Watermelon Walls

This story begins 18 years ago on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

I was driving a vintage Fiat 127 in heavy traffic when the truck in front of me suddenly slammed on his brakes. Despite my cat-like reflexes and the best of Italian engineering, I slammed into the truck. His bumper was bent. My Fiat was less robust. Some aluminum got crumpled. Again.

The front end of the ol’ 127 took a lot of shots that year. Can you see the “lady eye” stickers on the headlights? Classy? By the way, I erased the license number in case I owe somebody else some money.

But this story is not about cars or crashes. It is about the fellow who was driving that truck. His family name was Samman and that crash, almost two decades ago, thrust me forcefully into the orbit of his kin. As it turned out, they accepted me with grace and offered friendship in exchange.

Today I walk to the Samman Store. Once, I came here to pay for a bumper. Today I come for another reason. This is the best place in East Jerusalem for fresh fruits and vegetables.

I walk between the crates of peaches and avocados.

“Salam alekum!” I greet Musa, the father of the clan, and Mansour, his son (the brother of the fellow I crashed). Musa is sitting at the fruit scale, Mansour is reading the newspaper in the back.

They greet me in return and we shake hands vigorously. It is no accident(al) friendship!

Musa and Mansour in the Samman Store.

The Samman Store began with a full line of grocery items more than five decades ago on Salah ed-Din Street. Since that time, it gained focus. Today, it is the place to go for melons, onions, carrots, oranges, apples, grapes, and other good things that grow from the ground. Everything is fresh and is sold by weight.

A young lady enters. The aisle is so narrow, we must step out to let her step in. She fills a bag with produce. Musa weighs her collection. She pays. She then looks at me and asks in perfect English, “Are you a writer?”

“Sortof.” I answer. The notebook must have given me away.

She nods. I ask her about the fruits and vegetables.

Tamara, a regular customer and a longtime friend of the Samman family, examines the apples.

She tells me how she shops here all the time. Her father runs a clothing store across the street. They have been friends with the Samman family for three generations.

These are the kind of relationships that knit together the fabric of East Jerusalem. Everybody knows everybody. It also explains why some businesses, like the Samman Store, make it, while others wilt and die.

I ask Mansour for his secret. “How do you keep the store going?”

His answer has three parts, more or less. “Smile. To be honor. And don’t cheat. If I tell you it is sour, it is sour. If I tell you it is sweet, it is sweet. I tell you if it is fresh or if it is not.”

Mansour believes that honesty is why the Samman Store has stayed in business so long.

I examine the cucumbers. There are rows and rows of them. They are crisply stacked. Beside the cucumbers are huge cabbages, the smallest is the size of a basketball. Bananas dangle from the sky. Tomatoes fill the bin by the door. It is a colorful and appetizing display.

“Eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” Mansour recommends. “It’s healthy.”

I smile. Except the egg plant.

“Where do you get your fruit?” I ask.

“It’s mixed,” he replies. “Some is from the West Bank (Palestine), but most is from Israel. The vegetables are better in the West Bank  . . . grapes, figs, apricots, beans . . . All except the oranges.”

I sense an opening that is worth pushing through.

“I thought it was illegal to buy from the West Bank.”

“No.” Mansour counters. He points to half a dozen business cards that are taped to the wall. I can see names and phone numbers printed in Arabic. “These men have paid much money for . . . . ” His voice trails, he doesn’t know the word.

“For a license?” I suggest, optimistically.

“Yes, for a license.” He continues. “They can bring food into Israel for sale. But I can’t go to the West Bank and bring it myself. I can’t take a license because I am small.”

Lemonade in the raw.

I muse. It is a 15 minute drive from the Samman Store in East Jerusalem to the concrete wall that seals off the West Bank. The vegetables behind that wall are of a better quality, available at a lower price, and less expensive to transport. All of this is nullified, however, by the tariffs/taxes at the border. Somehow, these little green beans are a part of the reason why a “Two State Solution” will never work in this part of the world, at least as it is currently configured. Palestine has a very limited market inside the wall and all conduits to the outside are tightly controlled by Israel. Under these conditions, Palestine can never create a viable economy, much less rectify its overwhelming unemployment problem.

Of course, settler organizations operating on confiscated (and fertile) land inside the West Bank can bypass many of these issue. Growers have access to water and receive government assistance. It is an apartheid arrangement, pure and simple.

Mansour knows what I am thinking. He speaks in a soft voice, unprompted.

“Israel needs to sell his vegetables first because he’s the boss.”

It is simple, yet eloquent. Nothing more can be said. We stand there quietly, limply.

But then Mansour envisions a solution. “We need to get fruits and vegetables from the West Bank without license. Let the customer decide. If this orange is better, he’ll buy this orange.”

It seems simple. A level playing field is needed.

“Mansour, do you know what you are?” I exclaim. “You’re a stinkin’ capitalist!”

The fruit man nods. Despite the language barrier, he knows what I’m saying.

“It would be better for everybody,” he adds.

Musa, the patriarch of the Samman Store.