The artist Joe Sacco and I are driving up through the Jerusalem Hills to Beit Agron, the government-run press building. Beit Agron was the first place I visited in 1988, when I moved to Jerusalem as the Middle East bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. I had no office, no staff, and no experience in the Middle East. I had arrived from Lausanne, where for four months I had studied Arabic. My teacher, an Egyptian, used to write on the board phrases such as “The Arabs are good. The Jews are bad.” I later took the Hebrew University conversational Arabic course, taught by a kind and gentle Palestinian professor, Omar, who became a close friend.
Arabic is a delicate and beautiful construct. The language is poetic, magical, with calls and responses, ornate greetings and salutations, for everything from eating to entering a house. When someone brings you food you say, “May God bless your hands.” If offered a coffee you say, “Coffee always,” meaning may we always drink coffee during moments like this. Seven years later, now the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, I had spent 600 hours of study and reached the conclusion that mastery of Arabic was a lifelong pursuit. A little of it, though, goes a long way. After being captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard in Basra in 1991 during the Shiite uprising following the Gulf War, I was able to recite strings of bad Arabic jokes and talk about my family. I wrote Omar a thank-you note when I was released.
Joe and I pass the rusting hulks of crude Israeli armored vehicles, left as a monument to the 1948 war that made possible a Jewish state. We skirt the old walled city, its quadrilateral shape and network of streets laid out by the Roman emperor Hadrian. In the distance stands the Jaffa Gate, where, in 1538, in ornate and cursive Arabic, an inscription was placed by Suleiman, the second Ottoman ruler of Jerusalem:
In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Great Sultan, King of the Turks, Arabs, and Persians, Suleiman son of Selim Khan—may Allah make His Kingdom eternal—gave the order to build this blessed Wall.
Beit Agron is a dirty yellow stucco affair in the center of Jerusalem with tiled floors and poorly lit corridors. It has the feel and smell of a public high school. The reporters and photographers whose lives intersected mine here more than a decade ago are mostly gone now. Some I see only rarely, bumping into them in various shattered corners of the globe; others are dead.
The stories we worked to tell, which flashed briefly across a screen or a front page before receding from the public’s consciousness, are, for us, still vibrant. A shooting at a road junction in Gaza—a brief item on the wire—remains hard to retell. Years later we recount the mishaps, the funny anecdotes that, taken at face value, made our life a romp. The real stuff is alluded to only in brief, almost codelike asides and silences.
It was in Gaza, where I lived for weeks at a time during the seven years I spent in the Middle East, that I came to know the dark side of the Israeli Defense Force. During the first Palestinian uprising, begun in December 1987 and ended in 1993 with the Oslo peace accords, the army had little interest in crowd control. It fired live rounds at boys hurling rocks. And on a few occasions the Israeli soldiers, angered at the coverage, turned their weapons toward groups of photographers and cameramen. They shot rubber bullets into their legs—doing it with a self-congratulatory arrogance that came to define the occupation for me.
In Beit Agron I run into familiar Israeli press officials. They are efficient: our press cards are ready in minutes. They welcome me back. They ask about New York. They hand out cell-phone numbers and tell us to call if we need assistance. Joe and I get up to leave, but we are blocked at the door by a man in his early sixties wearing a gray leisure suit. His name is Yusuf Samir, and he is a reporter for the Israeli Arabic service. He tells us that he was kidnapped recently in the West Bank by Palestinian gunmen and held for several weeks.
“The Palestinians are animals,” he says. “They are less than human. They are savage beasts. Israel is a land of love. People in Israel love one another. But the Palestinians do not love. They hate. They should be destroyed. We should put fire to them. We should take back Beit Jala, Bethlehem, take back all the land and get rid of them.”
The Israeli press officers are beaming.
“He is a great man, a poet,” one says as we leave. “He is a man of peace.”
From the October 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine.