I met Hala through mutual friends in New Mexico who asked me to deliver a thank you gift for Sheik Bukhary’s wife. I agreed, before realizing the fleece robe would fill a third of my suitcase. When I phoned, Hala advised me her husband was in Hadassah hospital after suffering a heart attack. I wished him a speedy recovery and resigned myself to mailing the robe. But Hala called later in the week to say her husband was home and and I was welcome to visit. Following a simple hand drawn map, I searched for their home along the Via Dolorosa, jostled by Christian pilgrims from around the world, hungrily soaking up every word from erudite guides. The moment I entered the book-lined room, a sense of calm came over me. Their home, a cultural center for an estimated 3,000 plus Uzbeks living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza was also a library filled with ancient, hand-written Islamic manuscripts. Dressed in a white cotton robe with a white cap on his head, the Sheikh invited me to sit in a comfortable chair near the sofa from which he seemed to be holding court with three modern looking gentlemen. The Sheikh’s face was without lines, a greying beard, the only sign of aging. Without asking to search my shopping bag, the Sheikh offered me a cup of tea, adding in perfect English, “All are welcome here.”
In deference to me, the Turkish visitors and the Sheik spoke English. In a few days, Sheikh Bukhary planned a trip to Turkey with Rabbi Menachem Froman from Tekoa settlement. The two spiritual leaders hoped to present a Mid-East peace plan to the Turkish Prime Minister.
“You look well,” I said. “But I know you’ve just gotten out of the hospital.”
“God is not ready for me– yet.” Two cups of tea loosened my tongue as if it had been wine. I told the gentlemen about my visit to Istanbul years ago– the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the taste of deep fried fish sandwiches sold off docked boats. “Someday, I want to go sailing along the coast.” I asked if Hala was home and could I meet her.
“Of course. She’s down stairs preparing dinner.” I was permitted to enter their private quarters because I was a woman. A narrow staircase took me into a cozy living room. Hala was wearing capri pants and a light colored blouse, a modern looking woman with a warm smile, perfect teeth a distinguishing mole dotted the side of her nose and a square jaw that made her look strong. Her English, while not as fluent as her husband’s was good enough to hold a conversation. I presented the robe with a sense of relief. “A gift from your friends in New Mexico.”
Women’s talk does not necessarily include defining or solving the problems of the Middle East. I shared photos of my thirteen month old grandson, my ninety-five year old mother and my daughter, the bride, posing in a way too expensive, extravagant white wedding gown. This inspired Hala to bring out her photo album and show me photos of her daughter, posing in a way too expensive, extravagant white wedding gown. We laughed at their similarities. I told Hala how sad it was that my daughter and grandson lived thousands of miles away, assuming hers lived around the corner or in the next village. Palestinian families tended to cluster near each another. Without a trace of self pity, she told me, “My daughter and her husband live in Gaza.”
So near and yet so far away. The smiling bride and groom, dreaming of their future had been caught in the siege that killed at least 1400 people and destroyed thousands of homes. I could not imagine the kind of worry Hala endured, suddenly grateful that my daughter lived in South Florida and not inside the world’s largest open air prison.
“Everyday, we prayed for the safety of our children. We also prayed for the Israelis to understand what they were doing and to stop. Yes, we prayed for the Israelis,” Hala added with emphasis. When I got up to leave, she declared, “You must stay and eat with us.” I apologized, explaining I was going to a farewell dinner at the hotel on the Mount of Olives and promised to come back. Before allowing me to take her photo, Hala put on a robe and hijab, transforming herself into a traditional Muslim looking woman.
The robe that had felt like an albatross had ed me to an oasis of calm in a city that always seemed to be frantically worshipping. But I never made it back to their home. Sheikh Abdul Bukhary died from a final heart attack the day after the Israeli naval commando attack on the Free Gaza Flotilla, where six ships were boarded in international waters, leaving nine activists dead, including one American. He was praised in the Jerusalem Post (June 3) as “a longtime proponent of nonviolence and interfaith unity who found inspiration in Islamic traditions, as well as in the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.”
Israeli friends advised me not to enter the Old City to pay a condolence call on Hala. Major riots were expected in response to the flotilla attack. Local newspapers were filled with articles and editorials condemning and/or justifying the actions. The Israeli embassy in Istanbul reportedly was surrounded by rioters and Turkish Jews were afraid to leave their homes. But in the quiet West Jerusalem neighborhood where I was staying, buses ran as usual and people went about their lives as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
The untimely death of Sheikh Bukary at 61, a man dedicated to religious tolerance and harmony in Jerusalem and is a loss across the world. I emailed Hala the photo I took of her husband smiling on the sofa, but I never got to make that condolence call, a piece of unfinished business in my life.
Iris Keltz is a writer and teacher, living in New Mexico since the late sixties.