The Normal Heart
Lessons in love and life from a Muslim driver in an Arab city.
Shady maneuvers (yeah, alleged ones) led to the rise of Donald Trump, and how poetic would the justice be if they lead to his downfall, too? For this American expat watching the circus from abroad, some of the Trump Administration’s shadiest maneuvers have banished Palestinian Arabs to the irrelevant column.
Oh, the shade.
First, in December of last year, Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a status Palestinian Arabs, who claim East Jerusalem as their own capital, have disputed since Israel obtained control of the entire city during 1967’s Six-Day War. Every U.S. President since Bill Clinton has acknowledged both West and East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but Trump seemed to underscore his anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric by putting it in writing.
He didn’t stop there. He also decreed that the U.S. Embassy in Israel would relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which it did in May of this year. Then, this month, he closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington D.C.
A change of mind
Frankly, until I visited the Holy Land in 2013, I was uninformed enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be more or less Team Israel. Years of media spin had taught me to think of Palestinian Arabs solely in terms of the violent acts that the PLO sometimes committed on their behalf: Wasn’t the State of Palestine, established in 1988, basically a country filled with Arab and Muslim terrorists?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Five years ago, I spent a day in Bethlehem, and everything changed. My next life lesson began as soon as I entered a taxi after traveling by bus from Jerusalem to the city best known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
“Do you know the significance of Bethlehem?”
Maybe I hadn’t heard him correctly. Who doesn’t know the significance of Bethlehem? Was he being serious?
His stern poker face as he focused on the road gave him away. My driver , a 41-year-old Kuwait native who considered the State of Palestine — what’s left of it — to be his home and homeland , definitely wasn’t attempting Palestinian humor.
“Of course, I do,” I answered, as we headed towards Bethlehem’s reason for being for most visitors: the Church of the Nativity, an emblem of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim city.
“You have the face of this guy from New York who is my friend on Facebook,” he said, changing the subject, as if he was trying to put me at ease.
I gripped the edge of my shotgun seat, where I’d parked myself after he’d insisted I sit in front of the car instead of in back. I wasn’t sure where our conversation was going, but his mental route soon became as clear as the one he was driving.
“I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama,” he declared, before ranting about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.), which, in his eyes, went back to when the former U.S. President’s oil interests led him to launch the 1990 Gulf War to save the driver’s native country from the clutches of Iraq. So much for gratitude, I thought to myself, though I agreed with most of what he said.
“I hate George Bush, but I love Barack Obama,” he declared, before ranting about the sins of the father (George Bush Sr.).
After we arrived at the tourist information center across the parking lot from the Church of the Nativity, he launched a monologue about Israel vs. Palestine while pointing to a map that showed how the State of Palestine had dwindled between 1948 and 1967. It was exhibits A through D (for the four periods represented on it).
By the time we reached the wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, I knew exactly what he’d meant when he’d mentioned “the significance of Bethlehem.” The Israeli West Bank barrier kept Palestinian Arabs out of their own capital city unless they procured special permission from the Israeli government to enter it.
Encircling and, in a sense, imprisoning residents of Bethlehem, it made the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to the driver, a symbol of the ongoing tension between Israel and Palestine, between the Western world and Islam.
I listened as he spent nearly one hour explaining to me why he was “a man without a country” (referring to his adopted homeland). He talked about how he couldn’t freely enter his own capital city (Jerusalem, considered to be the capital of Israel or the State of Palestine, depending on which you called home) and other key Palestinian cities like Hebron and Jericho.
He said he hoped he’d live to see the dawning of a “separate but equal” peace, one in which the two countries and two religions, Islam and Judaism, could co-exist harmoniously.
He was waiting for the day when Palestinian Arabs would be able to travel freely between the State of Palestine’s cities without having to deal with checkpoints going in and out of the Israeli territory that practically engulfed the patches of remaining Palestinian land.
He name-dropped Nelson Mandela, comparing the plight of Palestinian Arabs to that of African blacks during South Africa’s Apartheid era. Then he shifted continents, calling the Israeli-built blockade their own Berlin Wall.
At the time, the idea of “President Trump” seemed unfathomable, but from the moment Trump mentioned his plans for a physical wall separating the U.S. from Mexico during the 2016 Presidential campaign, I connected it to the one the Israel government began building in 2002, also ostensibly as a protective measure against nationals with darker skin. Facing the wall from the city it blocks off from Jerusalem, it was hard not to see it as a barrier intended to keep Bethlehem’s Palestinian Arabs in their place.
It was a lot to process, and I wanted to be sympathetic without completely letting Palestine off the hook. I’d been conditioned by the media and by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s sometimes-unsavory tactics to think of the only partially recognized state as one that, as U.S. President Donald Trump would say, was truly “compromised by terrorism.”
Facing the wall from the city it blocks off from Jerusalem, it was hard not to see it as a barrier intended to keep Bethlehem’s Palestinian Arabs in their place.
Though I wasn’t misguided enough to buy into the idea that Muslim equals terrorist, the truth was that I, like most Americans, didn’t know enough about the religion, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Everyday life, everyday people
In the end, my day in Bethlehem wouldn’t be all about politics. Walking through the old city solo was a highlight, if only for the fact that it all seemed so… ordinary — in the best possible way. Outsiders generally visit Bethlehem to cross the Church of the Nativity off of their bucket list. Moving away from ground zero for tourists and entering the actual city, I got to experience everyday secular Palestinian reality.
I felt like the only foreigner in a sea of local authenticity as I strolled through the marketplace, watching middle-aged Muslim women checking out hoodies, some adorned with pictures of cats, others with the FOX logo (as in the American TV network and movie studio).
After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to experience the moment, live in it, rather than just document it.
In an environment completely dominated by Arabic — from the music blaring out of speakers everywhere, to the CDs and DVDs on sale, to the language used in the menus of the eateries, to the sound of the holy prayer suddenly becoming audible from some unseen place — the FOX logo was the sole evidence of any awareness of Western pop culture.
I felt guilty taking photos, like an auspicious interloper, a tourism paparazzo. After snapping a few shots, I put the camera away. I wanted to experience the moment, live in it, rather than just document it.
The people brushing past me were no more completely defined by their religion — or what fanatic factions do in the name of it — than the non-holy rollers back home. They were also defined by their own deeds, by their own lives, by their own hearts. I was sure if I could have heard them beating, they would have sounded just like mine.