Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Ups and Downs

Today I happened to be in East Jerusalem for the first time in my life, interviewing some people for a story. The story is about a certain peace program going on, in which Israelis and Palestinians are working together on a certain project. The Palestinians and Israelis I interviewed were talking about the importance of the people on both sides not losing hope, remembering that there are people on the other side who want to work together, and respecting each other's suffering. Lately I've done a few stories about Israelis and Palestinians working toward peace, and it's always a positive experience for me. It does give one some hope that there is a tiny spark of light at the end of the long tunnel.

Anyhow, the interview took place in a building near Jerusalem's police headquarters. Afterward, at around 3:40, I waited at a bus stop in front of the police building, thinking that this must be a noisy place to work, given that every 30 seconds, another police car leaves the police lot with its siren blaring. I was also blandly noticing that it was a very ugly neighborhood, very industrial, but that being there made me curious to learn more about Jerusalem's East side. To me it had always seemed like this sort of mythical place where the "other" lived, and now there I was, albeit just on the border with West Jerusalem, and it was just a place, with sidewalks and cars and some trees and lots of police cars with their sirens going. I was also thinking that it was very hot outside.

The bus came and I hopped on. I should mention here that while I am completely blase about eating in Jerusalem's cafes, I happen to be very afraid of the buses (interestingly, I know many people who feel the opposite. I guess my food is just more important to me . . . ) So I got on and immediately scanned all my fellow passengers, looking for anyone suspicious.

I settled into a seat (in the back. To be further from the suicide bomber I'm petrified will get on) and started daydreaming. After a few blocks, we were stopped at a red light, and I noticed two things. One, that there sure were lots of police cars, sirens blaring, all going in the same direction. And the other was that one of them was towing a platform with a collection of police barriers-- those gates used for blocking off the site of an event or a crime.

Not a good sign.

Somehow, someone on the bus found out that there had just been a terrorist attack in French Hill, the very neighborhood into which my bus had just passed (French Hill is on the border between East and West Jerusalem). The light turned green, and the bus pulled forward, and then I saw a policewoman directing traffic into a detour, and the woman in front of me tsk-tsked and said "tut, tut, that must have been where it was." We all looked -- I searched for a bombed bus-- but all I could see was a big traffic jam. My bus continued on its way and I went home.

Here's some information about what had happened.

My compartmentalization skills must be very good, because the knowledge that I'd been blocks away from a suicide bombing hardly affected me at all, at least outwardly. It was sobering, but after all, I don't think I know anyone in French Hill, and I was OK, and getting upset wouldn't change anything.

Shortly after I got home, the air-conditioner repairman came over to fix my unit, and, oddly, it turns out that he, too, was in French Hill, at the scene of the attack, about one minute after it happened, before the police came and starting rerouting traffic. He saw the remains of the bomber and the victims . . . I told him I would have understood if he'd cancelled our appointment, and he said "I've seen worse," but I could tell he was shaken up.

Then he proceeded to try to set me up with one of his other customers, whose washing machine he'd repaired that morning. American, 29, religiously observant, lives around the corner from me . . . tell me, in America, how many people get set up on blind dates by the air-conditioner repairman? In Israel, it somehow seems so normal. Everyone is watching out for each other.

In the end, I think the bombing upset me more than I care to admit, because it's only 9 pm and I'm exhausted. Too many ups and downs and ironies today. Talking about peace with some lovely Palestinian women, while another was blowing herself up and taking some Israelis with her; finding out that my air-conditioner repairman was there, too, just a couple hours before his appointment at my house; getting set up on a blind date by the same repairman . . . What does it all mean? It makes my head spin. I need to go to sleep.

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