I attended international schools until I was nine years old. My classmates were from Mexico, Yugoslavia, Korea, France, Germany, India, the US, and the list went on. In the summer that I turned seven years old, my family and I moved to Kiev, Ukraine where we lived for two years. I know. It’s a strange coincidence that this story/memory takes place in Ukraine, another country that’s been in the headlines quite a lot recently.
When I began attending school that fall, I became close friends with a Jewish boy from Israel who I’ll refer to as Gary. I was also friends with his twin brother, (who I’ll refer to as Ryan) but I remember being closer with Gary because I’m pretty sure I had a tiny crush on him back then. Gary was really clever and always cracking jokes. He and I, along with our other friends would play together at school during recess all the time. He and his brother invited me to their birthday party and I invited them to mine. I remember I had a beautiful piñata at my party that my mom spent weeks making for me. After my friends and I smashed it, ate the candy, and had some birthday cake, we all rushed over to the TV to watch Space Jam on VHS. Gary had never seen the movie and was dying to watch it. The 90s were awesome.
But when I think back to how and why Gary and I even became friends, I would probably have to give most of the credit to my teacher. She divided the entire class into pairs and assigned us all to do a research project on our partner’s country. It was actually a great way for kids to learn about the world by first learning about each other. Somehow Gary ended up being my partner. So I read everything I could about Israel and learned how to draw the Israeli flag like a pro. And in turn, Gary learned all about Pakistan. I’ll always remember that day when he came up to me in class, pointing excitedly to the encyclopedia he was clutching, and asked, “Whoa! Does it really get that hot in Pakistan?” I just laughed and nodded yes.
I can’t even remember anymore what I wrote/presented for my project, but I do remember me and Gary talking and asking each other tons of questions about the countries where our parents came from. I remember how amazed we were when we discovered that the first letter in the Urdu alphabet and Hebrew alphabet are the same: alif. Fun fact: It’s also the same in the Arabic alphabet.
Despite doing this supposedly well-researched project on Israel, I didn’t understand anything about the history between Israel and Palestine, and how toxic the entire conflict has become, until I was in high school. Although I remember learning so much from Gary about his language and culture, it never occurred to me that we were technically not supposed to be friends. As a Muslim, I wasn’t exactly supposed to be best friends with Jewish kid, especially not one from Israel. But we were. Nothing can change that.
Now I find myself thinking: Had I stayed at that school, had we stayed in touch, I wonder if Gary and I would be friends today. Would we still hang out and exchange stories about our countries, our religions? I can still remember playing tag with Gary during recess. I can still remember watching Space Jam with him and my friends at my birthday party.
I also remember another moment, one that took place at Gary and Ryan’s birthday party. We were all invited to their home and at the end of the party, my father came to pick me up. I never paid attention to their conversation, but in my mind I can still clearly see my father and Gary’s father talking near the front door as I was putting my coat on. They were both smiling, nodding, and chatting. About 15 years passed before I asked my dad about that conversation. I asked him what it was like to speak to the Israeli ambassador. I mean this man’s politics and views of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict probably couldn’t be any more different or opposite from my father’s. Was it awkward? Did you hate being there? My dad just said matter-of-factly, “No, not at all. We had a nice talk.”
I didn’t have to ask my dad anymore after that. I could tell from his tone that in that conversation all those years ago, both mine and Gary’s father were not interested in discussing politics. Their children went to school together and they were friends. And that made them happy, as it would for any parent. Looking back, I spent a lot of years in high school and college being angry at the world as I learned more about its problems. But I’m beginning to see past that black and white filter. I think I understand now that when it comes to their children, most people try to be better than the politics surrounding them. Sometimes it may not seem that way, but they do try.