I’d done nothing notably American on Independence Day other than be the notable American. I was asked whether I was “with or against Assad,” twice. I did my best to field some pop-fly questions from my Druze neighbor on Cuban-American relations. I’d intended to leave the Fourth at that – until a week later, around the time that I was made to admit that, yes, I am an “infidel.”
The sun gets stuck for a second, nothing budges but the second hand on the Butcher’s watch and a few heat-dazed birds. The heat hums through stagnant minutes in the brushy desert above the Mediterranean on a mid-July Sunday afternoon. A taxi turns off the highway and clunks onto the park road.
The Butcher pushes coals around inside the barbecue. His eyes follow the Taxi as it bumps and slowly weaves into the small valley on top of Mount Carmel and parks squeakily. The pines that dot the dusty picnic area are determined. They strain upwards for a few meters, nature contesting their insistence, before splaying bushy limbs out sideways.
The Taxi Driver joins the Butcher at the table. He is the last of the Akkan Arabs to arrive at the weekly to-do in Carmel National Park, the Sunday parliament up above the ancient beach town. But the Taxi Driver is not the last to join the table. It’s a few days after the Fourth of July and I’m late to a barbecue I didn’t know was happening.
It’s buzzingly hot. Almost audibly so. I cross the highway and pass a National Park welcome booth, closed in observance of the day’s stagnation. A taller tree scraggles above one of the ridges around Mount Carmel’s amorphous summit, marking my hypothetical route down to the beach. I walk a short path, pass a rusted gate on the trail, and see a white taxi parked beside some depressed-looking pines.
“Ahlan wa sahlan!”
The Butcher, the Taxi Driver and friends spot me and raise their cups and/or chicken. There is much beckoning and offers of beer, juice, vodka, food. Pieces of chicken smoke and hiss on a little rectangular barbecue. The six friends sit around a stone slab table, pouring cups of German beer and sharing the week’s news. The table’s stone is thick with chipped rocks and marble, a cement base and legs. The two friends by the grill chicken-tend with long tongs and throw pieces of Arab bread on, just for a singeing minute.
“To the beach? That’s pretty far from here.”
“How far? Ten kilometers maybe? Better to sit, eat and then turn around.”
I’m in motion and they’d like me to stop. And sit. The sweaty American man on a sweaty mission. I am on the wrong side of inertia on a grindingly hot day. The question of whether or not to sit bubbles up frequently here; it has become emblematic of the slight stutters of cultural friction that will always trip a person up. But this scene is well-cast and I’m pulled right in.
Around the table are six friends: there is the Butcher and the Butcher’s Russian Female Companion; there is the Vegetable Seller; there is the Religious Inquisitor and the Religious Inquisitor’s Romanian Female Companion; and there is the Taxi Driver.
I sit, we do the introductions and peace-be-upon-you thing and the Butcher hands me his card. Bright red with cartoon chickens, it is also a fridge magnet. He tells me to come by anytime. Between beverages and inquiries, he turns to the woman to his left and flies along in Russian.
The Russian Female Companion avoids Arabic. She shrugs off conversation and steps off for a cigarette and then a vodka, away from the group. The Male Companions don’t seem concerned and don’t introduce her further.
The Vegetable Seller has no female companion but has excellent tomatoes – plum-sized, poppingly-juicy. He provides the subtle but vital sideshow to the chicken-grilling hullabaloo.
The Taxi Driver assumes the ever-necessary role of interviewing me about American politics: Will I vote for Donald Trump? Why does America want to elect the same families over and over again? He tells me that is for Arab dictatorships. One week since the Fourth and I’m talking politics at a barbecue.
And then there is the Religious Inquisitor and the Romanian Female Companion, suspicious but friendly. The Religious Inquisitor deflects all attempts to converse with the Romanian.
“What are you?” he asks.
He isn’t satisfied when I tell him that my grandfather was a minister. I make some jokes about their weekly picnic being analogous to church that don’t stick. He wants to know if I’m familiar with the Arabic word kafir. Yes, I am. It means “infidel.”
No one expects the Akkan Inquisition.
The Akkans eat and eat. The Religious Inquisitor moves on, handing me oily, crispy Arab bread. He passes it with tongs, a hint that it might burn the pads off of my fingertips and it does. They tell me to come back next week: same scraggly pines, same stone table, same picnic in the desert. And soon I’m back in motion.
The Akkans and their Sunday grilling put the kibosh on any belief that a U.S.-of-A-type BBQ is unique: politics, religion – the socially uncouth but inevitable discussions pervade. We need not extend American exceptionalism to encompass grills and charcoal. I suppose there was a decided lack of Hebrew Nationals. The infidel celebrates Independence Day a little late.