New Friends in Old City

“To be hopeful in bad times […] is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives…”

“If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, […] And if we do act […] we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” -Howard Zinn. On the last day of my three-week trip to Palestine, Israel and Jordan, I think of all the people I still have to buy gifts for; the colorful stalls of the street vendors fade into the background as I wander through one of many alleys in the Old City of historic Jerusalem. “Nadia, this way!” My brother and friend wave for me to join them as they disappear into a doorway. It is the door to Al-Khanqah al- Salahiyya Mosque, a former sufi convent from the time of Salahuddin. Once I enter I see why we’re here—a Palestinian girl, Anhar, and her younger brother are leading us through a courtyard. My brother quickly explains that they had seen us walking and asked if we needed a place to pray. After we finish our afternoon prayers, they take us to their house, which is also attached to the mosque.

While drinking the most delicious mint tea I’ve ever tasted, we chat with the young children and their mother. Anhar and her older sister, Isra, tell me they want to be teachers when they grow up. I ask about Roukab’s, a brand of Palestinian ice cream I have yet to try. Our new friends tell us the candy store next door sells it, and we all decide to go there together.
The ice cream is delicious, but the company is my favorite part; their smiling faces, their laughter, and their small, sticky hands all over our cameras as they practice their photography skills. Time passes too quickly, and we realize that it’s time for us to head back to our hotel. After asking their mother for permission, Isra, Anhar, and two of their three brothers join us. Mid-route, we stop in front of a store that Isra tells me is her father’s shop.

The owner laughs and explains that he is only a father-figure. He goes on to tell us how Anhar’s biological father could not find work in Jerusalem, so he works in the West Bank and periodically sends money to support his family.

Palestinian Jerusalemites hold Israeli-issued residency cards, and to retain them, must prove that their center-of-life is in Jerusalem. Anhar’s family has been faced with the threat of having their residency cards revoked on multiple occasions by the Israeli Defense Force who have come to their home. Moving to the West Bank to reunite their family, even for a few weeks, would be too risky, as they would most likely never be able to return to Jerusalem.

To earn extra money, Anhar and her siblings lead tourists to different religious sites in the Old City; they’re well known and loved by local residents.

I imagine my own mother, who somehow stayed sane while raising four children, all very close in age. The warm and kind woman whose house I had just left, who had smiled and nodded as her children translated her offer to cook us lunch, was facing the additional hardship of doing it alone, and with the threat of being evicted from her home.

The shop owner frowns a bit and tells me Anhar is ill; she recently became very thin and her hair has started to fall out. He sadly admits treatment for whatever she has would likely be too costly. Anhar smiles, but seems a little embarrassed; she slowly moves aside the headband I had complimented earlier, revealing a bald spot.With an optimistic sort of defiance she shrugs and says, “It’s from God.” We chat with the shop owner a bit longer before thanking him and continuing on to our hotel.On my last day in Jerusalem, I was confronted with one example of human tragedy that defines a conflict many only ever attempt to understand on an intellectual level. I listened, I looked, and then I got on a plane and left, taking with me memories of the most difficult, emotionally draining, mentally exhaustive, and humbling experiences of my life.

And this thing that I can write about as a “memory” or an “experience” is what millions call “life”— the reality that they wake up to every single day. And yet they smile, they love, they welcome, they hope, seeking not only to survive, but to thrive.

NADIA ROWTHER is a fourth year Public Health Sciences major at the University of California, Irvine

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