Chapter IV: A World Away

Hebrew University Student Village, East Jerusalem


My first few days in Jerusalem were a blur. When I finally moved into my dorm, I was so exhausted that I ignored my hunger and fell asleep on the bare, pillowless mattress. I woke up in a fog, not sure what time it was and weak from hunger. I realized I hadn’t eaten in well over twenty-four hours. I had no one to ask where to get food (my roommates had not arrived yet), so I decided to head about a mile up the hill toward the main campus to see what I could find. In my current state of hunger and sleep deprivation, the hill was an Everest. At last, stumbling upon an eerily empty cafeteria, I acquired some kind of soggy pastry that I scarfed down while a herd of feral cats watched me with starving eyes. I headed back down to the Student Village and fell asleep again.

I was awoken at 2:00 am by the Call to Prayer, which radiated up from East Jerusalem and As-Sawiya - the West Bank neighborhood that I could see from my window. In the distance, the various Calls mingled to form an unearthly sound, similar to that of moaning cattle which was always present at home. However, I had never felt further from home, nor so entirely alone.

The next day was a bit better. I found a supermarket and made my first real meal in days. I also bought a pillow and a blanket. I was taking a shower, allowing the hot water to revive my sense of humanity, when the noise started. It was a cacophony of what had to be a hundred sirens and some helicopters, coming from all directions and directly overhead. I texted my only contact in Israel and asked if it usually sounded like utter chaos in Jerusalem. No, he said. Stuff is happening. He recommended some local news sources to read, and I did: Haaretz and JPost, my new best friends.

I sent my mom my first status update since my arrival: Just so you know, I’m safely locked in my room and have lots of food now. Things are pretty crazy from what I can see from my room, as there appears to be a building on fire, but the attacks have all been stabbings and stone-throwing, so as long as I stay here I’ll be fine.

After sending my message, I had to laugh a bit at its outrageousness. I realized I could have broken the news a bit gentler. What!? Oh my God!!’ my mom replied. Do you think your school will pull you out? I didn’t know. I figured the abroad department had to be tracking the situation, since all they had to do was turn on the TV. It was quickly becoming international news.

For the next few days, there was a steady background of sirens, explosions, and pillars of smoke popping up from the West Bank. A few nights in a row, I was awoken by the Call to Prayer accompanied by the occasional flurry of gunshots and sound bombs. Every time I went out for food, I would hear from locals: ‘What, are you crazy? Why would you come to Jerusalem? There are so many nice places.’ and they would tell me that I should be scared to walk around.

I received an overwhelming number of messages from family, friends and Facebook rubbernecks I’d never talked to before. It was incredibly difficult trying to explain to them a situation which was happening on the other side of the world, which could only be experienced in this tiny corner of the world, and that even though it was unfurling all around me, I was somehow okay. However, the abroad department hadn’t sent me a word. I felt perhaps they had forgotten about me, but I was too proud to contact them myself. And, so, for a long week I remained very much alone, my only comfort coming from words on a screen sent from far away and a God-sent VPN through which I could watch Netflix. If I were a man, I would have grown a beard.

From my living room, I had a floor to ceiling window with a view of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock shimmering in the sun. It felt surreal to be so close to these places but not be able to visit them. I spent most of my time in my rather stark, but comfortingly small room, where I would watch As-Sawiyah burn and read about the conflict in the news. The situation would not improve during my time in Jerusalem, though the messages would eventually stop coming, because the media had moved on. I, too, would eventually grow bored enough to go out and assume the ‘business as usual’ attitude that the locals relied upon. This Jerusalem, with its daily clashes and armed men everywhere, was the only one I would ever know.

***

At the end of the week, my first roommate arrived. Her name was Lauren, and she blazed through the stagnant silence of the apartment like a tornado in a field. She was a petite, pretty Jersey Jewess with freckles and a husky voice that didn’t match her stature. As she had already been living in this apartment for a semester, she took it upon herself to pull me to the living room window and give me my first ‘tour’ of Jerusalem. She was such a whirlwind of authoritative energy that I struggled to size her up while taking in the information she was rapidly spewing: “See that gold dome over there? That’s the Temple Mount and you can’t really tell from here, but it’s in the middle of the Old City. I might go there later to do some shopping, but you probably shouldn’t for a few days since you’re new.” She wore expensive perfume and an oversized watch. “It’s fucking bad luck that all this shit started when you just got here, but it happens all the time,” she remarked, dismissing the columns of smoke with the wave of a hand. “It’ll blow over soon. This city is fucking crazy.” I wondered if her gravelly voice was from wear and tear. Definitely a party girl. “Now see on the houses - some of them have white water tanks and some have black?” I nodded, trying to seem like a normal person who was not overwhelmed by her presence. “Don’t go in the neighborhoods with the black tanks - they’re all Palestinian.” This got my attention. Indeed, there were large clusters of each color, but some neighborhoods were mixed like salt and pepper. What if a black water tank fell for a white water tank? Shakespeare himself could not come up with a better allegory…

“Is it really that - uh - black and white?” I asked.

“Yeah. Palestinians buy from their own people. They even have their own bus line.” She started toward her room with a suitcase, the tour apparently over. “I told you this place was fucked up!” she concluded, almost merrily. I struggled with another heavy suitcase and followed her.

Lauren invited me to sit on her bed while she unpacked. It was mesmerizing to have real human company after days of isolation, and I just let her chatter wash over me as she ran herself even more hoarse. I didn’t have to say anything in response, as I don’t think she really cared if I was listening or not. After an hour or so, she got a Skype call from a presumed boyfriend, and I left the room just as she began describing her most recent ‘fucking period’ in gruesome detail to the handsome face on the screen.

Over the next couple days, my other three roommates would arrive, all Americans. They mostly kept to themselves in their own rooms, as I soon learned to do. Save for Lauren’s door-slamming entrances and subsequent rants, it felt as though we were each living alone, only encountering one another by accident or in passing.

***

At last, the semester started, bringing with it a sense of normalcy and more people to meet. The violence continued, foreign dignitaries came and went seeking peace unsuccessfully. There were days so bad that they earned names, like ‘Day of Terror’ and ‘Day of Rage’. There were many who were calling it the ‘Third Intifada’. Nevertheless, I was now occupied with a routine of classes and regular meals, which lent me a new sense of well-being. My class orientation included a security session, explaining what to do in the event of rocket fire and listing the places we should never go, which was just about everywhere. The Old City was off-limits, all of the Palestinian neighborhoods were, as well, and, for the love of God, DO NOT wander more than twenty feet away from the Student Village. And do not walk to class, or take the bus – only use the special shuttle provided. But everything was alright, they said. It would all be over soon. Yet, there was always an edge of doubt in their tone. Many locals said this violence was the worst they had ever seen, and they had seen a lot.

Nevertheless, the special shuttle failed to show up on Day Two of class and would never be an option again unless a person wanted to be thirty minutes late. Thus, I made the first of many morning treks I would take up the long hill to campus. Along it I passed a World War I memorial dedicated to the British by the Palestinians for defending them from the Ottomans. It was a fine, well-kept white stone cemetery.

I then passed the large hospital where all the stabbing victims were being treated alongside their bullet-wounded attackers. There was a sizable gate blocking the entrance, which was such a steep road that the hospital itself could hardly be seen. There were always people waiting outside these gates, usually old women in hijab. Their husbands were parked on the street in idling cars. Every day, I appraised the occupants of each parked car warily, and the elderly were no exception.

Moving further up the hill, the buildings became more academic. There was an Aroma Espresso on the opposite side of the street where modern young students both Jewish and Arab went to convene. Reaching the campus gates, I found my place in the long line of students waiting to clear security. Even though the guards became familiar after a few weeks, we were searched each time as if it were the first. No student ever objected, even if they were running late.

Once through the gates, I proceeded past mid-century modern buildings to the very back of the campus where the Rothberg International School was located. It was positioned at the apex of Mount Scopus, and looked rather like an air traffic control tower. It was positioned across from a newer more elegant structure which made its datedness more apparent, however its Whitestone facade blended well with the surrounding vistas.

***

My classes were intense, and though I enjoyed them, they became a source of apprehension for me. There were some things in the Israeli system that were more lax. For example, showing up five minutes late was accepted -even expected. My Palestinian Colloquial professor who lived in the West Bank was consistently late, always explaining her tardiness with one of the few words she knew in English: ‘checkpoint’. However, the expectations the professors had of their students seemed much higher. My fusha (classical Arabic) class was taught by a very old woman who used to be an Israeli spy. She was slender and bird-like with a very spy-esque bob haircut. She would pound the subtle nuances of Arabic grammar into our heads until we could each accurately identify all the elements of a sentence in front of the entire class. In its intricate punctuation and logic, this kind of Arabic was rather like math, and I had never liked math. Thus, I found her class to be a taxing experience, especially when she would cry out things like, “Wrong!” and “When I was training, I had to memorize whole pages of the phone book! There is no reason you cannot learn this!” However, she had a merciless sense of humor that made her classes tolerable, if not enjoyable.

My aforementioned colloquial professor also had a sense of humor, though it was different. She was pretty and sweet in a maternal sort of way, which made it all the more amusing when she would make the only Israeli in the class (who was a bit too outwardly opinionated when it came to his politics) recite sentences she had written such as, ‘I was trying to go to the store, but I was stopped at a checkpoint.’

My favorite class was hardly a class at all, but rather a weekly coffee meeting in which we would practice speaking with Palestinian students. Everyone wanted to be in Elham’s group. She was spunky and had recently ditched her hijab to expose her wildly curly hair. She would rarely adhere to the provided topic or the ‘Arabic only’ rule, and her group would rapidly disintegrate into stifled laughter. I, however, usually ended up in Anis’ group. He was decidedly more somber and scholastic, and I never would have guessed that we would become friends, or that I would grow to consider his grave, bespectacled countenance so endearing.

Ahmed, who ran these meetings and our class-led trips, was more obviously lovable from the get go. As he told us once, he was a starving journalist with no country to call his own, as Palestinians were given ‘resident’ status at birth instead of citizenship. Yet, regardless of the constant political turbulence, his mood never seemed to be affected. Every week, he would sit a small distance away, legs crossed and sipping coffee, listening to our conversations and butting in with a one-liner a bit too often. I remember one day, he came into the cafe with a heavy limp and raised his pant leg, grinning cheekily. “Rubber bullets!” he announced with a shrug. On another day, a few weeks before that one, I learned that he was an ardent member of the Muslim Brotherhood. I had heard of the group before, when cable news listed it in the same sentence as ‘ISIS’, ‘al-Qaeda,’ and the ‘Taliban.’ Needless to say, I was alarmed enough to give him a wide berth for a few hours as I re-evaluated everything I thought I knew about him. Yet, by the end of the session I arrived at the same conclusion: that he was too ridiculous and good-humored to be anything but the pacifist that he claimed to be. Regardless, I wondered if it would ever not feel strange to have a friend in the Brotherhood.

***

My first ever outing into the city was with some Americans classmates who sported a ‘screw it, I’ll go anyway’ attitude in the face of endless warnings. I learned quickly that, as foreigners, we had the privilege of moving fluidly through barriers which Israelis and Palestinians could not cross. Nonetheless, I had chosen to avoid central stations and the Old City for the first few weeks, as the daily reports coming from those places were just too much to ignore. Though I now felt safe enough to venture into the less tumultuous regions of the New City, I was uncomfortable with the audaciousness of my companions. They bounded assuredly through streets and stations as if they were on some fantastic adventure, turning my stomach with their false machismo and utter lack of awareness. On the crowded train, they yacked loudly about Israeli politics and the ongoing conflict. I remember one of them, a blonde-bearded Muslim convert who called himself ‘Nasser,’ exclaiming, “Palestinians love me!” This produced dark looks from passengers and a soldier patrolling with his Tavor rifle. I decided to avoid going out with the Americans in the future.

***

The next night, I tried my luck with some Europeans, which I felt would better aid the expansion of my cultural experience while abroad. I been invited to “House Holland,” an apartment in the city rented by two Dutch students, Coen and Maj. They were a beautiful pair who were not dating, but enjoyed feigning sexual advances towards each other to make people wonder if they were. I was currently on a bus sitting across from a British girl who had also been invited. Her name was Elizabeth, and she had pallid skin, raven hair, and a disconcertingly severe aesthetic. She told she made her own clothes, which wasn’t hard to believe because she was wearing a single strip of pink satin that hung loosely off her front and neglected her back. She also wore a thick, black velvet choker reminiscent of a collar. She had lived in France for a year with a group of swingers and had lots of strong opinions about American politics and boob liberation. I listened quietly as she recounted the time she visited Parliament on acid and spent a few months straight on Ketamine. Quite frankly, she scared the crap out of me, but she seemed confident about how to get where we were going, so I stayed close.

However, when we got off the bus at a busy intersection it became clear that she was not as solid on directions as she’d seemed. She called up Coen as cars whizzed by us, honking, and described our surroundings. We were on a street between a large amphitheater and a sunken park. There was no one in the park except a white Arabian stallion tied to a tree, which I thought rather strange and whimsical. Four men out of an alleyway from behind us. They beckoned at us to join them, shouting something in Arabic that I didn’t understand. I shook my head at them - a strong, universal ‘no’ - but they started up the hill toward us in long strides. I poked Elizabeth, who was still on the phone, and pointed at the immediate problem. “I think it’s time to go.” We jogged up the hill with the men in a half-hearted pursuit while she explained to Coen what was happening and managed to ascertain our directions. At the top, she hailed a cab, which seemed for her a well-practiced skill, and we made it to our destination.

Coen and Maj shared a bed in this tiny apartment and bickered like a married couple. As we began to converse over dinner, I learned that Coen was a model, and Maj hoped to end the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes by using her body as a barrier. She had recently gone to Iran, and I wondered how on earth she made it into this country.

There was another Brit here named Tyrone, whom I recognized from one of my Arabic classes. He was from Oxford, and was pretty much exactly what I would expect an Oxford Man to be like. He was dark-haired and handsome, and he had a sharp way of speaking, peppered with eye-rolls that made anything he said seem brilliant and inarguably valid. I soon learned that he was gay. I would not have suspected it if he’d not alluded to it cheekily at multiple points during the conversation.

After talking about BDSM clubs in the Red Light District of Berlin (or rather they talked about it and I contributed a ‘what?!’ or a ‘really?” every so often), the topic shifted to the stupidity of American politics. It seemed that sex and politics were the two favorite conversation topics of Europeans.

Despite my best efforts, it was somehow revealed that I was (gasp!) a Republican - (they had never met one!), and the conversation turned into a Q&A with the She-Savage from the Wild West. I spent the next twenty minutes or so trying to explain my views on gun rights and immigration, and how I was not a racist, a sexist, or even a homophobe. It was rough, but they said I defended myself well, and that it was fascinating to explore such a different (albeit primitive) ideology. I was now starting to get the strong sense that Choker Girl considered me a lowly creature and that Coen was beginning to fall for me and my exotic ways.

We traveled to the Shuk marketplace later that night, and a lively Israeli demonstration passed by. Coen pulled me gently off the street and told me to stay close. I found it strange that he would like me, but I was okay with it because he was sweet and looked like James Dean.

After dinner, we went to a few bars. They were in a newer part of town and felt distinctly American, which was a welcome comfort. I was the least-drunk out of everyone, but ended up getting into some serious dance floor action with Coen. I was usually far more restrained with new people, but I guess the constant tension of living in a war zone drove me to seek release through human contact. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Maj were kissing while actively demonstrating boob liberation, so no one was looking at us anyway.

Eventually, I got tired and Coen offered to take me back to the apartment. It was previously agreed upon that we would all spend the night there since the buses stop running at 11. I really wasn’t looking forward to sharing a couch with Choker Girl, but I was tired and didn’t really have an alternate option. As we left the club alone, I really hoped my gut feeling that Coen was a gentleman was correct. The lamp-lit white stone streets were mostly deserted as we walked, and we talked about home and family. I liked him. He was both firm in his convictions and respectful towards mine. He asked me often if I felt safe (this is always a valid question in Jerusalem), and he was clear in his intentions to take me back to the apartment to sleep. I did feel safe.

As we were passing through another empty street, a group of four drunken Israeli men approached us. We tried to ignore them and keep walking, but they caught up with us. They told Coen to repeat something they’d said in Hebrew. He said it once to humor them, but then asked them what the hell he was saying. I distinctly remember wishing he hadn’t. Laughing wildly, they replied with something along the lines of “death to all Arabs”. And then, Coen got mad. “No, I won’t say that,” he said. The Israelis stopped laughing and shouted things that we didn’t understand, but were most likely obscene. Coen and the leader began shoving each other in that exploratory way that men size each other up before a fight. The leader jerked up his shirt to show us the scar where he told us a Palestinian had stabbed him. He was trying to get Coen to back down, but it was only making him more resolute in his rage. Things were escalating quickly and I realized that I couldn’t remain a bystander much longer. These men were looking for trouble and eyeing both of us eagerly. My breath quickened. The odds were not in our favor. In a few seconds, I would have to decide whether to run and leave Coen, or stay and face all of the horrific scenarios that were currently racing through my head. I grabbed Coen’s arm and whined, “I’m tired!” in my best ‘drunk girlfriend voice’. That didn’t work, so I yelled it a second time to get their attention. For a moment, I had it. I moved in toward the leader and put my hand softly on his shoulder. “We should discuss this in the morning," I suggested with a smile, trying to hide my shivering. “I don’t think we’re all at our best right now.” They thought that was pretty funny, so I laughed along with them and patted each one gently, thanking them and bidding them ‘goodnight’. The tension receded momentarily, and I grabbed Coen’s arm again, dragging him up the street as quickly as possible. I could hardly breathe, and I was too afraid to look behind to see if they were still following us.

“You saved us!” Coen exclaimed.

“We were very lucky,” I scolded him, still towing him hastily. “You shouldn’t have done that. I know those guys were awful, but it could have been a lot worse!”

Coen pulled me back and kissed me in the street. I told him this wasn’t the place to kiss and we needed to get out of here. He said it was the best place to kiss. So, I kissed him, took his hand, and ran.

We made it back to House Holland and found it quiet. Coen got me an oversized shirt and boxers to wear and I changed in the bathroom. We then sat on the pullout bed and turned on a Norah Jones and Ray Lamontagne playlist I had made.

He didn’t try to kiss me again, though we were very close. “I like this music,” he yawned.

“Me too,” I said. It made me feel sleepy and safe. We laid there listening without talking, and I gently drifted off on his shoulder. I felt a soft, warm flutter inside at his touch, and we were at peace for a long while.

When the others burst in I was somewhere between sleep and consciousness, and I think Coen was, too, from the way he was breathing. He woke up, but I played dead in the hope that they would quiet down when they saw me. “Shhh - she’s asleep!” Coen whispered underneath me, but his words had little effect. I could hear the two girls, but not Tyrone. They were very, very drunk. “Oh my God, how adorable!” yelled Maj, failing to stifle her squeal. “She reminds me of my little sister,” remarked Coen. I could feel the girls sitting down on the bed and was feeling increasingly awake and uncomfortable, though I was now determined not to reveal my bluff. “You know, Coen,” I heard Elizabeth say, too close, “I think you and I would have amazing sex!” Oh, my God.

“Uhhh - really?” Coen giggled nervously. I swear I could hear his heart rate increase.

“Mmmhmm…..Why can’t we just fuck?” And then there was a terrible silence in which she was kissing him, and I was wondering how it was I ended up here and wanting very badly to disappear. I felt him tenderly push her off.

“Maybe another time, honey,” he offered, congenially enough. She then became hysterical.

“No one wants me,” I heard her sob, among many other things, as she was led to the bedroom by Maj. After a minute, Coen softly slid out from underneath me and I could hear him talking gently to Elizabeth until I fell into an engulfing sleep alone on the pullout.

In the morning, I awoke next to Elizabeth, who was already climbing out of bed and collecting her things. “Wait - you’re leaving already?” I asked her, trying to shake off my pounding head and grogginess. She nodded. She was now putting her shoes on. “What about Tyrone?” I asked, not seeing him anywhere.

“Oh, he didn’t come back last night,” she chuckled dryly. “Believe me, he can take care of himself.” She was headed for the door, sparing no time.

I was suddenly hit by the realization that it was Saturday - Shabbat. Everything shut down on Shabbat. Even the busses. “I - I’m not sure I know how to make it back by myself,” I said feebly, starting out of bed.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” And she left.