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My Jerusalem Love Affair

Campus Week: ‘I didn’t think about the future but I knew he wouldn’t be a part of it.’

Liz Rose Shulman
October 15, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Tavit and I met at Champs Pub in 1993, on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street right near Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem, during the bar’s Thursday dart night. He had thick, black, wavy hair, almond-shaped eyes, and a hint of a beer belly. The walls inside the bar were pocked and drizzled with gunshots from 1948, I was told, when Israel became a state. “Look closely,” the bartender said, pointing just to the left of the dart board. “See those holes? That’s the original wall.”

The bar was square-shaped and dark—the kind of dark light that made everyone look better than they did in natural light. It smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer; Thursday nights brought in a familiar crowd. I remember one regular, Aryeh, who carried his darts and dart glove in his fanny pack every Thursday, and after getting his first drink, very carefully unzipped his fanny pack, placed it on the bar, and then methodically took out each dart and inspected the tips and wings of each one. Then he’d take out his dart glove and inspect that, too. The bartender’s name, fittingly, was Israel.

Five years later—the night I left Jerusalem—and in love with Tavit, I waited for the taxi to take me to the airport. Tavit was with me. He’s an Armenian Christian. “No one gives a shit about us here,” he told me soon after we met. The Armenians are a subculture in Jerusalem, squeezed out by the dominant conflict. We’d been waiting for a quarter of an hour; the taxi would arrive any minute. We were on a busy road—Eshkol Boulevard—named for Levi Eshkol, Israel’s fourth prime minister. I’d lived in so many different neighborhoods over the last five years: Rehavia, Katamon, downtown just off Ben Yehuda Street, and most recently, in Ramat Eshkol, a neighborhood next to French Hill and right near the university.

The Oslo years in Israel from 1993 to 1995 were seemingly hopeful. Israel and the PLO signed agreements designed to give Palestinians the right to self-determination. These agreements also created the Palestinian Authority, which gave Palestinians the ability to self-govern in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Some of the more skeptical believed, however, that this gesture on Israel’s part to give autonomy to the Palestinian Authority was only a facade of power, and that Oslo actually gave Israel more control over the Palestinian population registry. With this, Israel had the ability to collect data about Palestinians and to further monitor their movement. A Palestinian friend of mine, Hatem, would tell me stories of living in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and unable to travel through the checkpoints to his parents who lived in Bethlehem. “It’s a Swiss-cheese map,” Hatem said, telling me about the concrete wall and checkpoints that dot the West Bank.

Because I was in Jerusalem on a student visa with a U.S. passport, I couldn’t feel what this kind of monitoring must have been like for Palestinians. I wasn’t Israeli either, so I didn’t know what it was like to live with the constant threat of war. As an American Jew, though, I was naively hopeful for peace. I’d experienced several close calls with suicide bombings—just barely missing the number 23 bus that was targeted across the street from my apartment one morning during rush hour—and felt a weird mixture of privilege and luck to have avoided all of the buses that blew up. I wanted peace and believed that those in charge wanted it too. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lit King Hussein’s cigarette in 1994 minutes after they signed the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, I carefully cut the photo out of Newsweek and taped it to my wall. “Peace pipe,” the caption read.


While we waited for the taxi, it became dark. I wasn’t sure what time it was but I knew I called for the taxi to arrive at 9 p.m. I didn’t know if Tavit and I would see each other again. We hadn’t really talked about it. Our relationship was full of smoking pot and having sex and talking about everything like old friends, and just hanging out, like you do in your 20s. You don’t really go on dates. You don’t need a plan. You end a phone call saying, “Just come over and we’ll figure it out.” You go out somewhere or you don’t, and if you do, you get there much later than you think you will because you’ve just been hanging out. That’s how it was with Tavit. Our spending time together was more important than the things we did.

This seems to be the opposite as I get older. Now, I make plans around doing something specific, like seeing a play, or going to a restaurant, or writing at the neighborhood cafe. I have a time limit on things I do now because I have to go to work the next morning and I’m tired. It’s hard to remember a time—it’s getting more difficult to even remember those years in my 20s when I lived in Jerusalem—when I just hung out.

One day when Tavit came over, he taught me how to make hummus. We didn’t plan it, because I had told him to just come over. He was wearing my fuchsia shorts—we had just had sex—and I remember the smell of garlic on his hands from mashing it after we ate the hummus, and then had sex again. I smelled like garlic for days. Or when he took me to the famous American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem and we smoked and drank and pretended to be diplomats with grand ideas for world peace. I know that much of our hanging out was typical of our age, as I look back decades later, but from the start I knew that I was always leaving once I’d finished my studies in English and Hebrew literature, and he was always staying in his home, Jerusalem, bound to marry an Armenian, like him. His family had been in Jerusalem for the past 800 years, he told me. That was much longer than the Israelis and Palestinians, he joked, as he pointed out his family’s home—which was also 800 years old—in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. We didn’t talk that much about what we would each do once I left. He’d keep working in his father’s shop in East Jerusalem; I’d look for a job back in Chicago since I had completed my graduate studies.

After that first Thursday dart night at Champs, we saw each other on several subsequent Thursdays and would talk a bit each time. After a few weeks, when he asked where I lived, in my naiveté, I told him. The next night, around 11, he showed up to my apartment unannounced. When I opened the door, I saw that he looked upset. His nose was bleeding. His jeans were ripped and his knee was bleeding too. He said he had gotten in a fight and didn’t know where else to go. I asked him who hit him and he said some guys on the street in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City where he lived. Some Armenians, like Tavit’s mother, had been in Jerusalem for centuries. Others who survived the 1915 genocide when the Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians, arrived after World War I. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim are the others—and often overlooked by outsiders who don’t know its history. I had assumed his being beat up must have had something to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had heard of attacks in the other quarters but I never heard anything about the Armenian Quarter.

I led Tavit into the bathroom. I motioned for him to sit on the toilet seat. I put some soap and water on a towel. I stood above him and cleaned the blood from his nose. He sat quietly and let me. I gave him the wet towel to press on his nose to stop the bleeding while I wiped the blood from his leg. I was a mother helping her son in some weird adult version of a tea party I’d hosted alone in my bedroom as a child. We were in a play no one was watching. We didn’t talk. I put Band-Aids on his nose and his knee. It was quiet outside. After, when the bleeding stopped, we walked into my bedroom and he lay down on my bed. The bed was in the corner of the room. Next to the bed were my bookshelves—three onion boxes on top of each other that I took from the grocery store around the corner from my apartment. I never bought bookshelves because I always knew I’d leave. Tavit knew he’d never leave Jerusalem. Two teal glass balls from the shuk hung in the window with white dental floss. I took his shoes off. We were both lying on our backs on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. I tried to give him more room by moving as close to the wall as I could. Periodically, I looked at him but I don’t think he noticed. Soon he closed his eyes. I watched him sleep until I, too, fell asleep.

The next morning we woke up both facing the same direction away from the wall. My nose almost touched his back. He said he was embarrassed about the previous night. He asked if he could smoke in my bedroom. I said yes, and asked if I could smoke one of his cigarettes, too. I offered to make some coffee and he said no, thank you, he had to go to work. He came back the next night, and the next, and for many nights after that. One night months later when we were talking and smoking and hanging out, he brought up that first night he had come over unannounced. He said he hadn’t gotten into a fight with some guys on the street near his home, but with his father, in his home.

It was strange for me to be caring for Tavit in the apartment I had leased for one year—a temporary home at best—when he was unwelcome in his 800-year-old home. He said he didn’t know where else to go. He thanked me for trusting him when he showed up. He said he knew it was weird for him to come over like that. He would have understood, he told me, if I hadn’t let him in.

He always finished his cigarettes before I did. I had always imagined putting the butts out in the ashtray together after sex, naked, dramatically, leaning with our elbows on the windowsill, our bare knees pushing into the mattress, after watching the smoke disappear. I would miss one night in particular when we stared out at the city, our clothes strewn all over the floor. I watched him watch his city, and the way he would breathe in, and then breathe out, like he had pressed a pause button on himself after a long day.

We did not have time to remain naked during my last night in Jerusalem, however, and I dressed quickly, anticipating the taxi that would soon arrive. That night seemed dreamy to me—a mix of pot smoking and crying. I knew what time my flight was but other than that I had no sense of time. Things seemed a bit blurry. I didn’t realize it but I was starting to see those last moments with him as something in the past, looking back from the future, and it made me sad. My mind knew that the moment would soon become memory. I was already in between time and space and, soon, my body would catch up as I boarded the flight to Chicago. My privilege to go back and forth between Jerusalem and Chicago was lost on me. I wasn’t yet aware of the political implications of my ability to travel within and outside of Israel with my U.S. passport when so many others are restricted within Israel and the West Bank.


One night Tavit picked me up from my apartment. We didn’t know where to go. There had been another suicide bombing. This one was at a restaurant, Cheesecake, a few doors down from Champs on Yoel Moshe Salomon Street. Fourteen people were killed. Neither of us had been there, but we had both been close by. Tavit knew the family of the bomber. He was upset about the loss of life and also had empathy for the Palestinian man who detonated the bomb. He knew of the family’s hardship living under occupation. Tavit held both sides in his heart in a city where people were polarized. After picking me up in Ramat Eshkol, Tavit drove toward the Old City. He went on Hebron Road, past the Cinematheque, then turned onto a quiet road with a steep incline—I can’t remember the name now—with a view of the walls of the Old City, and put the car in park. On this hill, we were just a bit above the Old City. We didn’t speak much. Periodically, Tavit would point something out like, “See that tower over there? That’s part of the Armenian church.” Or, “See that shop over there, just behind that part of the wall,” he’d say, and light a cigarette in between his words, “the guy who owns it is such an asshole.”

I watched him when he’d tell his stories; I’d watch him, too, when he was quiet. I had memorized the feelings associated with things he did: arching his eyebrows, laughing to a certain pitch, and recognizing pain in his voice on nights like this one when there had been a bombing. We sat in his car for a couple more hours. It was warm outside but we stayed inside as though we were at a drive-in movie watching an old show. I knew Tavit needed some distance from the only home he knew. The view of the Old City from his car, for me, was similar to a photo my mother gave me when I was a girl in Chicago. I had spent years staring at that photo of the Old City, taped to my bedroom wall, dreaming of visiting.

Tavit’s home had become my playground. That we loved each other so deeply was framed by knowing we’d have no future. It could go deep because it was finite. I didn’t think about the future but I knew he wouldn’t be a part of it. I got sleepy that night in his car. On the short drive back home to my apartment, I dozed while Tavit drove, and knew he’d wake me up at home. He’d driven me around the city like a father whose daughter is asleep in the car with no worries about getting home safely.

I think that maybe from the outside we looked like an Edward Hopper painting that last night in Jerusalem. “Pink Bedroom (Window Seat)” might be the one. The man is sitting on the bed with his hand on the back of his neck. He’s looking down. It seems like maybe he’s just gotten dressed. The woman is sitting on the window seat looking out. The messy, loose white sheet on the bed indicates some sort of intimacy. The soft pinks and greens make it seem like it might be early morning. Like all Hopper paintings, there’s a sadness and loneliness captured in the moment—like the moment is about to be over, but it lingers nonetheless, and for right now, it is heavy and full.

That night, as we dressed, Tavit sat on the bed like the man in the painting. I put on the same clothes I had worn for two days—dark blue Levi’s and a maroon ribbed long-sleeve top—the only clothes I had not packed or shipped home. I wore them for three more days when I got to Chicago. I wouldn’t shower because once I did, I knew the smell of him and Jerusalem would be gone from me. My mother, just diagnosed with breast cancer for what would be the first of three times over the next 20 years, would say to me, “Honey, please, take a shower. You’ll feel better.” For weeks after returning, when no one was looking, I’d look at the clock, then count up eight on my fingers so that I’d know what time it was in Jerusalem.

For years, I convinced myself that I’d be happier in that other time zone, my mind and body disjointed, a series of “if only this or that,” repeated in my head, as my dad threw the job ads at me at breakfast. With each day that passed I’d feel more distant from Jerusalem and inevitably, what I just came home from would become memory, as my time in Jerusalem settled into a different part of my brain, and I started to misremember things.

Years later, when I return, the city will be unrecognizable to me, ancient roads replaced with pedestrian malls made to look like they’d always been there. Champs will be long gone—a baby-clothes boutique in its stead—and I’ll walk by and wonder who remembers. I’ll become lost on Jaffa Road; sidewalks will have disappeared and there will be a new tram down the center of the street. And when I see my mother aging over the years, radiation and mastectomies having caused deeper lines in her face, I’ll remember the love she extended to me when I returned, lost, in 1995—a self-absorbed 25-year-old—holding me like a baby when I didn’t know what to do while she was sick. It was far easier to blame Jerusalem than to acknowledge my mother’s cancer.

A cab drove by. It wasn’t the one. I looked at Tavit when he looked away. I compared the angle of his chin to the hills behind Jerusalem and I noticed how it aligned perfectly with the hills outlined by the lights in the distance. In that second I couldn’t separate my love for Tavit from my love for Jerusalem. It was cool outside. I knew that the next morning it would be hot and the hills would be so white with sand and stone they’d be blinding. When I returned years later, the hills I had compared to Tavit’s chin would have an entirely new landscape of settlements and concrete walls.

And when I see him 25 years later, when we’re both 45, Tavit and I will have aged as well. We’ll both be married. He’ll have married an Armenian and have three kids. He’ll drive me to Bethlehem to visit some friends. As we exit Bethlehem and go through the checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb—the entire city surrounded by a concrete wall—he’ll say once we’ve driven through, “There’s no money in peace.” We’ll both notice the soldier at the checkpoint flirting with the Palestinian woman who’s in her car trying to get through. She’ll bat her eyelashes and smile at the soldier, and hope for the soldier’s weakness. We’ll laugh about it though it’s not funny. I’ll tear up as we say goodbye, again, not knowing when I’ll see him again, confused by age and my distorted memories of him and Jerusalem. Through my tears, I’ll remind him of one of the letters he sent me when I was back in Chicago in 1995 and he suggested we meet in Italy the next summer. “Why didn’t we ever do that?” I’ll ask him as I watch his lips. He didn’t know.

For a moment, in my mind, seeing him again will become some kind of a marker in my life. I’ll say to friends when I get back to Chicago, “And then I saw him 25 years later …” as if seeing an old lover when one has aged has some sort of significance I cannot name. Like a teenager, I’ll ask him when we hug goodbye if we’ll always be friends—I won’t have used that expression in decades—as though his answer, “Yes, of course,” will somehow make it so. I don’t know if that will happen.

During my last night in Jerusalem, though, I didn’t distinguish my love for him from my love for the city. Both the city and the lover had been a playground for me to explore. It would be so funny, I thought at the time, if we could laugh about this tomorrow when we go get something to eat, but then I remembered that we wouldn’t do that.

The cab finally came and I got inside. I didn’t look back, though I knew Tavit had started to walk home. I looked ahead, and as it started to rain, I stared through shiny wet glass that made all the lights of the city look bigger and brighter than they really were. The driver turned from Eshkol Boulevard, beginning the descent to Highway 1 that took us down and out of Jerusalem toward the airport. The rain hit the windshield hard and it became difficult to see. My view of Jerusalem was distorted. It was fitting to leave it this way.

Five days after I arrived back in Chicago, Rabin was assassinated by the right-wing Jewish Israeli extremist Yigal Amir. The hope for peace ended, and with it the hope—however idealistic—that the Oslo Accords would make a difference and bring peace. Settlement expansion would increase, as would Israeli and Palestinian frustration. A few days after Rabin’s assassination in 1995 I received a letter from Tavit, the first of several that arrived over the next year. After my first year back in Chicago, the letters stopped. I’ll email him 25 years later telling him I’m coming to Jerusalem and ask if we can get together for coffee. “I don’t think there will ever be peace,” he wrote in the letter to me after Rabin’s assassination. “Sometimes I don’t think anyone wants peace.” He wrote that because of recent violence; his father’s shop and many shops in East Jerusalem have been closed for a while. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to reopen because the situation is so bad. I’ll always be in Jerusalem in the same damn shop,” he wrote. “Mark my words. Things will only get worse.”


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Liz Rose Shulman is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.