In 1989, I spent the summer in Israel with a group of American teachers who were studying about the Holocaust. We were staying in the city of Nahariya, on the west coast near the Lebanese border. Nahariya is a beautiful resort community on the Mediterranean Sea. It is located only about five kilometers from the ancient city of Acco, a walled medieval crusader city, also right on the coast. One evening, those in charge of the study group took us to a wonderful restaurant in Acco. It was right on the water and the food was incredible. My roommate and I both wanted to go back to the restaurant later in the week, but the group leaders were fearful of us going alone. They warned that it was an Arab city and we would not be safe by ourselves. We discounted their warnings and decided to go anyway without telling them. We were, after all, grown-ups, and we should be able to take care of ourselves.
We took the local bus to the terminal outside the Acco city walls. We could see the minaret of the mosque in the center square and figured we could use that as our landmark. Once inside the walled city, we walked toward the sea, trying to find the restaurant. The narrow streets were charming, filled with children and people on their way from the market. It was as if we had stepped back in time. Neither of us could remember the way to the restaurant or the name, but we did manage to get to the sea, where we had a wide choice of restaurants to choose from. Most of them had outdoor seating with gorgeous views of the Mediterranean. We made our choice and enjoyed a wonderful meal, and the view of the setting sun against the incredible blue of the sea.
Once the sun had set and it started to get dark, we decided it would be best if we started back to the bus terminal. We began walking in the direction we thought was correct. But as night fell, we got really lost in the maze of narrow alleys and roads without a single streetlight. After about a half an hour of walking in what felt like circles, we decided we should look for an open shop or market and ask for some help. It was just then that we noticed a group of young men. They were quite boisterous and loud, and they appeared to be making comments about us. We looked at each other and silently acknowledged each other’s assumptions. We braced ourselves for trouble. Just then one of the young men asked us in Arabic and then in Hebrew and finally in English if we were lost. When we answered in English that we wanted to find a phone, he offered to lead us to a café that had a public phone.
We figured at least if we are in a place with lights, we would be able to see what we were doing. Along the way, several of the young men spoke to us in English. They were on their way to a bachelor party for the first young man who had spoken to us. They invited us to join them for a toast. When we reached the café, we found it was empty except for the invited guests, about fifteen young men. They brought us Coca-Colas and introduced us to the others who had already arrived. It seems several of the young men had spent time in the states. Two had green cards and one was actually a U.S. citizen who had worked for a time at the Target close to my home and had gone to school at the local community college. We laughed about traffic and American customs. We discussed politics and movies and enjoyed a kind of celebrity status in this most unusual bachelor party. There were no strippers or even alcohol. They toasted with Coca-Cola and Sprite and blushed when any comments approached the mere mention of sex.
After several hours, we decided we really did need to get back to our group before they sent the Israeli Defense Force after us, so three of the young men, the future groom included, offered to walk us back to the bus terminal. As we walked through the dark streets, we laughed and joked. When we reached the terminal, the groom said he would be honored if we would attend his wedding party. He said he would send his uncle, who owned a taxi to pick us up at our hotel. We told him we would love to attend and agreed to be ready at four o’clock the following afternoon. Instead of letting us get on the bus, the young men hailed a taxi and before we could react, they paid the driver and waved good evening.
When we got back to our hotel, the leader of our group was pacing the lobby. She was furious with us in a mother-hen way. We told her where we had gone and she had a fit. She insisted we had risked our lives with such foolish action. We tried to tell her what a wonderful experience we had had, but she just railed as to the danger into which we had put ourselves. We promised to be good just to shut her up, really having no intention of missing that wedding party.
The next day was a free day from classes, so we went shopping for a wedding present. We chose a lovely vase and went back to the hotel to dress. Precisely at four o’clock, the uncle arrived to pick us up. The wedding party was held at the home of a relative, who had a large house and gardens not far from the outskirts of Acco. Apparently this Palestinian family had managed to keep their home and land throughout the various uprisings and conflicts. It was land that had been in the hands of the same family for over 700 years, and it wore the love and care of all of those who had lived there.
The party itself looked no different than any other family gathering. There were tables of food; there was music and great joy. The married couple, who by customs of their culture had actually had the marriage ceremony some days earlier, now appeared together for the first time in the presence of their collective families and friends as man and wife.
We were seated with members of the groom’s family. They were anxious to know how we met the groom and our story caused quite a stir. All the aunts wanted to talk to us. We assured them that our intentions were honorable. They chatted among themselves and decided our story was believable, so we were included in the celebrations. We danced and sang and ate and ate and ate some more.
We were introduced as the American guests and received a round of applause.
When the party was winding down late into the evening, the uncle gave the taxi keys to one of the nephews to drive us back to our hotel.
There were lots of hugs and kisses as if we were departing bosom relatives. And to be honest, we felt as if we were.
How wrong our first assumptions had been. How much we would have missed, how poorer we would have been had we held on to them as fact and truth.