An Unlikely Friendship, Part 1 of 2
In 2011, my employer encouraged me to see beyond the present as I had been working and teaching in the same institution for several years. That July, I applied to study at Tel Aviv University’s Sofaer International program. I had two main hesitations. First, I wasn’t sure if I would be accepted as a business degree is quite different from the degree I studied for my BA. Second, I am a Palestinian; Tel Aviv is in Israel.
Shortly after I applied, I heard back from the director of the program and professor of finance, Simon. He kindly wrote to me, requesting that we meet for an interview. It might seem that the automatic response would be to say yes, and look for a way to do so. Yet, as a Palestinian, we always have to justify our meetings with Israeli Jews. Since he is much older than me, I reasoned he has been in the country much longer than I have. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that meeting with him and possibly attending Tel Aviv University would not be interpreted as me, a Palestinian, condoning or accepting the occupation or the injustices my people face.
We met, and I was humbled. I made many assumptions about this man without knowing him. He is well-respected and well-known in his field. He has spent decades traveling extensively, seeking to implement his teachings in many places throughout the world. As his method is unique, he often goes out of his way to teach the material himself so others can see his methodology clearly in front of them.
In the interview, Simon sat with me for a long period of time, discussing the program and advising me. He was warm and welcoming, and quickly made me feel at ease. He detailed the challenges of the program, and addressed the travel and permit difficulties I might encounter as a Palestinian.
I was accepted to the program. When asked how I wanted to pay, I told Simon I had money in my bank account. When I discovered the total cost, I realized that my savings could not begin to cover the tuition. I wrote to Simon, thanking him for the opportunity, telling him I must withdraw as I could not afford it. Shortly thereafter, I was awarded a 70% scholarship, allowing me to continue. Whenever I had a question, in spite of his busy schedule, Simon had an answer. He wanted to help me study, and bring the knowledge I would gain back to my people.
Of the 40 students in the program, I saw Simon the most. While I lived in Tel Aviv during the week, I would go home on the weekends. It is a long and complicated commute for me to get home, but Simon mentioned he lived close to the checkpoint. Nearly every time I needed to go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv or back, he would give me a ride.
On our rides to and from the university, we had long discussions. I told him about my family, and he sympathized with my husband who cared for our children while I spent long days in Tel Aviv studying. He learned about my life, and I began to learn about his. I would speak to his wife on the phone in the car. He told me about his three adult children, what they were studying, where they were working and more. I developed a deep affection for all of them, even before I met them face to face. I learned he has many Palestinian friends, and sometimes they would call him when we were in the car, and I would hear them call him sheikh, a title we use for respected people in our community. He was present, there for his friends, always seeking to be of service.
We talked about politics. Simon lamented that decision makers did little, and government less. He knew that Palestinians are the victims of a horrible system, and there is little change in sight. Working from the top-down is a waste of time, he would say. He sadly discussed the poor education many Palestinians receive and how much work needs to be done to improve it. He also discussed the poor medical system available to us -- the few hospitals, resources and people who work in the medical field. He always discussed ways to help, sought ways to improve the situation.
During that year, we developed a relationship with one another’s families. Simon and his wife came to my home and met my husband, parents and children. We all loved one another dearly.
That long, hard year of study came to an end by mid-summer 2012. When we graduate, we often say our farewells. We are no longer in that academic bubble where we see each other regularly. We move on to our work and lives.
This was not the case with Simon. We remained close friends. Simon knew the steep, circuitous route to our home, and would visit with his wife or his son who speaks Arabic. Then, one day, Simon visited us and told us he has cancer, and it is serious.
He looked so healthy and vibrant. I didn’t know what to think. I had no words. I wondered if he would be okay. Would I lose him? I dared not think of that moment and whether it would come.