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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

The Thin Line

Sharbari Ahmed

About three years ago I became friends with a young woman with whom I immediately bonded. She was quite a bit younger than me, funny, smart and it seemed, wise beyond her years. She had a slightly haunted quality about her, meaning one could tell that she was plagued by memories of something or a past that had damaged her in some way. She had a beautiful Hebrew name but chose to drop it and go by one letter, which of course I cannot reveal.

Her family was very conservative and Jewish and she had decided to leave home and leave behind their values and ways of life.

I was the first Muslim friend she ever had. She had visited Israel many times, actually had been sent there against her will when she was a teenager to find her Jewishness if you will. She seemed to harbour no real loyalty or feeling for the place, equating it with personal oppression.

When I met her I was embroiled in working on my first screenplay, which is about a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy. My friend read it and absolutely loved it. She loved and understood the humour, saying that it reminded her of her family and the various trials and tribulations that she had to go through as an unmarried young woman, with no acceptable suitors or prospects. For me, who at the time, was full of this idealistic fervour, where I envisioned Muslims and Jews holding hands and running through clover fields, meeting and befriending her, seemed like a sign from The Almighty Himself.

What struck me, and her, at once was that we were so similar. And we had the same sense of humour. This was when I realised that I was putty in the hands of anyone who laughed at my jokes. Maybe I should send Mr. Obama my favourite knock knock joke and see if he laughs and if that helps my image of him, because, you guessed it, he is saying dumb things and just voted for a bill that allows the government to spy on Americans. But that's for another time. Though disillusionment is most assuredly the theme of this column.

She and I marveled again and again at how much alike we were, how much alike our cultures were. Our bond seemed like a miracle, though I must say, the main reason we came together was because of a mutual dislike of someone and I will maintain unequivocally that that is never a real bond, no matter how one slices it. Any time people come together because of something negative, no matter how justified that negativity is, it is not a pure thing. Somehow the truth gets lost in the negativity, obscuring what's important and real. But I still know in my heart, that for a moment in time, we were true friends and that we essentially shared the same values - well almost all the same values. Nonetheless, initially, I was euphoric. And my friendship with her was helping my writing and helping to shape the screenplay.

Slowly, I began to venture into the zone that is a veritable mine field where many American Jews are concerned, the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Even though she seemed to disavow everything that was archaic and conservative about her religion there was something that always prevented me from going full on into the subject.

We began the conversation tentatively and through the work. The screenplay was a great jumping off point because it dealt with the very issues that she and I were facing as individuals and as friends. I do not mean to be melodramatic, but the dread set in almost immediately. I cannot speak for her, but that hollow feeling one gets in the pit of their stomach when they are watching a movie and they know that the murderer is just around the corner, was palpable for me the moment we started talking about the conflict. I don't even remember the first foray into the Territories, meaning what was exactly said, but I do remember distinctly that my friend was not as indifferent to Israel and what she represented to her people as she had initially led me to believe. It was slowly revealed to me that she had lost someone in a suicide bombing a few years earlier.

We would dance around the subject, and I tried a strategy that I usually avoid when I am impassioned about something, tact, a relatively new concept for me in general. But it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that she and I were on the opposite sides of the wall. What was most astonishing was how little she knew about Islam. The whole concept of halal for instance, and how similar the rules were to the Jewish kosher laws, was a revelation to her. What was also lost on her, and should not have been, considering that she spoke Hebrew, was how similar Arabic and Hebrew were. I knew so much more about Judaism, but that was also because, and she pointed this out, all my creative influences were dead, or old Jewish men, like Billy Wilder and Woody Allen. My sense of humour too, was decidedly Jewish American and that was apparent in the screenplay.

She said she did not view me as a “real Muslim”, meaning I was liberal in her eyes and not I surmise now, a terrorist. And then it happened, the other shoe dropped. And it happened in the most unlikely of places, at a human rights awards ceremony in Manhattan, sponsored if I remember clearly, by Reebok. You can't make this stuff up.

We were watching a Tibetan woman receive an award. In her speech she said that as a result of her work for human rights in Tibet, her whole family was in danger and my friend leans over and whispers to me, “This is totally irresponsible of her. How could she do this?”

I heard the shoe drop, I mean I heard a thud literally but I think it was my heart sinking. I have been hearing that sound a lot lately. “So what's she supposed to do?” I whispered back furiously, “Just take it? Just to protect her own ass?”

My friend looked at me then. She had never, I think, heard that tone in my voice.

We continued to argue outside the auditorium. She was very theatrical when she wanted to be and kept saying, “it hurts my very bones when I think that she is endangering her own family for her own agenda. There is no justification.”

I argued with her of course. I said though I was not willing to risk everything for a cause now that I had a child, I was grateful that there were courageous people who take the fall for us weaklings. “Without them, the bullies would win every time,” I said.

We calmed down a bit and went to eat. And then suddenly, over hummus, ironically, and grape leaves, she says, “You can always tell Arabs from Israelis.”

This was not the preamble to a joke and I heard it again, the thud.
“Arabs have hard eyes.”

There is no point in getting into what came next, though it was not very dramatic. My heart, now, was beyond sunk; it was broken. I wrote her a letter stating that I could not abide by that remark she made, that it was becoming increasingly apparent that she and I were markedly divided on this issue and actually many others, but that I wanted to talk it out. She wrote me back stating that she was heart broken as well. And now I can understand that. She felt just as strongly as I did. When I tried to call her, her sister picked up the phone and said “Never call here again!” and hung up on me.

The last time I saw my friend I was sitting in a restaurant in Highland Park, NJ. She walked by the window. I ran out on to the sidewalk and called out her name. She turned around and saw me. I waved and gestured for her to come closer. She smiled sadly and shook her head. I shrugged. She waved goodbye and walked away.

It is hard for me to keep being optimistic when I think about how our friendship could not withstand politics. It does not bode well in general, when two seemingly liberal people cannot come to an agreement over an issue that is directly or indirectly, affecting all of us. What, then, is the option? Well all I can personally do is keep trying and I hope she is too. I hope when the film she loved so much is finally made and she sees it, she will find it in her broken heart to reach back out to me.

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