Palestinian Amal Rifa’i and Israeli Odelia Ainbinder are two teenage girls who live in the same city, yet worlds apart. They met on a student exchange program to Switzerland. Weeks after they returned, the latest, violent Intifada broke out in the fall of 2000. But two years later, Middle East correspondent Sylke Tempel encouraged Amal and Odelia to develop their friendship by facilitating an exchange of their deepest feelings through letters. Read an excerpt of “We Just Want to Live Here,” below.
Jewish New Year, Kfar Saba, September 7, 2002
I am sitting in my new room in Kfar Saba, a little town located some ten kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv. It’s in the middle of the night and I am very tired but I am also very happy because this is the beginning of my new life. I finished school. I moved out of my parents’ home in Jerusalem where I grew up and I am beginning a year of “community service.” This is a voluntary year of doing social work before being drafted for the obligatory army service. My choice was to do community service in my youth movement Shomer HaZair. This is a socialist-Zionist youth movement that has existed in Israel and Europe and all over the world for ninety years already. Like most of these youth movements, it really doesn’t play that big a role anymore in present-day Israel because youth movements are not cool, I suppose. You have to be an idealist to work for a youth movement. You have to think about your life, and the situation we are in. Most kids don’t want to do that. They want instant answers. Like somebody who prefers to heat something up in a microwave instead of taking the effort to cook. Our youth movement is in bad shape. We haven’t gotten a lot of kids who come to our activities; we have to work really hard on recruiting more.
This year I am going to be a kommunar, which means that I am in charge of a facility in Petach Tikva together with two other girls and a guy. We are responsible for the activities there and for the kids who look at us like “big bosses,” turning to us when there’s a problem. I am really excited that I chose to do that. I know it might sound somewhat strange and lots of people don’t believe in it because it doesn’t seem to be very realistic, but I believe in the chance that we can make the world a better place. In my youth movement, we want to teach the kids we are working with values like tolerance and freedom of thought. We want to motivate them not to look for easy answers.
Shomer HaZair owns an apartment in Kfar Saba for the people doing community service; fifteen of us will live on a commune. Of course, with a unique living situation we will have troubles and problems from time to time, but we will overcome them. We have already had long and often very intense discussions. It is so extraordinary that I am experiencing a socialist lifestyle, as in earlier days. During this year we have a shared economy and are supposed to share everything.
My long-term ambition is to become an actress. Actually, I am already an actress. I played leading roles in some performances staged by our school, but I want to become a professional actress. And when I say I am an actress, I mean one is born with the calling, in my opinion at least. That has nothing to do with what I am doing right now. My dream is just to be on stage every night, even if I might only get the minimum wage. I don’t care. It is also my goal to become a well-known actress who reaches a wide audience.
What I wonder: Do you, Amal, have all of the opportunities I have or do you find it more difficult, because you are kind of a stranger in your own country?
Thinking about future plans involves the simple question: Do I have a future in this country? Or what is the future of this country? And I can’t think of living somewhere else, at least not forever. Israel is my home. Which once again makes me think of you and how you feel about living in a place where you, at the same time, might feel so out of place in a country called Israel under a flag with the Star of David on it, which is a totally foreign symbol to you. I, of course, feel at home here. We practice my religion (I am Jewish). Hebrew is my language, and everybody around me speaks Hebrew. Would you feel better being in another place, or if you were living in a Palestinian state? I guess you would. How do you feel about this place? How would I feel if somebody took over Israel and told me: “OK, from now on this is a Christian country, we have changed the flag, our national symbol is the cross and the official language is — let’s say — English.” I guess that’s what the Palestinians might feel. I wonder if you would prefer to stay here under such circumstances. Suppose the situation goes on forever — and I feel it might go on for some more years — perhaps you might go somewhere else?
I would like to go all over the world and live in other places, such as London. I always would come back and I always would feel at home here. Do you feel at home or do you feel a little bit out of place? On the one hand it is, or it was, your land and your home, at least in my opinion. But it is definitely also my country, a country that has changed completely for you. We have a language spoken that is not yours and a flag foreign to you, even though you live only five minutes from where I grew up. Could you distance yourself from everything Israeli and ask: “Am I only a Palestinian?” But you would still live only five minutes from where I, an Israeli, grew up.
For the moment, I want to make this the best year of my life. I would love to conclude it with great results by recruiting lots of new kids into the movement to make it stronger, to learn how we can live together in a socialist way as much as possible. Then, to finish with my army service and hopefully to do something meaningful there, like participate in an educational program. There are language-training programs for Russian-speaking soldiers, for example. And then to travel as all Israelis do after the army. I would like to go to South America, come back to Israel, and try to get into one of the best acting schools, preferably in London or New York. New York sounds a bit too scary, too big, too American. I only “know” it from the movies and therefore I think of New York as a Hollywood cliché right out of Batman — a crime-ridden, capitalistic “Gotham City.” But London sounds wonderful. I have been there twice already, alone, and it’s really a great place. If neither school works out, I will just go to Tel Aviv and hopefully keep on living my life without having to think about whether I should take a stupid bus or not because I could die in a suicide attack.
I would love to live in a world where I would not have to answer my little six-year-old brother’s questions about this political situation. I don’t have the slightest clue how to answer him when he asks me, “Are all Arabs bad?” I tell him, “Well, Oded, our parents sent you to a mixed Arab-Jewish kindergarten, and now to a mixed Arab-Jewish school. Do you think that all the Arabs in your class are bad?” Thank God, my mother has to put up with my brother’s questions most of the time. If I have kids one day—and I suppose I will, and I suppose the situation will not have changed much—I would not have the slightest idea about what to tell a six-year-old about HaMatzav — the situation.
This is my dream for the future. I want a normal life, not in the sense of “ordinary” with a nine-to-five job and a house in the suburbs. Of course, I want my life to be exciting, but not in a way that is “abnormal” or “too interesting” in this country. Not in the sense that today I was walking down the street and, oops, something blew up next to me. I definitely don’t want my life to be “interesting” in that sense.
I guess that your plans for the future are different. I think you hope for a country for yourself. I don’t know what I’d be doing in your place. If I were the same person but in your place, I might have the same dreams, but they would take on a whole different meaning. I suppose in Muslim culture no one encourages a young girl to go study in a foreign place like London. A more conservative, traditional family would probably consider a daughter with dreams like that to be rebellious.
I try to state my opinions because I think that is very important. And you should also try to state yours all the time, even if it is quite scary for us sometimes to hear what the “other side” thinks. If you say you don’t have an opinion, you’re a liar. If you don’t state it, you’re a coward. Recently, I came across a quote by Socrates that I really like: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I like the process of criticizing, examining one’s life situation. To me, this process is a way of being sensitive to your surroundings, your environment. I also like just to approach life with this attitude: If bad things happen, well, then, I will deal with them, as I have to deal with the political situation we in the younger generation are thrown into. Writing this book means dealing with this situation. It is probably even some sort of therapy for me.
Excerpted from “We Just Want to Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, an Israli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship” by Amal Rifa’i, Odelia Ainbinde and Sylke Tempel. Copyright © 2003 by St. Martins Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.