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BY PRIYALI SUR February 15, 2017 at 9:13 PM
We sat sipping slushy mojitos. It was the kind of night that makes you want to throw away your heels and dance without a care in the world. Swaying to the electro house music at Kuli Alma in south Tel Aviv were the young, insatiable night owls of the city. On my way there, my Israeli friend Etay, a 21-year-old ballet dancer, walked me through the Ruppin street, talking excitedly about his current role as Billy in the musical “Billy Elliot” and admiring the Bauhaus architecture that dotted the city.
My mind raced back to earlier in the day when I zipped along Highway 1, connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and then crossed a checkpoint to enter West Bank. I had carefully hid my keffiyeh — the Palestinian checkered black and white scarf — under the car seat to avoid suspicion by the guards. Once the first hurdle was cleared, I drove through beautiful, mountainous, brown landscapes until I reached Nablus and the home of Bashar.
Even after 10 years of being a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I still don’t know what is the right question to ask a family member who has lost a loved one. A picture of Bashar and another one of Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the wall welcomed us along with a bunch of enthusiastic young men in the room. Abu Ashraf, Bashar’s brother and the only older man in his 50s in the room, turned to my camera and started talking about how he didn’t know a thing about his brother’s plans to carry out the suicide bombing attack that killed seven people in 1997 at the Ben Yehuda street. Fumbling a little and nervously turning a rosary that was the Palestinian flag colors — red, green, white and black in color — he said he understood the loss of the families who had lost their loved ones in the attack. He had a lost a brother too. No one’s loss was bigger, he added thoughtfully. They had equally suffered because of the occupation.
Soon the younger men in the room chimed in. In his late 20s, Ashraf, the son of Abu Ashraf, started talking passionately about how being related to a suicide bomber had taken away almost all their liberties. “None of us, even our children’s children’s children, will ever be allowed into Israel. The guard at the border told us that we should try in 100 years.” So two years ago when his wife from East Jerusalem, holding an Israeli ID card, was giving birth to their first born in Jerusalem, Ashraf risked his life by jumping the 438 km long wall dividing Israel and the West Bank to be by his wife’s side and welcome their son into the world.
As Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump, with clear warnings from his far-right minister Naftali Bennett to not mention the phrase “two states” or “Palestinian state,” I wonder how the politics and the balancing act of Trump and Netanyahu — of neither sounding too right nor displeasing their right leaning supporters — will play out in the lives of the people there.
The wall does not just divide Israel from West Bank, but it was also divides free-spirited thoughts, ideas and life from a shackled existence. On one side is 21-year old Etay, with his ideas of art, architecture, dance, music, and on the other side is Ashraf, with the fear of being arrested for meeting his newborn son. This cannot be one state. This is distinctly two states in every way possible.
So when Rami, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by Bashar in 1997, took a stand against the occupation and said that he is curious about the meeting of these two leaders, I knew it would resonate with the millions others who defy the politics of divisive walls and borders. “There is no point in debating the two-state solution. The question is not the number of states. That is irrelevant. It was irrelevant 50 years ago. The question is about equality, respect and dignity. The state is just a technical issue,” said Rami to me, sounding very calm as we discussed U.S.- Israel over a Skype call.
On the other hand, my other young Jewish friend living in Jerusalem sounds worried. “I’m not so worried by the discussion over the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Trump may or not actually do that and it may or may not impact our lives, but the Muslim ban by Trump might very well affect us.” Married to a Palestinian Muslim and struggling to even rent a house in West Jerusalem, since no one wants to lease their house to an Arab man, this couple wants to move to the U.S. Though she now fears that even the U.S. will be hostile to her husband because of his religion. “We just returned from a visit to Auschwitz with our 1-year-old son. When I hear about the ban, it feels like history is repeating itself. What will my son learn — his mother a Jew, his father a Muslim, both with a history of persecution. Is this what we want?”
“What does this mean to you?” A strong, broad-shouldered man interrogated me at the Ben Gurion airport. A little startled and shaken I asked, “What, sir? What do you mean?” Pointing to the neatly folded keffiyehs in my camera tripod bag, he asked again, “What does this mean to you?” I wanted to answer that to me, as a nonpracticing Hindu from India who lives in the U.S., the keffiyeh meant nothing cultural, religious or political. But as a citizen of this world, the ability to carry a piece of cloth, just any piece of cloth, meant celebrating the freedom to choose what I want to wear, who I want to be, where I want to travel and how I want to live. It meant not being boxed in by stereotypes.
But I needed to board that flight to Washington, D.C., in the next 40 minutes, so instead I said, “Sir, the keffiyeh to me is just a fashion accessory.” He smiled approving of my answer, stamped my boarding pass and I was soon on a flight back to the “land of the free,” as they say.
Watch the trailer to my new film ‘sahbak’. It’s a film about stories of Israeli-Palestinian love and friendship.