Omar Yussef, a teacher of history to the unhappy children of Dehaisha refugee camp, shuffled stiffly up the meandering road, past the gray, stone homes built in the time of the Turks on the edge of Beit Jala. He paused in the strong evening wind, took a comb from the top pocket of his tweed jacket, and tried to tame the strands of white hair with which he covered his baldness. He glanced down at his maroon loafers in the orange flicker of the buzzing street lamp and tutted at the dust that clung to them as he tripped along the uneven roadside, away from Bethlehem.
In the darkness at the corner of the next alley, a gunman coughed and expectorated. The gob of sputum landed at the border of the light and the gloom, as though the man intended for Omar Yussef to see it. He resisted the urge to scold the sentry for his vulgarity, as he would have one of his pupils at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Girls School. The young thug, though obscured by the night, formed an outline clear as the sun to Omar Yussef, who knew that obscenities were this shadow’s trade. Omar Yussef gave his windblown hair a last hopeless stroke with a slightly shaky hand. Another regretful look at his shoes, and he stepped into the dark.
Where the road reached a small square, Omar Yussef stopped to catch his breath. Across the street was the Greek Orthodox Club. Windows pierced the deep stone walls, tall and mullioned, capped with an arch and carved around with concentric rings receding into the thickness of the wall, just high enough to be impossible to look through, as though the building should double as a fortress. The arch above the door was filled with a tympanum stone. Inside, the restaurant was silent and dim. The scattered wall-lamps diffused their egg-yolk radiance into the high vaults of the ceiling and washed the red checkered tablecloths in a pale honey yellow. There was only one diner, at a corner table below an old portrait of the village’s long- dead dignitaries wearing their fezes and staring with the empty eyes of early photography. Omar Yussef nodded to the listless waiter—who half rose from his seat— gesturing that he should stay where he was, and headed to the table occupied by George Saba.
“Did you have any trouble with the Martyrs Brigades sentries on the way up here, Abu Ramiz?” Saba asked. He used the unique mixture of respect and familiarity connoted by calling a man Abu—father of—and joining it to the name of his eldest son.
“Just one bastard who nearly spat on my shoe,” said Omar Yussef. He smiled, grimly. “But no one played the big hero with me tonight. In fact, there didn’t seem to be many of them around.” “That’s bad. It means they expect trouble.” George laughed. “You know that those great fighters for the freedom of the Palestinian people are always the first to get out of here when the Israelis come.” George Saba was in his mid-thirties. He was as big, unkempt and clumsy as Omar Yussef was small, neat and precise. His thick hair was striped white around the temples and it sprayed above his strong, broad brow like the crest of a stormy wave crashing against a rock. It was cold in the restaurant and he wore a thick plaid shirt and an old blue anorak with its zipper pulled down to his full belly. Omar Yussef took pride in this former pupil, one of the first he had ever taught. Not because George was particularly successful in life, but rather for his honesty and his choice of a career that utilized what he had learned in Omar Yussef ’s history class: George Saba dealt in antiques. He bought the detritus of a better time, as he saw it, and coaxed Arab and Persian wood back to its original warm gleam, replaced the missing tesserae in Syrian mother-of-pearl designs, and sold them mostly to Israelis passing his shop near the bypass road to the settlements.
“I was reading a little today in that lovely old Bible you gave me, Abu Ramiz,” George Saba said.
“Ah, it’s a beautiful book,” Omar Yussef said.
They shared a smile. Before Omar Yussef moved to the UN school, he had taught at the academy run by the Frcres of St. John de la Salle in Bethlehem. It was there that George Saba had been one of his finest pupils. When he passed his baccalaureate, Omar Yussef had given him a Bible bound in dimpled black leather. It had been a gift to Omar Yussef’s dear father from a priest in Jerusalem back in the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Bible, which was in an Arabic translation, was old even then. Omar Yussef ’s father had befriended the priest one day at the home of a Turkish bey. At that time, there was nothing strange or blameworthy in a close acquaintance between a Roman Catholic priest from the patriarchate near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusaalem and the Muslim mukhtar of a village surrounded by olive groves south of the city. By the time Omar Yussef gave the Bible to George SSSSSaba, Muslims and Christians lived more separately, and a little hatefully.
Now, it was even worse.
“It’s not the religious message, you see. God knows, if there were no Bible and no Koran, how much happier would our troubled little town be? If the famous star had shone for the wise men above, let’s say, Baghdad instead of Bethlehem, life would be much brighter here,” Saba said. “It’s only that this Bible in particular makes me think of all that you did for me.” Omar Yussef poured himself some mineral water from a tall plastic bottle. His dark brown eyes were glassy with sudden emotion. The past came upon him and touched him deeply: this aged Bible and the learned hands that left the grease and sweat and reverence of their fingertips on the thin paper of its dignified pages; the memory of his own dear father who was thirty years gone; and this boy whom he had helped shape into the man before him. He looked up fondly and, as George Saba ordered a mezze of salads and a mixed grill, he surreptitiously wiped his eyes with a fingertip.
They ate in quiet companionship until the meat was gone and a plate of baklava finished. The waiter brought tea for George and a small cup of coffee, bitter and thick, for Omar.
“When I emigrated to Chile, I kept the Bible you gave me close always,” George said.
The Christians of George’s village, Beit Jala, had followed an early set of emigrants to Chile and built a large community. The comfort in which their relatives in Santiago lived, worshipping as part of the majority religion, was an ever-increasing draw to those left behind, sensing the growing detestation among Muslims for their faith.
In Santiago, George had sold furniture that he imported from a cousin who owned a workshop by the Bab Touma in Damascus: ingeniously compact games tables with boards for backgammon and chess, and a green baize for cards; great inlaid writing desks for the country’s new wine moguls; and plaques decorated with the Arabic and Spanish words for peace. In Chile, he married Sofia, daughter of another Palestinian Christian. She was happy there, but George missed his old father, Habib, and gradually he persuaded Sofia that now there was peace in Beit Jala and they could return. He admitted that he was wrong about the peace, but was glad to be back anyway. He had seen Omar Yussef here and there since he had brought his family home, but this was their first chance to sit alone and talk.
“The old house is the same as ever, filled with racks of Dad’s wedding dresses. The rentals in the living room and those for sale in his bedroom, all wrapped in plastic,” George Saba said. “But now they’re almost crowded out by my antique sid...