A Bittersweet Land

I just submitted a short story to the Southshire writing group’s anthology of short stories related to food. They call it their “Pepper Pot.” We’ll see if I can make the cut. In any case, here is a snippet from my submission. I wrote about my experience with Turkish coffee. The story begins here with an Arab boy delivering my first cup of coffee at my friend Reuben’s photography shop.

When the boy delivered the much anticipated coffee, I noticed right away that the quantity of liquid was perhaps an eighth of what a typical American drinks in the morning. It was also darker than anything I’ve ever picked up at a convenience store. Sipping at the dark, dark brew, I quickly noted that Turkish coffee is also eight times stronger than its American cousin. Forcing myself to gulp it down, my heart seemed to accelerate in anticipation of the vast amounts of caffeine instantly injected into my body. The flavor was far bitterer than anything I’ve ever extracted from a coffee bean, even when I’ve accidentally doubled the amount of grounds in my morning cup.
Despite my initial shock, I eventually warmed up to my new, exotic, Middle Eastern drink. I styled myself an accomplished connoisseur of all things foreign. The bitter flavor emanated its own charm and even had a certain sweetness about it. Then I gulped down the dregs of my mug and almost gagged. My throat was assaulted by a host of hot, bitter grounds hidden below the coffee.
I tried to summon saliva into my suffering mouth, vainly hoping to rescue my throat that was coated in the bitter grounds. By sheer will-power I forced myself to continue the conversation and attempted to carry on as if all was going well. Mercifully, I soon left Reuben’s shop at the conclusion of our pleasant chat and hustled to a vendor selling mango juice. After committing my rookie error with Turkish coffee, I was convinced that mango juice was the only way I could make things right.
Emerging from Christian Quarter road, I turned right onto the quiet alley known as Greek Patriarchate Way. Intrigued with a healthy dose of intimidation, I looked forward to my next encounter with Turkish coffee. It would be two years before I once again touched that black, bitter substance to my lips. But time was not powerful enough to erode my memory of the bitter grounds, and I left them sitting at the bottom of my mug in all their unsavory glory.
After spending close to four months in the land of Israel, I acquired my own taste of the bitter and sweet elements in this troubled, but majestic country. To visit for only a few weeks as a tourist typically means that you taste the sweet parts of the land. You ingest incredible vistas, walk among the holy sites of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. You can take a boat across Galilee, get baptized in the Jordan, pray at the wall, visit the mosque, see more ruins than you can shake a stick at, and take a dip in the warm, clean waters of the Mediterranean. A walk through the shops in an afternoon means you will probably buy overpriced souvenirs from merchants you could not possibly know very well. A weekend or two means you attend church or synagogue as a visitor.
There are hints of violence and hatred all around, and you may run into the occasional riot or clump of soldiers, but a tourist will never have a chance to know many of the people on either side. As a tourist you will probably never visit a town in the West Bank or Gaza. You will not get to know lonely soldiers patrolling the wilderness. You will not get to know Bedouins or shepherds in the hills. You will not get to know Palestinian children who live in fear of the tanks that roam their villages. You will not get to know Palestinian Christians who worship in the midst of many enemies. You will not get to know rabbis who welcome over 50 people into their homes for dinner and speak of peace. You will not get to know illogical war-mongers who proclaim death to all of Israel’s enemies. You will not get to know secular Israelis who want to get on with life and leave war behind. And you will not get to know the Israelis who follow God in quiet devotion.
All of these people drink daily from the sweetness of the land and its bitter grounds. They cannot have one without the other. They cannot keep themselves at arms-length like a tourist, or a long-term student for that matter. I cannot say that I drank down all of the bitter grounds while in Israel for a semester, but I swallowed enough to respect the various people groups in the land of Israel who hang in the balance between peace and war, hate and tolerance. When given their cup, they must drink deeply and savor the sweetness and bitterness all at once.