“I went to high school in the Old City,” Mahmoud tells me in Hebrew when we pull out of the taxi stand by Damascus Gate. I’m sitting next to him because my phone is plugged into the charger in the front. He smells like cigarettes and Hugo Boss. “It was the school just inside the gate, on al wad by the mosque.”
“What was the school like?” I ask.
“Just a school. It was closed half the week though,” he says.
“The army would come in and shut it down.”
“Why?” I ask again.
“Do the years 2000-2004 mean anything to you?”
The bloody terrible years, the years when every siren was followed by another and another, when Jerusalem smelled like smoke and burning flesh, my stomach drops and I think about my friend who got on the wrong bus one day and all that was left of him was part of his yarmulke and the wedding ring he had only worn for three weeks.
“Yeah it was the intifada, and the army would come in and just shut us down and so instead of sitting in the classroom and learning math and history, we would all go up on the roof and chuck stones off the sides.”
I remember how my journalist friend Matthew Kalman described the kids who would throw big old rocks off the roofs near Lions Gate, the fwish of heavy matter hurtling down, the smash, then the splatter. These weren’t little pebbles, they were bricks, sometimes they were boulders. They could pulverize your skull and turn you into pink and grey and red, sinew, bone and blood if you were underneath. And they were children and they were the heaviest weapons they could find.
I sit in silence, say nothing and keep listening.
“It was messed up,” he says. “Stupid kids all of us, and we did stupid stuff.”
“That must have been a really hard time,” I say and I remember how my friend Fadi was pummeled to strawberry pulp because he didn’t have the right papers.
And then I think of my 8 and 9 year olds tucked in bed just a 30 minute drive away, of their childhood spent with no real uncertainty, no barbed wire, no forced closures, no anger, no reason to climb a roof and throw things. And then I think of how we also spent a summer sleeping in bomb shelters and running over parched earth, and how like every Israeli we all know someone killed or injured in a terror attack or war.
“It was hard,” he says. “The soldiers would also come into the classroom and just look at all our faces and if they didn’t like one face they’d pull the kid out, even if he didn’t throw stones. Even if all he did was just sit there without blinking. That made them mad: when we would stare back at them with no fear. But I don’t blame the soldiers. They had their job and we had our job and I really just blame the school for letting them in and letting them shut us down and letting us have all that free time to do stupid and terrible things. Someone should have been the grownup.”
We sit in silence for a while and he offers me a sip of his coffee. I take it.
For more stories like these, check out my upcoming book about love and sex and hope and desperation in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world: Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered