Feature

A House Divided

A young writer takes a surreal road trip through Israel and the West Bank in search of a legendary house where an Arab and a Jew live together in peace. NMA nominee: Essays

by
• 7,115 words

The McDonald’s in central Jerusalem might not be the best place to meet a Palestinian in a gold Mercedes. After all, the Golden Arches are a prime terrorist target. As I wait, Israeli security forces are standing in front of the restaurant, frisking and unzipping the bags and clothes of breakfast customers. Surely my driver, the Mysterious Mustafa, will be eyed suspiciously.

I do my best Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s a survival technique I’ve picked up the past few days in Jerusalem. Leaning against a post, smoking nonchalantly, following the curve of lips with thumb, I try not to let my terror get the best of me. Mustafa will take me to the Qalandia checkpoint to meet Samer, a Palestinian cameraman from Ramallah. The Israelis won’t let Samer leave the West Bank for “reasons of security.” I have never met Samer, nor Mustafa, though I did talk to Samer on his mobile yesterday evening. I asked him to give me a “tour of Palestinian life” to get a sense of daily life in the West Bank. “A crash course,” I explained, “on the realities of the occupation.”

Go to the McDonald’s near Ben-Yehuda. Wait outside discreetly. At 10 a.m. a gold Mercedes will arrive to take you to the checkpoint.

At 9:59 a.m. a black Mercedes rolls to a stop in front of my black sandals. The black window rolls down—beautiful, tinted, electric.

“Mustafa?” I ask.

“No,” says the driver. “I am Mohammad.” He wears black tinted sunglasses. I think my mind is becoming tinted.

“Get in the car.”

“But what about—”

“Get in.”

I comply. Mohammad puts his foot to the floor, and we careen down the street, screeching around tight city corners. I want to know what happened to Mustafa and the gold Mercedes, but Mohammad is too busy talking in rapid-fire Arabic on his cellphone.

We speed out of the city. I realize that the maps we used to draw in Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto had neglected an important detail: Israel is really damn small. Within five minutes we’re on a highway. Mohammad takes time away from his cellphone to point out Beit Hanina on the left, the so-and-so settlement to the right. Within fifteen minutes we’re stuck in a mess of traffic, going nowhere.

“Where are we?” I ask.

“Checkpoint,” he says, punching numbers into his cellphone.

“Are we really going to drive through this?”

A blue bmw pulls up next to us. Mohammad rolls down his window and proceeds to swear at the driver in Arabic. I know he’s swearing because the only Arabic I know is curses. The two immediately become engaged in a wicked screaming match. Mohammad closes his window.

“What are you fighting about?” I ask.

“We do not fight,” he says. “We scream only because we love each other very much. We are brothers.”

I have grown quite comfortable in the plush leather seats. I have even begun to like Mohammad. I have a good feeling about this bearded man. There is a photograph on the dashboard of his two children wearing Adidas and Nike outfits and one of his wife in a traditional Palestinian wedding dress, framed in a band of red and yellow elastics in the shape of a heart.

“Get out,” Mohammad suddenly commands.

“Where am I going?” I ask.

“Do you have a passport?”

“Yes.” I’m holding onto it for dear life.

“There,” he says, pointing to a group of four soldiers, eighteen, nineteen years old with M-16s, eyes scanning bags and ID badges. “You walk through. There you will find Samer.”

“How the hell am I going to find Samer?” I don’t even know what he looks like. And while there is an hour of traffic trying to get through the checkpoint to the West Bank, there is a lineup at least three hours long on the other side trying to return to Israel.

“You’ll know Samer when you see him,” he says. I want to say to Mohammad: I’ve never been to the West Bank. I don’t want to end up like one of those two mutilated Israeli soldiers captured in Ramallah in 2000, whose lifeless bodies were dragged through the streets and beaten by a mob. I’d rather not become a decapitated moron, a limbless news item. I promised my mother I wouldn’t do anything dangerous on this trip. You had to wait until the fourth year of the intifada to make your first journey to the Holy Land? You had to go now of all times? Mohammad looks at me, tilting his sunglasses down toward the end of his nose. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he asks. I get out. Before I can even say shukran, Mohammad has reversed the Mercedes onto the highway and sped off toward Jerusalem.

March 12, 2004. I have come to Israel to write a play about a divided house. A director in Tel Aviv has expressed interest in the story, which began when a Palestinian friend I’d met in Toronto, Suha, was living in the house in question. It was 1997, and Suha was in Jerusalem studying Israeli land-assessment laws. She had rented a room in a house that was under dispute between an Israeli and a Palestinian family. According to Suha, in 1967 the Abudalo family fled their house because of the Six Day War—they were afraid of the advancing Israeli army. When the Abudalo family returned a month later, they found Shimon and his wife—two Israeli Jews—had occupied the “empty” house. Hassam Abudalo was so incensed he locked himself in his former bedroom for a month and refused to leave. He would sneak out of the bedroom at night to steal supplies from neighbouring construction sites in order to build a shelter for his family. Afraid of getting caught up in the Israeli legal system, Shimon did not complain to the authorities, and the two families, according to Suha, had managed to live together from 1967 until today. Suha and I often talked about the situation in Israel and whether a peaceful solution would ever come about. One day she said to me: “You want to understand the situation? Go to Jerusalem, see this house for yourself.” She wrote down the address.

I bought my ticket to Tel Aviv. And after this tour of the West Bank, I thought I would catch a ride back to Jerusalem and visit the house where Palestinians and Israelis somehow live in peace. I walk through the maze of cars and people toward the checkpoint. Someone sells chai from a silver pot. At the checkpoint an Israeli flag proudly flaps above a mess of concrete, camouflage, and barbed wire. Soldiers scrutinize cars and their occupants, slowly, slowly. There hasn’t been a suicide bombing in some time, and tensions are low, making this one of the “better” days at Qalandia. I pass tables with fake Levi’s, Kelvin Klein T-shirts, homemade orange pop. A tin-roof-covered walkway marks the pedestrian passageway between the Occupied Territories and Israel, and I walk through with other Palestinians. The Israeli soldiers don’t ask for anyone’s passport—who’s going to bomb Ramallah? In the lineup on the opposite side of the checkpoint people have stopped bothering to honk. What’s the point? their eyes say. Life is this waiting. Behind the cars lies an open field of broken glass, blown-out tires, and rusted metal. Home is this junkyard: the West Bank, prologue to a nation. Amid the rubble and chaos stands a man well over six-feet in height with a completely shaved head, wearing a blue-and-white Reebok track suit with red vertical stripes. He spots me immediately and approaches to shake my hand. He smiles goofily.

“Fucking shit,” he says. “Let’s get the hell out of this mess.”

I do not argue with the man they call Samer.

The West Bank. The name conjures images of boys throwing stones at slightly older boys with guns that shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, or grenades. Mothers weeping for their martyred sons, coffins carried through howling crowds.

The West Bank: The big mess everybody and nobody wants.

Samer’s Land Rover is equipped with white armour and bulletproof glass windows. In blue, he has pasted the word “TV” half a dozen times around the vehicle. I feel at once reassured and nervous.

“Are we expecting snipers?” I half joke as he opens the
door for me. He doesn’t smile. “This place is hell, my friend. Welcome. Can I smoke?”

I pull out a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes and offer him one.

“Finally. A fucking Canadian who smokes. Today is already full of miracles.”

I don’t tell him I am new to the habit, that I only started smoking my first night in Jerusalem three days ago. Cigarettes keep you sane, keep you breathing in the here and now.

Samer pulls the Land Rover out of the chaos that is Qalandia checkpoint. Soon enough the tour begins. “This is the refugee camp,” he says, pointing to the ramshackle concrete disasters on our immediate right, “and this is the settlement.” He points farther up the road toward a hill. The buildings are replicated row upon row; white stucco facades, cookie-cutter windows, red-shingled roofing. There is an eeriness to their architecture. The quiet suburbs of North America have been transplanted into an occupied war zone.

“This road is the one the army uses to go from the settlement to start their shooting in the camp,” Samer says, pointing up a hillside.

“When does this happen?”

“Whenever they feel like it.”

We turn up the road and Samer parks in front of the Muqata, Arafat’s compound. Arafat’s compound! We hang out with a couple of Palestinian soldiers who guard the inner gate to where Yasser and Company are holed up. Samer’s the life of the party, cracking jokes, smoking cigarettes, and high-fiving the guys. They know Samer because he’s a cameraman who has been hired by many North American TV networks, including ctv, cbc, and nbc. If there’s anything going on in the West Bank, he’s there—Jenin, Hebron, Nablus—all the hot spots.

The compound is a ghastly collection of ruined buildings. Dangling rebar creates a surreal image: a frozen waterfall that might start to flow at any moment. Behind us, Palestinian soldiers conduct feeble military exercises in the courtyard. They remind me of the Woody Allen film Bananas; the clothes don’t quite fit, and I’m suspicious as to whether their guns actually function. Not that it matters. There is so little left to guard here.

“The Canadian Writer” is how Samer introduces me. I excuse myself and head off in search of a bathroom but discover that the building that might have once housed a toilet has been blown to smithereens. I sidle up beside a broken stone wall and proceed to piss discreetly. Gazing up at Arafat’s bunker, I spot a haggard face behind a small window. The face wears—am I imagining this?—a black and white kaffiyeh. He looks down at me and sees my golden stream of urine. This makes him laugh. I quickly zip up my pants.
Did I just see the man himself? That is, did Yasser Arafat just watch a Jewish tourist piss on his compound?

“Ramallah,” Samer explains as we get back into the Land Rover, “is the paradise of the West Bank. It is quiet. Here there are no problems. Except at the compound.”

I can’t tell if he’s serious or not. He lights our cigarettes with a gold Zippo lighter. I ask him where he got it.

“At the store,” he says, annoyed. As if they don’t have stores in the West Bank or Zippo lighters.

When we stop at a café for lunch, I am embarrassed about the Zippo question. Sitting down on a plastic chair at a wooden table, ordering a Thai chicken sandwich with French fries, I realize I hadn’t expected to encounter the “normal” in the West Bank. A sign for the Palestinian beer, Taybeh, advertises “on tap by the pint.” People sit, talk, read the newspaper, drink coffee. Scenes of ordinary life that aren’t portrayed in the media, yet this is the banality that everyone dreams of—and fights for.

Samer and I discuss politics, sneaking in bites of food between arguments. He launches into his analysis: “Freedom is a very complicated situation. You have to understand that’s all we’re asking for here.”

When Samer talks, he looks you in the eyes. His words sound weary from overuse—the same arguments for too many years. “Before this intifada, you could be sitting in your house, drinking coffee, and say, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem,’ and you could. Now you need special permission to cross with your own car. I have a friend who went from Bethlehem to Ramallah to cover a story. On the way in, the soldiers said it’s okay, you go in, no problem. On the way back, he wasn’t allowed to return to Bethlehem, where he lives, because he had a criminal record. It took him ten days just to get home. The bottom line is power is out of our hands. Some soldiers are easy, some are strict. You don’t know who you’re going to encounter.”

I ask, “What about the need for security, for Israel to defend itself against terrorist attacks? Doesn’t Israel have a right to do this?”

“The justification is bullshit. It’s about controlling a people and keeping them in one spot, isolated, helpless, dependent. Some days the Qalandia checkpoint is only open until seven at night. Other days it’s until midnight. Or it’s twenty-four hours. It’s whatever they want. They make life impossibly unpredictable. We live with complete uncertainty.” Samer adds, “If this wall was about security, they’d have built it at the pre-‘67 borders. Instead, Israel puts it in strategic places to get good farmland and more water.”

I ask him if the average Palestinian supports suicide bombers. I mention the television images of families being honoured when their children choose to be martyrs.

“Listen, when you see a mother on TV saying I am so happy my son blew himself up, this is bullshit. She is saying this is something she supports in order to feel okay about the tragedy she has to live with.”

I don’t buy it.

“Look, we made a film and interviewed the family of a bomber. The kid was brilliant. He was going to the university in Nablus and was thirteen days away from graduation. The kid was top in his class and the first in his family to be in the university. You think his parents were happy when he blew himself up? It took us two hours just to calm them down so we could ask any questions. They live with an emptiness inside them. You can feel it when you walk into their house. Nobody wants this situation.”

We’re headed into murky territory here. “Why aren’t more Palestinian intellectuals speaking out against the violence?” I ask. “Where are the peaceful demonstrations?” “The first intifada was something like this. It was rooted in the universities, and many students and intellectuals spoke up. Since then most of the intellectuals were either arrested or deported by Israel.” He dips a French fry into some ketchup and holds it in front of me like a teacher holds a ruler, or a policeman with a baton. “You have to understand, the second intifada is very different. Most Palestinians, myself included, don’t support the suicide attacks. The bombings advance the political agendas of groups like Hamas. Some believe there is no other choice. The circumstances are terrible. We aren’t allowed to leave the West Bank or Gaza and soon we won’t be allowed to leave our own cities or villages. They are building a cage around us, this ‘separation fence.’ Think about it: people are blowing themselves up to get a country. Do you think we want this situation? It’s the last act of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s shit man, total shit.” Samer pauses, puts down the uneaten French fry, and opts for a Marlboro instead. He offers me one.

“Look, I know you’re a Jew. When you called me from that apartment in Jerusalem, I could tell from the numbers.” Samer lights up. Nobody is paying attention to us in the busy café. I shift in my seat. “Am I going to kill you because of this?” He takes a long drag of his cigarette and stares me in the eyes. He exhales and starts to laugh, “Fucking shit, man, of course not. What matters is whether or not you’re a good person. Which I think you might be.” He throws me his lighter and laughs some more.

I feel like I’ve just passed through another checkpoint. The difference here is that once I have crossed this border with Samer, there is hope for trust, the possibility of friendship. After paying for my lunch Samer takes me to his apartment, which overlooks a valley where more construction is under way. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation, people are still building their futures.

At home, Samer speaks in a different tone, quieter, as he looks out into the valley. “If I didn’t believe in peace, I wouldn’t be here with my family. It won’t happen tomorrow. But when it does, it will be because Israelis and Palestinians have learned to see each other as human beings. As equals.”

Sitting with his wife and two daughters, we drink one pot after another of Arabic coffee—loaded with cardamom and sugar. While we sit contemplating the beautiful view and the apartments being built in the valley, we steer clear of the issue of our beliefs and backgrounds. Life feels utterly fragile at this moment, too precious to pollute with ideology, politics, and history. Samer takes his youngest girl, Sama, onto his lap. She laughs with her entire body, trembling with joy.

It’s a sunny, spring Jerusalem day as I set off to see the house. The almond trees are in flower, and the smell of apricots and oranges fills the air. Hyacinths and irises bloom in the parks while security guards holding bomb-checking devices smile in front of the cafés. I walk to the neighbourhood of Katamon. In my sweaty palm is the address of the divided house: 83 Mekor Chayim.

When I reach Mekor Chayim, I feel like I’m on the outskirts of town, even though it is only a twenty-minute walk from the centre of the city. The section of the street I’m on is quiet and poorly paved. I walk to the end of the street but the numbers only go up to sixty-six. I ask a young woman if she knows where I might find eighty-three, and she looks at me like I’ve asked if two and two add up to five. I stop a young man to ask if any Arabs live in the area—he shakes his head and continues walking. I come to a house at the end of the road. An elderly couple sits outside in their garden drinking lemonade. These people, if any, will know.

“I am looking for a man named Abudalo,” I say. “Have
you heard of him?”

“Abudalo?” asks the woman, stirring sugar into her lemonade,
“It’s an Arab name?”

“Yes.”

“Arabs haven’t lived here since the 1950s.”

“Most of them left in ‘48 or ‘49,” adds the man. He rubs his fingers over his yellowed gums, picking food from his teeth.

“Where did they go?”

“Beit Tzafafa,” the woman answers. Her hands are tough and fleshy. “It’s an Arab village. Just follow the railway tracks south a few hundred metres and you’re there.”

I’m perplexed. Suha would’ve mentioned this. “I have a friend who lived in an Arab house owned by a man named Abudalo. She said it was on Mekor Chayim.”

“That’s this street. And we’re telling you, no Arabs have
lived here for fifty years.”

I’m getting a little frustrated when the man says to his wife, “Why doesn’t he go to Ketter?”

“Who’s Ketter?” I ask.

“Ketter’s lived on this street forever,” she answers, stirring more and more sugar into her lemonade. “Ketter knows everything.”

David Ketter’s house is hidden behind a wall of ivy and wrought iron. He greets me suspiciously, standing on the other side of a two-metre fence. Who sent you? What do you want? he asks with his eyes.

Ketter is a soft-spoken man. When I tell him I’m looking for a house shared between an Arab and a Jew, Ketter raises his right eyebrow. When I mention that the neighbours claim no Arabs have lived in the area since the 1950s, Ketter simply nods his head and strokes his grey moustache, thin above the lip. He wears prescription sunglasses and runs his long fingers through some eucalyptus leaves.

“I don’t know what you are talking about, but perhaps you could come inside and we could look at some maps and figure this out,” he says, more to the flowers than to me.

Ketter’s garden is a work of meticulous symmetry, with cacti growing beside the artfully placed stone footsteps. I sit in the backyard, and he brings out maps and tea. We speak Hebrew, and he encourages me by correcting my grammar, teaching me the words I’d long forgotten since I was a child. Ketter was born in this house in 1931 and fought in every war from 1948 to 1986. He is now retired and spends his days drawing the various weapons he’s fought with over the years. He is also writing a book about the history of his street—a book no one will ever read.

Ketter is a Zionist from the old school. He is secular, detests the religious Zionists immigrating from America, and has a fascination with maps, weapons, and gardening. After various maps from the past five decades reveal no clues, his wife comes outside with a plate of sesame seed cookies. He looks at me, flustered. As far as he’s concerned I must have misunderstood Suha. “This house you are searching for does not exist,” declares Ketter, dipping a sesame cookie into hot, sugary coffee. “We don’t live together, do you understand?”

“But perhaps there’s an exception?”

“Maybe in certain neighbourhoods, in Akko or Yafo,” he says, referring to two cities in Israel with large Arab populations, “but not in the same house. And not on my street!” What baffles Ketter most of all is the idea that there is an Arab landowner on Mekor Chayim. He goes over the maps again and over again.

“I don’t understand how you can be so adamant there will never be peace,” I say, licking the sesame seeds stuck in between my teeth.

“That’s because you are an idiot,” says Ketter, eyes still fixed on the maps.

“Thank you,” I say graciously.

“No offense.” Ketter looks straight at me. “You are Canadian. You have no idea what life is like here. There can never be peace. We must live here, and they want our land.”

“But negotiation?”

“There is none. It is ours historically, and we have won every single war there is to be won. They terrorize us, and now Europe waves its finger and calls us the terrorists. Europe—where all these problems began.” Ketter pauses and looks at the map. “Hold on a second.” I can see the wheels in his head turning. “This Arab you speak of must live in the neighbourhood called Mekor Chayim, not the street. But to find this, I will need another map.”

Bialik Hebrew Day School taught me the borders of Israel as understood by its former citizens—my teachers. We drew one map of the country after another each day in class: for Bible studies, geography, literature, or history. These borders never varied—they were learned by rote as the teacher outlined the country on the blackboard, and we were expected to draw the same map in our books. They were minimally labelled: Jerusalem in the centre, Tel Aviv to the west, Lake Kinneret in the north, the Dead Sea in the south. What were clear were the borders: Sinai and the Red Sea in the southwest, the Mediterranean in the west, Eilat in the south, Lebanon in the north. The Eastern border was always the Jordan River.

Shortly before I left Canada, my mother asked me why I waited until I was thirty to take my first trip to Israel. Part of the answer is in those maps. I could draw the country by heart. I had dreams of these illustrations, my ballpoint pen tracing paper, ink transforming itself magically into landscape. Borders were imprinted into notebooks, my cramped right hand, adolescent dreams. In a way I felt as if I’d already been to Israel. As though maps could replace the smell of almond blossoms, the colour of Jerusalem stone, the sound of rubber bullets sprayed through a crowd.

I have spent the past few days searching the Jerusalem archives, exploring other neighbourhoods—to no avail. I wonder if I have simply willed the house into existence, made Suha’s story into something it isn’t.

Today Ketter has unearthed a map from 1951 that shows an unmarked dead end where there appear to be houses of Arab origin. I make my way there, hiking through a field of yellowed grass, hopping over the old railway tracks. A dirt trail cuts through fields that grow stones, stones, and more stones. Silence—a commodity rarely experienced in this country. Barbed wire, broken fences, abandoned concrete structures punctuate the open space.

I follow the dirt path to a narrow, unpaved road, turn right, and ask a man, white shocked hair, stooped over and digging earth, if he knows where a man named Abudalo lives. He does not stand up. He barks at me and says, “The asshole is over there.”

He points to the other side of the street to a small stone bungalow. The front lawn is littered with broken bricks and burnt rubber tires. There are doors on both sides of the house—I assume separate entrances for each apartment. I choose the one on my right and knock. A woman opens the door slowly, peering out from behind the chain. She is in her mid-thirties and covers her long black hair with a blue headscarf.

“What do you want?” she asks me suspiciously in Hebrew.

“I’ve come to see the house,” I say.

“What house?”

“This one.”

“There’s no room to rent, if that’s what you want.”

“I don’t want to rent a room. I want to see the house. That Suha lived in.”

“Suha? Who’s she?”

“She lived here, seven years ago,” I reply. Quickly I add, “She’s asked me to take a picture of where she lived.”

“I don’t know Suha.”

“You don’t?”

“What did she do wrong?”

“She did nothing. She moved to Canada. We’re friends.”

“You speak English?”

“Yes, of course.”

She starts to talk in English. It’s as though the neutrality
of my native tongue has relieved her—she is calmer now,
and she unchains the door. “Do you want to come inside?”
asks the woman.

Her name is Mary, a Christian Palestinian. She has no idea who Suha is, but is willing to let me take pictures. I take shots of the uneven, sloped floors, of the crooked brick walls. I try to imagine this place with an entire family, but it’s hard to imagine more than one or two people living in it.

“Where is Abudalo?” I ask, assuming Mary is his daughter. “Abudalo lives in the house behind this,” she says. “He owns this house and the house across the street.”

“You mean—there’s more than one house?”

“Abudalo owns three houses.”

So Abudalo is some kind of business tycoon?

There’s a knock on the front door. A man with white spiked hair wearing a navy blue polyester Adidas track suit speaks Arabic to Mary. She translates.

“This is Abudalo,” she says. I am so excited I jump over to him and shake his hand. He is taken aback by my enthusiasm. “He wants to know what you want.”

I give him the Suha story again, this time with a bit more precision. I mention she was studying at a college in Jerusalem.

It doesn’t register.

“Suha?” he says, shrugging his shoulders. He turns to Mary. “Who is Suha?”

“She lived here for a few years,” I say.

Abudalo shrugs his shoulders again. His expression says I don’t know what this crazy foreigner is talking about. I say she shared a house with some other Palestinians and a Jew named Shimon.

“Shimon?” says Mary. “He doesn’t live here.”

“Where does he live?” I ask.

“Across the street.”

She points at the white-haired man who directed me to this place. Things are not making sense.

The “interview” with Abudalo goes nowhere. He’s in a rush and has no idea what I’m after. I manage to get his phone number, and he agrees to sit down for a few hours when he has more time on his hands. Business is very busy right now, Mary explains on his behalf. I try to ask him what he does for a living, but he rushes off to his silver Mercedes convertible and speeds down the dirt road. Hardly the impoverished Palestinian I had been imagining.

I explain to Mary that I am interested in Abudalo’s relationship with Shimon. She starts to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” I ask.

She says, “There is no relationship between the two of them.”

“Haven’t they lived beside each other for years?”

“They never talk.”

I have trouble believing this.

Mary laughs nervously. “What do you care?”

“I’m interested in learning how people live together.”

“Shimon,” she whispers, “he’s worse than Hitler.”

“Hitler?”

“He’s a bad, bad man.”

“Has he murdered someone?”

“I don’t talk to him anymore.”

“Why not?”

She giggles nervously and says, “You must come back and talk to Abudalo. Friday night is his best night.”

Upon leaving the house I feel woozy. I have not drunk any water since early in the morning. The sun beats down on my head. I hit the railway, grass growing between the tracks. Somewhere between the end of Jerusalem and the beginning of Beit Tzafafa—you can see the mosque and barbed wire piercing the cumuli in the soft blue sky—I crawl into what looks like an abandoned caboose, graffitied and silent. I sleep there, in between the Arabic and Hebrew slurs and slogans. I dream the words of the caboose, and the graffiti on the walls start to mingle with each other. They become animated, sentient, sun-wobbled. The phrases start to converse—a slander in Arabic is replied to by a prayer in Hebrew and vice versa. “Go fuck your mother,” “God is 7,” “2000 years hope,” “Jew=Nazi.” Prayers and curses, in brother-languages, sister-gestures. Soon the words are coming out of the mouths of two men, their faces clear in my head. Shimon holds an M-16 on his right shoulder and a Bible in his left hand. Abudalo laughs, rubs sticks of dynamite with his hands as though he were reading Shimon’s fortune. Abudalo and Shimon. Shimon and Abudalo. The two become the words of the caboose, as they yell at each other in this graffiti-language. When I wake up, I see a word in spray-painted black letters on the blue wall of an old house. “Blind,” it says.

Shabbat eve in Jerusalem, and it’s the only night I can get an appointment to see Abudalo. His house is tucked behind Mary’s, hidden by a thick tangle of trees. Abudalo warmly greets me at the door and shakes my hand. He lives in a mansion.

He takes me through the narrow passageway of his house and we walk up three flights of stairs. There is barely enough room to stand in the main third-floor room, crammed as it is with a bizarre array of tourist paraphernalia—paintings of belly dancers from Cairo, wooden dolls from Russia, chopsticks that light up “Beijing” when clicked together. Amid the mess I am invited to sit on a thin and uncomfortable handmade wooden chair—“our best furniture,” Abudalo assures me with a grand hand gesture. He introduces me to his wife, Fathiyah, who smiles meekly. She is dressed all in black—jeans and a sweater. Cookies and coffee are laid out on the table. Mary sits beside me.

Mary informs me that Abudalo remembered Suha not long after I left the other day. She explains that many people have lived in the house since the mid-1990s, and he apologizes for his abruptness the other day. The apology seems odd, out of character.

“You are a writer,” Abudalo says to me in English and
smiles.

I say, “Yes.”

“I am a writer too!” he exclaims.

“You mean publisher,” says Mary.

“I am a writer,” says Abudalo.

“He is a publisher,” says Mary. “He has a printing press downstairs.”

“You will write big article for newspaper,” Abudalo says.

“A play,” I reply.

Abudalo looks at Mary and she provides the necessary translation. He turns to me and clasps his hands. “Theatre!” Abudalo rubs his hands together like a little child.

“Richard Gere.” He points to himself.

“I’ll try my best, but the play hasn’t been written yet.”

Mary tells him this. Abudalo is slightly perturbed. “When will the play be written?” she asks.

“Tell Abudalo I need to find out the story of the house to write the play.”

As soon as this is translated, Abudalo leaps to his feet and exits the room. He returns with a stack of photocopies: visas of him and his wife for their pilgrimage to Mecca, pictures of their apartment in Cairo (which Abudalo claims they cannot get to because the Israelis won’t let them leave the country nor will the Egyptians let them enter theirs), and a bank statement for 1.5 million shekels.

“He would like you to have these documents,” says Mary. Abudalo is smiling profusely.

“For what?” I ask.

“Your research,” Mary says.

With Mary’s assistance, Abudalo launches into the details. “In 1908 my father built the house Shimon now lives in.” At the mention of Shimon’s name, Fathiyah spits on the floor. “In 1948, al Naqba [the catastrophe] occurred.” Abudalo pauses, listening to Mary’s simultaneous translation by staring at her intently, placing his hands firmly on his lap, and nodding in agreement with her every word. “The Jewish army told us we had to leave, so we fled to Beit Tzafafa. After one week we decided to return, only to find that Shimon had moved in.”

“How old were you?”

“Three. We slept outside the house, while Shimon slept inside laughing at us.”

“He is worse than Hitler,” adds Fathiyah.

“My father made plans. He fought back. He would not let the matter rest.”

“He hid himself in the bedroom, right?” I ask.

This sends Abudalo, Fathiyah, and Mary into hysterics. They have a prolonged argument in Arabic, mixed with laughter and much knee-slapping. “This is a story,” says Mary. “Nobody knows if it’s true or not.”

Abudalo says, “Maybe my brothers remember, but we don’t talk to each other.”

“I see.”

“After two weeks his father built a hut right next to Shimon,” Mary says.

“Did he talk to Shimon?”

“There was a lot of shouting.”

“Did they share any of the house?”

Abudalo scratches his head. He doesn’t remember. He does remember his father taking the matter to court. In the intervening years, the Abudalo family built a new house directly across the street from Shimon’s. It was a rushed job, and it’s where Mary lives today. She explains, “After twelve years of fighting in the courts, the judge decided that Shimon could live in the house.”

Abudalo solemnly adds, “My father died because he couldn’t get his house back. He died with a broken heart.” He points his right index finger at the sky and adds, “But the judge said when Shimon dies the house is mine.”

Mary continues, “The problem became worse when Azzulay’s daughter moved in.”

“Who’s Azzulay?”

“Azzulay was a Moroccan Jew. He shared the house with Shimon since 1948. We lived across the street in our house and the Jews lived in theirs.”

“Where’s Azzulay now?”

“He died,” says Fathiyah, pouring teaspoons of sugar into her coffee.

“He died,” says Mary, “and then his estranged daughter from Tel Aviv moved in. Declared the house her rightful inheritance.” Abudalo points to the picture in the newspaper. “When Azzulay’s daughter moved in, Abudalo took her to court. The daughter claimed she’d lived there the past six months. If this could be proven, then the house would become the daughter’s.”

Abudalo adds, “But the truth is she don’t talk to her father for fifteen years. So I say fuck you and I win the case.”

“Then Suha and the other Palestinian moved in—”

“When was this?”

“1997.”

“Are there any Arabs living with Shimon now?”

“No,” Mary says. Abudalo scratches his head.

“And what about the house now?”

“Shimon pays Abudalo rent,” says Mary.

“Very little,” Abudalo says. He adds for good measure, “I wait for him to die.”

“What is your relationship like with Shimon?” I ask.

A pause for heated debate. Mary and Abudalo argue back and forth. Abudalo looks at me with disgust. “We have no relationship,” he says and starts to leave the room.

“No relationship at all?” I ask, following him.

Abudalo stops and says, “I own the land. I own the house. And I own him.”

On the afternoon of the first night of Passover, I return to interview Shimon. The house is narrower than Mary’s bungalow, and I have to pass under a canopy of jasmine to get onto the property. The design is Arabic—several columns frame the porch, supporting the flat roof. When I knock at the door, nobody answers. I take some photographs of the original house where this small history began. In the backyard there are signs of life: white laundry dries on the line. A few toys—trucks, tanks, a plastic tea set—lie scattered about. When I wander through the back gate toward the front, Shimon stands with an armful of groceries.

“What are you doing here?” he asks in Hebrew.

“Forgive me for intruding,” I reply, careful to speak with a strong accent, “I wanted to ask you a few questions.”

“Who are you?” Shimon asks, putting down the groceries. “Who do you work for? What the hell do you want?”

“I want to know the story of this house.”

“Go away.”

“But Shimon—”

“How do you know my name?”

“Abudalo and Suha—”

“You see these two hands? They built this house. Every brick, column, and plank. Then that asshole came and stole it from me.”

“Really?”

“If you don’t leave my property, these two hands will make you.”

“But Shimon—”

“Leave! Or I’ll call the police.”

My feet won’t listen. They’re saying, not yet, there is so much more to find out. “Shimon,” I want to say, “tell me your story.” But the look in Shimon’s eyes, the almost prophetic-like pointing of his finger to the canopied gate, to the road back to the old city, all tell me to leave. And I do.

On the other side of the house Abudalo waters Shimon’s lawn. He sprays his five-year-old grandson.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Writer?”

“I was asking Shimon some questions,” I reply.

This makes Abudalo suddenly angry. “Do not ever talk to that man about this house. Do you understand me?”

“There’s no need to get angry,” I say. “Shimon wouldn’t talk anyway.”

“Just by bringing it up you create problems,” Abudalo says. His grandson hides behind Abudalo’s right leg. Angrily he adds, “Leave us alone. Leave us in peace.”

Dusk. I have spent the final hours of the day trying to interview neighbours about Abudalo and Shimon, but nobody wants to talk. In this never-ending debate over land ownership and rights, of I-was-here-first proclamations, curiosity is unwelcome, and questions about the past are best left unasked. But I want—need—to understand something of this country beyond the maps of my Zionist childhood.

It is likely the strangers I questioned in this maze that is Jerusalem, who laughed at me and shook their heads in disbelief, are right. North American ignoramus said their faces. Perhaps I am still a child in Bialik, looking at everything as if it were a map. Palestinians and Israelis living together in peace? Only on the page.

The theatre director in Tel Aviv is expecting me to bring the beginnings of a play about the house. But there is no new story here, only the one we already know—conflict, hatred, and disputed histories. The idea that I could stumble upon a blueprint for peace now seems ridiculous and naive. But in a country that has been at war with itself for over sixty years and will likely be so for another sixty, a story of peace requires childlike innocence. I don’t want to give in to pessimism. And so I make a promise to myself—to continue travelling through Palestine and Israel, to fill this divided house with a story, one that holds out at least the hope of an answer.

I walk past the house where Shimon and his family live, where candles flicker, and shadows are alive on the walls of the dining room. The night of the Passover Seder, celebration of the passage from slavery to freedom, has begun. I think I can see Shimon rocking back and forth on his chair, reading from his Haggadah. His wife is with him, I imagine, as are his children and grandchildren. What message of freedom are they retelling tonight?