Real Jewish-Arab friendship

April 15, 2009 at 12:23 pm 3 comments

I nearly killed a good man

in Jerusalem’s Old City

By Ralph Dobrin

It was the summer of 1967. The Six Day War had been fought a few months earlier and Jerusalem was a unified city once again. The huge concrete barricades and barbed wire fences that had divided the city for 19 years had been torn down and the mine fields cleared. Jews and Arabs were pouring into each other’s parts of the city.

I was working at The Jerusalem Post as a linotype operator and aspiring freelance journalist, when the management accepted a government proposal to set up an Arab-language newspaper called Al-Anba.

And suddenly one day we Jews found ourselves sharing space with a large crowd of Arabs. In the editorial offices and in the press room, there were lots of strange guys, jabbering in the language of people with whom we had been at war a few months earlier. Three additional linotype machines had been squeezed into our already cramped space. We found ourselves, waiting in line at the Ludlow headline machine, while someone called Mansour or Ibrahim was operating the machine. We shared the same equipment, as well as the dining hall during the meal breaks. We shared the washrooms, toilets and locker rooms.

At first there was an atmosphere of strained politeness in the air. But we had one thing in common. We were all guys engaged in the business of printing newspapers, sharing the 500-year tradition of the great pioneer of printing, Johannes Gutenberg.

Among the Jews were half-a-dozen workers who about 15-19 years earlier had immigrated from Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and Morocco. Soon they were having friendly conversations with the Arab workers. Also, many of the Arabs spoke English, so most of the people in The Jerusalem Post building were able to converse with each other.

Good working friendships developed, which led to visits to each others’ homes. The Arabs told us about their experiences during the war and their fears, as well as their surprise and relief when they realized that the conquering Israeli soldiers weren’t going to brutally kill them all.

I became especially friendly with a young guy whom I will call Samir. He told us that the day after the shooting ended an Israeli army lorry pulled up outside his house and soldiers jumped out of the back.

“The soldiers came banging on our door,” he recounted grimly. “We were afraid that they had come to kill or imprison us or do something terrible to our wives and sisters. Then two soldiers brought boxes into our house. In the boxes were bread and milk.” He shook his head, clearly still amazed that the Zionist army would do such a thing.

I left The Jerusalem Post in 1969 and subsequently opened my own publishing business. Samir also left the Arabic newspaper and set up a store selling souvenirs and jewelry in the Old City marketplace. My business often took me into East Jerusalem and the Old City, so I frequently visited Samir and we became very close friends. “You are like a brother to me, Rafi,” he said a few times.

Samir had charisma. A burly fellow with a broad, handsome, cheerful face, he was very chatty and had a sharp sense of humor; he usually showed that he was delighted to see you. Three cousins were usually in his store, serving customers or sipping Turkish coffee. Also, invariably there would be one or two really good-looking blondes from Scandinavia or Germany, smilingly cuddling with one of the cousins – their long, bare, shapely legs incongruously spread over a Beduin-style divan.

Whenever I came into his shop Samir would shake my hand gleefully, then give a playful punch at my midriff and invite me for a cup of coffee. I would return that playful punch at his belly, which was as hard as steel. As a karate instructor Samir was clearly in excellent physical shape. He often talked about his karate club.

He also liked to discuss politics and seemed to have a high opinion of the Israeli army. He appreciated that the army usually acted without undue brutality when dealing with the Arab population. He admired the country’s democratic government and the legal system, which from personal experience, he claimed was very fair. Samir had read the biographies of many of Israel’s military and political leaders. We also talked about our families. His wife had cancer and he had great appreciation for the treatment she had received at Hadassah Hospital.

We talked with each other in three languages. Apart from English, he had become quite proficient in Hebrew and my endeavors to learn Arabic were becoming manifest in our conversations. He would sometimes say, “Rafi, if it were up to you and me, there would be peace in the Middle East.”

I would see Samir sporadically. Sometimes a few times a week; sometimes every few months – depending on my own business schedule. His store in the marketplace was one of my favorite places in Jerusalem. The neighboring stall keepers would see me walking down the stairs of the market lane to his place and they would greet me as an old friend.

I AM ATTACKED IN THE SHUK

One day in the late-eighties I happened to be doing a stint of reserve duty. My batallion was training at Ze’elim in the Negev. Late on a Friday afternoon an order was given for us to be transported to East Jerusalem in order to boost the forces in case of armed violence. Arriving that night, we were billetted at the Kishle Police Station next to the Citadel. Early in the morning, before breakfast, my squad was sent out to begin a six-hour patrol in the alleyways of the Old City.

Across the road from the Kishle was a kiosk selling corn on the cob and felafel. As we hadn’t eaten any supper the previous night nor any breakfast, we each bought a felafel or corn from the rather sleepy-looking vendor. We stood there munching our breakfast for a few minutes, before dividing into pairs and toting our rifles, dressed in battle gear, we cheerfully began to saunter down the main alley in the shuk.

After about an hour my partner said he felt ill. I suddenly realized that I too, needed to go to a toilet urgently. It must have been something we had eaten at the kiosk. We were near the big public toilet in the center of the shuk and rushed in to relieve ourselves – just in time. We exited and continued our patrol. But I began to feel billious. So did my companion. We retraced our steps to that blessed toilet and this time I also vomitted. Clearly, I was sick. But a combat soldier in the Israeli army doesn’t readily succumb to a bit of billiousness and vomitting. So we continued trudging painfully up and down the alleyways. Hour after hour. And each hour was an eternity. I said to myself, “This is really silly. If there is any attack on tourists I will be absolutely useless. In fact I feared that I might crap in my pants if something happened … and not because of fear.

And just then it happened. My companion had gone into a restaurant to use their toilet and I was standing by the entrance, when someone jumped at me from behind. In my weakened state I found myself being held in a vise grip around the neck, with my rifle jammed uselessly against my side. But my reflexes immediately kicked in and I vigorously tried to shake off my assailant. He was very strong but I was desperate and I slipped out of his grip. The whole thing took perhaps three or four seconds. I swung around to face my assailant. To my amazement the guy laughed at me. Then I noticed that it was Samir. “Rafi, Rafi, ya sharmoota,” he chuckled. “What are you doing, dressed up like that?” He put his arm around my neck again, gave me a big hug and kissed my cheek.

“Samir, you fool,” I shouted, extricating myself from his grip. “I could have shot you. For God’s sake, man, I could have killed you.”

“Haki faadi,” he replied. “Nonsense. We are brothers.” Then he noticed that I wasn’t well. “Rafi, you look sick. What’s the matter?” I told him. He ushered me into the restaurant where my companion had gone. He sat me down at a table and ordered a sage tea. When my companion came out of the toilet he was surprised to see me, sitting there with an Arab. Indeed, we had been given orders not to sit in a restaurant during our patrol. But I felt so ill that I didn’t care about rules and orders.

Samir also ordered a sage tea for my friend. We slurped it down as quickly as possible, thanked Samir, who insisted on footing the bill, and returned to patrolling the alleyways.

“Come and visit me when you finish the army, ya sharmoota,” Samir shouted.

Samir’s friendship for me obviously transcended any concern he might have had for what his fellow-vendors in the shuk thought of him hugging an Israeli soldier. It was undoubtedly a spontaneous act of genuine affection for an old friend – even one dressed in the army uniform of the accursed occupier of his country. Or perhaps he didn’t see my uniform as that of the accursed occupier. Not at that time.

AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE ENEMY

A few weeks later I was released from my reserve duty and visited Samir as soon as I could as an ordinary civilian again. He greeted me with obvious amusement and pleasure. A sleepy-looking blonde in crotch-clinging shorts and low-cut blouse was slumped against the chest of one of the cousins, reclining on the divan. The guy languidly nodded at me and his other cousins got up and shook hands with me while Samir poured me a cup of tea. Soon we were chatting like old times.

Just then a tall guy with piercing dark eyes and a don’t-mess-with-me moustache to match came into the shop. Politely he shook hands with Samir and his cousins. He avoided looking at the smooth legs and teasing curves of the blonde on the divan. But he did cast a searching glance at me. Samir said in Arabic, “Ya Rafi, meet Mustafa. Mustafa this is Rafi. A good man.” Then Samir laughed and added for my benefit: Mustafa is a Hamas man. Dir Balak, Rafi. Be careful.” I nodded calmly and said in Arabic , “That’s interesting. But violence won’t get you anywhere.”

The man looked at me coldly, moved towards me and to my surprise, stretched out a hand to shake mine. I got up and shook his and he promptly turned around and walked out the shop.

Samir seemed very amused by the encounter. He said, “To tell you the truth, Rafi, I can agree with some of the things that Hamas does. They help my people in many ways, but I don’t agree with their violent methods.”

NOT IN A MILLION YEARS

Not long after this visit the First Intifada broke out in December 1987. I visited Samir once and then there was a period of a few months that I didn’t visit him. Not because I was afraid. After all, his stall was a mere hundred meters from the beginning of the shuk and I knew that the shuk vendors were not happy about violence because it was harming their livelihood. But at that time I was too busy struggling to ensure the survival of my own business and so it was about five months after the previous visit, that I entered Samir’s shop again. He was sitting there, morosely with his cousins. There was no blonde this time. Just the four of them looking very serious. They now had beards. Samir, who had always had a very trim body from doing karate, looked somewhat flabby. He saw me and nodded without saying a word.

“Hello Samir,” I began with my usual enthusiasm. “How is everything?”

No answer.

“Business is very weak, I guess.”

He nodded and said quietly, “Come sit down, Rafi. Where have you been all this time?”

“I’ve been very busy,” I replied honestly.

“Well, we haven’t had much work,” he said. “But I don’t care. Everything is in the hands of Allah.”

Allah!!! In all the years that I had known Samir he had never once mentioned Allah.

“You look different,” I said, playfully jabbing at his belly like I had done on many occasions. But now it was soft. For a fleeting moment he looked a little annoyed. Then a slight smile appeared. Not the usual good-natured, mischevious, zest-for-life kind of smile. It was a smile of resignation. He said. “Yes, a lot has changed for me. I am now doing what is really important. I go to the mosque five times a day. I pray. I study. And I have never been so happy in my life.” His cousins nodded.

We began to talk about the intifada. Samir said: “I am proud of the young Arab boys who stand up to the Israeli army. I cannot join them now because I have a family to think of. But three of my nephews have been in jail and we are all very proud of them.”

Samir kept telling me how wonderful Islam was. “It is a religion that teaches charity, honesty and respect for others,” he told me in Arabic.

“And what does Islam say about peace?” I asked.

“Islam is all about peace,” he said emphatically.

“Oh come on, Samir,” I raised my voice. “I’ve read the Koran and yes it talks about the things you mention – charity, honesty, etc, but for god’s sake, man, the Koran is mostly about damnation and jihad.”

He looked at me impassively. “You know nothing, Rafi,” he said.

I wanted to regain the rapport that we once had as real friends. So I repeated what he himself had often said: “If it were up to you and me alone, there would be peace in this land.”

That seemed to agitate him quite considerably. He leaned forward towards me and said loudly, “That is absolutely, absolutely not true. As a Muslim I cannot ever make peace with Israel. Never!  Never! Never!“

“You must be joking!” I yelled out in dismay.

He shook his head emphatically. “I can never make peace with Israel. I can like you as someone that I know personally. But I can never make peace with Israel. Forget about it!”

Then he added a clincher. “Not in a million years! As a Muslim I can never ever live in peace with a country called Israel that has stolen my land.”

I sat there shocked. We stared at each other. I sighed and shook my head and said slowly in English: “If that’s the case then … Islam … is … the … religion … of … the … devil.”

“What did he say?” one of the cousins asked Samir, apparently not sure that he had heard correctly.

So I repeated the sentence in Arabic. It was a very stupid thing to say because suddenly the three cousins jumped up and grabbed me roughly. There was rage in their eyes. Samir shouted something at them and they reluctantly released me. Then he looked at me, breathing heavily. “You better go,” he said escorting me to the door of his shop. I tried to say something, but he put his hand to my mouth and shook his head.

A CALL FOR TRUCE

I didn’t see Samir for a few years. Then one day, just after the end of the First Gulf War, I happened to be driving through Jaffa Gate on my scooter and saw Samir walking slowly towards the Shuk with his head down. He looked tired and sad as I passed him. I called out to him. He looked up, saw me and immediately rushed at me. It looked as though he meant to harm me. I accelerated to get away, but he caught hold of my shoulders and yelled: “Rafi! Rafi! Where have you been all these years? Why have you abandoned us? You must come to my shop! My cousins will be pleased to see you!”

I wasn’t so sure of that but he wouldn’t let me go. So I parked the scooter and reluctantly accompanied him to his shop. Arriving there, his cousins, two of whom were now clean-shaven – as was Samir – also greeted me with hugs, kisses and happy handshakes. We sat down. A glass of coffee was promptly put in my hand and we talked. As usual, business was very bad, they said. The intifada and the Gulf War had been disastrous for them economically.

Samir kept repeating: “We must have peace. We must have peace.”

I said, “Samir, I remember the last time I was here you said that there can never be peace with Israel – not in a million years. Now all of a sudden you want peace.”

He smiled sheepishly. “We can’t continue like this,” he said. “We need business. We need tourists. We have to feed our families.”

“Then stop making war with us,” I raised my voice slightly. “You could have had your Palestine years ago; you could have had prosperity and peace, but you keep making war with Israel.”

He repeated, “We must have peace.”

“What about those million years?” I challenged.

He repeated: “We must have peace.” Then he added, “At least for a long period.”

“How long? Six months, a year or two?” I prodded sarcastically.

“No, not a short period,” Samir said loudly. “A long period … something like a hundred years, maybe two hundred years!”

“That’s very kind of you,” I said sarcastically. I finished my coffee and got up to go.

One of Samir’s cousins also got up and blocked my way. He was the one who still had a beard. He looked at me triumphantly and said, “What you don’t understand, is that Israel is a small nation. Only six million Jews and we are over a billion Muslims.” Then he sneered: “How long can you stand against us?”

I remembered the previous time when he had seemed ready to do me serious bodily harm, but I challenged, “And how long will it be before you learn that every time you attack Israel you hurt your own people worse than you hurt Israel? When will you learn?” And pushing past him, I walked out, very alert to the possibility of a sudden flurry behind me. But nothing happened.

I have seen Samir and his cousins a few times since then. That fine friendship that we once had has not been revived. For a brief period after the Oslo accords and the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from parts of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, it seemed that our friendship could be picked up again. But too many buses, restaurants and shopping malls had been blown up by Arab suicide bombers, followed by Israeli retaliations. The Second Intifada that broke out in September 2000, drove us even further apart.

I sometimes pass Samir’s store and see him standing at the entrance waiting for customers. He nods his head coldly. I greet him politely without stopping. The fact that we are no longer friends is most unfortunate, not just for us. It has implications beyond our own personal relationship.

Writing these lines I have come to a personal conclusion. Friendship is too precious to be stopped by something stupid like religious dogma. Especially friendship that fostered harmonious relations between rival communities. I am resolved to set aside a day with the express purpose of going to the Old City and calling on my old friend Samir. I will stand at the entrance of his shop and greet him quietly and ask him how he is, and his family, and his business. I very much hope that he will find it in his heart to answer my questions and invite me into his shop for a chat so that we can begin again to play out his wonderful words: “Rafi, if it were up to you and me, there would be peace between our people.” If he doesn’t invite me into his shop I shall nevertheless suggest that we go to a nearby cafe and have a tea or coffee and some knafe. Hopefully the events of the last two decades haven’t extinguished completely the appreciation and fondness that we once had.for each other.

I doubt that we’ll ever have the kind of friendship that we once had. Too much has happened in this region. Also with the passing decades we are no longer the kind of guys we used to be. But any kind of friendship multiplied over and over again by others as well, could help prepare the ground for real peace one day.

Jews and Arabs: www.israelandtruth.org

 

 

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Entry filed under: Religion and belief, Solutions for Palestine. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Hating Israel Israel does have friends …

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ilana Levy  |  April 16, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Dear Rafi
    What a wonderful story teller you are ! and how sad it is when the reality of change hits home.We know these people have been brainwashed by their political religious leaders but ONE DAY hopefully soon, the Messiah will arrive here in Jerusalem and will bring TRUE PEACE for everyone..especially for ALL ISRAEL.
    The Arabs will then also bow their knees to Him as will all mankind in every corner of this world.
    THIS DAY we continue to look forward to and in the meantime we love one another as ONLY love can cover a multitude of sins.
    Bless you dear Rafi.

    Reply
  • 2. DaisyIma  |  April 16, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Rafi, I was so sad to read your account of your relationship with Samir and his cousins. It is such a microcosm of the situation here. And you – you special person – you really know what you are writing about. Yet we must hope that the prejudices and brainwashing and fears and preconceptions and everything else that, humanly, exist on both sides can eventually be replaced by something more positive…. Ruth Morris

    Reply
  • 3. Persian  |  August 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    The only way for peace is to destroy Israel as we knot it today and return the Israelis back to the LEGAL borders. Without that, peace will never come.

    Reply

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