Liz Rose

September 18, 2018

While He Was Stopped by Soldiers

The first hour of the drive to Eilat, the resort town in Israel three hours south of Jerusalem was, in a way that I remember now, like a road trip movie: my feet propped up on the dashboard, my tanned toes sticking out the window as Khalil drove. The wind blew our hair back. We had Diet Coke and potato chips. A week before, when Khalil asked me to drive to Eilat with him, I wondered if we’d hook up. Going to stay in a hotel could only mean one thing. But I didn’t ask.  I said yes, and packed one pink dress, a red skirt, one pair of brown sandals, and my teal bathing suit. I was young and confident. I had recently mastered the mass transit bus system in Jerusalem. I could get anywhere anytime and never had to ask anyone for directions. If, on the rare occasion I didn’t know, I’d use my Hebrew to ask. When strangers on the street asked me for directions, they asked me in Hebrew—a sure sign that I was looking less American and more Israeli.  I was twenty-one, living abroad in Jerusalem as a graduate student, and I sported an attitude of bravado about things I knew nothing about.

Khalil was twenty-one, too, and we had met at a cafe near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem months before we drove to Eilat. The cafe served mostly tourists, but Khalil and I had been in Jerusalem almost a year already, and we began talking by scoffing at those we could tell were visiting for just a week or so. We sat at white plastic tables on red round plastic chairs. The smells of zaatar and sumac wafted around us as we spoke. The first thing I noticed about him was his necklace, a gold state of Palestine. It was the first time I saw what I was taught was the map of Israel, with city names in Arabic. I looked at his necklace against his brown skin, and then clutched my own necklace, a modern gold chai, the Hebrew word for “life,” and the lucky number eighteen, too, the legs bowed at the top and then narrowed. Khalil is a Palestinian-American, the youngest and only child of seven to be born in the U.S. All the others were born in Palestine. After growing up in the United States and graduating college, he had come to Palestine to live in Ramallah with an older brother for a year. For Khalil, hanging out in Jerusalem came to be a Westernized respite from living with his family under occupation in Ramallah. For me, going to cafes and bars in Jerusalem were small breaks from my evening graduate seminars at Hebrew University. At first, we ran into each other at the cafe a few times. After several weeks, we started to hang out more. A month later, he asked me to drive to Eilat for the weekend. I didn’t bother to ask if we’d have separate hotel rooms. We’d just figure it out.

Once we had been on the road for a while, I noticed a siren behind us. I figured—in my naivete—that Khalil must have been speeding. He wasn’t. We were pulled over by a car full of Israeli soldiers. They told Khalil to step out, forcing him to place his arms over his head and pushing him against the car. Using his knee, one of the soldiers spread Khalil’s legs wide. The soldiers were handsome. One winked at me and flirted, while he looked through my US passport as the others accosted Khalil. I smiled and clutched my chai. Khalil’s passport was American, too, but that didn’t help him as they searched his body. From inside the car, I watched them lift Khalil’s shirt and look down his pants. While he was being frisked, I sat in the car wondering if we would have sex that weekend.

Another soldier looked like the Israeli soldier I met on my first trip to Israel at age sixteen. He had curly dark hair and green eyes and a scruffy chin. I was dared by the other American Jews I was with—we were on an eight-week summer program—to kiss a soldier and ask him for the shirt of his Israeli army uniform. We made out for a minute against the wall of a bar in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound as the other American teens cheered. I brought his shirt home with me, folded carefully in my suitcase, at the end of the summer program when I returned to Chicago. It was a perverse initiation into Zionism, I would learn, that many American Jewish girls go through. As I think about the soldiers harassing Khalil now, I feel sick for playing in the charade when I was a teenager, for seeing what is oppressive for Palestinians as a rite of passage for American Jews. I still remember the feeling of the soldier’s M16 pressed against my leg while we kissed when I was sixteen.

After, Khalil got back in the car. The soldiers were done. He ran his fingers through his dark, thick hair, and turned to me. “That was fun,” he joked. “I wanted to stop.” He put his seatbelt on, shifted the car into drive. “How generous of the soldiers to give us a break while on the road,” he said, feigning a smile. “It sure was nice of them,” I replied, playing along as we drove south. He lit a cigarette. I pretended not to notice his trembling fingers as he smoked.  Soon, I lit one, too.

The hotel was fancy—big and yellow with lots of staff wearing crisp white. The lobby had round pink chairs that looked like they were from the set of Mad Men, cozy to have drinks in. A big pool glistened in a bigger courtyard; each room had access to the pool. When we arrived, I stood behind Khalil as he approached the front desk. He asked for one room with two beds. He didn’t look to me to see if this was OK. I was cool with whatever, I told myself.

Later that night, after eating dinner at a nearby restaurant—falafel, hummus, tahini with parsley, red wine, chicken and lamb kebabs that smelled like lemon and thyme—we lay on one of the beds in the hotel. Our stuff was on the other bed. Khalil was on his back, and I was on my stomach next to him, my head resting against my arm.  I was still unsure if we would have sex—for it had not come up at all, or even why we decided to go to Eilat in the first place—and I ran my fingers through his hair, playing with it for the first time, and he closed his eyes, and breathed deeply for the first time all day. The room was quiet. I traced the shape of his eyebrows with my finger. I was glad he was resting after what had happened on the highway with the Israeli soldiers. He still hadn’t talked about it, and I didn’t bring it up. I listened to his breathing as his eyes remained closed. I felt like my mother when I was young, and she, sensing my upset, would rub my back and calm me down, and I would purr like a cat.

We didn’t stay on the bed too long. After a few minutes, as though sensing the softness and not wanting to remain in it, Khalil jumped up and said, “Let’s go get a drink!”  We walked to the lobby and sat in the big pink chairs and drank big fruity drinks with bananas and kiwi and rum with tiny green umbrellas that teetered on the edge of the glass mugs filled with smashed ice. I asked Khalil about his family while we were drinking. “I mean, how does it feel to be the only one born in the US?” I asked him.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I guess I’m just more Americanized than they are,” he quipped as he sipped his drink. “I mean, if you came to stay in Ramallah with your brother,” I said, “why are you hanging out so much in predominantly Jewish Israeli areas?” He couldn’t answer. “Why, that’s easy,” he said. “The drinks are better on this side of the Green Line.” He got us another drink; it was clear talking about his identity just wasn’t his thing.

Later, when we were returning to the hotel room, we walked by the pool to get back to our room. The water was blue like the Mediterranean Sea he said his family members in the West Bank are forbidden to visit. We were the only people around. I thought perhaps we might hold hands. What happened next surprised me. When we were just a few feet from our hotel room, a few feet from the edge of the water, he pushed me into the pool. No one had ever pushed me into a pool before. I had seen it in movies and TV shows where, after the initial surprise, they make out and their clothes cling in all the right places and their hair looks sexy wet. I was wearing the new red pleated skirt my mother bought me the last time I visited her in Chicago. The pleats would lose their crease, I was sure. After he pushed me, he jumped into the pool, too, and we splashed each other and laughed. Then, a few minutes later, as we got out, I became self-conscious and worried that my wet clothes stuck to my body in the wrong places. My hair looked stringy. I tried to play it off that I was carefree, that I was one of those kinds of girls that could just go with the flow, that it was no big deal that I was all wet and I didn’t know where my sandals were. They fell off when he pushed me. I didn’t realize until later that the night in the pool was a form of courting.  The only way Khalil knew how to flirt with me was by pushing me in the pool like a child at a birthday pool party chasing the kid he likes.

Looking back now, though, it’s clear there was more happening that night he shoved me into the pool than boyish flirting. Perhaps Khalil’s pushing me was an unconscious power play, as though this act somehow might alleviate the disempowerment and humiliation he felt that afternoon when he was searched by the Israeli soldiers. When we were in the car, I was more protected than he was. Even as a young woman surrounded by the male soldiers, I had more power than Khalil. I yielded some sort of sexual agency over the soldiers as I flirted with them. Perhaps pushing me in the pool was Khalil’s way of acting out his upset from the afternoon. Who knows the reasons why humans exhibit these moments of such odd behavior; what can explain them, really, other than weird ways to cope with the loneliness and alienation we all probably feel most days?

We didn’t have sex that weekend, but we would the next in my apartment in Jerusalem, and for many weekends and months after that. We would spend many evenings in Jerusalem or around Ramallah—he’d drive me past his brother’s house but never invite me in—and Bethlehem, trips to Tel-Aviv, his pointing out where olive groves used to be, his pride in having knowledge about his homeland and his desire to share this with an American Jew. “See those pine trees over there?” he’d point as we drove around. “Those were planted by the JUF. They used to be Palestinian villages.”  I wouldn’t believe him until years later, even though I still have the certificate of planting a tree in Israel when I was seven with my allowance money. I was helping make the forest grow. Later, I’d read that pine trees aren’t even native to the Middle East and were planted deliberately to cover up the Arab villages.

A youthful bravado hovered over us as we navigated our way around Palestinian and Israeli areas. We lived there but didn’t live there. We believed the soil we walked on was our history, our home. And it was, of course, in how we’d been taught, but we didn’t really know what it was like to work there and pay taxes and to live there permanently. Khalil knew more than me, though, about life under occupation. And his family was from there. Mine wasn’t. My great-grandparents were from Russia and Romania. But I was taught that a straight line existed between Israel and the beginning of the world—and the beginning of my life—and I could draw this line, and it was all mine. When I was there, I was told, I was home. But it wasn’t true. We used this Middle Eastern temporary home as a playground, a getaway respite from our lives in the United States. We spent our evenings driving around on hot summer nights, smoking cigarettes, our arms hanging out the windows touching the outside of the car door, moving our hands with the music that made it too loud to talk. A new radio station had just emerged, playing English, Arabic, and Hebrew music. We ashed our cigarettes out the window onto the landscape we both loved.

A couple months after the weekend in Eilat, Khalil was arrested and put in jail for a week as part of a group unsealing Palestinian homes sealed by Israeli soldiers. I knew he had become more active in the Palestinian community, but I didn’t know much more than that. I went with some friends to visit him and his brother, a lawyer, explained to us that many Palestinians spend much of their time waiting at jails to see loved ones who are locked away. I wasn’t a family member, so I couldn’t see Khalil while he was in jail. And his brother didn’t know we were spending so much time together, so I just told him to tell Khalil I said, “Hey.”

The night he was released, he took a taxi from the jail to my apartment, took a shower, lay on the bed, and kissed me. He told me his stint in jail was a rite of passage for him, a Palestinian born in the US who felt like he needed to prove himself in Palestine. He said he now had “legitimacy” in the Palestinian community because he was seen as resisting the occupation by getting arrested. “I have dinner invitations from half the town,” he laughed. He got on top of me, then, this man torn between his Western and Eastern selves. As he kissed me, his gold necklace, the shape of Palestine, pointed into my neck, and we moved our bodies together in the night, his first night out of jail, the point going in between my necklace, the bowed and swelled chai. He didn’t stay over. In the middle of the night, he got dressed, kissed my forehead, and drove back to Ramallah.

I have often wondered why, after gaining legitimacy among the Palestinian community, Khalil chose to come to a Jew’s home in West Jerusalem the night he got out of jail. He might have said simply that the chance for sex was high. Or that, as an American, he still felt more comfortable in the Western part of the city. I romanticized my answer. I thought that perhaps there were complexities in that night interweaving and intersecting, beyond the sweat of our youth. Both of our identities, Khalil’s and mine—I’d like to have believed—were as tangled and unraveled as the necklaces we both wore. But things weren’t as complicated as I would have liked. We were both horny Americans in our twenties, and we had both superimposed our best selves onto a landscape that was foreign, but one that we had also been told was our home.

A few months after we had been dating—and far too young to comprehend the political implications of a Shakespeare play being performed in Israel—I saw a poster for Romeo and Juliet being performed in Jerusalem at a theatre a ten-minute walk from my apartment. I anxiously bought two tickets, imagining Khalil’s face when I would surprise him with the tickets. Although I wasn’t sure how he would react to my asking him to see the play with me, I was confident that he would appreciate the metaphor of our being “star-crossed lovers,” given we were a Palestinian and a Jew, navigating the Middle East together—while our bedrooms in our homes in the US remained empty and kept clean by our parents. I found out that the play was going to be a joint production with the Israeli Khan and the Palestinian El-Qasaba theaters.  The performance was held in an old hall used by the Israeli Electric Corporation behind the Jerusalem railway station. Juliet and the Capulets would be the Israelis and would speak Hebrew, while Romeo and the Montagues would be the Palestinians and would speak Arabic. English would be projected on a screen above the stage. I surprised Khalil with the tickets the next time he came over.

The play delivered. The street fight at the beginning of the play between the Montagues and Capulets was a metaphor for clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. The love between Romeo and Juliet—their speaking two different languages to each other—was romantic, especially given how difficult it was for them to be together. I wondered if any of the Israeli and Palestinian actors in real life were dating each other. I was particularly moved at the end when rocks—the symbol of the Intifada—were thrown onto the stage.  It wasn’t clear who had thrown them, for all of a sudden, they were thrown up onto the stage from the audience  How edgy, I thought, to be in Jerusalem watching a Shakespeare play that acknowledges this symbol of Palestinian resistance.

When Romeo and Juliet, doomed lovers from the beginning of the play, kissed on the stage, an Israeli and a Palestinian, I looked next to me at Khalil, and was excited to fool around with him later. After the show, Khalil said he thought the play “was just OK.”  I assumed his lack of enthusiasm came more from his business background and general disinterest in the theater than from his assumption that the Capulets and Montagues would be portrayed equally, “both alike in dignity,” as the prologue tells us, ignoring the true power imbalance among Israelis and Palestinians. How could I have felt so good, I wondered years later, and not have seen the implications of performing such a play in Jerusalem, the real conflict between Israelis and Palestinians presented as one that was balanced and equal?

Others also had issues with the play, I learned. Freddy Rokem argues in his essay, “Postcard from the Peace Process,” in the Palestine-Israel Journal, that the play does not address even basic power imbalances between Israelis and Palestinians. The performance in Jerusalem, Rokem writes, “merely reproduces the different hegemonic power structures as they have developed since 1967, as seen from an Israeli perspective.”  While the intentions of both directors were to “shock” the audience by performing a bilingual version of the play that people in Jerusalem hadn’t seen before, it simply wasn’t enough. “Political theater has to be dangerous and daring,” Rokem writes.  “And in order to be that, it is not enough to bring actors from the two peoples together and to present a bilingual performance.”  I wasn’t aware of the politics that went into the production beyond knowing that there had been hassles for Palestinians to get through checkpoints for rehearsals in Jerusalem. I had taken for granted, as Roken suggests, “all the other minor details in Jerusalem, which in fact represent Israeli hegemony.”  I wasn’t thinking of power dynamics and sub-narratives pitted against a dominant norm.  I was thinking of Khalil and me and our tangled necklaces and the exaggerated love that I had projected onto our relationship and onto the stage. I had wanted our being together to be more than it was.

The evening that Khalil and I went to the play was our last. Afterwards, when he pulled up in front of my apartment, we sat in his car and he told me that he was going back to the US for a while, “and when I come back here, I think we should just be friends.” Naively, I thought that our seeing Romeo and Juliet would bring us closer, but it did the opposite. I understand now that the portrayal of the two families as equal was an insult to him; he just didn’t have the language to explain it to me. Despite our both being from the States, things were not equal; we had no common world view. And we were too young-—and politically unsophisticated—to understand.

Khalil didn’t come back like he said he would. He attended graduate school in New York and now lives in Connecticut with his wife and kids. I found him on Facebook recently and told him I was writing this essay. I sent him a draft. Reading it brought back a lot of memories for him, he wrote. We were so young, he said in the letter, twice. He hasn’t been back to Palestine, he wrote, because Israel won’t let him in. When he wants to see his family, they all meet in Jordan. I remember the only letter he wrote me from the US soon after we saw the play.  On the envelope, he had written, “Jerusalem via Israel,” a small but poignant gesture of political resistance. The Israel that invited Jews like me was the same nation-state that prevented his family from their true homeland, Palestine. We had used our respective homelands, Israel and Palestine, as a playground in the present tense. But it wasn’t a playground for Khalil and his family, and he had had enough.

The day after the play, the day after Khalil broke up with me, I went back to the theater and stole a poster which is framed, now, in my living room in Chicago. It’s gold and blue and black with Arabic and Hebrew writing. The size of the letters in each language is exactly the same—equal at last—on a ripped poster sitting behind glass. The gold ribbon in the poster that wraps itself around Romeo and Juliet reminds me of the gold of our necklaces, bought in different jewelry stores in East and West Jerusalem. Average quality metal at best.

Liz Rose’s writing has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Mondoweiss, and the journal Understanding and Dismantling Privilege. She is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.

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