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He closed the cap on my gas tank, returned the nozzle, and handed me a slip of paper. "What's this?" I asked. "A coupon for a car wash," he responded. "Kind of like a present." He smiled, dazzling me. "Give me another present," I said, handing the slip of paper back to him. "Your phone number."
When I moved 10,000 miles from California to Israel this fall, I did not expect to end up with an Arab-Muslim boyfriend from a traditional Bedouin tribe. My friend Josh thought I was nuts when I told him by phone that I was still involved with Muhammed one month later. "How do you reconcile your radical feminist values with someone who comes from such a misogynistic background?" Josh asked. I didn't know whether to laugh like a madwoman or strangle the man. This is the same Josh who told me I had serious psychological problems because I didn't want to sleep with him. Harvard-educated Josh with a coveted job at a prestigious New York law firm, I might add. So much for the superior feminist consciousness of America's elite men.
Muhammed's Arab and my Jewish identities are not as diametrically opposed as people might think. Far from being a Debbie Goldstein, bagels and cream cheese, neurotic New Yorker, I have a name in the Jewish dialect of Iraqi Arabic, I sing religious Hebrew songs in quarter tones, my family has various shades of olive and brown skin, and as with all Middle Eastern and North African Jews, my Jewish prayers are to a God alternately called Elokeem and Allah (a word for God used by Jews in Iraq, as well as by Muslims).
Unlike most American Jews, my identity traces back to the Babylonian empire's conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Judah--the southern region of ancient Israel--in 586 BCE. After demolishing the kingdom and leaving it in ruins, the Babylonians took the people of Israel as captives, to the land that is today Iraq. "On the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept for Zion," reads the first Jewish prayer known to have been written. My family remained on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the next 2,500 years, until 1950, when the modern Iraqi government forced the Jews to flee as refugees. Ironically, my family was absorbed by the modern State of Israel.
Although I myself grew up in the United States, I share more cultural similarities with Muhammed than I do with American Jews from European backgrounds. In fact, as a child growing up in the Euro-centric Jewish communities of California and New York, I was frequently ridiculed for the very heritage that Muhammed and I have in common.
A common Middle Eastern identity, however, is not what brought me into this relationship or what keeps Muhammed and me together. To the contrary, we operate in a little bubble removed from identity politics. Our relationship is based on simple things: wacky humor, independent thinking, a "kindred spirit" connection, heaps of respect, and an appreciation of the basic goodness in each of us. Oh, did I mention the fireworks?
Coming from Berkeley, California, an American suburb with its own foreign policy, it's been quite a challenge to learn how to be apolitical in a relationship. But since the climate around Muhammed and me is so explosive, it has seemed imperative to keep politics out until we build a strong foundation and have time on our side.
To my amazement, tensions that could have inflicted deep wounds and caused huge arguments have naturally worked themselves out just through the process of our getting to know each other. For example, my neighbors were hostile when they found out I was with an Arab. "You better watch out," the matriarch of the family cautioned me, "They're all smiles and well mannered on the outside, but when you least expect it, they'll slit your throat."
A guest in the home agreed, emphatically suggesting I find myself a nice Jewish boy. "He'll be much better for you," she insisted. I pointed out that her own nice Jewish boy had been cheating on her for two months straight before dumping her; but that information didn't seem to change the verdict.
It was difficult not to talk with Muhammed about situations like these--to "process the issue," as we say in Berkeley-speak. I felt stressed every time he came over, worried that a neighbor would make a nasty remark. I wondered if I was being deceitful on some level, by not being up-front about what was going on. And I struggled in confronting the issue on my own. But I figured there was no point in telling Muhammed about the arguments, since doing so would only cause him pain and make him feel uncomfortable in the neighborhood. Besides, I figured he was probably engaged in similar battles from his end of things.
As weeks went by, amazingly, these kinds of clashes ceased. Seeing I was not about to drop Muhammed like a hot potato, people came to accept that we were an item. Out of love for me, they started to care about him. And so, just through the simple act of our being together, we created our own little version of a peace agreement, without the big political brouhaha.
But our first few months together were rough in some other ways: For one thing, I was accosted twice by a group of Arab men. The first time, I was on a night hike with a friend of mine in a remote area just outside the city. A car pulled up, and three men jumped out, surrounding me and my friend, shouting at us in Arabic and threatening us. My friend, also an Arab, spoke to one of them calmly in Arabic. "Oh, it's okay!" that man shouted to the other two men. I knew enough Arabic to understand what he was yelling: "It's okay, he's an Arab! He's an Arab, lay off!" The other two men backed off of me. Wishing my friend well, all three men jumped into their car and drove away. I could not stop shaking for the next half hour.
The second time, another group of three men violently harassed me in the city, when I was alone. As part of the assault, one of the men tried to grab me. I pushed him away, yelled bloody murder, and spat on him. He spat back at me, missed, and tried to find a rock to throw at me. Fortunately, there were no rocks around.
These kinds of incidents added a lot of stress to my side of the relationship, shoving in my face the tensions and divisions between Arabs and Jews. I felt as if I were standing in the middle of a crossfire. "Loolwa," a close friend said as I burst into tears, "this is not an environment that will encourage your love to blossom. It will be a miracle if your relationship survives." Not exactly comforting words, but seemingly true.
As Muhammed and I got to know each other, he himself made a number of comments that disturbed me: On several occasions, he stereotyped all Israeli Jews with the negative behaviors of a few people. A few times, he implicitly failed to recognize Israel's significance for me as a Jew. Once, he put all blame for the Arab-Israel conflict squarely on the shoulders of Israel. Sometimes I gently objected to his comments; sometimes I made a joke out of what he said, to minimize the sting; other times I remained silent.
And yet, Muhammed also showed respect for my identity and religious observance. One day after breakfast, for example, I returned from the shower to find him washing the dishes. I was delighted by his gesture. Then I panicked. In Jewish tradition, we separate the dishes used for dairy and meat products, and I had not yet put up the signs identifying which was which. "Are you concerned about dairy and meat?" Muhammed asked, scrubbing a fork. "Yes," I replied anxiously. "Don't worry," he smiled. "I looked at the patterns on the silverware and figured out what was what."
These caring gestures have made all the difference to me. I have chosen to focus on them and let go of the negative comments, rather than get into heated political debates with Muhammed. Over time, I have noticed the Arab-Jewish conflict slip away from our relationship, simply through the strengthening of our personal, apolitical connection.
"I'd like to meet you in a timeless, placeless place," I once said to Muhammed, quoting Suzanne Vega. "Somewhere out of context and beyond all consequences". "Yah," he laughed cynically, "that place doesn't exist. It's just a fantasy."
But I don't agree. In the middle of the Negev desert, amidst hatred, violence, and decay, Muhammed and I have created an oasis of love, respect, and laughter. Ironically, keeping politics out of our relationship has resulted in perhaps the biggest political act of all: Despite our surroundings, we are still together--growing with, learning from, and getting closer to each other as the days and months go by.
* Different versions of this article appeared in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, The Jewish Week, and Marie Claire.