My seatmate was a solo-flying elderly woman who spoke minimal English. I showed her how to use the in-flight entertainment system, how to recline, and filled out her US landing card. I asked which countries she traveled prior to landing in the US, per the card. She replied, “Jerusalem.” I clarified, “Israel?” She neither agreed or disagreed. I started speaking to her in Hebrew, which she understood, but responded to in broken English. I looked again at her surname and birthday, took a moment before it registered, then meekly said, “Al Qods?” She looked at me with a sparkle in her eye, “Al Qods! You know? I am from Al Qods!” I put my hand over my heart and apologized for assuming she was Israeli, for missing all the clues. She gave a big smile and exclaimed, “it’s oookaaaay!” and gently laughed. In that moment I immediately recalled my interactions with Yehudit Arnon (Holocaust survivor and founder of Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company) before she passed away. I thought about how these two women from opposite sides of the occupation had that same easygoing sense of humor in their old age despite everything they had seen, lost, and overcome.
We talked about the last few weeks I spent in Egypt and that I wanted to learn Arabic. We conversed about my time in Kibbutz Ga’aton and about the 1948 Arabs, as I learned they are called. She grimaced, shaking her head saying “so sad” and brought up the Arabs of Haifa, Nazareth, and Jaffa. Born in 1944 during British Mandate Palestine and currently a US citizen, I had so many questions for her! But I don’t speak Arabic, and more importantly, I didn’t want to focus on the darker parts of her life simply because they had happened. Her story is hers and I’m sure she has an incredible one.