Big vans usually give me a sense of security, yet this one felt disturbingly unbalanced as we stormed past the bare stones and dry grassland between Hebron and Jerusalem. As if we were about to tip over. I lived in the center of Jerusalem that year, not far from the walls of the old city. Unlike most international students, I chose not to live in the Hebrew University dorms on Mount Scopus - a name that reflects its function. I wanted to discover Jerusalem from its heart, not scope it from afar. Watching the dreariness of a winter morning from the window, I sat quietly between two burly Turkish men, my best friends Yusuf and Erturk. The stone-proof van with the letters TIPH – “Temporary International Presence in Hebron” - plastered in red over the white exterior continued along its designated path, and the tight quarters of the backseat was a rollercoaster swerving along the road.
Hebron shares the same fate as Jerusalem – of being holy to more than one religion. The Jews call it the City of Patriarchs, since they believe Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah are buried in the Me’arat HaMachpelah. The great father of the Jewish people, Abraham’s other name is Ibrahim as per Muslims, and they call the Cave of the Patriarchs al-Haram al-Ibrahimi.
It is only a small cave and the tomb of Abraham is to be shared by two warring peoples who’d rather die than share a pebble. This is why almost everything is divided into parts in Israel. The religious versus the secular, the old city versus the new, the Jewish quarter aside the Muslim quarter, the night and the day, the sea and the desert, right versus wrong. The holy and the heretic.
I stayed quiet throughout the ride as Yusuf and Erturk chatted with the two Turkish soldiers-made-peace-keepers. While Hebron is only 30 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem, I knew we headed from one reality to another. They were having their man-to-man-talk-with-a-woman-listening conversation; not as vulgar as it would have been in my absence, but not as polite as it would have been if I were more active in the conversation.
“When the assignment over Abi?” Yusuf asked the driver in his ultra-masculine tone, which in Turkish means sounding like a moron. Our driver was just as much a stranger to him as he was to me, but that did not keep him from addressing the driver as abi – brother.
“I have 6 more months and I go back. Any longer Hatun will protest, you know. She is already complaining day-in and day-out.”
I had met Yusuf back in August during my first week in Israel, but we didn’t become friends until Erturk arrived in September with his carefree charisma. In hindsight, I realize I unconsciously couldn’t justify befriending a Turkish Muslim guy, out of all places, in Jerusalem. After all, I had come to study in Israel despite my mother’s strong protests in order to connect with my Jewish side, not my Turkish one. In any case, his name was too Islamic sounding – Hasan Yusuf Yurtlu. Nevertheless, the three of us began staying up until dawn, night after night, talking about politics of identity, war, the latest gossips from Turkey, and the ailments of cigarette smoking. We stuck to each other and became one another’s family in one of the most ancient cities in the world.
Yusuf had a unique talent in looking invisible. Wearing his dark sunglasses and faint smile, he would sit slouched with one leg over the other, his arm resting on a chair while casually holding a cigarette. As he walked, he would tip his chin down as if to hide his half-goatee, carrying his rugged backpack that looked so heavy because of his natural, slight hunch. Erturk and Yusuf were studying Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University and were the only Turkish Muslim students that year.
As we approached Hebron, we passed through narrow roads with huge stones piled to the side at strategic locations near the entrance of the town. “When the Palestinians misbehave, the Israelis block-off the city with these stones. Sometimes for a few days, no body can enter or leave Hebron,” our driver explained.
I wondered what he thought of this punishment. Did he hate the Israelis for it or did he think the Palestinians deserved it. I wanted to know what side he was on, for in Israel taking sides is like paying taxes– it’s required. I continued to keep a low profile as the sole Jew in the car, knowing that I would be the sole Jew once we reached our destination: the TIPH headquarters in Palestinian Hebron.
“Is this the only entrance to the city?” Erturk asked.
“No, there are three in total. The Israelis can block any or all of them whenever they feel like it.”
Erturk was known at school as “The Ottoman.” He received the title after fooling an innocent American into believing that he is the descendent of the Ottoman Sultan. He would kiss his ring bearing the Tura - the Sultan’s signature- three times, point his index finger toward the sky and declare “One day we will restore the glorious Ottoman Empire and rule all of this land, including Jerusalem.” Then he would laugh his roaring laugh, which almost always made me look around to see if anybody was aroused by the thick sound wave.
* * *
When we arrived at the TIPH headquarters’ Al-Zaghal Building, we were shown to the guest-apartment and instructed to take a few minutes to leave our bags and somebody would come to take us to our host’s office. Colonel Osman Kaya, who had invited us to Hebron and arranged for our pick-up from Jerusalem, was sitting at his desk battling the computer mouse to check email, when we entered.
A Turkish flag, pictures of Turkish military planes emitting red and white smoke, and a fancy, velvet Ottoman flag decorated his office. Across the entrance, a signed picture of Rauf Denktash- the former Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a small country only recognized by Turkey, smiled at us.
“Welcome, welcome friends!” He exclaimed springing up from his leather chair. He immediately instructed one of the lower-ranking Turkish soldiers to make tea. We didn’t know it yet, but we would be spending most of the weekend either in this office with the Colonel, discussing the prowess of the Turkish military and the latest Motorola phone he bought for her exceptional daughter, or in the TIPH van – observing Hebron from the safety of the stone-proof windows.
The Colonel didn’t give us a clear itinerary for the rest of the day, but after eating lunch in the dining room with all the other TIPH workers that come from Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Italy in addition to Turkey, we were back in the van to begin our tour of Hebron.
“I want to take you to al-Haram al-Ibrahimi but you can never trust these Nazis.” The Colonel said from the passenger seat referring to the European TIPH contingents. “I heard something about a small riot going on this morning. Knowing them, they’ll tell us it’s safe at the very moment it is not. You didn’t tell them you are Jewish did you my girl Nathalie?”
“Good. Because you never know with them. They are all whores these Europeans! We have statistics, I tell you. Open up Time 1994, more than 50 percent have children out of wedlock.”
“Are you saying that they are anti-Semitic?” I asked curiously.
“These sons of bitches, all the neo-Nazis that are left in Europe, they send them over here. I tell you, all day we are going through reports they file to make sure they are true.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, part of our job is to file reports about incidents that happen. A Palestinian man comes in says Israeli soldiers destroyed his home. We have to write a report on that, but you’ve got to check your facts, make sure he is not lying.”
“Sometimes. But these damn Europeans, they are supposed to be neutral but they jump at the chance of bagging the Israelis. All day, I have to clean up their mess, writing up false reports.”
We had met the Colonel at a cocktail celebrating the Turkish Independence Day hosted by the Turkish Consulate to Palestine on October 29. It was held at the Embassy Hotel in the Arab part of East Jerusalem. I stuck out in the crowd not only because I was the only Jew, but also because of my spaghetti-strapped tan-colored dress, which was more visible than my religion. Invited at the celebration were all non-Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem including the Armenian Patriarch, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Ekrima Sa’id Sabri, the staff of the Turkish embassy in Jerusalem as well as the consulate in Tel-Aviv, Turkish citizens living in Jerusalem, and others whom I never met. It became clear that I was truly the only Jew, when the Grand Mufti’s apprentice almost broke out in convulsions when he realized that I was not a secular Turk, but rather a secular Jewish Turk.
I was standing in a circle holding a glass of red wine, mingling with a crowd of Turkish doctors doing their specialization at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital when the Colonel joined in the circle and began expressing his affection towards Jews and the Israeli military in the most irksome manner. He was a tall, slightly chubby man with a dark complexion- one of those unfortunate men who have so much facial hair that it’s still visible after a clean-shave. He began listing the names of Turkish Jews he is acquainted with as if I am supposed to know every 20,000 of them just because I am Jewish.
“I like your people; you are one of us, we are brothers.”
Who were my people exactly? How were we brothers? Was he not aware that I was standing there speaking his native tongue, which was also mine? Who was this man anyway?
The first half of that night, I was busy calming down Yusuf, who was erratically disturbed by the Colonel’s arrogance in complimenting my nationality. Whereas I am used to insensitive strangers stamping an identity of their choosing on me, Yusuf is too much of an idealist to accept the reality that one does not have exclusivity in defining oneself. My identity is constantly hijacked, defined, and redefined by people who don’t know how to pronounce my name.
“I would tell you something about your country, but you will get impertinently spoiled.” As a military person, he seemed impressed by the invincible Israeli army and its victorious wars. He kept following me around, making Yusuf angrier and angrier at his comments. “I bet I know more about your people than you. I read three books this summer.” I smiled and I nodded.
Erturk was busy sipping wine in a corner, collecting business cards and making connections when we submitted to our fate of never getting rid of the Colonel. But our annoyance turned into intrigue after we found out that he was one of the directors of the peace-keeping force in Hebron. It was our turn to bombard him with questions.
“You can’t understand Hebron, you have to see it for yourself.” He answered and followed with an invitation to spend a weekend in Hebron as a TIPH guest. Knowing well that I would not go anywhere with this man without my friends, Yusuf was quick to smile at the prospect of seeing Hebron, as we were all too aware that visiting this city in the West Bank is not simple. The second half of the cocktail commemorating the Turkish independence, we spent imagining the City of Patriarchs.
One of my Jewish-American friends at the Hebrew University, who made it a point to visit West Bank cities like Ramallah and Nablus despite the imminent danger, had told me about her visit to this ancient city. Of course, Rachel’s trip to Hebron was from Jewish Jerusalem to Jewish Hebron to the Jewish Me'arat HaMachpelah. I had listened to her with curiosity, not expecting that I would ever end up, of all places, in the Palestinian section of the city.
The Jewish settlement, namely Kiryat Arba where she and her friends ate lunch “looked like any other little Israeli town – only guarded with hundreds of soldiers.” Most Israelis that choose to live in Kiryat Arba were religious ultra-Zionists – those labeled as “nuts” by secular Israelis or “extremists” by ultra-liberal leftists. Jews native to Hebron had lived in this sacred city for thousands of years until the 1929 Arab pogrom, when nationalist Arabs murdered 67 Jews and the survivors fled. For the next 38 years, Jews were not permitted to visit or pray at the second holiest site to Judaism, let alone continue living there. The city was barren of Jews. The residents of Kiryat Arba had come to Hebron to re-establish the Jewish community after the 1967 war, when Israelis gained control of the city.
“But the Tomb of the Patriarchs is really interesting.” Rachel described the sacred site. “You enter the tomb-site from one side and the Muslims go in through the other. The walls of the structure are about 2000 years old – built by King Herod. You go up the stairs chiseled out of stone into what looks like a little synagogue. Inside, there is a room with many windows fenced with thick metal rods – in that room is Abraham’s tomb. Of course you don’t actually see the tomb itself, because it’s underground – what you see is a big sarcophagus covered with a green tapestry. Behind it, you can see the windows that look into the Muslim side. You can even hear the Muslims that are paying their respects to the Prophet from inside al-Haram al-Ibrahimi. Joseph’s tomb is there, in the mosque. But I couldn’t see it. Jews can only visit it 10 days out of the year and that day wasn’t one of them.”
* * *
We drove around ‘sightseeing’ in the city. Every time we came out of the van, which was not often, little Palestinian kids with wide grins and a big interest in being photographed surround us.
“These little sons of bitches, one moment they are smiling and the next they start throwing stones,” the Colonel said motioning us to get back into the van. Our quick departure didn’t make the kids who were hungry for more photographs very happy. A pebble scratched the side of the van seconds after I closed the door. We left.
Apparently, both Palestinians and Israelis hated the TIPH peacekeepers. “The Israelis think we are not neutral and side with the Palestinians, and the Arabs think we are not pro-Palestinian enough. In actually, TIPH is useless. We don’t do anything,” the Colonel said.
The first-world roads meticulously paved and painted, clashed with the third-world dilapidated buildings surrounded by trash everywhere. This paradoxical view gave Hebron a temperamental attitude – the trash on the asphalt seemed more permanent than the asphalt itself. The Colonel pointed to a run-down building and identified it as the Hebron University. “Otherwise known as the Center for Nourishing Terrorists,” he added. We all turned our heads to look at this infamous university, expecting to see terrorists bulging out of the window. All we saw was an ugly building.
Soon after, we got word that it was finally safe to visit the Me’arat HaMachpelah. Just shy of sunset on Friday afternoon, we were in time before the mosque/synagogue would be closed to visitors in observance of the Sabbath. We arrived at an Israeli checkpoint. Yet no soldiers guarded at what seemed like an abandoned shack next to a white metal gate that blocked off the checkpoint. A rope was attached to the gate, and it ran about 200 feet to what I assume was a well-protected, invisible shack, where the soldiers inspected us from afar and hauled the rope that opened the gate.
We parked the TIPH van and walked towards the entrance of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi. Three Israeli soldiers guarded the entrance. The biggest one holding the biggest gun asked each one of us “Ata Yehudi?” which literally means “Are you a Jew?” but sounded more like “Did you kill him?” He repeated his question four times for each man without waiting for an answer and then directly stared at my face as if he knew. “At Yehudia?”
I floundered. He repeated yelling the same question. I caved in.
“You, you, you, you, go in.” he pointed at everyone but me. “You can’t go in here.”
The Colonel was sure he could use his suave Turkish allure to let them make an exception and let this Jewish girl in with the Muslims. He was soon disappointed to see the Israeli soldier not charmed. Besides, he had a big gun.
“You. Go. Other side.”
“What other side?”
Rachel’s description of the shrine divided into two was now live in front of me – the entrance we were standing in front of was exclusively for Muslims. I had to walk to the other side – the Jewish side – if I wanted a close up of Abraham. This arrangement splitting the shrine into two was made after a Jew from Kiryat Arba decided to break into the mosque during prayer and open fire, killing 29 Arabs. His name was Baruch Goldstein and the bullet marks left by his gun on February 25, 1994 were still visible behind the Israeli soldier’s rifle. It was also this event that had resulted in the installation of TIPH.
At this point, I was hoping to get airlifted back to Jerusalem. I was terrified to walk by myself to the other side of the building. What was I thinking coming to Hebron anyway? My mother would kill me if she knew. All day, I laughed at the Colonel’s nationalist Turkish jokes, walked around a Palestinian city, and if I believed anything the Colonel said, I was about to sleep in the same building with neo-Nazi Europeans. As I circled around the site, I held my arms crossed at my chest and compressed my neck toward my shoulders like the bellows of an accordion, to be as invisible as possible. In three minutes, I would reach the other side and become a Jew. I glanced back. My friends were already in the mosque. I was alone.
I walked slowly toward the gate guarded by two soldiers. They were younger and seemed much friendlier. We started to talk in my broken Hebrew – about beaches in southern Turkey.
“It’s nice to chat and all, but I’d like to go inside before it closes for Friday prayers,” I said after about ten minutes of chitchat.
“You can’t go in. You have to go to the other side. You are Muslim.”
“I am Jewish! That’s why I came here all alone.”
“Oh. Then you can go.”
Just as I walked through the makeshift entrance, another soldier popped out of no-where and began asking for my papers indicating my religion. All I had with me was my Turkish passport that does not state religion. He scrimmaged through every page, frustrated by his apparent inability to read the Latin alphabet fast enough.
“It doesn’t say my religion. Look at my name: It’s Nathalie Ester Alyon. Could I be any more Jewish?”
“I don’t care what your name is. Why doesn’t this say your religion?”
“Because it doesn’t,” I protested with the desire to add, “Would you like to file a complaint with the Turkish Interior Ministry?” But I didn’t.
He gazed at me one more time, and then decided to let me in.