Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dream Palace Of The Arabs

The little supermarket in the German Colony of Jerusalem has a famously good meat counter; the man who's run it for the last 10 years or so is named Abed. He is a Jerusalem-born Arab, a Muslim, about 40 years old, the father of three (or is it four, now?), whose pictures are hung behind the counter. The store is a place you wander into several times a week, looking for blueberries or chestnuts. I've almost always wound up speaking to Abed about this and that, and eventually started coming in to talk even if I needed nothing. I am more than a customer to him and he is more than a clerk to me.

Abed has a quick mind, infectious smile and Zhivago-like eyes. He could have been anything he set his mind to becoming. He once told me the story of how he and his closest friends had dreamed of studying the law, that a couple of them actually went to Cairo to get law degrees, but that he wanted to start making money and missed the boat, you know, for reasons young men later come to regret. But he did go to work and did begin saving his money--6 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day for 20 years.

When Abed had finally squirreled-away enough, just around the turn of the millennium, he started building himself a stately house in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, just beyond Shuafat, but before the Jewish neighborhood of Neve Yaacov. He and his family finally moved into the house, his dream palace, in 2003. This was, of course, the height of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah.

In 2004, the government announced that the security wall was going up. Beit Hanina was going to be on the other side of it. Abed and his family were given days to find a place inside the wall, or he would be considered a resident of the Palestinian territories, not Jerusalem; he would lose his job, and they would lose their social insurance and health benefits (which his taxes had paid for all those years).

Abed told me this story with resignation. Who lives in the house?, I asked him at the time? "The birds," he said, and added: "God is great." His family squeezed into a two bedroom flat. The only time his eyes teared up was when he explained how he had to pull his kids from school and tell them they could no longer play with their friends. In all the years I have known him, I've heard nothing but words of revulsion for violence of any kind.

Oh, by the way, a couple of years later, his brother's house, in the family compound in Abu Tor, was entirely demolished. His brother had added floors without a municipal permit; the family had applied for years to no avail. No Jewish house has ever suffered this fate. The bulldozer showed up with 24 hours warning. Abed's eyes teared up again when he told me about his brother, that he had sought me out to witness the demolition, but I was out of the country. (My eyes, too.)

I AM TELLING this story because Abed did not wake up yesterday and start killing Jews. Nor did 249,000 other Arabs in Jerusalem, though they are not happy about what's been happening in the city of their birth.

When people speak anxiously about Jerusalem as the epicenter of a national conflict, it is all too easy to assume that Jews and Arabs sort out into their respective national organisms; that every act of cruelty, every atrocity, committed by any Arab or Jew is somehow expressing the DNA of the national organism as a whole. That atrocities such as yesterday's attack by an Arab bulldozer driver run amok would just not happen if Arabs simply condemned violence collectively enough, or if they didn't secretly want atrocities to happen. Presumably, that suicidal driver was revealing Abed's real dream palace. (Oh, well, maybe not Abed, but Arabs in general.)

This is, for God's sake, no way to think about human beings. We do not need theories about national minds at terrible times like this. We need to understand the grim logic of Jerusalem since 1967. We need to understand bell-curves. A peace settlement will not put an end to attacks like the one we saw yesterday. But as Abed once told me, blessing God, what if not peace will?