A week in the Middle East: Day Five

02-02-03
The Columbia is down

The explosion of the Challenger was a defining event for many Americans. For me, like so many others, it's a "flashbulb" memory - I can remember running home from school to tell my mom about it, to her initial disbelief. The event seemed unthinkable, and impossible.

Space disasters - like space travel - bring people together like few events can. Astronauts are stand-ins for all of us, treading where we can only dream of going. And with the possible exception of American television, there's seemingly nowhere on Earth where the idea of people in space fails to fascinate.

The sadness of the event aside, I'm glad for the chance to go out and talk to some Israelis and get a sense of what they're feeling. Strolling around the affluent Yemin Moshe neighborhood, I talk to a handful of people: a retired medical secretary, an Arab-Israeli cab driver, an American studying Talmud and Torah, and a political science student. Without exception, they're saddened by the loss, friendly, talkative, and - this surprises me a little - very hopeful.

"Every mission has a risk. If you don't take the risk, you don't get big things," says Cila Widlansky. She is enjoying a beverage on the sunny outdoor terrace of Jerusalem's gorgeous YMCA building, and is surprised, but happy to accept my invitation to talk. "We hope that in the future we can try it again and do it successfully."

In the face of daily disasters, who could get by without resilience?

Jerusalem by night

In the evening, after a restorative siesta, I meet up with Ben Lynfield, one of my favorite Monitor writers. A regular contributor on topics including the complicated minefield of Israeli identity and the plight of Israeli Arabs, Ben is a writer I've often enjoyed long phone chats with, so meeting him in person is a treat.

We meet downtown around 8:30, and I'm somewhat surprised to see that the place resembles Dubuque, Iowa on a Sunday night. Stores are shuttered, few pedestrians walk the streets, and the area feels haunted. The failing economy and fears of more bombings have both contributed to the area's hibernation, Ben says.

At his suggestion, we snag a taxi and head down to East Jerusalem, looking for a place to grab a bite to eat. On the way down, Ben and the driver engage in a very spirited back-and-forth in Hebrew. Are they arguing about directions? Chatting about the weather? Debating the fare? Street Hebrew in Israel can come mile-a-minute and intense as a waterfall, so I'm not particularly perturbed; but I'm curious.

"What was all that about?" I ask as we arrive at the restaurant, an Arab place called Pasha's.

"Oh, he didn't understand why we wanted to go to an Arab part of town," says Ben.

"Ah," I reply. "So, is that typical of people to say that? Or totally unreasonable?"

"Neither," says Ben as we stroll into the mostly empty eatery.

Pasha's has lost favor with its Israeli clientele - we're the only non-Arabs in the restaurant, which is probably only 25 percent full. However sensible or insensible their fears may be, however, Pasha boycotters are paying the culinary price. The hummus with meat, baba ghanouj, olives, bread, and lamb kebabs are amazing, and we leave with smiles on our faces.

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