We asked him many questions—in English, Hebrew, and broken Arabic. But he asked only one, as he glanced over his shoulder at me: "Do you believe in God?" After a long day of historical and political sightseeing in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, I was awake, but in a dream-like state. Brian, my travel companion, was fast asleep in the back of the taxi next to me.
Why was I being asked this question? Was there a correct answer? The man who had asked me this question was Ashraff, our taxi driver for the day. It was through his eyes that I saw Bethlehem. Ashraff in Arabic means "nobler" or "more distinguished." He took Brian and me all around Bethlehem and its sites on a clear, sunny April day. While I saw the Church of the Nativity and other famous sites, it was this soft-spoken, noble taxi driver that left the strongest memories of the day.
After some reflection, I think Ashraff asked me this question because he saw the commonality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—he was a Muslim who believed in God and I was a Jew who believed in God. This shared belief should be one that brings us together.
Ashraff was a kind man, whose family had fled/been expelled from the Negev prior to the 1948 Independence War/Nakba. His family moved to a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem 60 years ago and has been there ever since. Throughout this day of sightseeing, I learned about Ashraff's opinions and stories, each one of them reflected a longing for a better future and disenchantment with the current state of affairs, but never with any feelings of vengeance or hatred. Ashraff said that tourism was important for the economy and wished there were more tourists, especially Jews.
There are so many memorable conversations and moments with Ashraff, and a few stand out. We started off at the Shepherd's Field. This is a lesser-known tourist attraction, where there are several different sites said to be related to the announcement of Jesus' birth. Ashraff didn't know how to explain what this site was. Somehow, Brian and I had indicated that we were Jewish, and that I was Israeli, so he began speaking to me in Hebrew. Soon enough, we were carrying on a fluent, sophisticated conversation. Brian was very frightened to hear us speaking Hebrew, loudly, in Bethlehem. Ashraff said he'd tell us when it was okay to speak Hebrew and when to revert back to English.
Ashraff told us that, before the Second Intifada started, he had worked in Eilat and Beer Sheva for many years, so his Hebrew was excellent. It was clear that Ashraff wanted to tell us as much as he could about Bethlehem, the city he had grown up in. He was excited for Jews to be in his city, learning about the West Bank, its cities and what was going on in them. All he wanted was to tell stories and have us listen and learn.
Later, Ashraff was very intent on showing us the Separation Wall. All the times I had seen it from the Israeli side, it was very sterile, unemotional, simply a big, gray wall. It was usually in the middle of a relatively open expanse of dirt. Ashraff took us to the area in Bethlehem where the Wall encircles Rachel's Tomb. I was amazed to feel its foreboding, physical, dark presence. There was a watchtower at one of the corners: from below I looked up and I felt the gaze of the Israeli soldier's eyes. The power of this huge structure could not be seen in any other way—Israel controlled this space.
Despite the Wall's domination and oppression, the artwork managed to express resistance. One mural depicted a lone, live tree, surrounded by a tall wall. Outside of the wall, all the other trees were dead, and just the stumps were left. Ashraff and his people were being choked by this wall, but they would not let it kill them.
From the Israeli perspective, this wall, this sterile, gray object maintains one purpose: to prevent terrorism. From what Ashraff showed and expressed to us, this was a place where daily existence was challenged, and passionate voices cried out in expressions of desire and an unwillingness to acquiesce.
It was almost time to eat. Ashraff promised us a good meal at his home. Should we have been scared to go to his home, in a refugee camp, outside of Bethlehem? We weighed our options, and decided that it was more important to see all that we could, to learn and understand about what Ashraff's life is like. Ashraff lives in a 4-story house, with each generation having added on a floor. Before eating, we sat in the living room with Ashraff and his friend. They were so happy we were there. Ashraff saw that I was looking at a lithograph of the 99 names of Allah. He started to translate each name to Hebrew. Again, I felt that he wanted so badly for me to understand that his religion was just like mine—Allah's names are merciful, ever-forgiving, all-knowing, and so much more. I was slowly coming to realize what Ashraff wanted was no different than anything each Israeli—all humans in fact—speak about and fight all their lives for.
We went into the living room and sat on the floor, devouring chicken, rice, salad, all with our hands. Ashraff insisted we keep eating, and offered more food. He wanted us to feel comfortable and welcome. His young daughter crawled over, stared at us curiously and made her way to her mother's lap. We continued tearing chicken meat from its bone, balling yellow rice together, sharing one meal, together, occasionally glancing at each other, rejoicing in sitting together, simply as humans.