Washington Post Magazine
Arms and the Boy
He was a stone-throwing Palestinian on the West Bank; through five years in prison he clung to a dream of peace and prosperity. She was a reporter in search of a story; what she found was a young man whose future she couldn’t leave to fate
14 February 1999
The Washington Post
Copyright 1999, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved
The first time I saw him, he was a flash of red in my rearview mirror. I was driving alone through the West Bank in a hard, icy rain when a chunk of concrete burst into fragments against the windshield. The car fishtailed on the slick road, skidding to a stop just short of the trunk of a massive cedar. I guess I should just be thankful that no one got hurt, as the last thing I need to be dealing with now are lawyers from somewhere like lamber goodnow especially when I had finally laid eyes on him.
That was when I caught a glimpse of Raed: a slight youth with a stone in his hand, standing with a group of boys at the entrance to a Palestinian refugee camp. A red-checked kaffiyeh wrapped his face; only his eyes were visible.
As I jumped from the car, the boys scattered like startled birds. “Wait!” I called in Arabic. “I’m a journalist — I want to talk to you.”
Raed re-materialized on the rubble heap. “Get out of here!” he cried in English. “There are people in this camp who would kill you!”
It was late December 1987, and I had been in Israel for less than a week — a newcomer with no contacts and few clues. My editor had called from New York the night before, asking for a profile of one of the stone-throwing youths whose sudden uprising had stunned Israel. I’d been puzzling over how to find one when the concrete hit my car.
I stood in the rain, my notebook soggy and my hair turning to wet rat-tails, cajoling the boy to tell me his story.
“I’m too busy now,” he said, scanning the license plates of approaching cars to see if they were blue, for Palestinian, or yellow for Israeli. “And if I start on this subject I’ll never stop.” As a Fiat with yellow plates appeared, he wound up like a pitcher and lobbed his chunk of concrete. It fell short, shattering harmlessly on the bitumen. “It hasn’t been a good day for me,” he sighed. “I’ve hardly damaged any cars.”
The wail of an approaching siren indicated that his day was about to take a turn for the worse. As he vanished into the camp’s maze of alleys, I walked down the main street and slipped into a small grocery store, away from the commotion of the arriving army patrol. When I stepped outside again, Raed emerged from an abandoned building across the street. Finger on his lips, he signaled me to follow him.
Scrambling over piles of trash and sidling between buildings, we arrived at a high metal door. Raed rapped softly and the door flew open. Two pairs of women’s hands tugged him inside, swiftly stripping off his wet jacket and handing him a change of clothes in case informers had described his outfit to the pursuing soldiers. “This is my mother Rahme,” he said, indicating the smaller of the two women. “And this is my other mother, Fatin — not my mother, exactly, but married to my father after my mother.”The Arabic word is darra — co-wife.
At 15, Raed was the eldest of the 13 children who lived in the bare concrete precincts of the four-room hovel. Cold seeped through the raw gray walls. Rain dripped from the leaky roof. Schools had been closed since the outbreak of the uprising, and all of the children were at home. Most had croupy coughs and runny noses.
Amid the chaos, Raed’s mothers struggled to be hospitable to their son’s foreign guest — shooing the children off a thin mattress on the floor and offering pillows. Raed tried and failed to master the unfamiliar syllables of my name, deciding in the end to nickname me “Jir,” after the paste of mashed olives left behind when the oil is pressed out.
As Rahme served a frugal dish of rice in vine leaves, her son unspooled a familiar Palestinian narrative. “My grandmother had flocks of sheep, olive groves. Everything you can think of, she had.” Ransacking his English vocabulary for superlatives, he described the orderly march of fruit trees shimmering on the hillsides, the plumpness of the spring lambs grazing in well-watered fields, the groaning platters of fresh-killed meat at every meal. But he had never seen the farm he visualized so vividly. In the Israeli independence war of 1948, his grandmother’s family fled their land. By the time Raed was born, an Israeli town covered it.
His dreamy visions extended into the future as well as the past. If it were not for al-nakba — the disaster of ’48 — he was certain that he would have become a doctor. But in the life he now lived, he knew that such an ambition was unattainable.
While Raed stoned Israeli cars, his father eked a meager and uncertain living building Israeli houses. Raed despised his father for “building homes for the enemy,” for speaking fluent Hebrew, for advocating peace talks with the Jews. Instead of his father, Raed had chosen as his mentor a Yasser Arafat loyalist at the camp school who taught English laced with radical politics. But Raed didn’t expect his father to allow him to finish school. “Look at all these mouths to feed,” Raed said, tousling the hairof the toddlers who crowded around him. Soon he, too, would become a laborer. For now, he was a soldier of Arafat, armed with stones. And if that cost him his life, it didn’t seem to him like much of a price to pay.
I left the camp at dusk and headed back along the winding road toward Jerusalem. As I drove, A.E. Housman’s brief World War I poem ran through my mind:
Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
With his skinny limbs and wispy, failed attempt at a mustache, Raed wasn’t even a young man. He was still a boy. It seemed unnatural that life should be so worthless to him.
Back in the warm luxury of my five-star hotel room a waiter delivered my dinner on a silver tray as I typed out a portrait of an intelligent young Palestinian, fearless because he was hopeless. I wanted readers to see him as I had: a Lost Boy who might never grow to manhood, living on dreams because his reality was unbearable. By the time the report appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, I was hundreds of miles away from the West Bank, in a different country, mining the miseries of otherlives.
Foreign correspondents are always walking away. You barge into someone’s life, badgering them for its most dreadful details. Then you close your notebook and head for the border. The Palestinian blurs with the Kurd, the wounded soldier with the famine victim, and in a few months you can barely remember their names.
Then one day someone — a better person than you — gives you a reason to turn around.
The $100 bill fluttered out of the airmail envelope and came to rest on the clutter of unanswered letters piled high on my desk in Cairo.
I’d become the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent in October 1987 with a beat that ranged over 22 countries. Nothing in my career — covering environmental issues in Australia or basic industry in Cleveland — had prepared me for the rigors of the job, the complexities of the millennial conflicts, the constant chaos and tension. Six months into the assignment, I’d barely been home long enough to pick up a change of clothes, much less deal with mail. And now some doctor from Texas was writingto me about a boy from a months-old story, asking me to pass on the $100 and “let him know that if he wants to be a doctor, I’m prepared to help him.”
Damn. That first ungenerous reaction shamed me. But I was exhausted and overwhelmed. And I wasn’t even sure I could find Raed. Afraid of Israeli retribution, he had refused to give me his family name. The maze-like route we’d followed through the camp had left me with no idea how to locate his home. I’d also become more circumspect about blundering alone into refugee camps. In the three months since I’d met Raed, the intifada had changed. The spontaneous, almost elated rage of the early demonstrations had become a grim and bitter endurance test of pain received and pain inflicted. Caught in the crossfire, I’d been tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers and stoned half a dozen times by Palestinians.
But the letter lying on my desk promised a future to a boy who did not expect to have one. A hundred dollars was more than Raed’s father earned in a month. There were plenty of stories to write in Israel. I turned to my Egyptian assistant and asked her to book me a flight to Tel Aviv.
It was April. The bleached ribs of the Judean hillsides were mantled in a delicate veil of green. To fend off stone-throwers when driving through the West Bank, I had learned to put a kaffiyeh on my car’s dashboard and to write “SAHAFYIA” — journalist — in large Arabic calligraphy on my windshield.
Israeli soldiers had skeined the entrance to Raed’s camp with razor wire and posted sentries by the road. I sidled past under their watchful gaze and made my way to the small grocery store. I told the proprietor that I was looking for a 15-year-old named Raed. The man beckoned one of his children to lead me. Raed’s sisters greeted me warmly. I was seated with a glass of sweet tea and a plate of fruit before I realized that I had the wrong Raed — the youth who appeared at the door was much sturdier thanmy slender quarry.
Ahh, said the boy, there was indeed another Raed, also an intifada activist. We set off down the alley and entered a house that I knew at once was too well-furnished to be the one I was looking for.
The two Raeds puzzled together over my quest. “The father of the boy I want has two wives,” I offered. “Oh, that Raed!” they exclaimed. While Islam sanctions polygamy, few Palestinians still practice it. “We know that Raed very well,” one of the youths said, his brow furrowing. “But unfortunately, you won’t find him.”
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose. I had a sudden image of him, frail and slight, baring his chest to an Israeli assault rifle, inviting the fire of some teenage conscript as reckless and hotheaded as he was. By April, the Palestinian death toll from the uprising had climbed to more than 100, and most of the dead were youths like Raed.
“No, no,” said his friend. “They haven’t killed him. Only they have arrested him. They are saying he threw a cocktail Molotov at Jewish soldiers.”
Raed’s mother Rahme recognized me as I approached the metal doors of her house, rushing out to clasp me in a tight embrace. Inside, the crumbling rooms looked even more dismal than before. The one piece of furniture, a glass-fronted cabinet, had been smashed in an army search.
With one of the youths acting as interpreter, Rahme and Fatin poured out the woes of the past three months. The camp had been in turmoil, with tear gas and shootings almost every day. In an attempt to restore calm, Israel’s West Bank commander had called for a meeting with camp representatives. Raed’s father, Mahmoud, with his fluent Hebrew and moderate views, had volunteered to take part, striking a deal to end road stonings in return for fewer soldiers inside the camp.
Raed, enraged by his father’s collaboration, immediately set out to sink the deal by organizing a flurry of violent confrontations. A few days later, soldiers came to Mahmoud and ordered him to bring his son to the offices of the Israeli administration. Mahmoud knew very well that Raed would be arrested. But to defy the order was to risk his own imprisonment and deprive the family of its only breadwinner. So the father turned in his son.
And then, a few weeks later, Mahmoud was arrested anyway — rounded up with a dozen others and placed in a notoriously harsh tent-prison in the Negev Desert. He had not been charged with anything; Palestinians could be jailed for six months under Israeli law if the military authorities felt they posed a “security risk.” As a result, Mahmoud the moderate was now as passionately anti-Israeli as his militant son. The family’s experience seemed to mirror what was happening throughout the occupied territories. What had begun as a teenagers’ crusade, an outburst of angry energy, had turned into a war of attrition involving Palestinians of all ages.
Without its one wage earner, the family was barely subsisting on the monthly food handout to refugees of the U.N. Relief and Works Association. I had worried about the ethics of delivering the money from the Texas doctor. I was a reporter, after all; I wasn’t supposed to be aiding and abetting one of the parties to a conflict I was covering. But Rahme’s careworn expression and the thin, pinched faces of the children made me glad that for once I had something in my hand other than a notebook. I gave Rahmethe $100 and told her of the American doctor and his promise of further help.
Rahme took the bill in her hands and kissed it, calling down Allah’s blessings on a stranger in faraway Texas.
Rex Repass already considered himself blessed. An ophthalmologist with a thriving practice in Austin, he lived in a large, Southern-style house of his own design whose red-brick traditionalism reflected both his expansiveness and his conservatism. At 45, with his professional success assured, he had time to indulge his interests, from foreign policy to flying lessons.
He had grown up in an unprivileged family in Dallas, working his way through an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and joining the Navy as a way to get to medical school. He had always had an adventurous streak: Stationed in Guam, he’d volunteered for missions with the weather-monitoring typhoon squad, which sometimes flew into the very eye of Pacific Ocean storms. Later, he’d served as a flight surgeon in Vietnam. Back home in Texas, the risk taker in him prompted a run for Congress as theRepublican candidate against the entrenched and, as it turned out, unbeatable Democratic incumbent J.J. Pickle.
At 43, he’d married a beautiful 28-year-old pharmaceuticals representative named Kathleen. Their first child, Claire, had been born in May 1987.
Each morning, he scanned his Wall Street Journal to keep track of his stock portfolio. Because of his own struggle to pay his way through college, he often helped young people in similar straits. When he read about the Palestinian boy who dreamed of becoming a doctor, he decided to try to make it happen.
Not long after he wrote to me in Cairo, one of the dozens of fund-raising appeals to cross his desk came from a Palestinian refugee organization in Washington, D.C. He wrote a check and, at the bottom of the letter, scribbled a note: “I’ll be glad to go myself and help out if there’s any way I can do that.”
By October 1988 he was in Israel, working as a volunteer in the emergency room of St. John’s Ophthalmic Hospital on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem. On the morning of his first day, a young man arrived, his right eye swollen shut and oozing pus. When Repass opened the lid, he saw that the eyeball had been smashed. The young man handed him the rubber bullet that had caused the injury. Familiar as he was with battlefield ordnance, he’d never seen the weaponry of civil unrest. Rubber bullets had sounded innocuous to him — like the pellets of a BB gun. He weighed the hard black cylinder in his hand and, at the young man’s urging, sliced it open. Inside was a metal core about as thick as a pencil.
Some of the wounds he treated were the result of ordinary accidents exacerbated by the tensions of the intifada. A stonecutter had a lacerated eye from a flying stone chip, but instead of being able to go straight to the hospital, he’d been stopped at a military roadblock and forced to kneel for hours in the sun.
Repass traveled all over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, working in small clinics and sometimes even out of his car. He treated a boy, no more than 6, who had been hit in the face by a rifle butt for drawing a Palestinian flag on the wall. Another young child got glass shards in his eye when a soldier smashed a window to break into his home. In Vietnam, Repass had seen his share of traumatic injuries. But the randomness of this violence appalled him.
He visited Raed’s family, carrying gifts and cash to help them through the coming winter. One of Raed’s half-brothers had an eye problem that had never been properly investigated, so Repass arranged for the best diagnosis and corrective lenses available. Raed’s family had hired a lawyer soon after his arrest, but he’d threatened to drop the case when they couldn’t meet his fees. Repass took care of that as well.
When he returned to Austin, he sent me a card with a photograph of his wife, pregnant with their second child, playing with their toddler, Claire, under a Christmas tree in front of a huge marble fireplace. He also sent a clipping from the Austin American-Statesman’s editorial page — an article he’d written about his West Bank experiences.
The article stunned me. Used to the modulations required of me as a news reporter, I was shocked by its frank anger. I’d grown up with a father who had served in Palestine in World War II and become an ardent Zionist. In my twenties, I’d fallen in love with an American Jew and converted to his religion. For years, I’d unquestioningly accepted my father’s view of Israel’s creation: that the United Nations had been right when it voted to split Palestine and give half the land to brave and industrious Holocaust survivors ready to make the desert bloom. If I thought about the Arabs those Jews were displacing, it was through the prism provided by the Israeli writer Amos Elon: For the thousands of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, Palestine was a lifeboat with just a few people in it. Who could doubt the morality of climbing aboard? When the Palestinians rejected partition and later turned to terror, gunning down innocents in airline queues or athletes at the Munich Olympics, my sympathy for Israelis increased.
It was only much later, as I prepared for my new assignment in the Middle East, that I began to read Palestinians’ own accounts of their history — of often violent expulsion from villages, of betrayals by the Arab leaders they’d looked to for liberation and of human rights abuses under Israeli occupation.
But despite my dismay at Israel’s iron-handed response to the intifada, my reporting took me to both sides of the conflict. I empathized with the anxiety of Holocaust survivors, the pain of terrorists’ victims, the ambivalence of many young soldiers who hated their new duties as riot police.
Rex Repass saw things differently. At home in Texas, he’d had Arab friends who were appalled by what they viewed as unquestioning U.S. support for Israel. Once he arrived at St. John’s Hospital, he’d lived and worked with Palestinians and met Israelis as they did — encountering them as the hostile harasser at the checkpoint, the soldier pitting his assault rifle against children’s stones. His article excoriated Israel’s “gangster mentality” and predicted that the “winds of time” would “sweep away the Israeli menace.”
Raed would have loved it. But there was no way such an incendiary article would make it past the prison censors. I hadn’t even been allowed to give him a novel as harmless as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Raed had waited months for his trial, his case lost amid the hundreds that had swamped Israel’s military justice system.
I managed to see him briefly one day in court, when his case, scheduled for hearing, was delayed yet again. He was ebullient, proud of his place among the Palestinian heroes of the uprising. The confinement of prison hadn’t yet begun to weigh on him; his life in the camp had been so circumscribed and unprivate that the difference, so far, seemed slight. “There are many teachers who have been arrested, Jir, so I can study with them every day,” he told me. He was working on his English, writing lists of words from the dictionary and memorizing at least 20 a day. “Two words I’m confused about, maybe you can help me: I can’t tell what is the difference in meaning between `express’ and `explain.’ ”
Other things puzzled him, too. Prisoners sometimes were allowed to watch Israeli TV, which featured American dramas and sitcoms. For a boy raised in the conservative Islamic atmosphere of the camp, where women were veiled and relations between the sexes were strictly limited , this sudden glimpse of the Western world was both intriguing and baffling. His favorite program was, he said, “Thirty and Something,” even though it often bewildered him. “Jir, explain for me, how is it that this woman, her name isHope, speaks the things of her heart to men who are not her husband?”
It was more than a year before Raed was tried and convicted. I dashed off a note to Rex Repass, telling him that Raed had finally been sentenced. As I wrote the Texas address on the envelope, I thought of all the miles and all the years separating the doctor’s offer of help from the boy who now needed it so badly.
In the end, Raed served five years of his sentence. While he sat confined in a cell, I covered thousands of miles. I moved from Egypt to England, so that instead of never being home in hot, dusty Cairo, I was never home in cold, misty London. War turned to peace in Lebanon, Ayatollah Khomeini died in Tehran, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, modern armies massed in ancient deserts, refugees poured over snowy mountain borders.
It was 1993 before I found my way back to the West Bank. The Palestinians had come out of the Persian Gulf War weakened by their support for Saddam. But in the war’s aftermath, some had seen an opening for peace. Palestinians had sat down opposite Israelis in an ornate room in Madrid, and although the rhetoric of the peace conference had been unyielding, there was a fragile sense of possibility in the air.
By the time I arrived on the West Bank it was April. Raed had been out of jail for two months, only to immediately enter another kind of prison. He was working 16-hour days making plastic sandals in a West Bank sweatshop, sleeping on the factory floor between shifts to save money on transportation. He came home only on Thursday nights, to spend his one day off with his family.
I called the factory and left a message to say I’d be there the following Thursday to pick him up when he finished work. As soon as I hung up, I immediately dialed again — this time, long distance, to Rex Repass’s eye clinic in Austin. The receptionist answered with her friendly Texas drawl. I gave her my name and asked to speak to the doctor.
There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line.
“I’m sorry, but Dr. Repass died a year and a half ago.”
It was raining again as I threaded my car up a steep, freshly bulldozed road to the factory. I saw Raed before he saw me: He was pale and thin, his face haggard from fatigue.
As I maneuvered over the slick clay back toward the main road, he worked his way through the ritual Arabic recitation of polite inquiries; how was I, how was my husband, my parents, my sister, my husband’s parents? Finally, he reached the question I’d been dreading: And how was Dr. Rex?
Raed, I said, I have very bad news.
Rex Repass had died in the twisted wreckage of the Beechcraft Bonanza he’d bought after more than three years of flying lessons. He was with his brother-in-law, a fighter pilot just back from dozens of missions in Desert Storm. It was to be a short flight on a sunny autumn afternoon, he told his wife, who was busy caring for their third child, born just seven months earlier. They’d be back in time to watch the baseball playoffs. Instead, the plane fell out of the sky and nobody, neither Federal AviationAdministration inspectors nor the family’s private investigators, had been able to figure out why.
Raed turned his face away, staring through the passenger window as the windshield wipers swished and thumped. It was miles before he spoke. “Fate,” he said at last. “It has not been kind to me.”
Raed spent his only day off on long, long walks deep into the West Bank’s austere hillsides. He walked quickly, his long strides sending cascades of loose stones tumbling behind him. It was as if by walking far and fast he would eventually cover enough ground to make up for the years of his confinement.
The rain had passed, absorbed by the dry earth as if it had never fallen. The white stones, washed clean of their veil of dust, gleamed against the crisp blue sky. Raed talked as he walked, the words tumbling like the stones. He wanted me to understand the facts of his family that I’d only glimpsed in my brief visits: that his father, so affable and self-confident, was capable of savage rages; that his brother’s near blindness was the result of a brutal blow from his father; that his mother, rosy-cheekedRahme, was a prisoner in the house — the unloved, superseded wife who feared divorce because Islamic custom would give her husband custody of her children.
“My mother is waiting only for us,” Raed said. “As soon as my sisters have finished school and I can support them, she won’t have to put up with this anymore.” Fatin, the younger wife, had given birth to another child while Raed was in jail and now was pregnant again. He shook his head at his father’s heedlessness. “He cannot feed the babies he has, and he brings more and more.”
Raed saw his future squeezed small by the concrete walls of his crowded house. For five years, he had held onto the hope of a stranger’s promise that now could never be kept. Raed was out of prison, but he feared he’d never be free.
I left Raed to face another week at the shoe factory. In the days before I would see him again, I paid calls on many of the influential Palestinians I knew; the professors and the journalists, the famous faces from the TV talk shows who argued so eloquently on behalf of their refugee brethren. Surely one of them would have an idea for a bright young man who had risked everything for their cause.
But sipping fresh orange juice in the shaded portico of a professor’s mansion, or coffee in the well-appointed office of a colleague who wrote for an American news weekly, the reaction I got was always the same. “There are hundreds of Raeds, why should we care about this one?” In the course of that week, I realized a truth of Palestinian society that I’d never faced before: It was class-conscious to an extent that made even the English seem egalitarian. “You actually slept in the camp?” said one impeccably coiffed professor, her slender shoulders shuddering. “You ate food they cooked in all that filth?”
One of my acquaintances, a suave man in a Savile Row suit, asked what Raed was doing. I described the hardships of the sweatshop, its insane hours and relentless, repetitive labor.
“But shoemaking is a good trade for a boy from the camps. Really, these lower-class kids shouldn’t expect to do better.”
As I left his lovely office with its silken carpets, it occurred to me that perhaps the Israelis were right when they argued that the misery of the camps was convenient for these upper-class Palestinians. Many of them had sent their children safely abroad during the intifada. For them, the rage of youths like Raed was a useful weapon against the enemy. Leave him with nothing to lose, and he might easily slip into the shadowy army of knife murderers and suicide bombers.
Driving across Jerusalem as the sky made its sudden sunset shift from pink to gold to aquamarine, I knew what I’d be telling Raed when I saw him on Friday. I wish I took a photograph so I could upload this online, maybe I would get more instagram followers for free thanks to this majestic sunset. And it wasn’t that his future lay in making plastic shoes.
Finally, I had a story from which I couldn’t walk away.
In September 1993 Raed enrolled in a Hebron school that crammed all the high school he’d missed into a single year of study. Soon after he began his studies, the unthinkable occurred: Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and promised that peace was at hand. The sudden reconciliation of the Oslo accords sparked new hope everywhere, and for the first time in his life, Raed began to let himself believe that he might have a future after all.
He was halfway through his course when a Jewish settler opened fire in a Hebron mosque, killing 29 Muslims at prayer. Hebron erupted in demonstrations. The Israelis responded with curfews. Raed got to class when he could, trying to stay out of the way of soldiers who would always see him as a security risk because of his convict past.
By the time he took his exams and was accepted to the Palestinian-run Bethlehem University in the fall semester of 1994, he had turned 21. He told me that he felt too old to embark on the long road to medical school. Instead, he would study English, the language he loved, and become a teacher like the one who had influenced him.
Perched high on a hilltop amid impeccably tended rose gardens and splashes of bougainvillea, the Christian university was, for Raed, a non sequitur in the squalor of his known world. Every day, he exchanged the fetid trash piles, rotting rat corpses and crumbling gray concrete of the refugee camp for the cool green of the campus’s manicured lawns and shady cypress gardens. At dawn, he woke to the cacophony of the camp: the barking of wild dogs, the crowing of roosters, the constant noise of too many people pressed too tightly together. By mid-morning, he would be enveloped in the miraculous hush of the university library. For a boy who had treasured his handful of tattered books, the sudden access to thousands of volumes was an invitation to a feast. Walking the spotless stone halls and gazing at the confident Christian girls in their short, sleeveless dresses, he felt his universe expanding into spaces he’d barely imagined.
But the work was hard. He despaired of being able to catch up with the educated scions of affluent Palestinian families. Writing to me about his anxiety, he said he was “on pens and needles” about his ability to succeed. His method of learning English word by word from a dictionary hadn’t prepared him for his U.S.-educated professors’ casual use of idiom. One professor had described a literature text as “a hodgepodge,” and it had taken Raed weeks to puzzle out the meaning. “I couldn’t even find it in thedictionary because I’d written it down as it sounded to me — `hojboj.’ There was no way I could find that!”
But he loved the new writers he was reading. Edgar Allan Poe’s melancholy symbolism echoed his own dark moods. Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” closely reflected the reality of his own closed society. Raed wrote that the younger of his two full sisters, the sparkling Nasreen, had been married off by their father to a lazy, violent and vindictive man. The marriage had turned sour within a year. Not even 20, Nasreen was trapped, just as her own mother had been. To leaveher husband would mean losing both her baby daughter and her reputation in the camp.
Raed had been against the marriage and wished he’d had the authority to stand up to his father. The tension boiled over in February 1995, when Mahmoud beat Raed’s mother Rahme, knocking out two of her teeth. Raed had tried to defend her, but he was no match for his father, who was powerfully muscular from his work as a builder. Mahmoud burned Raed’s prized textbooks and the assignments he’d toiled to write, then ordered his son from the house.
Raed, his mother and his full brother and sister moved in with their grandmother. Her house was a ramshackle trio of concrete rooms that opened onto a shedlike space sheltered from the elements by loose sheets of corrugated iron. Its only bathroom was a cold-water outhouse with a pit toilet.
Eventually, life settled into a precarious routine. Between U.N. food handouts and the small allowance I sent him, Raed managed to provide for his family. “For me,” he wrote, “the most strange thing is not God’s ability to feed birds everywhere, but his philosophy to create you in America to help me in Palestine, while the nearest and the most responsible (my father who has the duty of looking after me) has given me up.” He was, he said, “embarrassed by many debts,” but somehow managed to juggle the bills so that his sister and brother could attend a U.N.-funded college. Studying hard, he managed to make a B average in his courses.
In December 1995, when Raed sent me his grade report for the fall semester, the letter seemed to come from another country. Instead of Israeli stamps and Hebrew postmarks, this one had the stamps of the Palestinian Authority, featuring the flag that had been banned just a few months earlier.
Happy Christmas and long life for you. It was a very beautiful day when our leader Yasser Arafat entered to Bethlehem City. Many people gathered to meet him in the big square near the Nativity Church.
Raed wrote that he had been among them, cheering with thousands who thought their long struggle might almost be over.
But like all the hopeful moments of his life, this one proved brief. In both Israel and the occupied territories, it was the dark cells of secretive extremists rather than the sunlit, cheering crowds who wielded the real power. Muslim suicide bombers blew up Israeli buses; a Jewish assassin killed Rabin. As the Israeli electorate nervously voted in Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the Palestinians got better acquainted with their own leaders.
3 September, 1996
. . . Our new authority, instead of creating development and progress . . . is killing innocent people and putting innocent people in prison without sentence . . .” Raed’s brother had been arrested, stripped naked and beaten by the Palestinian police — all on the basis of a hostile neighbor’s unsupported allegation. Instead of channeling aid to the neediest in the refugee camps, Palestinian officials skimmed millions from international aid donations and then imposed a raft of new charges on people who had nothing with which to pay. Life here doesn’t change . . .
For me, life had changed. By the time Raed finished his course of study last year, I’d settled in a Virginia town of 250 people, quit my job and had a baby. As I rocked my son to sleep on the back porch, it felt like more than 10 years since I’d been the anxious reporter blundering into Raed’s refugee camp.
I’d always promised I’d go to his graduation. So last summer, on a hot July morning, I found myself back on the West Bank, in a crowded square in Bethlehem, scanning faces in search of a young man I hadn’t seen in five years.
He’d grown much taller, his adolescent scrawniness transformed into chiseled good looks. He had also become steadier; the old flares of nervous energy banked down into quiet mannerliness. We spent the day walking, catching up on all the things he hadn’t been able to convey in his letters.
He wanted to show me the university before it filled with graduates and parents for the ceremony the following day. We sat on a bench at the edge of the campus. The land fell away steeply, opening a wide, hazy vista of rolling desert hillsides. The closest hill, Jebel Abu Ghneim to the Arabs, Har Homa to the Jews, was scarred with fresh-cut roadways for a controversial new Jewish neighborhood. “It will kill the tourist business in Bethlehem, of course,” Raed said. “The Jews will build a big hotel there and bus the tourists to the Nativity Church and the Manger Square, so that no one will need to spend any money in Bethlehem anymore.”
His voice sounded matter-of-fact, defeated, stripped of the fiery anger that had animated the young stone-thrower of 10 years earlier. “I don’t like talking about politics anymore, and this is a pity,” he acknowledged. “Israel did a clever thing when they let Arafat and his men come back here. How can you have nationalist feelings when it’s a Palestinian man who controls you? And how can you speak against that man? If you do, you are a traitor or a spy. So, you think about mundane things — food, your house, money. You don’t think about abstractions like nationalism.” It wasn’t just him, he said. The whole society was different. “Even if tomorrow Netanyahu says, `I’ll give you everything,’ people here won’t change their faces. They don’t hope anymore.”
I asked him how he felt now about the boy he’d been, the soldier of Arafat who had risked so much in that cold, angry December in 1987. “I remember how I felt then, that maybe by stones we could change everything.” He stared across at the bulldozed forests of Jebel Abu Ghneim. “Now, I feel like I took five years of my life and threw it in the air.”
As we left the university, he gazed back longingly. After the next day’s graduation ceremony, he would have no further business there and probably wouldn’t be allowed on the campus. The library that he loved would be out of bounds, and he feared that his English would slip away, each hard-won word by hard-won word.
As we wandered out into the bustling streets nearby, Raed turned to me and asked if I’d like to visit the Church of the Nativity. Yes, I said, I would, since I’d never been inside.
He stopped and stared at me. “But how can that be? You’ve been here so many times. Every Christian who comes to Israel always visits the Nativity Church!”
“Raed,” I said, “You never asked me my religion.”
His eyes widened. “Well,” he said at last, “what is it?”
He spun around and strode across the road, banging his hands against a high stone wall on the other side. Still with his back to me, he doubled over as if he’d been hit in the stomach. He stayed that way for several minutes. When he finally straightened up and looked back at me, he was laughing.
“I can’t put it together . . . `Jir’ and `Jewish’ — it’s two words that don’t belong in the same sentence. All my life, the synonyms for `Jewish’ are bad things — soldiers, occupiers. The hate is planted into our hearts since we were children. Now, `Jir’ and `Jewish’ . . .”
Not knowing what else to do, we walked on in the direction of the church, following a group of nuns into its cool, dim recesses. We listened for a while to their murmured prayers and soft, sweet singing, and then wandered back outside, blinking as our eyes adjusted to the strong sunshine.
Raed turned and looked at me as if we’d never met. “I just don’t understand,” he said, “why you, a Jew, would help me.”
I could have told him that I did it for Israel, so that he would become a teacher instead of a terrorist. Or that I did it for myself, because I’d chosen journalism in the naive belief that I could change the world and been disappointed when I found I couldn’t. Instead, I told him the simplest thing: that I’d raised his hopes by bringing Rex Repass into his life and that it had seemed too unfair to desert him when those hopes had been snatched away.
He was still shaking his head, muttering “Jir and Jewish” as we took our seats in a small cafe. “When you said you are not Christian, I never expected this,” he said.
“Well,” I asked, “what did you think I was going to say?”
“I thought you were going to tell me you are a Buddhist!”
Back at the camp that afternoon, we visited both his families. “I must show respect to my father, no matter what has passed between us,” he said. “In our society a son cannot cut himself off from his father, or nobody in the society will accept him.” His father, affable as ever to his guest, proudly showed off Fatin’s newest baby, a pudgy toddler about the same age as my son.
At sunset, we left the crowded rooms behind and walked up the hills to the west. The air was sweet with summer scents of hay and jasmine. Far away, the lights of distant towns flickered in the gathering dusk. Raed named the places: Beit Ommar, an old Arab village. Gush Etzion, a modern Jewish settlement. “Israeli lights are different from Palestinian lights,” Raed said. “Israeli lights are regular, logical. Palestinian lights are a hodgepodge.” He smiled at me, proud to be master of that tricky piece of idiomatic English.
He talked of what he had been doing since his final exams in February and of what he planned to do with the rest of his life. In his dreams, he fantasized about continuing his studies, but he knew it was time he earned the money to repair his crumbling hovel, pay for decent medical care for his ailing mother, help his sisters and, finally, begin to save for the prohibitive cost of his own marriage in a society that still requires men to pay hefty dowries. At 26, he often had chest pains from the stress of so many obligations.
Reluctantly, he had all but surrendered his dream of becoming a teacher. Such jobs were hard to get and paid only about $300 a month — too little to meet all his responsibilities. He had been, he said, “adventuring in Israel” — working illegally in Tel Aviv as so many Palestinians did. Most of the time, the Israeli police turned a blind eye to the thousands of laborers who poured out of the West Bank each day, detouring around the checkpoint in plain sight of the soldiers supposedly guarding the border. But occasionally there would be security crackdowns. Raed, waiting tables in a Tel Aviv cafe, had been arrested in one of them. The police had roughed him up in front of the restaurant patrons. “They watched me being beaten as if they were watching a movie,” he said.
He had all kinds of wild schemes for his future. He would save enough money to go to India, he said, because he had heard you could buy an Indian passport there and come back to Israel as a legal foreign laborer. He would apply for a job in the controversial new Austrian-managed casino about to open in Jericho. “I will meet a foreign woman there and I will try to attract her to marry me and then maybe I can be a teacher in her country.”
When I pointed out that this didn’t sound like a great basis for marriage, he looked at me with astonishment. “Jir, does a drowning man care that he is wet?”
The day after his graduation he was going to Jericho, to begin a tryout for a job as a card dealer. Back at the camp, we sat up late as I tried to teach him the rudiments of poker and blackjack. He knew nothing about either game, not even the names of the suits or the face cards.
“This is the ace of hearts,” I said.
“That shape is called a heart?” he asked, surprised. “To me it looks like a slice of meat.”
Local opposition to the casino was intense. For Muslims, gambling is a sin, and Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement, had issued a statement on “the devil’s casino,” saying that “people there will drink the blood of martyrs which is not yet dry and will dance to the tune of moans from the wounded and the prisoners.” A local Muslim cleric added that whoever blew up the place would be doing God’s work.
Still, if Raed got the job, the pay would be more than four times what he could make elsewhere. “I know it’s total corruption,” he said, awkwardly struggling to shuffle the cards. “But does a dead man worry about being slain?”
The next day at the graduation, I sat between Raed’s two mothers, wedged tightly on a high bench inside the university’s large auditorium. Rahme wore a traditional black thobe, its front embroidered with a rainbow of silken cross-stitch. Fatin, who grew up in the Persian Gulf region, enveloped herself in a flowing abaya. There was only a scattering of such traditional robes in the vast hall: Most of the parents were middle-class Christian Palestinians in Western suits and designer dresses.
When I opened the commencement program to find Raed’s name, it was marked with a star — of more than 60 students in his graduating class, he was one of 10 who had achieved honors. As Raed walked onto the stage to get his degree, Rahme and Fatin burst into the traditional high-pitched ululation by which Arab women everywhere express their joy.
I wanted to join them, but I couldn’t muster much joy. On the stage, a famous official from the Palestinian Authority made a speech to the graduates about not settling for a bachelor’s degree but going on to pursue higher learning. I wished he’d taken a moment to reflect on the way his words would sound to someone like Raed; how they seemed to belittle that day’s achievement and taunt with visions of a future that wasn’t attainable.
Outside, after the ceremony, clusters of graduates stood with friends and relatives, taking endless photographs of one another. Raed had borrowed a camera and dashed around the campus, posing by the fountains, in the rose gardens, with all the friends he’d made in his classes. The light was failing when a school official approached him, apologetically pointing out that it was time he returned his gown and mortarboard, because the university would soon be closing for the night.
I waited by the gate as the last few straggling families made their way out, laughing together as they headed off to further celebrations. When Raed appeared, his head was down. He walked quickly through the gate. This time, he didn’t look back.
Geraldine Brooks lives in Waterford, Va. Her most recent book is Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over.
Ph,,Lookat Photos/Kai Wiedenhofer; ph,,Geraldine Brooks CAPTION: The author and her friend Raed, top; Palestinian youths greet Israeli soldiers in a West Bank refugee camp. CAPTION: At Raed’s graduation from Bethlehem University, he and his father, Mahmoud, are flanked by his mother, Rahme, right, and Fatin. Opposite, boys play war games in a Gaza refugee camp. CAPTION: Austin ophthalmologist Rex Repass, left, read about Raed in the Wall Street Journal and later worked on the West Bank; the author and Raed. At right, children celebrate the arrival of Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip in 1994. CAPTION: Palestinian children in a Gaza refugee camp.