Last night, I found myself on an unexpected adventure. While I sometimes miss the density and intensity of my adventures in Israel, after the past few days of rocket attacks, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be in Washington, D.C. and not in Ashdod.
I found myself in an Uber with a female driver wearing a hijab. We got to talking, initially about mundane topics like podcasts and language learning. Eventually, I asked what languages she spoke and she said “just Arabic”. My eyes lit up. I started speaking to her in Arabic and she was thrilled.
For the next twenty minutes, we talked about everything. She loved my Syrian dialect, calling it rai’3ah, or “fantastic”. She then asked the question all Arabic speakers ask me. “Where in the Arab world have you been?” This is a loaded question, although not intended to be.
The reason why is that Israel, in all honesty, is a part of the Arab world, or at the very least experiences a Venn Diagram overlap with it when considering the 20% of its citizens who speak Arabic as a mother tongue. Not to mention the half of Jews there who come from Arab countries. Furthermore, I had been to Palestinian cities and towns, which clearly qualified.
So I answered the question like this:
“Ana kinit be’Isra’il wa’Falastin.” I was in Israel and Palestine.
Two countries whose borders are increasingly vague and whose cultures overlap and interact to such an extent that I find it sensible to sometimes mention them in the same breath.
Fatima’s ears perked up. She was curious. While she only called the countries I visited Palestine (which is not how I view things), she wanted to know where I had lived, what I had seen, and more. She was respectful. I told her I had lived in Tel Aviv and mentioned some of the Arabic-speaking areas I had visited in Israel and (the areas east of the Green Line I call) Palestine.
I even told her a funny story about language practice I experienced in Tel Aviv, to share some of the life she probably rarely hears about. I was sitting in a restaurant and asked “efshar et ha’sal?” I meant to ask for the salt, but by using the Spanish word “sal” for salt, I ended up asking for a basket! The waiter asked why I needed a basket, and I said “for my chicken!” It cracked him up at the time, and Fatima was no different. It’s all a lesson that making mistakes while learning languages can be a blessing if you learn to laugh. I’ve never forgotten the word for basket.
At times during my life in Israel, I struggled with the concept of Palestine. What are its borders? Does it threaten Israel’s existence? Is there a way to make peace between these two countries and societies?
Now, I feel more at ease. Even with someone like Fatima who may not even recognize Israel. And yet finds herself open to hearing about it, even as she can’t speak its name. Much like I used to struggle with the word Palestine.
Fatima knew I was Jewish. That I am an Israeli citizen. And yet something in our conversation, despite the different views we held, kept us talking. Even had us laughing and complementing each other.
It’s the kind of magic Benjamin Netanyahu lacks on even his best day. It’s called compassion. It’s called dialogue. It’s called respect and a desire to use words rather than bombs to make a point.
After Bibi’s most recent show of force, which killed about two dozen Palestinians and resulted in yet more warfare launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, the only thing we saw grow was fear. The only result we saw was damaged houses, crying children, and trauma. After a decade as Prime Minister, the Gaza Strip is beset by increasingly dire poverty and terrorist organizations and the Israeli communities that surround it have more PTSD, more death, and more desperation.
We could keep trying the same techniques and feel pervertedly comforted by receiving the same horrifying results. Or we could try what I did. Talking. Creative problem solving. Dialogue.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy nor do I know exactly how to do this on a political level- I’m not a politician. What I can say is if it reduces the chance of more misery, it’s worth a shot.
As Fatima dropped me off, she said to me a phrase that will stick with me the rest of my life. “Fi amal,” she said. “There is hope.”