I did not come to the Middle East to maintain an attachment to privacy. I have worked in five countries in this region and each of them has stripped me bare. The invisible bubble between you and the world dissolves and you sit there, practically naked in all your layers of clothes, with yourcollarbones covered but your life exposed. Questions feel like pokes initially, like none-of-your-business jabs. This is the story of my making peace with the questions. It is a story of my love for “the involved places”, the places that do not stop at “nice to meet you” and “check, please”, the places that transcend what is appropriate or their business to form a human, intrusive life connection.
Living above Burgers Bar means I have woken up on more than one occasion wondering if there is, indeed, a portion of the population that craves a lamb burger at 8 AM. Some people wake up to the gurgling of the coffee machine or to a whiff of hazelnut coffee; Elijah and I wake up to the sizzling of ground meat.
I do not feel like I have truly unpacked my life at a place until I find a place to watch Champions League soccer games. My devoted following of the Barcelona soccer club is intertwined with my sense of home. Burgers Bar has housed my soccer fandom this year and, in the process, taught me a thing or two about the traits that recur in places I love.
Burgers Bar, Jerusalem, 9.46 PM on a Tuesday
We are one minute into the game and the guy sitting next to us is clearly rooting for the other team. Elijah and I stay mostly quiet, as though the world cannot handle our being foreigners, immigrants and Barcelona fans. I share a statistic with Elijah and the guy next to us pipes up “Oh, that just can’t be true.”
Having watched two years’ worth of soccer games in the Middle East, I know not to be surprised by the intrusion or the indignation. A few months ago, I was the only woman in a restaurant of 48 men watching the Real Madrid-Barcelona game. (Yes, I counted, between successive bites of hummus consumed in the hope that eating would mitigate the awkwardness.) I have encountered the sheer shock that washes over people when they discover I can tell the difference between soccer and synchronized swimming.
The man sitting next to us asks me to look up the soccer statistic again and I oblige. I was right the first time. The conversation window is wide open now, even though I am staring at the screen hard enough to burn holes through the soccer players’ jerseys.
“Are you two together?” he asks.
“Oh, for how long?”
Elijah answers him.
“Are you married?,” the man follows up.
“No, we are not,” I volunteer with some irritation.
“Wow, after so much time together, my mother would have some questions about that!”
“My mother has questions about that too,” Elijah says humorously to diffuse the tension and to stop me from shoving feminist theory and a speech on making assumptions about strangers down this stranger’s throat.
A conversation about Elijah’s alma mater leads to the stranger making a bet with Elijah that the university’s founder was not a Supreme Court Justice. More iPhone Googling ensues.
Our team scores.
“Did you know that all the streets in this neighborhood are named after non-Jews?”
I look at Elijah and he knows I’m practically telepathically beaming “What is this? Fun Fact Hour during the soccer game?”
We then, naturally, proceed to name the side streets of the neighborhood and Google the religious beliefs of the people who bequeathed their name to them.
80 more minutes of soccer, coupled with 80 minutes of questions. By the end of the game, we knew that Barcelona was the superior team, the stranger “hated Italians — oof, Italians!”, the stranger thought I looked Italian (draw your own conclusions). He was also convinced I must have had at least one Jewish grandparent given the name of my hometown. Though himself unmarried, he nonetheless offered marriage advice (“it is best to take care of these sorts of matters early in life”) and inquired as to “how you got such a cheap apartment in this neighborhood!”
If you are reading this, dear stranger, you should come take a look at our kitchen and all your questions will be answered.
Same Burgers Bar, same Barcelona squad, different Tuesday night
I have returned from the Dead Sea with exactly one sunburned shoulder. The bartender and I are laughing about this and are exchanging information on the other aspects of my life she has become privy to after successive Barcelona-watching nights, ranging from the progress of my graduate school applications to our strategy for mold removal after the heavy rain.
“Oh, my wife LOVED the Dead Sea!” – from a stool next to ours.
Here we go again.
“It is a very unique experience,” Elijah agrees kindly. I point to the screen to suggest, unkindly, that the game is about to start and I am not about to discuss my views on marriage again.
“Are you two married?”
“No, but let me guess — you guys are!”
“We are, we are, and we are just loving this trip to Israel, you know?”
“That is so good to hear,” goes Elijah. The Champions League anthem plays in the background, I casually glare.
Pass, pass, Messi, pass, Iniesta, foul, corner, pass, offsides, pass, shot on goal. Next time I tune in, I hear this:
“There just aren’t enough organic, fair trade places in California, you know?”
No, actually, I did not. As compared to… Portland?
“No, really. It is just so hard to find that kind of thing there. I cannot imagine how you guys do it here!”
Elijah resists the urge to tell this man that, in this country, when he is reassured that something is organic-fair trade-grown by loving angels who sprinkle pixie dust on it, the salesperson often has no clue if that is true.
“You know, the conflict stuff…. that just seems so silly to me. You know what I think the solution to it all is?”
Now I tune back in. This is common and I relish it every time: A foreigner, usually a newcomer, arrives in Jerusalem, bears witness and it all makes sense. He has it – the elusive solution to The Conflict. Never mind that Juanita Leon was right two years ago in her assessment of Colombia and every conflicted place: “You live there for a week, it all makes sense. You know everything. You live there for a month, and suddenly you know nothing at all.”
Elijah and I lean in, as the Dead Sea-loving wife and organic-loving husband are about to share the peace plan. The man utters “… well, I’d just build casinos!”
That was earnestly one we had not heard before.
Barcelona won that night too. So did curiosity: from casinos to kosher Mexican food, and from organic certifications to wedding ceremonies by the Dead Sea.
There is a finite number of answers to “you’re not married?!”, but an infinite range of shocked, indignant reactions when people hear we are unwed. What is also finite is my irritation at the questions. There was a point in life when I measured home by where the anchors were – a point at which the anchors were physical: Home was where I lived long enough to own wine glasses, passable sheets, and specialized floor cleaner. Home was where I lived long enough to not worry about how to carry all the books to the next place. To some extent, it is still that point in life, the point that Thought Catalog describes in a piece titled How To Be Young:
Think you’re old and never realize how young you actually are. Fixate on the fact that you love The Container Store and Bed, Bath & Beyond and drinking tea and eating organic. This means something to you. It means you’re figuring out how to be an adult and you won’t be left behind. Show your receipt from Crate and Barrel to a 30-year-old and say, “See? I’m getting there. Let me through!”
Slowly, though, home has evolved into the place I have lived long enough for people to ask questions. In Israel, that is often not very long at all, but the more you put down roots, the more bottles of floor cleaner and mold removing spray that you buy, the more detailed, intricate and personal the questions get. I was initially frustrated at how difficult it is to ‘belong’ here if you were not naturally born into the two axes that can define the narrative: religion and the conflict. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, neither Israeli nor Palestinian. It has been surprisingly difficult to carve out a place for myself given those parameters.
That place, the involved, question-asking place, was born out of ceasing to resist intrusion. The owner of the laundromat is curious as to why we keep a couple’s dirty laundry in a shared laundry bag. I clumsily attempt to answer, he laughs, waves around to suggest it’s strange and inappropriate, laughs some more. Next time, he calls me “hamuda” – cutie. I do my laundry at a place where someone calls me cutie. On a regular basis.
I buy my muffins at a place where the women repeatedly tell me that “this food will make you fat.” The man at the corner store knows exactly how much nargileh is smoked in this house and does not hide his feelings about it.
On my walk home today, I noticed there was not a patch of grass in the park without a grill on top of it. It is Israeli Independence Day and it comes complete with F-16 fly-overs, fireworks, and all the grilled meat you can eat. In a clear 4th-of-July shout-out, I even saw a couple making smores. I waded through the park, careful not to step on toys or knock over the double strollers that look like tanks and exude more confidence on the streets of Jerusalem than I do. My walk was interrupted to: receive a kebab, explain that I neither have a barbecue nor – gasp – an oven at home, to receive another kebab, to hold a child while his brother’s diaper was tended to, to pat a dog, to eat yet another kebab.
There is a network of people whose knowledge of the rhythms of my life here, my tastes, my preferences when it comes to laundry, Barcelona or application essays creates a sense of home. These relationships may range from the superficial to the intimate, but they are bound by questions and by a sense of involvement. It is the involved places that I love, the places that are not afraid to ask, that do not care to mask their indignation at an answer, that shove kebabs and babies in your arms, even when you have no particular affection for either.