In my London salad days, before I even met sofagirl, I worked in a children’s clothing store, and making ends meet required some ingenuity. Often I would have to weigh the need to pay for rent and a metro card against buying food: accommodation and transportation always won. Luckily, I had my friend Jack who would come to the rescue.
In London, gambling is limited to members-only casinos and Jack’s family had such a membership. On particularly hungry days, I would call him and breezy ask “Hey Jack, can we go to the casino tonight?”. And bless his heart, he would always oblige. I would don my white lace dress and on we would waltz into the ritzy casino, just off Berkeley square, where he would sit at a blackjack table and I would park myself against a wall, signaling to a waiter to bring me food, which was free for guests. At the end of the evening, Jack and I would part ways, never questioning each other’s motives. It was on one of such evenings that I met Walter, real name Walid, who was the son of a Jordanian minister of something or other. I wasn’t particularly interested in the guy but, unable to pass up a free meal, we went out a couple of times and I remember discussing Middle East politics with him, when it became apparent my liberal arts education had left a gaping hole in such matters. The following day I marched myself to the library and checked out a couple of volumes that detailed everything from the birth of Israel to the present times and, to this day, I am fuzzy on the date when Italy united but I can recall the year of the Balfour declaration (1917).
That is when my fascination and interest in this intractable question began and, not long ago, I sat mesmerized listening to a radio interview with Lawrence Wright, author of the book “13 Days in September” on the Camp David accords. In 1978 President Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the United States for the negotiation of a peace accord between the two countries – then still at war – that would create lasting peace. For twelve days, President Carter shuttled between the two delegations, in his golf cart, negotiating minuscule details on which the two countries didn’t see eye to eye. On the twelfth day, Mr. Begin exploded in a burst of rage at a minor request on the part of President Sadat that President Carter thought was a fait accompli. The Israeli delegation withdrew and started packing, while the Rose Garden was being prepared for the customary photo-op and the signing that had seemed a foregone conclusion.
Lying in bed, the night after I heard the interview, I started thinking about President Carter’s doggedness. In the quiet of the dark bedroom, I was trying to distract myself from the impending tears that wanted to flow for no reason. Nothing had happened that day that would foreshadow this inexplicable sadness and need to cry. I reviewed the events: I was mildly worried about the health of one of my dogs; my husband hadn’t liked my experimental dinner; I hadn’t been able to suppress an obnoxious remark to my mother. Nothing, really – my hormones again, I repeated, unable and unwilling to dig further at midnight. I can be a prolific crier but my tears don’t usually stem out of nothingness. Such unprompted outbursts occurred only once in my 20s when, having just been prescribed the birth control pill, the dosage of which was clearly wrong, for three weeks no one could approach my desk at work without me bursting into tears. When I realized there was a black hole around my office, and some merciful friend pointed out maybe the pill was messing with my hormones, I finally ran back to the ob-gyn. At the other end of the arc, I recognize the symptoms now and I have learnt not to take such moments of despair too seriously, in the knowledge they will pass within a matter of hours. I have also become a master at distracting myself.
That night, it was President Carter, and his doggedness that provided some respite.
Resigned to failure, he walked back to his office, where his secretary had a pile of photos of him and Mr. Begin printed and inscribed to each and one of Mr. Begin’s grandchildren. They were to be a surprise and a celebratory parting gift. President Carter signed the photos and, just before the Israeli delegation’s departure, handed them to Begin. The Prime Minister opened the envelope, saw the names of his grandchildren and began to cry.
“I had thought you could have given them to your grandchildren to let them know what you and I accomplished” President Carter said.
Mr Begin was silent for a long time. “I will sign” he said.
In the end, it wasn’t diplomacy or common sense or an overwhelming need for peace that prevailed but a personal touch and an even more personal consideration.
If history is made of shows of strength and is then distilled in pompous sounding declarations, it’s also the product of very personal and intangible efforts. Of emotions really. If tears can sway a hardened politician, my tears and my swinging emotions also have a place in my personal, and ultimately, irrelevant history. So I let them flow for a while, thinking of those three towering historical figures, until I fell asleep.
It’s possibly wrong to equate the craziness of my peri-menopause with the craziness of the Middle East. But, at this point, I will take whatever works. Even President Carter.
- Title “borrowed” from the poem of the same name by Alfred Lord Tennyson