Conversations in Jerusalem

By Leigh Hoffman

“What do you think about the Arabs?” the old man sitting on the park bench next to me whispers, folding his body inward as he leans towards my ear, covering the empty space between us with his frail body. His delicate eyes look up at mine, glimmering with the faint mist of hope and fear.

I meet his gaze, and turn my eyes away momentarily. His head perks up, and I slowly mumble a delicate string of words, a balance suspended in the cool Jerusalem afternoon air.

“Well, I, I, think they are okay…I think they are much better than the media seems to make them out to be,” I finally muster, largely confused by the motives of his surprise question, breaking the silence of my 10 minute rest on the bench.

“Ah! Good!” He beams a smile wider than his eyes, and sits up erect, facing the road.

“You live in here, in East Jerusalem?”  I smile back. We are no longer whispers, his secret uncovered safely for my ears.

“Yes, my whole life. I have seen a lot of changes.”

“From before the occupation began?”

“Ah, yes. My parents belonged to no state when the British took over, I was born into that idea, yet with a Jordanian I.D. Now, I have this I.D., and all I know is that Jerusalem is my home.” He waves a blue-plastic rectangle at me, indicating his Jerusalem I.D. Following the Israeli occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, all Palestinians documented in the Israeli census taken that year as living in Jerusalem were issued this type of I.D., a unique status in Israel. People holding this I.D. are permanent residents of the state of Israel, but are not citizens. They are the only Palestinians living in land conquered by Israel in 1967 who are allowed to travel freely within both Israel and the West Bank. Those that were not present at the time of the census were not granted such status, and lost the right to reside in Jerusalem. Permanent residents of Israel, including Palestinians in East Jerusalem, are permitted to apply for Israeli citizenship, following the naturalization process which including swearing allegiance to Israel and renouncing all other citizenships. According to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2005, 93% of Palestinians in East Jerusalem had permanent residency and 5% had Israeli citizenship. As permanent residents, those with Jerusalem I.D.s are permitted to vote only in municipal elections, yet pay all levels of taxes

I lean back on the park bench, soaking in the heavy Jerusalem sun. Turning to my new friend, I smile. “And now you spend your days on park benches.”


“Can I tell you something?” The Polish man sleeping on the bed next to me at our hostel disrupts my obvious reading, and I peer up above the pages. Our conversation has been paused and re-started multiple times; he is always the first to break the silence between us. I rest my open book on my knee, by this point able to determine from the slight tilt of his head that he hopes to work out some thoughts with me.

“You know, I thought this hostel would be run by Jews,” he begins.

My lips purse together, and I glance at him inquisitively. Noticing my confusion, his reply comes abruptly. “Well, we are in Israel, after all.”

“We’re in East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian. Most people who live here, who run hostels here, are Palestinian.”

“I tried to practice Hebrew with the owner, and now he pretends I don’t even exist! He hates them, the Israelis, you know.” Amidst his staggered English and thick Polish accent, his words are clear. His conviction is clear; how could they hate them? It seems to me, however, that my words are not clear to him; either he is not listening, or does not understand the history and present of the land he is spending the night on.

I pause, glimpses of possible paths to take this conversation flashing through my head. Mental shutters opened as I remind myself that he is a tourist, maybe doesn’t know much beyond the short paragraphs in his Polish guidebooks. Those same shutters slammed shut as I remember my exhaustion, physical and mental, at trying to explain history and guide people’s ideas to different conclusions, as I remember the book resting on my knee that I was immersed in.

“The owners of this hostel are from Nablus. They’ve lived their whole lives under Israeli occupation. They have special permits to work in Jerusalem, which took years to be issued. Now they work here in Jerusalem, and Israelis are building housing units two blocks away, and Palestinian families who have lived there their whole lives are forced to leave, their homes demolished.” Palestinians living in the West Bank are issued Palestinian I.D. cards, documenting their name and religion in a green plastic enclosing. People with these I.D.s are not permitted to enter Israel, unless with special permission (the process for acquiring a work permit is years-long and restricts anyone who has served time in Israeli prisons; visit permits are also issued on rare occasions permitting people to visit imprisoned and hospitalized family members in Israel).

“I just thought, we are in Israel, so they must be Jews…” his head tilts away from me, letting me return to my book.


My feet wander across the golden stones, treading no particular path as I wind through the alleys of the Old City. The call to prayer echoes through the air, the murmur of shopkeepers and tourists spreads through the narrow streets like wind blowing through the fronds of palm trees, whistling through the cracks in ancient walls.

“Welcome! Welcome!” The classic Palestinian greeting berates at me from all directions as I meander through the marketplace; I turn and smile, nod my head in a half-ward tilt, to each man who calls out to me.

Fadalu! Welcome!” The textile merchant extends his arm into his shop; I finally decide to meet the greeting, and enter. I notice an Israeli flag for sale, and feeling the heat of bravery in my throat, I muster a question I have been formulating all day.

“Excuse me, can I ask you a question? I noticed that you are selling an Israeli flag. Many of these stores, all owned by Palestinians, sell Israeli things, like I.D.F. (Israeli Defence Force) shirts, things about loving Israel with pictures of M-16s. Is that hard in any way? Like, do you have any feelings about selling the tourists products in obvious support of the Occupier?”

He chuckles, and ushers me into his shop. He calls his nephew over, and whispers in his ear to bring two cups of tea, bidun (without) sugar. I sit, appreciating the vast array of colours and textures hanging from the walls.

“So what were you asking? Oh yes. Listen, this is all for tourists. We do what we have to do. The situation is hard here. But I feel something about you. What are you? Jewish? Christian?” I sip at the scalding tea in my hands, thankful for finally having been offered a cup without sugar, yet detecting a sweetness in its saturated taste. Despite literally meaning ‘none,’ in practice, bidun tends to mean ‘only a little,’ as I have come to learn that tea without any sugar is quite a strict social taboo.

“I am Jewish. I have been living in Palestine for the past three months.”

“Ah, Jewish. All my customers are Jewish. And yet you lived in Palestine? What does your country think of that?”

“Canada? I don’t think Canada really has anything to say about it.”

“Canada? Are you not Israeli?”

“No, I am not. I am from Canada. I am Jewish, but not Israeli.”

“What is the difference?”

“Well, I do not have an Israeli citizenship. I will never get one. I am Jewish, all my family is, and I was raised as such. Israel likes to think that that means that I am Israeli, that I have a right to be, but I do not think so. Why would I have the right, and you do not?”

The textile merchant smiles, and repeats, “The Israeli flags are for the tourists. The situation here is hard. But this place, yet not state, is my home.”


I maneuver my massive backpack in front of the train seat, climb over it, and settle into my seat. My legs are swung over the side, careful not to disturb the young woman sitting beside the window, peering out at the streets whizzing by as the train starts to move. She glances at my bag, then up at me.

“Where are you from?” Her golden hair is loosely covering her shoulders, her brown eyes peer at me through her soft-framed lenses, delicate femininity unfamiliar to me offering an air of comfort and care.

“Canada.” The reply has become boring to me by this point.

“Oh! Where?”

“I live in Montreal.”

Baruch Hashem (Hebrew for ‘bless god)! I lived in Montreal for five years.” We exchange simplicities, basic knowledge of our lives. When she lived in Montreal, what her family did there.

“And why did your family move to Israel?” I ask, curious as to why the light in her eyes at her discussion of our shared city was dimming.

“We are religious. It was hard there. But, baruch hashem, it is spiritual here. It feels better.” As the train progresses through the city center, our conversation turns. She asks where I am traveling from, where I am traveling to.

“I just came from Jordan. I am now going to meet a friend on the other side of the city.”

“Jordan? Were you scared?”

“What do you mean? No, I felt very safe.”

“Oh, because of the Arabs. There is Hezbollah in Jordan. Baruch Hashem there is not here.” The train slows as it turns into my stop. I step up, pull my bag over my shoulders, and smile goodbye. Overcrowded with eager thoughts ramming against a door that did not have time to open, my head was pounding with all the ways I could explain that, no, there is no Hezbollah in Jordan, and that no, the Arabs are not scary, they have a beautiful, welcoming culture, and that isn’t it sad that spirituality can thrive for her here but not for those living on the other side of the city? With no time to continue, I grab hold of her dimming eyes, full of holy wonder.

Shavua Tov (Good week),” I wave to her as I step off the train.


“Fadalu! Welcome!” I am walking on Jaffa Street, in West Jerusalem, blocks away from the invisible line drawn through the city maps, through the city ways of life, which divides East and West, occupied and free, illegally annexed and ‘legally’ colonized. The familiar greeting feels distant, borrowed from the world on the other side, and hangs foreign in the air.

“Come, join us!” A old man, over 70, extends his frail arm, outstretched from his seat. His head is wrapped in a red keffiyeh, and his rotting teeth are streaked with brown stains. I sit on the empty chair, and wrinkled hands eagerly grab an extra plate, filling it with morsels of food from each course spread across the table.

“I am a Palestinian Muslim, born and live on the Mount of Olives. I have lived here my whole life, my family in the same house since the 1400s. I am a citizen of no country, have no passport. I have traveled the whole world, taken 284 flights.” Ibrahim tells his story without prompt; in between bites of fried fish he smiles up at me, catches my eager eye and ensures I understand as we exchange nods. Between bites of food and life history, Ibrahim looks up at the world passing our table, greeting everyone who passes.

“Shalom!” His Hebrew accent is perfect, and he places his right hand over his heart as he wishes the men wearing kippot Shabbat Shalom. Their faces react from smiles and appreciation to confusion and contempt.

“Salaam Aleikum!” His Arabic is graceful, words trained into his tongue since he was able to speak, yet shakes the still air of Hebrew Jewish Jerusalem, shattering the stutter of casual conversation until life and movement buzzes again moments later.

Ibrahim’s face is full of life, his wrinkles stretching to the sun as he re-collects stories of traversing 44 United States in search of a home. When he was finally offered American citizenship, he refused, realizing where his life could be the fullest. His gentle movements incorporate the reactions of each person to his simple greetings; his arm falters with his fork when he is met with scornful eyes, and he revels in the warm sun when a smile is flashed to him, a head turns back and acknowledges his outstretched arm with care.

“The life here is hard.” This sentence has become all too familiar to me, and I am strangely comforted to hear it here, on this side.

“But you know, when we are born, God does not see ‘Muslim,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Buddha.’ Each is a human being, and I see each person here as a human being. Some have more power, yes, but what can you do? I hope to live my life with humanity at its core.” The sun is starting to set, and the time has come for me to leave. I stand, extend my arm in appreciation to Ibrahim, and together, we thank the sun for its universal light, which knows no walls or division.


Marhaba! (Hello)” I call out to the teenage boy gesturing at me, guiding his hands through the air from the distance between us into his restaurant.

“Ah! Welcome! You speak Arabic?” His face shines with his reply.

Shweia (only a little),” I confess, smiling timidly.

M’wein? (from where?)” His slender face questions my origins gently, curious and intrigued by the tourist who is speaking to him in his native tongue.

“Canada. Ente? (you?)”

His left hand has stopped swaying through the air between us, now closed in a loose fist raised above his head.

Falasteen! (Palestine!)” His face explodes as his smile extends beyond his cheeks, eyes releasing beams of glimmering light comparing the bright gold rays of sunshine reflecting off the Old City stones.


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