Jewish Journal

If the glass breaks, or how a bong in Santa Fe helped forge Middle East peace

by Rebecca Spence

July 18, 2014 | 4:05 pm

Rebecca Spence

While the headlines blare the bad news – ground invasion in Gaza, rockets in Ashdod – I sit here on a 500-acre ranch in northern New Mexico, working on a novel (my first) about my family's storied history in the Holy Land.

I arrived in the Land of Enchantment just last week, and it was Saturday before I took my first trip to Santa Fe. I got what I expected: moccasins, feather earrings, a green chile quesadilla so good it made me wonder why I’d given up dairy in the first place.

What I didn’t expect was this: to stumble upon a hookah shop (The Hookah Shop, the sign read), find a nice-looking Arab guy with a killer smile standing behind the counter.

Where are you from? I asked, surveying the spread of bongs, vapor pens, not a hookah in sight. Egypt?

He smiled, said, Palestine.

I nearly shrieked.

Me too! I said. I mean…sort of. I was born in Boston, but my ancestors are Palestinian Jews. There’s no other way to put it. My grandmother was born in Jerusalem. My great-grandfather was born in Hebron.

Hebron? he said, looking puzzled.

In Hebrew, it’s Hevron. Bil’Arabi, I said, recalling my one semester of college Arabic, I have no idea.

I’m from Beitunia, he said. Near Ramallah.

We nodded, smiled, felt a surge of recognition. I mentioned the war.

Tears came. He reached across the counter, stretched his long, sun-tanned arms over shelves lined with glass bowls in purple, yellow, green, and gave me a hug. We’re cousins, he said.

I sucked in my cry. I can’t stand it, I said. I hate it.

He blinked his brown eyes, telegraphed, Me too.

Let’s send our prayers, I said. To everyone there.

We bowed our heads, closed our eyes, sent our love and compassion to the Israelis and Palestinians – i.e. people – living in fear of rocket fire, missile landings, the unceasing cycle of reprisals and more reprisals that never seems to end.

We opened our eyes, shared a brief look of pain and understanding, then moved on to the business at hand. How much for that one? I asked, pointing to a small, amber-colored water pipe that looked like something I might have smoked in Tel Aviv during the late nineties.

Twenty, he said.

I inspected the merchandise, figuring if I hadn’t purchased a bong since high school, it'd better be a good one. And guess what? I found a crack.

Look, I said, pointing to the fine line that circled the stem.

Okay, he said, fifteen.

I offered ten.

When we reached the cash register, I told him about the time I’d met a young Palestinian in Berkeley, who, like my great-grandfather, was born in Hebron. But when I'd told the boy at the falafel shop about my family, about the 1929 massacre of 67 Jews that my great-grandfather had somehow managed to survive, he didn’t know what I was referring to. Massacre? he’d said. Jews from Hebron? My grandfather told me there were no Jews in Hebron until the 1940s. You have a computer? I’d said. Google it.

The hookah shop owner, whose name was Montasser, still didn’t get it. Hebron, I repeated, the ancient city where Abraham and Sarah are buried. The place where – 

Aaahh, he said. Halil. The place where the problems started.

Yes, I said, remembering the Arabic name for Hebron. The place where the problems started.

I reached into my purse, pulled out a ten-dollar bill, then hesitated before putting it in his hand. What if the crack gets worse? I said. What if the stem breaks? I thought about it for a second. Maybe I should just spring for the extra ten bucks, I said, buy the one without the crack.

No, he insisted. Take this one.

Why? I asked.

Because if the glass breaks, he said. Then you’ll have to come back.

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer based between LA and the Bay Area. She is currently at work on her first novel.


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Rebecca Spence is an award-winning writer based on the West Coast. She has written for the Forward, Elle, ARTnews, New York Magazine, Tablet, the L.A. Jewish Journal and JTA....

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