I was reading a little today in that lovely old Bible you gave
me, Abu Ramiz, George Saba said.
Ah, its a beautiful book, Omar Yussef said.
They shared a smile. Before Omar Yussef moved to the UN
school, he had taught at the academy run by the Frères of St.
John de la Salle in Bethlehem. It was there that George Saba
had been one of his finest pupils. When he passed his baccalaureate,
Omar Yussef had given him a Bible bound in dimpled
black leather. It had been a gift to Omar Yussefs dear father
from a priest in Jerusalem back in the time of the Ottoman
Empire. The Bible, which was in an Arabic translation, was old
even then. Omar Yussefs father had befriended the priest one
day at the home of a Turkish bey. At that time, there was nothing
strange or blameworthy in a close acquaintance between a
Roman Catholic priest from the patriarchate near the Jaffa
Gate in Jerusalem and the Muslim mukhtar of a village surrounded
by olive groves south of the city. By the time Omar
Yussef gave the Bible to George Saba, Muslims and Christians
lived more separately, and a little hatefully.
Now, it was even worse.
Its not the religious message, you see. God knows, if there
were no Bible and no Koran, how much happier would our
troubled little town be? If the famous star had shone for the
wise men above, lets say, Baghdad instead of Bethlehem, life
would be much brighter here, Saba said. Its only that this
Bible in particular makes me think of all that you did for me.
Omar Yussef poured himself some mineral water from a tall
plastic bottle. His dark brown eyes were glassy with sudden
emotion. The past came upon him and touched him deeply:
this aged Bible and the learned hands that left the grease and
sweat and reverence of their fingertips on the thin paper of its
dignified pages; the memory of his own dear father who was
thirty years gone; and this boy whom he had helped shape
into the man before him. He looked up fondly and, as George
Saba ordered a mezze of salads and a mixed grill, he surreptitiously
wiped his eyes with a fingertip.
They ate in quiet companionship until the meat was gone
and a plate of baklava finished. The waiter brought tea for
George and a small cup of coffee, bitter and thick, for Omar.
When I emigrated to Chile, I kept the Bible you gave me
close always, George said.
The Christians of Georges village, Beit Jala, had followed an
early set of emigrants to Chile and built a large community. The
comfort in which their relatives in Santiago lived, worshipping as
part of the majority religion, was an ever-increasing draw to
those left behind, sensing the growing detestation among Muslims
for their faith.
In Santiago, George had sold furniture that he imported
from a cousin who owned a workshop by the Bab Touma in
Damascus: ingeniously compact games tables with boards for
backgammon and chess, and a green baize for cards; great
inlaid writing desks for the countrys new wine moguls; and
plaques decorated with the Arabic and Spanish words for peace.
In Chile, he married Sofia, daughter of another Palestinian
Christian. She was happy there, but George missed his old
father, Habib, and gradually he persuaded Sofia that now
there was peace in Beit Jala and they could return. He admitted
that he was wrong about the peace, but was glad to be back
anyway. He had seen Omar Yussef here and there since he had
brought his family home, but this was their first chance to sit
alone and talk.
The old house is the same as ever, filled with racks of Dads
wedding dresses. The rentals in the living room and those for
sale in his bedroom, all wrapped in plastic, George Saba said.
But now theyre almost crowded out by my antique sideboards
from Syria and elaborate old mirrors that dont seem to
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