NDJ:4 Alitta Kullman, Ph.D.

THE PERFECT PAIR

It is not as if I have known Rima very well, or even for very long. Rima is the lady who does my alterations, and I am the lady forever in search of the perfect pair of black pants. We have shared warm, though fleeting, encounters over the years. Rima has always been there when I’ve needed her, never daunted by three-hour deadlines or lined silk pants with scalloped edges and uneven hems.

So, when I arrive at her tailoring shop on Friday, two weeks ago, I am totally unprepared to discover that Rima is not there. Rima is in Cypress, her husband tells me. She had been in Beirut visiting her parents when the Mideast crisis erupted. He hopes she’ll make it home by Monday.

I leave the shop flooded by unfamiliar emotion. Rima, suddenly far more than my seamstress, is suffering and it is my fault. An enormous wave of responsibility descends upon me, permeating my being. My country has done this to her country; my “side” has shattered hers. The insular, disembodied “other” has suddenly come alive. Israel is bombing my friend.

As I await Rima’s return over the weekend, my mind grapples desperately for a way to comprehend the incomprehensible. How do I reconcile my love for my ancestral people and homeland with my deep sense of shame and guilt? How has this happened, the right side of my brain demands of the left? How is it that the Israeli people I know, who so desperately want peace, whose mothers wail inconsolably for every single lost soldier, who just want to live their lives.. .how have they become the “aggressors?” I listen to CNN and hear about the rising “civilian casualties” in Lebanon, the millions displaced, the women and children felled. Are these my people committing these atrocities? Has Israel massively “overreacted” as they are saying, to the “minor” international incident of the capture of two Israeli soldiers, or the firing of a few thousand Katyusha rockets into Haifa and the border towns? Even worse, has Israel been planning this assault, waiting for an excuse to re-invade its peace-loving Northern neighbor?

As the weekend draws to a close, I am aware of an increasing sense of foreboding, this one closer to home. How will Rima receive me? Is she aware of my Jewish and Israeli roots? Will she consciously or unconsciously blame me for what she has been through and what has happened to her country? Will I stop being a person and become an object of hatred?

It is not until Wednesday that Rima is able to come into the shop. I arrive bearing flowers, and Rima, looking tired and worn, embraces me warmly. I learn that her journey home has taken five days, beginning at the port of Beirut, where a small tugboat transported her to a large US Navy aircraft carrier waiting several miles offshore. She slept on a cot on the flight deck for the 24-hour sail to Larnaca, Cypress. From Larnaca she flew to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to New Jersey, from New Jersey to Atlanta, and from Atlanta finally back to California.

I tell her how sorry I am that she has had to endure such a terrible experience. She tells me how wonderful the American service people were to her and others on the trip. I notice for the first time the “Proud to be an American” bumper sticker pasted on the wall-to-ceiling dressing room mirror.

“Rima,” I ask her hesitatingly. “How was it in Beirut? Was there bombing near your parents’ home? Were you in danger?” “No, no, no,” Rima replies in her heavily-laden Lebanese accent, as she sticks straight pins into my black pants. “The bombing was only outside the city, in the outlying areas, the areas where the militants live.” My ears perk up. Did she say “militants?” Is that a note of contempt I detect? “And then,” she continues, “all the roads in and out of the city were bombed so the militants couldn’t bring in any more supplies from Syria.”

As I step down from the platform, ready to try on the next pair of black pants, Rima and I come face to face. “Rima,” I say, my eyes filling with unexpected tears. “I have been so worried about you. I have felt so guilty. My husband is Israeli and….”

Rima interrupts me in mid-sentence. “No, no, no,” she says emphatically. “Why you should feel guilty?”

“But, the bombings, the casualties, the destruction….”

“No, no,” she stops me again, “you must understand. We WANT the Israelis to do what they are doing! Everyone is HAPPY. We hate Hezbollah,” she says passionately. “All they want is money and power. They don’t care about us. When we – the Lebanese Christians or Sunni Moslems – needed help, they would never help us. If we needed medical care, where do you think we went? To Israel! We are friends with Israel. Why did these terrorists have to capture those soldiers? Why did they have to start this? We want to get rid of them, to get them out of our country. We hope the Israelis kill them all.”

I am dumbfounded, shocked into silence. “Go, go” Rima urges me. “Go try on your black pants. Maybe this one will be the perfect pair.” The emotionally-charged moment is broken, replaced by paroxysms of laughter.

The unthinkable, the one option my tortured brain had begged for, but never considered possible. We are not enemies. We are sisters. We are on the same side. We are joined together by our heritage, our forefathers, our longing for peace. We have made a dent.

Rima looks at me intently, her deep brown eyes and weathered face serious once again. “We are both Semites,” she says determinately.

Indeed, I think. The perfect pair.

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