Just a little story.
It's about a day that feels so far away.
It was twenty years ago, today. Twenty years ago, I was a teenager, a high school senior, worried about things like SAT scores, college applications, friendships, boys, and whether my clothes were right.
I also lived in Jerusalem.
I went to an international school, filled with people from all over the world, some staying in Jerusalem for a year, two years, ten years. I went to school with a few other locals, Palestinians and Jews who were also connected to the foreign expat community in some way. But I also went to school with children of traveling professors, and missionary kids, embassy brats, journalists' children, UN kids, and the list went on and on.
It was a richly layered place, this school, politically and culturally tangled, so that sometimes it seemed a million miles from the West Bank checkpoints, a serene island in the midst of war. And other times, the pain pierced the stone walls of the school.
Some of us were, after all, the children of the first Intifada. Some of us grew up in the first wave of uprising, breathed the air of burned tires and tear gas, ducked behind the strikes and the check points, the occasional rock smashing our car. Our first inhalation of politics was on our own streets, as we ran from the army jeeps. We came of age in the first Intifada.
But now, we were seniors. High school was ending, and it felt like new things were happening in our world, too. Our tenth grade year had brought the Oslo Accords, and, at fourteen, I wept in joy when I saw the Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands. And the accords were marching on. We breathed a little easier, walking a little freer, and I thought, we have overcome.
My eleventh grade attempt at the SAT had been a mild disaster, so I was gearing up nervously for my second round. I was going to have to make the trip to Tel Aviv on my own, since my father was out of the country. A new American friend kindly offered to let me travel with her and her mother; we would leave the night before, spend the night at an acquaintances' home, and take the exam early in the morning.
I was nervous. My whole future hung on this test, teenage anxiety told me. I lined up my pencils, my calculators, my overnight bag, checking everything over and over. I reviewed my test notes just one more time. I was anxious about sleeping well the night before my exam, and worried that I wouldn't sleep well in a new bed and an unfamiliar place. Still, this was the plan. After dinner, I climbed into my friend's car, waved goodbye to my mother and sister, and drove away.
I remember it being a quiet drive, and after a few minutes of small talk, we all settled into a steady silence. I remember driving out of the familiar sights of my home city, Jerusalem, and the long, open highways to Tel Aviv.
It was late by the time we arrived. I had wanted to be in bed by nine o'clock, but here it was, a little after nine pm, and we were stuck in a snarl of traffic in Tel Aviv. It's a peace rally, my friend's mother told me. I looked out the window and saw the swirl of blue and white flags, the spotlights, the security gates, the throngs of people around the square. The Prime Minister is there. I leaned forward, scanning the crowds, hoping to see something interesting. We slowly inched past.
The rest of the evening was fast, in a rush for us all to tumble into bed and get ready for the next morning. I slept, but awoke before my alarm, my knotted stomach barely accepting water. I stood in the unfamiliar bathroom brushing my teeth when my friend's mother knocked on the door.
I have some bad news, she said.
Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated last night.
I remember the shock waves running through me. I remember sitting down heavily, on the edge of the hard, cold bathtub. There was blankness all around the words that she had said, like they were floating alone in the middle of a page. I struggled to work through their meaning. But he was just here. Last night. In the square. We drove past.
We drove past.
But the next question I had, I couldn't even ask. I sat there, on the edge of the bathtub, bracing myself for the next thing that would change everything.
Quietly, she said: He was killed by a Jew.
I'll never forget the relief I felt in that moment, to know that it wasn't my fault that Rabin had been killed. My people had not done it.
And yet, as I sat there, toothbrush in hand, I could feel the colossal shifting of the earth. All of the flag waving, all of the hand shaking, all of the lightness in our steps, this bright future we were all walking towards: was it, too, shot dead?
We were late getting to the testing center, but the whole city was late that day. People were crying everywhere. I sat in a desk, with my number two pencils lined up, while Jewish high-school students cried on either side of me, one girl crying so hard she collapsed on the floor and was taken out of the room. Focus, I told myself, focus on the clock. You have forty minutes to complete this section. We pressed our pencils into little, charcoal circles. No one had to tell us not to talk.
I wanted to reach out and tell the other test takers, that I was so sad, so sorry, so devastated by their loss. I wanted to hug them and tell them that their loss was also my loss. I wanted to tell them that their leader was brave. I wanted to ask them about tomorrow: would it still be bright? Would we still find a way to shake hands? Was it, just now, as we were trying to start our lives, already over?
My high school friends all met up after the test. We were jittery, sad, confused. At school, we were just a group of teenagers. But here, the color of our many different skins, identity cards, passports, well, they looked different today, here, this day. Some of us were Arabs. Some of us were Jews. Some of us were from other countries, but had lived here a long time, or a short time. We talked quietly, hugged, some wiped away tears. Two of our group had birthdays. The plan had been to go to the Hard Rock Cafe to celebrate, the end of the test and the beginning of their 18th year. Should we still go, we wondered? Did we still want to? Would anything even still be open?
Our hunger drove us to the streets. We walked the streets of Tel Aviv, an odd little band of teenagers, winding our way to the Hard Rock Cafe. I looked down at my hands and wondered how much I looked like an Arab today? I worried: what if the Jews are angry? My sixteen years and my few friends suddenly didn't feel like enough. I pulled aside the only other Arab in the group and asked him, in whispers, Do you think we are okay? Do you think we are safe here today? He was a year older, and wiser. He answered quietly. We'll be okay. Look at our group. No one will guess if we are with them.
There was no music playing at the Hard Rock Cafe that day. We all ordered burgers and fries, quietly sang happy birthday, our voices huge and loud in the silence of the restaurant.
As of today, twenty years have passed since that day. It's hard to believe, but it has been twenty years. The years have ground by, but every November, I remember.
And yes, my 36 year old mind knows that really, it might have gone sideways a hundred different ways, and that what if questions are less than useless, because we'll never know what would have happened had he lived.
But. The Hope. The Hope was powerful. We could almost taste it, almost reach out and touch it. And I miss it.