by: Sam Kestenbaum on March 24th, 2012 | 8 Comments »
In America, they called him Mike. He lived in midtown Manhattan. He used to have a long ponytail, he tells me, a neatly shaven beard and he dressed fashionably.
Here in Palestine, they call him Hisham.
He wears a neat black coat and thin wire-rim glasses. Hisham is in his fifties now and has wispy gray hair. He was born and raised in Ramallah, he tells me, but moved to America in his twenties.
I meet Hisham at the local coffee shop. It’s a crowded popular spot in the center of Ramallah. The ceilings are high and the air is thick with smoke.
The seasons are in transition. The spring is coming, but some days are still freezing. Sheets of icy, cold rain fall outside, flooding the streets. The old men who frequent the shop wear heavy coats and scarves wrapped around their heads. The low bubbling sound of the water pipe fills the room.
Hisham speaks English with an American accent and swears every other word. He misses America, he tells me. “Probably meeting me in this cafe,” he waves his hand around the room, “you wouldn’t think that I lived in America. I probably look really Palestinian, like I’ve never left this place. But I loved that country,” he says.
One of the things that Hisham misses the most is the freedom of movement, he tells me. He used to drive in his jeep, for hours. He would drive to Chicago, or maybe as far as Florida. He misses road trips.
“You can’t do that here, you can’t travel like that,” Hisham says. “Because of our situation,” he trails off. As a kid, he tells me, he would travel to the beach — to Haifa, to Jaffa — and to Jerusalem. Then, Israelis and Palestinians interacted, he says. Not like today. It wasn’t great, but it was better.
“People are people,” he says, “politicians are the ones to look out for.” He trails off.
He doesn’t want to talk politics.
Instead, Hisham turns to me. He asks where I’m from. “Is your family Irish? Italian?” He pauses and a smile spreads across his face.
“You’re an American Jew, aren’t you?” he laughs. He knew it, he says. It’s in the face. “It’s okay, man,” he pats my shoulder. Then he leans in closer. He had a lot of Jewish friends in New York, he confides.
“In fact, I was in love with an American Jew,” he says and leans back. They were together for years, but never married.
Hisham wants to buy me a coffee. It’s his country, I’m a guest, and he wants to treat me. He enjoys having the opportunity to speak in English, to remember his youth. We order two coffees and they come, sweet and spiced with cardamom.
We drink; he goes on.
“My American girlfriend’s mother, who was also Jewish, always said that we wouldn’t last, because I was Palestinian,” he says.
“That my tradition would be a problem, that I would go back to my country. I guess she was right. I did leave, after all. But it was a mistake, a big mistake.”
When he told his girlfriend he was going back to Palestine, she cried. “I told her it was just for a visit, but I ended up staying here.”
Hisham came back to Palestine, married a Palestinian woman and had two sons. But the marriage didn’t last. They divorced. “Coming back into the Palestinian culture wasn’t easy,” he says. “I had forgotten a lot of my Arabic. I had become more American.”
For a lot of Palestinians, America is a kind of dream. It’s an inaccessible place; procuring the visa from the American embassy in Jerusalem is a long and difficult process. Because of where they’re from, they’re often denied entry.
Hisham remembers New York vividly. Not as a dream, but as a place that he lived and worked. He remembers his favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He had favorite bars and diners in New York, places he would eat with his friends and girlfriend.
As we talk, Hisham keeps coming back to his girlfriend, the American Jew. He can’t get her off his mind. He misses her. Leaving was a mistake, coming back to Palestine was a mistake, getting married to the other woman was a mistake, he says. He’s made a lot of mistakes.
Hisham tells me that she had been pregnant when he left. She was carrying their child. But because he left, she didn’t keep the child. Instead, she had an abortion.He’s quiet for a moment, and then goes on.
“Now that I’m older, I see. The most important thing in life is having a partner. It’s not about where you work or where you live. That’s not what makes you happy or unhappy,” Hisham says. “It’s about who you spend your life with. For me, I should have stayed with that American Jew.”
He’s thought about contacting her — finding her number and calling her — but he hasn’t. He thinks she would have changed. “Would she want to see me?” he asks.
He apologizes. He’s talking too much, he worries. He says that he’s an old man and that he finds himself reflecting back on life. Meeting me has brought back memories. “It’s because you’re American, and Jewish.” Memories have flooded back to him.
“When you get to be my age, you find yourself looking back,” he says.
We finish our coffee. Around us, the card games go on. Men laugh, swear and light their cigarettes. A song by Nancy Ajram, the young Lebanese singer, plays through the stereo. It sounds tender, out of place.
She sings in Arabic: “When I’m in your hands, what would I need? I never dreamed that I would ever live a life this way.” Her voice distorts on the radio. “Everything that has passed has passed. We can’t change it. Let’s stay in the present, we don’t have any time to loose.”