I suppose it was inevitable that, with the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan early last week, my thoughts would turn to my friend Taleb. I met him around this time of year back in 1992. He was the owner of a small grocery in a suq (market) that I frequented. I don’t recall what I was buying that day but he heard my American accent and immediately asked if I would teach him English. I explained that I wasn’t an English teacher but he persisted; he asked me to come to his home where, he insisted, I could give him lessons. I acquiesced, not realizing that I was about to embark upon a friendship that would last nearly 20 years.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I would visit regularly with Taleb, his wife, siblings, mother, and large extended family. Often, I was included in Muslim holiday celebrations when he and his brother would ritually slaughter a goat or sheep for the festival meal. He and his wife knew, however, that I only ate vegetarian dishes. He would gently rib me and, in perfect Hebrew that was far better than mine, would say “C’mon Steve, where is your yarmulke and peyot (sidecurls)? You don’t look Orthodox to me!”
As an ethnic and religious minority – an Arab Muslim who was also an Israeli – Taleb always had much to say about local and national politics. We would spend hours sitting around the fire drinking tea and coffee and talking about every issue under the sun. Rarely did we disagree or have a conflict or major disagreement. Often our conversations meandered to what life was like in the United States, how people lived here, what Americans thought of Muslims, and issues of that sort.
Despite his name (which means “student” in Arabic) Taleb wasn’t fond of classroom learning. He had gotten through 12th grade but that was about it. In fact soon after we met, he sold his store and bought a trucking business. He spent days on the road as a truck driver while also coordinating others who worked for him. Still, he was fascinated by my profession as a professor; though he had no advanced degree, he was a sponge for knowledge about the world around him. He enjoyed speaking with my children as well; my kids have stories of wandering around his village encountering all kinds of curious sights. As he and his wife had no children, they loved my kids as their own.
This isn’t to say that we didn’t have a few dicey moments. On one memorable shopping trip with Taleb and his wife to Hebron which is located in the Palestinian Territories, we were stopped by security at a checkpoint as we re-entered Israel. We were forced to empty the car, go through a screening including x-ray machines, and on and on. The process was extensive and humiliating. Finally my then-wife pulled out her Israeli passport (she has dual citizenship), upon which her Hebrew name was written. “Ah, Boris, they’re Jews!” one of the soldiers shouted to the other. The soldiers quickly apologized and helped us on our way.
For the remainder of the trip I sat in the backseat fuming. When we arrived at Taleb’s home where I had left my car he insisted, despite the late hour and the fact that we all had work the following morning, that his wife make tea and that we sit and talk for a while. He started a fire, and we all sat and slowly began to discuss the evening’s events.
“Taleb,” I began, “I am so sorry. I feel so guilty. That shouldn’t have happened.”
“Steve,” he responded. “This happens all the time. This is our life. So why are you sorry? This is my country. I am Israeli, not you. I should be apologizing to you!”
In November 2010 I was an invited speaker at a conference in southern Israel near Taleb’s village. Taleb had promised that he would see me off to the airport to return to Philly but, at the last minute, some sort of business came up and he couldn’t make it. This didn’t surprise me. He was always running in several directions at once and often, I ended up on many an adventure going to random places with him due to some last-minute change of plans.
And yet somehow this was different. As I raced up the highway towards Tel Aviv he repeatedly apologized over his mobile. And then he said “I love you, Steve.” And yes I understood, because truly we were brothers despite our different backgrounds, despite our religious differences, and despite the geographic distance that separated us most of the time.
I did not return to Israel again until December 2012. But by then it was too late. In early 2012 Taleb suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 45. He was gone.
I returned to Israel in June 2017. It was Ramadan. I went to Taleb’s village and ate an iftar (break-the-fast) meal with his wife and her new husband one evening after sunset. I drank copious amounts of tea and coffee. I visited with his extended family, including his mother. I showed her photos of Taleb on my iPhone and in response, she cried, asking me “why, O Steve, why?”
I never did teach Taleb English. But he taught me more about love, tolerance, friendship and understanding than anyone I’ve ever known. And during this blessed month of Ramadan, I miss him terribly.
Steven C. Dinero, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Carbon County Museum.