ON THE FERRY to the Princes’ Islands, you kept taking photos of the seagulls as they ducked the spray and fought amongst themselves for the scraps of bread the tourists throw. “Look how free they are,” you said.
I only saw the hunger that kept them hovering above the backwash of the boat, but I just pressed my hat down onto my head and took a photo of us leaning against the side of the ferry, smiling into the camera.
We got off on the wrong island. There was nothing to see on Heybeliada so we took photos of each other posing on the shore. We ordered overpriced octopus at a cafe and shared a beer, boredom making us drunker than we were, pirouetting along the dock with our long skirts and matching wide-brimmed hats.
When people asked where we were from, I hesitated. “Bethlehem,” you would say, leaving them to decide whether to call it Israel or Palestine, the West Bank, or the occupied Palestinian territories. Then they would look at me, gazing incredulously at my blonde hair, before I shook my head and answered the question they hadn’t asked. “USA. Amerikali.”
Sometimes we made them guess. “Norway? Spain? Argentina?” Later we dissected their answers, trying to see what they saw when they arbitrarily picked the country they thought we should be from. They wondered why we were traveling together and we would order another beer, already bored with that conversation.
We still talk of that trip, reminiscing and promising to do another one. Maybe Thailand this time or Brazil. Somewhere with a beach where we can drink and twirl in bathing suits and oversized hats, where nobody wonders why an American and a Palestinian are traveling together, where we can eat dessert for breakfast while smoking cigarettes and talking about men and sex and not caring who sees us or what they think.
Somewhere we can relax into ourselves and our faults, a place without checkpoints or soldiers, where if you see an Israeli, you can invite him for a drink and not care because it won’t be a political move or a social taboo, but just a man and a woman who maybe will have sex later or maybe not, but either way, that’s all anyone is thinking. Somewhere with no walls or arbitrary restrictions, a place you can stay within yourself, but where within yourself is not the only place to go.
When we talk about that trip, we laugh till we are rocking soundlessly back and forth and the person we are telling the story to just sits there awkwardly smiling, unable to understand why getting stuck in an elevator in Istanbul is so funny or appreciate the offer we received from a male masseuse who gives “sexy massages” and makes house calls between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 am. This isn’t as funny to them. It’s not as funny to us either. At least, not the way it once was. Now it is tempered with that ache of wanting to be back there, in that place where we could easily escape.
We are almost thirty now, habibti. We have broken engagements and lost innocence and memories that don’t leave us. We have seen now how things don’t change on the strength of our convictions and how people are offended by the noise of our laughter and the so-called irreverence that prefers dancing naked under the stars to the billowing black robes of the so-called devout. We have seen what they can do and how they cut us down in lawlessness and how they call it law. When a husband slits his wife’s throat in the middle of a crowded marketplace, a shopkeeper describes how the blood poured from her neck while you stare at the stain on the stones and feel sick. You are not the only one, but still, nothing changes.
You write long e-mails that leave me clutching at the air because you pull me from myself till I am with you staring into space and trying to remember why we laughed so hard then, what about life we found so funny. You smile at me and my Americanness, always protective of me, seeming like my older sister when I am the older one. “Don’t smile at the men,” you told me in Turkey. “It encourages them.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s the idea.”
You laughed so hard you had to stop walking, leaning against the wall trying to catch your breath. All those austere and pious tourists looking at us like we were crazy. Two girls in tank tops and long skirts crying with laughter outside the shop with the window display of phyllo pastries drenched in honey. A hundred forms for the same ingredients.
We took a video when we were stuck in that elevator in Istanbul and when I watch it now, I am suddenly back in the muggy confines of that desperate place where we laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe and the hotel employee told us to stay put and that just set us off again because where else could we go? When they pried the doors open, we burst out into the lobby, shrieking and demanding whiskey so loudly that we offended the religious family gathered around the concierge. They asked us to go outside and then we did, but we always took the stairs after that. God, habibti. Do you ever miss that version of yourself?
Now I am spinning circles in this place that is my home where I can run in short shorts in the middle of the night or the day and nobody says anything or even looks my way. I don’t know whether I want to be back in Bethlehem or Jerusalem or Haifa or whether I just want to be in that place where you burst into my apartment and say, “I have to get out of here…to Turkey or Malaysia, somewhere with a beach.”
And when I say “okay,” we pack our bags and take the taxi to the Allenby Bridge Crossing. Your cousin picks us up on the other side and we spend the night in Amman, at your aunt’s house, the one who lives next to the mosque. When the call to prayer shakes the room at 4:00 in the morning, we’re shoved into consciousness, staring at each other in the guest room with that startled early morning look. It was an ominous start to a vacation where nothing seemed to go right.
When we tell the story, we run through the checklist of what went wrong, talking over one another as we describe pounding on the doors of the elevator, taking the ferry to the wrong island, throwing up in the bathtub after a questionable meal, how we lost your friend at Taksim, and that masseuse who copped a feel so I caused a scene, all of it a disaster.
But then we grow quiet, easing back into our remembrance of how it was and how we were and all the stories we don’t tell. Always laughing in that place with no checkpoints or soldiers, no parents or politicians or men of God to tell us how to think or feel so when things went wrong, we were free to laugh and there was nobody to tell us otherwise. When it was just us pressed up against all the pain we couldn’t swallow and we were either foolish or wise enough to find that funny.
I miss that.