The People You Meet in Hebron
You will wake up one day, and not be able to remember why you were laughing. What you will remember—three double apple shishas, soft smoke inside your cheeks, Hassin’s teeth spread wide like a crescent moon. You sit at the usual metal tables, which look so new to you after exiting the graffiti-stone walls of the Old City. There are never-ending cups of shy manana, brought out by a waiter who you saw nearly get arrested today during patrol, his jaw set like rock. The night is a reprieve. Hassin teases you, snatches the flip-flop from off your foot and holds it in the air like an Oscar. Knock it off.
Hassin at nineteen is somehow both an old man and a little child at the same time. He has a certain sly smile, a habit of staying up all night and sleeping until five, slipping into his Adidas sandals in time to catch a free dinner at the Christian Peacemaking apartment. He speaks Arabic, English, Hebrew, and French, but refuses to go back to the school he walked out of at fifteen—he tells me his only option is to open a shop selling fake Arab pottery to a few American visitors. He has no way to leave.
You drag on the shisha, and exhale, the soft usual rhythm. Hush, look at the stars. So clear. Hassin murmurs. Alhamdulillah. Praise God.
Is from coastal Southern California, a place you’ve never been, but which you imagine in such a way that she is easily a part. Bright blue peasant blouse, breezy smile—you picture her on a beach somewhere, wind in curly hair. At seventy-two, she is the oldest person on your delegation and she is Filipina, making her the only person of color. At the first jetlagged anti-racism training in a Jerusalem hostel, she’d laughed heartily and poked you in the arm. “Better be extra nice to me, okay?”
Ella sleeps on the floor mat next to yours in the tiny fluorescent program office. She teaches you to play Cat Stevens—a remnant of her boarding school days–on the dusty guitar you uncover in the closet. At 4:34 a.m. nightly, you both fade awake to the sound of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. Halfway between dreaming and waking, its sacred sorrowful sound is stretched taut in the space between your mattresses. You squeeze hands tight, and then you let go.
Will take you through the checkpoints for your first time, a routine you repeat daily until it becomes like breathing—come to the fork in the road past the man who gives you free falafel, turn left, push through the constant grating clang of the turnstile. The soldiers ask Hana to show her Palestinian ID (while you stare at the protective white skin of your wrists), and sometimes inexplicably to take off your hats. Together you decide every morning whether to refuse or comply. You count thirty-two machine guns that first afternoon. Hana has been in Hebron her whole life; she shrugs and says of the soldiers, They’re just babies, like you.
Hana can be a hard-ass—she is not afraid to push the limits of the authorities, is quick to remind you to “cut the crap” on days you are tired or hungry. You develop an immediate and immense respect for her, which grows the day the new graffiti appears outside the Palestinian schoolyard—“Gas the Arabs.” Hana says nothing, puts her face in her hands and weeps.
Is a tall and smiley Quaker from Philadelphia with legs and arms that make up most of his body. You meet him in a hostel when he leans over and asks how hot you think the guy at the front desk is (pretty hot) and then you proceed to bond over the quality of the kitchen’s cappuccino machine (this is not a cappuccino, is it?)
Andy dubs you the Camel-Whisperer the day you go for a walk and return declaring you have “found” a camel. There it is—hanging out on the corner past the shopping district but not quite to the settlements, and the rope around its neck is broken. Andy snorts uncontrollably and snaps a selfie for his tumblr.
Andy is also the first one to call you “habibi” (little darling). He tells you how he walked out of his pray-the-gay-away church in college, and how after that he used to lie in bed and practice breathing. Breathe in (“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God”), and out (“have mercy on me, a sinner”). The day there is tear gas in the main square you watch the rise and fall of his chest, and think the words alongside him.
You will wake up one day with his face in a dream and realize you’ve forgotten his name or perhaps you never learned it. You hiked from Machpela, from Al-Khalil that night, with Hassin, Hana, Ella and Andy, drawn into the desert with a tug in your stomach. This is Firing Zone 918; you aren’t supposed to be here, a fact that for a moment you think makes you cool.
He is wearing a long brown robe cinched with rope, precisely what you’d imagine a picture book shepherd wearing, which surprises you. He invites you over for homemade bread, cheese, and you sit beside him listening to American boxing on an old TV smack in the middle of the Negev. This is Firing Zone 918, but before some official said so, it was his home, now only a red tent, demolished with army bulldozers monthly.
When he speaks he asks you why Americans send the money to fund this, why they don’t want his children to eat, questions you don’t know how to answer. He sighs into his shy manana and stares toward the sheep resting a few yards away. He says “I forgive you.”
Before you sleep, you brush your teeth under more stars than you knew existed, leaving your enemy spit under the olive tree. The specific emptiness of that moment you’ve never been able to explain.
Sunrise turns sharp desert morning. Waking. The sound that at first pulse could have been a bulldozer is the herd of sheep, a hundred little feet hammering the ground. Cold sand in sleeping bags, the dust is becoming you, is already etched into your fingerprints. You rise, taste it on your lips, call the morning good.
Abbie Hudson is from West Michigan, from communion cups and covenants of grace, from summers spent in the south.
loves blues and contra dances, coffee shops, and finding the best swimming hole.
student at Oberlin College and everywhere else traveled to.