We were seated aboard “the Canadian” train, Vancouver to Toronto, where, during meals, the passengers are seated four to a table, according to the whims of the dining car crew. And so it happened that I was seated across from Izzy, short for Izzat . To my left sat a silent, shy, but beautiful woman, and across from her, presumably her husband. “She doesn’t speak English,” the husband explained with a sweet expression, and when the waitress had passed, Izzat translated the menu options into Arabic for them.
“That’s convenient,” I said, in a friendly tone, “that you speak Arabic and can help them.”
“Yeah, I’m from the middle east.”
“Me too,” I said.
“But not from the Arabic speaking part,” I braved. It would come up eventually; I might as well get it out right away.
He chuckled. “Palestine.”
“I’m sorry,” I said with a sheepish grin.
We high fived, and laughed.
That’s when he said it. “A few years ago, I would not have wanted to talk to you.”
And so the conversation began, though he had watched me sing and play a set a few hours before, we had only spoken a few sentences to each other when trying to come up with children’s songs to accommodate the two Caribbean cuties whom I let “play” my guitar and sing. He had suggested, with great success, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. There is nothing like the cuteness of children to establish universal humanness. It was a lucky preamble.
And now, at dinner, we delved right in, over his lamb, my duck, while the couple beside us, (who were from Iraq as it turned out), ate their salmon. I offered the little bit of Arabic I know. “Ahalan, kif halek… shukran.. aywa, “ (the last one he explained to me was Palestinian and Egyptian dialect, that Iraqis don’t say that.). “Shu –hada” I threw in for good measure, completing my limited Arabic vocabulary, though I remembered a bit more later, like “Habibi” and “Mastul.”
“Yeah, a few years back I would not have wanted to speak to you, but when I moved to Canada, (he grew up Palestinian in Saudi Arabia, where being Palestinian is also not easy,) I got some space away from what they taught me. I met more people. I even have an Israeli friend. We meet for coffee and talk sometimes. We don’t always agree, but we talk.”
He told me the hatred was unilateral where he grew up, embedded in the common parlance. He said sometimes they don’t differentiate between Jews and Israelis. He said, “Yeah, all Arabs in the world hate them.” He said, “them” not “you,” though I am them. “The word ‘Jews’ is an insult,” he went on. “For example, if somebody interrupts your meal we say, ‘Only Jews interrupt.’”
He paused, and then added, “Sorry, I am just being honest.”
I smiled though the words hurt me, but rather than cutting me, they pointed at a wound that was already there. There was nothing new in what he was telling me. I’m well aware of the pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab world and beyond. I had been “explained’ the same thing by a Belgian woman who told me very matter-of-factly that the word “Jew” is an insult.
“It’s not like I didn’t know that that is the sentiment,” I said. “I’d much rather have an honest conversation than not talk at all.” Being hated is something that Jews and Palestinians have in common.
But he told me that he had moved on from those sentiments, and was against the violence, that he had ‘unfriended’ many Arabs and Israelis because of the viciousness of their views.
“Their life is so bad they just don’t care anymore,” he explained of the Palestinians living in Gaza. I knew that too, I told him. I shook my head in agreed upon disgust at their situation. We talked about what growing up on hate can do.
I told him the hardest thing for me was to know this and to feel sorry for people I am still legitimately afraid of, to feel sorry for people who systematically hate me, and who would celebrate my violent death. He talked of the awfulness of certain Israelis who don’t seem troubled by the death of thousands mere miles away from them. We continued to shake our heads in disbelief and yet smile at the fact of our conversation.
We both agreed things had to change, and that violence was part of the hellish cycle, and it was better and necessary to seek any other way. And so we would talk to each other, because it has to start with individuals.
We talked politics, childhoods, and a lot about food. Describing his aunt’s kibbe, he lit up with endearing enthusiasm. “Sorry, I like talking about food,” he said in not that different a tone of apology that the one for his previous comments.
“I don’t mind. I love talking about food too,” I laughed. We talked about five year olds, (which his girlfriend has), computer programming (which he does), teaching, dating, beer, music. We talked about the good things in Canada.
“At least people keep their hate to themselves here.”
“I still wish they wouldn’t have it.” I frowned.
“Yes, but at least people here are civil.”
Indeed, that is no small thing.
It was easy enough to talk together, and this should in no way have been a big deal. Meals on the train force conversations between strangers every time. People you don’t know you will like reveal, through their personal stories, their very human selves. Themes we all relate to emerge every time. And so it was, with Izzat and me, two regular people: A Palestinian and an Israeli aboard “The Canadian”.
People - Plain old people. If we could peek our heads out of our learned prejudices long enough to get to know each other as people, which he has done, and which I am impressed by and grateful for, then maybe we will remember that the ‘others’ that ‘they’ talk about are also people. It starts with one human encounter and willingness for dialogue. Talking with Izzat is a sign of hope and certainly a reason to celebrate the diversity and relative tolerance of Canada. May there be many more encounters like this, like bright lights in the darkness. One more reason I am grateful for this journey.