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This Time, It's Personal


Five years ago last month, I wrote about the "handshake of hope" (as the media was then characterizing it) that had taken place several weeks earlier between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

This momentous event, brought about by a Bill Clinton more preoccupied with peace than with getting a piece, seemed to promise the end of hostilities in the Middle East. And its import was not lost on even the most cynical of political commentators.

"When Rabin and Arafat came together," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd at the time, "the banal became breathtaking, and the ordinary was suddenly historic . . . Once [the two of them] spoke and shook hands, suddenly it all flowed together, leaving the wonder of why it took so long and what it was all about in the first place."

I, too, found myself surprisingly moved--especially by Rabin's declamation, "Enough of blood and tears. Enough."

It was enough to send chills down the spine, I tell ya.
But not enough, sadly, to stem the age-old tide of blood and tears. And half a decade later, with Rabin's courageous voice forever stilled by one of his own crazed countrymen, it was as if that hopeful handshake on the White House lawn had never happened.

This sorry state of affairs has probably troubled me more than most people, I'd venture to guess, because of my ethnic background--a heritage that was kept secret from me for the first 32 years of my life.

Let me explain.
I'd grown up thinking I was German, which is what my father had insisted we were. And while my cousins are all dark-complected, who was I--a blue-eyed, blond-haired kid--to argue?

But one day, after a friend who teaches German told me that "Sowd" couldn't possibly be a Teutonic name, I confronted the Old Man about it. And somewhat sheepishly, he revealed the truth: His father had immigrated here from Syria, of all places!

So for the past twenty years or so, I've been proudly telling everybody I meet that I'm Syrian--never stopping to think that at the turn of the century, when Grandpa came over, all the countries of the Middle East were part of the Ottoman Empire and went under the collective name Greater Syria.

Then, in late September, I got a phone call from a man in Canada who claimed to be my long-lost cousin.

This guy, whom my father had told me about but I'd never been able to track down, had gotten my phone number from the Internet. And now, late in life, he was anxious to make contact with the Canton branch of his far-flung family.

Talking with him was a heady experience, something roughly akin to what those separated-at-birth siblings go through when they're reunited on Oprah. (Not that I cried or anything, you understand.)

And finally, I brought up the question of our origins.
My cousin told me that his uncle Alex--my grandfather--had come from Akka, a city on the Mediterranean seacoast that was part of Palestine before that country became Israel in 1948.

"You mean we're not Syrian?" I asked.
"No," he said, in the impeccable English of an Arab who polished his skills at the American University of Beirut. "We are Palestinian."

Wow! I thought.
The most outcast nationality in the world! (Hell, it's not even a nationality--since we don't have a nation.)

We're more downtrodden than the blacks.
The Hispanics.
The blacks and the Hispanics combined--with the Vietnamese, the Iranians, and the American Indians thrown in for good measure.

Nobody wants us in his or her country. Why, we've done enough wandering in the past fifty years to practically catch up with our Semitic cousins, the Jews--and all without the benefit of klezmer music or Yiddish to bolster our spirits and support some sense of community.

So my first instinct, upon hearing the news, was to go out and buy me one of them kaffiyehs. You know, the black-and-white checkered scarf that my man Yasser wears over his head like a tablecloth.

I was anxious to identify with my tribe.
And besides, lots of hip people I know who aren't Palestinian--like my good buddy, Michael Heaton--wrap these things around their necks to keep out the winter cold. We're talkin' cutting-edge accessory, here!

But then my cousin told me the kaffiyeh is only worn by inland Palestinians, and our ancestors were tradesmen--potters and tailors--from the coast. If they put anything on their noggins it was a fez, like the Shriners wear.

Well, I'm sorry, but no way am I gonna go around with a damn fez! It'll be enough just to send the PLO a check and maybe take a toke on a hookah every now and then (not that I'd ever inhale or anything).

At any rate, I've gotta say that coming out of the ethnic closet at long last--and here in the pages of Scene--has been a liberating thing. Now I know how Ellen DeGenerate felt after that lingering soul kiss with Laura Dern.

Certainly, such syndicated columnists as Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times make no bones about the fact that they happen to be Jews. And if that colors what they write, so be it. It's not like there aren't plenty of non-Jewish pundits to counter their particular perspective.

So with that in mind, let me just say that this one-quarter Palestinian columnist took more than a passing interest in the most recent round of Middle East peace talks, which Clinton convened at a retreat in rural Maryland a few weeks back. And naturally, I'm happy that the president was able--through some serious arm-twisting--to get Israel, a nuclear power whose very existence is dependent on a constant infusion of our foreign-aid dollars, to part with a measly 13 percent of its precious barren desert so that the bloodshed might finally stop.

It hasn't, of course.
But there's a far more hopeful sign on the horizon--one that I learned about from a piece Morley Safer did on 60 Minutes last month. It's a program called Seeds of Peace, which an American Jew created seven years ago to let Israeli and Palestinian teenagers spend three weeks together at a summer camp in Maine and put away their prejudices for good.

What these kids learn from this encounter is that the people on the other side of this intractable conflict are human. And when it comes to hope for a better future, that beats a handshake.

David Sowd's e-mail address:

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