Jaffa Street, Jerusalem
It was my first date with Stav, a 23-year-old whom I had met at a coffee shop (okay, Tinder). Much to my delight, Stav was indeed tall, with a muscular build, fantastic facial stubble, and deep brown eyes, just as his picture had shown. He had recently left the army to start school in Jerusalem, and he maintained the posture and rugged good looks of a soldier.
We met in a cozy French cafe and immediately began talking about our lives and beliefs. The conversation got serious very quickly because there was very little shared reference material for small talk. At home, I'd spent dates discussing nothing but Game of Thrones and left knowing no more about the person than when I arrived. This date was different because, although Stav spoke English pretty well, it was harder for him to express himself than it would have been in his first language. I had to pay close attention when he spoke, occasionally offering him a new word, and I had to think before I spoke, avoiding sarcasm and euphemisms. In this way, there was a kind of rawness and intrigue in conversing with him that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Or perhaps it was because his life story was unlike anything I previously could have conceived, and I found it wondrous that he was sitting across from me, smiling innocently over his tea.
Stav's mother brought him and his sister to Israel from Ukraine when he was very young. Ukrainians were part of the last major wave of Jewish immigrants and were often faced with disdain from "more established" Israeli nationals. Upon their arrival in Israel, the government told his mother to sign some documents in Hebrew that she didn't understand, but she signed them anyway because she thought she had no choice. After all, she was a troubled single mother with few contacts and fewer funds. Months later, officials showed up at the door to take Stav and his sister away. Whether this was warranted or not, it was unclear, but there was no one there to argue on his mother's behalf. The government had found her unfit to take care of her children, and so they became wards of the state. After many months in a government institution, Stav was separated from his sister and taken in by a Christian foster family in Northern Israel. He spent about a year there until, for a reason he was too young to remember, the family decided they could no longer take care of him. Nonetheless, they took it upon themselves to make sure he was given to another Christian family who also lived in the same area, and Stav spent the rest of his childhood with this family. He described them as loving, though overbearingly religious. He lived a fairly normal life with them, growing heavily involved in church youth group and becoming one of the top athletes in school. In his earlier school years, he concealed his adoption and Ukrainian background to avoid bullying, but he eventually gained the confidence to be open about it. At that point he was popular enough that it didn't change anything.
After graduation, Stav began to feel that he was a burden to his family and was stifled by their strict beliefs. I couldn’t tell if his feelings were warranted, as his adopted mom called him all the time. Yet, I didn’t doubt that I would feel similarly if I'd had his upbringing. He left home and entered the military as a Lone Soldier, cutting himself off financially from his parents. He did well in the army, leading a unit in the Golani Brigade, an infantry brigade that was stationed in Gaza. He saw some terrible things there and didn't think he would make it out. After his three years of service, he moved to Jerusalem for school and became a settlement security guard in the Old City, escorting orthodox Jews to and from their homes in Palestinian areas. A week ago, he had responded to a stabbing and found three men dying (two Jews stabbed and a terrorist shot) and a wounded woman begging for help, only to be shoved away by Muslim shopkeepers. He then had to escort the children of the dead father home. After that, he vowed never to buy from Muslim merchants again. At this point, it became clear that he harbored an intense resentment towards Muslim Palestinians - but with the things he had seen, who could deny him this?
Perhaps the one thing he and I had in common was that we were both at a place in our lives where we were trying to define ourselves and our beliefs; and maybe we both thought that Jerusalem, the Holy Land, would provide some clarity. Instead, we found ourselves at the very center of a great, enigmatic conflict spanning across nations and seas. And maybe, like moths drawn to flame, that was truly why we came: to see it for ourselves.
This same sensation of watching a flame filled me with longing as we approached the lamp lit walls of the Old City. The fact that there was a physical barrier one needed to cross in order to get inside only contributed to its allure. The minarets and towers of the sites I had been dying to visit all these weeks rose from within the walls, and I decided it was now or never. Stav knew the city well and was carrying a gun. When would it ever be safer than this? I told him I wanted to go in and he obliged, though he was restricted from entering Palestinian areas while off-duty due to the risk of being recognized and targeted.
The moment we passed through the guarded gates, I was filled with a euphoria akin to that of a child entering Disneyland. The shops, the architecture, the alleyways, it was all so truly awesome. Stav often stopped to greet friends (he seemed to know every armed man in the city), and they would converse in Hebrew, except for the word "date", which was apparently universal. Whenever Stav said that word, the other guy would look grim and tell him to take good care of me. This probably should have worried me, but it was said in English and I took it as a boast of the daily peril these guards faced.
Stav said he was going to take me to the best view in the city. As we walked through the winding alleyways of the Armenian Quarter, he recited facts about buildings we passed and stopped occasionally to point out spots where recent attacks had occurred. He showed me the spot where he had been hit by a brick thrown by a man on the roof, narrowly missing a small child he was escorting. He showed me the kindergarten where he picked up his favorite escortees; some of them got scared and liked to hold his hand while they walked. I felt myself melt a little bit….
We walked up some stairs to the rooftops of the Armenian Quarter. There was a guard station up there, which is why he knew about this place. Crossing the haphazardly plastered roof, we could look down into a narrow alley and see Hasidic men bickering over religious texts. We went up a few more stairs and stopped beside an abandoned guard tower. Suddenly in front of me, so close that I could see the details of the blue mosaics, was the Dome of the Rock, vividly lit and impossibly golden in the night. Beyond it, Stav pointed to the Mount of Olives where Jesus preached, and the cemetery where the dead were prophesied to rise on Judgement Day. I spun around slowly and had a 360-degree view of the city, with venerable history emerging from each and every degree. It was incredible….
After this, it was a short walk to the Wailing Wall. It had been a volatile spot in recent days, but it seemed entirely peaceful tonight. I watched the devout interact with the wall, some of them were weeping and squeezing folded prayers into its crevasses. For the first time, I truly felt like I was in Jerusalem, where I so wanted to be. As I walked back through the quiet alleyways with Stav, I realized that it had been well worth the wait to see it in this way, with him.
I was on my way to my third date with Stav. I stepped on to the Egged bus and almost turned around and jumped back off. Coen was talking on his phone but had already spotted me. I was clearly dressed for a date, as I had insisted upon buying Stav a steak dinner for his birthday. Coen and I exchanged polite smiles as I squeezed past to sit in the only free seat which was next to Maj. She smiled mischievously and winked after I sat down. “Going somewhere?” My heart broke a little. But I figured Coen would have no trouble finding someone else.
It was my fourth date with Stav. I found him sitting at the counter in a diner on Jaffa Street. I sat beside him while we shared hummus and beer. He was wound up from a rough day at work, ranting about Palestine and his time in Gaza. I sipped my beer and nodded. What could I say? I realized that I could never have a normal relationship in Jerusalem, where politics were deadly and unavoidably personal. Whenever Stav talked about his daily reality, I remembered my privilege of racial ambiguity and American nationality. For him, the world was smaller and more constricting; he was bound to this small city where the aura of anxiety pressed down like a vice. I wanted to talk about something else, something silly and distracting, but to talk about anything other than politics seemed irrelevant and insensitive. On both sides of the conflict, there was a sense of urgency that dominated all conversations.
We went walking through the city. It was dark and misty, but not too cold. We went into one of the richest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, which is built into the side of a hill overlooking the Old City. We sat beneath its famous windmill and gazed at the wet-stone city beyond the wall, not talking much. It started raining heavily and we kissed for the first time under our jackets.
The rain wasn't letting up, so we ran back to his apartment on Jaffa Street and watched an incredibly gruesome war movie on Netflix, which was his pick and produced a lot of ‘One time, in Gaza...’ anecdotes. After the movie, it was still raining and the buses had stopped running, but I was planning to take a cab home. Stav was adamant in his disapproval of this plan. He said he didn't want me getting into a cab with a "cousin", which I learned to be a term derived from the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael to describe Muslims. However, I inferred that it was of a derogatory nature from the way his nose wrinkled when he said it. “I’ll sleep on the couch if you want,” he promised, his demeanor softening. “Just don’t go.”
“Okay,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t win and not really wanting to anyway.
Two hours later, we were lying on his bed while the night rain pelted the window. “How do you think you will die?” I asked him abruptly. It was a weird question, but I was feeling punchy with sleepiness and this was always a favorite topic at sleepovers when I was young, telling ghost stories and predicting our deaths. “You first,” Stav said, after a moment of thinking.
“Well, mine’s easy,” I giggled. “I would definitely get hit by a truck.”
“Why?” he asked.
“I’m just the type who would.”
“Okay,” he laughed a little, but then his face grew serious. “I think I’ll die in a war…. Probably in Syria.” I looked up at him. His jaw was tight and his eyes were sad, as they often were. I wished I hadn’t asked him such a stupid question.
“You really think they’ll send you to Syria?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “With how things are going, maybe soon.” I had no idea if Israel intended to join the conflict in Syria, but I suppose it didn’t really matter. Stav didn’t have to be drafted and sent to another country to enter a war zone; he lived it every day. This was his reality.
He soon drifted off. In his sleep he looked very young, and I remembered that he wasn’t much older than me. He was just a kid, alone in a new city, who had seen too much. I wanted to fix him; to take him home and give him some peace and quiet, some hope in something better. But I knew I couldn’t, so I just held him and prayed that, someday, he would make it out of here and never come back.
I woke up sweaty and stiff, pushed halfway off the bed by a sleeping Stav, who lay splayed out in all directions. Judging from the weak, cool light in the window, it was still very early. Yet, I felt an overwhelming need to take a shower and go back to sleep in my own bed. I kissed Stav goodbye and gathered my things before heading out into a clear kind of morning that only follows a rainy night. Walking up Jaffa Road toward the bus stop, all the shops were closed and I did not encounter a single living soul. It was strange to see a usually bustling street so empty, but not as eerie as one might expect. Rather, I was filled with a sense of exclusivity, as if, in this hour, the city was mine. It seemed much smaller without people to fill it, and I now knew it well. I didn’t feel like a tourist anymore.
Later that morning, back in my own bed, I was awoken by the sound of a text. It was from my friend Anis, a Palestinian who tutored Arabic, asking if my friend Tyrone and I wanted to pick olives at his house. I was still exhausted, so I told him I had a stomach ache. Maybe another time? "Oh no!" he replied. Did I need him to take me to a doctor? What kind of a stomach ache was it? He knew an old Palestinian remedy that could fix it.
"No,” I said. I was fine, really, but thanks anyway. He replied that he was waiting outside my dorm with the remedy. I leapt out of bed and got ready in record time. I found him standing outside, holding a bundle of furry leaves, and I wondered how long he'd been there. Anis was tall, gangly, and dressed like a farmer. I’d had no idea that he was from an elite family until I saw his multiple houses and cars. He was funny, intelligent, well-traveled, and very sociable. Even though I would have rather been in bed, I couldn't help but like him more for this ridiculous gesture that was in no way ridiculous to him.
Back in my apartment, we boiled the leaves (which looked a lot like sage to me, but he insisted it only grew in the hills of Palestine) and made a tea. It was actually very pleasant-tasting, and if my stomach had actually hurt, it certainly would have felt better after drinking it. Then, Tyrone came over and I submitted to the fact that I would be picking olives today.
We sat for a while as I finished my tea, discussing recent attacks in the West Bank. Suddenly, there was a series of gunshots, the closest I had yet heard - less than a mile away. Literally seconds later, Anis got a call which appeared to be a briefing. He hung up and informed us that there had been a stabbing at the train station and the assailants had been killed. I asked him how on earth he could know that so quickly. "I have my informants,” he said with a wink and a wry smile. "You have to be Palestinian."
Anis drove us to Beit Hanina and bought us breakfast to-go. Pulling into the neighborhood, I observed the pro-Palestine graffiti covering the brick walls which scrolled by my window. Amongst the writing was a large image that I recognized immediately. “Is that -?” Anis looked out his window.
“Yes,” he confirmed, shaking his head sadly. “There are some young men here who support the Islamic State…. They think it will free them from occupation.”
We arrived at his family's second home, a five-story building in which no one lived. He told us that it was nearly impossible for Palestinians to purchase land (Anis' family was one of the last in Jerusalem to own land, though much of it had been seized for settlements), so families added a level to the house for each newly-married son. The houses were built for function and had a Third World fortress aesthetic. Wealth was mainly reflected in the quality of the construction.
As we pulled through the front gates, Anis saw the electrician's car on the driveway and started cursing like something was terribly wrong. "I didn't buy him any food! Quick - don't let him see it!" Hiding the food carefully, we entered the house and climbed up many flights of marble stairs to a comfortable top floor apartment where we ate our breakfast. Tyrone asked me how my date had gone last night, and I really wished he hadn't. I described the night in as little detail as possible, as I prayed that Anis wouldn't ask about Stav and his occupation. He didn't, but he was appalled that he took me to get hummus on a date. "You can't take a girl out for hummus!” he scoffed. “I don't like Stav." Thankfully, he left it at that. If he only knew, I thought....and if Stav only knew….
After breakfast, we went into the yard where the air was brisk. We climbed into the tree and dropped fistfuls of olives onto the blanket below. Anis explained how we could press them later to make oil, and how his grandmother used to pick all these olives and press them by herself. We had an olive-throwing fight, and I hit Anis with a solid one in the head. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “You should go join my friends throwing stones at IDF vehicles!” We all had a good laugh at this suggestion, which we determined to be a bad idea.
As the day waned, the Call to Prayer blared from the mosque next door. We laughed again, so hard I almost fell out of the tree, because the muezzin sounded like a dying animal, and Anis said that no one in the neighborhood had the heart to tell him. In the final hour, we got really into the olive picking and were silent, deep in our own minds. For the first time in a long time, sitting in this tree in Beit Hanina as the sun set, I felt at home and at peace.