“We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.”
On my second day in Israel I gazed right down into the heart of Syria. Thirty-seven miles from where I stood, civil war ravaged Aleppo and Damascus. The number of deaths had climbed to 35,000. The number of “displaced people” soared past 400,000. War besieged me but for the first time in months, I felt safe.
I stood 1,000 meters above sea level atop Mount Bental, one of two remaining craters formed from a volcano that last erupted more than 50,000 years ago. Beyond the mountain’s cracked ledges I spotted Druze villages. Crests of mountains in the Upper Galilee. The tip of Mount Hermon, a snowcapped ridge on the Lebanon-Syria border, punctured the sky.
I strangled my leather notebook as I thought of Carlos. Without his hands on my skin, my future seemed boundless.
It was July 2012. I was twenty-two years old and had traveled from Miami to Israel on a free, ten-day “birthright” trip. I was familiar only with Jewish culture in the United States, my mother Jewish yet unreligious, my father raised Baptist but now unreligious, too. More than 360,000 young Jewish people from sixty-four countries had visited Israel on these heritage trips since they began in 1999. Along with the Israeli government, countless Jewish groups around the world funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the organization, determined to “teach” us our history, reveal our roots, win our support for the State of Israel.
An eagle circled overhead, its caw rivaling our tour guide’s voice.
“Just beyond those white United Nations buildings is Syria,” David said, “and where we stand right now was once their land, too.”
Thirty-eight other young Jewish-Americans huddled around David as he explained the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israel right here on Mount Bental. All of this was new to me. I stepped away from the group, dry earth crunching beneath my deteriorating blue sneakers.
I couldn’t see what David called the disengagement line, the border between Israel and Syria, but I could see broken glass in the windows of Syrian buildings. Vast, green fields. Roadways slicing into the earth. From my perch on the mountain, I felt as though I was staring at a map, as though the divided patches of land—the Syrian-Israeli border before me—was nothing but a printed piece of paper, lines and etchings and legends scribbled across a page. But I knew those borders were more than lines. Once only an idea—a creation of the mind—they now possessed corporeal power. Crossing those artificial borders often guaranteed death.
I looked out to the end of the plateau and thought of Carlos again, thought how easy it would be to fall from the ledge.
In the weeks leading up to this trip, I’d been planning my move from Florida to Boston where I would live in a 250-square-foot studio with Carlos and our two dogs. We had decided to split the rent, but I didn’t think Carlos would ever save enough.
He hadn’t found a job in Boston, and my graduate school funding would barely support me alone. And, considering the number of days he called in sick or went to work high or strolled in late after another episode of his hands strangling my wrists and my nails digging into his skin and the dogs cowering beneath the bed, I expected he would be fired from his sales job before we even made it out of Florida.
David’s voice and the eagle’s caw returned. “People with no past have no future.”
I scribbled his words in my notebook.
He recounted the Six-Day War of 1967 when, after nineteen years of battle between Syria and Israel, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt.
“After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, this was called the Valley of Tears,” David said, pointing down into the Kunetra Valley, “for all the soldiers who died there.”
We turned away and followed David down a set of steps, into an old Syrian bunker. Abandoned bedframes hugged dirty walls. Dark corners resembled small caves. I thought about the number of soldiers—Syrian and Israeli—who had lived and died there.
I shuffled through the rest of the bunker and then walked back up the steps, sunlight illuminating my sneakers’ frayed stitching. Blisters climbed my ankles.
I stepped out onto the ledge and gazed at the border again. Would the Syrians ever take back what was once their land, too?
Three more eagles joined the one I’d been watching earlier, their long wings carving lines into the cloudless sky. I didn’t envy their aerial view of these warring lands, though I longed for their freedom. The sun singed my shoulders. I grabbed my water bottle and doused my throat.
We left Mount Bental behind and drove through the Golan Heights, our bus winding and winding around green hills. Four-thousand-year-old burial grounds dotted the mountainside. A 2,000-year-old Jewish city. A Byzantine church. So much war and culture and religion I had never known. So much history that had shaped and eroded and then reshaped this place. So much history that suddenly and irrevocably humbled me.
We stopped at another old bombing base. “When the Syrians still had control over this location in the Golan Heights,” David said as he rolled the sleeves of his white t-shirt up over his shoulders, “they shot into the Israeli villages below where children had been forced to attend school underground.” Syrian attacks had been unpredictable.
But on “Red Truck” days came momentary relief: silence in the Golan Heights while women emerged from those red trucks to “entertain” Syrian soldiers; a day of peace for the Israelis below; another day of terror for those women. Had they been sex trafficking victims? Or had this been a common instance of prostitution? I thought of all the times I’d slept with Carlos but hadn’t wanted to.
“Thousands of years ago a volcano erupted between two mountains, fell back down in layers and dried,” David said. “That’s how the Golan Heights and much of its neighboring land formed. But now the volcano’s extinct. It cannot erupt again.”
The strap of David’s sandal had shifted, the white line of skin that was usually covered by his shoe now visible. The rest of his exposed foot was bronze. How strong the sun must be, I thought, how clear the passage of time seemed on his wide foot. If people lived in the desert long enough, could they count the days passed based on their darkening skin, could they rely only on the earth and their flesh to trace their journey? Could I ever rely on my body—my instinct that told me to run—that way, too?
November 8, 2012. I’ve grown obsessed with the news—with anything tangible, evidential—since returning to the United States. In my new home in Boston, I scour the Internet for updates.
Mortar shells launched from Syria landed in the Golan Heights. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) believed the shells spilled over from the civil war raging between rebels and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But Israel still feared that as the rebels came closer to ousting their Syrian president, Assad might have been luring Israel into the fighting.
I plant my elbows onto my desk, rest my forehead against my hands and close my eyes. I remember standing atop Mount Bental in the Golan Heights four months ago, staring out at the border, wondering if Syria would ever reclaim their land.
Sammy, the Yorkie who slept beneath my feet on the flight to Boston, jumps into my lap. I lift my head, run my hand over his silky blonde hair, and continue reading: Israel was ultimately drawn into the Syrian Civil War—a two-year battle in which, according to the U.N. Security Council, more than 70,000 civilians have been killed. The IDF fired warning shots into Syria for the first time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The UN solicited both countries’ respect of the disengagement line—the separation between the two countries—and asked them not to fire across it. Just one week before the UN’s solicitation, Syrian tanks had entered the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria, breaking the cease-fire agreement.
I thought of the agreement I’d made with myself months earlier: Cease all communication with Carlos. Although I worried about him every day, I feared that if I succumbed to those concerns, my life as it had been before Israel would resume. I refused to break my promise.
Rabbi Pinchas stood at the front of the bus as we drove away from the Golan Heights. His long, brown beard crawled down to his sternum. Black dress pants hovered above his knees, the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up at his elbows like scrolls. Though it was nearly one hundred degrees outside and hadn’t rained since we’d arrived, and though David had warned about heat exhaustion, religious laws forbade Pinchas—an orthodox rabbi traveling with our group—from wearing shorts or a t-shirt.
He reached for the microphone and cleared his throat. Sweat stamped dark circles into his shirt. I prepared myself for a talk about religion, the Torah. Foreign topics to me.
“Today I turn to a story about a baby elephant that’s been chained to an enormous tree. Despite how hard the baby elephant tries, he cannot break free. After failing again and again, the baby elephant gives up. No matter how big and strong he grows, he will never try to break from the tree again.” Rabbi Pinchas ran his hand down his beard. “Now, one can tie the grown elephant to a tree with a flimsy rope and he won’t attempt escape. The powerful elephant doesn’t recognize his abilities; he doesn’t believe he can overcome the challenge before him.”
We curved and curved around the mountainside.
“The elephant surrenders to the limitations of his past. But we cannot do that. We cannot
allow our past limitations to stifle the present. We create these boundaries within ourselves.
Break them. Unchain yourself from the tree.”
At night in Boston, I sleep two or three hours at a time, waking from dreams of my past:
Me, Carlos, flying down Florida’s Turnpike. Months before Israel.
Me in the driver’s seat. His fingers on the door handle. Palm trees line the six-lane
“I’ll jump out of this car, Caitie. I’ll do it.”
I wake and pull Sammy close and then sleep again. I dream of another memory that’s nearly identical to the last, though something’s different this time.
Me, Carlos, flying down Florida’s Turnpike.
Me in the passenger seat, fingers grasping the door handle, wild and angry and worn, worn, worn. Between my lungs, in the space where my heart threatens to commandeer all the room in my chest: an unshakable burning. I feel as though this is what I want—that this is my doing, too—and I am living this life not out of obligation and imprisonment but out of my own desire to feel something. I have locked myself in this space between my ribcage and throat. I am the one choosing this life.
“I’m opening the door. I don’t care what you say. Keep driving. I’ll jump out.”
I am mimicking his words. Extending his game, transforming it into my own match of threats and unpredictability. I am the one choosing this life.
I have absolute control over this moment, our lives; wrapping my fingers around the handle of the car door is my decision—my choice. Mine. I run my hand along the plastic. Do I care for this life that rests in my hand? Two fools. Two cowards. For six years I cannot see the door. But how can I not see it there, in front of me? Open, close, open, close. How can I not see?
On our birthright trip, we were not permitted to visit Gaza and the West Bank. We could not see with our own eyes. And we seldom discussed these matters. No one told us what was really going on.
Each time we touched down at a hotel I hunted for computers, my fixation with headlines emerging. I studied maps titled “Israel’s Progressive Takeover of Palestine,” “Jerusalem: Before 1967 and Now,” “Israeli Checkpoints in the West Bank,” and “Palestinian Loss of Land: 1946-2000.” I studied maps that show Israel in green, Palestine in white. Maps that show the white slowly replaced by green, the dots representing Israeli checkpoints multiplying. Many Israeli people and tour guides said—again and again—stop listening to the news. They said Israel’s side of the story is never fully portrayed, that the media demonizes Israel.
But all I could think about were Israeli and Palestinian corpses. I imagined thousands of them buried deep in the ground.
Eventually I read news reports that said the Palestinian militant group—Hamas—sends bombs and missiles into hospitals and schools and other places where the young and weak reside. I listened to people who said no, Israel would never bomb hospitals and schools like Hamas does. That the Jews value life too much to kill innocents, that they do everything they can to avoid harming civilians. That Hamas is evil.
And then I read headlines that insisted: “What Really Happened in Gaza”; “The Real Facts”; “What Israel Has Really Done.”
So many videos and articles and stories jumped from screens and mouths and shook me: Can’t you see what Israel has done? Can’t you see that Palestine is wrong? This is false. This is true. Here are the facts. These are all lies. You’re right. You’re wrong. THIS IS OUR LAND.
BBC News seemed unwilling to use the term “terrorist attack” whenever Hamas assaulted Israel. Instead, they offered phrases like “in what one Israeli official described as a ‘terrorist attack.’” Others news outlets claimed the issue lay in BBC’s refusal to use the words “oppressor” and “oppressed,” “occupier” and “occupied”—that BBC News dedicates more time to one Israeli death than they do one hundred Palestinian deaths. Are the Israelis right? Is their country always falsely depicted? Or are the Palestinians right? Is the holy land theirs?
I could not decide. Hundreds of thousands of years of pointing fingers, fingers to missiles, missiles to corpses, piles of brick to new buildings, then, maybe, a moment to rest. But it always begins again. No time to find solace, no time for certainty. No one holding a hand out before you saying Here! Here! Here is the answer! Here is where everything ends and begins!
My uncertainty about the Middle East strengthened my certainty about Carlos. Ending that battle suddenly seemed simple.
Standing atop Kibbutz Misgav-Am in the Upper Galilee. To the east: the Hula Valley, the Golan Heights, Mount Hermon. To the north and west: Southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. His soft hands around my waist. His rough hands around my neck. My futile fist against his face. The Israeli flag, flapping beside me. A blue Star of David changing shape in the wind: a symbol I recognized but felt little attachment to. The ground beneath me strong. Armed. Prepared. Land that had been sought after and fired at for thousands of years. Zionists. Dying for Israel. Who cares about the international phone in my backpack that won’t stop ringing? Ninety-seven degrees. A breeze. Snowcapped mountains straight ahead. Fog. The Jordan River. The Jordan River? Or the Mediterranean Sea? Leave the phone in the bus from now on. Fresh air sucked deep into my lungs. Inhale. Exhale. Expand. Release. Yes, the Jordan River. Burnt, sleeveless shoulders. I wanted to remove my sneakers and walk the cracked earth with bare feet. How many other toes have hugged this land? Lebanon, again. The border just feet ahead. Nothing but a metal, wire fence. Lebanese buildings miles away. No glass in the windows. 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. Or Israel-Hezbollah War? Or 34-Day War? Or—Inhale. Exhale. Expand. Release. Leave.
November 16, 2012. I am reading, again, in my Boston apartment. Aside from Sammy, I am alone.
Israel attacked Gaza and hit more than twenty targets.
For the first time in more than forty years, a Palestinian rocket neared Jerusalem and the holy Western Wall.
People hid—in villages, homes, underground. The Israeli government predicted that the outcome of a possible Gaza offensive would be similar to the last Gaza War of 2008-2009—the war that ended in more than 1,400 Palestinian deaths and only 13 Israelis deaths. Sirens sounded throughout Jerusalem.
That night I dream of Carlos and a dog.
I am walking beneath a bridge. It is night, and a tall, agitated dog trails me, nudging up beside me but ready to snap. I walk faster. Veer right. Into an apartment I do not recognize. A stench of urine. Boxes. I stare at boxes.
The stench pushes me back outside, beneath that bridge, to walk with that menacing dog again. She nudges and nudges me with soft, chestnut fur but bares her teeth, snarls. I turn
corners, climb staircases, walk atop the bridge and then below it again. The dog is still there. No matter where I go I cannot escape.
Wake. Sleep: Carlos’s hands tightening around my throat, me trying to scream. Run. He follows me follows me follows me through darkness. We pass palm trees and roundabouts and people—witnesses—who stand outside now. What are they thinking? They don’t move. They don’t try to help. They stare. This setting is starting to look familiar.
I wake thinking of the dog I left in Carlos’s hands. I turn side to side in my bed, wondering if she still scratches from inside her black kennel, if she still sleeps beside his head every night or if maybe, maybe we’re both finally running free.
I press my hands against my face and try to rub the memory away. I try to suppress my woes with more news of the Middle East, but my powerlessness only fuels my despair. Sammy crawls toward me, fighting my laptop for space on my belly. He licks my hand and stares at me until I finally stare back. Will this haunting ever fade?
The two-hour bus ride to Tiberius felt like four. I’d barely been sleeping at night, my body convinced it should have been bright outside. During the day I fought the urge to curl up on the ground and sleep, and I fought thoughts about Carlos—Should I feel guilty for not calling?
Now we drove down winding roads, passed hills and mountains that curved into pairs, their crests forming the letter “m” over and over again. Clouds sagged onto the horizon.
Though I was nearly 7,000 miles from home, the rural terrain almost reminded me of the South Carolina countryside my father had grown up in and we’d visited when I was a kid. But it was the houses—the houses that appeared to be stacked atop one another, structures dotting hillsides—that reminded me this was foreign land, that I was a stranger here.
Trees, more hills with houses and buildings fading into shrubbery, into mist. A single pink bush bent in the breeze. The sun hung like a hammock between the mountains.
We neared our hotel in Tiberius. Traffic lights swung from drooping cables. Deserted, half-constructed buildings stood beyond the light, beams exposed, window frames empty. It seemed as though courageous workers had just stopped, thrown down their tools, and walked away.
We left our suitcases in the deserted lobby and ran to the dining hall. We feasted: on warm, sweet brisket that fell apart with each bite, red potatoes and whole fish; on creamy, nutty, lemony hummus, soft pita, finely diced cucumber and tomato and mint leaves; on spinach and feta bourekas—stuffed, baked triangular hand pies made with light, delicate phyllo dough and sprinkled with sesame seeds—and, my favorite: crisp chocolate pastries made from that same delicate dough; with each bite, phyllo flakes floated down to my plate like flat leaves.
After dinner, when it was finally dark outside, I slipped away. I walked around to the back of the hotel and suddenly realized we were surrounded by water. Lake Tiberius separated us from mountains where houses flickered with light. A breeze. I closed my eyes and inhaled like a swimmer emerging from the water.
I imagined myself shoved into that 250-square-foot studio with Carlos. I imagined myself sitting before my laptop, trying to write, his loud music stealing space in my head, the smell of his smoke stiffening my spine, his hand on my back—I want you, stop working already and come over here—making it even more difficult for me to hide my revulsion at the idea of his skin against mine.
I wanted to be free of him, of nights in Florida when we’d fight for so long we couldn’t remember why the arguments had started, who’d said what, why new bruises in the shape of his fingers seemed not to hurt anymore, why I couldn’t think of one reason I loved him.
But who would make sure he wouldn’t pockmark walls or quit his job or drive into oncoming traffic?
Perhaps I reveled in being the one to remove the weapon from his hand. Perhaps I’d become as dependent on controlling his life as he’d become on me.
I thought of myself apart from Carlos. Of how much easier, simpler, and happier (did I dare think it?) life could be without him. I had allowed these fantasies before, but now I recognized that this autonomous life I’d envisioned for so long actually existed somewhere in the universe. Now I realized that life was mine; I just hadn’t claimed it yet.
I thought of Rabbi Pinchas, the chained elephant, the boundaries we create and suffer to protect.
The village across from Lake Tiberius glowed. David yelled for the group to gather.
I didn’t move. I wanted to shed my worn sneakers and glue my feet to that piece of Israeli earth. I wanted to claim my future. I wanted to leap out of my past; I wanted to brush it away like a grain of sand lost in the desert wind, lost in the vast, orange terrain.
November 22, 2012. My obsession with the news hasn’t waned, but dreams of Carlos begin to.
I know I am safe in my new home, but my mind remains in the Middle East.
Cease-fire between Israel and Hamas went into effect. Egypt and the U.S. pressured
Israel and Hamas to suspend their eight-day war. No ground invasion of Gaza. More than one
hundred and fifty Palestinians and five Israelis were killed in the past week.
Days after the cease-fire, several Hamas rockets landed in Southern Israel and a bomb exploded on a Tel Aviv bus.
In Gaza, people celebrated in the streets, firing guns into the air. In Israel, people remained huddled in their homes.
I recall standing at the edge of Lake Tiberius months earlier—I imagine my hand on the door handle months before that—and cringe at what would have been had I not left.
I guard my solitude to no end, but I grieve over the Middle East, over the abandoned dog, over the man I once loved. It seems unfair that I can feel so free.
Morning in Tiberius. The Syrian Civil War was still raging on less than one hundred miles away, and Carlos was packing boxes labeled “Boston,” “Storage,” and “Memorabilia,” waiting for me to return to Florida and drive with him to Boston in the car that I’d already rented with the two dogs that I’d already bought winter coats and boots for.
I stood outside the dining hall, watching Israeli men heave trash into dumpsters and trucks curve around the lake on the road below. Pink bougainvillea crawled up the walls beside me. Palm trees reminded me of home. I promised myself that when I returned I would move to Boston alone, without him.
Days earlier, when I ate lunch with an Orthodox Jewish family and they unconditionally extended their home to me, I said, Sure, I’d move to Israel, if the circumstances were right. Why not?
Despite my vulnerability, I knew that a major goal of these birthright trips was to persuade young Jews to move to Israel. I wasn’t planning to suddenly become a Zionist or staunchly pro-Israel. I simply needed to escape. A few years earlier, I might’ve thought the idea of abandoning my parents and the United States absurd. I hadn’t, after all, been raised religiously. What did I know about being Jewish? What did I know about living in Israel?
But on that afternoon I was willing to move to Israel, to desert the life that, as I now saw it, was no longer mine.
David herded us onto the bus where our driver, Avi, was selling cold, two-liter water
bottles for five shekels—less than two American dollars and half the cost of bottles sold in stores. Assuming it would last at least half the day, I bought one. Avi’s tan skin wrinkled at the corners of his eyes and lips. He always smelled of cigarettes and sweat, and as he drove, he hummed and ran his fingers through his thick white hair.
We bounced over gravel, my ears popping as we ascended, the bus leaning too far right and left and speeding past cars on the two-lane road that wrapped around the mountains of Tiberius. We were headed to the Gilbon Stream Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. Our first hike. The lake—a major source of fresh water for Israel, also known as the Sea of Galilee—still glittered to our right.
“We’ve had an extreme shortage of water over the last few years,” David said, one hand on his hip, the other holding the microphone. “If things don’t turn around, Israel will need to come up with a whole new plan to get water into the desert.”
Three years later Israel would have a surplus of water—three years later I would be in Boston, the imprint of Carlos’s hands on my skin finally faded but never disappeared—this shortage no longer a concern. But this was impossible to predict during that summer when we zoomed past the Galilee. The sun leaked in through the windows as David shouted into the microphone, “Galilee, Gallili! Galilee, Gallili!”
And we drove on, leaving the Sea of Galilee behind.
Days later we would float in the Dead Sea and I’d let the salt sear those cuts I’d been wearing on my ankles for days. We were told the sea would heal but instead it dug deeper holes into my skin, left its marks.
January 15, 2013. Snow falls outside my window. I wrap blankets around my body and pull Sammy into my lap. Six months since I escaped Carlos and I am more certain than ever about my decision, though I still cannot stop those dreams. The opera singer next door practices her scales. My nails click against my keyboard.
New evidence that Syrians might have used chemical weapons surfaced in a U.S. State Department report from the General Consul in Istanbul. The U.S. could not decide how to respond.
Doctors in Damascus were soon treating more than 3,000 patients who suffered from neurotoxic symptoms. Three hundred and fifty-five had reportedly died. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that 1,429 people were killed in the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. More than 400 were children.
I pull Sammy closer, the blankets tighter around my shoulders, and wonder: Did the United States really not know how to respond—did the United States not think of its own weapons, of its own ability to destroy and defend, of its own history of murder and neglect?
The decision seems clear to me, but then I remind myself how complicated war and violence are, how impossible taking action can seem, how strategic one’s response must be.
Nine Israeli soldiers joined us on day five. After sundown on Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat, I walked with one soldier, Amir, from the Western Wall to our hotel in Jerusalem.
The day of rest forbade us from using the bus, but the hour-long walk evaporated into Amir’s stories of the Israel Defense Forces, of how he had not, as I’d assumed, fought in the army.
“I avoided combat,” he said, his eyes on the sidewalk, our feet. “Scored high enough on exams so I could work from a desk instead.”
The road was dark. The woods snapped and hissed. I tripped over uneven sidewalks, blisters blooming between my sandaled toes. Yet I remained consumed by Amir’s world. How different it was from mine. How much more meaningful his life seemed.
I lay in bed that night thinking of war, of Amir, of Israelis and Palestinians and Syrians. How slight my misery now seemed.
The next morning my mother called, wanting to hear my voice. Twelve people had been killed in a Colorado shooting. Compared to the constant killing in the Middle East, twelve deaths seemed marginal.
“At a movie premiere near Denver,” she said. “Some guy just walked into the theater with a gun and started shooting. Can you believe that?”
I thought briefly of Carlos. Of what a gun in his hand might mean. I pushed the thoughts away and told my mother I had to go. I didn’t want to think about how my abandonment might fuel Carlos’s anger and pain. About the possibility of him taking a life—another’s, or his own.
It was Saturday, sunny. I walked through Jerusalem with another soldier named Raz. His dark hair was gelled into a Mohawk.
“You’ve had a bar mitzvah, right?” I asked. My shirt clung to my sweaty back.
“No, no.” He waved my question away. “I am not religious. Not at all.”
“Really?” I stopped and faced Raz. “Is that common here?” I’d thought everyone in Israel was religious, thought Israelis were more Jewish than the rest of the world.
“Oh yes. A lot of people don’t care about religion.” He scratched the coarse hair on his chin. “Israel is our country. We fight for that. We are not all extremely religious like the orthodox people. It’s an issue that much of our law is based on Jewish law.”
I nodded. We walked on as Raz spoke more of his unreligious family. I quickly realized that being Israeli did not necessarily mean being Jewish. That this political turmoil that has been plaguing the Middle East for centuries might not have much to do with religion after all. That religion might have simply been a mask all along.
As Raz and I walked in silence, I wondered, was my supposed love for Carlos my mask? Had I been fueling our misery by pretending that love meant anything anymore? That it was worth the pain?
October 31, 2013. Fifteen months since I left Israel, since I left Carlos. My obsession with the news has waned—a little. I can’t help but scan reports periodically.
Two weeks ago Israel launched its first airstrike on Syria since the 2006 war, and now I read that Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian base. Israel refused to comment again. The Obama Administration said that Israel was intercepting secret, sophisticated missiles. Syria claimed to have shut down all chemical weapon-producing facilities.
Soldiers crouched behind their missiles and aimed. During this upsurge of violence, Syrians and Israelis buried more of their people.
As I read I recall the early years when I wasn’t yet prying knives from Carlos’s tipsy hand, when I was unable to predict our upsurge of violence. How much can we ever truly foresee?
Jerusalem was quiet. Nearly one hundred degrees. I felt as though someone had closed the door to the old city and turned on the heat. Still, our knees and shoulders had to be concealed at the Western Wall. My skirt brushed my ankles. Sweat darkened my sweater. No breeze here. It still hadn’t rained since we’d arrived.
At least my feet felt free in my sandals. Earlier that morning I’d started to pull on my blue sneakers again and stopped. I examined the crumbling laces and stitching, the dirt caked into their flimsy sides, my seared ankles. We would depart in only two more days, and I was suddenly convinced I didn’t need them anymore. I threw them into the dumpster outside the hotel.
I could see the Dome of the Rock—the oldest existing Islamic monument, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and where Jews believe Abraham, the first patriarch of the Jewish people, prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his faith. I could see its large, gold tiles—a mosaic—curving over the shrine’s arched body that rests on the sacred Temple Mount.
Jews believe that King Solomon built the first temple of the Jews on the Temple Mount in 1,000 B.C. Muslims believe their own Prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven on the Temple Mount. The Babylonians, the British, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Greeks, the Jebusites, the Israelites, the Mamluks, early Muslims, the Ottomans, the Persians, and even the Romans have all conquered and occupied this site. The fight for control over the Temple Mount’s thirtyfive acres and religious edifices persists.
The glow of the gold Dome of the Rock is visible from nearly any point in Jerusalem, but only Muslims are allowed to visit the rock now. The Jews reclaimed the Wall in 1967, but before that the wall was filled only with Muslims. Jews were not even allowed to look at the wall until they seized East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967. Yet Israel still identifies Jerusalem as its capital—a claim the United States does not even recognize as true; a conflict the U.S. resolves must be negotiated amongst the involved countries.
Armed soldiers stood atop the building to my left, one every twenty or thirty feet. I’d grown used to their presence, their guns. My unclenched hands dangled at my sides. My shoulders slung far away from my ears. I inhaled slowly, fully, and sighed. Hundreds of people gathered before the towering Western Wall—also known as the Wailing Wall. I inched down until I stood ten or fifteen feet from it, its massive stones whispering with prayer, millions of visitors’ words slipping out into the old city. A much shorter wall divided the sides of prayer in two: men on the left, women on the right. We were not to see each other. Women in long dresses, women in veils, women with white skin, black skin, so many different shades of pale and tan and brown. Women whose squinted eyes said Silly tourist, you know nothing of this place. Women who pressed their hands against the wall, closed their eyes and rocked. Women whispering prayers—some inaudible, some so loud I felt I was eavesdropping.
My hand, pressed hard against the wall. Soil, in crevices between stones and beneath my fingers. My eyes, closed. I would leave Carlos. I would not return to that life.
Women wrote notes on slips of paper, folded them, and placed them into the wall’s cracks. I looked up to see tiny papers—hopes, wishes, prayers—tucked between ancient rocks. I added my own: Don’t open the door of the moving car. Keep living. But let me leave.
I left the wall as instructed: I walked backward, did not turn until I could hardly see papers spilling from the hot stones. I shuffled my feet and counted my steps—one, two, three, four—repeating in my head again and again, you cannot turn back.