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Coffee Break

On the first weekend of the war, there were at least four anti-war protests on Saturday in Ramallah. The two I saw were energetic but sparsely attended: about 120 men and boys (and a few women) at the first one and maybe 40 at the second. During each march, at least as many people were watching from the sidelines or going about their business as marching. The core group of marchers — guys in their 20s — seemed excited and hyper rather than angry, hoisting each other up sometimes, and passing the megaphone around so everyone could get to run a few chants.

"From Ramallah to Baghdad, keep your finger on the trigger!"

"The last joke: America against terrorism!"

"Bush, the son! Bush, the father! A dog and a son of a dog!"

In between the marches, as I was walking around Ramallah, I ran into a young guy I'd met a few hours earlier, when I was interviewing his boss. Ameed is 23, with glasses and a long face and an almost constant nervous, shy smile. He was on his way to a café, and I can't remember if I gave him the chance to invite me or just plowed ahead and invited myself. Either way, we ended up at Stones, an airy, three-story café with windows all around.

"Cleaning Out My Closet" was playing on the speakers, quietly. Thank god for Eminem. We both relaxed after declaring that we loved him, and The Matrix, and Terminator movies and Ace Ventura.

"You know Jim Carrey?" he asked. "He's magnificent."

We talked for an hour and a half. He smoked argila — sweet-smelling tobacco packed into a hookah and kept lit by live coals that the waiter brings over periodically in a tin basket. Ameed works for a group of older Palestinian computer guys who are trying to keep the occupied territories from slipping completely into the Third World by nurturing Palestinian computer companies. Ameed and his friends are just trying to get out of the country. He wants to go to the U.S. and get his master's degree in computer science, maybe in Ohio, where his brother is now. He wants out of the small village he lives in — Bet Ur Al-Tahta.

"I advise you not to go there once," he said.

It was like talking to any kid who is the computer-geek misfit in his little town — his relatives don't understand him, his friends are all computer geeks too, and they get together to watch movies and play Nirvana.

"I tried to play the same kind of his [Kurt Cobain's] magnificent songs but I failed," he said. "Also Metallica, but it is too professional."

After we'd been talking for about 45 minutes, he said, "Let me ask you: What do Americans think of Palestinians?"

 

I've gotten this question from other Palestinians. I always try to be straightforward. Most Americans, I told him, don't think about Palestinians at all. Their minds are on other things; they're trying to keep their jobs and save money for their kids' education, and if they have any energy left over, they devote it to either acquiring or viewing attractive breasts.

I omitted the breasts part with Ameed, but he gave his nervous smile anyway and looked down and took some puffs of argila.

And then a few Americans, I said, are very aware of Palestinians, and do work to help them. And also a few think they're all terrorists, I said. He nodded, more nervous smiling.

Thinking of the protest march coming up in an hour, I asked him if he ever marches. Maybe once, he said, when he was at university.

"Just like you said with America — I didn't care," he smiled, jumbling his verb tenses. "If I go outside [of the country], I don't care what's going on here."

"Maybe that's not correct," he added. "I don't know too much about politics. They say Oslo but I don't know much about that. Do you think that's not right?"

I said I thought most people don't know much about Oslo but talk as if they do, and if ignoring politics kept him relatively happy, that seemed to me like a sane thing to do. Who wants to be angry all the time? That's one of the things people go to America to get away from.

Maybe Ameed isn't angry because he's lucky. He's employed, first of all, and he's only lived in the territories since 1995, after his family moved from Jordan. He's never been to Jenin or Nablus or Gaza or any of the places that the Israel Defense Forces is regularly going into to destroy houses and root out Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa. But he's not unscathed. He used to have a good job in Jerusalem, and he lost it because he hasn't been able to go there for the last two years. He used to have Israeli friends — they all spoke English, liked the same kind of music — but they don't speak anymore. He keeps a mattress in his office because he sometimes can't get home due to military closures. And Ramallah's not Jenin, but it's not Cincinnati, either: Plenty of buildings and roads there have been torn up and demolished. That seems like plenty to be mad about, even without getting into the nitty-gritty of the Oslo Accords. But everyone's different. At 5:30 on Saturday, while other guys his age were gearing up for their fourth or seventh protest march of the day, Ameed was paying for my cup of coffee and heading off to see his brother.


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