An Israeli and Palestinian, Brought Together by Breast Cancer

By Ruth Ebenstein

With a tinge of anxiety, I maneuvered my six-seater Fiat through a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that I did not know—and that most Jewish Israelis don’t frequent. Aboard were my mom, my kids, and my friends Ibtisam and Ahmed Erekat. After our family get-together, I was giving the Erekats a ride to the stores on Salah al-Din street, where they would shop and then head home to al-Eizariya, their village under joint Israeli-Palestinian control on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

I asked Ahmed the name of the neighborhood. “A-Tur,” he replied. ‘Wasn’t that the home turf of someone who had tried to blow himself up on a public bus some 10 years earlier?’ I thought to myself, before pushing that thought to the back of my mind.

My mom was sandwiched cozily in the front seat in between Ibtisam and me, and my sons, Yuval, 7, and Eitan, 5, were playing a game with Ahmed, Ibtisam’s husband, in the back seat. Every time I glanced at the rearview mirror and saw my two giggling boys, I couldn’t help but smile. There was something so normal and mundane about giving the Erekats a lift. As if, for just a moment, our friendship could exist absent the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The view from my car window could have been a Monet: Purple bougainvillea jutted out of sparkling Jerusalem limestone, forming a makeshift arch against a cloudless blue sky. The autumn sun warmed my forearm. The road stretched before us, empty and quiet.

***

I reflected for a moment on what had united Ibtisam, a Muslim woman living in the West Bank, and me, an American-born Israeli and religiously observant Jewish woman living in West Jerusalem. Our friendship was the unforeseen gift of breast cancer. With scars still healing from a lumpectomy, I had joined the Cope Forum, an Israeli-Palestinian breast-cancer support group, in January 2011. I had hoped that something good might emerge from something bad.

Shooting for good, I wound up with extraordinary. Walking in to my first meeting, I was taken aback by the number of Palestinian breast-cancer survivors, dressed in hijabs and flowing skirts. So many women stricken, just as I was. Though I had participated in dialogue groups over the years and counted Palestinian men among my friends, I had somehow never formed a close friendship with a Palestinian woman. While the men I had met were relatively easy to befriend, the women were often shy and guarded. The language barrier also complicated things.

I plopped myself down next to Ibtisam, and we introduced ourselves and got to talking. She told me that her smooth English was self-taught, gleaned from watching television. Her candor and positive energy drew me in.

After stretching through qigong, a Chinese form of meditative breathing and exercise given in Hebrew and interpreted into Arabic, Ibtisam filled me in on her life story. It bore an uncanny resemblance to mine. We had both married in our thirties, late in our respective traditional communities. Our husbands were several years older than we were; each was a divorcé who had brought children into the marriage. Then each of us had given birth to three children in speedy succession. We were both diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing our babies, which is rather uncommon. In fact, I had never met anyone who shared so many critical elements of my life story. Ibtisam said the same about me.

Israeli and Palestinian women raise hula hoops at the Cope Forum's breast-cancer support group (Yitz Woolf)

Soon we were visiting each other on the phone, confiding, complaining, and cracking jokes. Though cancer had catalyzed the connection, human chemistry gelled it.

Despite the mere 15 miles between our front doors, concrete separation walls and a checkpoint made it practically impossible to get together outside of our scheduled support-group meetings. Ibtisam needed an entry permit issued by the Israeli Civil Administration in the Palestinian Territories to come to Jerusalem, which she could only secure when she had to undergo medical tests. Thus Augusta Victoria, an imposing church-hospital complex on the southern side of Mount Scopus, in East Jerusalem, became our stomping ground.

On most days, politics did not figure prominently in my friendship with Ibtisam. We were not naive—it just had little to do with how we felt about each other. Granted, Ibtisam gave me a key chain with a Palestinian flag adjoining a tiny map of Palestine on one side, charting out the very same territory that is Israel, and an engraving of the Al-Aqsa Mosque etched on the other. But I was not bothered by those national symbols. I firmly support a two-state solution. So why should her patriotism ruffle me?

There was only one occasion when the sad reality that our countries are de facto at war threatened to thwart our friendship. During Operation Pillar of Defense, the military conflagration between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, I hesitated before picking up the phone to call Ibtisam. Would she want to hear from me at a time when rockets were raining down on Israel and airstrikes were pounding Gaza?

I paced the house. Then I dialed.

“I’m so glad to hear your voice!” Ibtisam said on the other end. I could tell she was smiling. Her relief echoed mine. I held back tears.

“Ruti, we are not the ones at war,” she added. “It’s our governments, not us.”

***

This fall, nearly three years after Ibtisam and I first met, an opportunity arose to do something that would hardly be unusual most anywhere else: to bring our families together in a safe and neutral place. When Ibtisam and Ahmed secured permits to do glucose-tolerance tests at Augusta Victoria’s diabetes clinic, I drove the 20 minutes from my home in West Jerusalem with two of my three sons and my mother, an old-timer Jerusalemite visiting from Michigan, to keep them company. Their three kids—Mahmoud, 16, Aya, 15, and Yusuf, 13—did not have permits and had to stay home.

These sorts of family gatherings ought to be ordinary in today’s Israel/Palestine. But they are not. So it felt special to all of us.

As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, Ibtisam ran to greet us.

“Ruti!”

We hugged.

After a round of introductions, we walked across the grassy grounds to our favorite picnic table, which was shaded by oversized pine trees. We always loved to exchange gifts; if we could not linger in each other’s homes, at least our presents could. That day was no exception. I had brought makeup for Ibtisam and Aya. Ibtisam had brought us baskets filled with towels, mugs, and silver-wrapped chocolate triangles and squares.

Whatever shyness my sons initially felt evaporated upon the sight of sweets. Yuval and Eitan stuffed their mouths, muttering “thank you” in between bites. Then they raced to the playground with my mom, affording Ibtisam and me private catch-up time. Ahmed stood aside, talking to a doctor.

We gabbed about our children, her stepson Muhammad’s engagement, health insurance, and car payments. I folded down the waistband of my yoga pants to show Ibtisam two small red scars, one shaped like an X, the other like a Y—souvenirs of my recent prophylactic oophorectomy.

“I wish that I could have come over to help out,” she lamented.

“You definitely would have washed more dishes than my stepdaughter did!”

We guffawed, two stepmoms in sync.

The Erekat and Ebenstein families (Ruth Ebenstein)

Our laughter was interrupted by a young face full of tears. Too upset to speak, Eitan pointed to a bloody gash in his knee. Before I had a chance to get my bearings and take him to the nurse, Ibtisam grabbed his hand and rushed him into the Augusta Victoria clinic to dress the wound. Yuval and my mom made their way back to the table, as Ahmed sidled over to join us.

“When I worked in Kuwait, I spoke English all the time,” Ahmed volunteered. “But since I moved back here twenty years ago, I have spoken only Arabic.” I thought of the florets Ahmed had fashioned out of fennel bulbs to decorate the vegetable salad he had prepared for me when I visited them last February. He had presented me the colorful salad like a bouquet of flowers. Then and now, it was clear that he wanted to connect, even if the language barrier got in the way.

Yuval’s ears perked up at the mention of Arabic. “I can count to 10 in Arabic!”

Before he had a chance to show off his skills, Eitan skipped out of the clinic with a well-bandaged knee, one step ahead of Ibtisam. Eitan pulled at Yuval’s arm and they raced off to scavenge.

Ibtisam slid onto the bench, next to her husband, giving the four of us a chance to chat. Ahmed talked about his work at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis. Ibtisam passed around photos of the most recent granddaughter; Ahmed’s daughter, Nada, had recently given birth to a baby girl and completed her master's degree in education. Ahmed and Ibtisam shone with pride.

An hour later, a nurse veiled in a turquoise hijab presented two slips of paper to Ibtisam and Ahmed. The test results were good. We cheered. We were free to go.

***

Nobody wanted to say goodbye. Eitan refused to part. “Can Ibtisam come over for Sabbath dinner?” he protested, climbing into his car seat. “She can teach me Arabic and I can teach her Hebrew."

“Maybe next time, sweetheart,” I said.

Yuval slid into his booster seat. He called out to Ahmed, “Sit next to us!”

Ahmed smiled and joined the boys in the back. My mother scooted into the middle of the front seat. Ibtisam sat by the window.

My mom and Ibtisam struck up a conversation about the Bible. My mom brought up the Torah portion read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. The verses relay how Abraham banished Hagar and Ishmael from their home, and how they wandered in the desert until God heard the dying lad’s cries and showed his mother a well.

“That story teaches us mercy,” said my mom.

Ibtisam nodded. She explained that a variation of that narrative is associated with the Zamzam well in Mecca, which, according to Islamic tradition, is the one Hagar found. It is said to have never gone dry, despite providing massive quantities of water for centuries.

“Zamzam water is known to heal...”

Whack!

“Ayy!” Ibtisam winced, pressing her hand to her head.

Something had flown through the window and struck her near her temple. Sticky, dark brown liquid splattered her black hijab, sprayed across the dashboard, and dribbled onto my mother and me, sprinkling Yuval, Eitan, and Ahmed in the back seat.

“Mommy, we got wet!” cried Yuval. Though I did not turn around, I could feel his stare boring into the back of my head, clamoring for an explanation.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a rust-red can perched upright on the floor of the front seat. I picked it up: “Cristal Cola,” it read, in Hebrew and English letters. It was dented, chilled—and still half-full.

Someone had intended to drink the soda until he or she saw our car and its passengers, and decided to hurl it at us instead. I glanced at three Palestinian teenagers congregating outside Ibrahimieh College, but paid them little heed. Had the provocateur targeted me? Or had the assailant aimed at Ibtisam, who was more visible at the window, for fraternizing with me? Or had he aimed at both of us? Was it an indiscriminate act by a bored hoodlum, or was it spurred by clashes that morning between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

Shocked by the unprovoked violence, everyone in the car grew quiet. After a few moments, Yuval broke the silence.

“Mommy, why did that guy throw cola at us?”

At first, my inclination was to protect my children.

“Someone got confused and made a mistake.”

But the words rang hollow as soon as they came out of my mouth. My husband and I tried to model and teach tolerance. Would explaining my relationship with Ibtisam and Ahmed undermine its authenticity? Would clarifying the situation make my children stereotype Palestinians or fear going to East Jerusalem?

A stronger voice inside dictated: Tell them the truth.

“Some people don’t want Jewish Israelis and Palestinians to connect. They don’t like it. So they do things that are not nice.”

Through the rearview mirror, I studied my children’s faces. They seemed to be studying mine.

“But we disagree. We don’t choose our friends based on things like whether they are Israeli or Palestinian. We choose our friends because we like them and care about them. Ibtisam and I just like each other. That’s why we're going to keep on being friends.”

And then, in a heartbeat, “Yes!”

Ibtisam. Ahmed. My mom. Three voices, in unison, resolute.

That moment affirmed that Ibtisam and I share something more visceral and fundamental than our big personalities and breast-cancer-diagnosis-while-nursing. When it comes to relationships, neither one of us backs down, even when the threat is real.

Nobody spoke for the rest of the five-minute drive. Ibtisam massaged her head with her palm, tightening her brow. I pulled over across from the stores on Salah al-Din street. Ahmed hurried out. Ibtisam walked around to my side to say goodbye. This time, we didn’t hug, out of fear of getting hit again.

“I was so worried that something would happen to you!” Ibtisam leaned into the car window. “I'm so sorry.”

"I’m so sorry, too,” I squeezed her hand. “Let’s just be grateful that it was nothing more than a can of cola.”

Ibtisam turned around and raced across the street, disappearing into the throng on the sidewalk. Later, on the phone, she would explain that she had wanted to blend into the crowd, fearing that her presence could bring us more danger.

Watching her walk away, I thought about the impassive stares Ibtisam got last winter when we lunched at a restaurant in West Jerusalem. Dipping her pita in humus, she told me that she had stopped at that same eatery some years earlier, when her son Mahmoud was five, to use the bathroom. The security guard standing outside refused to let them in. Was there any place in Jerusalem, East or West, where Ibtisam was not vulnerable?

I headed south, past the shoe stores, police station, clothing shops, and pharmacy. When I heard the muezzin over the loudspeaker of a mosque at a corner I had driven past countless times, I began to relax.

“OK, there’s the American Colony hotel,” I told my mom. “This part of East Jerusalem I know well.” We both sighed aloud.

Almost on cue, Yuval and Eitan started counting from one to 10 in Arabic in staccato bursts, as if they were reciting an incantation. “Waahed, athnaan, thalaathah, aarba’ah, khamsah, setah, sab’ah, thamaaneeeah, tes’ah, ashrah.”

I put the dented Cristal Cola can in the cup holder of my car and drove home.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/an-israeli-and-palestinian-brought-together-by-breast-cancer/360930/