It was not what I expected. Hanging from an overhead line in a narrow alleyway in the heart of the Nabulus souk was a child’s T-shirt featuring two over-muscled wrestlers looking extremely fierce. It was the exact type of thing that appeals to my 7-year-old son.
“Salaam,” I said to the Palestinian leaning on stacks of T-shirts against the wall. “How much is this?”
“You want to know how much it is?” he answered.
“Yes, I’m looking for a present for my son.”
“You want to buy it for your son,” he repeated, still leaning back.
“Yes. Can you tell me how much it is?”
“Where are you from?”
“I don’t like Americans,” he said, stepping forward.
It was my turn to repeat statements: “You don’t like Americans.”
He put his hands flat together, his fingers pointing toward me, then he angled them away to the left and moved them forward. “They go this way.” He swung his hands to the right, like a fish that changes direction suddenly. “And then this way.” He repeated himself, and his gestures.
Richard Elias, general manager of Golden Gate Tours and Travel in Bethlehem, had been assigned by my hosts at the Palestine Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to bring up the rear of the group I was with and keep an eye on stragglers, which meant me. He put his arm around my shoulder and wheeled me to face away from the man. They exchanged a few words in Arabic.
“What did you say?” I asked as we walked away.
“I said there are countries, and there are individuals, and he shouldn’t confuse the two.”
The exchange hadn’t upset me, but I noticed, as I hadn’t before, that there seemed to be a lot of posters of Saddam Hussein and romanticized images of young men who had been killed fighting Israel, each posed with an enormous automatic weapon.
I had a balancing experience the next day in Jericho. I had gone into a souvenir shop with Nicholas Harrocks, a Brit who works in the London office of the Quartet, an organization headed by Tony Blair and backed by the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, with a mandate to work for peace in the Middle East.
It was a very hot day, and the shopkeeper brought us cold water as soon as we entered. “With my compliments,” he said.
Harrocks bought some ice cream and T-shirts, but I didn’t make a purchase.
“Where are you from?” the shopkeeper asked me as we were leaving.
“New York,” I answered.
“Palestinians love Americans,” he told me. “Americans paid for the road into town. When I’m on it, I tell my sons and grandsons, ‘Don’t forget, America paid for this road.’ ”
As we walked toward our motorcoach, Harrocks turned to me. “ ‘Palestinians love Americans’? You don’t hear that very often. Savor it.”
I imagine he’s right; I was more surprised by the second exchange than the first. But in the Holy Land, it’s important to keep Elias’ perspective front-of-mind: There are countries, and then there are individuals. The world is a much smaller, much less interesting place whenever you assume you know someone because you know where they’re from.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This column appeared in the June 21 issue of Travel Weekly.