The hammering of the bricklayer downstairs is like a metronome. He chips bricks with a chisel to give them texture in a throwback to the Ottomans, a style some five hundred years old. I look down on him from a balcony during a smoke break, a cigarette dangling from my lips. I ponder the tediousness of it, sitting in silence, ninety degrees in the shade, day in and day out.
I work at an NGO, and we work with women and youth across the West Bank. We help them find jobs, innovate in agriculture, and organize to protest. This means I sit at a desk. It means I frown over a computer. It means I take as many cigarette breaks as possible. From the balcony I look across the West Bank, the rolling hills and the buildings mushrooming in the construction boom.
Every morning I pass the newsagent on my way to work, the carousel of newspapers display front page photos- riots, martyrs, arrests, and yellow Israeli Caterpillar bulldozers rolling over Palestinian homes. A woman in a veil cries, her hands reaching out for a god that has forgotten her. This is the place of no good news.
One day on lunch break in the street a severely handicapped man limps up and takes a seat next to me. His decorous smile reveals horrible teeth. The second thing he asks is, “Palestine is beautiful, isn’t it?” I look around. In the flowered median of the road a banner reads Freedom for political prisoners. Below it are several birdcages full of canaries behind bars. “Sometimes,” I answer the man, and he walks off nearly falling with each step.
For the first few months anger propels me to absolute empathy for the Palestinians. I eat tear gas at protests, draft reports on human rights abuses, and study the history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Like any war zone, it is a zero sum game. As usual I get behind the underdogs. I learn their language. In broken Arabic I talk shit about the Israelis.
Meanwhile the brick layer has thrown up the first story.
I live in a conservative neighborhood with my girlfriend, out of wedlock. The two young girls living upstairs wear their virginity like halos. Their parents ignore me at best and at worst they whisper slurs behind my back for such a crime. They do this for months as I walk to work. I skirt the refugee camp in the valley, an Israeli settlement on one hilltop and a Palestinian four star hotel on the other.
By the second year it’s just depressing. The front page of newspapers is the proof of the futility of my work. The sideshow of misery wears me down. There’s the sound of stray dogs shot at night, the sight of man on crutches who faints from weakness during Ramadan, and the smell of children burning electric cable to scrap the copper inside. The yellow Caterpillar bulldozer stops only to fuel up.
Then there is uplifting note, supposedly. A singer from Gaza wins Arab Idol, the equivalent of Star Search for the Middle East. Sadly though, there is more unity and outpouring of support than when political prisoners go on hunger strike or during protests against the rising price of living. When he puts on a show in Ramallah half the West Bank is present. I could barely hear him singing over the catcalls of the sexless youth.
The brick layer hammers without a break. He keeps time like the second hand of a clock. I leave work but he stays to put the finishing touches on the second floor.
I admire Palestinians’ steadfastness. They don’t up a quit a country like yours truly. Similar to anthills wiped out, a year or two later the houses sprout elsewhere. The bricklayer’s work is never done. At five p.m. on my last day of work I close my computer. Everything I’ve done during my contract was in two dimensions on a bright screen. It could be erased with a click of a button.
I walk to the street on a cloudless day. Before me stands a respectable looking four story building capable of housing several extended families. It lords over an idyllic countryside. On the roof top women hang out laundry to dry while men shake hands downstairs. The texture of the bricks gives it the airs of a fallen empire.