bloody Middle East events that will last for generations to
come, because it is impossible, after so many years of conflict, for
the Israelis and the Arabs to forgive and forget."
Early last month, I went to the 140th anniversary party for The Nation, in Beverly Hills, an event which also honored the life and work of journalist Robert Scheer. For years, I've made the pilgrimmage from San Francisco to Los Angeles by car, but this time, since it was going to be such a short trip, I decided to fly, cab it around town, and then take Super Shuttle back to the airport.
So, on my way home, on the morning of Thursday, June 8th, I stood in my hotel lobby, on Sunset Boulevard, waiting for Super Shuttle to show up. The driver, a fellow by the name of Hassan, was surprisingly punctual despite his difficulty in finding parking directly in front of the hotel. He was delighted to see me standing at the door of the hotel waiting for him. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm parked across the street in front of the Hyatt. If you wait here, I'll be right back." "No, no," I interrupted, "I'll cross the street with you." "You don't mind?" he asked. "Not in the least. It'll take you 10 minutes to make it round the corner of La Cienega and Sunset. I'll go with you" whereupon we both embarked on the journey across many lanes of West Hollywood traffic.
Hassan was well-groomed, if desultory; a man who looked to be in his mid to late 50's, the kind of man who was, doubtless, impetuous in his youth, aimlessly so, and clearly disinterested in how he appeared to others. A self-possessed and, in many regards, self-contained man, Hassan appeared to be someone who asked, and expected, little or nothing from others.
The other passenger, a woman, in her late 30's, of German descent, was on her way to Amsterdam. I was happy to share the fact that my surname is German, which she already knew, as well as that it is as accidental as my birth. "Yes, yes, I know, your name means steel or iron," she stammered apparently more concerned with the vibrations from her cell phone than anything I had to say. I knew the driver was from the Middle East, but I couldn't decide if he was from Iran, or if he was Christian or Muslim. He, on the other hand, recognized the big apple in me, but seemed conflicted about my ancestry.
We all got quickly immersed in discussions about how times have changed everywhere, how women are more accomplished, mobile, and less professionally, as well as socially, limited. Our German friend interjected a simple "yah, yah" from time to time, but I noticed Hassan staring at me quizzically as if trying to remember my name, but surely it wasn't my name he was wondering about.
Finally, I summoned my courage, and asked where he was from, and how long he'd been living in Los Angeles "Are you Persian?" "Oh, no, I'm not from Iran," he said, "I'm from Lebanon." I wondered where in Lebanon. "Beirut." He'd been living in this country for nearly 20 years, and was planning to return to Beirut in July for a wedding. His nephew was getting married to his childhood sweetheart. He would fly home to Beirut for the celebration, and see members of his family for the first time in many years. The wedding would have taken place around the time Israel bombed the Beirut International Airport, from what I recall, on July 13th. His cell phone rang, and he spoke eagerly, if urgently, with his son, an engineering student at UC Davis, about plans for the wedding.
Sparks came from Hassan's eyes as he looked deeper, and deeper at me. "You must be very proud to be from Lebanon," I told him in an effort to diffuse things. He smiled the kind of smile that makes one's face melt. By now, it had become clear to him that I was from New York, and he, no doubt, knew all the stereotypes about women with curly hair and large hazel eyes, who gesture a lot, and maybe, yes, maybe, a Jewess, and maybe...
"Do you mind if I drop this other lady off first, and then take you to Long Beach Airport?" Hassan asked. "No, not at all, whatever is easier." Our German friend clung to her cell phone as if to a life raft. We dropped her off, and Hassan noticed that she had no suitcase. "She must live in Amsterdam, but she mentioned her husband was at the hotel." We decided she must be married to a rich American executive, someone who gives her free rein to travel, and who doesn't even care if her mascara runs. We laughed. Slowly that puzzled look which, when you press the pause button, could pass for contempt started to fade like a shock of red hair in the sun.
"Tell me about Beirut; your family, your history." He spoke of the bombings, 30 years ago, the city's renaissance, a phoenix rising from the flames. He dared not ask nor mention Israel. I asked him to name all his brothers and sisters from Lebanon who I might know--the actors, musicians, song writers, directors. "Oh, Danny Thomas, how I loved that man!" All the while we spoke, he looked at me through the rear view mirror, and his eyes became a smile finding its way to morning.
All of a sudden, I felt like I wanted to cry out "I'm a Jew, but not an Israeli. I'm so sorry for your hometown; for the bombings, I would never go along, not for a minute, not with any of it. Murder is murder regardless of context." Instead, I held his hand for what seemed an eternity while he reached for my solitary red suitcase. We looked each other deep in the eye, and smiled. Yes, yes, we are of the same race, Semitic, yes, that, too, but more important, the human race.
More than 300 people have died already because of this war which, on balance, is no different from all the other eruptions in the name of national autonomy since 1948. It was reported, this morning, that Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel in retailiation for Israeli bombing of Beirut. This cycle of vengeance, and misunderstanding, that pits Sh'ite against Christian, Muslim against Jew, can only end in death and destruction for all. It is a cycle of shame, a shame that we all share, a disgrace that permeates every last inch of us, the least and the greatest who, in the final analysis, will share the same fate.
Yet, somehow, strangely enough, on a shuttle bus, en route to the airport, across Los Angeles, two total strangers confronted their differences, and embraced them, with the growing knowledge that we are of the same race, one quickly pushing inexorably toward its own extinction.
Hassan, wherever you are now, I think of your nephew's wedding, in Beirut, last week, and the twinkle in your eyes when you spoke, with pride, of your son. I want you to know how deeply ashamed I am to be, in any way, related to those who drop bombs that take the lives of small children, brides and grooms, just as I know you share my shame for those who wreak destruction on Israel.
Wherever you are now, Hassan, should you be reading this, know that I stand shoulder to shoulder with you now, in our shared humanity, I look you in the eye, and pledge that we must do whatever it takes to stop this devastation, keep it from happening to your hometown, and mine, ever again.
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