The Jerusalem Hotel
Chapter I: Home At Last
Even though he wasn’t born there and had never visited, Adam always felt a Palestinian at heart. His parents had immigrated to Canada as a young couple just one year before the 1967 war, before the fall of East Jerusalem to the ‘yahood’ Jews, before a million Palestinian were forced to flee for their life to become refugees scattered all across the globe. But not his parents, they had escaped all of this. They were already in Canada when the rest of Palestine was lost. They had left Palestine, a newly wed couple in search of a better life, in search of a dream, a new promised land, a land far away from all the troubles of the Middle East. They were no different than the millions of immigrants from around the world that had made the move to North America. Except they were his parents, and it was his beloved Palestine that they left behind. They left it for a new promised land. In their place came the Jews in search of a historic promised land. Adam thought of his parents as cowards and never forgave them for willingly leaving Palestine. For him not only he was denied a homeland, but to make it worst, he couldn’t call himself a refugee like other Palestinians in exile.
Even though he barely spoke Arabic, he told everyone he was a Palestinian. ‘Ana falastini aeish fi kanada,’ he would always say in his broken Arabic, I’m a Palestinian living in Canada. And so it was that as soon as he finished his university studies, he booked a one-way ticket to Palestine via Amman as Palestine had no airports and so he had to enter by Allenby Bridge from Jordan to Israel. ‘I’m studying international law to help Palestine,’ he was often heard saying through his university years.
Before leaving Canada, he arranged to volunteer for Al Haq, a Palestinian NGO that specializes in monitoring Israeli violations of international law. His parents tried everything to convince him to abandon his crazy plans. How could you waste your career volunteering? You can get the best job here! How is Palestine going to help you? No one can fight the ‘yahood’. They even control all of America. They tried everything. They wondered ‘where did he get those ideas about Palestine?’ They knew better. They knew that their youngest son was doing what they really wanted most, but also what they feared most. Adam himself was not afraid. Well, maybe a little worried of what to expect and on how he was going to react when he sees Israeli soldiers walking around with their machine guns, smug, arrogant and entitled. But when he boarded the plane, he felt at peace. He was finally going home.
He wanted to live in Jerusalem, and in particular in the old city, something told him that this is where he belonged. He found a small room in a boarding house in the Armenian Quarter, owned by an Armenian woman, Ayda. Three years on, he was still living there. Ayda usually rented out three rooms to pilgrims on short-term bases but she made an exception for Adam. Ayda was in her sixties, had never married, and had no children so she treated Adam like family. She gave him reduced rates, stating between heavy buffs on her cigarette, ‘I give you discount only because you live here for a long time and never trash the place like those damn religious nuts.’ In truth he couldn’t afford to pay anymore and she knew that. She loved having him there and he loved being there.
The house, like all houses in the Armenian quarter, was old yet solidly built from thick mud walls and a beautiful white limestone exterior, the signature of Jerusalem. His room had a window with a thick cushioned ledge. Outside the window, an exuberant vine tree somehow created a perfect frame from which the sun could shine. Adam often would sit on that ledge drinking his Arabic coffee and listening to Ayda complaining about her boarders. The warmth of the gentle sunrays of a Jerusalem spring morning, peeking through the glass and the vine leafs, is something he will always feel in the deepest places of his soul.
His everyday commute to the small Al Haq office in Bethlehem was always painful, always full of images of Palestinians waiting on the checkpoint, of Israeli soldiers stopping young and old refusing them entry to Jerusalem. Some would have too much pride to show any emotions and would just silently turn back, others would openly cry. Jerusalem was only a ten-minute drive for them, but most had lived their entire adult lives without once getting a permit. While Adam’s foreign passport let him travel freely, others were imprisoned in their own city. The silently turning back locals was an image that would haunt him all his life
On the days when the Bethlehem checkpoint was closed and he couldn't commute to his work, he would walk to the nearby Jerusalem Hotel. The hotel was located just outside Damascus gate, not far from the shared taxis to Bethlehem. Its vine-covered courtyard and fast Internet always attracted expats calling back home on Skype in all sorts of languages. The courtyard quickly became his favorite place to write. As a volunteer, Al Haq did not pay him and so his freelance journalism was his only way to make money to pay for rent and food. The background noise in the café helped him write, and having fast internet meant he could Skype with his editors, often living in far away places totally shielded from life in Palestine. With time the staff knew his favorite table and allowed him to sit there all day writing. He would buy one pot of Arabic coffee and sit there writing for hours. The courtyard in the Jerusalem Hotel became his second home. Only on Friday night with the live oud player was he asked to vacate the table to the many local guests that came to listen to the magic of live oud and sing along to old classic songs as they smoked their shisha.
As a foreigner, Adam was forced to renew his visa every three months by existing Israel back to Jordan and re-entering. Jordan never interested him, so he would cross the border and immediately turn back. This comfortable existence came to an abrupt end on one of these visa trips. The Israeli border soldier, a curly-haired young blonde who must have been no older than eighteen, stamped 'denied entry' on his Canadian passport when he tried to enter again. This was a merely one hour after he existed. He was given no reason and told that he is now persona non grata. This, to him, was the end of a life long dream of living in Palestine – a forced exile from a homeland he never had.
Chapter II: Love At First Sound
It was 20 years ago when I first met her. It was on my last day in Palestine, and I didn’t know it then that I would be denied entry on that same day. I had been writing an article for a Canadian online magazine at the Jerusalem Hotel. Usually when I got into my writing groove, the world around me seemed to stop, the background noise helped me write, and tune out from the outside world. At the Jerusalem, Arabic mixed comfortably with English, sometimes other languages, Italians were particularly loud and their laughter would fill the place, and even – but rarely – some Israelis would venture from west Jerusalem to the Hotel. I was planning to cross the border to Jordan to renew my visa, and decided to squeeze in a few hours at the Jerusalem Hotel finishing an article before taking the last shared taxi - Nigme Taxi - to the border at midday.
I had been writing for over an hour when the background noise suddenly leaped to the foreground in the form of a French accent. I don’t think it was the accent that made me stop. It was more the way the words came out effortlessly. Poetic. It wasn’t what she was saying. Something else caused her words to come alive and magically separate from the background noise. I needed to look up, see how she looked like, to talk to her, but I knew I had to correctly choose my moment. I waited for the waiter to go and come back with the coffee she had ordered. By then, I had stopped writing and listened to her conversation. She gave a long monologue about a new play she was writing. So she must be a playwright then.
If I'd fallen in love with her voice, it was nothing compared how I felt when I looked up and saw her face. She was the splitting image of the ‘Laila Khalid’ poster I had on the wall of my room. I can’t explain it in a more elegant way but she was a walking cliché image of the woman of my dreams. I was, in many ways, seeing her every morning, drinking my coffee on the window ledge, staring at that poster, partially obscured by the shadows of the vine tree. Now she is right here in front of me, a French version of my ‘Laila Khalid’ poster. She was beautiful, and not in a subtle way. She had dark skin with bluish-green eyes. She wore a white-checkered scarf loosely warped around her neck, so as to show a bit of cleavage. She used her hands when she talked like most people from the Mediterranean. I thought she looked Italian, but her accent told me she was French. She must work in one of those NGOs, I thought to myself. I was to leave for the boarder in an hour, but I had this sudden, inexplicable desire to walk up to her table and ask, who are you? Are you a dream? Have you escaped the poster on my wall?
Back then I was shy, and so instead of talking to her I just ordered another coffee and tried to go back to my writing, but in reality time had frozen. I was frozen with love, fear, or was it desire? I looked up, and there she was alone staring into the distance. Her companion had left and she was deep in thoughts. Then she suddenly looked directly at me. I was caught staring and I instantly blushed. ‘Hi. I’m Rita, you seem so engrossed in your writing, may I ask what are you writing,’ she asked with a kind smile as if to say ‘don’t be embarrassed’. Now in retrospect, I think she started the conversation to cover for me getting caught red handed – and red faced.
In my confusion, I forgot to introduce myself or reply to her question. ‘Can I order you anything?’ I asked. ‘No, thank you, I’ve just had my coffee and I’m about to leave.’ About to Leave! No don’t leave, not yet! I was thinking fast and her words had put me off balance even more. I mumbled something about needing to go to Jordan soon. Again she came to my rescue. ‘I just noticed you writing so passionately. Can I know about what?’ She gave a little smile of entitlement as if it is natural for her to ask a stranger any question she wanted. I told her that I was a lawyer, but wrote in my spare time. I told her about Al Haq, we talked without a sense of time until I realized that I had just missed the last shared Taxi to the border. I'd need to pay the fare for a private taxi now - four times the cost of the shared taxi. I didn’t care. I wanted to hear her voice.
I learned that she was half-Palestinian, half-French, born in an African country that no longer existed. She laughed at this fact, and said that both her place of origin and place of birth no longer exist on paper, but only in her heart. She was a playwright living in Ramallah, an expat - like me. She told me of her decision to dedicate her life to Palestine. For her, telling the Palestinian story was all that mattered. ‘Ana mish bint imi, ana bint falastine - I’m not the daughter of my mother. I’m the daughter of Palestine.’ It must have been three hours later before I realized that I had to leave immediately or I would miss my chance to cross the bridge today. I told her that I had to leave. I asked her if we could meet again. ‘Yes. Yes. Here tomorrow,’ she smiled and then she was gone even before me.
I quickly paid the 16 shekels for two coffees and hurried to the Nigme Taxi. As expected, I paid four times the cost of a shared taxi for a private one, which somehow took two more people. I was sure each had to pay the full price of a private taxi too! At least I was on my way to the border. I had done this trip many times, and every time I did it I felt sadness as we near the border. Even though I knew I'd be back in the evening. It was that psychological thing of crossing the border to another country, of leaving my beloved Palestine, which made me sad.
This time there was more than just sadness. I had this unexplained feeling of emptiness – as if I was the last person on earth. Tears were falling freely on my cheeks, but I only noticed them when I tasted the salt on my lips. Perhaps I was crying over the fleeting love I had just experienced. Perhaps it was the built-up anger from what I'd seen while working for Al Haq over the last few years - from all the injustices I witnessed against my people. I don’t know why, but I cried and cried until I reached the boarder. Luckily I was sitting in the back seat and the two passengers didn’t see my moment of weakness. I think the driver glanced in the mirror but pretended not to notice me crying.
I got there with only two hours to spare. I crossed the bridge and I quickly turned back with the next bus. I had to make it before the Israelis closed their borders for the day. There is a silver lining for being late, I thought. At least they can’t make me wait for hours on the border, which is what they did every time I did this trip, four times a year. ‘Security check,’ they would always say.
I made it back to the Israeli side half an hour before the border closed. When the 18-year-old looked at the multitude of stamps in my passport and asked me to wait, I knew this meant I would be detained and questioned, as always. They would make me wait, but this time they could only make me wait for thirty minutes, as they too needed to go home. I sat on the bench, reading my book, and waited for the security officer and the familiar routine of meaningless ‘security’ questions. Within a few minutes, the same young woman, who I now have seen three times in one day, appeared with my passport in her hand, which I thought was unusual. Usually the process involved long questioning by at least three officers before I even get a glimpse of my passport. She looked at me with a blank expression, then casually stamped my passport and said in her strong Israeli accent, ‘You have been denied entry to Israel’. ‘Wait, What! Why? I’m a Canadian citizen. We have a reciprocal visa agreement!’ My words were useless. They had stamped my passport persona non grata. I was denied entry to Israel because of my Palestinian background and my work with Al Haq. I felt an urgent need to be in Jerusalem - my small room, the smell of the Armenian sfeha that Ayda used to bake. Is it really possible that I will never again walk at night in the coble-stoned lanes of the old city?
And Rita. We just met and I was going to see her tomorrow at the Jerusalem Hotel. Was it by chance that I met Rita, the daughter of Palestine, the living image of the poster in my room? Was it by chance that she was the last person I saw before I was denied access to my homeland?
Chapter III: A Chance Encounter
Through the years, I have accepted two facts: I will never again visit Palestine, and I will never see Rita.
I worked for a big law firm in Canada. I married a Lebanese-Canadian, and had two beautiful daughters. Life goes on, and we adapt. I adapted to join the crowd. No longer was I that young man with the unrealistic dreams of liberating Palestine. In truth, I still had dreams, but they shifted. I had plans to start an NGO. I wanted to call it JOE, short for Justice On Earth. I worked hard saving money, and believed that one day I would create my own NGO. One day, I would change the world.
In reality, I was all talk and no action. I was sucked into the cogs of the machine. Saving money to change the world turned to saving money to buy a house, to pay the bills, to pay for my daughters' education, to take my wife on a romantic holiday to a Mexican beach under the blazing sun and by the warm waves. Life was normal. I was normal, and my parents were finally happy.
Though I had long forgotten about my days in Palestine and my fleeting love with Rita, distant memories would hit me in the most unexpected times. I would be with friends in a bar, or walking by the beach, or watching my daughters’ soccer game, or on a flight to a business meeting. I would taste the tears before I would realize that I’d been silently crying.
It was exactly fourteen years later that I met Rita again. I was in New York, walking down Broadway, heading to the Tribeca Tavern to meet an old friend that I hadn't seen in years. Suddenly, there she was. I was sure it was her because she hadn’t changed a bit. She was exactly the same, but more matured and without a scarf around her neck. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know why, but I wanted to turn around and pretend I didn’t see her. I think I wanted to preserve the Laila Khalid image that I'd kept of her in my mind to stay mysterious forever. Was I afraid that if I met Rita again, that the fleeting love story would shatter in front of my eyes, that I would either fall out of love, or fall deeper in love. Either prospect scared me, and now that she was in front of me I just froze. Her eyes fell on me and glinted with recognition. ‘Where have you been, habibi? I thought I would meet you again in the Jerusalem Hotel’, she asked, as if it was yesterday. Her words brought me happiness, unexplained, deep in my soul, but a sense of trepidation. People change. I wondered if she had changed. I had changed. ‘I missed your voice,’ I blurted out, taking her and myself by surprise.
We sat down on a bench. Our shoulders touched lightly, casually. She placed her arms around me and hugged me as if we were two old lovers. Her warmth and the smell of Jasmine had melted my heart and I felt warmth in spite of a cold winter wind and all the New York snow all around us. Time had stopped, and right there in the cold winter of New York, I was back in Jerusalem, in the warmth of the sun shining through the vine-covered courtyard of the Jerusalem Hotel, in Rita’s arms. We talked freely like any two friends that just met after a long separation. I was happy in ways hard to explain but I also felt angry. I was angry with her for still living in Palestine, at myself for forgetting Palestine - and for fantasizing about abandoning my family and following her to Palestine. I had to respect her enough to tell her that I was married. But, again, why would she care? True, she was the poster woman in my life. True, she was the only love I knew. Granted, our love was a poem, a romantic tale of two strangers whose only shared moments are the coincidental run-ins in far away cities spanning decades of change, and decades of sameness too. Was it just a far fetched story that should have never been written? But no I was sure that we had some sort of a magical connection. I didn't know what to call it, but for lack of better terms, I called it love.
But how did she feel about me, I wondered as I looked at her eyes that would not tell me her secrets? Did she call every acquaintance she met a Habibi? Did she remember every love-struck face, and I’m sure many would have confessed their dying love to her? Did she feel the electricity I was feeling? I looked at her and didn’t know what to say more. She had told me that she will be flying back tomorrow to Palestine. But that Palestine is lost. ‘There is no hope’, she said, ‘every one is there just to make money and pretend to be doing it for Palestine.’ I told there are still people that believe in fighting for Palestine. She gave me that look as if to say what do you know anyway. I told her there is always hope, but she laughed at me. She called me an idealist. I was late for my meeting, so we exchanged numbers and promised not to leave it for another fourteen years. I walked away, conflicting feelings brewing in my head, but all I could think about is how much I miss Palestine.
Chapter IV: The Days That Remain
Adam was no longer the idealist. He lived a practical life. He had a wife, two daughters, and a good job. But deep inside, he never forgot Palestine. He never forgot Rita. But he was afraid to go back to Palestine or to meet Rita again. He was afraid that reality would not measure up to his imagination.
He had met Rita last year by chance in New York but he wasn’t sure what to make of that chance encounter. Was it destiny? Was it a sign that he should go back to Palestine? He wanted to be a warrior for justice, but he had also wanted a family, to be a faithful husband and a loving father. He wondered if he could be the hero and still a loving family man.
Meeting Rita made him think hard about his life. Is it really possible to be multiples of identities? She had been truer to herself than he would ever be. She didn’t just love Palestine, but she lived her life for Palestine. She was a true daughter of Palestine, but he was just an idealistic fool. It would be unfair to contact her again, to go back to Palestine. But Adam found himself with a ticket straight to Palestine. As he watched the clouds pass beneath his tiny plane window, he dreamt of his homecoming. He thought about that vine-covered courtyard of the Jerusalem Hotel. He wondered if he would see Rita there. He wondered if the Jerusalem Hotel would even be still there. It was.