Several years ago, I began one of my strangest trips. I started out in Pardes Hannah, my home town, about a ten minutes’ drive from the Mediterranean, and I completed my three-hour journey in Bethlehem, a town off-limits to Israelis, since, for our own safety, it’s illegal for us to enter Bethlehem. I began on the No. 70 bus in an Israeli bus line owned by an Arab family from Nazareth, and, as is typical where I live, the driver was Arab and the passengers both Jewish and Arab.
In Binyamina, I alighted to catch the train south to Tel Aviv. It was during the celebration of Eid al-Adha, a four-day holiday and the time of the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, among Muslims. In front of me on the train south to Tel Aviv sat two Arab couples and their children, the women with heads uncovered, the men in Levis. At one point, one of the women sat her children together on a seat and moved opposite them to be next to her husband who embraced her warmly. Public demonstrations of affection among Muslim Arab couples is extremely rare; this was a sign of a Westernized, Israeli Arab; or as an academic friend told me recently, an acquaintance of his on visiting an Arab near Jerusalem had been told that Israeli Arabs are no longer Arabs. On the other side of the aisle, the other husband chatted in Hebrew on his cell phone.
In Tel Aviv, with my dog Lady on a leash, I left the train station to the grimy, rundown Levinski Street and walked into the mammoth central bus terminal, where I entered a row of open shops under bright neon lights. An Arab woman turned in horror when she noticed my small dog scampering in her direction, and the shopkeepers, all of whom were paunchy Jews, stood idly in front of their open stores that sold cheap wares. I followed the signs—everything is ugly in the central bus station—up the escalators to the sixth floor and the Egged buses.
The ride east to Jerusalem took under an hour. From there I took a bus in the direction of Kiryat Arba, southwest of Jerusalem. I would get off at the Etzion intersection. I was going into the heart of the occupied territories into an area on principle I refused to enter. But I had a meeting with an acquaintance in Bethlehem, and the only way it could be arranged was to throw my political convictions to the wind.
The following morning, on my return trip, I would discover that I was no longer on an Egged bus, but on a small, private line, owned by the religious Jews of Gush Emmunim.
I exited the bus at a large intersection and walked up the hill past a gasoline station and into the parking lot of one of Israel’s major shopping chains, Rami Levi, where my friend was waiting for me in his dark-green Mazda sedan. He set the car in motion, and I was on my way to Bethlehem. I expected to be stopped at a military barricade. I expected to encounter Israeli soldiers, but there were none. We continued straight on the main road, turned right and then immediately left, and suddenly, as we descended a steep hill, all the signs were in Arabic. We were in Palestine.
We continued on the same road all the way into Bethlehem. We hadn’t gone far when Nadeem informed me that we were passing the Daheishe camp, and that many of the residents had now built homes. Had he also been in a camp? Yes, he had. Many years ago. His family now lived in Hebron, which he pronounced hee-brn, and which, initially, I mistook for the word Hebrew although I knew it could not be. And because I was confused, I asked where his family is from. “From Fallujah. You know Fallujah?”
“No. Where was it?” He didn’t answer. I never quite knew how much of my English he understood. His English was execrable even though he had had an American partner, who had lived with him in his Bethlehem apartment for two years.
And then, we were in Bethlehem. It was extraordinarily moving for me. I had not been to Bethlehem since 1969, and it remains in my mind a special place in the way Jerusalem is special and always will be. I was exhilarated by the idea not just that I was entering a place whose name had become mythic but because I had come the back way, like a mouse finding a passageway to a palace of cheeses.
The main street was clogged with traffic as young, single men and families were on their way to Heebrn to celebrate the holiday, since everything was cheaper there and for the same price you could get better food. At a small roundabout, we turned left and then began a winding journey in the hills of Bethlehem until we arrived at his apartment complex where there were no sidewalks or marked areas for parking, as rubble seemed to spill over into a no-man’s land between the buildings and the road. The front door was open. The facade of the building may not have been finished. We walked up steps, and he opened a heavy black wooden door with a glass pane in the center.
Years ago, the Israeli Arab writer, Anton Shamas presented a television program on kitsch in Arab culture. Nadeem’s apartment might have been a model for the program. The modern and the international style had passed it by or, rather, it was styled like a compartment in the Orient express that had whizzed by the Bauhaus and its successors without noticing. I suppose those in the know might claim that this apartment had all the appurtenances of the nouveau riche, but as it was the only apartment I saw in Bethlehem, I cannot compare.
The living room walls were painted green, and a dark green carpet of synthetic material with a floral pattern covered all the floors. In front of me was a large, breakfront of a highly polished wood the color of cherry wood; above it hung a framed drawing of the Dome of the Rock. Beside the entrance and framed, as well, was a passage from the Koran inscribed on a dark brown background. A group of two sofas and one easy chair were draped in a brown cloth also with a floral pattern, and I originally assumed that the coverings were a means of protecting the sofas much like the plastic in the house where I was raised or the blue cloth my aunt Hilda would place over her sofa to protect it from the sun, but in the early morning when I awoke and sat in one of the easy chairs, I realized that the coverings were permanent. This was part of the apartment’s style. The passageway between the living room and the next room was draped in a light brown cloth. The bedroom, where the green carpet continued, was particularly oppressive, with a heavy, shiny wooden wardrobe the same color as the breakfront in the living room, a long wooden bureau and an oversized bed with a wooden headrest graced on the top with ogee arches. There were similar curves on all the wooden pieces. There was the heavy smell of man sweat and cigarette smoke as the carpet could never be completely aired.
In the adjoining room, Nadeem sat, chain smoked and talked with me while in front of us on the wall, different Arab singers silently voiced their songs against often fabulous backgrounds of deserts and palm-graced oases or flirted in sexy rendezvous on a large LED screen. Many years ago, he had been in love with a professor in Yugoslavia. He had been young then, and, sometimes, he would visit Yugoslavia, but often, during the summers, the professor would come to Bethlehem for a number of months. But the war broke out, and the professor who was Croatian, had to leave his post in Zagreb. The trip by bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo took 14 hours, and from there, the professor had to continue to his new job. He wasn’t worried. He was old and a professor. What would anyone want from him? Nevertheless, he was killed.
Nadeem then spent many years on the internet looking for a new lover, and there were others, a man from Brazil, a rabbi from Jerusalem (a big rabbi, who was often abroad to raise funds), but none of them lasted until he met Thomas from the U.S. They met online, and initially Thomas had posted his age as many years younger than he actually was, and when Nadeem, who loved older men, found out, he asked, “Why do you lie? Why didn’t you tell me your true age?” Thomas came for a two week visit. He liked what he found and stayed for two years until he had to go back to the States to settle some matters. Then, at the age of 83, he died.
Knowing how homophobic Arab society is—there are often reports in Israeli newspapers of Palestinian police beating gays, and for a long time, gay Palestinians have been able to find refuge in Israel—I asked him how he managed to hide their relationship. “I told my family that he was renting a room in my apartment.”
He said to me, “I am in Fatah,” and smiled with a gaze that seemed to ask, “How do you respond to that?” I didn’t reply. I was still dumfounded I was in Bethlehem. I wasn’t afraid, if that’s what he wanted to know. Nor at that moment was I surprised. Much later, I would notice the photo on the wall of a somewhat younger Nadeem in the khaki green Fatah military uniform.
Nadeem, curiously, lacked the most pleasing characteristic of Arab society, its hospitality. I had to ask for water, and when I did, to my surprise, I discovered that he removed a frozen water bottle from the freezer. “You cannot drink the water in Bethlehem,” he explained. “It is not safe.” I was only a few kilometers from Israel, and the water was no longer potable?
We traveled to a restaurant owned on the main road. There was a cross above the central beam in the restaurant and next to it a drawing of St. George, the patron saint of Palestinian Christians. Occasionally, young men in twos walked down the street, and here and there, sidewalks had been set in front of restaurants and hotels and other buildings. There was a haphazard, lackadaisical look about the street .One building was set against the next without any concern for a public space, and rubble from an unfinished building or entranceway was scattered about here and there. All buildings, I was to discover the following morning, were built in stone or given a stone facade, and even though urban planning was egregiously lacking, the street was oddly both ugly and pleasing as one building easily blended in with the next. It was like an adolescent who had not yet matured, eager and growing in spurts, pimply, and unabashed.
While we were sitting over our chicken salad sandwiches and French fries, I began to lose hope for a Palestinian-Israeli peace. The seemingly endless street where Nadeem had parked next to a building under construction with no sidewalk next to it and no crosswalk in sight, as cars hurtled by, was like a warning sign of municipal failure and lack of foresight. Nadeem began telling me about the negative influence of clans, and, as I listened, I was reminded of my son Yochai’s claim that a Palestinian nationality is a European invention. If, Nadeem said, I was to park over there (by a curb that was marked), a policeman would think twice before giving me a ticket, depending on what clan I belonged to. Hebron, for example was controlled by one clan. The Palestine authority had the offices of its investigative arm, like the shin bet, in Hebron, and they had appointed a man from the Fatah with four stars to be in charge of the office, but because he did not belong to this clan, he and his assistants never got any information. All the information came from a man with two stars who belonged to the clan and “it didn’t matter that the man with four stars was better educated and knew more, you understand? It mattered that he didn’t belong to the clan. He couldn’t do anything. So in the end we had to move him elsewhere and put the man with two stars in charge.”
It was hard to run a country because of the clans. It was a matter of mentality, and “it will take a hundred years for it to change.”
On the other hand, he said, there was stability; there was no crime, no drugs. The clans took care of this. He told me a story of how when he was very young, he had pummeled another boy, and an old man tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen and continued his attack. But afterward, he ran away from home for two days. Why? Because he was afraid his brother would beat him for not listening to the older man.
In the morning, we took the same route we had used when entering Bethlehem, and I would get to see the road in daylight. By the Daheishe camp, he stopped the car to buy me sweet mint tea and savories from an orange and red-painted chuck wagon, a bright spot in the morning light. “The Palestinian authority could not control the camp,” he said, and then corrected himself. “We can control them. But they refuse to pay their electricity bills, and we cannot leave 20,000 people without electricity.”
Across the street was a monument with drawings of portraits taken from photographs. “Who are these people?” I asked.
“They were killed by Israelis,” he said. On the opposite side of the car was the al-kuds restaurant, the Jerusalem restaurant, which was still closed because of the revels the night before. No one would rise early today. The street was nearly empty of cars. On our way, we passed a poster of a young woman wearing a keffiyeh and brandishing a rifle aloft.
He dropped both Lady and me off on the gravelly side of the road opposite the parking lot where we had met, and I walked down to the major intersection where an often-seen poster of the bearded Rabbi Schneursohn, dubbed the mashiach, the messiah. by his believers, had been glued to a sign, and two young soldiers were standing at a rather fragile and forlorn looking guard post, the kind you often find at remote military bases. I felt terribly guilty on approaching them as if they would be able to discern that I had broken the law and entered Palestine. As I passed, one of them commented, “Nice dog you’ve got.” My military interrogation had ended. Two other soldiers sat at the bus stop and two women sat on the bench away from them. Several hikers, young women with scarves and long skirts and men with large kippot and long, dangling tzitziot and one with long, thick sidelocks appeared at the corner and extended their right arms for a lift. After about five minutes, the bus with large lettering, BEIT YISRAEL, HOUSE OF ISRAEL, GUSH EMMUNIM, arrived and I got on, seven shekels to Jerusalem. The windows had double protective glass or plastic against rocks.
In Jerusalem, the bus to Tel Aviv was already standing by the platform when I arrived. I sat in the back by a window, and after a while a man about my age sat down next to me. He was a doctor in the Hadassah hospital who lived at the edge of the Jerusalem suburb Ramot, from where every Shabbat, he descended to a large wood and hiked with his dog. He had come to Israel several years before me from Georgia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He had bright blue eyes and pink tinted skin and I thought he was probably the child of parents who had fled east from the Holocaust in eastern Europe, but no, his family had lived for generations in Georgia, but he had never felt that Georgia was his. When he arrived in Israel, he knew immediately that here he was home. “Zeh sheli,” he said. This is mine.
We chatted about the changes that had taken place in Israel since we both had made aliyah. He had smoked then, and he reminded me how buses had been filled with cigarette smoke, and afterward, smoking was only allowed in the back of the bus, and then it was banned altogether. “Who would have believed riding on a bus where no one smoked would have been possible?” I reminded him that in the beginning there was always someone who defiantly puffed away unless enough passengers talked him down. I reminded him, too, of the custom of rolling bottles on the floors of movie houses. We laughed together. We were like anthropologists investigating an ancient culture.
At the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Lady and I took the bus to Pardes Hannah and traveled north along the coastal road. At Kfar Witkin, before Mahmoret, the bus climbed a rise, and suddenly, the Mediterranean came into view: calm and bright in the morning sun, blue with a tint of turquoise, and I felt as if I had crossed continents.
I learned that day that the question of Palestine could, like economics, be divided into two perspectives: the macro and the micro. The macro deals with the rights of the Arabs who lived in the geographical region of Palestine for their own state; the micro view focuses on the disruptive rivalries among the clans. The Israeli right mistakenly perceives the micro as disqualifying the Palestinians for a state. The Israeli left, perhaps fatally, ignores the anarchy of the micro.
 Egged and Dan are the two main bus lines in Israel
 Gush Emmunim—a collection of Jewish settlements within Palestine that were destroyed during the War of Independence. The massacre there (in response to Deir Yassin) was infamous within the Jewish community.
 The name has been changed.
 There is a Fallujah in southern Israel as well as in Iraq; I suppose the original settlers came from Iraq.
 According to legend, the dragon was killed in Ramleh, which is now in Israel.
 Long fringes on an upper garment worn by males under a shirt.