Allow me to tell you this strange and twisted short story about love. Contrary yet heartfelt.
One day I went to bed next to my handsome Palestinian husband. The next day I woke up to find lying next to me an Israeli man with a hairy back. He was sleeping on his tummy, drooling on the pillow and snoring. How did I end up next to this man? Where am I? What is going on?
Before I explain to you how I ended up in this Kafkaesque nightmare turned into reality, I need to tell you the short story about love right from the beginning. Let me start right at the beginning when it all started. Many moons ago, I met a dashing dark young man who captured my attention right from the moment I laid eyes on him. He had beautiful dark curly hair and an intense look about him. I was one of those silly people that didn’t believe in love or romance. I never read romantic novels because I believed that all love stories were Hollywood fabrications that had no root in reality. I considered myself far too serious and far too intelligent for silly idle pursuits like love. Only pathetic helpless and naïve women sat around dreaming about the knight in shining armor to come and rescue them. I myself planned to roll up my sleeves and fulfill my own dreams with my own hard work without the aid of a man.
I nicknamed the dashing young man Za’atarah (زعترة ). Za’atar( زعتر) is a herb common in Palestine similar to oregano only with stronger taste. If you never had za’atar then, you are in for a treat. A’antarah ( عنتره) is pre Islamic Arab hero. A’antara was a black slave who fell in love with A’ablah ( عبله) the daughter of a tribal sheik. So I combined the words za’atar and A’antarah and created the nickname Za’atarah. Seemed appropriate considering the fact that Za’atarah was Palestinian, dark and looked larger than life to me. Plus anything to do with food is good in my books.
The evil father would not allow Antarah to marry A’ablah and would instead promise her in marriage to other men of higher stature. A’antra had to travel all over the Arabian dessert sword fighting with all the suitors so that A’ablah would be his. A little bit like Romeo and Juliette, only A’atarah and A’ablah did really exist. All stories and movies about A’antarah end with the happy ending of a happy wedding between A’antarah and his beloved. In real life, they did get married only they were miserable together after marriage. A’ablah would continually put down A’antarah because of his slave roots and treat him in a haughty way, being the daughter of a tribal sheik that she was. A’ablah could not have children and therefore A’antarah had to marry another women because of his desire for offspring. Apparently, they spent most of their time together fighting with each other. No movie has been made about that part.
My Za’atarah on the other hand did not carry a sword, nor any other weapon, but his eyes where as sharp as Excalibur. One glance from him would make me break into sweats and make my heart race. Two weeks after meeting Za’atarah, You would find me walking around with a huge smile on my face like an idiot. There was a skip in my step and I constantly felt the urge to break into song. Yada, yada, yada, yada, insert all the pathetic romantic love story spiel you want here. Yes, it’s true, when you are inside a short story about love you feel like a bird that will fly any minute. Like everything in life is beautiful and like everything is possible. ….Pathetic! ha?
Well! to my credit, Za’atarah is an exceptional guy. For one thing, he carried the complete poetry works of the Iraqi poet Muthafar Al Nawab in his backpack and whenever the fancy would strike him he would pick up the book, stand up and start reading poetry. He had large portions of it memorized by heart.
How could I resist?
مرينه بيكم حمد واحنه ابقطار الليل
وسمعنه دك اكهوه او شمينه رحة هيل
ياريل صيح ابقهر صيحة عشك ياريل
هودر هواهم ولك حدر السنابل كطه
As if that wasn’t enough to rock my world, Za’atarah was radically different from all the middle eastern men I had met before him. For one thing he was completely unpretentious. For example, even though he had a Ph.D. and taught at the university, he insisted that everybody would call him by his first name. Whenever somebody would call him Dr. he would just wave his hand and say don’t be silly call me Za’atarah. In the middle east titles are very important. People who have earned the prized Dr. title would be deeply offended if you forgot to address them by it. Za’atrah dressed very modestly too. He wore plain pairs of jeans and plain t-shirts. You might think, what is the big deal with that? Well for an Arab guy that is a very big deal. Most arab men that are able to afford it would be decked out in the best Armani suit, fancy Italian shoes and a Pierre Cardin pen placed strategically in the pocket to impress. Za’atarah was the antithesis of arab middle class pretension and snootiness. The snootiness that I grew up with and was familiar with.
Za’atarah is a brutally honest man. He had no problem telling anybody that he is an idiot straight to his face. Arab culture is all about saving face. I grew up in a culture where people I only met 5 minutes ago would tell me they loved me like their sister. I am talking major white lies, huge unwarranted compliments and massive saving face action. Za’atarah was none of that. Every word uttered by him was precise and measured. Everything he said he meant deeply otherwise he would say nothing. Hence I got the feeling that everything he said he meant, when he said something nice it meant something it wasn’t yet another figure of speech, he deeply meant every single word he said. How un-arabic? Visitors to the middle east find all the compliments and words of endearment friendly. They leave the middle east with the impression that people are O! so friendly. But when you grew up in a culture hearing “O! how are you? I have missed you. Why don’t you call more often?” From a person who won’t answer your phone calls and you know that she hates your guts and can’t stand your sight, it gets nauseating after a while. The insincere compliments always got on my nerves.
When I first met Za’atarah, he told me he was the son of simple peasants. That too surprised me, because Arabic culture is class aware. People from upper classes look down at people from the lower classes. People from lower classes pretend that they are from higher classes than they really are. I knew many people that would live lavishly, drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes even though they couldn’t afford it, they were trying to create the illusion of being wealthier than they really were. I knew many people that came from humble origins but as soon as they were able to get a good salary they would deny their origins, pretend they were something they were not. In Canada, it would have been very easy for Za’atarah to pretend that his family was some educated middle class bunch. Instead he seemed to almost brag about his humble origins. How un-arabic? To be proud of who you are instead of what you are supposed to be.
Everything about this man was radical and admirable. Plus, he was an amazing cook. He would make me kusa mahshi (zucchini stuffed with meat and vegetables). This short story about love is a about to take a yummy turn. He introduced me to avocado which I never ate before because I thought it looked weird. What a treat to taste avocado for the very first time. I wouldn’t say that my stomach is the shortest path to my heart but that path is fairly short. I think it was the poetry that impressed me the most, but the food didn’t hurt. Like most Hollywood movies, you should be able to predict the rest of this short story about love. We fell in love, got married and lived happily ever after.
If only this short story about love ended at this point. Sigh!
And then the rest of our life together started. Five years into our marriage we moved together to Israel perusing an academic career for Za’atarah. I had grown up in a country where the word Israel was rarely uttered; it was always referred to as the “enemy”. The state of the enemy, the prime minister of the enemy, the Zionist entity were all part of the everyday vocabulary in Kuwait at the time. All maps of the middle east would show “occupied Palestine” but no Israel. I had never seen the state of Israel on a map. Somehow in my mind, Israel was this entity hovering in the air somewhere. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Israel is yet another country that actually exists on the ground and they don’t refer to themselves as the enemy they all have names. Wow! how radical? Well! I was determined to put away all that enemy propaganda, taught to me in school, behind and keep an open mind and adjust as best as I could. But, childhood conditioning dies hard.
Jesus said, “Love your enemy as you would love yourself”. I always assumed that only a select few, a special breed of people were capable of that. I always assumed that it would take massive effort and discipline in order to achieve that. I always assumed that it would be something that people would engage in out choice. Maybe a hint masochism mixed in with that as well. I myself am not too fond of that principle. It doesn’t make much sense to me. I wanted to be living an effortless short story about love .
Israelis are the most brutally honest group of people I have ever encountered in my life. In Israel, I realized right from day one that if people don’t like me they will tell me that they hate my guts right to my face. There is no pretending, no white lies, no room for saving face. Nobody pretends to like you if they don’t. At first it was shocking but later on I found it refreshing. No need to beat around the bush. Additionally, Israelis have complete contempt for pretension. Nobody wears suits or fancy clothing. When people want to look casual they put on an old pairs of jeans and an old stretched out t-shirt. Nobody wears Gap or Tommy Hilfiger in Israel. The highest executive to the lowliest garbage sweeper on the streets dress in a similar fashion. In Israel you can’t tell the difference between the wealthy and the poor by appearances. What you see is what you get, from an Israeli person. The socialist past of the country still effects it today making hard work and hand labor points of honor rather than things to be looked down upon.
The things I admired most about my husband were the things he learned by growing up in Israel. I didn’t want to love my enemy but, I was already in love with the enemy. I was angry because I felt that I had no choice in the matter. That morning when I woke up realizing that I was sleeping next to an Israeli guy, I told my Za’atarah that I didn’t want to be married to an Israeli, I want to be married to a 100% Palestinian. I would have never married an Israeli man and I am not going to settle for an Israeli husband now. Za’atarah placed his hand on my shoulder and told me “I never lied to you, I told you about my background right from the beginning. I am who I am. There are things I can’t change about myself. This country is my country. I grew up in it. I don’t care if it is called Israel or Palestine. It is part of my identity.”. I shook my head. “No, no, no”.
Given my own messed up identity, is it any wonder that I attracted a man with a psychotic identity?
I was called the gypsy kid. In my childhood I spent most summer holidays, in the Czech republic. All my cousins on my mother’s side are blonde, fair and have blue eyes. I am considerably darker than the rest of them and therefore I was the gypsy kid. We would play in the front yard and neighbors passing by, would say half jokingly “How did you get that gypsy kid mixed up with the rest of you?”. The other half was malice. And then I would travel back to the middle east and I would suddenly turn blonde. Ok! I didn’t actually turn blonde but that is how the other kids referred to me, “that blonde girl” was a common reference to me at school. Everything in life is relative. I learned that at age 8. Not because I am so smart, but because I had no choice. The constant relativity of my being was hard to ignore.
What right did I have expecting Za’atarah to be 100% when I wasn’t 100% anything either.
And so love my enemy I had to, because hating the person closest to me would have killed me. To you my dark beauty from the land of milk and honey I will learn to love the whole world, even my enemy. This is the real ending of this love story
To conclude this short story about love, I leave you with this:
“It may be that God will ordain love between you and those whom you hold as enemies. For God has power over all things; and God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”, Surah Al-Mumtahinah Qura’an 60.7
7 years have passed since I first read this. I still often think about it.
Riet, you just made my day. Thank you for your super thoughtful comment.