Last night I went to a Shakespeare play with my wife. On the way we talked about a trip we're planning to Jordan in the fall. It got me thinking about the last time we went to the Middle East together, in 2005.
We'd gone to visit her cousin who was then in Damascus. The cousin lived with a few Americans and one of the Americans' boyfriends was a Palestinian refugee who was politically active. I was a little afraid of him, but he was cheerful. The roommates said that when they were walking around Damascus they referred to Israel as "Disneyland," so that people wouldn't wonder if they were Zionists. I saw all the demonic references to Zionism in the English-language Syrian paper, and I found it somewhat scary. But as we traveled through Damascus and Aleppo and the Syrian desert, I was completely open with people that I'm Jewish, and people said that was fine with them. It added to my confusion. A few weeks before the trip the publisher of the newspaper I worked for had said to me about the Palestinians, "Of course they're pissed, we kicked them out of their houses." Well I had never understood that about Israel. And so now I was in the Syrian desert and the Arabs were completely hospitable and I had an emotional realization. I turned to my wife and said, "It was a landgrab, Israel's just a landgrab."
The Shakespeare play was interpreted farcically, 70s. At one point the characters sang, "This land is your land!" and encouraged everyone in the audience to sing along. I did too. It really is an American anthem, it brings tears to the eyes. Again my mind went to the Middle East.
I thought about the last time I was in Palestine, in January, and went to the Ofer prison for a protest against the detention of activist Jamal Juma. Mustapha Barghouthi was there and so was Omar Barghouthi. These men are bespectacled intellectuals. But another man in a keffiyeh led them all in a chant. I can still hear it ringing in my ears. They kept repeating the words "El-hurriye." I wondered if it was some call to violent struggle. But no, afterward Omar Barghouthi explained that hurriya meant freedom, and the chant was about land.
We love this land, we will never leave this land, he said. Some feelings really are universal.