By Luta (Moshe) RD BelcherIt was late 2002, my last semester at San Francisco State University. I was about to move back to Humboldt county and finish my classes to earn my Bachelors degree in Political Science from SFSU. All the courses for my major were almost done, and all I needed was a lower division requirement that I could fulfill at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, move back in with my Mom, and save the cash to learn in Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
I was sitting in the front row of the classroom, we were all early for the evening course, Politics of China, to begin. Our professor, Mr. Sujian Guo, was a Chinese and American academic. He had been a career Communist Party of China member that had broken his ties and come to the US in difference to the June fourth Tiananmen Square protests, and subsequent massacre, of 1989. It was his first year at San Francisco State.
I ate my supper, a parve health bar, after quietly saying the bracha; “…Borei mineh mezanot”, to myself. I washed it down with a small, but potent coffee from a paper to-go cup. My neighbor, in the desk to my right, was an attractive young Arab woman, wearing a traditional hajib head covering. I was always open to talking to Muslim, and Arab students and faculty, but the hostility on campus towards Israel, and even to Judaism, by now, was world famous. During the Winter 2000 semester, there was actually a demonstration complete with protestors bearing anti-Israel and US placards, police in riot helmets holding truncheons, and guard barriers when the off-campus Hillel decided to set up a sukkah during Chol HaMoed atop a little knoll in front of the Social Sciences building. Not to mention the infamous May 2 2002 AIPAC Israel support Rally in which Jewish students and faculty were surrounded, spat upon, and threatened for over 20 minutes until SF police arrived to escort them to safety.
She finally broke the ice; “Did you hear the election results in Egypt? Mubarak won by over 90%, something only Allah could achieve.” She smiled sweetly, and her brown eyes engaged mine invitingly. I was flabbergasted. Did she confuse my kipah for a kufi? She was talking to me, an orthodox Jew, the heathen enemy, the infidel, about Middle-Eastern politics as an equal. “No one can win an election in any country with that much of a percentage, it is so fake, and he is such a dinosaur.” She had just the slightest inflection of a chuckle in her soft voice as she spoke.
I learned that her name was Fatima. She was an Egyptian borne national, her parents, both medical researchers, had immigrated to work in the US. Like me, she was studying Political Science and International Relations. It was the first time I had ever had a conversation with a traditional Muslim girl from Egypt.
Over the course of that semester we became good school chums. We exchanged numbers and emails, and helped keep each other in check in the event one of us had to miss a session. We really liked one another, there was not just an unspoken level of tolerance for our differences, but a simpatico, a mutual attraction and admiration. As much as she was traditional, and devout in her religion, she was as forward thinking and modern as any other young woman on campus, but within reasonable boundaries, not unlike a Modern/ Orthodox Jewish woman. We shared the same likes and dislikes. We laughed at the same jokes that no one else in our study group seemed to appreciate as much. We believed in the same G_d, the creator and master of the world.
We did not talk too much about Israel, but she made it very clear to me that she was not so taken with the Palestinian cause, nor was she particularly fond of the influence of Palestinian students over the Muslim Student Union. I told her that I was leaving to study in Israel, and she seemed happy for me, she understood how much it meant for me to go to my ancestral homeland.
Before the summer break, and my journey to Israel, I went back to SFSU in the spring of 2003 to settle my transfer information for the courses at CR. On the way to the parking lot, I encountered Fatima on a walkway. I can still see her eyes against the grey San Francisco/Pacifica skyline. While we discussed what kind of work we could do with our meager little degrees, perhaps as analysts, or as writers, it became clear how much we really liked each other.
There was an unspoken conversation between us, we both had remained apart as our paths were divergent. She was going back to Cairo, only 264 miles (424.8 kilometers) from Jerusalem, less than the distance from San Francisco to Eureka. I was going to study Torah (Talmud) for a year. Her parents had work there, and the economy was booming. I was going as a visitor, perhaps to find a way to immigrate, maybe to meet a Jewish woman, get married, and stay. The coming war in Iraq did not find a place in our conversation, it was not something that would intervene in either of our trajectories.
It would take living in South Africa, many years later, for me to understand that Fatima was a member of an educated, emerging Egyptian middle-class of a North African (Maghreb) country. I only now realize that Fatima represented a growing cadre of young, educated, progressive Egyptians that embraced modernity, and Women’s rights, while at the same time, maintained the faith and tradition of a very comfortable form of Islam. By living in an African country that maintains such a stark discrepancy between the rich and the poor, I now understand that Fatima was a fragile, glimmering light of what Egypt can now become.
As a visitor to a developmental nation that can only offer an advanced education to a privileged few, I now know that people like Fatima represent the future of Africa, and perhaps, part of the Islamic world as well. My time spent in a county that can provide the most modern, highest form of living standards, while at the same time, the great majority of her citizens live in deplorable conditions, has helped me to realize not only how great the United States is in terms of social mobility, of possibility, but that it does not simply happen overnight either. Fatima, my friend, wherever you are now, perhaps in Egypt, or in the United States, I remember you and I think of you often. While our affection for one another was a mere platonic Romeo and Juliet, a short SF State version of West Side Story in a brief period of time, my heart is with you always.Luta (Moshe) RD Belcher is a native of California (Eureka-Humboldt County) who finished college in San Francisco, California. He came to Israel in 2003 to learn in Yeshiva Ohr Somayach and married Angie Sacks, a South African immigrant to Israel. They have two children who were born in Bikur Cholim hospital in Jerusalem in 2006, and 2007. They currently live in Johannesburg.