“In Arab culture,” he continues, “the first customer is good luck for the day.” He speaks through a slight lisp and sincere smile.
“This was my grandfather’s store. He teached me. This is your wife?” he asks me. I nod while eyeing the exit. There aren’t many people in the Old City yet. But there will be. And if we’re going to get our souvenir shopping done before the masses swarm in we need to get going. There’s no time for lessons from grandpa.
“My grandfather said your smile is worth more to me than a thousand dollars.”
The young man in his twenties moves quickly, pulling two stools from the back of his shop and placing them side by side. “You are not customers now. We are friends.”
He tells us to sit. I don’t want to sit. Becky sits. I sit.
“In Arab culture visitors are welcome friends. You come to my house and we drink coffee. Would you like coffee?” Always smiling. Hands always moving.
He gives instruction in Arabic into the telephone and tells us coffee will be “only a minute.”
He’s on his knees in front of us now. Becky asks questions. I grow less impatient and more interested with every answer.
He tells us his name and when I don’t understand he spells it. “O-S-A-M-A,” he says. He must know what I’m thinking because he tells me he isn’t a dangerous man and that he loves all people. “Osama means ‘lion’ or ‘strong man’,” he says and shakes my hand. “That is all.”
Becky asks if the strong man has always lived in Jerusalem and we learn that he doesn’t live here at all. His home is in the West Bank, in the city of Bethlehem, behind walls erected by the Israeli government.
Osama is Arab by race, Muslim by faith, and Palestinian by citizenship. Labels are far more complicated here than American preachers and politicians ever let on.
Every Palestinian is issued a green card or a blue card. Bearers of the blue card are not allowed to venture past the walls. Everyone in Osama’s family has a blue card. But not him. He was born in an Israeli hospital, still considered a Palestinian today, but given a green card which allows him to commute from the West Bank into Jerusalem where he runs his grandfather’s shop now that the walls keep grandfather out.
There’s no anger in his answers and explanations.
In Bethlehem unemployment is above 60%. Osama sells handbags, bracelets and rugs in Jerusalem – mostly to Western tourists – to take care of his family living behind walls Western politicians helped erect.
He makes the same plea as our Arab Christian Palestinian tour guide in Bethlehem the day before. “Please tell America about us.”
The coffee finally arrives, hot and strong. Osama changes the subject. “I thank God for you, friends. I hope you thank God,” he says to me. “Your wife is very beautiful. She is older but grows very beautiful.” We laugh at words that, in Arabic, must be more flattering than in English.
The conversation outlasts the coffee. Osama tells us that the walls are a gift. Muslims and Christians get along much better behind them, he claims. Fighting each other is a luxury that those fighting to survive can’t afford. Poverty forces cooperation. A common enemy unites enemies. A Christian woman in Bethlehem sews his pillows and a Muslim woman down the street embroiders them.
Osama slides samples from a stack. “Everything is like symbol,” he instructs. He points to an element of the design that represents the walls of Jerusalem, then to flowers representing Muslim cities.
I promise to pray for him and his family. He thanks me. He knows we are Christians. But fighting is a luxury.
Becky buys a bracelet and a pillowcase. She pays too much for both.