“I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn…..”*
Part I of a series in progress…. Part II here, Part III forthcoming
In an absolute sense, you never really know what’s true. In the case of second hand stories, you can only relate what you’ve been told.
The year was 2005. I had an eight hour layover in Amsterdam. It was sometime in that cleft between dawn and the start of business hours on a frigid weekday in late winter, and if you’re getting high at that hour it can only be for one of two reasons: because you have a serious drug problem and have been up all night awaiting your chance to smoke, or because you’re a tourist in friggin’ Amsterdam and this just happens to be the time of day your plane landed. Although on that particular day the latter reason was certainly true of me, I was getting high for the former reason.
After a forty-five minute stroll past shuttered storefronts, I happened upon a coffee shop that was open and operating. Beside a squat, bald, mustachioed Turk with greasy facial moles who apparently ran it, the place was empty of customers except for two guys having a conversation in Arabic, whom I sat down next to at the bar.
The one nearest me, on my right, was late-middle aged, stocky but dapper and a tad swarthy, with piercing green eyes, a bulbous nose and a five o’clock shadow. He wore a dark blue trench coat and grey slacks, assiduously polished black leather shoes and a felt fedora, and assessed me guardedly as I pulled out the stool to his left and goofily nodded my unmistakably American amiability. To his right sat a tall, gangly youth with a long, acned face and wavy, greased black hair, wearing skinny jeans, Adidas, and a beige turtle-neck. This younger Arab was adamant about something, intent on his interlocutor and bantering at length a mere inch or two from the right side of the latter’s face. Periodically this older gentleman, staring straight ahead, would indifferently muster a monosyllabic reply before taking a hit off the little green plastic house-bong that stood between them, filthier than a store-sock and giving off little whisps of stale smoke from its top-hole. When the old Arab exhaled, the Turk, stationary behind the bar and leaning against the back wall in front of us with his hands in his pockets, would grimace conspicuously, give a passive-aggressive grunt of objection and slowly, begrudgingly turn his head away from the oncoming cloud.
I paid the harried little Turk for a gram of hashish and set to mixing half of it with the contents of a Winston light, with all the ritualistic lighter-flicking and foil-oragami that entails. Enamored as I was at that age with the contrast Levantine hospitality posed to the American wariness and insincerity I had known all my life, when my mixture was complete I gestured in the direction of the bong and, when the old Arab handed it to me, packet the bowl and passed it back to him. His face registered surprise without breaking the exasperated pallor the younger man’s ranting seemed to have induced, and he lit up, inhaled and passed the bong back to me.
I packed another bowl and offered it to the younger man, who gestured refusal without a let-up in his Arabic banter. So I lit up, and as I exhaled it the older man, in unaccented American, asked “Where you from, kid?”
“From California. I’ve got a layover on my way to Tel Aviv.” That last bit of information was superfluous and intentionally provocative. I have no major objection to the basic Arab view of Israel, at least not on strictly logical grounds. If I was Arab, I’d share it. My objection to that viewpoint, such as it is, is mostly an accident of birth, and I figured that relations with an Arab who isn’t entirely determined to not get along with me are liable, ironically, to be all the more fraternal on that account.
The older man snorted an amused and oddly satisfied chuckle and glanced snidely at his compatriot, frozen of a sudden as though he’d just been slapped in the face.
“Where you guys from?”
“Palestine!” bellowed the youth, also in unaccented American, with a force he perhaps hadn’t anticipated from himself.
“He’s from Los Angeles” the older man, now in better control of his amusement, corrected him. Not being in on the joke, I was starting to feel rather like the object of some conspiratorial roast.
“Oh cool, I’m from Santa Cruz! What do you do in LA?”
The younger man glared at me with unselfconscious hostility. The older one continued, “His family owns some kind of bodega in the hood down there.”
“What brings you to Amsterdam?” I asked the youth.
“I’m on my way to Kuwait” he sullenly replied.
“What’s going on in Kuwait?”
“My uncle owns a business.”
“I see. And is this man your uncle?” I was still concealing my provocations beneath that insoluble veneer of American obliviousness. The older gent let slip a snort that broke into a chuckle.
“No, no, no, we just met in here and this kid” (he pointed with a jerk of his thumb) “started talkin’ Arab at me. I’m from Michigan. Name’s Nazee, nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.
“Likewise; Aaron” I said as we shook hands. His handshake was not lithe but firm and smothering, more midwestern than middle eastern.
“What brings you to Amsterdam?”
“Well, I’m moving to Israel to enlist in the Israeli army.” The younger man’s jaw and brow dropped an inch apiece as if he hadn’t figured his day could get any worse.
“You’re from Santa Cruz and you want to move to the middle east?” asked Nazee. “Why in the hell would you wanna go and do a thing like that?”
“Well, I think it’s a beautiful place.”
“That’s certainly true. But what are you going there to do? I mean, why join the Israeli army? Are you Jewish? Are your parents Israeli?”
“Well, my parents are both American. I’m half-Jewish. A couple years back I lived over there for a few months, and since then I just haven’t been able to think about anything except going back. So I figure, if I learn the language and enlist in the army, that would make me a part of the place. I wouldn’t just be a tourist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ideologue. I’ve got nothing against you people, and I can imagine how you must view an American joining the Israeli army. But I figure once I’ve become a real part of the country, I’ll stay out there and pursue peace in my own way, as a journalist and an author. So I dropped out of college and I’m on my way.”
“Well, I agree that nobody really needs college to make it.” A silent moment passed and the youth recovered from his disbelief and resumed ranting in Arabic. I took another bong hit. Pretty soon they got up, and Nazee said, “My pal and I are going to grab a bite if you wanna come.”
A bit surprised, I threw on my huge backpack and set off with them.
We meandered through the red light district and along the canals for about half an hour, occasionally passing a joint between us. Very little was spoken to me in English. Finally we came to an Arab restaurant where we sat and ordered. As their conversation continued, I got the feeling I was the butt of some joke unbeknown to me. When the food came, I dug in with my hands. “He eats like an Arab!” Nazee exclaimed. The conversation switched to English for awhile. At length we paid our tabs—separately, like good Americans—and got up to accompany the young Palestinian to the train station. As Nazee and I were leaving the platform we’d seen him off from, I said blankly, “Well, he was a nice guy.”
“No he wasn’t. He was making fun of you the whole time.”
“Well, I can understand his resentment. I shouldn’t have said anything about Israel.”
“Look, kid. I got two boys your age, that kid’s age. You’re all a bunch of fucking retards. You’re going to Israel, right?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I can’t respect other people’s feelings.”
“Respect away. But you wanna go work for Sharon and Peres? That’s no joke. Those guys are fucking gangsters, man. Gangsters. Not movie actors, not mixed up kids with silly tattoos. Mass murderers. And you’re softer than rotting fruit. You can’t think the way you do in the place where you’re going.”
Laden with that whole post-9/11 constellation of enemy-of-my-enemy stereotypes, I was still confused about something. “I thought you and that guy were friends.”
“Fuck that guy. What’s the problem with being friendly and just speaking English? All three of us speak fluent English, but he spoke Arab the entire time just to exclude you from the conversation.
“Fucking Arabs, man. They’re always trying to implicate one another in some little pissing contest. You’re suspect unless you’re pledging loyalty over and over. They need Israel though, ’cause they all hate each other. And Israel needs them, ’cause the minute there’s peace you people will be at each other’s throats. How much can a Russian and an Ethiopian really have in common, anyhow?
“That kid’s parents made good in the States”, he continued. “He’s going to make good money living in Kuwait on a US passport. People like him want all the benefits of being American, but they hate America. I live in Michigan, yeah? There’re a lot of Arabs over there. Most of them hate Americans. Not just George Bush; their neighbors, too. Fuck that. I didn’t go to America to just hunker down with my kind.
“I came to America from Syria almost thirty years ago. I was nineteen years old. Back then they took you to the army right out of high school. Still do, as a matter of fact. It was the mid-seventies and there had just been this God-awful war against Israel. I didn’t know a thing about politics, I just couldn’t see the point of dying for the asshole that was in charge over there. So I took a bus to Jordan and found my way to the US embassy. I swept floors at a bakery, slept on the street and just waited in line at the embassy for hours, every day I could get down there, for about nine months.
“By some miracle I finally got in to see this woman, I didn’t know who she was, her title, or what gave her authority to decide my case, but she asked me why didn’t I wanna go back to Syria, and I told her straight up that I didn’t wanna get drafted. She asked what I wanted to do in the US, and I couldn’t tell her, and she looks me right in the eye, something about her voice and the way she’s facing me kinda changes, and she says—I’ll never forget it—she asked me if it mattered to me to marry Muslim, or if I could marry a Christian or a Jewish or a Chinese girl, and I said through the interpreter, I said, lady, I don’t give a rat’s ass, I’ll marry who I love. And she stamped my passport right there.
“I didn’t speak a word of English. I spent three years cleaning toilets and flippin’ burgers by the beach in Miami, almost didn’t eat anything except hamburgers in all that time. But I learned English. Over the years I spoke Arabic with my parents and sisters by phone, but it got harder and harder. The truth is I haven’t really spoken Arabic in thirty years. I don’t know if you noticed that kid was doing most of the talking. I can’t speak much Arabic anymore. It’s too emotional for me.
“I been back to Syria a few times though. I’m considered a deserter, so I gotta fly through Amman, cross overland and pay a shitload of money. I can’t fly straight in or they’ll arrest me at the airport. I paid $10,000 the last time. One time, there was some kind of disturbance at the airport in Jordan, and our flight just circled and circled above Amman for like, half an hour. Finally, the captain got on the intercom and said we may just have to land in Damascus. I almost shit myself, ’cause they would’ve cut my balls off if I showed up at the airport in Damascus. But we ended up landing in Amman.
“My kids don’t have that problem. When they were old enough, I sent them to see their grandparents and cousins. They can just fly right in on US passports. But the police followed them everywhere. Fucking everywhere. That’s why I don’t understand this ghetto mentality a lot of the Arabs around Detroit have, ’cause they don’t have to put up with that over there.”
“But that’s not true!” I interrupted. “What about the PATRIOT Act and all the domestic surveillance of Muslim-Americans?”
“Look man, I got a welding business. Sheet metal fabrication. I work with my sons. All the contractors around town, we all know each other. On 9/11 I was in this lunch spot we all go, and a bunch of these guys were at the counter, they came in without noticing that I was already there at a corner table with my back turned. The World Trade Center was on the TV above the lunch counter for like, the five-thousandth time that day, and they all started talking about the fuckin’ ragheads and how we need to bomb ’em to smithereens.
“Then one of these guys pipes up, he says, ‘Wait a minute, what about Nazee? He’s Arab, ain’t he?’ And someone else says, ‘Yeah, but he’s not like that.’ And they all kinda quieted down after that, maybe they felt like they went too far with what they’d been saying. That’s just the way people are. The PATRIOT Act ain’t about Arabs. Arabs are an excuse, like the Jews used to be. You think they’re just gonna spy on Arabs now? They’re gonna fuck everyone. What you gotta be worried about is not getting fucked! But racism? Racism’s older than prostitution. Get over it. You can hate people’s guts and still get along with ’em if you’re willing to try. Most of the Arab immigrants in my neck of the woods don’t try though, they stick to themselves. They’re hostile. But they want all the benefits. Like that Turkish guy in the coffee shop giving us dirty looks every time we blew smoke. For christsake, asshole—you sell weed for a living!
“Look at this fuckin’ Arab over here” he whispered, jerking his head rightward to indicate a snowy-haired man some meters away, walking along an adjacent canal with a hijab-clad younger woman by his side. “You think they put those grocery bags on their women because they think it’s wrong for a man to stare at girls? Hell no. It’s because they’re busy looking at everyone else’s girls. They come to a place like this so they can do that. Guy probably brought his daughter to the fuckin’ Netherlands and then put a bag over her head and forced her to marry a stranger or a cousin just because the guy’s from the same country. Well stay the fuck over there if all you’re interested in is the old country.
“You got these mass murderers like Sharon—same story. He’d have fit right in at the KGB. It don’t matter for some people what to believe, as long as they can get their little hard-on. You know what they want? Approval. Behind that tough guy stance, they’re only doing what other people let them get away with. They want to be admired, be remembered. Same reason the pharaohs built those pyramids, man. It’s in our DNA to want to leave a legacy, to shape the future, especially for men. So we come up with all these bullshit rules about what’s best for other people, and pretty soon even a mass murderer thinks he’s doing everybody a favor.
“Look, I think it’s stupid for you to go fight with people who ain’t done you any wrong, but you gotta figure that out yourself. Maybe you got a point, a good reason. I can’t know. Maybe, if I’da been born in the states, I’d have gone the opposite direction. I mean, I’m not much smarter than you. But at some point you gotta worry about yourself and stop implicating the whole damn world in your bullshit, stop trying to make the whole world’s bullshit your own. It’s just a matter of making that choice yourself, or being forced to by circumstances.
“You know how easy it is to get along with people? Look, I’ll prove it. My name’s Nazee, right? Nazee Hussein. This is my business card.” He reached into his coat pocket and handed me a little white rectangle of tagboard with blue letters on it that read, “Nazi Hussein and Sons. Sheet metal fabrication.”
“You spell your name Nazi?”
“I spell it like it sounds. Politics aren’t my department.” In his fedora and trenchcoat, the Bogie quote was well played.
We continued in silence for a few minutes and eventually stepped into a little souvenir shop where there was a big glass display case full of iron-on flag patches for backpackers. The clerk sneered as Nazi reached in and took out the little Israeli flag and handed it to me. I looked at the clerk and pointed to the Palestine flag, and she started to reach for it, but Nazi laid a hand gently on her forearm to stop her. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked me.
“I want to wear both flags to show that I’m open-minded, that I want peace, that we can all get along. Like you said!”
“You walk into the Tel Aviv airport with a Palestine flag on you and they’re gonna tear open your ass. Think, man! You gotta firm up. We all want peace, but that’s not where you’re going. You want people to be reasonable, but what’s reasonable to a guy who had the good fortune to grow up in the states is different than what’s reasonable for an Israeli kid working airport security who grew up his whole life with his neighbors wanting to kill him. If you wanna be with your people, then be with your people. America’s the opposite direction.”
I paid for my Israeli flag patch, handed Nazi a couple safety pins and turned my back to him while he pinned it on my Jansport. Then we walked back to the train station together and stood on the platform smoking a joint. When the train to the airport came I gave Nazi Hussein a big hug, stepped onboard, and made my way to Israel.
I can’t say that I really strongly countenance or object to any of Nazi’s criticisms of his people—I’ve just never walked in his shoes. But his words have been kicking around my head for over a decade now. They were there when I was living in Israel, when I served in the Israeli army and when I returned to California with my tail between my legs.