Judith Dupre reveals what happens when an American puts herself in the hands of “the enemy”
I woke up in Jerusalem on a July morning to the sound of cats fighting. It’s a huge noise, one not heard in calmer places, that reminds me how much about the Holy Land will be forgotten once I’m back home. The way a bowl of hummus tastes, the touch of a gnarled olive tree, how the sun rises over Bethlehem and rakes across the separation barrier one concrete plank at a time: these are what make up these evanescent days.
Yesterday, I spent the morning at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, running my hands over its ancient umber stones, worn smooth by fourteen centuries of pilgrims before me. It’s the kind of place that stops you in your tracks and makes you think about the miracle of every birth, the epic journey of every life.
Afterwards, I hurried to meet my study group for a bus tour of outer Jerusalem. I wasn’t particularly worried about the time, figuring I’d glide through the Israeli checkpoint at the separation barrier, or Wall, as Americans most always do. This time, however, I found myself hopelessly at the end of the line, while a group of Palestinians ahead of me were being asked repeatedly to put their hands in a handprint reader, one of the many Israeli security measures at the Wall. Sure, I could wave my big blue American passport in the guards’ faces, which usually worked like a charm. But after spending hours at the humble place of the Nativity, I wanted to bear some of the ignominy that the Palestinians endure daily.
I stared impatiently at the guard as minutes ticked by. Like a cat with a mouse, he seemed to be deliberately toying with those ahead of me. Jesus’s birthplace is a literal prison for thousands of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Many have not been to Jerusalem—six miles away—in years, hostage to the long antagonism that runs both ways.
Finally through the line, I ran chuffing up the hill only to see the bus disappearing into the distance. I was furious at the tour director. That petty clock-watcher! I began indignantly plotting my revenge. It’s funny how grace and vengeance walk hand and hand.
But all the anger in the world wasn’t going to bring the bus back. Instead, I wandered over to a Palestinian beauty salon, which, having the geographic good fortune to be located on the Israeli side of the Wall, wasn’t subject to the vagaries enforced at the checkpoint. This was a Western-style salon, full of women in spaghetti-strapped tops with flowing hair streaked with blonde highlights. Nothing could be further from the hermetic intimacy of the hijab.
Few of the shop’s stylists spoke English. Jacqueline, the owner, understood in the universal language of the salon that I wanted her to rescue my snarled hair, which, after days of desert hiking, looked like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead. At first I was nervous about being in a place so different from the exclusive salon I frequent at home, good hair being my one splurge. Yet before she applied the color, the assistant took pains to dot the edges of my hairline with cream so that the dye wouldn’t stain my skin. She then applied the color slowly, strand by strand. She washed my hair, generously lathering it twice, and finished with a luxurious head massage. Then Jacqueline glided in and expertly snipped with the kind of hands-deep finesse possessed only by masters.
Two hours later, my initial anxiousness replaced by that seductive, relaxed state that comes about in beauty salons, another woman, Danah, arrived to blow-dry my hair. Halfway through this labor, she looked deeply into my eyes, her own as blue as lapis beads, and asked where I was from.
Oh, she said, choosing her words, then you are not Greek, and continued drying with the same careful attention that the other women had showered on me.
Moments later, I realized that “not Greek” was her kind way of saying, Oh, then you are a Jew, or perhaps, you are an American Jew, or, most fundamentally, you are an American, the friend of my enemy, the government by which Israel has the authority to take away our lands, livelihoods, and children’s futures. Like many in the Holy Land, she and the other salonists must have assumed I was a Jew, with my dark eyes, unruly curls, and, after three decades in Manhattan, a good bit of brash confidence. Or perhaps their tolerance was typical of the thousands who daily step away from the divisiveness propagated by both sides, and go about their days.
Danah’s comment opened a floodgate of understanding. I recall that today, July 22, is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, celebrity stand-in for the many Biblical bad girls who had courage enough to face their demons, engage the stranger at the well, or dry Jesus’s feet with their hair—to do the right thing, the human thing, by the other. Here, in this Palestinian beauty salon, my hair was being lovingly tended by holy women who ministered to me, a stranger — and, by most political measures, their enemy.
Editor’s Note: Judith Dupré is the author of Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life, as well as several international bestselling works of narrative nonfiction. Currently, she is matriculated at Yale Divinity School where she is exploring the ethical implications of architecture and community building. She lives outside New York City.