Turning the misery of being dispossessed of their country into something good, many Palestinians have travelled the world over. They travelled and travelled until there was no more money to travel, or no more places to reach out. As they travelled more, they came to know many cities, as I did. The further they go, the closer to Palestine they get. I travelled a lot and fell for many cities. I don’t know if I was doing the right thing. But always driven by what H. C. Andersen once said: ‘To travel is to live’! When I travel, I write about the newly loved cities and the new friends I make in them. The more cities I visited the closer to Bethlehem, my city, I became. The below are three letters about cities and people.
Dear Ahmad, (Damascus)
I had tears in my eyes. Your unexpected phone call made me shudder. I felt the hair on my head and arms rising … literally! Your voice took me to those wonderful days, unravelling those thick layers of memories. Twenty-four years have past since we last met. What a mean life to separate us like this. All those years I thought you were dead. And I once wrote an unpublished obituary for you and our plan to liberate Palestine. It is amazing that you still remember vividly the details of that plan to defeat Israel.
We both still remember the ‘trio’: Ahmad, Mohamad and I; three close friends during high school in the late 1970s in Amman, Jordan. Born to change the world, nothing could stop us from doing what we wanted. In fact, the world was waiting for us! It was our mission to rescue all the oppressed peoples, not only in Palestine but all over the globe. We had three nicknames that easily spoke of our political belief. Yours, Ahmad, was Guevara, Mohamad’s was Carlos and mine was Castro. You were the striking force, Mohamad was the conspirator and financier and I was the man of letters!
We were busy thinking about the gloomy destiny of the world. Of course we did not care much about our studies. We cared more about two immediate destinies right around us. The first one was the destiny of the females in the nearby high school. Our hearts were theirs. We would make two daily pilgrimages around the school, in the morning and in the afternoon. The green striped uniform of the schoolgirls made an ever-lasting imprint on our brains. A spot that is one meter down our brains’ level, that is below our belts, was left with even a harder imprint! I wrote many letters to many of those girls. I was a pen-for-hire for my friends. In return for a bottle of Pepsi-Cola and a sandwich, I would write love letters. I bragged that any girl in the school would melt like an ice cream if targeted with one of my love letters.
But the second pressing destiny that haunted us was that of Palestine. We got fed up with the scandalous failure of the Arab governments and the divided Palestinian factions to liberate Palestine. We decided to take up the mission. We evolved a plan. If we surrounded Israel from all directions by revolutionary governments then we could easily squash it in the middle. Our problem as Palestinians and Arabs was all those Western-affiliated puppet regimes. They would do nothing against Israel. They feared it, but the three of us did not of course. And more than that those puppet rulers feared losing their positions of power most. They would sacrifice Palestine and their own countries to preserve their rule. So part one of the plan was to replace them, and encircle Palestine with true revolutionary regimes. Part two was to launch war against Israel and liberate Palestine once and for all. Part three was for us to enjoy our victory, and get applauded by all those beautiful girls at the nearby school! In our young mind, the two destinies merge into each other!
In part one of the plan, you Ahmad, or should I say Guevara, would leave Jordan and go to Lebanon. Your mission is to take over the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the PLO, dismiss Yaser Arafat, and unite the relentlessly fragmented Palestinian factions. There in Lebanon you would create a revolutionary regime combining the new PLO, under your leadership of course, and a newly established and leftwing Lebanese government. Mohamad, that’s Carlos, would move to Syria. He would organise a military coup and get rid of the Bathist regime there and bring about a truly revolutionary government. I, that’s Castro, would stay in Jordan and organise another military coup against the Jordanian monarchy which is no more than a Western tool against Arab and Palestinian aspirations.
But before ending high school you Ahmad headed to Lebanon. You fought Israel in the southern part of the country. You got wounded and a couple of years later we lost contact. I thought you were killed. Mohamad, that is Carlos, who was supposed to bring down the regime in Syria left for America to continue his studies. Soon after finishing his studies, he was driving by capitalist dreams! Obviously he forgot about the revolution and our plan to liberate Palestine. In fact, I did the same! I, too, forgot about our trio-closed Marxist revolution, but joined another one. I became a fundamentalist at the university where I finished my first degree. I left Jordan to go to West Africa, where I became ideologically confused, then moved to Europe. There I stopped being an Islamist. Instead, I started searching for what I really don’t know! Wandering between cities and leaving them. In Berlin I received a slap in the face and rediscovered Bethlehem. I then started writing un-read letters. I vowed to your memories Guevara and all those old good days at high school that one day I would collect those letters. I will dedicate them to you, to my Ahmad whom by now I don’t know if he is really alive or was calling me while dead laughing and dreaming of the revolution.
You wouldn’t believe it. I write to you from Wadi Foukeen, my village near Bethlehem. And guess what: my sister’s house is now ‘wired’ and has got Internet access. Her kids can now say good morning to the outside world. My village lies by the so-called Green Line that divides the so-called Israel from the so-called West Bank. Half of my grandfather’s land with hundreds of olive trees, as that of the rest of the old villagers here, was lost in the 1948 war and got included behind that Line. Since then it has become part of what would be called Israel. Because of that war and the one that followed in 1967 half of the inhabitants of my village left their homes, including my grandfather and his family.
Anyway my friend, we are now in the year 2005. And what I can see through the window of my sister’s living room is the ugliest thing you could ever imagine: a huge concrete settlement that functions as part of a concrete imposing wall that encloses all the villages in the area. It only leaves a narrow passage for their people to reach Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. Everybody here hates this edifice of discrimination. Why do such walls elsewhere fall down but in Palestine a vile new one is up? all wonders here!
I guess you ask how come I think of you here and now. OK, yesterday I visited the only school in the village, the elementary school where my sister Najah teaches. Her colleagues wanted to meet her brother, me, who came all the way from London to visit. I was so joyful as everyone was so welcoming to me. On the wall of one of the classes, Thomas, I read these words: ‘The Wall in Berlin was destroyed, and the Wall in Palestine will be destroyed too.’ I was overwhelmed. For a moment, and I don’t know why, I imagined you next to me, looking at and reading those words, as if you could read and understand Arabic.
Reading the name of your city, Berlin, in my remote and nearly unknown village surprised me. I bet you nobody in Berlin would know the name, or anything, about Wadi Foukeen, my village. And you know what, I just wonder too how many of all these little kids here know what and where Berlin is? But for me, and you know that, I fell in love with your city from the first visit. Since that day when you showed me around, I have kept warm memories. The thing that I loved most about the guided tour you gave me around Berlin was the idea of stepping on the traces of that gruesome wall that used to divide your city. I was happy but a bit saddened too: happy, of course, to see that the wall had gone. Listening to your comments about the places, streets, cafes and their histories was wonderful. Seeing life blossom anew above the no-man’s-land of the wall was spiritual, no doubt.
But there was something else in the air. Your immersion in the small details of your city made me discover something missing in me. I realised that I was a man without a city. There was no city for me to take people around and show them. My early departure from Bethlehem had left my attachment to it more notional than real. When I left Bethlehem I was only four years old. I hardly remember anything, and I never thought that it was necessary anyway. To be honest with you, my feelings towards Bethlehem are mixed, and maybe I will explain that to you later.
Leaving Palestine, I moved and lived in many cities, and continents. I created a theory to console myself and justify living in the present, whatever present it was at the time: I’m a timeless and cityless man. I belong to nowhere and to everywhere. I move between cities. I love them or dislike them. I stay in them or I leave them, just like an unfaithful lover. That tour of Berlin you took me on destroyed my theory and arrogance, Thomas. It left me as an orphan. A lonely man thrown in the middle of the wilderness, without a place, without a city. Since your tour I repented my faithlessness to Bethlehem and decided to go search for it!
You may have already forgotten about me. It has been almost ten years by now. But I didn’t forget you, your family and your city. It is me, Khaled, the Jesus-look-alike guy from Bethlehem! I was amused by the wonderment in your eyes when you heard that I was from Bethlehem. A sweet feeling it was, uplifting and really satisfying. Funnily enough, at the dinner in your house, surrounded by you, your husband and your two little kids, I felt a little like Jesus. Those eyes around the table were exploring me. Your shy husband could not help but ask how it could be that I was a Muslim from Bethlehem. He also was curious about the interior of the Church of the Nativity. Suddenly, I felt ashamed inside. I had never visited ‘my city’ as an adult. I could not tell him a lot. I struggled hard to remember what I had read in some books. And yet, looking like Jesus, everything I said to him was received with such deep reverence and conviction.
When I spent a few nights in the nearby monastery, there was a portrait of Jesus in my room. I kept staring at his face - a beautiful face for sure. But, I remember that you were slightly shocked that the real Jesus would look more like me than the Jesus in the portrait. It was a new fact for you that his hair should be dark, not blonde, and his eyes brown not blue. Alas, the loveliest thing about him is his being from my city. He is my bridge to you and the world. I hid my doubts and qualms with all religions and gods when I spoke to you. All the time I had blamed God and questioned his wisdom in crowding Palestine with so many prophets. It is a very narrow strip of land to be crammed with so many prophets and sacred texts. Over centuries, the followers of these prophets have fought each other for absurd reasons. I keep pondering whether we might have lived in more peace had the prophets been better distributed across the four corners of the world!
Khaled Hroub keeps wandering around cities, falling in love with them, buffing shishas in their cafés and exploring the limitlessness of being human and Palestinian. He is grateful to what makes that possible, including his specialty in political Islam and Arab media and culture, along with his academic life with Cambridge University, Birzeit University and Northwestern University/Qatar.