In 1967, a few months after the Six-Day War, I stopped in Beirut, Lebanon, on my way back from a trip to India. This was eight years before the Lebanese Civil War, and the city was incredibly beautiful — especially near the shore. The quiet harbor water was deep blue. A little further down the coast, the color was a light blue-green, punctuated by small stretches of white foam from gentle waves. The water looked welcoming. I remember thinking how crazy it was for people to be fighting in the presence of a sea that seemed ready to embrace us all as humans.
Before I left for the beach, the lady who ran the small hotel where I was staying had taken me aside and asked where I was going. She apologized for interfering with my visit, saying she was concerned. I told her I wanted to see the beach.
“If you want to go there,” she said, “you’d better wear a headscarf. I can loan you one of mine. The people in that section are mostly Muslim and very orthodox.”
She showed me how to wrap the scarf so that it crossed under my chin and tied in the back. Looking in a mirror, I saw that it was much more becoming than the way I had previously worn a kerchief or babushka tied in front. When she saw that, she relaxed and smiled.
This lady had shoulder-length, wavy hair and a warm expression. She was very hospitable, acting like she needed to take care of me in her country and appreciating my presence at the same time.
From the beach, I saw older men with white cotton robes and matching turbans behind a low wall on the adjoining road. It struck me that they were walking with spirited pride in their heritage.
The next afternoon, I ate in a small, outdoor restaurant, covered by a cloth awning. It held only two or three tables. The owner came over and asked if he could join me. He was wearing slacks and a Western-style shirt and was probably Christian. His wife was serving some type of fancy rice and tea. As I recall, it tasted good. I think it had a chicken base with vegetables.
The man asked me what my religion was, and I said I was Jewish. He seemed slightly shocked. “I’m Palestinian,” he said after a pause. He looked like he was thinking of the depth of human tragedy.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. My tone must have suggested I felt meeting a Palestinian was something special.
“That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting,” he said.
I’m not sure where my reaction came from. At this time, I was very tuned in to Israel as a source of religious and cultural meaning. I had just finished a master’s painting project on Jewish ceremonial art and a thesis on the Dura-Europos Synagogue murals. However, I was aware of a common Middle Eastern heritage (partly because the Israelites in those murals showed it). I think I also felt the sacredness of people displaced and surviving.
We talked further. At one point, his wife said something to him in Arabic.
“She’s saying we should eat and drink tea,” he told me with a half-smile.
I don’t recall what I said about my own background. However, an image of the place and some of his words stayed in my mind.
“I can live here,” he said. “But I’m not a full citizen. Possibly I could become one, but it wouldn’t make me feel right. I get homesick. I want to go home.” He said he felt adrift, un-centered. “But I’m not willing to kill for it.”
I felt his sense of loss and lack of ease. At that moment, I only zeroed in on his feelings, not thinking of their international implications.
“I hope it will be possible someday,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “But thank you for the thought.”
A different conversation with a man in Beirut was less sanguine. I mentioned the beauty of the water but didn’t get a chance to go into the part about how war seemed like madness next to it.
“It’s even more beautiful further south,” he said. “That area has been taken over by demons. But we’re going to get rid of them.”
I didn’t reply because I was a little confused, thinking he was referring to a mythic concept of some kind. He was, but not in the way I imagined.
In 2006, during the Israeli-Hezbollah war, I thought of the restaurant owner again. I was reminded of him by the grief, hurt and trauma I heard in the voice of a leader in northern Lebanon. He was speaking in a radio interview.
“If they want to fight Hezbollah, that’s fine,” he said, “but why did they have to destroy Lebanon?” His voice broke into tears. Then he went on to say that Lebanon would recover.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted some beautiful photos she had taken on a visit to Israel. One of the most telling was a view from the Christian section of Jerusalem, with adjoining stalls in a market, and the wide, outdoor stairway. I’d like to do a painting of it. The images said everything about the meaning of Jerusalem to Israelis as well as their resilience and the willingness of many to share what they could, if allowed to do so.
But putting it all together — as the American Embassy opened with prayers by a pastor who thinks it’s fine to say Jews and Muslims are going to hell, while Gazans living under impossible conditions tried to storm the Israeli border and get shot — I could only feel terrible grief.
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Edna Garte is a member of Congregation Shir Tikvah and recently retired from teaching courses on diverse arts and cultures (including Jewish traditions) at Oakland Community College.