Up in smoke

It felt inappropriate to visit Saleh now that his wife and kids were gone, and I was scared to be there alone.

meet arab friend 248.88 (photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
meet arab friend 248.88
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
I was lolling about in a heat and jet-lag induced haze my first day back in Tel Aviv when the phone rang. "Welcome home," a man said in Hebrew, the "r" curled thick with an Arab accent. "Mi zeh?" "Saleh." Though I was alone, my throat and chest flushed with embarrassment. We hadn't spoken on the phone since Operation Cast Lead. Why hadn't I been in touch? Why did his call catch me off-guard? And why didn't I recognize his voice anymore? We'd been close in our former American lives, so Saleh didn't ask these questions. Instead he asked me when I was coming to visit his village in the north again. I was last there in early December. Saleh cooked a belated Thanksgiving feast on a mangal(barbecue) in the stairwell outside his apartment. His wife, an American and a friend of mine from graduate school, sat with us on the steps. Their two kids ran amok with their Arabic-speaking cousins in the street below. Saleh's nephew delivered a six-pack to us, cloaked in a black plastic bag. We ducked inside the apartment to take clandestine gulps, our conversation and drinking interrupted only by the call to prayer coming from the village mosque. After dinner, Saleh led me to the roof, pointed to the mountains that lay beyond the village. "Those are the real caves of the patriarchs," he said with a mischievous smile. "That's where our Abraham was." In the morning, we had black coffee, labaneh, hummus, pita, and olives. We sat on the floor of the apartment that Saleh's parents have kept, empty and waiting for him and his family, for years. Though the apartment had almost no furniture, it felt like a home - full of voices and laughter. Not long after my visit, Saleh's wife and children went back to the United States. He was barred from following them, turned away at the airport because of a hiccup with his visa. He returned again to the village he hasn't lived in for twenty years to wait out the ensuing bureaucratic mess. Now he wanted me - a friend from the culture he's become more comfortable in, a link to the country and life he misses - to come visit. I imagined Saleh alone in that empty apartment, without furniture to sit on, without voices to soothe him. My impulse was to say yes. But I thought about it and I hesitated. "I'm exhausted," I said. "We will relax. We will eat, we will hike in the caves, make a bonfire," he offered. "It's a long trip." "My nephew is working on a site in Ramat Gan right now. You can get a ride with him," he said. "That way you won't have to pay for the train, either." My embarrassment turned to guilt. I knew why I didn't want to go to the North. It wasn't just because it felt inappropriate to visit now that his wife and kids were gone. It was because I was scared to be there alone. But just as Saleh couldn't ask me why I hadn't called, I couldn't admit to him why I wasn't going. So I made more excuses and he let me off the hook with a laugh. The next day, I was walking home from the grocery store and I passed a construction site. The laborers were Palestinian and I thought of Saleh, who was once a restaurant owner and who is now, like his nephew, a construction worker. I stared, looking for his nephew's fair skin and blue eyes, for Saleh's thin, dark face. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to explain that we weren't in America anymore, that things were different here, and that I didn't like it, and that I was sorry. But I didn't see either of them. Instead I saw a boy. He couldn't have been more than 12 or 13. He held a cigarette in one hand, a lighter in the other. He seemed unsure of what to do with both. I watched him deciding whether or not to smoke. I thought of Saleh's oldest son, only a couple of years younger than this boy. The boy noticed me. I gestured as though I were smoking and then I wagged my finger at him. And then, without thinking, I followed my impulse. I said, "No," in Arabic. He studied me for a moment. His round eyes, framed with long, black eyelashes, took my face in. He nodded and tucked the cigarette and lighter into the pocket of his jeans. He turned and rejoined the other workers. I remembered then that I was standing on the street in Tel Aviv, staring at a bunch of Palestinian construction workers. I realized that in lingering so long, in telling this boy not to smoke, I'd crossed some unspoken line I didn't understand. But I didn't care.