I’m sitting in the common room on the eighth floor of Al Abraj Housing Complex in Abu Dis, having a conversation with a friend, when we hear a loud boom.
“What was that?” he asks. He’s a newcomer.
“I have to get a closer listen.” I go to the balcony, and cock my ear in the direction of the booms.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
“I don’t think that’s firecrackers,” he says.
“Neither do I,” I respond.
“Definitely not,” I confirm. “Today is Friday, right?”
“It’s Friday Clashes in Abu Dis. You want to go?”
He looks at me. There’s a slight tinge of apprehension on his face. “No,” he says, at last. He’s a newcomer, after all.
“OK,” I say, brightly. “Well, I’m off.”
“Of course. I only have a week left here. I can’t miss this.”
I lace on my running shoes and trot out into the hot August afternoon. I know where the “booms” are coming from: the usual location. It takes me ten minutes to get there. There’s no indication anywhere on the half mile walk to the clashes that anything unusual is happening in town. Since it’s Friday, most of the stores are closed, but a lot of them are open. The pharmacy is open, in case you want pick up a pack of Q-tips or a tube of Colgate after this afternoon’s rioting. People walk into and out of the grocery store with bundles of groceries. Kids play in the street. A construction project proceeds apace. I hear an ice cream truck doodling its way through town.
I show up at the “scene,” and look around. It almost seems routine by now, like a weekly scrimmage: dozens of kids throwing rocks; a bunch of Israeli soldiers firing back. Lots of booms.
I look around in the hopes of seeing a familiar face–and suddenly, one appears. It’s a political philosophy student of mine from last year. We both light up with the shock of recognition, as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
“Professor!” he says in broken English. “It’s so good to see you again. You remember me?”
“Of course I do,” I say. And I do. I can’t remember his name, so he tells me. He introduces me to the shebab as his ustaz (“professor”). They look relieved. I’m not an Israeli spy. I’m an American professor.
“This is a dangerous place,” he says, as if in apology. “We could get arrested.”
Boom. Boom. Boom. BOOM.
“You’ll get arrested. Nothing will happen to me.”
“Maybe,” he says, dubiously. “Is this your first demo?”
“My second,” I say, savoring the word “demo” as a description of what we’re looking at. My second rock throwing/stun grenade demo, anyway. “So tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s a demonstration for one of the hunger strikers. The demonstrators went to the Israeli army camp here and threw stones. Now they’re shooting at us.”
“Ah,” I say.
Boom. Jesus. They are shooting at us!
“They’re using mostly rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, but some live ammunition, too,” he says matter of factly.
“That’s not good,” I say, lacking any other obvious response.
“How far is it happening from here?”
“Thirty meters.” I’m secretly pleased. I’m closer than I thought.
He points downward. “I can’t take you any further. My shoes aren’t good for running.” He’s wearing flip flops. I see his point. Footwear is key.
“Anyway, it’s dangerous. I’ve been arrested too many times,” he says. “Seventy percent of the men in Abu Dis have been arrested at one time or another.”
“Don’t go any further, then. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“No,” he says. “It’s OK.” This is the quixotic politeness of Palestinian society. You tell your friend not to go forward into harm for your sake, and despite agreeing that it would be stupid to do so, he insists that he must plow straight into it, as if to say, “I would be more than happy to incur gratuitous harm out of a sense of hospitality to you.” We don’t go any further.
“I got the best grade ever in your class!” he exclaims, out of the blue. “You gave me a 94. I was so happy!” Good stuff. Students remember you if you either give them a good grade or a really bad one. I’m so glad I gave this kid an A-. If it had been a B-, I’d be out here on my own.
“I still remember the material! Machiavelli, John Locke.” I don’t bother to ask him if he still reads the material. Let’s not spoil the moment.
This is a career-making moment for me, I think, between explosions. I’m having a conversation about Machiavelli and Locke with a former student in the middle of a riot.
“Erdogan: he’s a Machiavellian,” my student says, earnestly. He goes on for awhile about Erdogan as the Israelis keep shooting at us. We’re in the middle of a riot in Abu Dis and he’s standing there talking about how Machiavelli relates to the coup in Turkey. It seems lost on him that we’re not in Turkey.
“How about them?” I ask, pointing at the Israelis.
“Oh yeah,” he says, as though the Israelis were an afterthought to our situation. “Them, too.”
Time passes. The shots subside, as does our conversation. People start to disperse. We turn around and head back. He shakes my hand.
“A pleasure, professor.”
“Will you be here next year?”
He grins, and we part.
Half way home, I meet a friend. “Hey,” I say. “Did you see the, uh…?” I don’t know what word to use. Personally, I wouldn’t really call it a “demonstration.”
“Yes!” he roars with mirth. “A good fight today, huh? Good fight!” He repeats this a few times, then explodes with laughter.
Incongruously, I find myself joining in the laughter. “This isn’t funny,” I think to myself. “A riot is really not an appropriate subject for humor or laughter.” But I keep laughing. You laugh at things here that you would never laugh at home. I’m not entirely sure why. So I laugh all the way back to my room.
“It’s not funny,” I think to myself, almost collapsing with glee. Not funny at all. Just completely hilarious.
Without warning, the shots pick up again, abruptly subside, and continue sporadically throughout the evening. I sober up. It’s dark now. I’m not going out there again. Not tonight. Suddenly, I’m awash with fatigue. I don’t have the energy to climb the stairs to the roof and take a look at the latest clashes. Enough for now. Enough hilarity for one evening. Enough, in fact, for awhile.
Postscripts, August 7, 2016. I hunted down some videos on You Tube that perfectly capture the experience. These aren’t exactly the demos I attended, but they’re all in Abu Dis, some taking place at the same location as the ones I’ve attended, or else a few hundred yards away. (I regularly eat lunch at the restaurant pictured on the left side in the second video.) Short of attending one, you can’t get closer than this. The last one is from three years ago, but still has a certain resonance. It’s from the bus stop where I take the 263 bus to Jerusalem. You can’t take that bus and not think, “If I could only make a hole in the wall, I’d be in Jerusalem.” Well. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Call it “philosophizing with a hammer.”