First of all, it was poppy season.
It was poppy season in Palestine and it was poppy season in California. For all that separated the two places, this particular flower makes everybody happy. It’s California’s state flower, and Erin and I always point them out to each other along the roadsides as though the neon orange blossoms are rare birds. In Sebastiya, when I asked the driver what they were called in Arabic (Hanoon falasteen, he said), he began pointing them out to my father and me with the same low-key enthusiasm.
Among a wider population of Palestinians with their typical Arab friendliness, Nabulsi people are famous for being the nicest of all. During the time when the poppies were blooming on hillsides, we were also walking around the Old City, wondering at the bushes growing from the buildings’ broken, fertile-seeming mortar. The bushes on the walls were bursting with little yellow flowers that grew over the graffiti and bullet marks and martyr posters.
Things are going well for Nablus right now. The checkpoint wasn’t backed up, the markets are stocked, and the gradual reconstruction of fifteen-year-old damage continues. It’s not quite a tourist destination, but people often passed my father and me in the streets with a murmured, “Welcome to Nablus.”
I’d been imagining this place since the Second Intifada brought Palestine back into the news. It was not long after 9/11, the year I graduated from college, and the year in which being part-Arab once again became a source of defensive pride. Now I was traveling on an Elizabeth George Foundation grant to do location research for a novel I’ve been writing since forever. But I wasn’t here to write about politics, not directly.
Nablus is an ancient soap-making city, and I wanted to see the soap factories. A simple bar of soap—made from nothing more than olive oil, barilla ashes, and the area’s salty water—is a window on the deep life of its origins: its terrain, history, and family dynasties. Big economic and political currents have always flowed through Nablus; today, these trade routes are now paved highways, bottlenecked with military checkpoints.
It’s amazing what you can absorb. While I was busy taking notes and interviewing people and trying to navigate conversations without slipping up and mentioning my wife, the other reality of the place was nevertheless working its way under the surface of my skin, like burrs. People were friendly and helpful, and yet a conversation could turn as quickly as the city’s narrow alleyways, splicing trauma into the middle of, say, an unrelated conversation about studying Spanish. To a man (and they were all men), they wanted to make sure I understood what I was seeing.
The scenes came from all over the West Bank, but especially Nablus: the bombed-out house that killed an entire family. The humiliating, ludicrous footpaths that forced Arab pedestrians to walk the entire way around a giant highway checkpoint because they’re not allowed to set foot on the road. The settlements on hilltops as far as the eye can see: built as de facto guard posts, even though they have suburban-looking pools and green parks. In West Jerusalem, the painted car, driven by two men in white thobes, blasting earsplitting music at the people waiting to leave the Holocaust museum. The separation wall following every curve and mountainside. In the Balata refugee camp, black swastikas drawn on a white door, put there to insult the IDF soldiers who barge into random houses in the middle of the night. And around the corner from the swastikas, a mural that read LOVE in English, being painted by refugee camp teenagers.
In Al-Azariya, one sight stands out above the rest. It was a thoroughfare through a chaos of mechanic shops, refrigerator lots, and heaps of scrap metal. But then I looked up and beheld a second-floor window framing a gauzy wedding dress as wide as a pontoon boat, as though the shop were advertising purity itself.
It was too much to try to think about from in the middle of it. There is no easy way of sorting out cause and effect, let alone what to call the place where you’re standing. Streets and towns frequently carry one name in Hebrew and another in Arabic. So while in Nablus, I did the best I could and swallowed all this for later. I swallowed important facts about my life so that all the kindhearted people I talked to wouldn’t think less of me for being gay. The effort of stuffing everything away, including myself, manifested indirectly: even after miles of walking with my father, all I wanted to do was go outside and exercise. I wanted to put on shorts and a tank top and my running shoes and go breathe the sweet, spring air. I wanted to sprint all the way from the bottom of Nablus to the top of it and back down the other side.
It was exactly the thing a woman in Nablus can’t do. It’s a conservative city. Most women wear long coats and headscarves, and even the Christians wear long sleeves and muted clothing. My running gear would be the equivalent of streaking naked through the souq. So I kept getting distracted by my body, the buzzing, muscular nausea that would not go away. Trying to get rid of it, I did pushups in the hotel room. I ran in place. I did hundreds of jumping jacks. On the windowsill, a pigeon turned in fancy little circles for his reflection in the glass, looking saner than me. When I learned on the last day that there was a women’s swim center just outside the city, I felt like I’d passed within an arm’s reach of the one thing that would have cleared my head and answered all my questions about everything.
We left Nablus the week after we arrived. The trip would be over soon, so I’d booked two full days in Tel Aviv. I was tired of exploring, so my hope was to sit in the room and take notes; write until it was time to get on a plane and fly home. But the first thing I did besides eat an entire pizza was run five miles up the beach each day, swim in the seawater swimming pool, and do exercises on one of the workout stations in the sand. Inside, I was boiling at the raw injustice I’d seen in the West Bank, while all around me, Israelis and others were, like me, exercising our bodies all over the place wearing whatever we damn well pleased. Freedom, it seemed, came down to so little and so much: what you can do with your body. I had a white-appearing American body with an American passport and my father’s Anglo-Saxon name.
It was easy (too easy) to examine the occupation from an imagined, Solomon-like distance. More difficult was realizing that the privileges that I’d been critiquing felt uneasily familiar. Specifically, everything that made Tel Aviv as comfortable as California had a more observable cost in the compact space of Israel and Palestine: gorgeous public pools, gay restaurants and bars, cute bakeries, tourist-friendly urban planning, the construction sites in the city and in settlements, all worked by Arab labor. What’s remains to think about, then, is not the freedoms themselves but unequal access to them.
As I tried to sort out my thoughts, I felt my mind caught in two adjacent chambers. Picture a double-barreled shotgun, or better, an infinity symbol: two closed circles that touch but do not communicate. In the chamber on one side were the things that felt risky to say aloud in Israel: e.g., mentioning my mother’s family name to airport security, which was better-known in Nablus than I’d expected, or my feelings of queasy complicity in accessing Tel Aviv’s carefree luxuries. In the chamber on the other side were the things that felt risky to say aloud in Palestine: my orientation, or more fundamentally, everyday stories involving my wife. While preparing for this trip, which was so essential to writing my novel, I’d found nightmare-heartbreak stories like Randa Jarrar’s “Imagining Myself in Palestine” in Guernica. Because of them, I went as an evasive, silent visitor. This is not a very harmful way to be, so long as it’s temporary; but it made me reflect on how my own ingrained evasions shape my perspective, my way of being in the world, and my way of imagining the future. This journey, which provoked two very different sets of evasions in me, was confounding. The only thing that connected them was the impulse to attract as little notice as possible, which I fulfilled by scrubbing away my family name, my blood, my spouse, and my opinions from my internet profiles before the trip and from my speech during it.
What kind of future would it be for a Palestinian to be open and unafraid about her culture in Israel? What kind of future would it be for a person to be openly gay in Palestine? These feel like different problems, existing in separate spaces, a hard either/or. But at the highest level, they are all one piece. They are a single question about how to create a shared cultural territory where human rights are valued consistently, without prejudice or exception. What is possible in a future where each person is free to live in their own life as a full body and a full personality?
Back in the US, in our own dank miasma, it takes real spiritual energy to imagine what such an answer might begin to sound like. All I know is that if you’re listening, it isn’t a bunch of clichés. It’s not somebody else’s words. It isn’t silence.
Politics is depressing. It’s nicer to look at flowers. The thing about poppies is that they are both extremely vibrant and extremely delicate.
The driver picks one of the blossoms from the ruins of a Roman temple. “Hanoon,” he says.
I pause on the stone steps, trying to find a safe home for my poppy, fumbling its fine stem into the strap of my camera bag. “Hanoon,” I say. “Jamila jeddan.” Very pretty—though it is already beginning to wilt.
We are both uncomfortable conversing in the other’s language. Questions tend to fall off into a distressed, uncomprehending silence. So we walk up the hillside, slipping into an easier mode of just naming what we see in Arabic and English: okra, almond tree, poppy, lizard, mustard, poppy, sparrow, olive tree. Poppies, hanoon, poppies. It becomes a mild, cheerful refrain in two languages.
In the comfortable stretches of quiet, our shoes crunch against the gravel path, the wind rushes through the high grass, and a lizard scrabbles away, vanishing behind a broken wall.