My Peaceful Night in the Middle-East
by Karen Levy, author of My Father’s Gardens
The door clicked shut softly behind me and I was alone in the small room for the night. My surroundings were unfamiliar yet I had a history of sorts in this house, in this city where I was the only Jew among approximately 32,500 Muslims residing in the Arab city of Tamra, tucked into the North district of Israel located in the lower Galilee.
Darkness had already fallen and I tried to get my bearings as I stood by the shuttered window, imagining myself from above. One individual in a corner room of a small apartment shared by three generations of women belonging to the Dawahde family. It was in the eighty year old grandmother’s bed that I would spend the night, despite my protests and insistence that I sleep on the sofa where she was now lightly snoring. She would have no such thing she said, patting the seat next to her, an invitation to come sit earlier that evening. She’d reached for my hand, lifting it out of my lap, encircling my wrist between her wrinkled fingers, smiling and pulling up her own sleeve, exposing her wrist and comparing the narrowness. She seemed to take simple pleasure in discovering this shared feature. She was comfortable with my presence, going about her evening prayer as I watched, explaining that she could not kneel on the tile floor because her knee ached. She pulled up her long robe to show me which knee was giving her trouble and I nodded in understanding, agreeing that she shouldn’t strain it and do more damage. She faced Mecca as well as the television in the living room, praying and occasionally glancing at the program which happened to be National Geographic Abu Dhabi. I watched gazelle being chased across the screen as the sacred ritual was performed, marveling at the ease with which she allowed me to intrude upon what I considered a private moment. From afar I’d heard the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer when I stayed with my father who lived less than an hour away, surrounded by Bedouin villages. Yet the sound had remained mysterious and distant, while now I felt somewhat included. Earlier that morning her daughter Iman had declared that she was my sister, that her mother was my mother, and that we were now family. It was a simple statement she made as she drove us to her home through narrow streets that wound their way uphill, past colorful storefronts whose owners she appeared to know, waving and calling greetings through the open car window.
One floor below me lived Iman’s younger brother with his wife and teenage son. I’d sat with them that afternoon as they watched a Turkish television series, the coffee table laden with fruit they insisted I eat and small cups of thick sweet coffee, the kind that had to be patiently cooked over a small flame in a finjan. The scent of cardamom filled the room as the dark liquid rose and fell in its traditional pot, Iman’s sister-in-law slowly stirring it, her modestly covered head bowed over the rising steam. Iman’s brother made sure I was up to speed, explaining what he felt I needed to know about the plot unfolding on the screen. Their son sat with us sullenly, upset over losing his computer privileges as I was later told. Teenagers were the same, no matter what side of the world they could be found.
I sat on the bed so carefully prepared for me, grateful for the quiet (Israel is a noisy place and I hadn’t been sleeping well), and for the internet Iman’s nephew had been forbidden to use. It was thanks to technology and the help of a local artist that I’d found my friend after not having seen her for forty years, not since we were ten year old girls when my mother had worked as a nurse in Tamra when it was still a village. Occasionally I’d gone to work with my mother, befriending the daughter of the Arab woman who cleaned the nurses’ station and made hot tea in amber colored glasses. The same woman who had given up her bed for me tonight. I’d sat in this very house in which I was about to spend the night, sharing freshly baked pita with a little girl who didn’t care that I was Jewish, or that we didn’t share a language. At some point in our friendship she spent a night in my home as well, half an hour and a world away, bathing in a tub the likes of which she’d never seen, wearing one of my swim suits to the beach where she stood mesmerized by the Mediterranean in which she had never swum. At dinner she’d had to be told to place her plate back on the table rather than in her lap, awed at the tiny corn on the cob holders my mother taught her to use so she wouldn’t burn her fingers. Before she left I gave her one of my Barbies and forty years later she could still recall the doll’s red boots and the fact that her mother gave her away to an even less fortunate child. We had fallen asleep giggling like little girls do, oblivious to the forces that would soon tear us apart.
I leaned back against the pillows and reveled in the silence. No dogs barked incessantly as in my father’s neighborhood where people talked loudly under windows till late into the night. No gunshots rang out despite it being wedding season (the Bedouin had been partying for days, celebratory gunfire setting off the dogs). Earlier that day I’d heard music emanating from a building across the street, and within moments of my asking about it I was hurried across the road to watch as a bride’s husband arrived to take her to his home. I hesitated before climbing the last steps into the large room where the ceremony took place, not having been directly invited and clearly an outsider in what I thought was every respect. And while the large group of women, most of whose heads were covered in colorful scarves did turn almost in unison to look at the foreigner among them, they made sure the box of sweet baclava made its way to me, and another of Iman’s sisters in law pushed me forward so I could be in a better position to take photos. And what I saw moved me. The bride, her sister and their mother were weeping, their heartbreak intensifying with the beat of the drums which brought everyone to their feet. And it didn’t matter anymore that I wasn’t one of them, that I wasn’t Muslim, that I didn’t know who these women were. I was a mother too, one whose daughter would also one day leave, and the emotion filling that room was universal. No one seemed to notice that my eyes were welling up too and if they did they understood.
I stretched out on the bed, thinking about the warnings I’d been given and the incredulity with which I’d been met when I told other Israelis that I was headed to Tamra for the next couple days. “You’re staying there for the night?” was my best friend’s reaction, her eyes wide. “It’s not safe or smart. You have no business there,” was a family member’s angry comment. Forty years of anger in fact, for the uprising that took place in 1976, a peaceful protest according to the residents who’d gathered in Iman’s living room at my request that morning, to tell me their version of events that caused my mother to resign and my friendship with Iman to end. A protest over losing lands and homes that turned ugly when Israeli tanks rolled in, and villagers started throwing rocks, and soldiers began shooting. Balkees, the Arab nurse I had known when I was a child, clapped her hands to demonstrate how the village children had followed the tanks, her gold bracelets jingling as she recalled that day. “It wasn’t on purpose!” she insisted, referring to the rocks thrown at the nurses’ station, the nurses huddled behind a file cabinet herself among them. “It was our mayor they wanted! He was in the adjacent building and things got out of hand” she explained, and the handful of people seated around me began talking over each other, concerned that I get the story right. Two days later I’d hear a similar account from an Israeli man who as a 21 year old soldier that day in 1976, was dismayed at “how much hate there was,” watching fellow soldiers and thinking “they’re not part of my country,” his pleas that they get out of there ignored by his commanding officer.
In the apartment above me resided Iman’s oldest brother and his wife, who drove me to the fields where they proudly showed off their crops, filling a bag with warm cucumbers and peppers for my father before taking me to a hummus breakfast and treating me as if they’d known me all their lives. Standing on the rooftop that evening, explaining where his family members lived as he pointed to surrounding buildings like a monarch surveying his kingdom, Iman’s brother turned to me and said that I shouldn’t be afraid of him despite his beard, that he doesn’t kill, “I don’t burn babies.” I was astounded and dismayed. This is what he believed Jews thought of him? I assured him that he didn’t frighten me. All I could think about was the kindness and hospitality shown me in the last few hours. The lavish meal I’d been invited to by Balkees whom I was so lucky to find again. Her son and his family welcomed me in no questions asked. I’d watched their young daughter stand at her father’s side, reading from the book she’d brought from school, excitement in her voice as she tasted new words, pride in her father’s eyes. I’d sat with a group of women as they prepared tabbouleh for the evening meal, wishing I’d learned Arabic and not French so I could understand what was being said. When I asked, they’d been gossiping about the weddings they’d attended, what was served, what was worn, no different from women anywhere else in the world. Minutes later commotion in the stairwell sent all of us running to find one of their sons experimenting with Mentos and a soda bottle, the result a sticky mess across the stairs and frustration at what he was learning from watching You Tube. I didn’t need to understand Arabic to see these parents’ love for their children, their concern for the future, their pride in the small plots of land they tended, Balkees standing joyfully in front of her newly planted olive trees. I’d seen the same pride on my father’s face as he showed me around his garden not even an hour away. Two cultures with such love for the same land. What a great reason to get along.
I tucked myself in, the night’s blessed silence resounding around me. How easy it had been to step into another culture when fear and hate were left outside the door. How obvious it was that at our core we are all human. At the end of the day when the head coverings came off, they weren’t Muslims, they were women. What a loss not to allow ourselves to know them. If we don’t make it our business to learn about each other’s lives those walls will never come down. Before Iman bade me good night she’d said that in the morning when I woke “Inshalla,” god willing, her mother would make me a cup of coffee. In the Quran, Muslims are told that they should never say they will do anything in the future without the hopeful Inshalla. Whether I believed or not, it was going to be my most peaceful night in the Middle-East.
Karen Levy is an Israeli-American writer. Born in Israel, Levy spent most of her childhood traveling between her native land and the United States, creating a keen eye for observation and the sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Following her military service Levy pursued her studies in the U.S. where she earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Davis, and an M.A. in English, Creative Writing from Sacramento State University where she teaches composition. Her work focuses on themes of allegiance and the search for home, and has appeared in So To Speak, The Meadow, The Blue Moon, and Welter Magazine among other places. Her memoir, My Father’s Gardens was a 2014 Pushcart prize nominee.