(page 4 of 5)
Waleed stopped, his electric shaver poised over my son’s neck, and threw me a look, as if to say: Do you think I lied to you?
I felt his half-angry, half-wounded look in my rib cage. It felt personal.
“No bathroom,” he repeated with a faintly aggrieved air, and went back to finishing my son’s neckline. He had a lot of business that day. It was before Passover and many Jews from my community were getting pre-holiday haircuts.
For the life of me I didn’t get it. But where do they… go? He was so sure, so resolute. I could almost believe him for his earnestness. But I saw by the set of his mouth that further discussion was not possible. The toilet issue had reached the realm of religious conviction.
I was unnerved. I made more calls. I heard so many opposing convictions, it rattled my brain. The pro-bathroom side, the anti-bathroom side. The problem was, it was easy to adopt an anti-bathroom position. You didn’t have to prove anything. The pro-bathroom side had to back itself up with pesky specifics, and all I got were vague statements like what the policeman had said: “something on the other side.”
Along the way, Muslim worshippers told me about some other Haram al-Sharif rules. Like, no dogs are allowed up there, due to the sacredness. And yet school boys play soccer with gusto yards away from their holiest site. Soccer, yes; dogs, no. Then I figured, wherever there are boys playing soccer, there had to be boys who needed to go.
But still there was no bathroom consensus. Was I surprised? No. When it comes to the Middle East, no one can agree on anything, even the existence of a bathroom.
On the face of it, who cares? Yes bathroom, no bathroom. It’s fiction! And yet I wanted the novel to be a meditation on objects that are filtered through personality, culture and religion. Whatever. I was obsessed.
Finally someone gave me the number of a young Arab couple living in Passaic. I spoke with the husband. At first I circled around the topic. He named the trees and bushes growing on the Temple Mount, the food courts up there, and what was popular — knafeh and katayef, although the latter is only eaten during Ramadan. He’d grown up in Israel; his family had lived in various villages. My Arab character also had grown up in a village and I wanted as many authenticating details as I could find, from living, breathing people. “How many kids sleep in a bedroom?” I asked, expecting to hear that nine children were crammed into a single room on a torn mattress.