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from Where the Heart Is

When I was a chef years ago, a Pakistani dishwasher told me I was the only nice Christian he’d ever met and when I died Allah was going to send me to the nicest part of hell, which is where you are allowed to lift one of your feet off the fiery floor at a time. When I was in Mexico last year finishing my book at the beach at the hotel I was staying at was an Israeli couple on their honeymoon. As we sat talking one evening looking out at the brilliant sunset over the Pacific, a man approached us and he and we smiled, but when he opened his mouth to ask if there was a vacancy at the hotel, it turned out he was Palestinian, on vacation like the Israelis, and you could see how quickly the distrust grew up and the tension between them, but then they talked, strangers in a strange land. Before they spoke each thought the other was Italian. Ironically there was no vacancy and when the Palestinian left the Israelis told me, “We have no quarrel with him.” The Israeli husband said to me the next day as we watched his buxom wife walk bare-breasted down the beach, “She will bear me many sons.” The Israeli was young and hip, yet what came out of his mouth sounded so damned Old Testament in a traditional way that I was struck by it, and it was something I might expect to hear coming out of the mouth of an Arab too, those Palestinians as they mourn their dead sons and scream, “Death to the Jews!”

Is there a God? And if there is, whose? I remember the time I was ill with pneumonia, I had had a high fever for days; I knew I was so sick that I could die and raised my feverish face looking up to the starry cosmos, the swirling bedroom ceiling above my head. I felt, like when the poet Lucretius writes about bodies breaking up into atoms, that I was beginning to disintegrate, melt, go back to where I’d come from and my feelings and thoughts were not of heaven or hell but of gratitude, I really felt grateful, thankful that I had lived. Polite people go to heaven I think. Remember to say, “Thank you.”

I wrote the above during September and October 2000 around the time of the USS Cole explosion; it is taken from a longer essay, Where the Heart Is. I was on state court jury duty at the time; and the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians was intense with awful footage: tortured beaten Israeli soldier thrown from a second story window, torn to pieces by the angry mob below; Palestinian boy caught in Israeli gunfire, shot dying in his father’s arms; then the father gets shot too. This was a year before 9/11, three years before the Iraq invasion, and fourteen years now as bombs continue to be exchanged between Israel and Palestine.

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