By Khaled Diab
In eastern Jerusalem, I walked into a local cafe in search of locals. I ordered tea and a shisha, or nargela as the Palestinians call it (water pipe). It was the first time I had smoked this particular type of tobacco (me'asel for those in the know) for many long years and it brought back dim memories of misspent afternoons at uni smoking and playing backgammon. But this particular hang out specialised in cards.
Dressed in khaki shorts and a Canadian fireman's shirt, I did not quite blend in with the mainly middle-aged and over clientele and drew a lot of attention, particularly when I took out my camera to take a photo.
The first vibe I got from them was suspicion - which seems to be a common currency in all the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, where some orthodox Jews seemed to be sussing out whether I was an Arab and some Palestinians seemed to be sussing out the opposite. A casual exchange of jokes broke the ice hanging in the warm, smoke-filled air, my Egyptian accent reassuring the punters.
Fouad, a 68-year-old Jerusalemite, introduced himself as an amateur photographer and asked me all kinds of questions about my digital camera, explaining that he preferred film and a professional photographer friend had suggested he stick with it.
What happened to the Arab dream?
My Egyptianness released a strong current of nostalgia in Fouad. He started telling me about his Egypt connection, that his grandmother was born in Port Said. Then, with a wistful look in his face, he recalled with pride the days of Nasser, the larger-than-life, charismatic Arab superhero of his generation. "There will never be another leader like him. How can any of the pimps (me'araseen) who currently pass for Arab leaders ever compare to him?"
"Do you know about Nasser? Your generation has lost touch with the dream he represented."
"Of course, I know about him. My parents are both committed pan-Arabists."
We spent some time discussing Nasser's multiple identities as a dictator who listened to the mood of his people and the Arab world, visionary leader and shortsighted populist, fantacist and realist.
"What happened to the Arabs? What happened to our dreams of union?" he asked rheotrically.
"They were pipe dreams, built more on slogans than institutions. The Arabs were too weak and divided and outside powers were frightened of the implications of such unity."
'Israel came to me'
Fouad told me about his life as a born and bred Jerusalemite with a Jordanian passport. That he was discriminated against and given a hard time by some segments of Israeli officaldom.
"'When did you come to Israel?' army officers ask me," he gave as one of many examples "'I didn't come to Israel', I respond. It was Israel that came to me."
But the daily trials and tribulations are not what irk Fouad the most. "I want my dignity and identity back. I am not a Jordanian; I am a Palestinian. I did not come to Israel; I was here before Israel."
He expressed his heart-felt conviction that the Israelis do not want peace because they are not willing to pay the price - this could be seen in Israel's constant obstructionism and encroachment onto Palestinian land, he argued. "There's always some excuse or other not to negotiate. Look what they're doing now with the Arab peace offer?"
"We Palestinians can and are ready to live with a state on the pre-1967 borders but will Israel allow us to have it?"
"Do you think armed struggle is useful or the Palestinians should adopt non-violent?" I asked.
"Both have their function and Palestinians use both."
"But Israelis use Palestinian violence to justify their intransigence and the Palestinians have lost a lot of sympathy on the international stage."
"I really don't know if it would make any difference to Israel or whether it would simply come up with another excuse."
"You said Palestinians 'accept' a state on the pre-1967 borders. So, this is not ideal?"
"No, it isn't."
"What is the ideal solution in your mind, if you had complete freedom to propose any solution?" I asked.
"Zionism is a racist ideology which robs me of my history. I think what we need is a single country for all its people. We all lived together before. We all still live relatively well together here in Jerusalem. We can live together again. To make sure the system is fair to everyone, we can have something like in Lebanon."