has the effect of making society more tribal and clan-oriented, more traditional and conservative. Maybe, in better financial times, we could defy Mohammad’s parents. But not now, in a non-state with low wages and high unemployment.
“We’ll find a way,” Mohammad says.
I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.
I text Dima and our other best friend, an American writer who lives in Bethlehem, that the meeting is off. They come straight over and use the keys I’ve given them to let themselves in. I’m still lying on the rug. Dima presents me with ice cream. It melts on the floor.
I spend that night—and many nights to come—on the couch. The bed feels too big. And something about staying in the bedroom strikes me as absurd, like I’m playing house, like I’m deluding myself into thinking I could have a normal life here. Like I’m pretending Palestine is or could someday be my real home.
I drift off with satellite radio on, a station that plays Arabic classics, mostly love songs. I wake in the middle of the night to Baeed Anak (Away From You). Umm Kulthoum sings: “I’ve forgotten sleep and its dreams. I’ve forgotten its nights and its days…”
Was my landlady eavesdropping? Did she hear the conversation with Mohammad? Or Dima? Or was it the sudden change—the sad music going all night long when there’d once been silence? Or was she waiting for me to come to her with the good news?
Either way, she doesn’t stick her head in the following day or the day after that. Finally, on the third day, she comes into my apartment.
“Well? How did it go with Mohammad’s parents? Are you engaged yet?”
“No,” I answer. “They refuse to meet me.”
“Because I’m not Muslim.”
I continue, explaining that, really, it’s Mohammad’s father who is refusing to meet me. Mohammad’s mother is still open to the idea.
“So we’ll have her over,” says my landlady. She explains that she likes Mohammad. And she loves me. She wants to see us happy together. She wants us to get married and she’s determined to help.
Before my landlady heads back upstairs, she gestures to my apartment and adds that Mohammad doesn’t need to worry about opening a house. “The house is already open. You two can always live here.”
I’m humbled. This woman is a refugee who, despite what she suspects or knows, is willing to defy another Palestinian family and give us shelter.
I talk it over with Dima and our other friends and everyone agrees—maybe having Mohammad’s mother over isn’t a bad idea. Traditionally, the man’s parents come to the woman’s house to meet her family and to discuss the prospect of marriage. And while I don’t have a family for Mohammad’s mother to meet, my girlfriends say they’ll come to stand as my people. They’ll vouch for me and my reputation, thus putting their own on the line.
Their reasoning: if we can get Mohammad’s mother on board, she’ll persuade her husband to agree to the match.
‘We’ll find a way,’ Mohammad says. I’m sure that we won’t. And I know that I can’t continue alone.
In the meantime, to comfort me, my girlfriends offer stories of matches that were initially rejected by families but that worked out fine. “Lina,” from East Jerusalem, tells me that her father’s family didn’t want him to get engaged to her mother. She’s Muslim and Palestinian but because she didn’t come from their village, they considered her a “foreigner.” To this day, Lina laughs, some people still call her mom “the foreigner.”
An acquaintance tells me how her Palestinian parents—one Christian and the other Muslim—eloped in London. Their families came around eventually. “They always do,” she assures me. “You’ll be fine.”
Objections start to seem so common that I begin to wonder if they’re like a rite of passage—a test of the lovers’ commitment to one another.
I’m feeling hopeful again. That is, until Mohammad admits to his parents that, yes, I have an Israeli ID. His mother no longer wants to meet me. It’s done.
There’s no place for me in Palestine.
I keep going to work, of course, but find myself less concerned about the container, in part because I’m exhausted from not-really-sleeping on the couch. Whenever the service taxi bounces over those spikes and I peer out the window at the soldiers, I think: arrest me. Don’t arrest me. Whatever.
It occurs to me that perhaps, subconsciously, I actually want to be caught and hauled out of the territories. Then I wouldn’t have to make the decision to break up with Mohammad—who refuses to end our relationship and still spends every weekend with me in Bethlehem as though nothing has changed. But if the army would impose an answer on me and I could offer it up as proof to Mohammad that I just couldn’t live in the West Bank.
I continue to attend Arabic classes—I paid for them, after all—but I find myself avoiding the homework. And, as my Arabic grows weaker, Hebrew reasserts itself. For a while, I’d gotten better at separating the two. But something’s changed and my brain begins to behave as it did when I first started studying: if I can’t find a word in Arabic, my Hebrew jumps “to the rescue,” filling in the gaps, elbowing the Arabic out of its way.
And as much as I hate the checkpoints, I feel a new, surprising emotion whenever I drive to Jerusalem and see them on the horizon: relief. Because I know that, once I pass the checkpoint, I won’t end up on the side of the road in a hot van, thirsty and trying not to shit my pants. Once I pass the checkpoint, I can speak Hebrew without worrying about who is listening. I can wear whatever I want and no one will call me a “sharmouta,” a whore—as a man did on the street one day in Ramallah, never mind that I was in a long-sleeved turtleneck and pants.
Jerusalem: my relief disturbs me. It goes against my politics and morals. And I know how dangerous my feeling is. I know this sense of freedom I feel when I cross into Jerusalem is exactly what the state is based on. It’s what keeps Israelis going to the army and it’s what keeps them voting right wing.
But as I move through Jerusalem, this feeling never lasts. The inequality is too glaring. I could rattle off a list of all the indicators—tax funds collected but not spent, building permits not issued, classroom shortages, infrastructure issues—but it’s not what I think about when I’m in East Jerusalem. I don’t think of the stories I’ve written about this blighted side of the city; no, I think about the girlfriend I’ve lost touch with, the one who lives in Shuafat refugee camp. One of the last times I saw her, she told me that she finds life there so unbearable that her children are the only thing that are keeping her from killing herself.
Little by little, she slipped away, her calls, texts, and emails becoming less frequent. Alarmed, a mutual friend and I spent months trying to get in touch with her. But to no avail. When I still lived in Jerusalem, headed home one afternoon, I looked into the passing train and was certain that I saw her. My heart leapt the tracks and into that East Jerusalem-bound car.
There she is!
I call the last number I have for her but it’s disconnected.
Jerusalem: I find myself looking for her. I scan crowds, looking for her familiar pink or Burberry-pattern hijab. As I pass women on the street, I look at their faces, waiting to see her green eyes. I drop by her work and her colleagues tell me she’s no longer employed there.
“But everything’s okay?” I ask, not wanting to sound too worried, lest I embarrass her.
“Hamdulillah,” is the reply.
At least I know she is still alive.
On several occasions, I drive Mohammad or Dima to Jerusalem, breezing through checkpoints. It’s shockingly easy:
1) Slow down, of course, but not too much—as though you expect to be stopped—because then you’re giving the soldiers a cue to stop you.
2) Act like you’re supposed to be there, doing exactly what you’re doing; no, believe that you’re supposed to be doing what you doing. Remind yourself that separation is bullshit and that it didn’t exist before Oslo. Remember that the checkpoints themselves are, arguably, illegal according to international law. Remember your landlady’s and others’ stories of the days they were free to drive to Jerusalem; pretend that you’re living in those days or in the future, when the inevitable one-state has finally materialized.
3) Show some skin.
4) Stay relaxed, drive with one hand on the wheel, your other elbow propped oh-so-casually on the windowsill.
5) If the soldiers bother to look your way, don’t lift your one hand from the wheel. Give them a quick, curt nod and flash them a victory sign as you bounce over the speed bumps or spikes. An Israeli friend who used to drive Palestinians in from the territories taught me this last bit—she was convinced that such body language signals authority to the soldiers and tells them to “stand down.”
And they always do. They stand down and we roll by. Once we clear the checkpoint, there’s that familiar feeling: relief. But as we park the car and begin to walk through Jerusalem, I start to wonder: Will Mohammad be beaten for daring to go out with a Jewish girl, as other Palestinian men have? Will Dima be hassled or, worse, arrested?
I also worry about my own reaction in any of those situations. I’ve always been fiercely protective of my friends. In the fourth grade, when my best friend was waiting to use a swing at recess and someone cut her, I said, “Hey! It’s Christy’s turn.” The girl got off the swing—only to come sock me in the stomach.
I know if anything ever happened to Mohammad or Dima, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the fray. Will I end up in the hospital or in jail, too?
Jerusalem: One evening, Mohammad needs me to pick up a DVD from an Israeli colleague. The man asks me to meet him at Mamilla mall, at the Aroma, to make the exchange. We greet each other, make small talk and—when he realizes that Mohammad is not just my colleague but my boyfriend—he invites me to coffee. I have some time to kill before I meet a girlfriend for dinner, so I accept.
This older fellow says that he is fond of Mohammad. “He’s a good man. But, excuse me for asking,” he begins, “aren’t you a Jew?”
He explains then that he volunteers with an organization that “rescues” Jewish women from Arab men. “They’re all nice before the marriage and then they stick you in the house and put a hijab on your head. Mohammad might be different…”
“He likes that I have a career,” I say. “And he doesn’t want me to wear the hijab.”
“But what about his family? His family might want you to convert to Islam and cover your head.”
“Nu, az?” So what?
As though covering one’s head is a tragedy. As though it’s the worst thing that could happen to a woman. As though scantily-clad Western women aren’t oppressed, too. Feeling pressured to show skin and be sexy is just the flip side of feeling pressured to cover and hide one’s sexuality.
He’s tells me that, even though he doesn’t know me, he’s concerned for me because I’m a fellow Jew, part of the “Jewish people.” This man who doesn’t know me calls me “sister.” Rather than urging me to find a Jewish husband, he tells me about the time he got engaged to a Chinese woman he met during his post-army travels. His mother objected to the match and so he broke up with her and, eventually, settled down with a nice, Jewish girl.
But I don’t want to settle.
And what’s the parallel here? That this fellow, as an older man who is also part of the “Jewish people,” is like a father? And that, as he listened to his mother, I’m supposed to listen to him?
Jerusalem: Another stranger—introduced to me by an American friend who makes a point of telling the guy that I’m “the one who has a Palestinian boyfriend”—will give me a similar lecture. He will add that if it’s marriage I want, he’s certain he could find at least 10 wonderful Jewish guys who would be thrilled to marry me.
“My brother’s available, and he’s about your age,” he says, offering to arrange a date. He opens his phone and scrolls through his address book, looking for other potential matches.
It reminds me of my childhood in the American South, when strangers and friends alike tried to get me to convert to Christianity, lest my soul burn in hell.
Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend who’s angry with me for having a relationship with Mohammad. She doesn’t admit that her feeling is racism—she calls it concern. She tells me it’s one thing to marry a Palestinian but, “Do you two plan on having a family?” When I tell her yes, she says that having a child with an Arab would be “irresponsible.”
There’s no place for me in Israel.
Then there’s my Meretz-voting friend. she says that having a child with an Arab would be ‘irresponsible.’ There’s no place for me in Israel.
And even if there was, Mohammad would not be able to live here with me legally. There’s no place for us anywhere, not on any side of the Green Line.
Whenever I drive back to Bethlehem, that same relief that I feel when I enter Jerusalem washes over me again. I’m relieved to pass the checkpoint and enter the territories. I feel my body relax as I bank the hill and follow the sign that reads, in Hebrew, “Beit Jala.” When I glide past the army base, I exhale. From here, it’s a short downhill ride to Bethlehem. The car rolls the gentle slopes, carrying me home.
Months go by. In late March, there’s a family emergency and Mohammad has to go to South Florida to help his brother handle some business affairs. I was born and raised five hours north, relatively close to the Georgia border. And while these parts of Florida are very different—really, they’re like different countries—it still strikes me as ironic that Mohammad ends up spending five weeks in my native state.
My landlady tells me to give up. “He’s in America? He’s not coming back for you,” she advises me. “You’re wasting your time. Move on.” She’s fond of a friend of mine who came to visit me from Tel Aviv—a man I introduced as my cousin because, otherwise, I wouldn’t be allowed to have him in the house.
“You should marry him,” my landlady says.
“But he’s my cousin!” I protest, staying in role.
My landlady waves her hand dismissively.
“I know that people around here still do that,” I say, “and if that’s what they want to do, fine. But, in my family, we stopped marrying our cousins about 100 years ago.”
“But he’s so nice,” she insists. “You should marry him.”
And we start the conversation over again.
Despite my landlady’s reservations, Mohammad and I talk on the phone every day. He marvels at how, in America, the road is just open, how you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier. He loves the anonymity. When he visited me in Abu Dis one afternoon, a group of concerned men stopped us on the street, “Professor, professor! Are you okay? What are you doing with this strange man?” But, in Florida, Mohammad says, no one hassles you, no one asks who you are, what your family name is, and what you’re doing here.
When he’s not waxing poetic about America, I’m trying to convince him that, khalas, we should just break up already. Not because I want to marry “my cousin” but because I can’t live in limbo anymore.
No, Mohammad says, we should move in together when he gets back to the West Bank, family concerns be damned. It would make them understand that we’re serious about each other and that they have no choice but to accept the match.
Mohammad marvels at how, in America, you can drive forever without seeing a checkpoint or a soldier.
The next time we talk, he backpedals. Moving in together would throw fuel on the fire and would reflect poorly on me. Then his parents will never accept the match. And we can’t get married without his family’s blessing. That’s what he really wants to do—to get married, to have children, to spend our lives together.
It’s three AM and I can’t sleep. I take my phone outside and sit in the garden. Dheisheh refugee camp lies on the horizon and its lights look like stars. The wind blows through the lemon, almond, and apricot trees. The grape leaves—still young on the vine—rustle.
I remember lying in the courtyard outside my apartment in Kiryat Yovel and listening to the wind lace itself between leaves. I remember picking fresh passion fruit from the vine, tasting honeysuckle from the dewy flowers in the alley. I remember hiking the trails that led from Kiryat Yovel to Ein Kerem and stopping to pluck figs and green almonds from trees.
I can’t leave either place. But I know that I can’t remain, either.
I call Mohammed and tell him that it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I describe the view to him—it’s a view he knows well but still, I tell him that I can’t tell where the stars stop and Dheisheh begins. I tell him about the wind and how it smells the same in Jerusalem.
I ask him what we’re going to do.
He says that sometimes, in life, we have to make a “radical revision,” an unexpected turn. And then he asks: “What if we moved to Florida?”
“You mean quit my job, just like that, and just,” I pause. The words are so simple yet they seem unbelievable. The idea seems absurd. “Move to Florida?”
“Yes.” Mohammad’s already talked to his brother about it; his brother will be happy to host us until we get on our feet.
“Did you tell him that I have a cat? Because I won’t come without my cat. We’re a package deal.”