Yusuf Khalil has a Kershaw brand flat-blade knife on the nightstand next to his bed to protect his family from intruders. It can fold up, but that would only hinder him in case of emergency. The knife is sharp; Yusuf keeps a smooth rock in the drawer of his nightstand and sharpens the knife every night before praying. His son, Sharad, bought this knife for him after Yusuf’s youngest son, Marid, was murdered in a protest; its blue handle reminds him of his dead son, whose favorite color was blue. The knife has sat on his nightstand for little over a decade, but he has not touched it except when sharpening it. In Yusuf’s mind, his family will be safe as long as the knife rests on his nightstand.
I don’t have a knife because it was confiscated at LaGuardia. The incident was actually a misunderstanding because I forgot to take my Swiss army knife out of a pocket in my carry-on bag, which I had used backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains. The security guard took me aside and searched the rest of my possessions thoroughly, dumping half of them on the ground. I wasn’t detained though because I was calm and clear with them. When I told my parents of the incident, they suggested that I got through because I’m white so they were more inclined to believe me. I remain unconvinced.
Yusuf’s wife’s name is Dunia, which means life. She has many knives that she uses to prepare food: some to cut, some to spread, some to chop. Yusuf likes to prepare his own olives, which are green but are hotter than normal green olives, and to prepare his own hummus with a puddle of vegetable oil in the middle. Other than that, he’s useless in the kitchen. I asked Yusuf if he ever cooks, but he told me that the husband and wife each have their own jobs and that cooking was one of the wife’s many jobs.
Although I came to the Bethlehem to volunteer at the local Bible College, I did not work my first night. Instead, a housing arrangement was made for me at the home of Yusuf Khalil. While Dunia prepared our dinner, Yusuf and I relaxed in his living room. It was spacious and well-furnished with two small couches adjoined to small end tables, a comfortable looking chair, a coffee table, and three small wooden dressers, the middle of which supported their television set. The couches were covered with throw pillows and afghans of various colors; the dominant color in the room was a dull brown. The walls were decorated with framed prayers written in Arabic and various pictures, some of his family and some of saints. One picture was of St. George – the patron saint of Palestine – mounted on a horse and piercing the mouth of a dragon; another was of Elizabeth Ann Seton – the patron saint of the death of children – whose calm expression set the tone for the room. Each dresser on either side of the television set held two candles equally spaced around the religious pictures in elaborately decorated glass bowls filled with the remainder of votive candles that Yusuf lit when he prayed; his wife crumpled the silver cases and used them as decorations throughout the house. It was then that I noticed three more of these bowls around the living room: one on the coffee table and one on each of the end tables.
Yusuf’s house resembled a typical duplex with an even more spacious bottom floor, which he rented out to visitors such as me. Both Yusuf’s floor and the guest floor were filled with the same types of furniture, but the guest floor was not filled with the same warmth. Its big, whitewashed walls held no pictures; the white couch hadn’t felt the warmth of a human body in months. A thin layer of dust covered everything in the guest floor, save the places Yusuf moved to prepare it for my arrival. A mixture of smells invaded my nostrils from the moment I stepped foot in the guest floor: disuse and old candles. I spent little time there when I first arrived, initially only taking my luggage to the bedroom and leaving in under a minute.
A large oak door connected the top floor living room to the outside world. A whitewashed and chipped stone staircase connected the top and bottom floors with a small entrance landing. Another large wooden door at the bottom of the staircase served as the entrance and exit of the even larger gate that protected Yusuf’s property. White barred fencing stretched straight upward from the concrete doorframe. Sharp, spiked fingers punctuated the tips of each of the gates’ bars that reached toward the street. The hallway and gate looked every bit as unappealing as the street that sprawled out beyond it.
Just outside the gate was the street Yusuf walked each day when going to the markets, which were just a few blocks away. Not very many cars drove down this street, which seemed odd to me. I asked Yusuf if many people drive; he said that many do. Then, I asked him directly why I saw so few cars drive down the street. He said it was a dangerous place and that was when I learned that he kept the knife on his nightstand to protect his family.
And so here I am, I thought. Toby Pendleton: a white, American Christian who came to Palestine to help people. What have I gotten myself into? Yusuf made casual conversation with me, asking whether I had a girlfriend, a car, a job, or was in school. I responded: No, no, no, and technically no, but I recently graduated from the University of Indiana. Then he asked me why I came to Bethlehem.
I replied, “Well, I’m volunteering at the Bible College in town. I haven’t started yet, but I think I’ll be doing odd jobs; cleaning toilets and things like that.”
He smiled, “Ah, that is good work. But why did you come here?”
Confused, I said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Why did you come to Bethlehem?”
I paused. Why did I come to Bethlehem? There were many reasons. I had no job waiting for me after college, so I wanted to volunteer to push off my loan payments. Sure, my volunteer position wasn’t paid, but it would look great on a resume. I also came to Bethlehem because I didn’t have to pay for my travel and stay here. But I couldn’t tell Yusuf the truth, so I said, “I was interested in the culture here. The religious history intrigues me.”
He responded, “Yes, religion is very important here. Have you seen the Church of Nativity?”
I shook my head, “No, I just got in this afternoon.”
“We will go after dinner. It will be safe if we are not out too late.”
Despite my fears about the conflict, I trusted that I would be safe with Yusuf. He was at least six feet and three inches tall and what little hair he had left was turning grey. He was an animated speaker and moved his eyebrows up and down every time he spoke. Yusuf had a dark complexion, which I assumed was a result of being in the sun much of the day. In spite of the warm weather, he wore a black long-sleeve shirt with tan slacks and black loafers. His appearance was intimidating, but I immediately knew he was a kind man. He offered to pay for my cab ride to his home from the Bible College when I first met him. Before I entered the cab, he noticed my anxiety, “You are scared?”
“It’s true that I am scared. I don’t know what to think.” I had gotten to the Bible College earlier that day, jetlagged and anxious to make a good impression on my bosses. All I wanted was a bed. No, I wanted my bed, with the forest green sheets and red blanket. It always reminded me of my favorite holiday, Christmas, which is part of the reason Bethlehem was an attractive location to volunteer. It dawned upon me that the cultural communication classes I took in preparing to come here didn’t make communicating easier, but instead they made it harder. “I don’t know how to say it. I’m in a new place and I don’t know how long I will be here. Yes, I’m scared.”
Yusuf’s lips slowly rose at the edges as he grinned widely. “Ah, you Americans are so much the same. It makes me laugh, you know. An American stayed with us earlier this year. He even looked like you. He was scared like you; scared of the place, scared of the violence, scared of the Arabs.”
“Did it get better for him after awhile?”
Yusuf chuckled, “Yes, but he just stared at me when we met and said nothing for a long time.” Yusuf raised his eyebrows and dropped his jaw, doing his best imitation of someone in awe. “I asked him why he looked so shocked. He said he kept looking for my tail!” We both laughed.
Dunia came out of the kitchen and told us that dinner was ready. Yusuf’s eyes widened and he motioned to me to go with him into the kitchen. Dunia wordlessly slid past us and sat down in Yusuf’s chair. My cultural prep course teacher told me not to suggest anything about women’s roles in the household, but I still thought it was a little strange that she wouldn’t even eat with us.
So Yusuf and I ate together in the tiny kitchen. The table was filled with different types of food, most notably was something they pronounced “moshy.” It looked like a zucchini stuffed with rice covered in gravy. Yusuf clarified that it was eggplant stuffed with rice and lamb covered with goat milk. It seemed more appetizing before he told me that, but I ate it anyway.
After dinner, Yusuf ground some coffee beans, put it in a small coffee pot on the stove, and turned it on. Yusuf indicated that it would take a while for the coffee to be ready and insisted that we go rest until our after dinner snack was ready. We traded Dunia rooms once again, us relaxing in the living room as she cleaned our mess in the kitchen. I noticed a picture hanging on the wall above the television showing Yusuf, Dunia, and three young men I assumed were his sons. The young man on the left had a dark complexion, but no darker than Yusuf’s. His eyebrows were thick and black, but his hair was short like a crew cut. The young man on the right had a lighter complexion than Yusuf’s, more resembling the complexion of his mother. He also had short hair, but his eyebrows were not thick and black. Instead, he had a unibrow. The man in the middle was clearly the youngest; his face was thinner and his hair was thicker than either of his brothers. His hair would have been considered a short hairstyle in the United States in spite of its thickness. He was the only one of the three with an ear piercing: a small stud on the lobe of his left ear.
Yusuf said, “That is my family. The one on the left is the oldest, Sharad. He works as a tour guide at the Church of Nativity. It is a tough job. He works long hours. He likes it though. Perhaps we will go visit him after coffee, yes?” Yusuf waited for me to nod in agreement before continuing. “The one on the right is Akmal.” Yusuf’s smile filled his face. “He graduated from the local school with high marks. He wanted to go to the University, but it was too dangerous for him to leave Bethlehem. He is taking classes on the Internet with Bir Zeit University. It is a Palestinian school.” Yusuf pointed to a door behind him. “That is his room. He uses the computer in there to take classes.”
Shocked, I asked, “You have the Internet?”
“Yes. You Americans do not think we do, but we have it. We have many things that you also have.”
Embarrassed, I changed the subject back to Akmal, “What does he plan to do once he graduates?”
Yusuf’s smile faded. “He cannot get a job here. Unemployment is common. I am unemployed and so will he be if he tries to get a job here. He wants to go to a University in Europe after he graduates. He wants to learn more.”
“He sounds ambitious. Where does he want to go?”
Yusuf replied, “He is unsure. He wants to go many places, but it depends on money. If he can get awards for getting good marks, then he can go wherever he wants. I hope he gets awards for good marks.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
Yusuf frowned, “Then he will be forced to get a job here. We cannot support him and he cannot work while attending the University; it causes too much stress. Dunia does not work and my work is inconsistent.”
“What do you do?”
“I sell decorations. They’re made of olive wood. I do not make them; I have a man make them for me. But they are hard to sell sometimes. People here are very poor. I used to work in Jerusalem in a shop, but I cannot go there anymore because I am Palestinian. Israel does not let me go there anymore.”
“It is dangerous, they say. I am Palestinian and they are Israeli. They think I am a monster, just like that American that stayed with us thought I was a monster. So I lost my job there. Now I sell olive wood decorations.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I turned the conversation back to the picture, “Who is the one in the middle?”
Yusuf forced a smile across his face. His mouth opened, but the words waited a few moments before coming out. “That is my son Marid. He—he died three years ago.”
How does one apologize for opening such a wound? You can’t, I told myself. Just be quiet.
Yusuf asked, “Do you want to know how he died?” I nodded.
“One night there was a protest. Many people in Beit Jala marched to Bethlehem, a few kilometers away. I told my sons to stay inside. It was not safe. I told them it was not safe. But Marid was young. He was rebellious. He thought I was not being fair. He thought I was protecting him too much. So he went to the protest.” Yusuf paused and swallowed hard before continuing. “He was gone less than an hour before I found out that he was not in his room. I told my other sons to stay in the house and I went to find him. I was too late. A group of young teens shot people in the crowd.” Yusuf choked up.
We sat in silence for moments that seemed like hours. I couldn’t stand the silence so I asked, “Why did they start shooting?”
Yusuf shook his head, “The youth are very crazy. They get upset, they get their guns, and then they shoot people. For no reason! Marid did nothing to them. He was just there with everyone else.” Yusuf looked back down and wept as he said, “They shot into the crowd of people. Marid didn’t even see the shooters, but they shot him three times in the chest. I found him lying on the ground in the middle of Nativity Square, calling for his mama and papa. Then he died.” Marid did not have a knife on him when he died, but it would not have saved him anyway.
Minutes went by before I noticed Dunia standing in the doorway of the kitchen, patiently waiting for us to conclude our sad conversation. She wore a sympathetic expression and wordlessly looked on as her husband broke into tears before her eyes. He cried for only minutes, but it felt like hours. I sat in silence, squirming uncomfortably in my chair while he wept. Yusuf sobered himself once he noticed Dunia staring at him. “Is the coffee ready?” He asked while fighting back tears. Dunia nodded. Yusuf rose and slid past her into the kitchen. I observed Dunia, who was unsure of where to go, sensing that it was not her place to get the coffee or to sit with a guest alone in the living room. She eventually decided it was best to go to her bedroom until Yusuf returned. As she passed, I noticed a tear running down her cheek.
Five minutes later, Yusuf returned with a tray carrying an old-fashioned tin coffee pot, two small coffee cups, a small plate of walnut brownies, and two separate fruit dishes, one of an orange and one of a pear. He put the tray down on the coffee table and poured coffee in both cups. Yusuf calmly pushed my hand away when I tried to pick up my coffee cup. He said, “Wait. I will get it for you.” Yusuf wasn’t crying anymore, but his inflection told me everything. Marid is dead, Akmal is busy studying, and Sharad is busy working. This man has no sons, or at least not in the same way he did before they grew up. Can you blame him for wanting things to be the way they used to be? I didn’t try to write off his pain by explaining it in terms of a cultural emphasis on family ties, the bottom line is that Yusuf lost all three of his sons in their own ways and wanted things to be back the way they were. Yusuf put the coffee on a small coaster and put it in front of me. “It is very hot. Be careful.”
Another question came to mind: Is Yusuf simply a good host or am I a substitute for his sons? No, I thought. He’s just being a good host. Besides, that sounds like something straight out of the movies. A person’s psyche can never be explained so cleanly. And even if he were treating me as though I was one of his sons, that reveals nothing about Yusuf’s relationship with his sons. He’s just a good host and this is how good hosts act.
I asked, “Can you tell me more about Sharad? You said we might visit him after coffee. I’d like to know some about him.”
Yusuf let out a sigh as he sat down with his coffee. “Sharad is very smart. He had high marks in school, even higher than Akmal. But he didn’t like school. He only wanted to be with his friends. They were not a good influence on him.”
“What did they do?”
Yusuf sipped his coffee and replied, “All sorts of things. They liked to smoke and go painting. Rough bunch of kids.”
“Yes. The youth here are crazy sometimes. They go and get canned paint and spray everywhere. The police do not like it, but the youth do it anyway.”
“What happens if they get caught?”
“It depends where they are doing it, when, who they are, and things like that. Sometimes the police take the children to jail for the night; sometimes they let them go.”
“That’s too bad about Sharad.”
“Yes. His friends stopped going to school, but at least he finished public school. I was happy that he did not stop going like the rest of his friends.”
“How did he become a tour guide?”
Yusuf smiled and said, “Ah, he likes that very much. He likes to tell about the Church of Nativity. He likes to meet new people. He likes the long hours. I’m happy he is doing it, too.”
“Does he still have the same friends?”
Yusuf shook his head and said, “No. Some have died and some have left the country. Only one is still here, but Sharad does not associate with him anymore. Sharad stopped smoking and got a job. He is responsible now.”
“You should be proud.”
He smiled and said, “We are very proud of him. He is better now than he used to be.” Yusuf reflected a moment before saying, “Marid and he took very different paths through life. Marid cared about something, maybe he cared too much. Sharad never cared about anything.”
“What do you care about?”
Yusuf smiled, “Many things; my family, my work, and God. God is very good to us here. I have always said that we should thank God no matter what happens to us because it is because of Him we are alive. God gives and takes away, but I have much to be thankful for.”
I was impressed that he could believe such a thing after his son was killed so senselessly. It must take a lot for someone to keep going on so strongly in the face of that kind of violence, I thought. Not knowing what else to say, I lauded him the only way I felt was appropriate, “Amen.”
Yusuf gestured to my coffee and said, “Finish your drink and we will visit Sharad. You’ve learned much about him, but now you will meet him.” I finished my coffee in two gulps and moved to the door. As we left, Dunia returned from the bedroom and began cleaning our mess.
It was twilight and a stiff breeze was blowing in, forcing us both to don jackets to stay warm. We paused at the top of Yusuf’s steps to admire lights turning on in Nativity Square. One by one, shopkeepers flicked light switches to reassure customers they were still open. To the right of Nativity Square was a residential area, which followed a similar rhythmic pattern of illumination. The night was truly beautiful, similar to the autumn days I was familiar with in the U.S.
We walked several blocks toward Nativity Square in silence, each of us admiring the calm evening in our own ways. The road we took from Yusuf’s house didn’t lead directly to Nativity Square, but instead to an intersection of markets and vendors. When we got to the intersection, I noticed a framed photograph of a young man wearing all black holding an assault rifle. I couldn’t read the Arabic words under his picture, but it was clear to me that this was some type of memorial. “What is this?” I asked.
Yusuf observed the photograph for a moment, “This is a memorial to Yasin Saif, a man who fought in the Second Intifada. Do you know about the Second Intifada?”
“Some. I know it was an uprising and it was very violent. That’s about all I know.”
“It was very violent. This man, Yasin Saif, he died right where you are standing. A man threw a grenade at his feet and blew him up.” Yusuf said all of this very matter-of-factly, but his description did nothing to keep me from feeling uneasy about standing where another man died.
Yusuf and I completed the brief walk to Nativity Square in silence. The Square was bustling with activity. Various shopkeepers vied for tourists’ attention, two men played acoustic guitars for a small crowd of people at the far end, and old men chatted over coffee while watching a small group of boys kick a soccer ball to each other. Nativity Square was certainly the place to be on this night. Before we got to the church, I noticed a group of men and women sitting under portable canopies alongside the brick wall that lined the Square. They held signs in Arabic and none of them appeared to be in good health. I asked Yusuf, “Who are they?”
Yusuf diverted his gaze from the church over to the people and said, “They are protesting the imprisonment of Salim Mansour. He is a political leader in Palestine. One night the Israeli police arrested him and no one has seen or heard from him since.”
“Why do they look so sick?”
Yusuf sighed and said, “They are fasting for his release. They are killing themselves for someone who the Israelis have probably already killed.”
“Do you think it will work?”
Yusuf looked into my eyes, “The Israelis tell us where we can and can’t go. They tell us what we can and can’t do. They tell us where we can and can’t work. And they do all of this at gunpoint. Do you think that starving ourselves will affect what they think?”
“I suppose not.” Yusuf was satisfied with my answer and turned back to the church. He searched for a moment with his eyes, hoping to see Sharad somewhere. After a moment, he spotted him and yelled his name loudly. Sharad was talking with a group of men when Yusuf yelled for him. The men looked younger than he did, but they could have been no younger than twenty years old. Sharad seemed annoyed at his father’s presence, but he said goodbye to the men and approached us anyway.
“Sharad, my son,” Yusuf said through a proud smile. “How are you this evening?”
“I am well, father. And yourself?” They embraced briefly
“Good, I am very good.” Yusuf turned to me and said, “Toby, this is my son Sharad. Sharad, this is Toby, an American working at the Bible College.” Sharad smiled as he shook my hand, revealing yellowing teeth; his fingernails were also yellowing. He wore a leather jacket, a white undershirt, and blue jeans. He also wore an expensive looking silver wristwatch, which was likely the most expensive part of his attire. His shoes were Nike brand, but well worn.
“It is good to meet you,” he said. He checked his wristwatch and turned to his father, saying, “Father, I would love to stay and talk with you, but I have a tour in five minutes inside of the church. I apologize. Perhaps I will see you later?”
Yusuf’s shoulders sunk, “Ah, that is unfortunate! I will likely be in bed when you return, but you have tomorrow off of work don’t you?”
Sharad replied, “I do. I will see you then.” Yusuf said something else to him, but I was distracted by a man who was shouting at the protestors. He was an older man with white hair. He wore a leather jacket and waved his arms wildly at the emaciated men. Sharad broke my distraction by turning to me and saying, “It was good to meet you.” I snapped my attention back to him and repeated the same parting phrase.
Yusuf embraced his son again and Sharad quickly left. Crestfallen, Yusuf yelled after him, “I am looking forward to seeing you, son.” Sharad waved, acknowledging him unenthusiastically.
Yusuf and I had walked less than twenty yards outside of Nativity Square when we heard the commotion behind us. Everyone in the Square was looking toward the protestors fasting on the other side of the Square. Then, gunshots rang out crisp and clear in the cloudless Bethlehem night. Short bursts of machine gun fire ripped across the Square and bodies dropped before our eyes. Yusuf grabbed my arm and led me into a nearby alley to wait for the shooting to stop. The shooting lasted only a few moments, but it felt like hours. Soon, the unmistakable sound of gunfire piercing the air was replaced by the screams of men and women who either were struck or were mourning those who were struck.
Yusuf peeked out from the alley to see if the shooting had ended. Then he turned to me, “I must go find my son. Wait here.” I waited until he entered Nativity Square before I left the alley to follow him. He hurried to the church and when he was at the middle of the Square, I followed him. Judging by the bodies, the shooters had aimed at the protestors. Despite the narrow focus of the shooting, stray bullets had struck many others throughout the Square.
I noticed Yusuf crouching down beside a young man by the entrance of a restaurant on the left side of the Square. It was Sharad. I hurried over to Yusuf, who was clutching his son’s bloody hand. They spoke to each other before I arrived, but I overheard Sharad repeating, “I’m sorry, Father. I’m sorry.”
Crying, Yusuf said, “Do not be sorry. It is not your fault.”
Sharad’s breathing quickened, “Please tell mother that I love her. Akmal, too. I know how much he means to both of you.”
Yusuf’s words came out in short bursts, “I love you, son.” Tears dropped from his face onto Sharad’s wounds: two bullets in the chest and one in his arm. Sharad was not a target, but wild shooting is notorious for creating unintended victims. After a few moments, Sharad lost the battle for his life, which was punctuated by staccato breathing and an excruciatingly long exhale. Sharad was dead and it was nobody’s fault.
A week later, I moved into the volunteer worker house in Beit Sahour, which was but a few minutes away on foot from Bethlehem. I did my best to visit Yusuf and Dunia at least once a week. Some weeks were harder than others were, especially the weeks that coping with Sharad’s death sent Yusuf into a deep depression. Akmal decided that getting an education meant nothing in a world of people who killed for no reason. He began to smoke and work in a nearby restaurant as a waiter. He began carrying a black handle switchblade everywhere he went, just in case he needed to protect himself or someone else. His behavior tore Yusuf apart emotionally, but Akmal was all that he had left.
Months passed and I started making other connections with people in the community and the time I set aside for visiting Yusuf and his family began to dwindle. I couldn’t be everywhere at once, I told myself, so some things needed to take priority over others. But that was a lie. The truth was that Yusuf’s family was falling apart and Akmal’s behavior would likely end up getting him killed, too. How terrible a tragedy it would be for Yusuf to bury all three of his sons, I thought.
One day, I received news regarding Akmal’s health: he was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t lung cancer; it was stomach cancer and it was not hereditary. The doctors couldn’t figure out how it developed, but they gave him only a few months to live. My heart broke knowing that Yusuf was the victim of yet another inexplicable tragedy. I visited Yusuf immediately. I noticed a few things were different about his living room: there were more pictures of his sons on the walls and there were two memorials set up for his deceased sons. The memorials were simply pictures and a couple of things that reminded them of their sons, like their toy cars or the cards they made their parents for their birthdays. Neither had bowls full of the crumpled remains of votive candles, a sign that Yusuf had been praying less. I also noticed that the knife from his bedroom had made its way to the end table in the living room. The conversation hadn’t lasted long before Yusuf broke into tears.
“I have always said that we should thank God for everything we have, but I’m starting to wonder if He wants to take everything I have. How am I supposed to thank Him for all that I have if I have nothing?”
“Sometimes things happen, Yusuf. No one is at fault. No one could stop it. We just have to manage it.”
Yusuf looked into my eyes and said, “I have been managing, Toby. I have been managing to live ever since Marid died. And then Sharad died. And now this. I don’t want to manage anymore. I want to be able to live.” Yusuf grabbed the knife on the end table and looked at it. “I’ve had this knife for years so I could protect my family. Now I’ve almost no family left to protect.” It’s hard to witness a man fall apart before your eyes, I thought. But could I blame him? His sons had been taken from him and it was clear that his wife did not occupy a place of pride in his heart in the same way his sons did. No, I questioned whether Yusuf ever loved Dunia, especially since I never saw them speak.
Yusuf and I drank coffee and talked about how much better things used to be. We talked for hours, but our conversation ended with me explaining that I wanted to make it home before nightfall and him thanking me for visiting. I told him that I would visit him later in the week and I would be in touch. I hoped that our conversation would be an act of therapy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. While walking away, I heard a sound of metal bouncing off asphalt. In the twilight, I saw the unmistakable shape of a knife in the street. I walked over to examine it and noticed that it was a sharp Kershaw brand knife. I looked back at Yusuf’s house and saw the window facing the street was open. Yusuf once used this knife to protect his family. He felt he no longer needed the knife to protect his family because he had so little family left to protect.