Beneath the Uniform

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The merciless sun beat down on my neck, penetrating the folds of the green scarf covering my bare shoulders, as I searched for my bus stop. I’d spent the day haggling my way through the markets, ruining my teeth on sticky sweet halva, taking pictures with over eager shopkeepers, and drinking in the musty scent of old books in hidden bookshops. Now I wanted only to rest my hot, weary feet.

In the States, I would simply have asked a cop for directions. Here, however, I hesitated to confront the officer leaning casually against a shop, smoking, and resting a hand on the formidable Uzi at her side. Despite the immense sense of belonging I had felt upon rushing into the arms of my Jewish relatives at Ben Gurion airport, this country had begun to scare me. The cities, with their towering beachside hotels sheltering tourists from the shabby slums, felt unbalanced in wealth and happiness, and the ubiquitous guns hanging at the sides of soldiers and police on the streets did nothing to dispel the sense of instability.

Finally finding the Central Bus Station, I bought a granola bar and an ice-cold bottle of water from a humongous, sweaty shopkeeper who smiled enormously when I asked him how to say “thank you” in Hebrew. I noticed a dark, young man, a soldier, watching me as I waited at the bus stop. Noticing also the gun he carried, I averted my gaze. He boarded my bus, sat down next to me, and asked me what I was eating. Through a mouthful of crumbs, I told him it was a granola bar, and gave him half, as he’d never tried one. As the bus bumped crazily up the hill to Har Nof (meaning “scenic mountain”, a wonderfully accurate name), he talked about himself, intermittently flashing a shy smile at me.

He’d never wanted to carry a gun, but rather go empty handed to South America to teach and build schoolhouses with his girlfriend, whose picture, soft edges worn with love, he showed me. Israeli law, however, required him to first serve in the army for at least four years.
The impatient hiss of the bus doors caused him to cut his gaze to the window, and he stood, realizing it was his stop. Before the smudged glass could completely separate us, he smiled one last time, and in this smile was all the unfairness and inequality of the world, replaced with shining white acceptance. As if he were repaying me for the shared granola bar, this soldier had revealed to me the humanity that, beneath the weapons and hard countenances, still exists.





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