For the past couple of months, I’ve been contemplating a few things…graduating from undergrad, heading off to law school, a few new tattoos, a fun summer, and where this whole “peace process” is heading. In that line of thought, I decided to head down to my local coffee shop, conveniently situated next to my favorite tattoo parlor.
Ordering my typical venti blah blah blah, I accidentally bumped into the guy next to me, causing him to drop his newspaper. The story on the first page was about re-building Gaza after last summer’s war. I picked up the paper, and handed it back to its owner. After a furtive glance at my wrist, the man thanked me with a quizzical look on his face. We both proceeded through the endless line to wait for our over-caffeinated drinks. Awkwardly trying to avoid bumping into anyone else, I couldn’t help to notice that he kept looking at me. I finally made eye contact with him when we both mistook another person’s order as our own. We headed back to our spots in line when he somewhat breathlessly asked
“Are you Jewish?”
“Yeah,” I said. I realized the glance at my wrist was a glance at my Star of David tattoo I had placed there nearly eight years before.
“I’m from Hebron, you know where that is?” he said.
“It’s in Palestine” I replied.
“You call it Palestine?” he inquired.
“Yeah.” I said “So you’re Palestinian?”
He nodded his head.
“That’s cool,” I replied “I have a few Palestinian friends here. Have you been here for a while?”
It was at this point that his underlying thought process made it’s way to the surface.
“I’m sorry to ask this, why are you talking to me?” he asked.
“Do you want me to stop talking to you?” I replied.
He stopped for a moment, and I could see a few emotions run across his face: contemplation, mistrust, calculation, resolve, and finally relief.
“No, I don’t want you to stop talking to me. Will you continue to be friendly?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said. “What’s your name?”
For the rest of our (very long) wait in line, we got to know each other as best as two relative strangers could. We found out about each other’s families, what each other was studying, what languages we spoke, where we’d traveled. Finally, the barista called out his drink order. He went to the bar to retrieve it, and on his way out he waved goodbye. After a few more moments, I collected my own drink and headed out the door. He was waiting near a bench and smiled at me again, so I walked over.
“You know,” he said “We wouldn’t be doing this back home. I couldn’t talk to you. We’d hate each other.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“It’s the place,” he responded “It does that to you. You can’t get away from the hate. It’s everywhere. It’s why people want to leave. But they can’t. They can’t go anywhere, and that’s frustrating. It makes anger, and angry people everywhere.”
I sat down next to him because I didn’t know what to say. We sat there for I don’t know how long, sipping our over-caffeinated drinks. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it wasn’t unpleasant: we just sat. Finally, when there was only ice in the bottoms of our cups, he got up to leave.
“I’m glad you bumped me,” he said, a goofy grin spreading across his lips. “This is weird. No one will believe me, you know…that I made friends with you.”
I smiled back. “Will you tell them back home?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he grinned “but it doesn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Because” he smiled, picking up his things to go, “Now that I know you, maybe there are other people like you, you know, willing to talk sometimes. And that’s good, that’s very good.”
When I think about the MENA region in 2025, I think about that Starbucks experience. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for him. Realizing that the “other” just bumped into you. There were so many things he could have done. He could have ignored me, yelled at me, made up an entire back-story about the type of person I was.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he took the courageous step…to talk.
With programs like the YaLa Academy, there will be opportunities for these “Starbucks talks,” but there are three things we must do to ensure that these opportunities continue.
To read the rest of Dom’s final project for the YaLa Academy Peace Institute in Honor of Nelson Mandela, click here.