March 06

Something that isn't war

Joanna Steinhardt

I had posted a profile on a site years before and never took it down. There were occasional responses. In one, a man wrote, “We both appreciate silence,” and in fact, we had both written “silence” in the place meant for music. His picture was black, white, and grainy. His eyes appeared nearly translucent, squinting off to the side and out the window of a bus. His hair was combed back.

Blond, Taoist, grammatically correct: I guessed a British journalist. I even guessed his name, which began with a less-common letter of the alphabet that he used to sign his emails, written in fluid prose, gradually revealing his temporary residence in one of the sprawling refugee cities that surround Jerusalem, sealed and monitored, to the north, east, and south of the city, feeding it with cheap bodies that arrive by dawn and leave at sunset, the way an ocean surrounds a peninsula, brimming and retreating daily with the tide.

I’m doing a Masters degree at the university, which sits on Har Hazofim, a strategic lookout point on a hill in the east of Jerusalem where land was bought in 1918 to establish a “university for the Jewish People.” Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Buber were on its first board of governors. Buber, a Jewish philosopher steeped in Hasidism, immigrated to Jerusalem in the thirties in flight from the rising Nazi regime. He opposed modern-day Zionism and felt that the founding of the State of Israel was premature in the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people. On his 85th birthday, he received a cable message from David Ben-Gurion that read: "I honor you and I oppose you." After 1948, the Jordanians took half of Jerusalem, and although Har HaTzofim was in the Eastern side – the Jordanian side – of the city, it stayed in Israeli hands, an outpost in enemy territory, until 1967, when it became part of Israel following the Six Day War.

Today, the university is in the east, surrounded by Arab neighborhoods. Its campus was repeatedly referred to as an “oasis” of coexistence in newspapers, following the bombing of one of its cafeterias in 2001. At the copy center today, a man with a light Russian accent was complaining about the heavy-duty stapler. The man in charge, a middle-aged Arab of sturdy build, told him to wait and then came over – he was a big man with a moustache – and told the Russian to place the stack of papers in the stapler, where he stapled it himself, saying, “You have to push hard, hard!,” and then he said to him, “I’m from Hevron, we have strong hands – You’re from Russia, you’re weak.” Then he said to the Russian, “give me your hand,” putting out his own, and the Russian refused like a small boy—“Lo rotzeh,” he said, “I don’t want to”—and the Arab copy man said, “give me your hand,” and the Russian gave him his hand, and they shook hands, the pale Russian with dark hair and the Arab with a moustache from Hevron, and I smiled, my eyes downcast, a smile of insanity at the strong hands from Hevron and the reluctant hands from Russia, linked momentarily one with the other.

The journalist and I wrote a series of emails. It was a volatile mix of politics, aesthetics, and personal musing – and then suddenly, it stopped. As stealthily as he came disembodied into my world, he disappeared. I put him out of my mind. Blond Taoist of rare letter was another detail washed away by time, and my emails once again flourished with old friends – rants and grievances of the sort of sadness that only those from one’s youth can really hear. On the bus, my favorite site for slipping away into elaborate fantasies, I dreamt of calculating by way of probability the numerical value of my sorrows in Israel. It would be based on a quantitative model that charted my potential for incomprehension due to metonymic vowels and consonants (of which there are thirteen in the Hebrew alef-bet) and a breakdown and classification of social and cultural modes of communication and emotional proximity, along with their values and systemic functions. In my fantasy, I presented this equation, accompanied with an explanation of the method by which I arrived at these numbers, to my anthropology class as a final project, along with an in-depth audio-visual presentation.

It was after my last trip home that I began to feel a refreshing transparency between myself and the people around me, as if the wall of language had finally been broken down and my isolation had come to an end. But slowly I saw that my satisfying sense of achievement had been premature. The glass wall was still there and it wasn’t made of English. Like some ephemeral but essential substance—mist shifting lengthwise around hills, up roads and into valleys—it was dependent on innumerable subtle factors, a constellation of elements that made it highly sensitive to variations in environment and yet, at the same time, stubbornly resourceful and adaptable. It followed me everywhere, all the time, like a cloud.

After a week, I received an email from the journalist: “I at least owe you an explanation,” he wrote, and indeed explained that he had been threatened by militants and didn’t want to risk the chance of being found, somehow, with emails from a Jewish girl in Israel. They thought he was a Jew, and a collaborator, “of which I am neither,” he noted with sad irony, for it was clear – at least from the outside – that he is a sympathizer who gave up security and comfort in order to be close to the Palestinian people and their hardships. I worried for the blond Taoist. He had walked stupidly into the furnace of the Middle East without the insanity of religion to give him succor, some desperate logic for why his blood might spill. He was absent the obscure edge of a transcendent narrative to soften the madness around him. I wrote and told him that if he was ever in trouble, he could call me. I included my phone number.

I was surprised, and more than a bit put off, to find a loquacious, thankful email in response. In it, he quoted the last long message I had written before our short-lived correspondence was suspended. His responses were written methodically beneath the duplicated fragments of my letter. It was as if this chatty piece of mail had gotten stuck in the pneumatic tubes of subterranean communications and had now become suddenly, inexplicably unstuck. I imagined this tangle of logistical channels snaking underneath his city under siege.

His sudden reappearance spurred me to set a date to meet. If he was real, he should be in my life; if he wasn’t in my life, then he wasn’t real. Next weekend, he wrote, he would be in Jerusalem on business and he would call me then.

I realize in retrospect that this image of the blond British reporter came from encounters with British expatriates when I was eighteen and traveling in Greece, but it also had more than a taste of Jewish fantasy: the tall European native, freshness personified, the natural grace of a continent come to life.

So when he called, his voice surprised me with its smallness. He called during class; I turned off my ringer. Outside, in the sunlight, I dialed the number that appeared in my caller log. He answered, “hi,” familiar, soft, almost apologetic. We spoke, I remember, of strangeness because I said, half-joking, that I was a strange stranger at the university, “an alien alien, a foreign foreigner,” I babbled. I told him about Kristeva, who I had read the day before and her chapter on being a stranger, which eerily described my own experience, a sensation I couldn’t articulate in class due to my faulty Hebrew that hampered my otherwise effortless articulation and forced me into a state of unnatural muteness.

“Well, you know,” I said, “it’s not a coincidence that the words are related in most languages,” but funny (although I didn’t say this) that in Hebrew, it’s the opposite: the words for foreign (nokhri) and alienated (m'nukar) are from the same root as the word for familiar (mukar) to be familiar with, to recognize and to know (l'hakir).

I babble in the presence of new friends; silence is reserved for those whom I trust, or want to trust. But trust – trust for me is a form of knowledge. We trust because we know, or think we know. It is related to love but distinct from it, for one can know one’s captor and one can know one’s enemy and this is not necessarily love. There is another feeling, though, that is a bit between the two. This is the familiar strangeness of someone who is loved.

In other words, to love someone is to recognize that he is other and strange. The parts that are incomprehensible, the parts that will never be known, are the mark of our trust, for we love those parts too. This is the darkness that exists between people.

Images: Joanna Steinhardt
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