It was an ordinary day in the 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. Most of us kept working without pay. We were optimists in the midst of disaster.
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.
The lira was in free fall. 180% inflation is hard to imagine. The value of your paycheck disappears between breakfast and lunch, so your best bet is to spend every cent immediately, then spend more.
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 … and sects I never heard of plus more than a few wannabe Messiahs. I sang along with the Muzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, loved the traditions, the clothing, the markets, everything. Not everyone loved me.
French Hill, where I worked is a pleasant neighborhood at the northeastern edge of Jerusalem. Good schools. It’s 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, turns the city into a sauna.
It was August, perhaps the 10th day of an extended khamsin. Almost nobody had air-conditioning in those days. Under normal weather condition in the desert, when you step into shade, the temperature drops 25 or more degrees. The air is so dry it doesn’t hold heat.
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 was air-conditioned. It was a Ford Escort with a tiny 1.3 liter engine, but the A/C worked pretty well. Which is why I volunteered to take the pages from the office to the typesetter in Givat Zeev.
Jerusalem sits atop a mountain. 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 the words “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. That’s right, I didn’t lock the doors. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as break 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. I was sure I knew something. By 1987, I knew there were no answers … and I knew nothing.