I spend my last night in Jerusalem standing outside Damascus gate watching a young boy straighten a row of shoes on the sidewalk. His father stands next to him, engaging potential customers as he slides his fingers mindlessly over a row of prayer beads. The sun setting against the beige Jerusalem stone fills me with the traveler’s nostalgia of not knowing when or if I’ll ever stand here again. Behind me in a shallow semi-circle of bubbling oil, pale balls of ground chickpeas darken to a crispy brown. As I lean in to drop my six shekel into the vendor’s open palm, a woman’s fluttering hijab brushes against my face.
The sun sets. I make my way to the Jerusalem bus station. A soldier searches my bags. I purchase two cinnamon rolls and a cup of coffee and then take the escalator up another floor, absentmindedly watching soldiers, families, and backpackers lingering outside of closing shops.
When the bus to Eilat pulls up, a gruff bus driver tries to manage the chaos of people spilling out of the station as they wedge themselves past him and into the bus. I am lucky to have a seat, my feet resting awkwardly on my backpack as I try to accommodate the soldier stretched out in the aisle next to me. One hand resting casually on his gun, the other hand is propping a book up against my bag. The Catcher in the Rye. He catches me staring at him and smiles. I blush.
…there is the sound of tear gas canisters being fired into demonstrations…Everyone pushing, shoving, spitting harsh words that rise forward and smack you in the face with their abruptness.
I wake up a few hours later as the bus turns into the Eilat bus station. The soldier is gone, but the book is sitting next to my bag. I look around, but he is nowhere to be seen. As I grab my bag and step into the early dawn of the Red Sea, I stuff the book into my jacket pocket.
I cross the Israeli border, slipping easily into Egypt behind a pair of nondescript Canadian tourists. Taba is another world to me. Even the Arabic, which should feel familiar, seems clunky and strange compared to the mix of Hebrew and Levantine Arabic that has infiltrated my daily conversations over the past three months.
Walking slowly into Egypt, I approach a low wall separating me from a collection of taxis, vans, and drivers. I know this game so I sit on the wall and stare at the stars. There is no hurry, no pressing urgency to be anywhere so I sit within my thoughts, wrapped up in their careful complexity.
A taxi driver approaches. He lights a cigarette and sits down next to me.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.
“Dahab,” I respond.
It’s 4:00 in the morning and I am a lone, female traveler sitting on the flanks of dawn. He asks an exorbitant price. I shake my head with a smile and tell him it is a good price, but too much for me.
When I tell him my price, he tells me I will be here all day. I reach for the book in my pocket. We sit in silence as I read and he smokes. Someone brings me tea so I put down my book and we talk.
“Where are you coming from?”
He exhales smoke. “So, tell me, how are our Palestinian cousins?”
I don’t know how to answer that so I sip my tea. It’s scalding and sweet, and does nothing to quell the confusion I feel at his question.
I am supposed to paint a wretched picture of refugees living in squalid establishments along the perimeter of the five star Intercontinental Hotel; a picture that centers around the butt of a soldier’s gun slamming into the side of a man’s head. Yes, this wretchedness exists, but when I reach into my past, my fingers are more likely to brush against the memories of a friend radiant in her engagement dress, laughing as her cousins, brothers, and father lift her up on a chair and spin around the room.
My fingers reach further, pulling at the threads of memory till I am no longer sitting in the Sinai. I am dancing Dabka in a crowded wedding party or drinking Taybeh, the Palestinian beer, in a desert neatly swept by wind and carefully ornamented with stars. I’m eating falafel on the steps of the Church of the Nativity looking out over the Har Homa settlement, telling wry jokes that leave me feeling witty and depressed. On the roof of a friend’s apartment, we smoke nargila and sip Coke, talking politics till 2:00 a.m. Wild dogs bark in the distance as I walk home through deserted streets. Jerusalem is in the distance. My heart reaches for it, but I keep walking.
Then there is the sound of tear gas canisters being fired into demonstrations. The sight of the wall snaking its way, splitting hills—like the camel’s hump—in half. People sorted like cattle, go in this line, not that one, stand here, not there. Everyone pushing, shoving, spitting harsh words that rise forward and smack you in the face with their abruptness.
The taxi driver coughs. The result of smoking a pack a day. I shake my memories loose and shrug. “They are exasperated,” I tell him, “scratching at the surface of a future that has nothing to give and a past that has taken too much.”
“Life is hard,” he tells me. I nod. Resting on the laurels of middle class America, I know nothing about this, but I trust the lines on his face as he pulls nicotine into his body.
He abruptly offers to take me. “I am going that way to pick some clients up. I can drop you off outside of Dahab. You take the bus from there.”
When we pull away from the border, the sunrise has draped everything in red. The mountains cast formidable shadows, stretching out aggressively across a palette of dusky desert colors. In the two hours it takes to drop me off in the middle of nowhere, we don’t say much. Even the radio has forsaken us and so we sit in the comfortable silence of strangers.
Thirty minutes outside of Dahab, he drops me off. There is a bus idling, as if it had been waiting for me. Within an hour, I am walking across the littered streets of Dahab. An easy breeze brushes my face, ruffling the humidity that has pressed itself against my skin. I step into a waterside cafe and the smell of Arabic coffee uncurls in aromatic tendrils from half a dozen cups on a silver tray. A family of orange cats—tails twitching, hops across the rocks revealed by the receding tide.
I pull out The Catcher in the Rye and begin to read, picking up where the soldier in the bus left off.