My Lebanese girlfriend does not want to listen to The Cure’s song “Killing an Arab.”
“Turn it off,” she demands.
This is odd. Helen is a huge Cure fan; in fact, I never really listened to The Cure until we started dating. I turn around to face her, my mind racing to produce some witty remark that will make her laugh and defuse the sudden tension, but our eyes meet and I am utterly disarmed. I hear her sigh as she walks away.
It’s not that Helen doesn’t like this particular song, it’s that she doesn’t like songs about killing Arabs, especially when in real life, our peoples are killing each other day after day. We cannot enjoy the song’s catchy rhythm or ironic lyrics when bombs fall and Katyushas fly. What used to be a harmless song has become an unwanted reminder of the gulf that exists between us.
Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics.
On our first date, we set a precedent by skipping out on a proposed tour of the Lincoln memorial, preferring to tour each other’s contours rather than those of a lifeless statue. As the months passed, we discovered that Helen’s attempts to teach me French were as doomed as my own throat-clearing lessons in the correct pronunciation of challah, her favorite new food. We could even laugh at the irony when Helen peeled off my sweater to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with “Don’t Worry America, Israel Is Behind You.”
Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.
And then, the war.
When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate. Helen was still asleep in my arms, the splayed skirt of her eyelashes undisturbed.
“Two-hundred twenty rockets fired, antitank missiles, civilian deaths,” the radio continued. Reluctantly, I shook Helen awake.
Helen’s broad face and enormous anime-eyes make her look like a Lebanese version of the waving cat statues you find at Chinese restaurants. When she is happy, that face can move in a hundred directions at once, eyebrows bending and arching, nose scrunching, chin moving in slow semicircles as she bites her upper lip. Her laughter is intoxicating, and I spent much of our time together trying to keep her laughing.
But a serious thought drains Helen’s face of this playfulness like sand sucked through a sieve. As Israelis reservists hitchhiked their way to the northern front, Helen became consumed by serious thoughts, her laughter a distant memory.
As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”
One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”
A few days later, I left Helen in Washington and attended the wedding of a college friend, a Jewish wedding. Most of my friends had already met Helen and, given the circumstances, they were concerned. I told them we were doing our best, trying to get though it, focusing on each other and trying to stay positive.
What I didn’t tell my friends was that I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”
My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”
As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.
While I had spent the weekend dancing and celebrating with my friends, Helen had been glued to the TV, watching the carnage unfold. She did not sound happy to hear my voice.
Why is it that when it comes to Jews and Arabs, there are plenty of books about coexistence between peoples but significantly fewer about love between individuals? In a market flooded with books about relationships and dating rules, helpful pointers for Jews and Arabs are in short supply.
An hour later, we were at a coffee shop, staring at each another, barely speaking. The whole endeavor seemed a lost cause. I prepared myself for the worst and waited for a server to offer us some coffee.
We didn’t even get a chance to order. Suddenly Helen was crying, I was fighting back tears and we were out the door. We spent the next two hours wandering through downtown D.C., exhausted by the heavy, humid air and the burden of our own emotions.
“I just want to be with my own people right now,” she said, her hands sweeping through the space between us. “They’re the only ones that would understand.” “Why?” I said, trying to catch her hands midair but missing. She folded her arms across her chest.
We stopped talking. For a full minute we waited for our heartbeats to slow down and listened to the traffic.
“I don’t want to keep fighting with you,” Helen said, looking into my eyes. I put my arms around her, drew her close.
“Then we need to get through this. If we can’t get through this, what chance is there that anyone else could?” I said. “We can’t allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that we’ve escaped, that they’ve been born into.”
I thought of Helen picking apples, of the dinners we’d cooked together, all those times we held politics spellbound with our love.
“But still,” she paused, looked away. “This hurts.”
Early last October, weeks after the cease-fire, I attended another wedding. This one was Lebanese, and Helen and I were still together, still very much in love. Our feelings for each another had not become a casualty of the war between our peoples, but I was nervous. The bride’s family members from Lebanon could not come, and the specter of their absence threatened to haunt the ceremony. Despite my best intentions, I could not help feeling like a Jew in enemy territory.
My trepidation was foolish. In the end, the wedding was beautiful, no one talked politics, and at one point a relative of the bride announced that the couple would be making a substantial donation to St. George’s Medical Center, a hospital in Beirut.
The guests applauded passionately. I was one of them, and for a few fleeting moments I felt as if I truly was one of them, without division, just another human experiencing genuine empathy for the suffering of others.
It was a liberating feeling.
But as I write these words, all is not well in the Middle East. The same bellicose rhetoric bounces back and forth. How many more times will we be forced to run this gauntlet of who we are and what we believe?
Another war may come, but for now all that truly matters is what Helen and I see in ourselves when our eyes lock and the rest of the world and all of human history dissolves, when we are filled with the warmth of our bodies and hearts intertwined and it is us, only us, alone in our private universe.
Perhaps, in our relationship, “Killing an Arab” can never just be a song. But there are other, better songs.
Joshua Gross is a public affairs consultant in Washington.