“To see what names he would give them” – Palestine, Pt. 1
A few days before I left New York, one of my best friends came to visit. She was in for a tattoo convention and, at night after dinner, she gave me an excuse to go out to the water by the apartment. We were in Morningside Heights, crossing into Harlem, and lights made a path out onto the river. It was windy enough for jackets, but just so.
The benches were empty, except where a few couples necked, and we ambled, then sat and reminisced, then ambled some more and she pointed to the lights across the water and asked where that was. I couldn’t tell her.
We joked and told stories each of us already knew, and she pointed to a nearby bridge, asking what that was. I hazarded a few guesses (RFK, George Washington) when in reality, I had no idea. To make up for it, I pointed out the ice skating rink and the park for children a ways up the path towards the 160s. And we walked back and I told her of all the familiar haunts, all the places I went to for dinner during finals (Peking Garden, McDonalds, Subway). But I felt more than a little bit of shame at not being able to name any of the things towards which she had inclined her head.
Earlier today, on the ride from the Airport Hotel in Jordan past Amman towards the King Hussein Bridge, I watched the orchards breeze by and couldn’t name what grew on them. Then came the shrubbery that dotted the French Vanilla-colored hills, and I couldn’t name that either. Nor did I know what the hills were when they grew into mountains that flanked our coiled snake’s path through the countryside. There were goats and goatherders and colorful trucks with ‘Toyota’ emblazoned on the back. There were plainclothes policemen perched by the cliff’s edge and tractors on the road and drivers chancing a break past them at their own peril.
The Jordanian security stop was a quiet wait, and the bus ride across the bridge, which seemed much smaller for how much I’d built it up in my head, was uneventful. And when the Star of David replaced the Jordanian flags, I was still in the same unaffected daze that had afflicted me ever since Heathrow. A daze punctured briefly during that flight from London to Amman when the screen on my travel map lit up with the label ‘Palestinian Territories’ as we flew over the West Bank.
Entry into Israel wasn’t the harrowed affair I’d expected it to be, and to my confused surprise, I think I saw China Miéville waiting in the lobby with me. I was never sure.
But the hilly landscape past the Israeli border, a repaired image on the other side of the fractured mirror that had Jordan in the rear view, I couldn’t name either.
Signs, once the bus approached Jerusalem, aided me; or, at least, the English subtitles to the Hebrew script did. And by the time I made it to Damascus Gate, things had settled, and I retired to a café on Salah Din Street where my ride, some time later, accompanied by a close friend, picked me up.
Much of the day after that was filled with him driving us around, naming the different neighborhoods as we passed through them, indicating with an inclined head the tower that the Palestinian Legislative Council had not used since 2006, the various office buildings where we would be working, and the best places for coffee and shisha and ice cream.
At one spot, our car perched on a slope, we looked out over the vast undulating hills in the distance and the houses and apartment buildings embedded in them. I thought I saw, silhouetted against the gray-gold firmament, a massive crucifix that, upon closer examination, turned out to be a crane.
Before coming here, I’d ceded much mental real estate over to the issue of what to call this place when I would arrive. The King Hussein Bridge to the Jordanians is the Allenby Bridge to the Israelis. The West Bank is part of the Territories, the Occupied Territories, or the Palestinian Territories, or Israel, depending on who you’re conversing/arguing/joking with. What things were called, in my head, seemed of great importance and here I was, unable, through my own ignorance, to name the very things in my backyard.
At the same time, whether you call it shisha or argileh has no bearing on how good that bit of vertigo from the first hit feels. And whether the sun gilds the underbelly of cirrus clouds over mountains you can name or mountains you can’t does not make the sight any less reaffirming.
The children hanging off the rusted wreckage of a broken car because there are no public parks here do not disappear or self-destruct because you don’t know what to call those children (shebab? gamin?) or what you would name a park that doesn’t exist.
So perhaps it doesn’t matter, this inability to name things. The guilt, however, coiled in my belly like that mountainside road winding towards the Bridge, whispers in my ear that it is otherwise.