June 3, 2004
Early Friday morning a few weeks ago, I was on a bus to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station. I planned to take another bus from there to Mevasseret Tzion, a suburb of Jerusalem, to get a ride to Bet Shemesh for my weekly job in a school there. I was right on schedule. On the bus, I went over my notes for the day, jotting down any new ideas that came along. The bus sighed as we curved around a sharp bend in the road, and I looked around at the other passengers.
I love riding public transportation because I see the most interesting people. I find myself staring at them, picking them apart, and imagining their stories. I examine their clothes, their hair, their belongings, their facial expressions, note whether they are traveling alone or in a pack, if they meet my gaze or if they are also looking around at the other passengers. With all of these bits of information, I piece together their histories and where they are going. It was a gorgeous day, a preview of spring, and the tension that continuously hangs in the Jerusalem air seemed lighter. Though it was early, people were already out preparing for Shabbat.
I noticed a woman sitting diagonally across from me. She was young, probably about 16, and obviously religious. Her hair was neatly brushed and pulled back, and she wore plain, modest clothing and sensible leather shoes. She wasn't pretty, but that was due partly to her dowdy appearance. Nose buried in a small book of Tehillim (Psalms), she mouthed the words silently as the bus rattled along its course. She never looked up, and I imagined myself in her place. A good girl. Reliable. Helps her mother take care of her siblings, cook and clean. I wondered if I, being raised as she was, would sit on a bus reading Tehillim. Or would I just carry around the book for show, shirking my duty to read every day?
The bus stopped and about 10 people got on. I kept my eye out for elderly people who might prefer to sit where I was, closer to the front. One of the last people to step on was an older Arab man. He sat down facing me and I, of course, looked him over. I admired his suit. It looked tailor-made, and part of the lining peeked out, showing the words "ENGLISH WOOL ENGLISH WO--." The suit had a jacket and a long skirt-type wrap, in matching gray pinstripes, and his well-worn brown leather shoes needed a shine. Under his kefiyah was a beautiful face. Lined with deep creases, his brown skin looked soft to the touch. His gray eyes were bright beneath thick, white eyebrows. I found myself wishing I knew how to paint, so that I could make a portrait of this intriguing man. I wanted him to meet my gaze, to make eye contact so that I could smile. I wanted to befriend this man.
"Is it strange," I wondered, "to be the only Arab on a bus full of Jews?"
In high school I was the only white employee in a restaurant full of African Americans and Latino Americans.
Then I thought, "Is he nervous? Is he worried about terrorist attacks?"
A friend had told me recently about an Israeli Arab scolding others for riding buses because he thinks it isn't safe. Noting the irony, I considered how I would feel in his shoes. Would I be more or less afraid of riding buses? The odds are far more likely that I'll die from all the second-hand smoke in Israeli public places than from a terrorist attack. Guards step onto buses every so often to check, and the bus drivers take a good look at everyone who gets on, but then again, how much time do they really have to size up a passenger?
I looked around the bus again, to see if anyone else seemed nervous about being there. When I looked back at the man in the seat across from mine, I noticed the large briefcase in his lap. He clutched it to his chest, and suddenly my thoughts took a sharp turn. Arab man. Baggy suit. Briefcase. Sitting across from me. My heart started to pound. I looked around again. Had anyone else noticed? Nobody on the bus seemed the least bit perturbed. The woman on the other side of the aisle was still mouthing her prayers to God. She had not even noticed the man sit down. A soldier stood a few feet behind me looking bored. My mind raced as I realized that my wrinkly Arab friend could be a suicide bomber. I didn't know what to do.
I tried to shrug off my concern. Hadn't I just been admiring his suit, his wrinkles, his eyes? Hadn't I just felt a strong connection to this stranger sitting across from me -- this stranger who could kill me with the touch of a button? Should I get off the bus? Am I a racist for even thinking of getting off? About two months ago, a woman called me to apologize for being late to a meeting. She explained through heavy breaths that she had gotten off her bus and had to walk because there was someone on the bus who looked suspicious.
I finally decided to stand by the back door, behind the heavy plastic partition so that, at the very least, I would be better protected. I stood up and moved subtly to the back. I didn't want anyone to guess why I was moving. I was ashamed for assuming that an Arab man with a briefcase was a suicide bomber. I tried to make it look like I just needed to stretch my legs. When I stood behind the window, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Two stops later I got off the bus. I scanned the crowd on the busy street, my heart still pounding, not even sure what I was looking for. Though all I wanted to do was drop to the ground and weep, I forced myself onward. Feeling guilty for jumping to conclusions, shaken by the stress of the situation, and grateful to be alive, I took a deep breath, faced forward and marched across the street to catch my second bus.
Miriam Lewis is a freelance writer, designer, performer and stage director in Jerusalem. Originally from Michigan, she lived in Los Angeles for a year recruiting for long-term Israel programs.