Yesterday at dusk, as the call of the muezzin drifted from a nearby mosque, I walked into a courtyard of a sprawling concrete compound. A dog barked somewhere in the background.
At the door, my companion Amir turned to me quickly, and stubbornly pulled my sleeves further down my arms before knocking. A well dressed man answered and after exchanging some words in Arabic, Amir and I were led into a palatial and colorful interior that belied the flat, heat proof exterior of the home, which was oddly punctuated with Grecian detail.
The salon of Basim’s home was enormous, with a water fountain in one corner. Bright textiles covered every surface and sumptuous cushions were on the floor. Everything was in sharp contrast to the general poverty of the village we were in.
We were instructed to sit. And to wait.
A black Range Rover drove up outside in a cloud of dust and moments later Basim entered. I was instructed to stand. Then to sit. Then to take the hot mint tea handed me by a wait person of some kind.
Drink it, Amir hissed in my ear.
Basim sat near me at long last. Yalla, he said. You will help me, yes?
I had been dragged to this meeting a bit unwillingly by Amir. He had a friend, he said, a friend in the West Bank, a businessman, and he needed an American to help him.
Help him what? Amir didn’t know, exactly. Something about business.
Basim, as it turns out, is an extremely successful business man. He owns and operates a tour company and caters to Russian tourists of the Christian variety. He estimates that he brings approximately 70,000 Russian/Christian tourists into Israel and Palestine every year between May 1st and end of October.
So why was I there, I wondered?
Basim wants to grow his business, sababa? He wants to bring Americans on his tours, Amir explained hurriedly.
American Christians, Basim intoned, are very good business. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. It is like – it is like a how you say, a pilgrimage for them. As to Mecca.
Christian tourism is big business in Israel. Everybody knows that. Tour busses clog parking lots at every holy site and disgorge thousands of pale, camera-clicking Americans every day, in Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jerusalem…
Basim is an Israeli-Arab, meaning he lives and works in Israel but also spends time at his property in the West Bank. Like most Palestinians, Basim dresses in modern garb and speaks at least some English. Unlike most Palestinians, Basim is economically – how you say – mobile. Advantaged. He travels between Israel and the West Bank almost daily. He has a special permit to do so. He enjoys the advantages of living in Israel but is culturally rooted in the West Bank.
But there is the problem, Basim continued. I have big problem.
Basim needs, it was revealed to me, an American to help him with a website and other materials so that he can sound good, trustworthy – safe – to Americans who “see Palestinians only with fearful eyes.”
A man I had not noticed before was sitting in a corner of the large room, listening to our conversation, his knees close together, a look of close concentration on his face.
Will you to help me, Basim asked? Can you to write my website so I sound like good man?
What a very strange situation I had found myself in. Well, I began, I am sure I can but this is not really my business – I am a writer, you see and–
Amir leaned forward emphatically - Julie, you should make a good business for Basim, a very good business. He looked at Basim a bit obsequiously. She can, habibi, I know her. Basim’s eyes did not leave me.
As I was saying, I tried again, glancing at the silent guy in the corner, I am a writer, yes, but I don’t usually do this type of thing -
But it wasn’t true. Of course I have done this type of thing. I have written copy for my own websites and consulting for years and I have written great copy, American style, for many an Israeli website. Why was I hesitating in this case?
Basim lit another cigarette and waited.
I realized that “no” wasn’t really the answer he was looking for.
Well, I stumbled – I guess I can look at your website…
Basim sprang up, his slight pot belly hanging over his expensive belt buckle.
Mohammed! He gestured to the silent guy. Bring Miss Julie Gray (gdddday, he pronounced it) to the door.
He turned his green eyes to me. Salaam. I will to call you. Yalla.
Amir led me back through the courtyard toward the towering iron gate inside of which the Range Rover was parked.
Yes, yes, you was good gehl, Amir exclaimed, beaming, the best, the best gehl! With Basim as your friend, you will never go hungry, never!
Amir, I said, I have to know, what are Basim’s politics? I don’t want to get involved with anyone who is hanging out with Hamas or anything. I stood, lamely. Was that not the right thing to say? Was that not how to phrase it?
No, no, no, Amir laughed. Basim is businessman!
I think I work for Basim now. I am not sure. And I’m not sure how I feel about it.
I had come to live and work in Israel not only as a Jew but as an experienced writer and teacher and I had wanted to – I want to – organize a creative writing group for Palestinian women outside of academic circles. Something informal. A way to reach out to often isolated and impoverished women and to give them voice.
Would it not be in a similar spirit, in the macro, for me to work with a Palestinian business man who wants to be taken seriously by tourists? Would I not be walking the walk by establishing trust despite our differences? Doesn’t trust and healing and a sliver of hope start one person at a time?
I didn’t have time to think about the whole episode all that much. Darkness had fallen and we had two checkpoints to get through, one for the Palestinian Authority and another at the Israeli border. The Palestinian Authority check point guards generally sit in lawn chairs and smoke amiably. Sometimes they jump to their feet and gesticulate but they didn’t that night.
At the Israeli border, the bus was stopped, which is a bit uncharacteristic. Both doors opened at once and two Israeli soldiers armed with AK47s boarded and walked up and down the aisle slowly, looking at each of us in turn. My heart was in my mouth. Had I done something wrong?
Yes, I most definitely had, I knew that. As an Israeli citizen, it is not kosher for me to cross the border into the occupied territories.
I’ve made this trip to this particular place many times. Amir meets met at a deserted bus stop and takes me into the small village, which has a central square full of date trees festooned with lights. We usually go to a large open air restaurant frequented by local Palestinian men who sip hot, cardamom scented Arab coffee and share hookahs. I am always greeted warmly – everyone knows I am Jewish but Amir warns me sternly to speak no Hebrew lest someone figure out I am not a tourist. You’d think they’d know by now, so many have been my visits. Perhaps they do know. I think we are all pretending.
I usually talk with a very small group of Palestinian women, two or three, including one who attends Birzeit University in Ramallah about stuff – about life – about writing. One particular young lady, Lina, really wants to create a salon in the village that is like my writing salon in Tel Aviv. But it is not possible for she or her peers to cross the border into Israel because a tiny but powerful handful of extremists have caused the border to be closed. Just a few bad apples but enough to take many lives and to limit those of others on both sides of the formidable border.
This makes me very angry but there is nothing I can do about it. So I go to them.
There are hundreds of peace activism groups in Israel with permits to cross the border into the West Bank for a variety of programs and activities. I shall have to formalize and join one if I want to continue in safety. I have doubts about whether they are making a difference, but then I should think change takes time. I also think that the internet has no borders and that if I can get a group of women together to write creative essays and short stories about their lives, that they can not only be heard, they can feel heard, which is at least as valuable.
Is it not also valuable to help a businessman into more prosperity by making him more credible, more palatable? Or is that at odds with my general vision? How will Basim spend his money? He seems to have no interest in what the women of the village have to say. But maybe it’s the price I have to pay to have more access – to gain some credibility of my own on Basim’s side of the border.
The soldiers left the bus and on we went, back to Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station where I had to catch another bus, back toward the relative safety of Ramat Gan, just outside of Tel Aviv, or, as Israelis call it, “the Bubble”.