Living among the headlines

I cringed at the photo of the anonymous Palestinian father trying to protect his son from Israeli bullets. Then I realized he used to work for me.

By Helen Schary Motro

Published October 7, 2000 9:39PM (EDT)

This week's photo has been burned into the world's consciousness beside the Vietnamese girl aflame with napalm, the Oklahoma City firefighter carrying the dead baby after the federal building explosion, the boy with raised hands in the Warsaw ghetto. Little did I think when I saw the picture that this anonymous man was far from anonymous to me.

Jamal al-Dirrah and 12-year-old Mohammed were cowering against a wall in Gaza, seeking shelter from the rain of gunshots between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers, the terrified boy screaming in the crook of his father's arm. Moments later, the boy slumped dead and his father lay wounded with eight bullets in his body.

I knew a Palestinian named Jamal. I sat in my garden looking at the wall he'd built for me when a team of Palestinians had helped build my Israeli house at the height of the intifada. His first son, I recalled, was born 12 years ago, shortly after my daughter. I thought how easily the anonymous victim might have been the Jamal I knew, with whom I'd had an uneasy relationship that tentatively grew into something else.

Then I read in the newspaper that the dead boy's father, 37 years old, was a house painter from Gaza who worked for Israelis in the suburbs north of Tel Aviv. The same first name, the same job in the same area, the same general age. Too many coincidences.

I studied the photo more closely. What if? It was too blurry to see, the man's head turned away. To put my suspicions to rest I telephoned Moshe Tamam, the Israeli contractor for whom Jamal works. "Tell me, Moshe, the man in the hospital, that's not our Jamal?"

But the contractor told me the news I didn't want to hear.

I telephoned the hospital in Amman, Jordan, where Jamal had gone for surgery, and I was able to reach him. "A crime!" said Jamal. "Forty-five minutes firing without stop. And I cried, 'My son! My son! My son!' but nobody listened. Now he is dead and I am half finished. To shoot at a boy; it's a crime."

Jamal began to cry. There was commotion in the background, people talking in Arabic, and somebody hung up the telephone.

In the Middle East, I have often observed, people live their lives maneuvering between the headlines. This week our Jamal became a headline.

It was the height of the grass-roots Palestinian uprising, the intifada, when I first met Jamal. In 1988 my husband and I hired a contractor to renovate an old house we had just bought in Tel Aviv's suburbs. Jamal stood apart from the other Palestinian workers. In his 20s, he was angrier, prouder, with a resentment more palpable. We were never really introduced. I just learned his first name over time, and he learned mine.

Tall, thin and glowering, Jamal spat out his words in low monosyllables. He accepted begrudgingly, without a smile, the cold drinks in paper cups I brought out to the team of workers. But he would never drink my coffee. Shaking his head dismissively and clicking his tongue, he would pad silently to the periphery of my unfinished patio, crouch down on his heels, extract a crumpled nylon bag from his jacket pocket and shake some dark granules into a glass cup to brew his own strong coffee over a little portable gas heater.

The other workers in the crew -- Nasser, Abed and Yusuf -- were unobtrusive. They bent down in my garden to pray, facing east. I wondered whether they knew about the old mosque atop a seaside cliff at the beach nearby, the mosque where a muezzin no longer calls.

As the workers arrived each morning, the radio reported the injured of the day before -- Israeli soldiers wounded by hurled rocks, Palestinians shot, the tear gas fired, the order from army headquarters to break protesters' limbs, the latest death toll. It was a dark and hateful time. Still the workers came to my house day in and day out, plastering, setting tiles, installing plumbing.

They arrived at dawn, worked quietly, kept their heads down. They considered themselves the lucky ones, the ones with steady work. But when terrorist bombings heated up inside the country, Israel retaliated by sealing off the borders, allowing nobody from the territories occupied by Israel to work inside Israel proper. Sometimes weeks would go by while the men sat in enforced idleness inside Gaza. Then suddenly the order would be rescinded, and construction on my home would start anew.

Part of Jamal's job involved putting up a garden wall. I was walking next to the newly finished wall when something close to the base caught my eye. I bent down to look closer. "Jamal - 1988" I saw, inscribed in looping English script letters, the handwriting of a foreign schoolboy. The cement was already dry. Indignant, I went straight to the contractor and insisted a new layer be spread over the offensive signature. It was my house after all, not a public sidewalk. If anybody had a right to make graffiti, it was me.

The next morning the signature had been obliterated, large circles of new gray cement in benign swirls over the words. The new spot dried a different shade of gray than the surrounding wall, and for a few years it was visible if you knew what you were looking for. But with time that difference has faded, and it became hard to discern the place where Jamal had tried to leave his mark.

During the period we were building, my third baby was born. Jamal's wife was expecting their first child. When I offered my no longer needed maternity clothes, he nodded his head ever so slightly. I packed up a big bundle. I especially liked my navy wool jumper with red piping. The next day I looked until I found Jamal, and happily presented him with the bag. He took it with averted eyes. Months later I found the bag, still full, stuffed into a crevice in an old repainted cupboard, my navy dress in a wrinkled ball.

Then my house was finished and the workers went away.

The years went by, tumultuous ones in Israel. The 1991 Gulf War brought acute fear, then two years later the Oslo accords afforded the first ray of hope for coexistence. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist, things seemed to go back to square one. There was a series of terrorist bombings inside Israel in which hundreds of civilians were killed. In their wake hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu was swept into office. But in the meantime, people living in the Middle East continued to lead their private lives, maneuvering between the headlines.

A couple of years ago, I hired the same contractor to repaint my house. I saw there was a new foreman. He came up my steps limping slightly, thin and wiry, reminding me of the physique of Ahknaton, the elongated Egyptian emperor. When he got close, I saw it was someone I knew. Through the graying hair and bony cheeks I recognized Jamal. He smiled, and I did too. There was something of old friends in our greeting.

I could read in his eyes that I'd gotten older too. I supposed Jamal's traumas had been much worse than mine, and yet here he was again, after all those years. Years of arising from bed at 3:30 a.m., to take the bus at 4 to the border crossing, and then board a second bus an hour later out of Gaza to start work at 6 a.m. Was it this backbreaking cycle of physical labor that made the 35-year-old man look like he was 50? Yet he was smiling.

I say we greeted as friends, but I know this is not the deep truth. Even beyond the economic inequality, I could never look at him without "the conflict" on my mind. His Arabness and my Jewishness hung in the air. I wondered what I could represent for Jamal, in my big house, transplanted to this soil of my own will from another place. I still brought coffee out to the workers in the morning. This time Jamal looked happy to get it. "But I hope this is real coffee -- not Jewish Nescafi!" he would laugh. In his surrender to reality Jamal had kept both his spunk and his dignity.

Jamal and I conversed in Hebrew, neither his native tongue nor mine. On Fridays when he went home to catch the earlier weekend transport bus, Jamal would call out over his shoulder, "A peaceful Sabbath!" Although I couldn't see it, I could feel him grinning.

After the first coat of paint went on, and the workers needed to let it dry, there was still time before the bus came to pick them up. So the boss suggested I ask Jamal to do small jobs around the house. I ran to get out my university diplomas from a drawer. Jamal studied the gothic lettering on one for a long time. "It says New York University, right?" he asked finally, his voice serious and hushed. I nodded yes, flinching a little at the memory of his proud, painstaking English graffiti, which I had ordered covered up.

Jamal hung the diplomas in my study with exquisite care. There was still time before the bus.

I remembered an old reproduction of Renoir's "Girl With a Watering Can" hanging in my youngest daughter's room. It had been my own as a child and was passed on like a talisman to each of my three daughters. By now the wooden frame had fallen apart at the hinges. I asked Jamal if he could patch it up somehow. He nodded.

"Do you have any masking tape?" I foraged in the storage room and came back with a jumbo roll. "Here take this -- it's left over from the Gulf War! Remember when we had to tape up our windows and doors against gas?"

"Allah protect us!" Jamal called with a laugh, holding up the roll. "Imagine how silly we were to think this sticky paper could save our lives. Believe me," he went on, "in my house we never taped the windows or the doors. I told my wife, 'If God wants to kill us, he will, and if he wants to save us, he will.' I never put on any gas mask in the war. Never again! Let that be Allah's will," said Jamal.

An hour later he appeared at my study door. In his hands he held Renoir's "Girl With a Watering Can" -- in a new frame, I thought. Looking closer I saw I was mistaken - it was the original frame bought halfway across the world at the Metropolitan Museum decades before. He hadn't used any of the tape at all. Jamal had repaired it by knocking in dozens of tiny nails perfectly lined up all around the edge. Then, somehow, he had polished the wood to make the black lacquer shine like new.

I asked Jamal how many children he has now.

"Six," he told me proudly. "Four sons, two girls."

This time he didn't hesitate to accept my old clothes and toys, though I hesitated to offer them. I had learned enough not to hand them to him anymore. Now I left the bags in the garden, next to the lamppost where he left his rolled-up jacket when he came to work.

I wished I could help Jamal. I wanted his kids to get enough schooling to read the lettering on their own diplomas. But he was a victim of circumstances larger than both of us, I rationalized weakly. So I didn't do much of anything. I just stuffed shopping bags full of old sweaters with fuzz balls, men's jackets that had gone out of style, toys my children had gotten tired of and scuffed boots they had outgrown.

Jamal took them all. I watched his thin frame receding and saw his limp as he walked down the garden steps. The sinews in his long arms moved as he carried the bulging nylon shopping bags with Hebrew writing down toward the boss's pickup, in a rush to make the afternoon ride back to Gaza.

The fresh white paint covering Jamal's wall gleamed in the sun. From the western horizon over the beach the afternoon rays shone on the bronze crescent atop the seaside mosque before reflecting in the glass of my windowpanes. Was Jamal watching the fading sunlight too, through the dusty window of his bus?

I wondered whether Jamal would be back when it came time to paint again. Would his hair be all gray then? Would his four sons be old enough to throw stones, or will the time of stone-throwing have passed?

My daughter is 12, like Jamal's boy was. Mohammed loved to swim in the sea; my daughter is on a swim team. Mohammed was good in English -- I know he took after his father. My daughter walks to school beside cypress trees, amid bougainvillea. Her pet dog waits impatiently for her to come home. Mohammed had pet birds. But had he lived to be a grandfather, it's unlikely he and my daughter ever would have met.

Right after Jamal was wounded, Moshe Tamam, the contractor who employed him, said he had tried to get Jamal transferred from Gaza into a big Israeli hospital. He offered to pay for all the expenses, Moshe said, but the Palestinian Authority hadn't allowed it. Jamal had worked for him for 20 years, since he was 14 years old.

"These people are born in hatred, raised in hatred, " Moshe told me. "They return home from working in big houses to their shacks without even sewage. Jamal is a terrific man. He slept in my own home many times. He is a wonderful worker, and I know that I can leave him alone in any customer's house and there will be no theft, no vandalism, no breakage."

Israel radio reported that Jamal also said that Moshe had offered to send him to an Israeli hospital and pay for it, but that he preferred to be treated in the Arab world. Everything in the Middle East has two stories.

When I reached him by telephone, in Amman, Jamal called his boss, Moshe, a "brother."

"I hope to be healthy again, but back to work I don't think I will ever be able to go," he told me.

I asked Jamal what does he wish for his remaining children. "My children? To grow as all the children in the world." I heard his voice break. "That they will be surrounded by all good things and nothing bad, nothing bad."

Not a week had passed since his boy was killed. And yet when the reporter from Israel radio asked him if his attitude toward Israelis changed forever in those terrible moments beside the wall in Gaza, Jamal said, "I am a man of peace. We two peoples must live together. There is no other possibility. There is no other possibility."

Helen Schary Motro

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer living in Israel, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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