Next Year in Silwan

Note: Some names and identifying details in this piece have been changed.

The last time I saw Rafik, I was afraid he might stab me. Strange, because our surroundings seemed eminently genteel and civilized. Rafik was wearing a well-fitted black suit, white shirt, and maroon tie – a sharp contrast to my jeans and t-shirt. We sat in the hotel’s VIP lounge, the elite spot in an already expensive restaurant. The napkins were cloth, the silver polished, and the tuxedoed waiters deferential to the point of superciliousness. That made sense – Rafik was their boss, the corporate Vice President whose thick portfolio of responsibilities included managing the hotel’s menial labor force. I’d bonded with Rafik more than thirty years before, when both he and I cleaned bathrooms together at this same hotel, now renamed and fancier. But I’d moved away, graduated Rabbinical School, built a career as an American rabbi. He’d stayed and climbed the hotel career ladder. When we scrubbed toilets and stripped sheets together, we never would have been allowed anywhere near the fancy dining room where we now ate sole florentine, chicken kabobs, mint salad and lemonade. But here we were, in our 50’s, with our strikingly divergent career paths, enjoying the luxury of a place that exploited and employed us when we were young.

Rafik was pissed off. I could tell by a sudden widening of his eyes as if he’d just seen something shocking; a flash of red in his cheeks; and a pencil-thin line connecting his tightly pursed lips. I’d only seen that expression on him once, fifteen years before, when, after a relatively happy reunion, he walked me through the small Jewish enclave that had sprouted up in his Arab neighborhood, a little more than a block from his house. Back then, I’d reassured him of my total sympathy, even though he talked so quickly I could barely understand what he was saying.  This time, I’d asked about his wife and children, and that was enough to remind him of his family’s home and trigger the old anger. 

We were in the middle of a war. Missiles from Gaza landed in Jerusalem, Israeli bombers leveled neighborhoods in Gaza, and Palestinian terrorists, mostly from the West Bank, were stabbing random Jews in different parts of the city. Rafik and I were dining in the lap of luxury – two educated, successful, civilized friends - but I couldn’t help noticing how tightly he gripped his butter knife. 

I met Rafik in 1980. I was on my junior year abroad, studying at the Hebrew University’s One Year Program. A friend of mine and I got lost on a Footloose in Jerusalem city walk through the Mount of Olives and decided to check out what looked like an interesting Arab neighborhood, what we later learned was Silwan. We climbed down a slope across from the Hill of Evil Counsel and entered a narrow cobblestone sidewalk which led us to a warren of winding streets and walkways, enclosed by tall Arab-style houses. Young boys kicked soccer balls, played tag, or tossed rocks at the houses and each other. They ignored us. We spotted a tall Arab woman, covered head to toe in multi-colored scarves and a long black and white dress, carrying a tray of fresh pita on her head. She must have noticed our staring, because she somehow managed to grab two pitas and toss them at us, smiling and nodding. We thanked her in Hebrew, and then my friend remembered one of the few Arab words he’d learned and said “Shukran.” “B’vakashah,” she responded, sticking to Hebrew. Just then, a lanky young man in black jeans, sneakers, and a red polo shirt stepped around the corner. He muttered a few quick words in Arabic to the woman – we soon learned she was his mother. She nodded. “You will have lunch at my house,” he instructed us in what sounded to me like Jamaican-accented English. My friend and I looked at each other. We were twenty years old (so, it turned out, was Rafik). We were explorers. The Jewish parts of Israel had exotic elements, but we were getting used to those. The Arab areas offered extra stimulation for two adventured-starved suburban American Jews. “We will have lunch with you,” my friend agreed. “Shukran,” I said.

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The lunch turned out to be the best meal we’d had in Israel, one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. In addition to piles of fresh pita, Rafik’s mother laid out six types of salads, with beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and some vegetables I didn’t recognize. This was in addition to the several large plates of swirling hummus with olive oil and pine nuts, and tahina. Then came the kebabs – chicken, beef, mixed grill, lamb. We sat on the floor, on soft cushions, and leaned our backs against the light blue wall. It was late summer, hot and sunny in Jerusalem, but mystifyingly cool in Rafik’s house. 

We talked about books. It was a hard subject to ignore since apart from the food and seat cushions, the room was covered in books. Not bookshelves – just books, piled floor to ceiling, dozens of book-towers, side by side, surrounding us. I felt like a giant in some strange sky-scraper-filled downtown. 

“You like books?” Rafik asked.

I shrugged. At that point in my life, I didn’t have much to say about books. “Sure,” I said.

“English books?”

My friend and I looked at each other. “That’s the only kind we can read,” I said.

“So you will teach me?” Rafik asked.

I glanced around the room. I noticed that all the volumes were in English. I recognized the names of some authors. Mark Twain. Henry James. Dickens. Shakespeare. They seemed to be mostly fiction, classical works I only would have read if assigned, and even then, I was likely to prefer Cliff Notes. “Teach you to read?” I asked.

He laughed. “You think I can’t read English? No, teach me about books. What else should I read? To help me with my English. And to improve myself.”

Improve his English? As far as I could tell, he spoke it flawlessly. I was about to tell him when his mother came in with a golden pitcher and a tray of cookies. She poured coffee into tiny silver cups, nodded at us, smiling, then walked out. I noticed she walked with a slight limp. 

“She has a whore head,” Rafik said.

I looked at my friend. “Excuse me?” he said.

“A whore head,” Rafik repeated. He touched his black hair. “You know. Uh, white. White hair. She is old, not walking properly. A hoar head.”

He meant “gray-haired,” meaning old. At the time, I’d never encountered the expression “hoar head.” Later my friend looked it up. We chuckled as he read the scene in the King James translation of the Bible where David’s warns his son Solomon not to let Joab’s “hoar head” die peacefully. In other words, kill him before he gets old, before his hair turns gray. “He learned English from random great books,” my friend said.

At that first lunch, I agreed to suggest titles for him to read. On my next visit – this time I came by myself - I brought my paperback editions of The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. The books seemed smart, but plain-spoken, an antidote to too much Shakespeare. The next time, I stopped in an English language bookstore and bought four novels by Hemingway. As plain-spoken as you can get, I thought. I also wrote him letters, describing, in the best English I could muster, my university courses, or my impressions of Israel, or my heady experiences with women, or my thoughts on the upcoming American elections. He wrote back in grammatically perfect, stilted English, though I noticed as the year went by his style shifted from 19th century intellectual to 20th century. More Hemingway, less Henry James. 

My American friend lost interest, but I continued the visits, at least once a month. His mother cooked elaborate Middle Eastern meals – I later learned the family owned a restaurant/catering business – and we talked about books. One time I brought my then-girlfriend. That was the first time Rafik ventured with us out of his neighborhood. He showed us a hole in the security fence surrounding the Mt. Scopus Hebrew University campus. “Very easy to break into this Israeli place,” he said, ducking under the barbed wire. “A good shortcut for you. Easy as cake,” he said.

“Pie,” I corrected. “Easy as pie.”

“Pie, pie, pie,” he said laughing, delighted, but also clearly disappointed with himself. “Such a funny, difficult language.”

I wondered then, as I’d often wonder in the future, why he didn’t attend Hebrew University, why he contented himself with sneaking under the fence, instead of enrolling and entering through the front gate. He was clearly bright enough – he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met. But for some reason I was afraid to stray into personal topics as if making friends with Rafik wasn’t the point – the point was further adventures, getting to know a real Arab, learning about holes in fences. That year, I didn’t share intimacies with Rafik, didn’t reveal much of my personal life, and didn’t ask about his.

That came two years later when I returned to Israel for what I thought would be Aliyah – immigration. I enrolled in a graduate program at Hebrew University, reunited with a few friends, and found an apartment in the Germany Colony, at the time a relatively cheap, obscure neighborhood.  My third week back, after eating dinner alone at one of the Hebrew University’s many cafeterias, I hiked downhill to Silwan, wound my way through the twisting streets, and knocked on the door of his tall house. I’d been a poor correspondent, waiting months to answer his letters. But I thought of Rafik often and was curious what he was up to. His mother answered the door. She smiled widely, greeted me in Hebrew, then called Rafik in Arabic. He rushed to the door, hugged me tightly, and kissed me on both cheeks. “My best friend,” he said. “You are so welcome here.”

He sounded more Chicago than Jamaica. I wondered if he’d been watching American TV. We settled on the floor cushions and sipped the Turkish coffee that his mother brought. I told him I was back to stay. He nodded, approving. “You have a job,” he said. I shook my head. “No, I’m a full-time student. I have a student visa. I don’t think I’m even allowed to work.”

He interrupted me. “No, no. Not a question. A statement. You have a job. I am giving you a job. You will need a job, no? For money. So you don’t beg from your wealthy parents?”

My parents, of course, were not wealthy, at least not by American standards. But by that point, I was beginning to get Rafik’s deadpan humor, his subtle exaggerations, the way he never laughed when he joked around. I’d planned to live frugally off my savings. I hadn’t thought about a job. But Rafik insisted. “You have a job,” he repeated.

The job was in a hotel – in meshekh bayit, housekeeping. Rafik had a family connection with the kitchen director. It was a new hotel, desperate for workers and willing to pay foreigners in cash, under the table. For six months, I teamed up with Rafik, scrubbing toilets, vacuuming rugs, sweeping up cigarette butts from non-smoking rooms, tossing out used condoms, and pocketing tips. 

I hesitate to say we became close in those months, although sponging away vomit with a partner can create camaraderie. I never invited Rafik to my apartment in the German Colony, partly because I wasn’t sure how he’d feel seeing my Arab house in a formerly Palestinian neighborhood. I didn’t even consider introducing him to my mother, brother, and sisters when they came to visit. I never met his father, or, for that matter, anyone in his family other than his mother, or any of his friends from the neighborhood. I didn’t learn about his family business for another ten years. I will say, with some mix of shame and pride, that it was while we cleaned bathrooms together that I stopped seeing him as “my Palestinian friend,” a fascinating, exotic touristy leftover from my year abroad. He became, instead, a valued colleague, an interesting friend, someone I cared about, whose company I enjoyed, regardless of his ethnicity. 

Oh, and we got smoked together, at least once a week, on the roof of his house, after work on Thursdays, and sometimes on Saturdays. He supplied the hashish. I never asked where he got it. While stoned beyond anything I’d ever encountered (and would ever encounter again) we engaged in some of the deepest conversations I’d ever enjoyed. We discussed the possibility of alien life, of the Fermi paradox. He shared with me his theories of how and why God chose to disappear. I guided him through Charlie Manson’s interpretations of the Beatles' lyrics. He explained to me why King Lear was his favorite work in English – because “nothing can be sadder than a hoar head father carrying the body of his daughter.” 

We never discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was clearly on our minds. I was a graduate student in International Relations, writing a master’s thesis on American policy in the Middle East. Rafik read at least three newspapers every morning, in three different languages. He was the brightest person I knew. And, of course, the conflict-affected him every day - walking to work through Jewish neighborhoods, cashing his paycheck using his Jerusalem identity card, writing letters to his jailed relatives, imprisoned for fighting the occupation. But up on his roof, stoned, staring at the starry sky, we stuck to Nietzsche and Bob Dylan. We both sensed that politics would blow up our friendship. Philosophers on the roof, I thought, one unseasonably warm evening in December. Afraid we’ll topple off if we collide with the wrong topic. 

That collision came fifteen years later. My Aliyah had failed. I moved back to the United States. After two aimless years, I reengaged with my religious self and enrolled in Rabbinical School. Rafik and I exchanged letters for almost a year. I sent books – Scott Turow, Thomas Wolfe, Allegra Goodman, Graham Greene. He wrote long missives about his days mopping floors – no one, I was sure, could wring so much poetry from housecleaning. But I remained unskilled at staying in touch with faraway friends, and anyway, my hotel relationships only reminded me that my dream of living in Israel had collapsed. Eventually, he stopped writing. When I returned to Jerusalem for my third year of rabbinical school I didn’t look up Rafik. I stayed away from the hotel, crossing the street and averting my eyes if my path brought me near it.  As a budding rabbi, the idea of visiting Silwan seemed as strange as popping into Damascus for a day. After that year, my only visits to Israel were as a rabbi leading congregational trips (we stayed in much less fancy hotels), or attending conferences. The stoned nights with Rafik on his Silwan roof seemed like a Borges fiction, surreal adventures that happened to someone else. 

But towards the end of my thirties, I flew to Israel to visit my mother, who was spending a year in Jerusalem. It was my first time back alone, no congregants, no colleagues, no wife. My mother studied during the days, and sometimes evenings, leaving me with lots of spare time. I took long, nostalgia-bathed walks through my old haunts – the German Colony, Mt. Scopus, Givat Ram, Bakaa, Neve Schechter. Former girlfriends lurked in the shadows of my mind; along with old friends – now Olim - from Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, and India. After one long hike, I ducked into my former hotel to use the bathroom. The thought that Rafik might be in there cleaning the sinks popped into my head. He wasn’t, but the image was enough. The next day I walked to Silwan.

This was the mid-1990’s, between the first and second, deadlier Intifada. It wasn’t yet physically dangerous for a Yarmulke-clad rabbi/tourist to walk through an Arab neighborhood, but I did draw some suspicious stares. The boys kicking soccer balls against the houses could have been the same children I saw fifteen years before, same jeans, same t-shirts decorated with 70’s band names – Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, The Eagles. But time had passed. I didn’t recognize Rafik at first when he opened the door. He looked taller, though that might have been a change in posture or a trick of memory. But he’d grown a thick black mustache and was dressed like a men’s clothing salesman, a blue blazer, black slacks, bright red tie. He knew me right away. “Philip,” he said instantly, and I remembered that, apart from one grandmother, he was the only person in the world to call me “Philip.” He drew me in for an embrace and I noticed that he even smelled more like an adult, with a lemony cologne, or aftershave. 

“No fancy meal for you today, my friend,” he told me after he’d sat me down on the familiar scarlet cushions and handed me a hot glass of mint tea. “My mother, she is. . .” He stopped and looked down. “She has passed away.”

“Oh, Rafik. I’m so sorry.”

“My father, also. Six months later.” He looked at me and smiled enigmatically. “But there is good news. I am the owner of this house. And the business.”

He filled me in, sharing personal information for the first time in our relationship. After the death of his father, the family catering company went to Rafik and his brother and sister (I didn’t know he had a sister). Rafik, however, had no interest in food (“except, you know, for eating”), so his siblings ran the company. Rafik worked at. . . the hotel!

“No!” I said. We laughed. “But Rafik,” I said. “You’re not. . .”

“Scrubbing toilets? No, my friend. I am now the boss of those who scrubs the toilets.” He nodded at me. “And you, Philip?” 

Am I scrubbing toilets? I thought. But I knew what he meant. He was looking at my baby blue knit kippah, a gift from my wife, and cocking his head in curiosity. During our months scrubbing floors he knew me as a secular Jew from Cleveland who sometimes spent Saturdays with him smoking hashish. I never told him about my religious past, my rabbi father, my many Orthodox relatives. I never told him anything about myself. I took a breath. “I’m a rabbi,” I said. “Not,” I added quickly, “an Orthodox rabbi. I’m, well, a Conservative rabbi.” As if Rafik were well versed in American Judaism’s doctrinal differences. As if the distinction mattered in Silwan. But maybe he was. Maybe it did.

He nodded, then flashed the same enigmatic smile, as if he were contemplating a joke I would never understand. “Mazal Tov,” he said, lifting his glass of tea.

“To you, also.”

I was in the middle of telling him the story of how I met my wife when he interrupted me. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.

I looked at him.

“So sorry to interrupt, Philip. I must go to work. But, first, on the way, a walk. I will show you something.”

We turned left at the end of his alley and headed downhill, toward the City of David. The sun was setting over the walls of the Old City, reflecting a golden light across the Hinnom valley. I felt, as I sometimes did when walking through Jerusalem, that I was strolling through a postcard or a folk tale. But when we reached the bottom, the western border of Silwan, just before the ancient ruins of the archeological park, Rafik put out his hand, like a traffic cop. I stopped. He pointed.

I saw a colorful, hand-painted sign, with Hebrew letters. It said, “Welcome to the Yemenite Village.” Rafik signaled to me and we walked to the end of the street. The final three houses on the block looked slightly different than the others. For one thing, they each had mezuzahs on their doorposts. And their front doors were decorated with family names, in blue and white Mosaic tiles – the kind you can buy in souvenir shops all over Jerusalem, and especially the Old City. 

“Jews?” I said. 

He nodded. “Just three. Here in the neighborhood.”

I watched the houses, wondering for a moment why Rafik wanted me to see them. But really I knew why. 

“Yemenite Village,” Rafik pronounced. “Does it seem to you, Philip, that we are in Yemen?”

I chuckled. Was I supposed to answer?

“Am I now a Yemenite?” Rafik said.

I later discovered that this was the beginning of a Jewish settlement project in Silwan. The Jewish activists buying up houses used the old Hebrew name for the neighborhood – The Yemenite Village. But at the time, I had no idea what these mezuzahs and mosaics were doing at the bottom of this hill, in this Palestinian neighborhood. But I saw Rafik’s face slowly change. His thin lips, the top one now covered with a black mustache, curved downward into a frown. His cheeks turned red. He opened his brown eyes widely and focused them on me. He balled his hands into fists.

“They are moving into Silwan,” he said softly, almost a whisper. I turned from his gaze and studied the three houses. Feldman. Greenblatt. Eisen. Not exactly Yemenite names, I thought. 

“They don’t have other places to live?” Rafik said, talking quickly, his tone shifting, the volume and speed increasing. “There are no other neighborhoods for Jews to settle in Jerusalem?” He looked at me. “You have no other places to live?”

“Whoa,” I said. “Rafik, wait a second. I live in Massachusetts. This isn’t me. I don’t know anything about this.”

He stared at me for perhaps another second, maybe shorter. The sun, orange, and gold, continued to sink under the Old City walls. Rafik smiled, exhaled. “Of course,” he said. “It’s just, well you can imagine, can you not? Upsetting.”

“Of course.”

That night Rafik took me to a fancy restaurant in the German Colony. My old neighborhood had become the East Village of Jerusalem, with funky shops and cute, expensive eateries. Rafik chatted with our young attractive waitress in Hebrew. She laughed when he joked that his parents would be upset to learn he was dating a rabbi. She turned to me and asked if we were really dating. I stumbled through denial in my suddenly broken Hebrew. Rafik stared at me after the waitress took our order.

“You’ve forgotten how to speak Hebrew?”

“Well,” I said, embarrassed. “I don’t live here anymore. So I don’t use it.”

He shook his head. “This is not right for you, a rabbi. Rusty Hebrew? You should visit more often, Philip. Every year, at least. And, please, always, come by and see me. Please? Every year. I so value our friendship. Next year, yes? Next year in Silwan.”

It wasn’t next year in Silwan, but this time we did manage to stay in touch – easier, now that we were both using email. We met for lunch near the hotel at least once every trip I took to Israel. But I never visited his house. I didn’t want a repeat of our stroll to the bottom of his neighborhood, and we both realized that Silwan was likely no longer safe for me.

In 2010 I started attending summer sessions at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The program included lunch and evening events, which left less time for Rafik. Or maybe, I thought, this friendship – this relationship – had run its course. Rafik seemed bored and barely comprehending when I described my job as an American pastor. “You are a social worker,” he said one time. “We have those. We don’t call them clergy.” I was even less interested in his work organizing cleaning operations at his now elite hotel. We tried our old trick of discussing books, but Rafik told me he wasn’t reading English novels anymore. He’d already mastered the language, so what was the point? I wondered, of course, if we’d hit a conversation dead end because of the elephant in the room – the conflict, the Occupation, Jews in Silwan. Maybe, I thought, that brief moment of rage I saw on his face when he pointed accusingly at the Jewish mezuzahs in the “Yemenite Village,” and then turned to interrogate me, was the real Rafik, and we wouldn’t resume any intimate friendship until I acknowledged and probed that anger. But my relationship with Rafik was based on my own naïve romantic memories of that sad and beautiful time before my life resolved into coherence before I figured out what to do with myself. We were two boys on a roof, hashish smoke floating toward the sun, talking Hemmingway and Pink Floyd and Graham Greene, as far from the Israel-Palestine mess that two humans could be who happened to be sitting at the heart of it. I sensed then, and I knew now, that politics would ruin it, even the politics of his own neighborhood.

But one summer, I took a Hartman tour of Jerusalem. The point of these excursions was to introduce us to various viewpoints, from the far left to the far right, so we could hear from everyone, and work through our own syntheses. An Oleh from Australia led the tour through the Old City. He focused – in a positive way; he was bragging - on the Jewish project to buy houses in the Arab parts of the city. He confused some of us by referring to a neighborhood he called “The Old Jewish Quarter,” where several Jewish families had bought homes. It took me a while to realize he was talking about the Muslim Quarter but using an old Jewish name for the area (that I’d never heard). Later he told us that his organization was also purchasing houses in the Yemenite Village.

“What’s the Yemenite Village?” someone asked.

“Silwan,” I whispered softly to myself, as our guide pointed across the valley. “By Ir David (City of David),” the guide said. “Those houses on that hill.”

“Oh,” the man responded. “You mean Silwan.”

“Well, we don’t call it that. We use the original name when Jews lived there. We call it the Yemenite Village.”

I studied the guide, with his knit kippa, jeans, and blue polo shirt. I considered his fluent Anglo-Saxon English, his obvious love for Israel despite the fact that he was born far away. In so many ways, I was like him. He was even roughly my height, my weight, my age. But did Rafik understand that I was fundamentally different than this guy?  That I opposed evicting Arabs from their homes? I hated the nefarious plots to purchase the deeds to these houses?  That I despised the project of Judaizing Palestinian neighborhoods? That re-writing history by changing the names of Arab neighborhoods was repellent to me, and, frankly, silly? 

That night I phoned Rafik. “I want you to know that I understand your anger about Jews moving into Silwan. I do. Really. I’m angry, too.”

He paused. “I’m glad, Philip.”

“I just don’t know what to do about it. What I can do.”

He paused again. I pictured him smiling slyly, as he often did as if he knew more than he was letting on, and found it amusing that I hadn’t figured it out yet. “I don’t know either,” he said. “I don’t know what you can do about it.” I thought I heard the old edge return to his voice. But it disappeared by the second sentence. And maybe I was only imagining it in the first place.

I remembered that rage years later, this past spring, when, during the recent Gaza fighting, the New York Times featured an article about Silwan on its front page. By this time, Rafik and I were only exchanging emails two or three times a year. For health reasons, I stopped working full time, stopped visiting Israel, and was teaching two classes at the local Jewish day school. Rafik was a year away from retiring and poised to leave Silwan, maybe for Haifa, maybe London. The Times article, like many others, traced the Gaza missiles to Jewish attempts to acquire houses in Sheikh Jarrah, another Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Unlike other accounts I’d seen those few weeks, this piece noted the similar Judaizing project in Silwan, which had been going on for more than twenty years. Most of the article told the story of a Jewish family somehow acquiring the deed to the ground floor of a four-story home. A Palestinian man had built the building. He lived with his family on the top floors. The Jewish family claimed ownership to the entire house, and was attempting to evict the Arab residents, using Israeli courts. I was astonished to find my eyes filling with tears as I tried to read the article, to follow the tortured legal and moral logic that moved the Jewish family. I gave up reading. All I could think of was Rafik, pointing to the houses, pointing at me, rage just below his surface equanimity, ready to burst. “There are no other neighborhoods for Jews to settle in Jerusalem?” he’d asked. “You have no other places to live?” he’d added, implicating me. Good questions. Among the most important to contemplate, it seems to me, for every Zionist lover of Israel, for anyone seeking to understand our forever war.

The last time I saw Rafik in person was in 2014. Another Gaza war had broken out that summer, coinciding with my yearly summer study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Talbieh, a formerly Arab, now Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Sirens blared that hot July and August whenever missiles flew toward Jerusalem, a call to take cover, in shelters, or, more often, in doorways, or stairwells, or just under some roof, like in an ice cream store, if you’re caught, like I was once, at an outdoor concert. On my last day in the country, I had to check out of my Airbnb apartment early in the morning, but my flight didn’t leave until late that evening. Normally, I’d have killed the time by walking the streets, soaking in the atmosphere of my favorite city in the world, drinking coffee or beer in outdoor cafes, maybe visit the Kotel. But I wanted to be near a shelter in case a Hamas terrorist decided to send a missile my way. I thought of Rafik and the hotel. 

I found him in his office, a corner suite befitting a corporate vice president. His secretary announced to me. I laughed when I saw him, with his expensive suit, his silk maroon tie, his shiny brown loafers. “Ever get the urge to clean one of these bathrooms?” I asked. “Every day,” he answered. “But I resist temptation.” We embraced.

At lunch, we spent an hour discussing the novels of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert. I told him the rumor that some famous director was planning a remake of Dune. The first one, I told him, was considered among the worst American movies of all time.  He laughed. He’d seen the film and kind of liked it. Over coffee and baklava, I asked him about his family, his wife, and four children. It seemed like a polite way to wind down the conversation. 

“We will leave Silwan,” he said.

I nodded. I wasn’t surprised. Silwan was a poor, crowded neighborhood. From what I could see, Rafik had prospered. Why not escape the cramped, conflict-ridden ghetto, the malodorous alleys, the dusty kids playing in the street, and live someplace worthy of a man of his means? I myself somehow ended up in La Jolla, California, a wealthy section of San Diego. I was about to say something along those lines, but he interrupted me.

“Tell me, Philip,” he said. “Do you agree with all this?”

“All this?” I asked. That’s when I saw him lightly touch his bread knife.

“The killing. The bombing. You know how many Arabs. . . Palestinians have been killed in this Gaza invasion? How many civilians? One thousand.”

I nodded. I knew. There would be hundreds more before the next ceasefire, still several weeks in the future. “Rafik,” I said. “Of course, it’s terrible. Of course, I don’t agree.” I was about to say something about Israelis also suffering. That four young Jews had been kidnapped and murdered. Or that Hamas shared some of the blame. Fortunately, he interrupted me. At that moment, it wouldn’t have been a wise thing to say.

“And Silwan. Silwan. My neighborhood.” He gripped his knife. “You’ve seen it recently? The Jews are now working their way up the hill. More evictions. My cousin. My aunt. Evicted by Jews. You agree with this? This is justice? This is friendship?”

He went on for another ten minutes, his voice slowly rising, his face shining red against his graying mustache. Radicalized, I thought, as he preached and gesticulated. This is how it happens. He talked about Jews vandalizing a small public park at the bottom of the hill where children play soccer. About loud singing on Friday afternoons then amplified music on Saturday nights. Rumors of hundreds more families moving in, evicting Arabs. “You have no other places in this country?” he demanded of me. “Nowhere else to go?”

That’s when I stopped him. “Wait, Rafik,” I said. I held up my hand. He looked at me, then turned his eyes down, embarrassed. “What are you doing here, with me?” I asked. “Are you trying to convince me? Because I’m already convinced. It’s a weakness I have. I can always see all sides to an argument, so I end up agreeing with whoever is talking to me. So you’ve convinced me. You’re right, they’re wrong. But I’m not the one you’ve got to convince. I’m going back to San Diego. You live here. You work with Israelis, with Jews every day. This is eating you up. I’m worried about you. Somehow you have to learn to live with this.”

He took a breath, looked at me. Exhaled. Smiled, slyly. The red glow of rage faded from his face. All was calm. “Of course,” he said. “Of course, you’re right.” He shook his head. “I look at you now. We were so young when we met. Listen, Philip, your friendship means so much to me. I want to stay friends. Can we leave it at that?”

I nodded. But I said “No. We can’t leave it at that. But maybe it’s a way to begin.” 

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One thought on “Next Year in Silwan

  1. Philip, this piece touched my heart. The only way to change the path of this never-ending war seems to be through individual relationships. Thank you and please keep us posted if there is a next chapter.

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