WHEN SALIM takes you to Ramallah for a night out, your companions pepper him with questions about the checkpoints; the prospect of a unity government; if he has a girlfriend. You look out the window, tracing the wall along the hill until your eyes make out the CTL + ALT + DELETE painted in a bold, black font across the cement.
The waiter sets a tray of beers on the table and Salim waves off their questions about his love life. You hope the topic will shift, but Salim is sly, pointing out your silence and drawing the suspicion of everyone at the table. Even as you vehemently deny his existence, a blush spreads across your cheeks as you think of him, the Israeli lover you don’t tell anyone about.
Salim arches his eyebrows, surprised to find his innocent joke has a grain of truth. While they run through everyone in your social circle, trying to figure out who it might be, your thoughts rest on him…on the words you are forced to dance around, the ones that drive a spear into your ballooning conversations, deflating them and pushing them limply to the floor. When you say “Palestine” and he says “security fence,” and then you say “wall” and he says “territories.” You take what he didn’t say and give thanks for that. He could have said “Judea and Samaria,” you could have said “apartheid.” Your pillow talk weaves cautiously between soldiers ducking molotov cocktails and settlements reaching like fingers across the West Bank, plucking bits and pieces of the land, unraveling a thread and the people along with it.
It’s midnight when Salim drives you through the final checkpoint between Ramallah and Bethlehem. As you hand your ID to the Israeli soldier, you give him a half-smile. He reminds you of your soldier. With his gun slung across his body, he waves the car through and Salim teases you, laughing at how you flirt with the soldiers to get what you want. You force yourself to laugh and wonder what he would say if you told him the truth.
Another month passes before you finally tell Amira, your closest confidant and the only person you trust with the details of your personal life. She breathes to steady her response. Then a ragged sigh, each breath pulling at her own memories of Israeli soldiers, a barrage of griefs piled on top of each other like the goat carcasses stacked behind the butcher’s shop.
Finally she says, “Sometimes we meet the people who mirror something inside us which we need to heal.”
This leaves you wondering which of your broken pieces surfaced when his green eyes first met yours, in a dimly lit corner of Kampala. Shoulders hunched forward, leaning heavily on the table, he is quiet and intimidating, eyes daring you to make a move as he tells you the story of his life in fits and starts. Scraps of detail you piece together while riding boda-bodas along dusty red roads and wandering aimlessly through crowded street markets. In a maze of matoke and bolts of waxed fabric, you learn he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish settlement and served as an officer in the army. Information that would make you uneasy if you weren’t so distracted by his permanent five o’clock shadow and the way he looks at you, like he might snap you up with one bite.
By the time you realize you want to kiss him, leaning over his shoulder in the national library and flipping through dusty tomes documenting the racist musings of colonial explorers, it’s too late to get caught up in the details of why a relationship would never work. In the lush jungle of Uganda you forget the desert and the lines you drew in the sand.
When you tell him you live in Bethlehem, he gives a wry smile and jokes that you’ve probably met before. At a checkpoint perhaps, or a protest. Coughing back tear gas, eyes burning, maybe you looked back as he looked forward, both trying to find some humanity and coming up short.
The only thing you have in common is the will to fight, scraping away the layers of frustration, reaching to find a place just beyond the politics of revenge. Just past the friends lost in battles and suicide bombings, just past the sinking feeling and the images that hang on the corners of your conversation. The man collapsing in front of a demolished home, the body of his son crumpled before his eyes, his hands holding his head. The never-ending snapshots of grief, they come at you from all sides.
Somewhere in the confusing mix of tensions, this Israeli soldier checks your hatred, makes it impossible for you to clench your fists and leap out of nightmares, swinging your arms in blind defiance at whoever you think is responsible.
- “Do you have any Palestinian friends?” you ask one night. “Do you even know any Palestinians?”
“No,” he says.
Then he is quiet. You tell him about the parties in the desert where Yasser tries to teach you dabka, but your uncoordinated feet are a terrible match for his complicated steps. Tripping to a standstill, your crowded thoughts give way to the open sky as you lean back against the ancient stone of the citadel and gape at the stars dipping toward your upturned face.
The nargila bubbles in the corner, its perfumed smoke hovering over your heads, as you tell stories while forcing down sips of Cremisan wine. Remembering the time Iyad stormed out of the apartment at four in the morning to kill the bellowing rooster, calmly returning to the living room with blood dripping from a knife, feathers flitting about his head. “It’s okay,” he announced to a group of stunned expats, “I fucked the chicken.” The group explodes into laughter as Iyad grins, happy to be the center of attention. “My English? It’s much better now?”
Your Israeli soldier smiles in spite of himself, his eyes crinkling at the corners as his lips curve upward, transforming his face from stern and unforgiving to something you can relate to, something more like joy. He drinks in your stories and your laughter, constantly marveling at you, a protective hand always at your back.
You cling to these moments, scraps of bright silk folded into the jagged teeth of a spring trap. When people ask with sympathy or venom laced into their words, “How is it over there?” you respond cheerfully and then, confused, bite back your words. They are asking about “the situation,” and you are thinking of social gatherings and the smell of ground coffee. Cardamom washing over you, the sound of the coffee grinder, silver trays with dainty cups and potent brew.
You are thinking of him, the smell of challah collecting in the corners of a cramped apartment, his hand cupped around your hip as he kisses your neck. You are thinking that Jerusalem is a city for broken hearts, a city of stones in a land of walls. A place where you spraypaint hopeful messages on a canvass of cement, shove slips of memory into cracks, and try to slide the fragments of your heart into the fissures of a fortress.
A place where you lie awake as he reads Psalms to you in Hebrew to help ease the terror of your nightmares. A place where you reluctantly realize there is no way to reconcile a warrior of David with the songs of your own heart. So you cry. All your emotion released into the space where the two of you first sat, peeling the labels off beer bottles and pushing down on the knee-jerk reaction that says soldiers and activists are always at odds.
In the evenings you walk toward the old city, trying to heal your heart while pushing past the chaos of Damascus Gate. At first the crowds are jarring and uncomfortable. Later they are a relief. Slipping into the sea of people, just beneath the crashing surf, there is the soothing sway of being immersed.
You made it impossible for him to look out across Jerusalem without pulling your memory forward. He made it impossible for you to hear the word “Israel” without your heart rising to your throat. His memory adds a complicated filter, changes the way you look out across the hills flanking Bethlehem. He still wears his uniform, you still pull a keffiyeh over your shoulders, but it’s different now.
Your alliances have shifted. You found sympathy where you thought you could find none, where you thought you could give none. When he says goodbye, he cups your face in his hands, kissing your tears before he leaves you with one last letter, the uneven English translation scrawled beneath his perfect Hebrew script.
You opened my eyes and heart in ways I don’t fully grasp and understand. The last few months with you, I will always take with me wherever I go.
With the note clutched in your hand, you walk till there is nowhere left to go. Leaning your head heavily against the wall, you fold the note and press it into a space between the stones. “Shalom,” you whisper, letting the word settle into your heart. Hello and then goodbye and then, somewhere in between, peace.
When you get home, you call Amira. She finds you sitting on the steps outside your apartment. She doesn’t look smug or relieved and she doesn’t say, “I told you so.” She just looks sad as she takes your hand and sits down beside you.
- “It’s going to be okay,” you tell her, but it comes out as a question.
“Inshallah,” she says. “God-willing.”