(One project I am working on is editing and compiling 40-45 letters and partial letters, nearly 45,000 words worth, I wrote while living and working in Jerusalem 18 years ago. I edited and posted 16 of the letters to this blog in 2010-2013 at a time I was actively writing. Since I had already started the work of preparing the letters for publication, it seems a good goal to finish the task and get the collection into print.)
Hello from Jerusalem,
Today, September 22, 2004, a bus stop was bombed. The bomb was set off in an area of town called French Hill, an area where many diplomats and expatriates live. It’s also where many of our daughter Katie’s friends from school live. It’s where three fourths of the Consulate’s staff live. It easily could have been where my wife Anita and I would have lived if we had not brought children with us to this posting, since the houses and apartments in this area tend to be smaller than Consulate housing typically assigned to families. French Hill is an attractive and pleasant neighborhood, a nice place in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of town. Thankfully the bomb went off around 3:00 p.m. and not when my colleagues would have been going home. Thankfully? Yes, shamefully, though maybe understandably, that was my first thought. As if any life lost like this isn’t a tragedy. Two people died and sixteen were injured. Thank goodness my friends and colleagues are o.k., but what about some other people’s friends and colleagues affected by the event?
I am surprised how unmoved I was at first. As the news began to trickle in, I had joined my staff doing visa interviews. Since we were behind, I had moved to an interview window to process applications. I love interviewing visa applicants. It gets my adrenalin flowing and I feel confident in my ability to do it well. I love the two and three minute interactions, meeting people, hearing a bit about their life, their plans, their upcoming trip to America. Today, one of my applicants was a 16 year-old Orthodox Jewish school girl. She seemed dazed and confused but her father, a big, burly guy, six foot six, a broad shouldered man in a long black coat, black hat, a full salt and pepper beard, side curls, and a big, beaming smile. As I was entering the issuance into the computer I asked him if she, nodding my head to the daughter, was a good student. He grinned from ear to ear and said, “Yes, she is.” I told him, “You are a proud father.” That interaction took 15 seconds and I did it while I was doing the necessary computer tasks I could have done silently, intently. Making that connection, experiencing that very human moment, acting as an American diplomat in possibly one of the most important ways I can, is part of what energizes me and part of why I love visa work.
The next applicant was a Palestinian woman born in 1932, a year after my mother. I was stunned at how much older she looked than my mom or even my dad who is four years older. My parents look young next to this woman. I couldn’t see much of her. Her head, except for her face, was swathed in a large, frowzy scarf. She wore a long robe-like garment that went to her feet. I thought her wizened, leathery face showed the wear of many years of winds and storms, trials and troubles. People her age are a good risk for receiving a visa and she was no exception. She has a son and a daughter and grandchildren in the West Bank where she lives and another son, now an American citizen, who she said she intended to visit for two or three months in the United States. I asked her where she wanted to live the rest of her life. Sometimes, especially with applicants past 80, I ask: “Where do you want to die?” I’m continually gratified by the straightforward and often passionate answers I get: “Why, here, of course! In my own home. My country.” I advised her how she could legally apply for an immigrant visa, through her American son, reminded her this visa was only for a temporary visit, and sent her on her way.
It was as I eased off the high of doing interviews that word of the bombing spread like an explosion of bad news through the office. Someone switched on the television. All channels were covering the tragedy. We only turn on the office television to watch coverage of a major news event, which every suicide bombing, of course, is. I was not at all surprised to see people quickly pick up phones, call family, friends, and make sure dear ones were safe and to reassure that they, themselves, were likewise OK. As for me, I needed to get some things done before my work day ended, responding to messages and performing end-of-day tasks. The event still hadn’t hit me much until our daughter Katie asked, as I drove her home from school, if I thought many family members would call to see if we were OK. We talked about calling family members and telling them we were fine but wondered if that might even increase concern if, perhaps, folks back home hadn’t heard about the event, big news here but maybe too common by now to be considered breaking news. The immense horror of it finally hit me while I read online news accounts that evening.
An 18-year-old female Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up near a crowded bus station in Jerusalem Wednesday afternoon killing two border policemen and wounding 16 other civilians, including four seriously, police and rescue officials said. The bomber blew herself up as an Israeli border policeman approached her and asked to see her documents, police sources said. It appeared that two Border Police officers were killed in the blast; however, this has not been confirmed. An eyewitness told Israel Radio that the terrorist had been stopped by a Border Policeman, who began checking her documents and asking her questions. According to an eyewitness, “At one point, the terrorist, who was carrying a bag, made a weird backward motion with her head, and that is when the explosion happened.”
So matter-of-fact and descriptive. An 18 year-old girl blew herself up. People saw it happen. I don’t want to, I try to keep myself from, but can’t help wondering what that looked like. And what must this young woman’s family be feeling now? And who would send an 18 year old girl, now labeled “terrorist,” to do this task? And what extremity would drive a person, especially a young one, to choose to do this? This puts day-to-day routine, such as visa interviews, and the many things anyone does in the course of living life, into perspective.
I pray for a peaceful settlement that will allow people like the 18 year-old girl, that Orthodox father and daughter, that Palestinian grandmother and her son and grandchildren, and millions more, to live their lives in peace and contentment and freedom.