The young Arab man approached a mirror in the washroom of Israel's West
Jerusalem bus station. Bashir Khairi stood alone before a row of
porcelain basins and leaned forward, regarding himself. He turned his
head slightly, left to right and back again. He smoothed his hair,
nudged his tie, pinched his clean-shaven face. He was making certain all
of this was real.
For nearly two decades, since he was six years old, Bashir had been
preparing for this journey. It was the breath, the currency, the bread
of his family, of nearly every family he knew. It was what everyone
talked about, all the time: return. In exile, there was little else
worth dreaming of.
Bashir gazed at his reflection. Are you ready for this journey?
he asked himself. Are you worthy of it? It seemed his destiny to
return to the place he'd mainly heard about and mostly couldn't
remember. It felt as if he were being drawn back by hidden magic; as if
he were preparing to meet a secret, long-lost lover. He wanted to look
"Bashir!" yelled his cousin Yasser, snapping the younger man back to the
moment in the bus station men's room. "Yallah! Come on! The bus
The two men walked out into the large waiting hall of the West Jerusalem
terminal, where their cousin Ghiath was waiting anxiously.
It was nearly noon on a hot day in July of 1967. All around Bashir,
Yasser, and Ghiath, strangers rushed past: Israeli women in white
blouses and long dark skirts; men in wide-brimmed black hats and white
beards; children in side curls. The cousins hurried toward their bus.
They had come that morning from Ramallah, a Palestinian hill town half
an hour to the north, where they lived as refugees. Before they
embarked, the cousins had asked their friends and neighbors how to
navigate this alien world called Israel: Which bus should we take? How
much is a ticket? How do we buy it? Will anyone check our papers once we
board the bus? What will they do if they find out we are Palestinians?
Bashir and his cousins had left Ramallah in the late morning. They rode
south in a group taxi to East Jerusalem and arrived at the walls of the
Old City, the end of the first leg of their journey. Only weeks before,
these walls had been the site of fierce combat, leading to devastation
for the Arabs and the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel. Emerging
from the taxi, the cousins could see soldiers stationed at Damascus
Gate, the northern entrance to the Old City. From there the three men
turned west and walked away from the ancient walls and across an
From the Old City, the cousins had walked west, away from the ancient
shrines, across the line of an old boundary between nations. Until a few
weeks before, this line had divided West Jerusalem and Israel from Arab
East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Now, after defeat of the Arabs in the
Six Day War, Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula,
and the Golan Heights and were redeployed to defend the new frontiers.
Bashir and his cousins had thus found it easy to cross the old
no-man's-land and into a territory simultaneously old and new. They had
trudged in the heat for several miles, down crowded lanes and past stone
houses that seemed oddly familiar. Finally the narrow streets had given
way to busy, modern avenues, where the West Jerusalem bus station had
come into view.
Bashir and his cousins hurried across the concrete terminal floor, past
the station agents pushing tickets through metal bars, past the kiosk
selling candies, gum, and newspapers in a language they could not
recognize. On the platforms at the far end of the terminal stood buses
bound for lands they had only heard about: the forests in the north; the
southern deserts; the coastal plain. The three men held their tickets to
al-Ramla and hurried toward platform ten, where their bus, painted in
waves of aqua and white, was ready to take them home.
The young woman sat alone at the kitchen table. Sunlight streamed in
through the south-facing windows of the stone house. The morning was
clear, Dalia Eshkenazi remembered, and the quiet would have been broken
only by her sips from a steaming mug of tea or the crunch of her teeth
on black bread spread thick with Bulgarian cheese.
In recent days, life in Dalia's home and her hometown of Ramla had
returned to normal-as normal as could be expected, at least, in the
Israel of 1967. The air raid sirens had at last fallen silent, and
Dalia's parents were back at work. Dalia, on summer break from Tel Aviv
University, now had time to contemplate her emotions of the last few
First had come the unbearable tension and the trauma before the six days
of war. Alien voices broadcasting from Cairo told her people to go back
where they came from or be pushed into the sea. Some Israelis thought
the threats were funny, but for Dalia, who had grown up amid the silence
of unspeakable atrocities, it was impossible to fully express the depths
of fear these threats awakened. For a month before the war, it had felt
to her that the end was coming. "Not just the disintegration of the
state, but the end of us as a people," Dalia remembered. Alongside this
fear was a determination, born from the Holocaust, "to never again be
led like sheep to the slaughter."
Late on the first night of war, Dalia learned that Israel had destroyed
the enemy's air force. She knew then that the outcome of the war was
essentially decided. Dalia believed God had a hand in Israel's survival
and compared her own feeling of awe and wonder with the feeling she
imagined her ancestors had when witnessing the parting of the Red Sea.
Dalia's parents had never been religious. They had grown up in Bulgaria,
married in 1940, survived a pro-Nazi government, and moved to Israel
after the war. Dalia was eleven months old when she arrived.
Dalia's family had been spared the atrocities in Bulgaria by acts of
goodwill from Christians she was raised to admire and remember. Now, she
believed her people had a destiny on the land of Israel. This was partly
why she believed what she had been told: The Arabs who lived in her
house, and in hundreds of other stone homes in her city, had simply run
The 1965 Leyland Royal Tiger let out a low rumble, then a burst of
exhaust, as the bus driver downshifted to descend the hills west of
Jerusalem. Inside sat the three cousins, riding toward their hometown.
They had boarded the bus in prior agreement not to sit together. First,
this would eliminate the temptation to speak to one another, thus
reducing any suspicion among the other passengers about their identity.
By sitting apart, each cousin could also have a window seat, to take in
every inch of the journey home. They sat three in a row, absorbing the
Bashir wasn't sure if he wanted the trip to go quickly or slowly. If it
went quickly, he would be in al-Ramla sooner; but if time slowed down,
he could more fully take in each bend, each landmark, each piece of his
The bus roared up the curving highway toward the crest of the famous
hilltop at Qastal; here, a great Arab commander had fallen in battle
nineteen years earlier, breaking the back of his people's army and
opening the road to the Holy City for the enemy. Beyond the hilltop,
Bashir could see stone minarets of the mosque at Abu Ghosh, one of the
few Arab villages that remained standing on the road between Jerusalem
and the sea. The village leaders had collaborated with the enemy here,
and their village had been spared; Bashir looked upon Abu Ghosh's
minarets with mixed feelings.
The Royal Tiger sped down the hillside, easing up as the mountain walls
closed in, then opened to a broad valley below. Eight centuries earlier,
Bashir's Arab ancestors had battled the Christian invaders in
hand-to-hand combat, repelling them for a time. Along the roadside,
Bashir looked out the window to see the burned carcasses of vehicles
blown up nineteen years earlier, in a more recent war, and the wreaths
and fading flowers laid alongside them. The Israelis who placed these
wreaths here were honoring what they called their War of Independence;
to Bashir this same event was known as the Nakba, or "Catastrophe."
The bus entered the valley, slowed, turned right onto a narrow highway
bisecting rows of irrigated wheat fields, and angled up a low rise. As
they passed near Latrun, Bashir suddenly recalled a journey made in
haste and fear two decades earlier. The details were elusive; he was
trying to remember the stories from when he was six years old, events he
had brooded about nearly every day for the last nineteen years.
Bashir glanced at his seatmate-an Israeli man absorbed in his book.
Looking out the window meant nothing to this man, Bashir thought.
Perhaps he'd seen it so many times. Decades later, Bashir would recall
feeling jealous of the man's inattention to the landscape.
The bus hit a bump-it was the railroad crossing. Simultaneously, the
three cousins experienced a familiar sensation, grooved into memory by a
repetition two decades distant. Bashir and his cousins knew they had
arrived in al-Ramla.
Dalia finished rinsing the morning dishes, wiped her hands on a towel,
and walked to the kitchen doorway, which opened onto the garden. In
recent days, since the end of the war, she had been carrying on a silent
dialogue with God that she began as a child. Why, she thought,
would You allow Israel to be saved during the Six Day War, yet not
prevent genocide during the Holocaust? Why would You empower Israel's
warriors to vanquish its enemies, yet stand by while my people were
branded and slaughtered a generation earlier?
For a child, it was difficult to comprehend the trauma of the people who
surrounded her. Only after probing could Dalia begin to understand. She
had asked her mother: How were the people branded? Did they stand in
line? Did it hurt? Why would anyone do these things? Over the years,
Dalia's curiosity would fuel her empathy. It helped her understand the
silence of the children she grew up with-children she would invite home
after school and try to cheer up with her elaborate skits and solo
performances in the garden.
Through the doorway, Dalia looked out at the jacaranda tree her father
had planted amid the flower beds. As a girl, Dalia had loved to water
the deep red Queen Elizabeth roses, with their overwhelming perfume.
Near the jacaranda stood the lemon tree. Another family had planted that
tree; it was already bearing fruit when Dalia and her parents arrived
nearly nineteen years earlier. Dalia was aware she had grown up in an
Arab house, and sometimes she wondered about the previous residents. Had
children lived here? How many? How old? In school Dalia had learned that
the Arabs had fled like cowards, with their hot soup still steaming on
the table. As a younger child, she hadn't questioned this story, but the
older she got, the less sense it made: Why would anyone voluntarily
leave such a beautiful house?
Bashir, Yasser, and Ghiath emerged from the bus into a hot, glaring
world at once bizarre and familiar. They could see the old municipality
building, and the town cinema, and the edge of the neighborhood where
they were raised. But none of the streets seemed familiar, at least not
at first; they all had new names. Most of the old buildings were covered
with brightly colored signs in blocky, indecipherable Hebrew lettering.
On some of the building archways, the remnants of the original flowing
Arabic cursive remained.
Suddenly Yasser, the eldest, spotted something he knew: the old
neighborhood butcher's shop. He quickly walked inside, his cousins
following, and threw his arms around the butcher, kissing both his
cheeks in the customary way of the Arabs. "Abu Mohammad!" Yasser shouted
in glee. "Don't you recognize me? Habibi, my dear friend, I
recognize you! We meet again!"
The Jewish butcher couldn't have been more startled. Abu Mohammad had
left many years before. "You are right, habibi," the man told
Yasser, stammering awkwardly in the language of his visitor. "Once there
was Abu Mohammad. Now, no more Abu Mohammad. Now, Mordechai!" The
butcher invited his guests to stay for kebab, but the cousins were too
stunned by the man's true identity and too distracted by their own
mission to accept his offer of food. They walked out, flustered.
"You were pretending you know everything here!" Ghiath teased his older
cousin as they left the shop. "You don't know anything here!"
The three men turned a corner and found themselves in the quieter
streets of the neighborhood where they once played. They felt at ease
and happy, and they forgot their earlier admonitions about speaking to
one another and conversed openly in their mother tongue.
They came upon Yasser's house and approached the door; Yasser stepped
forward to knock. A woman in her forties came out, looking at them
strangely. "Please," said Yasser, "all we want is to see the house we
lived in before."
The woman grew agitated. "If you don't leave the house, I will call the
police!" she screamed. The cousins tried to calm her, explaining their
purpose. The woman continued shouting, taking a step forward and shoving
them back. Neighbors began opening their doors. Eventually the cousins
realized they might soon find themselves in trouble with the local
authorities, and they retreated in haste.
Yasser drifted along in a silent daze. "It was as if he had no soul,"
Bashir recalled. "He was a walking body, nothing more."
"I cannot accept such a feeling," Yasser said finally. "It is something
that I really cannot bear."
Soon they came upon the house where Ghiath had grown up. Outside was a
large sign they couldn't read and a guard armed with a machine gun. The
two-story stone house was now a school. The guard told the men to wait
while he went inside, and a moment later the principal came out and
invited them in for tea. She introduced herself; her name was Shulamit.
She told them they could walk through the rooms when the class period
ended, and she left them in her office to wait.
There they sat, silently sipping their tea. Ghiath removed his glasses
and wiped his eyes. He put them back on and tried to look cheerful. "I
can't control my feelings," he whispered.
"I know," Bashir said quietly. "I understand."
When the principal returned, she invited them to tour the house. They
did so, Ghiath crying the whole time.
After their visit they left the house and walked in the direction of
Bashir's old home. No one could remember exactly where it was. Bashir
recalled that it had both a front door and a back door that faced a side
street. It had a front gate with a bell, a flowering fitna, or
plumeria, tree in the front yard, and a lemon tree in the back. After
walking in circles in the heat, Bashir realized he'd found the house. He
heard a voice from somewhere deep inside himself: This is your
Bashir and his cousins approached the house. Everything depended on the
reception, Bashir told himself. You can't know what the outcome will be,
especially after what had happened to Yasser. "It depends," he said,
"who is on the other side of the door."
Dalia sat in a plain wooden chair on the back veranda of the only home
she had ever known. She had no special plan for today. She could catch
up on her summer reading for the university, where she studied English
literature. Or she could peer contentedly into the depths of the
jacaranda tree, as she had done countless times before.
Bashir stood at the metal gate, looking for the bell. How many times, he
wondered, did his mother, Zakia, walk through this same gate? How many
times did his father, Ahmad, pass by, coming home tired from work,
rapping his knuckles on the front door in his special knock of arrival?
Bashir Khairi reached for the bell and pressed it.
Excerpted from "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East" by Sandy Tolan. Copyright © 2007 by Sandy Tolan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.