DAILY PROMPT: NO SAFE PLACE?

JerusalemOldCitySepia-3French Hill was a suburb of Jerusalem where I managed a weekly English-language newspaper. I had fallen into the job when the previous editor quit after his paycheck bounced. Twice. Me too, but I wanted the paper to succeed, and was willing to work for free if we might save it.

The newspaper was broke. No money to pay anyone, but I loved running a newspaper. It was the most fun I ever had — professionally. I had an editor, a proofreader, and an art director … and a bankrupt publisher. Her money had kept us in business for a year. We hadn’t gotten the advertisers or investors. Not surprising. The Israeli economy was a disaster.

Israel was in turmoil, Years of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, an awful economy, soaring temperatures. The predominantly Arab areas were seething. The Jewish population was none too happy either. It was bad, but when has it been otherwise?

Jerusalem’s diversity is part of what gives it its unique character. The Jewish population is diverse — from secular and anti-religious, to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. There are also Christians of every stripe, every flavor of Islam. Bahai, Samaritans … sects I never heard of plus more than a few wannabe Messiahs. I sang along with the Muzzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, the traditions, clothing, markets, everything.

French Hill is at the northeastern edge of Jerusalem. Good schools. Atop a hill so you can catch a breeze, if there is one. In the summer, Jerusalem simmers as the khamsin, super-heated sandy air masses from the Sahara, turn the city into a sauna.

It was August, perhaps the 10th day of an extended khamsin. Almost nobody had air-conditioning in those days. During khamsin, heat never eases. The air is thick, hot, sandy. Night is as bad as day. Airless. Fans make it worse. If you can’t get out-of-town, find a pool or get to a beach, your best bet is to close your windows and lie on the tile floor wearing as little as possible trying not to breathe. People get crazy when it’s that hot, even people who are normally friendly to one another.

Trying to keep the newspaper alive, there was no escape for me. Except for my car, which had air-conditioning. Which is why I volunteered to take the pages from the office to the typesetter in Givat Zeev.

Jerusalem sits on the top of a mountain, a mile above sea level. There’s a rumor the city has just one road, but it winds a lot. If you keep driving, you’ll get there eventually. Not quite accurate. You can get close — but close can be far.

I’ve no sense of direction at all. When I hear “You can’t miss it,” I know I will miss it. This is how I wound up in downtown Ramallah in the middle of a mini-uprising in late August 1983  I didn’t know what was going on, but I was pretty sure I shouldn’t be there. Fight? Uh, no, I don’t think so. Flight? I was lost. Go where? I stopped the car, pulled to the curb and sat there. No idea what to do next.

A few moments later, two Arab gentlemen jumped into the car with me. No, I didn’t lock the doors. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as smash the windows.  Was I about to be murdered? Abducted?

“You are lost,” the man in the front seat said.

“Oh, very much,” I agreed. The two men conferred in Arabic. I picked up a couple of words, one of them being “American.”

“Okay,” said the man in the front seat. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I responded. We swapped places. He took the wheel and drove me back to French Hill.

“You must be more careful,” he chided me. “You mustn’t go into dangerous places.” I thanked him with all my heart. He smiled, and the two of them headed back, on foot, to Ramallah. Offering them a lift didn’t seem quite the thing to do.

I never felt endangered, though probably I had been. It was the end of the times when Arabs and Jews could talk to each other, even be friends. I am sad when I think of friends I had in Bethlehem who asked me to stop visiting them because it put them in danger to have an Israeli in their house. There came a time when I could no longer go shopping in the Old City or Bethlehem, when Jewish children could no longer safely play with Arab children.

I lived there for nine years. There has been so much wrong on all sides for so many years it’s impossible to figure out a solution to which all would agree. I don’t see peace on the horizon. There are not just two sides to this conflict; there are an infinite number of sides. I chose to come home to the U.S. The longer I stayed in Israel, the less I understood.

I arrived in Israel in 1978 believing I had some answers, that I knew something. By 1987 , I knew there were no answers and I knew nothing.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

40 thoughts on “DAILY PROMPT: NO SAFE PLACE?”

    1. Mostly, it’s sad. Tragic. So many of us wanted to be friends but it was too dangerous for everyone, even children. Imagine how painful it is to have to explain to your kids that they can’t play with those children because it’s dangerous, someone might shoot them or you. I had to do it because it really WAS dangerous. It still made me feel like the worst hypocrite ever born. As is true everywhere, people in power don’t want problems solved. They want to keep their power … and as long as they are in the driver’s seat, nothing will be fixed. It’s like asking politicians to vote for campaign finance reform (but much worse). Yeah, right, like that’s going to happen.

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    1. I loved being in Israel, but in the end I knew where home was and it wasn’t there. It’s such a terribly troubled region. Everyone is right. Everyone is wrong. And there are no answers.

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              1. Pretty sad for sure. I have been an activist for more than a decade and I HATE when other people try to tell me I am “left”, “right” or any other label. None apply and if more people understood that is a picking “sides” mentality that dissuades for the issues themselves…well you know what I mean.

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                1. I do. I also am very frustrated at the hyper polarization which eliminates dialogue. It’s stupid and self-destructive. Even people with whom you don’t agree sometimes have good ideas … if you are willing to hear them.

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                  1. yes, unfortunately I put technology at the top of the list as to why we have this hyper-engagement dynamic. I write about here often. WE are as small as the worlds we surround ourselves in. I choose to live in a BIG world of many ideas, opinions and beliefs. I am OK with agreeing to disagree, on most things. I am also OK with being OPEN to the possibility I may be wrong about my own ideas, thoughts and beliefs.

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  1. Beautiful post – on the grace and open hearts we find everywhere, and how sad it is when politics comes before kindness…this reminds me of a wonderful documentary, “Promises”, on helping kids from Palestine and Jerusalem meet each other.

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    1. Thing is, they did meet. And they llked each other. But it was dangerous. Palestinian fanatics would kill their own for fraternizing … and “collaborating” could bring down the wrath of the Israeli establishment on Jews and Palestinians. The price of trying to be normal people, to be friendly and just enjoy each others’ company was much too high. I believe if you eliminated the politics and the money from the equation, folks coulld live together in harmony or even better. But the politics of the region are lethal. You don’t get to choose, not these days.

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  2. Obviously glad that you got the help you needed at that time. I remember the troubles in Northern Ireland and how one of the efforts to build bridges between communities was to get the children to play soccer together. Wish more could be done in Israel.

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