March 6, 2003
Romance in the Negev
He closed the cap on my gas tank, returned the nozzle and handed me a slip of paper.
"What's this?" I asked.
"A coupon for a car wash," he responded. "Kind of like a present." He smiled, dazzling me.
"Give me another present," I said, handing back the slip of paper. "Your phone number."
When I moved 10,000 miles from California to Israel this fall, I did not expect to end up with an Arab Muslim boyfriend from a traditional Bedouin tribe. My friend, Josh, thought I was nuts when I told him I was still involved with Sabih one month later.
"How do you reconcile your radical feminist values with someone who comes from such a misogynistic background?" Josh asked.
I didn't know whether to laugh like a madwoman or strangle the man. This is the same Josh who told me I had serious psychological problems because I didn't want to sleep with him. Harvard-educated Josh with a coveted job at a prestigious New York law firm, I might add. So much for the superior feminist consciousness of America's elite men.
Culturally, Sabih's Arab identity and my Jewish identity are not as diametrically opposed as people might think. I come from an Iraqi Jewish family. Far from being a bagels-and-cream cheese stereotype, I have a Judeo-Arabic name, my Jewish prayers are to a God alternately called Elokeem and Allah, and my family has various shades of olive and brown skin.
A common Middle Eastern identity, however, is not what brought me into this relationship or what keeps Sabih and me together. To the contrary, we operate in a little bubble removed from identity politics. Our relationship is based on simple things: wacky humor, independent thinking, a kindred-spirit connection, heaps of respect and an appreciation of the basic goodness in each of us. Oh, did I mention the fireworks?
Coming from Berkeley, an American suburb with its own damn foreign policy, it was quite a challenge to learn how to be apolitical in a relationship. But since the climate around Sabih and me was so explosive, it seemed imperative to keep politics out until we built a strong foundation and had time on our side.
During the first few months of my relationship with Sabih, I was attacked twice by a group of Arab men. In addition, my neighbors were hostile when they found out I was with an Arab. It was difficult not to talk with Sabih about conflicts like these -- to "process the issue," as we say in Berkeley speak. These kinds of incidents added a lot of stress to my side of the relationship, shoving in my face the tensions and divisions between Arabs and Jews. In the first few months, I felt as if I am standing in the middle of a crossfire.
"Loolwa," a close friend said as I burst into tears, "this is not an environment that will encourage your love to blossom. It will be a miracle if your relationship survives."
Not exactly comforting words, but seemingly true.
As Sabih and I got to know each other, he himself made a number of comments that disturbed me: On several occasions, he stereotyped all Israeli Jews with the negative behaviors of a few people. A few times, he implicitly failed to recognize Israel's significance for me as a Jew. Once, he put all blame for the Arab-Israel conflict squarely on the shoulders of Israel. Sometimes I gently objected to his comments; sometimes I made a joke out of what he said to minimize the sting; other times I remained silent.
And yet, Sabih also showed respect for my identity and religious observance. One day after breakfast, for example, I returned from the shower to find him washing the dishes. I was delighted by his gesture. Then I panicked. In Jewish tradition, we separate the dishes used for dairy and meat products, and I had not yet put up the signs identifying which was which.
"Are you concerned about dairy and meat?" Sabih asked, scrubbing a fork.
"Yes," I replied.
"Don't worry," he smiled. "I looked at the patterns on the silverware and figured out what was what."
These caring gestures made all the difference to me. I chose to focus on them and let go of the negative comments, rather than get into heated political debates with Sabih. Over time, I noticed the Arab-Jewish conflict slip away from our relationship, simply through the strengthening of our personal, apolitical connection.
What's more, seeing I was not about to drop Sabih like a hot potato, my neighbors came to accept that we were an item. Out of love for me, they started to care about him. And so, just through the simple act of our being together, we created our own little version of a peace agreement, without the big political brouhaha.
"I'd like to meet you in a timeless, placeless place," I once said to Sabih, quoting Suzanne Vega. "Somewhere out of context and beyond all consequences."
"Yah," he laughed cynically, "that place doesn't exist. It's just a fantasy."
But I don't agree. In the middle of the Negev desert, amidst hatred, violence and decay, Sabih and I have created an oasis of love, respect and laughter. Ironically, keeping politics out of our relationship has resulted in perhaps the biggest political act of all: Despite our surroundings, we are still together -- growing with, learning from and getting closer to each other as the weeks and months go by.
Loolwa Khazzoom (www.loolwa.com ) has published articles in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including the Washington Post and San Francisco Examiner.