From the Archive

A Farewell to a Palestinian Friend, From the Writer at the Center of the Book-banning Storm

In November 2002, Dorit Rabinyan met Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani in New York and the two became fast friends. In August 2003, Hourani drowned in the sea off Jaffa. Rabinyan, author of a controversial book on a Jewish-Arab love affair, wrote him a moving eulogy.

David Bachar

Because I cannot picture us anywhere else, this conversation always takes place in New York, with me leading you to the northeastern bench in Washington Square or walking by your side through the Botanic Garden in Brooklyn. Sometimes we just sit ourselves down on some step at the entrance to a nameless building and talk. The echo that in the first weeks accompanied what I say to you there has, in the meantime, faded. I no longer convert my thoughts into English so that you will be able to understand how much I miss you. After 30 years in which you stubbornly refused to learn Hebrew, you understand every word. In the nights that you appear in my dreams, you even speak the language fluently. The last time I dreamt you were standing in Jenny's kitchen, and with the blood streaming from your hands, you were washing the broken dishes that had piled up in the sink. "It's all right," you said to me patiently. "Don't you worry."

But this conversation is strange mainly because you are silent. Your deep, hoarse voice does not dominate it with new trains of thought and unexpected questions and there no longer flutters on my tongue the tail end of something I began to say and you interrupted because it reminded you of something else: memories of your childhood in Hebron, your adolescence in Ramallah during the first intifada or the four years you studied art in Baghdad. You no longer butt in, either, with things that happened to you yesterday and this morning. New York loves people like you, people who peel the world with their fingers, like a glowing orange dripping juice. They say this town offers unforgettable moments to whoever is open to find them, but the events that happened with you in one day did not happen to me without you in two weeks. Sometimes I found myself trailing after you from place to place, hardly believing those were the same streets. Adventures happened to you in the most familiar, most unpromising places. They seemed to be lying there patiently, waiting in ambush for you to show up.

The Indian owner of the cigarette stand on West 4th Street, for example: To me he would sell the daily packet with impassive politeness; in your presence, he turned into a glib conjurer with a mysterious expression, who juggled with his fingers and pulled the change out of his left ear. The homeless man in Union Square opened his worn sack for you and revealed a treasury of lost keys, boasting he could open the doors of half of Manhattan and, instead of sleeping on a square of cardboard, could spend each night in a different bed. The angelic girl with ponytails who sailed on her blades into the Lower East Side cafe invited us, in a heavy Southern accent, to come and watch her dancing nude at a strip joint on 60th Street. The black missionary, an old lady of huge dimensions, spoke about her Sweet Jesus and meanwhile rolled a cigarette filled with hash. I laughed at you, saying you lived as though your life was a movie, but sometimes it also seemed to me that New York is one enormous cinema screen and that, because I am standing next to you, I too am being projected onto it.

You spoke mainly about the children's book you were writing. In the smallest room in Brooklyn more than 30 sheets of paper, with pencil drawings down to the smallest detail, were already hanging, pegged onto strings you had crisscrossed above your bed. Only one character appeared on all of them - neither man nor boy, all curls and jewels; his eyes are always closed and on his lips hovers a faint, soft smile. In December his name was Sultan, in January Hassan and in May he was Reihan. The titles also kept changing until you decided on "Hassan Everywhere." But the wonderful journey itself progressed with tremendous momentum: In one drawing your hero is embracing a drop of dew in the desert, in a second he is playing the violin to a swarm of bees and in a third he is diving into the depths of the sea in order to kiss a sad fish. The Arabic text that accompanied them was lyrical and abstract, and went far deeper than and far beyond the adventure it described.

Since I suspected myself of being biased, too dazzled by the artist to be able to judge his work, I took along Joy, a senior editor in a prestigious publishing house. Later I sent you Udi, who agreed with her that this was an exceptional achievement. The children's book agent who met you said your talent was eerie. With each new visitor, there would burst from you the melting laugh of a small boy with a mouthful of milk teeth. But even though you were as surprised as if you were hearing these cries of amazement for the first time, no one knew better than you that you were in the middle of something great.

The representatives of the Al-Qattan Foundation, who had chosen your book to inaugurate the children's library they were setting up in Gaza, also spurred you on to devote yourself to it. You worked then without respite, by day and by night. And the more the violent winter overwhelmed the town, the less you left the house. Outside snowstorms swirled and inside you were flooded with inspiration. In the new pages you composed, Hassan floated out of a wonder train, met a butterfly of light and spangled the sky with stars. There was no piece of wall, from the floor to the ceiling, from which this dreamy, smiling figure did not peep. The book became your whole world. A universe in a room of three square meters that burned when you began to complete the drawings with color. Your ravenous eyes also burned.

Like your inspiration, your sketchbook also went with you everywhere. No matter where - a cafe, a movie theater, a club - suddenly ideas would strike and you, laughing that moist laugh, would record them enthusiastically. Around that time, strange things also started happening. The hallucinatory element that hovered over the dialogue being carried on between you and the world became more feverish. You had the feeling that you were foreseeing things, you were writing in advance about what happened to you later. Reality, you told me with a serious expression, is imitating my imagination. You saw a hint at every street corner; every small detail was a sign waiting for you to find it. The town was embedded with more and more signs meant only for you.

"Psychologists will say that you imagine you are omnipotent," I reassured you with lightweight frivolity. "It will pass once the book is published and will start again when you begin to write the next one." But I, too, had felt in some way that Hassan the person was becoming the Hassan of fiction, that the dreamy quality of this book also suffused the reality around you.

Last year's winter stretched out in New York, far beyond itself. Month upon month of continuous, disheartening, paralyzing cold. The first frost formed on the sidewalks on the night we returned from Hamid and Mellisa's place in the middle of November and in June it was still raining nonstop. Even the locals agreed it was one of the hardest seasons the city had ever known. For us this cold was a source of tears. It was so alien, so offensive, our bodies could not digest it. Under the four pairs of trousers that you wore one on top of the other and under my red coat that was disintegrating more from day to day, we were shivering all the time.

We were more Levantine than ever. We fantasized about our Middle Eastern sun, as miserable as two junkies without their fix. The weather exposed our foreignness, mocked at our opinion of ourselves as universal beings dependent on nothing. Our passports held visas from the U.S. Department of Immigration, authorizing a legal stay in New York, but the winter seemed bent on deporting us. How provincial of us to have imposed the times for the changes of seasons in our part of the world on the American calendar and to be expecting warmth in April, encouraging each other that spring was at the door when everything all around was frozen.

Neither the chicken soup we ate in the Ashkenazi restaurants in the East Village nor the sahlab we drank at Cairo Cafe succeeded in warming our longing for home. During the interminable games of backgammon we played, I heard myself talking to you about Israel without a single drop of cynicism souring the words. Suddenly, and how ironic that it should happen with you of all people, I found in my voice a true love of homeland. I had to sit with a Palestinian guy on the steps of City Hall in Brooklyn and freeze with cold in order to admit to myself how attached I am to this country. I had to go all the way there so that you, with the nostalgia of one born to a refugee family, who grew up with the ongoing longing for the landscapes that surrounded me throughout my whole life, would describe them to me. Far from them, by your side, I loved them perhaps more than ever.

It was snowing all around, but we waxed poetic about the pale-silvery side of the olive leaves, about the light touch that cracks open the flesh of ripe figs, about the brassy smell of the carobs in bloom, about the invisible thorns on the skins of the cactus fruit. On the train, on the way to Andrew's birthday party, we poured out our hearts about the smooth, dry smell of the air in the hills around Jerusalem, about the damp of the coastal plain, about the ungraspable speed of spring and autumn, about the weariness of the noon hours in the July hamsins. From one platform to the next I compared our reflected faces in the opposite window. Behind it, the scenes we were visualizing were projected on the sooty walls of the backward rushing tunnel. The expression on our faces was the same expression, the vista was of the same homeland, only the passports in our coat pockets were different, of enemies. But outside the station at Bond Street, we mentioned the sea and we sighed a deep sigh that blew a small cloud of mist from each mouth. At every opportunity, as if it was surrounding our thoughts and appearing outside every window, from every room, the Mediterranean Sea found a way of entering our conversations. Our joint sigh expanded my chest and I felt how the same limpid blue vision constricted your heart. Ever since the courses of our lives crossed in 8th Street, a new shade has been added to the picture of the sea, a flicker that had not been there before. The water itself seemed to me since then deeper and more demanding. But I did not say anything. There was nothing to add to what had already been said at our first meeting.

Hugo and Mahmoud, through whom I met you that evening, trailed after us. The approaching Christmas decorated the trees with chains of light and the shop windows with red and green. Through the film of dry tears that the cold brought to my eyes, everything sparkled more brightly. You, too, when you told me you could not drive, could not shoot and could not swim. The awareness that I was Israeli and you were Palestinian lingered between us, simply because beyond it, we did not know much about each other yet. It was there but had actually grown faint. We were one man and one woman in the heart of the Village in New York: young, beautiful, flirtatious.

"Me - I'm a fish in water," I boasted about my diving skills. And before you managed to react, I had already been swept away into excited and vivacious chatter about the Mediterranean Sea. I said that I could not bear the thought of living far from this treasure of nature. I said that life in Tel Aviv is worthwhile only because of the blue background that stretches out behind it. I said it is the wonderful, open, Western Wall of my home. I said that for me it is holier than all the holy places. You were silent. "And how come you can't swim, anyway?" I teased you. "What about the beach at Gaza?" You smiled the sad version of that smile and described the difficulties the Israeli occupation heaps on the passage of West Bank residents to the Gaza Strip. Embarrassment rooted me to the spot while you counted on the fingers of one hand the number of times you had bathed in the Mediterranean Sea in your entire life. The inequality of our freedoms hit me powerfully because that evening, in New York, absolute equality existed between us. "Come on," you turned back and held those cold, dry fingers out to me, "I won't throw you into the sea for that."

All at once, everything between us became political. In a huge wave, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came and flooded the relaxed space that had made itself comfortable between one body and the other. For a long moment we walked without speaking. The same thing that had enabled the immediate connection between us was also what now imposed a certain distance. It flared into an argument after we left Hugo and Mahmoud at Astor Place and you finished the sentence you had started earlier. "But I really do believe that you and we have to share this sea, we have to learn to swim in it together." The argument that began then, at two in the morning, continued throughout the entire winter. In the summer, suddenly, it was cut off.

The depressing weather broke me on the 10th of June. I booked myself a plane ticket and informed you that in another five days I was going back to Israel. You asked enviously: "You're going home?" I trembled, as usual, when we spoke that word. I never told you about those trembles. I do not know which of us started it and which of us picked it up, when it happened that we stopped saying "Israel" or "Palestine." We simply said home, but we meant the same place. Through your Messianic gaze, it was always one place. In my eyes, from a distance of thousands of kilometers, it was the conflict that was ripping these two places apart that made them, paradoxically, one. From that distance, Abu Mazen seemed to be a brave new leader and even Ariel Sharon, who was quoted as saying "An end to the occupation," promised to become such a one. The encouraging meeting between the two at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, the hudna that followed it and the renewal of talks toward negotiations joined the rumors of a rare spring that was sweeping the region after a blessed winter and I, filled with hope and with a genuine, physical need for the warmth of the sun, wanted to go home.

You were more doubtful about the road map. The peace you dreamed of would be realized on the day when there arose, between the sea and the river, a binational state, common to both peoples. I remember how your eyes shone when you described it with broad hand gestures. Equal, free, without borders. For you it was exciting, the expression of a wish, for me it was a prophecy of doom that made me tremble. Because of this disparity, the argument between us led nowhere. Because of it, even you and I did not succeed in resolving the disputes that our leaders had failed to solve for so many years. I prayed and I still pray for a modest, lukewarm, mediocre peace - while you dreamed of harmonious, utopian, John Lennony reconciliation. I put it to you that this is an impossible peace whose lack of prospects almost makes one despair. I insisted repeatedly that the crisis of hatred and suspicion and resentment between the two peoples was too deep and tragic for such a dream to come true. You mocked me and said I had little faith, you claimed I was restricting the horizon of my thinking. I said I was reducing my expectations to the measure of two separate narrow states because the one wide one would be the end of the State of Israel. You dismissed the propaganda slogans that I quoted and declared that only the continuation of the occupation would be the end of Israel. I said I was filled with shame and criticism for what Israeliness looks like and for the occupation as its main feature, but I did not want it to change except for those bad and harmful features. You said I was shortsighted, that the future you envision for us was just a clear-eyed reading of the demographic map.

I wanted the day to come when I would need a passport to visit you in Ramallah. I wanted you to come to Tel Aviv and be able to move about freely and safely when you visited me. The reason I love the thought of a Palestinian state with the borders of the Green Line is because then, at last, the State of Israel will also have its own borders. Another reason I hope to live to see a Palestinian Independence Day is that I will then feel freer to celebrate my own Independence Day. Perhaps I told you this and perhaps I only mused anxiously that a binational state was liable to turn everything upside down, to switch our roles in this tragedy. I do not want my nation to go on being an occupier, but neither do I want it to become a minority. I am apparently limiting my dream to a cold, pale, miserly peace because your dream was too good to be true.