One of the first times Habib said his name to me I reached out and placed two fingers on his Adam's apple. "Say it again," I said. He did. And when his throat hummed with the sound of himself, the sound I'd never be able to make, it shot directly from my hand to my heart. In that breathy, aspirated H, I knew he held a secret as delicate as a butterfly. I tried to learn it.
I'm still trying.
"The Arabs are a cruel people," my hairdresser explained, in reply to no particular question, as she wrapped sections of my hair in foil. I sat in the window of her shop in downtown Jerusalem, a human mannequin, a blue beauty cape tenting my top. I stifled the urge to flee, though I always tried to excuse myself when Israelis started theorizing about Arabs.
Escape was impossible. A taxi driver I knew was sure the Arabs would knife him given the chance; that's why a pistol was strapped to his side. A university professor I met at a party declared he would welcome a Palestinian revolt: "Holding down the Arabs is keeping the Jews back psychologically," he said between beers. A Hasidic girl from Brooklyn who had run away to Israel so she could wear jeans was the only person I met who had no opinion on the matter. She didn't meet a non-Jew until she was 16, and hadn't even heard of the Arabs until she left home at 19.
I'd been living in Jerusalem only a few months, a quarter into a year-long academic fellowship. Boston, my home since grad school, had been lonely; more precisely, I had been lonely. "I need an adventure," I told my family when I accepted the fellowship. I didn't tell them that some weekends had passed without my having spoken to anyone but the grocery store bagger. "The sun will do me good."
But it was Thanksgiving, a dark night with a full moon, that did the trick. Another expat had gathered about a dozen Americans for a turkey-and-cranberry feast. I wasn't sure how Habib -- a Palestinian Israeli from the north -- found his way to the table, but when I put my hand on his throat it didn't matter. We ate, the hostess smoked a cigar, someone rolled a joint on the balcony, people got drunk, a few guests left, more came, and then Habib suggested we go before getting stuck with cleanup.
From the beginning Habib and I told each other our relationship would be short-term. I had seven months left in Israel, and there was no way I would stay in that crazy country a second longer than I had to. Israel is a place Darwin would have loved: a gene pool of citizens with often tragic, usually difficult family histories who nevertheless created, in 50 years, a society with a higher standard of living than many European countries.
But that doesn't mean Israel is an easy place to live. At its most banal, it spawns high-strung neighbors who cut in front of you in line at the bank, checkout ladies who yell at you for not having exact change, and government clerks who constantly accuse you of taking advantage of their goodwill. I was living life on this level, and the everyday murder of civility was taking its toll. I wanted niceness back. I wanted to be an American in America.
That's what I told Habib as we drove to dinner one night. It was the end of a long day at the start of the rainy season. Raindrops hit the windshield one by one and quivered on the glass. I know you want to live in your own country, he said, and then politely explained that he could never marry me.
"I'm not talking about getting married," I said. "I'm talking about being homesick."
But he'd been waiting for this conversation; he was persuaded my musing about home was a veiled question about our future together. He kept his eyes on the road.
"I wanted to bring this up before so you never think I am leading you on. I have thought very hard about the issue of dating Jewish women. Even if I were to meet an Arab girl in Jerusalem, I have already told you they can't really date. You have to be engaged before you spend time together. That's if you can find one who is educated but not already married. These are the things I think about. But I cannot marry a Jewish woman. You need to know this."
I tried to match Habib in seriousness, although it felt surreal to discuss marriage -- or the impossibility of it -- with a man I had met only a few weeks back.
But I nodded. With the men I'd dated in college and in Boston, marriage was a taboo subject altogether. The slightest hint of domestic familiarity -- my making breakfast two mornings in a row, or buying a boyfriend a book or sweater "just because" -- usually engendered panic and flight. If Habib was man enough to discuss marriage (or not-marriage), I was up to the challenge.
"I've always only dated Jewish guys," I told him. "Leave it to me to come to Israel and find an Arab. I see where you're coming from on all this. I can't imagine how weird it must be for a Palestinian Israeli to go out with a Jew from Boston. But I'm going home next July, as I said before, so the question is moot."
We smiled at each other, relieved and happy, and headed for our sushi.
I want to remember things just as they were. On my right, three photo albums beckon, but I haven't opened them since I moved back to America. On my left, a box of his letters. On top of that, my journal. I'm facing my laptop, which holds dozens of his e-mails. Sometimes, after our Sunday calls, even the good ones, I set the phone down and cry for the rest of the day. It's not sadness, but the phantom pain of an amputated limb. When I think about Habib it feels like the ghost of a hand on my thigh.
That particular memory comes courtesy of our trip to Egypt. We spent a long weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula; it was supposed to be a five-hour drive from Jerusalem but it took seven. He said he kept his hand on my thigh because it was alive, and it would keep him awake. We took turns naming subjects for the other to discourse upon.
"Milk," he would say.
"Milk," I would say. "Milk has an illustrious presence in literature due to its symbolism as a life-giving substance, as mother's love, but it also exists in liquid form as the embodiment of the nutrients a body needs most . . ."
That was in June, almost at the end. Our first real trip. We'd been to Tel Aviv several times, for Saturdays at the beach, where we could walk hand in hand without worrying that someone he knew would see us together and tell his family. That was the fear. Once I'd heard about all the childhood mornings he'd awakened early and picked dewy fruit from the back yard, and understood how his parents got the family through the lean periods of the 1970s, and once I realized that his entire town had raised him, I wanted to go, to meet them all, to share Habib with them. But the answer was always no. "If they knew about us, my family would not be my family anymore," he said.
I thought of it in terms of vestigial tribal loyalty -- the same loss a Jewish family feels when a son or daughter gets married in a church. And I figured that because Arab families in Israel tended to be very traditional, parents held enough influence to actually prohibit relationships they didn't approve of, even for adult children. I didn't guess, until the end, that my Jewishness was conflated with Israeliness -- and that for some of them, I was the enemy.
I didn't feel like anyone's enemy. When I was growing up in Charleston, S.C., often the only Jewish child in my class, kids taunted that I was going to hell for not attending church and not accepting Jesus. In college I wrote for the school paper, often covering Jewish cultural events in an attempt to balance the politically correct coverage of the Palestinian intifada, which broke out during my freshman year.
But I was ignorant of Middle Eastern politics for an embarrassingly long time. My head was stuffed full of 19th-century British literature; in my mind I lived on the moors.
That changed. Identity politics on my New England campus pulled me in. I skipped classes on Moby Dick to hold pro-Israeli signs at rallies. I wrote op-eds. When I went to the student union, I actively avoided the Palestinian and other Arab students -- all older men -- who'd protested the local Israel Independence Day celebration by stomping on the Israeli flag in front of cameras. I'd learned all about these men: where they were from, what they studied, when their visas expired. But we never exchanged more than a glare. I knew one of them had a Jewish girlfriend, and I regarded that woman's choice as the ultimate manifestation of Jewish liberal guilt.
I recently re-met a person who knew me during those years, an Israeli who was actually friendly with the Arab protesters. During one rally, he had approached a Palestinian student and talked to him -- something neither I nor the rest of us on Israel's side had ever thought about doing. (The mutual antipathy made any move on their end just as unlikely.) "I was so awful then," I told him. "I was so stupid. How could you stand me? I didn't know anything."
"That's true," my friend said. "But you really cared."
In the years after college and grad school, I threw away the "Myths and Facts" booklet from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and ignored the question of Israel except as a sunny vacation spot. Instead, I educated myself more deeply about Judaism and was seduced by the Bible. I read the Book of Ruth over and over, awed by the widowed woman who cast her lot with the Jews. Daniel in the lion's den gripped with its imagery.
The chapters on Noah's ark held me in a different way. The ark was all about pairs: a truth that any loner already knows. I wanted to find someone I could survive with, "two by two."
Instead, I was 24, 25, 26, 27, and alone -- but busy, always busy. Though I never became traditionally religious, I took classes on prayer, on the story of Joseph, on the Hebrew calendar. I dated Jewish men, who disappointed me a dozen different ways. During the week I worked hard in my public relations job, and I thought I liked it. But I sent away for an application for a one-year fellowship that would pay me to study Jewish texts in Israel. A few months later I packed my books and landed on another planet.
By the time I met Habib I had a group of friends, and I kept most of them after he and I paired up. My roommate, a rabbinical student, disapproved and turned icy. Another acquaintance got drunk at a party and told Habib that the Arabs from his town were like rats. I confronted him, and he apologized. It wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't; I was falling in love too deeply to notice other people.
Habib was brilliant, kind, open, funny, ambitious, sweet, thoughtful, considerate and loyal. He was devoted to his family and his childhood friends. He had a beautiful face, soft lips, and when he danced it seemed like passion had finally found a home on earth. He felt things deeply and apologized when he needed to. He made delicious omelets.
As our months together passed, Habib discovered something new, too. One day he came over after work; he was a lawyer at a top firm. "I know you didn't hear the news today or you would have called," he said. "There was a riot in East Jerusalem and the police fired rubber bullets. It happened right under my window." I froze. And listened. "I thought of you first. Before my mother, before my sister. I thought of you first."
A film of our relationship would look like a fuzzy student short: gauzy vignette following gauzy vignette. But daily life together could also be tense and confusing. It took me a long time to realize that if Habib's family found out about us it would not only be the end of us but would sink his future. As these things go in traditional Arab society, if a man is well-educated and from a "good" family, as Habib was, he could marry almost anyone he chose. But if it became known that he had a relationship with a Jewish girl -- that he was disloyal to his people -- this would change in an instant.
So in a perverse way I became protective of his future. I did everything I could to safeguard the certainty that the man I loved could marry the (Arab) woman of his choice. One or two of his friends knew about us, but if we met others on the street, we told them I was a visiting journalist he was showing around. He went to office parties without me and I waited up. I even came close to arranging a date for him with a sophisticated Palestinian woman who had studied in the United States. A friend from home told me I was living in a novel no one would read, and I came back to my senses.
Habib and I were unsure how to make the relationship work long term, but by the time I was due to leave Israel neither of us could face breaking up. So we ignored what we'd said in the car many months before and started talking about our future. If we remained in Israel and got married, our life as a Jewish-Arab couple would be impossible. Our children would be called terrorists in a Jewish school and dirty Jews in an Arab school. Because Israel recognizes the children of Jewish mothers as Jewish, they would eventually be trained to fight against their father's people in the Israeli army.
In any case, a year in Israel had only strengthened my resolve to return to America. And I knew, as I had always known, that I could never compromise on raising a Jewish family, whoever my husband turned out to be.
But Habib could not compromise either. He had come with me to a Sabbath dinner once, and during a song he flipped through my prayer book until he found what he was looking for. It was in the morning prayer, in a series of blessings. Among the many lines thanking God for granting sight to the blind, clothing the naked, releasing the bound, and straightening the bent, there is one thanking God "for not having made me a gentile." Most of the American Jews I know view that passage in intellectual terms: It's there, it's ours, it served a purpose at one time and that's an interesting thing to think about.
Habib wasn't convinced. "I could never have a son who thanked God he was not like me, a gentile," he said that night. I explained that non-Orthodox Judaism permits leeway in what one believes and chooses to practice, and that not all Jews, even those who attend Sabbath dinners, model their beliefs on prayers. My protestations went unheeded. Gradations of religious practice don't exist in Israel: The Jews there are either dati (religious) or heloni (secular). There is nothing in between. Habib, as an Israeli, had no basis for understanding how America's elevation of individuality had seeped into its Jewish population.
But religion was the least of our troubles. I was a Jew raised in a Christian society; he was a Christian raised in a Jewish one. We understood each other more than even we realized.
None of my college forays into Israeli politics, however, prepared me for what I found in Israel. My tutorial was ongoing, organic. One night Habib told me about the time in high school when his class read a Kahlil Gibran tale of a violet that wanted to be a rose. It wanted to stand tall and proud in the sun. Others convinced the violet that it had its place in the world, leaning against buildings, absorbing the shade. "Besides, with the first rain, the rose is washed away," the violet was told. "What good is pride then?" The violet still wanted to experience the rose's glory. But it resigned itself to its special role. And that, Habib recalled, is how the lesson ended -- the lesson prepared by the Israeli government for use in its Arab schools.
Years later, when Habib was leafing through his uncle's library, he found the story -- and learned the true ending. In Gibran's original version, the violet is granted its wish to be a rose, and it stands tall, kissing the sun. It is washed away with the first rainstorm. But it was more than worth it, the violet/rose says, to claim its place in the world.
"I want to be a rose," Habib told me.
He was a rose. But he was a rose steeped in Israeli/Palestinian politics, and he wasn't patient with my learning process. We only had one tearful fight about politics before he vowed we would never bring up the subject again. "Any man who makes you cry this much is an ass," he insisted. "There are no excuses."
The obstacles mounted -- political, familial, geographic, religious. So we stuck with what we knew: the joy of being together. We would not make any decisions, and reevaluate the situation once I returned to America.
I already knew how he felt about leaving Israel, even though life abroad would have given him so many opportunities to shine. "Someone needs to be a role model," he'd said to me once. "You can't make a lot of money abroad and have the same effect as if you were here, leading a good life and fighting for the rights of Palestinians."
There was a lot to fight. He'd spent years mastering the law and then using it against those who insisted that Palestinians in this democratic country shouldn't be allowed to own land in a certain area, or qualify for certain tax breaks, or dozens of other things that make life just a little bit nicer for those who can claim those privileges. The law was his weapon and he brandished it like an Arab samurai.
That's why he was so deeply cut each time he saw that attitudes, not laws, were what mattered. I felt him stiffen the moment we stepped into the airport for the first time together, and he later explained that it held innumerable memories of strip-searches and harassment. He loved driving into the Jerusalem Mall garage with me because the Israeli guard would glance my way and let us in without checking his ID or searching the trunk as he usually did.
Borders gave us the most trouble. Driving back into Israel after our long weekend in Sinai was an exercise in patience. As soon as the border police checked Habib's ID and saw "Arab" listed as his nationality they called the bomb squad. Then we had to take everything out of the car and load it onto a trolley to be inspected separately.
As the bomb expert rolled himself underneath the car, a female soldier questioned Habib: Where do you live? What is that near? How far is that from town? What do you do? Where is your office? How do you get there? And dozens of other questions designed to expose him as a terrorist. Then she turned to me. Habib told her I spoke only English.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a student."
"Yeshiva? What do you study?"
I used the Hebrew word for Bible so she would know I was Jewish, but the whole conversation took her by surprise. She was embarrassed because, she thought, she'd obviously made a mistake thinking Habib was Arab, if his girlfriend studied in yeshiva. Her mind tripped over itself as she reviewed the facts. Finally she turned back to him and asked the one question that permitted no ambiguity.
"Did you serve in the army?"
For security reasons, no Palestinian Arabs serve in the Israeli army, with the exception of some Bedouin and Druze -- which Habib clearly was not.
The answer only confused her more. She looked from me to him, him to me, as if we were a human tennis match, then finally waved us through. On the way home, I asked how the whole episode made him feel.
"Well, it's like this," he said after a moment. "A boy grows up in a family that loves him very much. They teach him to do the right thing and he always does the right thing. He gets the best grades in school. He goes to university and works full time to pay for everything. He never steals. He never tries drugs. He never even smokes a cigarette. He gets a good job as a lawyer. He does everything he is supposed to do. And still, all he can hope for is that one day his son will be known only as an Arab, not as a stinking Arab, which is how everyone in his own country still thinks of him."
I was quiet for a while. My heart had broken. Then Habib put his hand on my thigh, and we drove a little faster, to try to get back to Jerusalem before night fell.
I knew what romances abroad were like; a year of my life took place in Dublin, with an Irishman. But that's not what Israel was to me, not what Habib was. He was my twin. I think that's why he got upset with me every few months. "When will you learn to say my name?" he would ask. "Try again."
I'd put my fingers on his throat, and like a modern-day Helen Keller I'd let my veins swallow the sound. My mouth reproduced it a microsecond later. But my talent for mimicry came and went, and I could never really hear, much less produce, the aspirations that characterize Arabic. That's what I'm most sorry about. I didn't try hard enough to learn my most important Arabic lesson, the one that would have proved I knew Habib from the inside.
After all of our tortured discussions about the future, and our vow not to let politics interfere, a political event finally broke us up. I'd been back in America for three months. It was the night Yom Kippur began -- the holiest day on the Jewish calendar -- and he faxed me. The words didn't make sense, and I couldn't read between the lines. Later, when he called, I understood. There had been an uprising in an Arab town in the north of Israel. Habib said his good friend and the friend's whole family had been beaten by the police and thrown in jail without being charged. They were given no access to medical care. After 24 hours they were released, and the mother of the family was hospitalized with broken ribs. "It could have been my mother," he whispered to me.
I knew then that staying together would be a question of loyalty, not love. He told me how much he loved me, and I could hear how much he was suffering. He couldn't live between two worlds any longer, he said; his life was hell because he couldn't decide between me and his family, my people and his people.
But he had done it. After the uprising up north he picked sides, not because of his family and what they might think or do, but because thinking of me as a Jew after an event like that was the only thing that would separate us. I was on the other side.
So I did the only thing I could do, because I still loved him. I asked how I could help him find peace.
Alison Buckholtz is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.