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"An Anonymous Friendship" by Sara Pereda




Abstract


This fictional story was inspired by the lives of one Israeli and one Palestinian woman, who have shared their experiences living in Israel and Palestine throughout a series of workshops conducted alongside the International Communities Organisation. The project has culminated in the creation of a fictional narrative which describes what it would feel like if two women were to meet from both sides of the divide, firstly as strangers, and lastly as nationals. For the sake of their privacy and protection their names will be presented as pseudonyms. The piece explores how gendered, cultural and national biases overlap to perpetuate dividing narratives, seeking to explore alternative routes to understanding the complex identities that emerge in this situation. Through the daily lives of individuals, this story takes a unique approach to understanding conflict and division by speaking directly with women in their communities. Through this endeavor, new possibilities of being and belonging are made possible by writing fiction that highlights women’s perspectives. Therefore, this is the story of two women who meet under unlikely circumstances as unknown callers on a Saturday afternoon, and begin to unravel their personal story as they seek to identify the other person who lies on the opposite end of the call. This short story brings us from their intimate conversations to their newly forged friendship and finally, to their meeting place in Bethlehem.


Index:


1. Part 1: Living In Hebron (Sara)…………………………………………..………………….....

1. A Sunday Afternoon………………………………...…………………………………

2. It Couldn’t be a Friend...….………………..……………….…………………………

3. It Couldn’t be a Coworker...……….……………….……………….…………………

4. It Couldn’t Be A Relative....……………………………..…….………………………

5. Who Am I? Who is She? ………………………………………….………………….

2. Part 2: Living in Jerusalem (Talia).……………………………………………………...……

1. An Old Notebook.……………………..……………………………………..………

2. Between Two Worlds.……………..………………………………………….………

3. In The Workplace.……………………..………………………………………..……

4. Dress Code and Awareness.……………………..….…………………………..……

5. Love and Relationships.………………………....………………………………..……

3. Part 3: Our Meeting Point…….……………………………….……………………………….

1. The Deciding Call…….…………………………….…………………………………

2. The Logistics…….…………………………………………….………………………

3. Bethlehem………………………………………..……………………………………

4. The Meeting Place………………...…………………..………………………………


Part 1: Living in Hebron

(Sara)


Chapter 1. A Sunday Afternoon

After a long day of keeping up appearances, I suddenly received a call from an unknown number. Then, something unusual happened. While I usually have my phone on ‘do not disturb’, today the sudden urge to talk to a stranger overcame me. I chuckled and thought: what a strange desire. The sense that an unknown person could understand me better than any of my coworkers, family or boyfriend could had never occurred to me before; but something told me that this was not merely a wild desire. I kicked up my feet and slurped on my tea as I turned on the TV, looking to get comfortable as I continued to debate whether I should pick up the call or not. Then my mind began to race uncontrollably.


It was a particularly strange occurrence to get such a call in Hebron. It wasn’t usual to be open about our lives here and it seemed as though many of us lived behind closed doors. This in turn, urged me to reflect on Hebron itself, what kind of place it was, what kind of people were living in it, and who I was amongst it all. After my study abroad trip –which had been exactly a year ago now– things had gotten much more complicated in the city and in my everyday life. I had finally gotten that job I always wanted (as a lawyer) and yet the prospects were not looking so optimistic in the industry for women like me, and for all of us as a matter of fact. Strikes were currently taking place due to rising judicial court fees, meaning many of us had stopped working while we waited for Palestinian authorities to respond. This meant that much of my days were now spent cooking at home, looking upwards at the ceiling, and watching TV shows under an unsatisfied mood. I thought to myself ‘I wish somebody understood’. On that note, my thoughts were redirected towards the ringing phone, snapping me back to reality after my memory had diverted someplace else. I took another slurp at my tea, paused the news, and picked up the call. In that moment that same desire climbed up further into my throat: the simple wish to be understood. I clicked the green button on the screen of my phone and answered the call once and for all.


An optimistic and bold voice spoke out to me from the other side of the phone. She felt somewhat familiar and warm but I could not grasp who it was quite yet. Perhaps the heat of the summer was clouding my judgment, or perhaps I didn’t know this person at all. Our conversation unfolded as follows: “Hey! It’s been a while, how have you been?”. Her imposition seemed somewhat strange seeing as though she hadn’t introduced herself yet. I felt uneasy at the thought that whoever was speaking to me on the other side seemed to already know me. Maybe it was someone from work, a next door neighbor, or a distant relative. Or perhaps it was simply an anonymous caller, a butt dial or an ad. I counted down the fingers on my hand signaling the possible suspects, but the mystery of this unknown caller only seemed to unravel further.


Chapter 2. It Couldn’t Be A Coworker

Despite the lack of physical space in the office, which kept us rubbing against each other like sausages under the heat, I had become accustomed to feeling awkward and distant from everyone around me. This wasn't always the case, but it was particularly true around Tom; the coworker who sat on the small cubicle next to me. My presence in the workplace seemed to make him uncomfortable, as if I were to chew him up and swallow him whole. He seemed to realize anew every morning that it was I –a woman–- who sat next to his desk. What an absurdity! When working on cases he would avoid discussing them with me, but I knew that when I wasn’t looking he would glance at me with curiosity. ‘I won’t eat you!’ –I thought to myself laughing. It was baffling to me –knowing myself– that another human being could view me as such an enigma. I enjoyed my work and took pride in it, but these tensions were part of my daily life. Nonetheless, the point was that Tom wouldn’t think to call. It had to be someone else.


I took another sip at my tea and smiled defiantly as I continued to listen closely to the voice on the other end of the phone. I was starting to indulge in this mysterious stranger whom I was seeking to decipher. It was they who urged me to delve deeper into myself by digging more and more into my memory. I noticed that the voice was distinctively female, soft spoken but direct. It felt unlikely that it would be any of my female coworkers. This made me think back to my time spent working at the law firm. It had taught me that this was an ‘every man –or rather every woman– for themselves’ kind of world. We, as women, were encouraged to wear certain disguises, bending our personalities into the unspoken norm of individuality and competition that had been modeled for us. We often gave each other the cold shoulder and were taught to dress, and behave formally while at work. When I passed by the hallways with my coffee in hand, I sat silently in my cubicle and got to work. Although I have always been a social individual, there were certain rules my busy schedule didn't allow me to question. Again, while this wasn't always the case for all women working in Hebron, it did mean that I was unlikely to get a casual call from a fellow female coworker on a Saturday afternoon. So I put another finger down, and continued my quest.


Chapter 3. It Couldn’t Be a Friend

As I had mentioned previously, it wasn't the norm in Hebron to speak to strangers, or even familiar faces on a casual basis. We could speak to neighbors, the close ones, but strangers not really. It wasn’t normal to walk on the streets for sport or exercise through neighborhoods, which was generally the case in most Arab countries. Hebron, being the largest city in the West Bank, and the second largest in Palestine, was filled with people living their own individual lives. Although behind closed doors, they were keen to keep up with each other's business. In some neighborhoods people were very cautious to know everything about you. To give you some context, Hebron is a city located in area A, which after the Oslo agreements, was defined as being under Palestinian administrative and security control. All of those who live here are Muslim and the majority are conservative. Oftentimes these two qualities seemed to go hand in hand when looking at our communities and were manifested through the type of dress code or behavior which gave you an insight into their own kind of life. These were, of course, unique to every city.


Something distinct about Hebron, in my opinion, was the way people think. The majority here were conservative not because they knew what being conservative meant, but because they implicitly followed their ancestors culture. I found this to be a paradox, because in the Holy Quran it was required of us to search for the truth by thinking for ourselves. Following what you are taught unconsciously, without knowing if it’s right or wrong, is a sin. My work as a lawyer had allowed me to observe these intricacies in very specific ways. For example, when it came to gender discrimination, this was a topic I knew much about. The so-called “Necessities permit prohibitions” law, was an important principle in our judiciary system. The principle came from Islam (Sharea manners), which meant that when necessary we have to be more resilient and agile when it comes to prohibitions. This law intended to bridge the gap between religious and secular values to provide aid in emergencies. It was meant to be an indicator of a changing society.


Through this, men were being called on to accept the idea that women like me could work in any position and that mingling or socializing with them was not a sin, crime or a test to your conservativity. Nonetheless, this didn’t always hold true. Let me give you an example. Insurance built on probability allows men to be refunded when they are in an accident, but when they are not insured, the company will take all the money. This qualifies as unjust enrichment -meaning unfair monetary gain by part of the company at the expense of the individual. Since life necessities had changed, I was not allowed to drive a car without valid insurance; here the necessities permit prohibition makes the unjust enrichment legal and allowed, disproportionately affecting many women like me.


Unfortunately, as a lawyer I had seen plenty of blackmail and sexual harassment crimes recorded and failed to be persecuted. Public records were a mandatory procedure here. Nonetheless, in such crimes it was unlikely that conservative families would want these cases to go public, because it would be a scandal for these men. Here, big families and tribes often interfered to quell the issue. The point was that people were following social manners, not religious ones. That’s what being conservative meant in Hebron, or even for other conservative cities in Palestine. It was a social matter, not a religious one.


In Hebron City, men were not likely to marry women from the villages, although in special cases they did. Women from the suburbs like me had more freedom and were therefore differentiated from women in the villages by their dress code and dialect. Families often choose traditional ways of getting married, like endogamy marriage or having the mother choose for their daughters. Even then, many would not choose to get married, especially if the girl was of a lower income family. Moreover, younger and uneducated women were usually preferred for marriage. They might wait for her to finish her highschool and then urge her to not complete her studies beyond that. Working women were not preferred by the majority. It was presumed that working women were more open-minded and had wider relations.


As a resident in Hebron you were likely to have become accustomed to these unspoken norms and visible clues –following the rules accordingly– but I had learned to bend these on a number of occasions. For example, during my time working in area C. There were three areas that were either controlled or occupied by different parties: A, B and C. Area A is Palestinian territory, meanwhile Area C is Israeli territory. Finally, Area B is the so-called Israel and was supposed to be controlled by Palestinian and Israeli forces, but was secured on the ground by Israeli forces. Palestinians were allowed both entry and passing, excluding the settlements in some places. My entry into area C was brought about as a result of my job working at the law firm. The agency I was working with at the time had assigned me cases regarding prisoners of low charges such as parking tickets. What was the most difficult –ironically enough– was not the journey to work but the explanation that was asked of me when I returned back home. Many of my friends and relatives in Hebron had struggled to understand why I was willing to go into the Israeli courts. If you ask me, I was not too concerned with these circumstances and rather preoccupied with my career.


There were other, smaller and less apparent ways, in which I bypassed these rules on a daily basis. These consisted of small acts of indifference or awareness, such as in my way of dressing. The typical dress code in Hebron consists of a long black or colored dress with long sleeves. This is called the Aabiya or Jelbab. Meanwhile my attire consisted of jeans and a long sleeve shirt. I was one of the lucky ones, but it was not the norm to dress or behave casually. There were also rules on how to play the part that went beyond the dress code. For instance, going to the gym before 5pm or not taking taxis after 8 pm if you were a woman. You could barely take a taxi after 8, because almost everyone used personal cars. Since I didn’t have a car, I depended on public transport which was barely available after 8 pm. These limitations were like my morning tea, they hurt when hot but eventually became digestible once my tongue was already burnt.


All of my choices, whether they followed the rules or not, required a conscious awareness. As I walked to work, my route strategically avoided certain neighborhoods that were more conservative where I might get dirty looks for my attire. This allowed me to make my own rules, while avoiding potentially uncomfortable situations. I took a deep breath, put another finger down, and continued to investigate myself and the girl on the other end of the phone, vigorously sipping on my tea.


Chapter 4. It Couldn’t Be A Relative

This led me to the final and equally unlikely possibility: a relative. My relationship with my family had been good in the past, but had reached a gradual entanglement after my study abroad in Italy. When I was younger, my parents had always encouraged me to pursue my education and supported me throughout my professional journey. I remember my trip to Italy very fondly, for it had instilled in me a greater love for diversity and adventure than ever before. This experience had also revealed certain intricacies within me that made me more eager to define who I was on my own terms. Under the warm sun and beautiful streets of Milan, I would wear a t-shirt and my hijab alongside my Palestinian friends. I was more comfortable covering my curvy body to avoid weird stares in the streets. Different and yet similar aspects of my life back home seemed to melt and bend with this new environment. Some contextual circumstances, such as the dirty looks, always remained the same, but overall Italy held a soft spot in my heart. Nonetheless, being Muslim and talking about my identity was difficult in this new context. There were Israeli students who would get angry and uncomfortable in debates. Thus, being more reserved and having to conceal my identity abroad, made my love for my home more prevalent, and my belief in diversity even stronger.


When my father passed away, it seemed as though the expectations to pursue my own career, and garner the support of my extended family, tumbled. My extended family believed, similarly to the rest of Hebron, that when a family was left without a father to provide for them, their ability to strive beyond this tragedy was a logical fallacy. ‘They must be poor or uneducated’, they thought. Me, my mother and my siblings defied this image. As I continued with my studies and traveled abroad, their jealousy towards me grew, and created an uncomfortable ridge between us. My dream to own my own business was overshadowed by my family's own struggles, and since then had led me to this deeply rooted conception: That the pursuit towards my goals was my responsibility alone. The more I delved into these new worlds —either by taking on cases in the Israeli courts in the West Bank, or by traveling abroad for a year— my beliefs seemed to put me on a track that slowly diverted, and at times isolated me from those around me. This journey had led me up to these strange circumstances, where I revealed my life to an unknown woman on the other end of the phone.


Chapter 5. Who am I? Who is She?

Once again I returned to the voice on the call which had almost become a fiction of my imagination, an invitation into my own mind. But this time I asked a question: “Who is this?”. Her voice responded kindly, eager to demonstrate some transparency and revealing a sense of worry regarding the flat silence. She explained that she had found my number in an old notebook which had been used throughout her work trips, and that while remembering her past self, had been encouraged to reach out. In that moment I recognized not only who she was, but most importantly reflected that same feeling which I had described earlier. I sensed in her voice, something that had sprouted within me earlier as I picked up the call, an eagerness to feel seen and connect despite the exhaustion of a long day.


Talia was like me, a young woman in her thirties whom I had met on a brief, almost fleeting, occasion. Her stature was confident, kind, and serious. She was eager to discuss. We had met in a meeting where her agency was working alongside mine on a particular case. We had happened to sit next to each other to discuss something that at the time had seemed of utmost importance, but that now has of fleeting value. We had both laughed and exchanged glances at some ridiculous comment our bosses made, and towards the end quickly exchanged numbers before going our separate ways. The encounter was left there. Nobody had ever called, until now.


Part 2. Living in Jerusalem
(Talia)

Chapter 1. An Old Notebook

I woke up feeling strange and disconnected from my usual self. That beeping sound –which had appeared in my dream like a soft melody– had left me feeling utterly disappointed when I woke up to my buzzing alarm. My hands reached over to rub my eyes and my mouth let out a long yawn –it was morning. I looked down at my phone, worried that I was late to work, only to discover that it was Saturday afternoon. My muscles relaxed –It was unusual for me to fall asleep, but this past week had been particularly exhausting. I must have left my alarm on by accident –I thought.


That day had an odd start to it, and this left me feeling disoriented as if partly still in my dream and partly here in the reality of my life. After my morning coffee, which brought me somewhat back to myself, I pulled out a yoga mat. The mat was usually left abandoned in the corner of my living room. I pulled it out on days like this where I felt strange. While breathing out tentatively and striking a pose, I was interrupted once again by a dreamlike thought. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an old box which had all of my study abroad memorabilia from a couple years back. It was a half opened plastic container with a mixture of old papers, some clothes I didn’t wear anymore and a couple of objects I had been meaning to throw out.


As I opened it further, a red notebook stuck out to me, an old agenda I had used shortly after my trip to Cairo for work. I flipped through the pages and was brought back to my fearless younger self. I pictured her, a younger version of me standing amongst my peers in one of the protests, being grabbed and pulled 15 from different angles and feeling that sense of risk and fear. In Cairo my identity had become something to be particularly cautious about, especially as a woman. While my sense of awareness had solidified during my study abroad, this formed an intricate piece of who I was. I remembered the time I went to a demonstration and was tugged on by men as things began to get violent. I was scared, but my male friends who were there with me managed to get a hold on me, pulling me out of the crowd of protestors.


The pulling and tugging as people, particularly myself, tried to make sense of my identity was exhausting. Throughout each of my travels, and in between each of the places I had lived in, the weaving of my inner self often took place in complex and uncomfortable ways. It made me restless at times, but also confident in who I was. This feeling was immediately translated into the flipping of the pages which I now turned with increasing curiosity. The hot coffee seemed to open my eyes further, propelling me into my past. Maybe it was my newly found thirst for discovery, or maybe it was just the coffee kicking in. After I got to the final page of the notebook, a small note card was revealed to me with a phone number on it. A name was written on it english. Something within myself, like an alarm that was transformed into a beautiful melody, urged me to bite into the forbidden fruit of my curiosity for breakfast. Like a song it whispered into my ear, and I willingly bit into it dialing those nine numbers on the card.


Chapter 2. Between Two Worlds

‘Hey! It’s been a while, how have you been?’. I spoke with confidence, hoping that at some point throughout the call a detail would reveal who was on the other end of that phone. Her voice seemed, funnily enough, quite unbothered by the interaction. I wondered whether she had already recognized who I was and was simply waiting for my introduction, or whether she was holding back in order to try and instigate, as I was. I figured it was both. After an awkward pause, followed by an explanation of how I had found her number, it seemed as though she finally had the realization. ‘Hey! I’m glad you called’, she responded. Her voice was calm and inviting, with a sharp astuteness. With an ironic and joking tone she revealed to me her identity by making a reference to the words we had exchanged briefly in that meeting a couple years ago. We both laughed at the absurdity of the encounter and what had led us towards each other became an anecdote. The conversation now seemed to unfold naturally, like two voices composing a symphony.


It seemed as though our experiences traveling abroad –mine in Cairo and hers in italy– had instilled in us a similar belief. While these places were wildly different from our home we had both been made aware of the weight that our identity carried as well as the awareness that was required of us to navigate life with it. This awareness had a twofold challenge due to our gender and our respective nationalities. Similarly to her, I noticed the pulling and tugging of society that had translated into a difficulty fitting in. For me this was particularly evident when I had moved from California to Jerusalem, where I was constantly reminded by both sides of the divide of ‘who I was’. Whether I liked it or not, there was a constant expectation to give an explanation of where I stood politically.


When I moved and embarked on a journey of exploration, I was able to meet Israeli parents whose children had been killed in the conflict and reflect on some of my own biases as well. There seemed to be 17 a side of suffering that I had not previously seen while living in California. I was also able to see how some of my Arab friends responded to the terror attacks, with a fear that I had not grown up with. I often felt I had to prove myself with both the Israeli and Palestinian communities, while also fighting against my own biases. It was simultaneously exhausting and fruitful. I began to wonder whether her experience had been similar, albeit with greater challenges living under occupation, and began to ask about her life in detail. I imagined what her daily struggles were, what her life at work was like and what her neighbors said. Most of all, I wondered if she struggled like me to pursue her dreams.


Chapter 3. In the Workplace

Sara was quick to show me that, despite our differences, we shared some similar sentiments. The conversation shifted immediately towards our interaction with men in the workplace. For me this experience was twofold. With men in California this difficulty seemed to reside in their liberal convictions which at times impeded them from being self critical. I had many coworkers now who were my age and with whom I got along perfectly well, but some men who viewed themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ were paradoxically not aware of their biases. It was almost worse sometimes because they thought they had already done the hard work. I chuckled. ‘As if the hard work was anywhere near done!’.


Meanwhile, here in Jerusalem, my interactions with the community faced its unique challenges. Older, ultra orthodox men tended to ignore my gaze and look down when speaking to me. At times people would assume that, because I was a young woman, I was not the boss. One particular case that highlighted these challenges of my identity in my field was when a colleague from an American university called me, hoping to arrange a meeting with a member af a prestigious Palestinian family. I met him alongside other colleagues. The professor from the university who organized the meeting did not inform the Palestinian member that I was Israeli. His colleagues proceeded to look me up on the internet and expressed suspicion and frustration that this lack of transparency could have caused all sorts of social tensions. I was being criticized for my lack of openness, which in truth reflected a lack of awareness by my colleagues who had arranged the meeting. It was these same people who then told me to be more cautious about what parts of my identity I revealed, as if I hadn’t learned over the years how best to handle my own identity in sensitive work environments. This tense interaction was followed up with a series of questions in a sort of ‘morality test’. This questioning of my identity, views and values was something I had grown very accustomed to.


I was lucky to work from home these days, I thought. This allowed me to bypass some of the uncomfortable encounters that were unavoidable in the workplace. With a sigh of temporary relief I took another slurp on my coffee and stretched my arms out across the mat. Me and Sara had started to indulge in our stories, our voices growing with eagerness and strength across the phone. When one of us would reveal something about our respective lives that we disliked or disagreed with, the other would stand up and reveal something of her own. Again, the conversation shifted into something more personal, as we grew more comfortable with each other in this imaginary but real space.


Chapter 2. Dress Code & Awareness

We began to speak about the way we dressed, our daily interactions and more intricate details that revealed a clearer image of the distinct environments we lived in. The comments by taxi drivers asking if we were married, and being surprised by a strong no, seemed to be a common occurrence. I began to describe my dress, my appearance and the type of awareness that came alongside it. If you were wearing any of these symbols, such as knitted kipas, it was evident that you were religious. I had stopped wearing a headband a while back because it was associated with more orthodox communities. Before in California I would have gone out wearing a sports bra. Meanwhile, going out more conservatively was the norm here in Jerusalem. In the past I had worn more conservative clothes while I was here, and although you could feel the tension and the looks when you wore your own choice of clothing, I had become accustomed to these and now went out wearing more comfortable clothing. Similarly to Sara I had learned to avoid certain neighborhoods as a result of my choices, like for example Mea Shearim and other ultra orthodox neighborhoods that bore signs that demanded respect and adherence to social expectations of conservative dress. The key was to be able to read the room, to understand whether I was going to a more religious space and needed to dress more conservative or whether I was just going out for coffee with friends and could dress more leniently.


Chapter 3. Love and Relationships

This brought me back to an old boyfriend whose family was very religious. When I went to his family gatherings I would make sure to ‘play the part’ by covering up. In another more recent relationship, when I revealed my liberal views towards him, he acted betrayed, and our connection was overshadowed by these complexities. When Sara heard this, she was quick to jump in. She told me about a similar instance where her and her boyfriend had not seen eye to eye. He had wanted her to cover up more, and their relationship had ended soon after. We both agreed that dating was particularly difficult when it entailed conservative men. It seemed that they were unlikely to see eye to eye with our choices and beliefs. With that said, we began to indulge in places that felt comfortable for us, where we could escape our complex lives and live freely for an instant. Sara told me how she enjoyed going to Rawabi. I had been there previously with the groups I worked with through my organization. Sara explained to me that most of Ramallah residents were actually from Hebron, although many were also from Jerusaelm as well as other cities. Many of them had moved to the United States and so they brought money from abroad. ‘Ramallah is somewhere where people from Hebron go to enjoy themselves, and sort of escape their lives’ –she said.


Although it was true that some people went to Ramallah for fun, many others went for economic reasons, not just social or cultural ones. For example, Sara had been looking for a job due to the ongoing strikes. If she were living in Ramallah she could be more easily recruited for any intuition or organization while in Hebron it was hard to recruit her with a law certificate for any position. Many law-related jobs were centralized in Ramallah as it was the place where the central government was located. This tempted me to think about what such a place was for me, and Tel Aviv came to mind. I went there occasionally and was always surprised by the diversity of clothing styles that people wore there. Tel Aviv was more open than Jerusalem in many ways. It seemed as though we both had a city, that was not our home towns or abroad, where our different and complex identities were allowed to coexist and relax somewhat comfortably. I looked beside me at the box with memorabilia, the yoga mat I was sitting on and the half opened journal. Then I checked my watch I noticed that we had been speaking for quite a while, and that my coffee had gone cold.


Many of the things which had impeded or disrupted my journey became of second importance, as I realized I had myself to return to every time. In many ways this belief was solidified by this strange interaction, the half opened journal by my side, and my own memory. I listened to Sara slurp the last sip of her tea and put her feet up on the table in an act of satisfaction and comfort. Then, I rolled up my mat and told her I had work to attend to. We concluded with the following thought: another phone call next week. When the call ended we both continued on with our respective lives. I closed the box and returned to my laptop for another work meeting the following afternoon.


Part 3: Our Meeting Place

Chapter 1. The Next Call

On that following Saturday afternoon, each of them picked up the call from their apartments for their scheduled conversation. Both women sat on their desks tightening their grip on the phone and getting ready to speak once again. The connection between them was felt instantly, so much so that a major detail had been overlooked. Although they both spoke English, each of them had a distinct accent that would have instantly revealed who was who. Nonetheless, their nationalities were simply a piece of a much bigger picture. This endeavor, as they scavenged through their memories, had enriched the image of who they both were. The two voices began to weave a distinct web, carefully challenging and connecting amongst each other as the conversation resumed. Sara, with her long brown hair and her wide smile, told her stories with a touch of humor that made you feel at ease, yet challenged. Meanwhile Talia, with her glasses and her hair tied in a swift bun, always took a step forward in a welcoming and astute manner. The two personalities provided a curious balance which enabled the creation of a window into a newly found space. It was the forging of something mysterious and powerful, something which intrigued them both towards wanting to meet in person, beyond the phone. Each of them recollected their respective routes and listed a series of cities that could possibly become the meeting point. Then, an idea came to mind: ‘We can meet in Bethlehem!’ –they thought. Before their minds drifted to an examination of the complex route, their imagination had already arrived at their meeting place. The call went silent; both of them held the phone tentatively picturing the route in their minds as if drawing a picture, or a map.


The two women laughed across the phone and let out a sense of relief. Sara –picturing her walking through the busy streets– strengthened the tone of her voice as if symbolically extending her hand across the phone. She suggested that she would love to cook for Talia in her home, seeing as she had always loved trying foods from distinct places. Cooking for her was a sign of love and a means of forging a connection with her guests. Talia giggled, and let out a phrase of gratitude, as if having felt the hand extended towards her throughout the call. She explained with a cheerful attitude that the Mahane Yehuda market was not too far from her home in Jerusalem, and that she was eager to pick the fruits for the meal at the table alongside her, after grabbing a cold lemonade from a nearby cafe. The two women had been talking for the whole evening, and the sun had gone down under their horizon once again. Each of the respective calls had seen a lifetime pass by on its own, and yet no time seemed to have passed at all. When the final call came to an end, a coworker had been swallowed, an old notebook had been opened, a market had shut and a meal had been made. With the setting of the sun both women were awakened from this dream-like state and were brought back to each other and themselves. Now that the time came to embark on the journey across borders, a logistical and careful analysis of how they would bypass these became the central concern. Their defiant attitudes led them both towards an agreement: that despite these difficulties, they would undoubtedly meet.


Chapter 2. The Logistics

A tension filled the air which was not usual to their previous conversations. Perhaps it was the knowledge that despite their dream-like discussion –filled with its own memorabilia of untold stories– it would have to be followed up with a rather uncomfortable consideration on the logistics of how they would meet. The exhaustion of the long week was feeling particularly heavy that afternoon. Nonetheless they both took a step forward, following that same desire which had led them towards each other in the first place, and began crafting a solution. There were several rules to this endeavor –which now manifested themselves in the form of physical barriers– but also possibilities that offered a means of bypassing these constraints. Israel considered single Palestinian women and men under 40 of the highest risk. Their profile was outlined by the belief that younger women had ‘less to lose’ or could be ‘easily molded’, thereby posing a threat. It was, – ironically enough– their perceived lack of agency which seemed to be of serious concern.


Talia outlined that Bethleem was in area A which meant that she technically needed a permit to get in. Her American passport was useful for such things, but seeing as she was an Israeli citizen, she wouldn’t have the visa slip that tourists might be asked to present. When she did cross these checkpoints, she usually went with a group of Americans and hoped that she would not get checked, or would take specific routes that avoided the major checkpoints. This seemed to be the best solution to get her through these obstacles. Although area C seemed like the most logical meeting point, for it provided entry to both Israelis and Palestinian citizens, area A was also a viable solution. Bethlehem is a popular destination for tourism where you can see many foreigners and tourists anytime. This meant that Talia would not be defined as Jewish easily. Each of them raised their concerns respectively, in an attempt to picture the solution that would make their meeting possible and safe. There were also several checkpoints that were more lenient. The DCO checkpoint was one of these, it was often used by diplomats, doctors or lawyers, and thereby, was checked less. At times crossing was scary. Before crossing there would always have to be a premeditated explanation, a story that would explain, conceal or refute the legality of the given crossing to the senior officer. This time around she took a cab or a ‘gett’ which was the version of uber they used here. The plan was to pass by a more lenient checkpoint and hope to not get checked. Her ride was then picked up by an Arab driver seeing as she was crossing onto Palestinian territory. The conversation between Talia and the driver went as follows: ‘good afternoon, where am i taking you?’. The cab driver asked the usual questions regarding why Talia was going into Palestinian territory. She explained that she was meeting a friend, but that if asked at the checkpoint, she would simply say she was on the way to an Israeli settlement. This excuse was fitting, since Bethlehem was surrounded by Israeli settlements. With all said and done, the driver led her towards her destination where they arrived shortly after. ‘Here we are!’ – he said. Talialooked out the window tentatively staring back at the officer at the border as he came out to speak to her. She kept her composure, and after a few minutes, the taxi passed into Bethlehem.


Sara pointed out that traveling across Palestinian cities was an easier task for her. Some special checkpoints that had been opened for lawyers, doctors and VIP Palestinians made these trips much easier –less time, no traffic, shorter highways– however, now they were open for all. Furthermore, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens were sometimes searched when they would go back to their homes after visiting the west bank, because they were banned from buying products from area A. Sara was free to pass through the internal check-points between Palestinian cities, seeing as she was a resident from Hebron. It was when it came to crossing to Israeli cities that things became increasingly complex. Entering Israeli territory meant she needed a permit and would have to go through stricter checkpoints, often manned by private security. Funnily enough, being a woman could make this an easier task for her. She had noticed that male officers were more likely to treat women leniently, meanwhile women officers would become tougher when letting other women cross. If you were able to get a male officer, this might increase your chances of getting through. She didn’t need much careful premeditation on this occasion, seeing as she had visited her sister in Bethlehem on several other trips. Her usual route was by bus, and so she walked down to the stop across the corner of the street. When the bus arrived, she took her seat next to the window and began to reflect tentatively on her way there. In her previous visits to the city she had noticed several things about the community that were quite different from Hebron. There was a split in the population between a minority of Christians and a majority of Muslims. Bethlehem was not as conservative as Hebron. There were different traditions and these marked cultural differences, but it seemed as though the respective groups respected each other's boundaries and committed to their own lives on these grounds. Seeing as though Christians tended to be more lenient about the conservative nature of dress, people dressed more casually and stayed up late in the streets. Overall, she enjoyed this aspect of freedom when visiting Bethlehem, although by no means was this a city of perfect coexistence or peace. These thoughts came to a halt when her bus arrived.


Chapter 3. Bethlehem

The city of Bethlehem is now a predominantly Muslim city though its historical Christian character continues to define much of the city. Despite the unrest communities face under occupation, people appear to live –at times– in relative harmony. Sara remembered an incident that had happened in a church, but despite that, it was not a city that appeared as frequently on the news. This was unusual given the magnitude of the current situation. Bethlehem was known for its biblical heritage as well as the Israeli Security Barrier – also known as the Israeli Separation wall. The wall had been built during the second intifada and was now, in some areas, covered with graffiti, murals and art. These had become a means for political messages about hope, protest and resistance to be showcased by artists such as Banksy. Bethlehem was also known for being a city of major religious significance for Christians. This meant that many tourists came from all over the world to visit its distinct religious sites, thereby making it a hub of increased diversity. Many of these tourists came in through the Church of Nativity on pilgrimages with large tour groups, and covered the streets during all times of the year with loud guides. Through the church they would get visa slips that would allow them entry. As it pertained to its Christian residents, they had once been the majority in Bethlehem, but many of them had left since they had the means to. Their privilege came in other forms besides their economic status. Many had a double nationality which enabled them to live outside of the country, and were often considered as less of a threat by the Israeli state. Through their churches and status, they often received permits and enjoyed privileges that others did not.


The city of Bethlehem had a pleasant yet complex atmosphere. Many young students came to study here, generating an environment that was cheerful, busy and fun, despite consistently low levels of employment for young professionals. Bethlehem university contributed to this diverse demographic. Similar to Birzeit University, its form of education did not perpetuate religious norms or highlight community social differences as much as other more conservative institutions, thereby creating a more open environment. This was very different from Hebron. Besides its people and businesses, Bethlehem was not complete without the markets, cafes and restaurants that were located at every corner. Some modern cafes had a mix of middle eastern and western food, while more traditional restaurants served local dishes such as; Falafel or Mujadara, a dish with rice, lentil and fried onion-slices and served with yogurt or salad . If this wasn’t your cup of tea, you could also find Italian and American restaurants. The Old City market sold Fresh bread, different kinds of spices, teas, clothes and copious gold stores lined the streets, while people bargained with the sellers for their products. The food, coupled with the history and its young and diverse environment, began to envelop the two women as they walked towards their meeting place. Although this city was not new to either of them, their eyes widened with intrigue and their stomachs rumbled with curiosity.


Chapter 4: The Meeting Place

Sara and Talia had decided to meet in a small cafe, just off of the main street next to the Old City Market. As they both approached each other through the multitude of people they scanned the streets full of unknown faces, looking rather for a familiar voice. Sara stood in front of the doors of the cafe looking at her phone while waiting for a message to pop up from Talia. Meanwhile, Talia, walking towards the cafe let out a wild guess as she approached her figure– ‘Sara ?’. Both women looked up from their phones letting out another sigh of relief and tucking their phones into their pocket. Seeing as the voices matched their respective personas, both women gained a sense of clarity which allowed them to relax. Their initial greeting was kind, yet concealed by a shyness that was natural of two unknown women who had never met beyond the phone. Both of them were curious about each other's presence and eager to enter the confines of the small cafe, as if offering a sense of protection from the outside world. Both Sara and Talia seemed to wear quite similar clothing, a T-shit and some jeans. The small talk began with a concern over the journey that had led them there. Although their route had been quite different, they united on the recognition that two women meeting from either end of the divide was not something that happened on a usual basis. At that moment, both women let out a laugh of satisfaction. Sara, sipping on her tea and Talia on her coffee, reminded each other of the series of conversations which had led them towards this unusual encounter. A sign of solidarity followed by the recollection of the constraints that kept them separate in this divide, left a bittersweet taste in their mouths. The wild absurdity of these facts intertwined with the tragedy of the conflict they faced in their daily lives wove a thread; a dark humor mixed with a sense of restlessness that enveloped them both.



The End

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