Unmasked in Amman: Identifying as Israeli across the lines

We’re flying kites at sunset from Amman’s citadel hill. Around us are the city’s six other historical mounts. All are draped with a breathtaking, dense blanket of human abodes. Atop the ones to the west rise lofty modern skyscrapers, many in mid-construction. To the north – the gigantic flag of the Arab revolt waves in the brass tinted light atop the world’s tallest flagpole. On the hill behind it something is burning, black smoke billows east over the steep wadi walls of Sharq-Amman.

Sharq-Amman (East-Amman) itself is a sea of refugee-camps-turned-slums that stretches miles and miles into the eastern desert. It mystifies us more than everything else around us. Sharq-Amman is the world’s largest concentration of Palestinians, its population exceeding that of East Jerusalmem manyfold. We decide to go explore that cobweb of alleyways tomorrow and meet its dwellers. Then we quickly proceed to pick made up national identities for our selves: me: Hungarian, Itka: Ukranian.

“Why shouldn’t we just both be Hungarian?” I suggest.

“But then why wouldn’t we be speaking Hungarian to each other?”

“Good point”.

The assuming of a fake nationality is common among Israelis traveling into Arab landscapes. One frind of mine pretends to be Croatian and makes sure he throws in a bad word anbout Serbs here and there, just to seem authentic. I play Gabor the Hungarian each time I visit Ramallah, only to throw all caution to the wind following a few bottles of Taybeh and reveal my kinship with the occupiers. What are people going to do? draw a pistol and shoot me at point blank? Tie me up and try to schlep me to Gaza? That cover story is dubious anyway, and I’ve had the embarassment of bumping into at least one Hungarian-speaking Palestinian.

At first sight, Amman calls for even more caution than Ramallah does. On the street downtown we come accross a book stand. One book desplayed a large Star of David on its cover. Itka asks me to translate the title. I read with some difficulty: “Bru-tu-ku-liyat” – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not far from it, “Mein Kampf” is on sale. The political biases of the Arab world are very readily accepted by a community that shares an immidiate sense of loss.

Haunted by the memories of 1948 and 1967, Amman is a city obsessed with the territory to the west of it. Take the office of a random travel agent we visited yesterday, it is decorated with an image of the Dome of the Rock, far more popular here than that of Mecca’s Qa’abah. Aside for it are four large photos of Palestinian women in traditional garb, posing in front of monuments and landscapes found west of the Jordan. “We will stay here like the walls of Jerusalem” reads one caption, “we will stay here like the olive trees” reads another. This is a typical interior, not the local Fatah headquarters.

Funny thing is, when we do reveal ourselves to be Israeli, the reaction is never severe. Most often we are first met with curiousity. People, including that travel agent, perform a “double take”: checking us up and doubtlessly comparing us with the uniformed stereotype of the news on television or the bearded one of the “elders of zion”, (granted, I’m bearded, but also generally a smiley sort).

Arguments do erupt, of course. A few years ago a taxi driver who discovered my origin began blaming me for destroying his native city of Lydda (Al-Lud) and building the Ben-Gurion airport on top of its ruins. I explained that while Lydda’s Palestinians were indeed tragically deported and the heart of the city greatly dmaged, the airport is built next to it rather than over it. Lydda still exisists, I insisted, and there’s an Arab community living there. He wouldn’t hear of it, but did relax a bit by the time we reached the hotel. I tipped him all the change I had in my pocket, not out of hope that this would compensate for the suffering of his family, but out of a wish to leave a kind impression.

Once Israelis manage to leave a kind impression, demonization becomes more difficult and dialogue can begin. Take our meeting with Mr. Palestine Juice.

Late last night, after a nice time at the Book@Cafe and other fine spots, we wandered through downtown. the bottom of the wadi winding between the hills, so hectic during the day, was an urban corpse. One hour before the dawn’s prayer, only a single business was open at the the city’s authentic heart: a juice stand named “Palestine Juice”

We stop for a melon, banana and orange shake. The man at the juicer asks us where we’re from. No one enjoys being instantly disliked, but we just couldn’t help pointing to the sign above his head and saying: “there”.

“Ah, you’re Israelis” he said, kindly.

He himself was born in this city to Hebronite parents, and posseses a green ID issued by the Israeli authorities to West Bank residents. He visited Jerusalem twice over the past decade, and had a fine time.
We talk a bit about Hebron and the occupation. Mr juice man knows very well what his family in the West Bank has to deal with, but isn’t getting hostile.

He’s actually been there. He understand the complexities, we speak of Hebron and its suburbs, of travel limitations and the sense of hopelessness in the West Bank. He has every right to be angry at our regime and what it does, but he doesn’t make assumprions about us, in fact, he pours us an extra portion of juice, on the house, and sends us off with a wish for peace. We’ll take that weish to Sharq-Amman tomorrow and try to spread it around. If we feel comfortable, we may even use our real names.