The professor liked walking home. His usual route took him from Mt. Scopus, where he taught Arab Literature, to his home at a typical upper middle-class Jewish residential neighbourhood in the western part of Jerusalem. His academic field of specialization and his Middle-Eastern origins led him to choose an usual path. After walking down from the campus on Mt. Scopus, he would cross the Arab neighbourhoods down in the wadi and on the hill overlooking the Old City, all part of the dense Arab ring surrounding the Holy Mount and Eastern Jerusalem, the heart of the occupied part of Jerusalem. He kept his routine through the First Intifada in the late 1980s, never ceasing to feel at home in the Arab parts of the violent, torn city. Walking like that was for him a respite from the super-charged, fast-paced Western city in which he led the life similar to that of any stressed-out Israeli, with the typical over-exposure to the news and daily struggle to find normality amid the chaos. Since arriving in Israel in the 1950s, he had changed his name, choosing a neutrally Hebrew version of his given Arab name. Going into Eastern Jerusalem nourished his need for contact with Arabs, with their language, culture and everyday way of life. Among them he could be an Arab. Not the opposite pole to a Jew, not an Israeli, not a professor at the Hebrew University on the Jewish enclave of Mt. Scopus. An Arab, spontaneously, instinctively.
One Thursday afternoon, as he was making his way towards the wadi to start his walk home, he suddenly remembered that his wife had told him about a dinner party they were having at home that night. He had promised to be back early and help prepare things, and now he was about to be late. He slightly pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to check the time, and saw that his watch was gone, probably left it at the university after his last lecture for the week. The stress was building up as he imagined the scene he would have to face coming home late with the vegetables he had promised to get from the Arab market where he continued to shop despite what Israelis call “the situation”.
And then he saw him. Sitting on a stone at the side of the footpath leading to the Arab village-neighbourhood was an old Arab. The professor recognized him. The old man sat there always facing the setting sun over the golden city, wearing his worn Western men's jacket and dark pants, his head covered in the traditional hatta wa 'aqal which Westerners mistakenly call “kafiyye”. The hurrying professor turned to the old man and ask him in natural Arabic:
“What time is it, please?”
The old man hardly shifted his look but answered on the spot:
“For you, five o'clock.”
I heard this story from the professor himself years ago. I believe that it reflects a great deal of the gaps and misunderstandings between the two peoples living in Israel-Palestine. Though an original Arab in mind and culture, the professor failed to notice that the old man sitting there day after day was also observing him down to the last detail. The old man noticed the professor's unusual haste, probably his stress as well. Heaps of books have been written about Time and Culture, about the relative perception of reality and so on and so forth. For the Old Arab, courtesy demanded changing the time for the poor professor, and in doing so he also let him know he recognized him and was aware of his daily route. For the professor, who told the story and laughed heartily at its conclusion, this might also be a reminder that though he was not a fully integrated Arab any more but had turned into a normal individual in the West, still the East could offer him some comfort.