By Judy Peres
/ Nonfiction /
The passenger terminal at the Allenby Bridge in 1995 looked like any other Israeli government office. Seats were lined up in rows, bolted to the stone-tile floor. Bored apparatchiks were barely visible behind grimy glass. A noisy fan tried, unsuccessfully, to circulate the thick August air.
I took a seat and tried not to move, hoping to remain cooler by slowing my breathing. I was on my way to Amman, where I was to pick up a ticket from a Jordanian travel agency for a flight to Cairo. All the flights from Tel Aviv were booked, and I had only a few days. Why not try crossing over land from Israel to Jordan and flying from there?
The man seated next to me in a white shirt and dark suit jacket nodded politely and went back to his newspaper. Unlike me, he didn’t appear to be sweating at all.
“Are you going to Amman?” I asked in English.
“Yes,” he said. “I have a house there.” He had a slight British accent, although I was pretty sure Arabic was his first language.
As if anticipating my next question, he said, “I had some business to attend to in Jerusalem.”
I left it at that for a while. But an hour later we were still sitting there, waiting to hear when we would be allowed to cross the bridge. The apparatchiks now were nowhere in sight. Murmurs went up from other travelers. The Jordanians closed the bridge just to provoke the Israelis, I heard one Hebrew speaker say. No, came the whispered response, the Israelis closed the bridge because of some suspicious activity. Another hour passed. I was starting to worry about making my flight.
“Does this happen often?” I asked the polite man next to me.
He smiled apologetically. He was small and dapper, with jet-back hair and a carefully trimmed moustache. I guessed he was around 50, just a few years older than I.
“This is my first time,” I said. “I’m supposed to be on a 4 p.m. flight to Cairo, and I’m afraid I’m going to miss it.”
He asked why I was going to Egypt, which opened a conversation that would last three more hours and that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
I was an American journalist, employed by the Chicago Tribune. I had worked for the Jerusalem Post in Israel for 12 years before moving to Chicago, and I had served as the Tribune’s assistant foreign editor. So I was a natural choice to cover the Jerusalem bureau while our regular correspondent was on home leave.
Now that Israel had peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, I wanted to see a bit more of the Middle East. I pitched a story that would justify spending four days in Egypt at a time when news in Israel was slow. It was all the time I had. I had arranged for a fixer to meet me in Cairo and to set up interviews for me. I felt naively confident it would be enough time.
Now that the first leg of my trip was in jeopardy, I tried to adopt a roll-with-the-punches attitude and settled in to learn what I could of the soft-spoken fellow traveler who lived in Amman and had business to attend to in Jerusalem. His name was Ayoub Qasim.
Mr. Qasim told me he had worked as a banker in England, where he was educated, and currently served as commercial officer at the British Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He had recently moved to the Jordanian capital.
Amman, it turns out, was as close as he could get to his real home.
He told me he was born in Lifta, a village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem that I knew well. Once, as an undergraduate in the 1960s, I spent Yom Kippur there in the home of another American, defiantly dining on barbecued spareribs while the rest of the city was shut down for the holiest of Jewish holy days. It was an old Arab house without working plumbing, I remembered, cheap enough by then for a student to afford. Lifta has remained empty, despite recurring attempts by right-wing Israeli developers to build luxury homes and a hotel on the site. It is one of the few intact abandoned Palestinian villages in Israel – the others having been either demolished or repopulated by Jewish Israelis.
Mr. Qasim’s family left Lifta during the 1948 fighting that Israeli Jews call the War of Independence and Arab Palestinians call the Nakba. He was only a toddler then, he said, but he remembered relocating to the home of his grandfather in Ramallah, on the West Bank, where he grew up.
It went without saying that Mr. Qasim could not return to his family home in Lifta, which has been part of Israeli West Jerusalem since the 1949 armistice. But in another twist of fate, he couldn’t return to his Ramallah home either: During the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, he was studying abroad. West Bankers who were not present during the war were not allowed to return as permanent residents after Israel occupied the territory, he explained.
“How awful!” I said, wanting to apologize on behalf of all Jews who are allowed to reside anywhere in Israel (not to mention the West Bank) and claim automatic citizenship. The memory of that night I spent eating treyf in what might have been Mr. Qasim’s former home now seemed obscene.
Our conversation was interrupted by a voice over a loudspeaker announcing that the bus had arrived to transport us over the bridge – a distance of exactly one kilometer. We should have our passports out and open to the photo page, the voice said.
“It has been a great pleasure speaking with you,” said Mr. Qasim with a slight bow.
“Yes,” I said, “for me, too.”
A few minutes and a world later we alighted from the bus. The other side of the bridge looked like a moonscape in shades of beige, unrelieved sand and stone with not so much as a potted plant or a traffic sign in any other color. The air sat thick and heavy overhead. The thin trickle behind us was dark and muddy, barely decipherable as the Jordan River. Just ahead, the passport control and customs officials sat in a cinder-block hut that smelled of stale cigarettes and burnt coffee. The inside of the hut bore the same colorlessness as the outside, the only relief a flash of gold from the Jordanian clerk’s shiny wristwatch.
Once outside the hut, my American passport duly stamped, I looked around for a way to get to Amman, which I figured was about 50 kilometers away. I didn’t see a bus stop or a taxi rank.
“Would you like to share a taxi to Amman?” Mr. Qasim asked at my elbow.
“Thank you,” I said, “that would be wonderful.”
He appeared to conjure one out of thin air and we drove to the address of the Royal Jordanian travel office that had my ticket. When he let me out, I asked if he lived nearby.
“Not too far,” he said vaguely, pointing back in the direction from which we had come. That apologetic smile again.
Mr. Qasim was clearly worried about the welfare of a woman on her own in his adopted city.
After he drove away I was ringed by half a dozen local drivers in grimy, sweat-stained shirts vying to offer me their services, which, it turned out, I definitely needed. The travel agency was closed for the midday siesta, and there was no way I was going to hang around on the sun-baked street with those guys. One of them eventually deposited me at the Amman airport, where I was able to buy another ticket, but not before driving me around the city, offering me drinks and snacks and perhaps a quick stop at his home, where his madame would be most honored to serve me a meal. “Airport,” I kept saying. “La, shukran. Airport.”
I saw Mr. Qasim once more, a year or two later. We had stayed in touch through formal letters, and it turned out we were both scheduled to be in Jerusalem at the same time. We met at the American Colony Hotel near the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, under the electronically amplified voice of the local muezzin. It was a place I knew well, having spent countless evenings nibbling mezzeh in the hotel’s elegant piano bar.
The business he had to attend to this time (and perhaps the first time as well – he hadn’t said) was the ownership of a piece of real estate in Sheikh Jarrah that had belonged to his family. Somehow, because it was in East Jerusalem and because he had the original title from the Ottoman tabu, he thought there was a chance he could reclaim it.
I never found out if he was successful, although recent events in Sheikh Jarrah, where Jewish settlers are continually threatening to evict Palestinian families, make that seem unlikely.
A few years ago I received a polite letter from another Mr. Qasim in Amman, letting me know that his father had died.
“He remembered your kindness,” the letter said.