My Story: Coffee break

Meeting Hassam and Muhammad is not yet a prototype for peace.

coffee 63 (photo credit:)
coffee 63
(photo credit: )
Today Hassam is four hours late. He phones to say he's waiting in line along with a thousand other cars at the Jenin crossing. There is no special consideration for those coming over to work 'The tiles you chose were made in Spain; came through the border crossing, just like me,' Hassan says Each day Hassam arrives in a freshly ironed shirt and pressed trousers, changes into clothes he leaves in a box in the yard. At the end of the day, he changes back to his fresh clothes. There's no sign of the hours he's spent folded over a fat slab of foam, cementing new tiles over my floors. Hassam lives in Fakua. "On the other side," he says, swinging his arm. "I have to go through the crossing at Jenin. A small village, you know, maybe you've seen it from the Gilboa. It's nice, my village." Muhammad also comes from Fakua. "We both live nearby," he tells me, raising his drill in the direction of Jenin. I look over there with him. He smiles, then returns to work. His drill jumps unevenly, bleats nervously as he pocks the outside walls of my house, cracking the surface, preparing it for stone facing. What I know about Fakua is its hostility; it's not a friendly place. Even when we could go there, I want to say, we were scared. Everyone knew it wasn't friendly, but I don't say all that, I just say: "We haven't visited." We live in Gan Ner, a small village of 650 families, crawling up the western flank of the Gilboa mountains. We purchased our house 10 years ago from one of the founders, one of 25 families from the Ta'anachim settlements just down the road, who wanted to live nearby. We have lived in this part of the Jezreel Valley for almost 35 years, previously in Kibbutz Beit Hashita. Canadian-born, we arrived there in l973, the summer before the Yom Kippur War. Our two daughters grew up in the children's houses; my husband was the dentist, I an English teacher, then director of the kibbutz ulpan. I even cooked in the kitchen, before becoming export secretary of the large pickling plant. We loved the lush beauty of this area. When we left, we wanted to stay nearby, so moved across the street, as it were. We first met our contractor, a Christian Arab, when we added a guest apartment upstairs for our daughters and their families. Our contractor, who has worked in Gan Ner for more than 20 years, has earned a fine reputation as a gentle, creative individual who works with his son and brother and a team of good workers. We so enjoyed this addition to our home, we didn't hesitate to call him again. He brought painters from Nazareth, where he lives. He could have brought other workers and supplies from our side of the Green Line. We didn't know that some of his workers wouldn't be Israeli, nor would some of the materials not be made-in-Israel, or at least purchased-in-Israel. We could have decided this before work got started, but things moved on quickly, before we realized. Hearing that we were expecting visitors from Canada in two weeks, he promised that work on the interior of the house would be completed on time. As each floor was tiled, painters moved in. He started and continued at a great pace. Today Hassam is four hours late. He phones to say he's waiting in line along with a thousand other cars at the Jenin crossing. Every Tuesday families in the West Bank are allowed to come into Israel to visit prisoners in high security jails. Hassam is in line with these families. There is no special consideration for those coming over to work. It's close to noon when he finally reaches the crossing, gets his papers checked. He can't drive over to our side in his car. He must leave it at the crossing. My contractor sends someone out to pick him up. Hassam has been doing this work for 25 years, he tells me. "The tiles you chose were made in Spain; came through the border crossing, just like me," he says. "The papers weren't in order. It took days till permission was granted, till the tiles could be transferred to an Israeli truck." I serve them coffee. Not thick and black-as-tar as theirs. I serve enough sugar and salty crackers with cheese. "American coffee," they say to each other. Sometimes I add fruit. They appreciate, I know they do. They talk about the growth of their village, are happy to have work here, they say, but do not comment on my hesitancy to visit. "We used to work in Beit She'an," Muhammad says. "Work was good there, and we'd swim in the Sakhne." "The intifada stopped that," says Hassam. "Things got bad for all of us." "The intifada was bad for everyone," I say. "I'm glad you have work now. If everyone had work, there would be less fighting." "Yes," we all say. Hassam and Muhammad thank me for the coffee. "Your cups are big," says Hassam. I offer to get a set of their cups as soon as I can. "No need to bother," he says. "We are happy to sit at your table." This scene makes me feel optimistic. But then I see the headlines: Rockets have fallen again in the South. It's a war in every sense. Yet up here, business continues: Workers and materials come back and forth from the West Bank. I realize that meeting Hassam and Muhammad in my house is not yet a prototype for peace in the Middle East.