“A rose, by any other name — would smell as sweet.”
She grew up less than a mile away, but a world apart. Warda near the Shuafat refugee camp and I in the once settlement, now Jerusalem neighbourhood of Neve Ya’akov. We lived very different lives. She came from a family of Muslim merchants who had been living in Al Quds (Jerusalem) for the last 10 generations. Being of the Arab Elite, her family did not share in the misfortune of Palestinian folk. Yet despite this, she would grow to identify with the narrative of Palestinian suffering quite strongly.
I knew nothing of this suffering, born to Jewish-Anglo immigrants in a Jewish country, I was a child who held many social privileges. Yet despite this, my parents were not that well to do. Immigrants who after their Aliyah found themselves living in the inexpensive Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on the outskirts of town, known to the locals as Kaminitz.
The main road separated our neighbourhoods. There was one bus, the 25 that was not very frequent and was usually of the old 60’s bus models. My sister and I called them ‘boy buses’, due to the masculine appearance we believed they exhibited. This was in contrast to the ‘girl buses’, the newer, rounder, more modern looking model that periodically graced our streets. A childhood game of ours on those exciting days when we went into town — was to lean into the street as far out as we could; without getting yelled at by the grownups, to see what bus would be coming down the road. At that time, Harav Ma’agalot Pardess St. was not only the main road but the pretty much the only one in our small settlement neighbourhood. These were the days before the adjacent neighbourhood of Pisgat Ze’ev was built, so we were quite isolated, and this road, the only way into town went right through Shuafat.
On the bus, just a few minutes out, the view would change drastically. The little houses would grow sparse, and the bare Judean mountains would surround us as the bus followed the dusty road into the city. Soon enough, this windy road would lead us right through the Shuafat refugee camp. A cluster of old shacks and half-built buildings that decorated the mountainside as far as the eye could see. As kids, we found these sights fascinating and with our faces stuck flat against the window would attempt to digest everything we saw. We would note the Arab populace by the modest clothing that we found odd, and yet not so different from our own neighbourhood. Especially the women who both seemed to keep their hair covered with scarfs.
While a few years later our area would become a part of municipal Jerusalem, Neve Ya’akov was actually closer to the Palestinian town of Ramallah than to downtown Jerusalem. I guess it is not a strange thing in this world when the unwanted live so far away. While today many Jerusalem neighbourhoods are going through the challenges of Jewish-Arab integration, this was not the case at that time. So it came to pass that we lived next door to one another and never met.
Years later, I joined an interfaith group of young educators working with teens in areas of conflict. We spent a weekend seminar discussing various teaching models and ideas on how to deal with the differences we discovered among us.
The first session was a bit awkward, we sat in a circle with two translators giving us a play by play of everything said. This promised a reality in which everyone could speak their native tongue. But also ensured a painfully slow conversation, while we all waited with each comment for the translator to speak, and then translate back the reply. I spent many of these agonizing moments noting the group of incredible individuals around me. One, in particular, caught my eye. A beautiful grey-eyed Palestinian woman, who earlier introduced herself as Warda. It wasn’t long after I spoke to the group that she noticed me as well, and we spent the rest of the session smiling with our eyes at one another.
In the following days of the conference, I became good friends with both Warda and her brother Omar. They were very different from one another. He was laid back and didn’t care much for Islam, as he told me once over a pint of beer. Warda, on the other hand, was an extremely passionate Muslim Woman. She had a fire in her eye that burned with the tenacity of martyrs. It was, therefore surprising to me what happened next.
“Carmiel, would you come with me to the back room?” Omar asked me one day as I walked into his families coffee shop in Sheikh Jarach. It had been a few months since we first met, and in the interim we had grown close, visiting one another weekly at each other’s houses. I nodded and followed him as we walked past the cashier to a back room I had not noticed before.
What is it? I asked him, as I approached Omar standing at the entrance of the room, but he just motioned for me to enter. As I did, I noticed Warda sitting in the room, her friends by her side.
“You have been a good friend the last few months” Omar began, and I recognized in the formality of his words where he was going. ‘Don’t go there’ I thought to myself, but he did, as he stated what an honour it would be if I were to date Warda with the intent of marriage…
My heart sunk. Immediately, as if on cue, one of Warda’s friends got up and approached us.
“Warda is the most beautiful Rose in the village,” she said.
Each of her friends followed, stating one of Warda’s incredible qualities. My mind went into survival mode, desperately seeking the right words to turn her down without hurting her feelings. Finally, the room went silent, as all looked at me, waiting for my reply.
“Umm” I began, I surveyed the room as if looking for a way to escape.
There was none.
So, conquered and beaten I looked up at Warda, who with her pensive gaze looked right through me with the incredible fire in her beautiful eyes still burning. I missed a beat, but then gathered myself.
“Yes,” I could hear myself say. “Warda is the most beautiful rose.”
“Omar” I continued, almost in a whisper, not removing my eyes even for a moment from his sister. “Can I talk to you in the other room?”
In the conversation that ensued, I was not myself. Confused by my reaction, and what it meant about who I was, I tried to understand what could ever drive Omar to think that this could be a good idea. He just shrugged in his usual careless manner, and with a grin suggested that I talk this out with his sister. “We both know that I am just the messenger here,” he said but was willing to buy me some time to think. So with that, he returned to the room, and I, feeling rather cowardly, left without saying goodbye to ponder what had just happened.
It took me longer than I would like to admit to get back to her. In the days that followed, I repeatedly thought out the dreaded upcoming conversation in my head. Every time it grew in size so that by the time I made the call, it became one of the scariest moments I remember to date.
“Hey, Warda? It’s Carmiel”
“Hii, how are you doing!?” she sounded happy to hear from me.
“How’s it going?”
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to hear from you again.”
“Are you kidding, that would never happen” I lied. The number of times I thought of disappearing and not having this conversation, was more than I could count.
“Sooo, about the other day..” I said, wishing to get this conversation over with sooner rather than later.
“Yea” she laughed. “That was a little intense, I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would go down that way.”
I laughed nervously with her. “Yea, it was pretty intense, I wasn’t sure how to reply.”
“Well really it’s quite simple,” she said
“Sure. Do you want to go out or not?”
In years to come, I would come to appreciate this kind of directness. Yet at the time, I was too insecure in my masculinity for this to go over well.
“It’s not that simple” I replied.
“Why not? Because I’m a Muslim?” I could feel her gaze burning through the phone.
“Well, Yes_ umm.. and because I am Jewish. Our religions don’t really look fondly upon these kinds of relationships.”
“Pff,” she scoffed.
Then said, “I keep my religion and my heart separate,”
“The man that I love will not always share my opinions, does it matter if these are political or religious?” — she rationalized.
“Warda, it’s so much more than that!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you see this isn’t something that can happen?”
“Why not, we wouldn’t be the first.”
“Why not? Where do I start? Because of our families, our culture, our different nationalities, all of which; in a good scenario, would frown upon this relationship and more likely disown or hurt us. In what world do you see this working?” I found myself raising my voice in the heat of the moment.
“I thought you were different,” She replied in a whisper after a moment of silence.
“Well, when one truly sees the other as a human being, all the rest doesn’t matter. Love finds a way.”
I went silent, the implications of her accusation seeping deep.
A moment later, she hung up.
We never spoke again. But Warda’s final words have stayed with me ever since, echoing in the back of my mind as I work to build inclusive communities in my hurting city. I often think back to that episode in my life, to this day, it challenges me. I ask myself the question of borders. Those that define me and give my life meaning, yet at the same time prevent me from loving another. I ask myself the question of faith that drives me to seek out other human beings as my partners in building a better world, yet at the same time separates me from them so that we may never be as one. I don’t have answers, not even today, but many times open-ended questions are far better than answers. Here in Jerusalem, we are cursed by too many who think they have answers and not enough who ask questions. So I leave this question open, like a wound, forever festering, challenging me, while I do this holy work.
I can not cross this border myself; at least not yet, but I find comfort in those that do. The gentle lovers of our city that I see every now and then. The Romeos and Juliets; whose love enables them to look beyond the identities we wear as veils and see the human being beneath. Much like the rose of Shuafat that I never picked.
Oh, How different would Jerusalem be — if only we had more roses like her.