Crossing Qalandiya: letters between two women
May 09, 2014
You have no idea how strange I feel lately - almost as if I've started seeing things differently -- through your eyes. Maybe this is normal, because we know each other relatively well now, and of course this has an effect. I keep finding myself explaining 'your side' to people. And, frankly, I am shocked at some of the reactions I get.
There are many people here who are completely blind to the way things look from your point-of-view, and to what your people are going through. I am sure this is also true for some of the people on your side. But suddenly it has become clear to me that so many of the problems are the result of miscommunication and misunderstandings... so the only solution is dialogue.
That's from one of Daniela Norris' letters to Shireen Anabtawi, as collected in Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide, published by Reportage Press in 2010. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The book begins with a letter from Daniela, and here are her first words:
Dear Shireen, I hope you are well, and that you remember me. We met in Geneva last month, at a cocktail party, at Michelle's house. I admit that I was taken aback when you said you were from Palestine. I was convinced you were Italian or Greek -- something Mediterranean, anyway -- but I didn't imagine you were Palestinian.
It is strange, but despite the few kilometres that set us apart, I have never really gotten to know a Palestinian woman. Certainly not one as charming as you. What can I say? I am embarrassed to admit that the image I had of Palestinians was somewhat different...
I have a confession: I hesitated before I went to meet you the next morning. After all, you are supposed to be "The Enemy," and who knows what The Enemy has in store for them? But we said we'd bring our kids along, and when I arrived with my two little boys and saw you waiting at the café with your two beautiful children, I was ashamed of my previous thoughts... Ever since I met you, I read and listen to the news from our region differently, with more compassion for the other side -- your side.
Shireen, in turn, writes back:
Dear Daniela... I appreciate your frankness. I must admit that the only Israelis I've met over the past years have been the soldiers at road-blocks, and I, too, found it strange to meet an Israeli woman with whom I was able to connect so easily....
You ask about my daily life in Ramallah. I hope that one day you'll be able to visit me here. Ramallah is beautiful. When I was in Europe and said I was from Ramallah, people asked me whether we had roads, shops, food. I was surprised to hear these questions. It's so sad that this is the image we have in the eyes of the world.
...All in all, my life here is pretty good, but I must admit that it is difficult to come back to Ramallah after spending time in Europe. When we travelled, we drove from country to country and were rarely asked to show a passport. Here, if I want to visit my family in Nablus, I have to show documentation and permits; not only that, but I have to wait long hours at road-blocks, in the heat or in the rain...
Daniela and Shireen met by chance at a party in Geneva. Daniela had worked for the Israeli Foreign Service for seven years, and later was an advisor to the Permanent Mission of Israel at the UN in Geneva. Shireen is a former director of Public Relations at the Palestinian Investment Agency in Ramallah, and later worked for the Palestinian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. As the book's introduction explains, the two women met many times in Geneva over several months, with and without family members, and their friendship bloomed. Neither speaks the other's language, so their communication was in English, the language which they shared.
Once they returned home again, despite the geographical proximity of their homes, they were worlds apart. So this correspondence began. Each wrote in her native language, and then translated it into English before sending. The end result is this book, which I bought at the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem last month and have only now finished reading.
Because this is a collection of correspondence, it's difficult to offer representative excerpts. Their conversation loops and circles, and subjects recur frequently. Sometimes a letter will be held up inexplicably and will arrive weeks after it was sent. Sometimes one woman's letter will veer off onto a tangent, and at the end she will apologize for not responding to the questions asked last time, and will promise to get to them in future correspondence. The narrative is disjointed and messy, much like life.
In one letter which I found particularly memorable, Shireen tells the story of her wedding day. The Israeli army had imposed a curfew that day, which meant she couldn't travel on the road to Ramallah where her husband-to-be and his family were waiting. Instead she had to hire a man with a donkey to carry her over the hills in her wedding dress. In the end, the evening was transformed from one of anger and frustration to one of surprising beauty. In another, Daniela talks about the Jewish custom of circumcising baby boys (which, to her surprise, Shireen confirms that Muslims do, too) and about how difficult she finds the whole thing, and how she and her husband chose a hospital circumcision and a party at home afterwards instead of doing things the traditional (religious) way.
As the mother of a small child myself, I am consistently moved by the way these women write to each other about children -- their own kids, and each others' kids, and their wishes that their kids could meet in the land(s) where they live and could grow up as friends. Daniela and Shireen talk about the responsibilities of motherhood and whether or not their husbands do the dishes; they compare notes about playgrounds and kindergarten and what to do with kids during the long school-free summer. But the parenthood conversation always leads seamlessly into the bigger political conversation. Motherhood and the difficult realities of Israeli-Palestinian tension are inextricably intertwined.
In one letter, Daniela expresses sorrow that Shireen's children are afraid of Israeli soldiers, and don't have a good playground nearby as hers do -- and then expresses her anger that her own children are afraid of suicide bombings, and asks why Palestinian textbooks teach their children to hate Jews. Shireen writes back to say that she is quite startled by that question; she explains that their textbooks contain no such things, and that an independent European Union commission has looked into this and can affirm that it is true. "The only thing that makes our children hate Israelis is the occupation," Shireen writes, "and you Israelis have got the power to change that."
It's clear, reading these letters, that both women are making a concerted effort not to demonize each other or to accuse each other. It's also clear that this correspondence isn't always easy, and that each woman has the uncomfortable experience of bumping up against someone else's truth, someone else's narrative, which flies in the face of the way she was taught to think about both "us" and "them." And yet they keep writing, because their friendship has come to be important to them. They talk about holiday practices and foods: Shireen describes Ramadan, Daniela describes Pesach and the Days of Awe. They talk about their hopes for their kids and the world they want their kids to inherit.
In one letter, late in the book, Shireen writes:
You asked me in one of your last letters why we commemorate the nakbah, our disaster, when we were chased away from our lands and the state of Israel was founded. I haven't answered the question, because it is very difficult for me to see that you cannot really see the reason. How can we be happy for you Israelis, rejoice that you have your own state, when we do not have our own?
Daniela's response begins:
Your last letter was extremely interesting for me to read. I can't say I knew all those things about Palestinians living in other countries, or about your nakbah. When you explain, I have to admit that they suddenly make some sense. I am glad you shared your point of view with me, because it is the first time I have come close to really understanding these things.
As an American reader, I'm fascinated by the blind spots, the things each woman doesn't know about the other's life or experiences. It's particularly poignant because they do live so near each other, and because they have so many things in common. Maybe what makes their correspondence (and their friendship) work is the fact that they're not trying to convince each other of anything. They're doing the hard work of sitting with the tension. As my friend and teacher Rabbi Brad Hirschfield put it in the title of his memoir, "You don't have to be wrong for me to be right."
I'm going to share one more quote from the book -- an extended quote from a letter written by Daniela toward the end of this correspondence. (The book ends with their letters promising to try to meet at the Qalandiya checkpoint; we don't find out whether they made it, or what that in-person encounter was like, or what has transpired since then.) This passage has stayed with me because it's such a cogent description of the interior process of broadening one's perspective:
I have found myself going through a process over the past few months, a sort of understanding that took me from believing that 'everything is your fault' through 'perhaps it is a little bit our fault, too' all the way to the conclusion that we actually share the blame -- equally. Without undermining your responsibility for the situation, I would like to be able to be honest enough with myself and with you and to address our own responsibility, which definitely exists.
It is true that it is perhaps easier to be in a position of power, but I really think that this position of power is now ruining us. It separates my people and causes our morals to decline. We always took pride in being a moral people. You may laugh, but I believed in it, too, until very recently. But we are raising generations of children, youths and adults who develop the mentality of 'occupiers'...
I hope that later this year we will be able to sit together, in Tel Aviv or in Ramallah, and have coffee again and watch our children play -- without fearing each other. How do you say in Arabic -- inshallah?
This isn't a book which offers answers to the big systemic questions of violence and power, or to the reality of two traumatized peoples who remain at odds. But it does offer a glimpse of how two women can forge a friendship not by ignoring what divides them, but by speaking frankly about it, and by being open to hearing difficult things which contradict their usual way of understanding the world. I think that's pretty rare, and I admire Daniela and Shireen greatly for it.
Partial proceeds from sales of the book go to Children of Peace, a British nonprofit organization which works with Israeli and Palestinian children. Buy it at Amazon.com or at The Strand or wherever you usually look for books.