My Tea with Ali

To this day I wonder who he was. Maybe just an ordinary holy-land angel, sent to help me understand how terrifyingly complex we are.
May 24, 2021
Juana Mari Moya/Getty Images

In Jerusalem, a long time ago, I unwittingly drank tea with a maybe-terrorist.

The maybe-terrorist seemed nice.

His name was Ali and he spoke French-Arabic accented English.

His awkwardness, combined with his friendliness, made him seem as dangerous as a wool sweater.

Jerusalem was sweltering and packed with tourists and I had taken the bus from Tel-Aviv, where I was staying with cousins. They’d sent me off for the afternoon, saying, have fun, Sarale, enjoy it, but stay out of the Arab Quarter—it’s not safe.

And there I stood, a mere two hours later, squinting up in the August sun at this beanpole of a man, who for some reason wished to know if I spoke French. Oui, I nodded. I had studied it in high school.

–Allors, if you can find me some French-speaking tourists you will come along for free. As my guest. Je m’appelle Ali. What is your name?

–Sara. Pleasure to meet you.

He smiled. I relaxed because there was kindness there, crinkling in his coffee eyes and in his tobacco stained teeth.

As if on cue, a gaggle of French tourists appeared. So I asked if they wanted a tour, and they did, so the deal was done.

Ali clapped his hands, then rubbed them together hard as if trying to warm them up. He winked at me and the tour commenced.

Our group slapped along in our flip-flop shoes, down the winding steps,  past the huge bins of zatar, pistachio nuts, plastic cups of sliced watermelon and magnificent saturated orange-red fabrics with cold coins sewed on.

Soon there was no more Hebrew to be heard, only Arabic. I felt like Princess Jasmine, in Alladin, when she leaves the castle gates for the first time, looking at everything with huge, innocent doe-eyes. (Be gentle,  friends, I was eighteen, very naive, and sincerely thought in terms of Disney metaphors.)

A small group of children squealed when they saw us—you would have thought Ali was a pop star. They wrapped themselves around his legs and jumped up and down. He ruffled their hair, full of good nature, tweaked their noses, reached into his pockets to pass out hard candies.

When we passed a bakery I tried to purchase a piece of baklava. The baker pressed the pastry into my hand and refused to take my money.

–You are with Ali. If you are with Ali, you don’t pay.

I turned to look at Ali.

–Are you the mayor here or something?

But he just smiled.

Next, he took us to his house. The house had a dirt floor, but we sat on his sofa and his wife served us tea in tiny silver cups like we were royalty. And then it came.

–J´etais tres actif avec le P.L.O. J’etais en prison pour beaucoup d’anees.

I’ve been very active with the P.L.O. I was in prison for many years.

I blinked. My French was OK but nowhere near perfect. Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe P.L.O meant something different in French.

My heart started to beat faster. I looked at the Frenchies who sat with calm faces, nodding and sipping the tea. They did not look scared.

I think I might be in a terrorists house, I remember thinking. What do I do? Should I run? Make up a reason? Pretend to be unwell?

But soon it was time for lunch and Ali was taking us all to a restaurant for an authentic Palestinian meal. I willed myself to be calm. Maybe the P.L.O is not a terrorist organization, I thought. Maybe it helps people. Maybe he was in prison for something not scary.

We sat at the wooden tables and ordered thick hot pita and hummus that was so delicious it made my eyes water. I tried to pay, but Ali said no.

–This was not part of the deal.

–I told you, you are my guest.

At the end of the meal I decided that P.L.O or no P.L.O, Ali was probably not going to harm us. I went to take the bus back to Tel-Aviv. He clicked his tongue no.

–No bus. You’ll be safer in a taxi.

I thanked him for everything, held his hands in my hands.

–My friend Sara. My American chavera. Be safe. Come back to visit us sometime. You always have a friend in Jerusalem with Ali.

I stepped into the taxi and watched him wave from the rear view window. My driver had a thick silver moustache. We listened to the Eagles, the Clash, and the Mamas and the Papas all the way to Ra’anana. For a brief, terrifying moment I thought what I a fool to get in that taxi with him, that something horrible could happen, that I might never be found again, that this was exactly what the cousins had warned me not to do.

But then he merrily pulled up outside my relatives house in Ra’anana and refused to take my money.

–But it was such a long ride! All the way from Jerusalem. Please. I have to pay you.

–You are a friend of Ali. I cannot take your money.

I never learned Ali’s last name.

To this day I wonder who he was.

Maybe just an ordinary holy-land angel, sent to help me understand how terrifyingly complex we are.

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