The only Arabs I knew were those of Jewish origin, but these were not so Arabs.
The others, I should fear. The Lebanese were Arabs, the Palestinians, the Moroccans and the Iranians were Arabs too. Anyone who lived in the Middle East and was not Jewish, was an Arab, except a few Christians, who were somehow different from those I knew, but I did not quite know how.
The ancient Egyptians were the oppressors cursed by the ten plagues, then we had to rush with no time to leaven bread, and God told us not to rejoice in the death of those who drowned when the sea closed again right after our passage. Egypt, however, remained a mysterious and inviting place for good vacations, to visit the pyramids and the sphinx face-to-face. It seems that the Sinai, which was once ours, and now is theirs, it’s also a good place to go. People? No, never before crossed my mind to talk to people there, know what they were thinking or their dreams and pains.
In my youth, in a program for younth from Diaspora in Israel (the Jewish diaspora, any other did not exist. It seemed maybe an Armenian one, but I was not sure), we were told not to hitchhike with Arabs, or walk at their neighborhood because it was dangerous. Clear that such recommendations were not followed to the letter, as the first cars on the road in general were Arabs, and the streets of the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods mingled in a way that not uncommonly we’ve got there by mistake and had to pick up the pace to get back in security for our side.
I was never a prejudiced person, but very interested in the culture of the people, however life was going on without looking for these very subjects of the East, except for a strong bond with Israel. After all I lived in the Diaspora, and our problems were different. Until one day it all began to seem very strange, and I decided not to pay more attention to the recommendations of self-protection I had received. After all, who were the Palestinians, Egyptians, Turks, Iranians? Social networks have been a major lever in this approach, allowing the characters to jump of the paper and earn real lives. From the moment I opened my heart, it created a space for these people in my life, they came to have their own identity, and I started to learn the differences and particularities of each people and each individual. I started talking with them daily, and quickly began to appear in my list of friends names I do not know to pronounce – unless with the help of a friend. Any Arab one. Today I find it funny when someone thanks for adding me, and says I’m his first Jewish friend.
I don’t know if that is her real name, and Cleopatra is used as her profile photo, but I never bothered with it because I got used to respect these limitations quite common among my new friends. She always seemed to be in a hurry and having a lot to do; commonly making comments that made me laugh or gave me a bath of awareness about situations that I ignored before. Once, curious about the female reality, I proposed a group discussion about the use of hijab. Some were against it, saying they felt oppressed. Other girls were in favor, felt comfortable in this place, and this was perhaps one of the healthiest collective conversations we have had there, but unfortunately the boys were left out. One day some confusion in the group made me ask for help from administrators, and I ended up being invited to join the team.
We begun to meet online intensely, and between one or another issue in the group, we talked about ourselves, our fears, our dreams. I had always known that sense of humor was something cultural, and it was impossible for a foreigner to understand his neighbor’s joke. Confidence was also something not to be revealed in the virtual world, and it was first necessary to know the sound of the voice, the look, the family, a few years in real life, until we could call someone a friend. But we laughed together, shared our moments of darkness and each day we learned a little more about the culture of each other. Without noticing it, among other bureaucratic issues and more urgent ones, our bonds were narrowing. A sister was born. Another day, alone in the waiting room of the lab, scared of the exam to which I would submit myself, it was her who comforted me: “I’m on your side, do not be afraid”. And this presence became constant, despite our differences. We don’t have the same origin, nor profess the same faith. We even don’t dream in the same language, and know different landscapes. We share some similarities in musical tastes or flavors, but they are details near our differences. However, our hearts are opened and we are now a part one of another. Not only the Arabs won contours themselves, but now I can see people in the crowd, and among them, one of the best friends I could ever dream of having: Naima Nas, my Cleopatra.
Her name is Rafaela and had she been born 100 years ago as Queen of her people we may never have had a single war. She is someone whose face I have never seen, whose hand I have not shaken and with whom I share neither nationality, religion nor even a language. In fact until months ago we were complete strangers. It is difficult I know to classify an outcome of such a relationship as a friendship, let alone a close one. And I am not going to tell you about her many qualities except for one. She is Israeli, and now is possibly the time to tell you that I am an Arab.
Is friendship really possible between an Arab and an Israeli? The answer is usually yes BUT, in other words, a conditional yes. It is possible, in fact it happens all the time if neither one is religious, or if both are of the same faith or indeed if neither have any interest in religion in general, or in its affiliate, Politics in particular. It is also possible if either one or both somehow succeeds in supressing their national identity. What then if the proposed friendship is between a Muslim Arab and a Jewish Israeli, both deeply attached to their religious roots and fiercely proud of their own national identity? There have been a million reasons over the years for such rarity not to exist, exhaustion for one. The bombardment of terrible news of loss and destruction that follows us all day every day, often leaves no room for hope. Thank God for the small miracle that brought us both together in the amazing discussion group “Turning a New Page For Peace”. A longing for Peace was really all we had in common and I must admit that I was under no illusions on how fragile and shaky the ground was beneath us. Let us be brutally honest now, regardless of how much trust we choose to lavish on each other, there is always a small part of our self, wrapped round a defensiveness that is forever present and always ready to deploy like a protective shield. I must also admit that I find the phenomenon of Arabs pledging support for all things Israeli out of sheer spite and rage with our unpleasant surrounding, distasteful at best. Equally I will also confess my suspicious view of Israelis who claim unquestionable support of the Arabic cause. Both are in fact doing nothing more than exchanging seats yet continuing the same blame assigning game. A game we have all played for far too long with no winners and much too much loss.
We accept far too readily the claim of futility in seeking a dialogue with those branded as The Enemy. Yet in just a matter of weeks I have found that such claim is not only false but also illogical. Once we have acknowledged each other’s intentions and good will, a wall literally lifted revealing more similarities than differences. We laugh till we cry at times and all we really have is an electronic screen as medium, yet I know by the amount of times I have spat my coffee all over that screen that she is laughing just as much. Her dreams and personal wishes have come to form part of my prayers. And I know that any misfortune I suffer will generate a prayer for my sake within her prayers. I guess what I am really saying is we are not friends despite our different religion and nationality but possibly because of them. We do not care for each other’s people instead of but as well as our own. And I have just realized one more thing, she is no longer my Jewish Israeli friend, she is simply Rafaela my friend.
Rafaela Barkai & Naima Nas
YaLa Young Leaders