The Fourth of July – Palestine, Pt. 7

by Tochi

Last night, the girl behind the front desk at the Pizza Hut up the hill told me she missed me. I think perhaps I’ve gone there too often.

I spent Thursday night in Nazareth. Passed more time walking the Old City and the alleged Jesus Trail than exploring the Church of the Annunciation. The city is called the Arab capital of Israel, and even though there are bits of Hebrew signage squeezed in between massive swathes of Arabic script, lights were already hanging from walls and lampposts and roofs to welcome Ramadan.

One of the interns in our group, his family hailed from Nazareth originally. His grandfather had been “removed” in the 1948 conflict, and this kid had talked with a sometimes-blustery militancy about going back and knocking on the front door of whoever’s house it was now and telling them to their face that they were illegally occupying that house. The entirely Arab demographic slowed him down, as I think he expected, hoped even, that there would be Hebrew speakers staring him in the face when he dressed them down.

When he got to the spot, after being directed by an old man who had actually known the kid’s grandfather, prompting tears and nearly an hour spent enjoying the man’s hospitality, he discovered that the lot was now a doctor’s office. There was no one to confront.

And when he told us the story afterwards at a bar, he spent almost no time on the actual sight of his grandfather’s former domicile, but talked at length about the old man who’d verified his past, concretized his roots to the place and made present an ephemeral longing, now displayed for others, that had beforehand only existed in my friend’s heart.

That night, which we’d spent at the facilities of a camp that styled itself as the Palestinian Birthright, we met our overwhelmingly gracious hosts, who exuded more hospitality and genuine warmth at our arrival than I’d experienced in a very long time. They even called in the Mayor of Nazareth to greet us, a slim but sturdy man in a short-sleeved blue button down and black slacks and a salt-and-pepper mustache shading his upper lip.

The following morning, we toured Acre, a port city in Western Galilee that bears the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. We toured the city walls and heard the story of how Napoleon had tried to storm the city after having peevishly shot the muezzin dead during the call to prayer, and how when the city repelled him, he petulantly threw his hat over the wall so that he could say he had stood on Acre. We were told stories also of the Jezzar Pasha Mosque and its origins and our guide pointed to places along the city walls where British Mandate troops hung rabble-rousers and where, towards the city center, decapitations took place.

The city was awash in blues and greens, and the boat we traveled on cut through some of the bluest Mediterranean I’d ever seen. The kids we shared the boat with, part of our tour, sucked us into an impromptu dance party, such was the force of their gravity. During our walk through the souk, some of them, little girls with hearteningly good English and curiosity and puerile joy shining in equal measure in their eyes, grilled us on our origins and told this particular New Yorker to be on the lookout for Selena Gomez, Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus. Before I could reply that Miley Cyrus was somewhere else in America twerking, she started talking about how much she disliked learning Hebrew, how she enjoyed Math and Science and how she had plans to study advanced sciences in university. Another little girl introduced herself, then stuck her hand out, and shook mine vigorously. I half-joked that with a handshake like that, she was going places.

On our balcony, occasionally, we’ll step out to find baby clothes. A pair of black shorts with red stripes down the side, splayed and wrinkled amidst the dust. A white sock. A girl’s blue blouse.

They vanish with identical suddenness. One day, they’re there. A few days later, they’re gone, sometimes replaced by new articles. Where they come from is less a mystery than where they go to.

So I spent the Fourth of July in the city of Christ’s childhood, amongst cherubs who seemed to glow with the place. It may be a while before I celebrate the occasion of my country’s independence with such absurd and blessed serendipity.