The only man who wanted to marry me is Mahmoud -
the "Arab worker," as everyone calls him in this triple-entrance, three-story,
Le Corbusier-like apartment block
where Mahmoud is in charge of maintenance.
These concrete boxes sprouted in the fifties
to house the Holocaust's chance-salvaged skin and bones.
"Do you want to get married or do you want to be flippant?" mother frowned on me as I announced my one and only marriage proposal,
eyes fluttering, "Daddy and I won't be around forever."
Father just said, "Why not?"
He probably thought I was joking, which I wasn't,
because that's precisely what Mahmoud had said.
He meant it and I'm sure he'd live up to his word.
I won't. Not because he's Palestinian and married,
but because in my heart he occupies the place of a friend,
not loved but cherished, sometimes adored:
a true friend who has never let me down.
He drops in whenever he's around, which is often enough -
something is always breaking down at my place
or at my neighbors': our building is made of sand.
Were it not for Mahmoud, the house would have crumbled long ago.
Even if Mahmoud is in the middle of some other job,
when I call him he will promptly appear.
Sure, I can call any electrician, plumber or repair contractor,
but I am as faithful to Mahmoud as he is to me.
The first Intifada, the closures and checkpoints,
didn't stop him from coming here,
and neither will the fighting now.
Mahmoud was at al-Aqsa where it all started.
He'd gone with friends to al-Quds for the day.
The sheik had said that the Jews were digging under the mosque, Mahmoud recounted.
Mahmoud didn't know if it was true or not,
he could just repeat what the sheik had said.
When the service ended, the younger worshippers took to the streets.
"No soldiers, no stones," I have my own view on this.
So does Mahmoud, who said, "It all written in Koran."
Mahmoud's party had set a meeting place outside the mosque.
But when the shooting started, Mahmoud and the other men in the group
ran for their lives and soon lost each other.
As Mahmoud was running through the narrow streets,
a door opened and an Arab woman ushered him into her house,
where he stayed until it was quiet.
He kept in touch with his wife and friends on his cellular phone throughout.
Mahmoud said, "I see boy die."
"Are you sure?" I wanted to know if Mahmoud was perhaps dramatizing things,
as he sometimes likes to do.
"I not stop to check he dead.
Many shooting. Many many.
Boy hurt and fall on ground. I see blood. Many blood."
"Perhaps he didn't die," I offered.
"My family, they say I must not go. I go. See what happen."
I told Mahmoud it wasn't because he'd gone to Jerusalem.
He shrugged his shoulders, "It all written in Koran."
"Also that you work in Tel Aviv? Sure."
Mahmoud nodded vigorously, "It written man must work."
Tel Aviv, that's where he performs the commandment.
Since the age of sixteen, he's been cleaning stairs, fixing burst water-pipes, whitewashing roofs, unplugging sewers, cutting the grass and trimming the hedge.
Mahmoud does everything. He repairs and renovates and builds.
I asked him how could he consider marrying an Israeli
when we have confiscated his land and deprived him of his rights.
All he said was, "We all children of Ibrahim."
His world is made up of the Koran, the village and his hamula*.
His family has lived in Barta'a for centuries.
In fact, the village is one big hamula - Mahmoud's.
Mahmoud's family tilled one fields and the Turks came and went.
They tilled the fields and the British came and went.
His father tilled his fields and the Jordanians came and went.
The Israelis? Mahmoud's father still tills his fields in this village
that the Green Line splits in two:
one part is Israel proper; the other is occupied territory.
When Mahmoud first told me about this schizoid status, I thought he was joking.
"Half and half," he kept saying.
"It's unheard of. It's crazy. How can a village be in Israel and Jordan at one and the same time?"
(Mahmoud never says "Palestine." He never says "territories."
To him Barta'a is homeland and country.)
"Abital, I not decide. Barta'a half and half."
Jew. Arab. Israeli Jew. Israeli Arab. Palestinian - who cares?
Between Mahmoud and me, there are no borders, nationalities, soldiers or guns.
I told him that if he's ever arrested by the police or the army,
he should call me right away.
I won't forget the look in his eyes: fundamental, that's what it was.
He wrote my cellular number in his pocket diary.
"Just in case," he said. "Why you worry? I no trouble with police."
I reminded him of that time he was arrested
when he didn't have his identity card with him.
That was the reason the police gave but of course that's not why they arrested him.
"It right. They can arrest you if you not have identity card."
"Don't be silly."
"It law," he said.
Mahmoud's heart is as fundamental as his faith.
He cares. I know he does.
How do I know?
Besides his impeccable record with me,
we talk, and joke, and argue too - like close friends do.
Mahmoud says, "You not have boyfriend?"
I tell him I don't.
"How you can live alone?"
I tell him I don't. I have him (he laughs).
"You not want children?"
I tell him I do but it's too late.
He says, "You how old?"
"We same age."
"For a woman, that's too late for babies."
"My wife have baby. He two month."
"Oh, yes? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I forget."
I think of the baby I'll never had. I want to cry but all I do is smile mazal tov.
Mahmoud says, "How you live without man? Not right. You not need? You not want?"
"You already have a wife!"
"Koran let me have many wives."
"I prefer you as a friend."
Mahmoud sulks, "You not think we friends."
"So why do I invite you to my home? Why do I tell you things I don't even tell my best friends?"
"You not want… I not touch you. You say when."
"I marry you, Abital. I give you home. I take you good care."
"You'll expect me to cook and clean and do the laundry for you."
"It bad? It what wife must do."
"Sure. Polish your shoes too."
"You not want, shoes wait."
"I eat pita. But first I teach you make coffee."
"My coffee's no good? My coffee? I make the best coffee in the world!"
I watch him through the coffee-making ritual,
and when he offers me a cup, I think: he has passed the ultimate test.
It's all in the coffee-making as far as I'm concerned.
But I persist in my little act. "I make the coffee. I cook. You polish your shoes. You do the laundry. It's a deal?"
"You forget clean." Mahmoud sips his coffee long and sad.
"You clean, I cook. There's a washing machine for the laundry. And you only wear sports shoes. Shall we go to the qadi?"
"Why not?" The spark has come back to his eyes.
"Okay. But first you have to talk to my dad. He's the sheik."
"Your father? Also my father sheik."
"We're all the children of Ibrahim."
"It written in Koran."
"It written in Bible."
"You ask your father when I can come?"
Mahmoud's unbeatable. He knows me inside out. My shticks, my meshugas.
He's an ace.
He leaves as he has come - my friend.