It had not been a good week. I was experiencing the claustrophia of war. It goes without saying that the constant sound of gunfire was a source of stress. This came in combination to the anxiety I felt in large crowds, enhanced by the gloomy awareness I had that I was taking my life in my hands every time I got on a public bus in West Jerusalem. With all of my will-power, I struggled to focus and stay at the top of my Arabic course. In all of this, my energies were also heavily invested in negotiating the terms of my relationship with JJB.
In Jerusalem, the people say that every day is a new day to be alive. Despite the war, life had to go on as usual, and it did. In some ways, it seemed that the young people of the city used the war as an excuse to act without abandon. Maybe it was just my perception, but it seemed like people were drinking more. A lot more. Consequently, being there as more than a tourist meant that this sentiment began to infuse my typical American constructions of procedure and consequence. In full "survival" mode, I, too, began to live from one moment to the next, having unofficially adopted some of the nihilist tendencies around me, and the sentiment that, at any time, I could win the "unlucky lottery" and become the next statistical sigh of "collateral damage".
To put it gently, there were some unsettling moments. One came after a night out with JJB. We enjoyed an early dinner over a great bottle of wine in the German Colony. I was fighting a fever and decided to head home early, while JJB stayed out to meet friends for a drink. We stood on the street and waved down the first cab to go by. We said a quick good-bye and I jumped in. In Hebrew, I told the driver where I needed to go, and negotiated the fee. Instantly, I realized that the driver's Hebrew was worse than mine. I also didn't feel good about how he looked at me in the rear-view mirror. Something felt...wrong. Before I knew it, we were speeding through several, narrow backstreets of Jerusalem in the dark. From the backseat, I realized that he had taken me deep into the heart of East Jerusalem. We were nowhere near my destination. All of the signs were in Arabic. I tried to get my bearings, and calculate for a minute if my driver was simply taking a route that I had never seen.
I felt him looking at me in the rearview mirror. It made me nervous, and my gut reaction was to not make eye-contact in return. Through the rutted and half-paved streets, his driving became erratic. I kept fighting this sick, inner feeling that I was on the verge of either being abducted, or simply losing my mind. Had I somehow managed to internalize the prevailing Israeli sentiment that all Arabs were violent heathens, only capable of violence and murder? I chastized myself for thinking this, for thinking for a second that my status as a white woman was remotely more important than the man who's task was to drive me home safely. Then, he reached for his cell phone. And, while his Hebrew was broken, his Arabic flowed loudly, and without reservation. He seemed to grow more confident as he spoke. In bits and pieces, I was able to pick up a few things:
"Yes, I have a girl." "A girl." "A Jewish girl." "She is very pretty." "Maybe American." "Maybe Italian." "I don't know." "She maybe has children." "It is good."
Now, anything can be extracted from these bits and pieces. But the context was what told me more. No other cab driver in Jerusalem had taken me on such a long detour to the other side of the city. No other cab driver took such an interest in his rear-view mirror. And, finally, I was yet to encounter a driver who picked up his phone to talk about who he had in his car.
I don't know what this is, but I am in some serious shit, I thought to myself.
He hung up the phone with "yes, yes, yes" and "Praise Allah", then looked back at me in the mirror again. Instantly, I knew that I was at this man's mercy. I even thought that if I were to ever have a complete and total nervous breakdown, this would be the time. I secretly wished I could be the type of person to cry and flip out, but I'm not. Instead, without even really thinking, as I do in stressful situations, I just went on autopilot. I caught his eye in the mirror, in a state of surreal steadiness, I dug down into myself and spoke to him in all of the Arabic I knew... and then some.
"My friend?," I said as clearly as I could. At the sound of my Arabic, his eyes grew big in the mirror.
"Yes?," he replied.
"I see that we are in East Jerusalem. Is this a way to Mount Scopus?" (I had just learned all of the words for maps and directions in Arabic class the day before. For a second, I really had to big-up myself for this.)
"Yes," he said, but he seemed angry that I was engaging him. He looked away.
"Ok," I said. "Thank you for taking me home. You are a good man." I looked at him again in the mirror and made sure to look as wholesome and honestly appreciative as I possibly could.
"How do you speak Arabic?," he asked me. I could tell that this was an issue for him. I could not, however, tell if this was a positive or negative development for me.
"My father," I lied. It came out of nowhere. I fumbled with the language. I have a hard enough time lying in English....
"Who is your father?," he asked.
"My... father... is a.... martyr," I said. He shot me a look in the mirror. I shivered, but kept rambling. "In Ramallah....he died. I was a little girl. He was a very good man. Um...and my mother....my mother...is... American. She is a very good lady." I had absolutely no idea where any of this was coming from.
He looked at me skeptically in the mirrow. I continued to put on my wide-eyed, honest face. "Who is your father's family?," he asked.
"Ahmed," I said. I gave the name of the father of one of my good friend's in America, who is one of 4 girls. Often, when we are all together, people confuse us as sisters. Because of this, I always wondered how far I could go with my "generically ethnic look". Here, I was suddenly beyond thankful that if I couldn't pass for "full Arab", I could still reasonably get away with "half Arab". Heck, with my deep, Dead Sea tan, "half-Arab" might just be good enough...
"Yes, yes, I think I knew him," he nodded. And then he kept looking at me. From what I could tell, he was looking at me differently than when I first got in the backseat. Oddly enough, it felt like the air of hatred had escaped from the car. Now, at least, he smiled.
We chatted on about why I was traveling alone in Jerusalem. He asked if the Jewish man (JJB) who put me in his taxi was my husband. I told him no, and that I was in Jerusalem to prepare for my marriage to an Arab man from my father's family. This seemed to please him, and, for whatever reason, he decided to take me home.
What should have been a 5-minute, quick lift from one side of Jerusalem to the other, turned into a 35-minute game of Russian Roulet, or, as I care to see it, an opportunity for me to apply everything I've ever learned in a classroom in order to save my own life. Even though I still have no idea what this man originally had planned for me, every fiber in my body knew it wasn't good. And while this was far from the reason why I chose to learn the Arabic language in the first place, it certainly became a stark reminder of why, as Americans, we must be viligant in learning to communicate in the languages of our fellow world cohabitors.
"Let us not become the enemy we deplore," Congress-woman Barbara Lee warned on September 14, 2001...
That night, with JJB still out with friends, I sat alone in our little flat. In the light of the television, I drank a glass of wine from the Golan region and took in endless rounds of CNN news. This place, this patch of the world--it''s a total hell, I thought to myself. My god, I'm sitting in hell... And yet, strangely enough, something in me responded that I needed this time and this place. I was alive. I was strong. I was lucky in love. And I had never felt better.