“He’s Muslim?” the soldier asks Khader, nodding toward me.
Khader is standing a few paces in front of me. The guard is sitting on a stool a few steps above him. The air around us is thick with the musky smell of dust and stone. A rifle rests against the guard’s leg.
Staring past them, up the short stairway and through the brightness that fills the opening onto the courtyard beyond, I catch sight of the golden Dome of the Rock. This Islamic shrine, built upon the famed and contested rock where the Qur’an says Mohammad ascended to heaven, where the Torah says Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, is still and calm — so at odds with the reports of police raids and pipe bombs in the morning news.
I hear the guard’s words, and a spark of understanding pierces the flurry of rapidly flying Hebrew, pulling me back into the bowels of this half-lit tunnel.
“No. I’m Jewish,” I interrupt, at that moment proud of my limited linguistic ability.
“No, no,” the guard grunts, shooing us away.
“Come,” Khader says, touching my arm softly, barely. “He said only Muslims are allowed. I was telling him that you were Muslim too.”
“Really? I — I thought I was helping.”
“I know, habibi. It’s okay. Next time. We’ll just go to the Kotel.”
It’s not far from Haram al-Sharif, the sacred hill where the Dome of the Rock sits, to the Kotel — also called the Wailing Wall — the holiest site in Judaism. But the walk feels long. Oppressive. We’re quiet as we wind through underpasses and alleyways, through the sweet and spiced smells of Jerusalem’s Old City, and not only because of the concentration needed to avoid slipping on cobblestone worn down over thousands of years, under the feet of hundreds of millions of pilgrims and pillagers. I want a word of comfort. I want to reassure Khader. But this is Jerusalem, a city whose reverent calm has so recently been marred by the murder of a teenage girl at this summer’s Gay Pride Parade. Here, for people like us, it’s best to be discreet.
The first time I saw Khader, I knew that I wanted to kiss him. I was preparing to interview him for a magazine, and had just pressed play on the documentary about gay Palestinians living in Tel Aviv that he appeared in. And there he was — his body shrunk down to fit the screen of my 11-inch laptop, dancing to Ofra Haza’s “Im Nin’alu,” the stick of a lollipop hanging coyly from his mouth. I knew I wanted to kiss him before we found ourselves, just days later, in a sunlit restaurant in Williamsburg, where his first full sentence was directed at the waiter — an order for a gin and tonic. And it wasn't long before I saw that he wanted me to kiss him too. “You are beautiful, you are Jewish, I am attracted to you,” he said simply, brazenly, his hands resting on the tiled tabletop.
We met in New York City in June 2015, the week that marriage equality was legalized nationwide. I asked him to come with me to the Stonewall Inn the evening of the decision, and we stood together among the crowds and the couples for hours, before slipping out from the mass of bodies for glasses of champagne. Overripe strawberries sat skewered on the rims of our glasses and I dropped mine into the bubbles, let it sit and become saturated with alcohol, while he ate his in one quick bite, a smile lifting the corners of his eyes as the fruit disappeared between his lips.
We got drunk on the headiness of hope and love that filled the city. I had met other Palestinians before Khader, in structured events designed to bring Jews and Arabs together, but he was the first I got to know on a truly personal level. He was the first Palestinian I’d touched, kissed, the first whose steady breath I’d felt against my cheek in the stillness of a summer morning.
So far from Israel and Palestine, we existed outside the conflict that shaped and distorted his daily life.
We spent entire days together that week in June, the one week we had together before he flew back home. So far from Israel and Palestine, we existed outside the conflict that shaped and distorted his daily life. For a while, we were free simply to be two boys caught up in the romance of the times, in a fling with an expiration date we both knew was fast approaching. He called me katani, which means “my little” in Hebrew, despite the fact that I’m taller than he is. He called me habibi, which is Arabic for “lover,” as he told me about his city. “Let me show you Tel Aviv,” he said in the doorway of my Manhattan apartment, just before leaving for the airport. “It’s our country, and I can’t wait to share it with you.”
As a general rule, open invitations are dangerous in my hands. I should have warned him not to say such things unless he was serious, because I’m not one to turn down that kind of offer. Luckily, Khader meant it. Three months later, my plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport.
Arriving in Israel eight years after my last visit, a summer tour for Jewish high schoolers, it felt like a different world. But maybe it’s just that I arrived a different person, and now could see a side of the country that was hidden from my teenage eyes. Where once I had seen only Jewish people, Jewish history, Jewish culture, now I saw a rich diversity. Spending time with Khader and his friends in Tel Aviv — Arabs and Palestinians and Jews — we laughed and smoked in the twilit space that hardliners on either side of the conflict between Israel and Palestine said was impossible, that even moderates dismissed as improbable.
Spending the long holiday weekend at a friend’s house in Natanya, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah by splashing in the pool, with glasses of wine in our hands. Arabic music drifted out from speakers as we shouted in Hebrew and laughed in English, letting the cool water wash the dust from our hair and our skin, sand blown in from the Syrian war that had wrapped the country in a yellow haze in the last days of the old year.
While it’s easier to be a Palestinian or Arab citizen of Israel (who make up 20% of the country’s population) than it is to be a Palestinian living in Gaza or the West Bank, under Israeli occupation, it’s still not necessarily enjoyable. There’s still injustice and racism; there are still the many worries and fears that I saw Khader struggle with as a Palestinian — would this taxi driver pick him up, would that soldier give him a hard time, would the people around him take a step back when they saw the Arabic writing on his T-shirt — that I didn't have to worry about as a Jew. That’s what made Tel Aviv, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, so special to Khader.
While the liberality that allowed us to kiss openly in bars and on the beach may not have extended as fully to Khader’s ethnicity, Tel Aviv was undoubtedly a better place for him than the more conservative parts of Israel. But I couldn’t travel halfway around the world and not return to Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism; holy city to Jews, Muslims, and Christians; the contested capital of both Israel and Palestine. And so, early one morning, we left Khader’s apartment in Jaffa, the ancient Arab city that had been incorporated into Tel Aviv, and set out for the bus station. Catching a Sherut cab, we left the sea behind for rocky hills.
Only Muslims are allowed to pray at Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. So it isn't too surprising that I was turned away from the shrine, especially at a time of rising tension. It is September 2015, and within a matter of weeks, Israel will be gripped by the “knife intifada,” a seemingly spontaneous wave of violence that poured forth from the frustrations and anger of young Palestinians — largely over fears of Israeli encroachment on Haram al-Sharif. But I’ve always been told that the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the ancient Solomon’s Temple, is open to all. And so, as we walk toward the entrance, I begin to relax.
“ID,” a new guard demands, a much younger guard, this one standing before a metal detector.
A quick look at Khader’s card: blue instead of green, the color of an Israeli citizen rather than that of a “foreign” visitor from the West Bank.
“I’m Israeli. I’m from Jaffa.”
Khader turns to me. “It’s okay,” he says, a hollow smile stretched thin across his lips. “I’ll wait here. Only Jews today.”
“What?” I’m startled.
“It’s okay. You go. This is for you, not me.”
Leaving Khader behind, I continue through the tunnel and step out into the lower courtyard. Except for a few bodies bent over in prayer — stark silhouettes against the yellow-white pallor of the stone walls — it’s empty. Above, the blue and white of Israel’s flag cracks as it catches gusts of hot wind.
Standing here alone, in the sun, my mind is back with Khader as he stands waiting, alone, in the dark.
With the day’s heat heavy on my back, I lay my palm gently against the wall. I trace its ancient grooves while, in my other hand, I hold my prayer — written on a piece of paper and folded up small to fit one of the many crevasses. Resting my forehead against the stone, I begin to read it in a whisper. But standing here alone, in the sun, my mind is back with Khader as he stands waiting, alone, in the dark.
I think of him, treated like an enemy, a foreigner, in his own country. I close my eyes and I think of this country, the home of my people, whose founders sought a refuge from hate, whose leaders created this society, where Khader is made to feel this way. I take a breath. I cram my prayer into a crack amid countless others, a silent cacophony of voices, of hopes and despair. And then I turn away, walk out, and I don’t look back.
Khader looks up from his phone as I return to his side of the security line. “Okay,” he says, “one more stop.”
Following Khader through the narrow streets of the Old City, we arrive at a large, closed door in a stone wall a story high. From outside you’d never know that this place existed — that just a few feet above street level the Austrian Hospice sits quietly, that behind its gates the sounds of the city are muffled to a murmur. Sitting in the shade of a fig tree in its hidden garden, it is not Arabic or Hebrew that flits through the air, hanging heavy and languorously with affiliation and faction, but German. Over the Austrian Hospice’s famed iced coffees — rich with whole milk, sweet with sugar — we sit, doing what we can to wipe the sweat and the hurt from our brows.
The first time I saw Khader, those few months ago, I knew that I wanted to kiss him. And, with New York–imbued abandon, I had. There’s an infectious live-in-the-moment recklessness about him — something, I imagine, born of his confused and uncertain existence as an Arab within a Jewish country, as an Israeli citizen living in the heart of the volatile Middle East — that seems to inspire a similar impulsiveness in me.
We’d spent less than a week together in New York, and I’d traveled halfway around the world to share his bed for more than twice that span of time. But climbing staircase after staircase up to the hospice’s roof, I find myself wondering if things would have been the same had we met here in Jerusalem, in a place that seems to work so hard to remind us that we’re different, in a place that succeeds so well at keeping us apart.
Stepping out onto the rooftop observation deck, the first thing I notice is that there are no more visible divisions. Awash in the afternoon sun, the cream and brown and gold of the Old City blends into the rest of East Jerusalem, and East Jerusalem into West. The boundaries that exist on maps of this city that was once divided between the Israeli west and the Jordanian east, that many hope will one day be divided again between the Israeli west and a Palestinian east, are invisible.
Instead, I see a map of our own morning, spread out in front of me. There, the place where the guard turned me away for being Jewish. There, the entrance where the guard turned Khader away for being Arab. There, the alleyway where I’d wanted to reach out and hold Khader, but hadn’t.
Seeing that we're alone, I give Khader's hand a quick squeeze as we look out at the holy sites that we couldn’t set foot in together. From up here, the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock appear as what they are: two parts of the same complex, two chapters of the same sacred story. “It’s beautiful,” I say softly.
And then Khader does something I don't expect, not in Jerusalem: He kisses me. Feeling reckless, I kiss him back.
James McDonald is a writer living in New York, where he handles communications for the Israeli-Palestinian non-profit OneVoice. A former editor for Out Magazine and The Advocate, his writing has also appeared in the London Evening Standard, Vice News, Haaretz, Hello Mr., and Kirkus Reviews.