I’m seated at my usual table in the Educational Bookshop, in their little café section upstairs, with a pile of books and a chocolate milkshake. It’s December and the shop is adorned with Christmas decorations.
Sitting here I’m able to be an observer of things unrelated to my own life—a form of carefree escapism.
Just a short while ago, two women—one younger and the other older, perhaps mother and daughter—asked if they could use the extra chair at my table. They dragged it gently to a nearby table, sat down and began conversing with an older Arab man in a suit who was already seated there. The young woman (possibly European, judging by her accent) alluded to her criminal law degree and spoke with the man about the conflict, and how at any given moment it feels like it will never end. They talked for a while about an organization in the West Bank working with Palestinian ex-prisoners, while the older woman looked on and attempted to participate in the conversation every now and then.
“I’m getting married soon,” the young woman says presently. The man asks if her fiancé is Palestinian and, upon learning that he is Israeli-Hungarian, inquires if he is Jewish.
It’s strange how questions about ethnicity and religion are tossed about so frequently and effortlessly here, as is the need to ask them in the first place. It is one of the first things I’m always asked: “Are you Christian?”, “Are you Jewish?”.
They are soon interrupted by the arrival of another older man, whom the two women seem to have been waiting for. The three of them prepare to leave, with the older woman impatiently shepherding the rest out of the bookshop.
As they head down the stairs, the European man calls out to the Arab man upstairs, something about staying in touch. “We don’t want to lose you!” he jokes.
“I will be here,” the Arab man responds. “Somewhere in this world.”
I finish my milkshake and get ready to leave. I’m meeting a friend at Damascus Gate.
Two people at a nearby table suddenly exclaim in American-accented English, “And she’s Muslim!” “Really? She’s Muslim?” Of course nobody knows the context of their conversation, but it sounds bizarre nonetheless; it’s the kind of moment when a bunch of strangers all sit in silence because they have all heard the same thing, and they all know that it is a strange thing that they have heard.
I pick up the copy of Baddawi that I have been reading and head downstairs to the cashier.