MAXWELL:  Lessons learned, friendships begun

6/13/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Two weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of being detained by the Palestinian police in Gaza. I had come here to tour the city and to apply for press credentials. My taxi driver and interpreter, both native Gazans, also were held and questioned for nearly three hours.

We were taken into custody because I had photographed a Palestinian National Authority building under construction.

After we were released and after I retrieved my camera, the interpreter informed me that our driver had to return to the police station at 6. She said that officials were so angry at him that they might snatch his license. After all, he should have known better than to drive a foreign journalist onto government property to take pictures.

I am back in Gaza, this time with press credentials and government officials willing to escort me wherever I want to go. And I am happy to report that, after enduring a stern lecture and no small amount of yelling and threats, my driver was permitted to keep his license.

This episode has taught me several lessons about the Arab world and the Gaza Strip in particular. The most important personal lesson I have learned is that contrary to much of what we read, hear and see in the Western media, most Palestinians _ like many other people in other parts of the world _ are loving, kind, hospitable.

I was especially struck by how easily I, one of a handful of blacks of any nationality on the streets, blended in as I walked in and out of shops. Every merchant I encountered, literally hundreds of them, greeted me politely, some in tortured English. Many fellow pedestrians, most of them Gazans, would stare at me curiously for a few seconds but would go about their business.

Even when I raised my camera, many Gazans would let me photograph them. The children, especially boys I found on the narrow side streets, loved to pose. When I proffered a handful of shekels in coins, dozens of boys, their dirty hands outstretched, magically appeared like raggedy apparitions. My driver, who walked with me, said that the children called me “the rich black man from the USA.”

At a boys elementary school, several of the children shook my hand and gave me a high-five. One boy, his black hair shining in the afternoon sunlight, tapped me on the back and said, in good English, “How’s it going, dude?” His friends laughed, all of them chiming in with “How’s it going, dude?”

My half-day visit to Al-Azhar University-Gaza was a special treat. There, administrators, professors and students warmly welcomed me. The public relations officer brought me into his office, where we chatted for an hour and drank Turkish coffee. Several female students talked with me about life in the United States. They especially wanted to know about their American counterparts _ what American women wore to class, their preferred music and other entertainment.

In an English class, students quizzed me about the lack of Arab literature in American schools. I had no good answers and found myself listening to the students discuss the richness of their poetry and song. Two students, Ismael and Yousef, handsome young men who want to become journalists, volunteered to accompany me to a few neighborhoods so that I could interview residents on the streets and in their homes.

Later, I went home with Ismael, where his mother served a delicious meal. I made the mistake of cleaning my plate twice. Each time, she refilled it. Ismael explained that a clean plate means that the guest is still hungry. I also committed the error of admiring an English/Arab dictionary lying on a small table. The father insisted on giving the book to me as a gift. I prevailed upon him to keep the book for his children who were learning English in school.

When the father insisted on riding with me back to the border crossing, I knew that I was in a culture that values guests in the home. Indeed, father and son accompanied my driver and me to the crossing. I thanked my hosts and gave Ismael a St. Petersburg Times Stylebook that I had in my camera case. The grateful teen told me that he would study everything in the book. His dream is to travel to “the USA as an exchange student and write for an American newspaper for a year.”

I gave Ismael my business card and asked him to e-mail me some of his articles. He promised to do so. He and his father waited at the gate until I had walked the half mile to my car on the Israeli side of Erez Crossing.

Driving away, I was certain that I would see father and son again. When I return to Israel at the end of December for the much-anticipated millennium phenomenon, I intend to bring Ismael some books about American journalism.

Already, I consider him a friend.