On a recent trip to Israel, the summer heat hit me at our first stop after just 30 minutes on the tour bus. So while my tour mates were seeing the sights, I ducked into an empty, air-conditioned cafeteria. It was about 11 in the morning. I hadn’t quite figured out how to order coffee when I saw our bus driver having lunch by himself. We had just met an hour earlier when we arrived at the airport, and he had been very helpful to me with an older, clumsy wheelchair lift in the bus. He was a handsome man in his mid-forties with a dark ruddy complexion and black hair and eyes, staring absent-mindedly as he picked at his food. He seemed pleased when I asked if I could sit with him.
His name is Marwan, and he is a Christian Arab from Nazareth. I found out that he lives alone, ekes out a living driving a bus, and worries about his ailing mother. He told me that since Arafat died he could “smell peace.” Later that week, I heard an Israeli use the same phrase. They can’t see it, or feel it yet, but they can smell it.
Later I met psychologist Yovav Katz, who had been hosting a call-in radio show in Jerusalem for the last 25 years. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties, had steel blue eyes and a full mane of gray hair.
I asked him what people called about mostly, thinking it would be about terrorism or the economy. He said most people called about loneliness, which is different from what they had called about in the past. Given our experience, we both acknowledged that radio show callers are not necessarily representative of the population.
Nevertheless, he commented that although there was much more poverty in Israel, there were also many more people with wealth. And they tended to be more self-absorbed, which inevitably leads to loneliness. But in my experience, people are lonely because there is something missing in their lives. People with wealth try to compensate by accumulating things, but it’s not the things that make people lonely. I wondered what was missing.
I may have gotten my answer the next night.
We had dinner at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Galilee. When everyone went on a boat ride after dinner, I stayed back and had coffee with Marwan. He was starting to trust me and interrupted the silence by asking: “Have you ever been in love?” After several moments of reflection, I said that I had been in love.
After another long pause, he told me a deeply emotional story of the woman he had loved for 11 years. And then one day she left for work and was killed in a car accident. That was 10 years ago, and still he mourns. He said he has never gone out with another woman because he never met “the right one.” What he meant was he had never found the woman he lost. His grief was palpable because he loved and was loved so deeply.
And I thought about this land and how many tears Jew and Arab have shed. And I wondered how many of those tears have turned to hatred? Certainly, Marwan is not the only one who is still mourning.
Over the next several days, I thought a lot about Marwan and his suffering. And I thought about all of the people I have seen over the years who suffered the loss of loved ones.
Later on, when I talked again with Marwan (who now called me “my brother”), I asked him what he thought his lover would say if she came back for just five minutes. He sat quietly for a long time as his eyes welled up with tears. Finally he said: “I don’t know, maybe she would say she misses me too. Maybe she would say she doesn’t want me to suffer any more because she loves me.” And, maybe for the first time, he wept.
At President Clinton’s first inauguration, Maya Angelou read a poem that contained the line: “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced fully, need not be lived again.”
May the smell of peace grow to affect all of their senses.