An Israeli, An Iranian And A Palestinian Are Sitting In A Boat…

The title is actually not the beginning of a joke. As unlikely as it may sound, this was gist of my most of my weekend. A little bit of background is necessary. Three years ago an Israeli is sitting in his room in Jerusalem getting ready to attend college in the US. He receives an email notifying him of the name and address of his freshman year roommate. To his surprise, the name and address are Iranian. What does he do: nothing. Despite the tensions in the region and possible conflicts, he decides not to complain to the college (whether this was out of cultural curiosity, tolerance, or extreme laziness remains a mystery). Simultaneously in another part of the world an Iranian receives his notification and pretty quickly surmises that his roommate is a Jew from Israel. He also decides to do nothing. Whether the college intentionally put two students from opposing countries together to foster international relations or some admissions director thought it would be a grand joke also remains a mystery. More likely than not it was just a screw up as both students later received an email inquiring as to their level of “comfortableness.” Both were comfortable and were now roommates. The unlikely combination of an Israeli and Iranian choosing to live together became more unlikely when the Iranian started dating a Palestinian. The unlikely group became an inseparable one. Fast forward to this past fall when I start dating the Israeli. It was interesting and complicated. I had dated foreign boys but never one from a conflict region. There was a whole etiquette I had to learn and I just didn’t know how to brooch sensitive topics. Dating someone from a war zone included relationship landmines I didn’t know existed and fervently hoped to avoid. As our relationship had little to do with his nationality (besides his incredible accent), complicated politics faded to the background. But I was fascinated by his friendship with the Iranian and Palestinian. Come junior year the two original roommates were still great friends and living together, and as the Iranian was still dating the Palestinian girl, she basically moved in as well. I began to refer to both the Iranian and the Palestinian as his roommates. The three of them were as happy as clams. I was fascinated but too terrified to approach the roommates at first, but not for national or political reasons. The Iranian and Palestinian intimidated the daylights out of me because they were just so cool, their origins had nothing to do with my fear that I wouldn’t measure up to their expectations.

The Palestinian girl was gorgeous, fashionable, brilliant and vivacious. The Iranian was the top student in his department, handsome and contemplative. I would see them often in the library studying together and just by glancing at them my self esteem took a hit. I was completely beneath their radar, until I started dating their best friend of course. To my utter surprise and delight not only were they lovely, but they were even lovelier to me. They went out of their way to get to know me and make me feel at ease around them. It was impossible not to like them or not laugh when they were around. The funny thing was that this whole scenario had nothing to do with politics or nationality. I was intimidated by them for the same reasons I would be intimidated by anyone. They wanted to get to know me for the perfectly average reason of wanting to bond with their best friend’s new girlfriend. Our different backgrounds were accepted but never made an issue. There was no pretense that there were no differences between our backgrounds, but while it was acknowledge it was never an issue.

Fast Forward to this past weekend. The Iranian and Palestinian are researching at Princeton for the summer as they can’t return home to see their families (due to their visas once they leave the US they won’t be able to return. As a result they have not seen their parents in many years), so the Israeli and I invited them to my parents house in Connecticut to catch up. My parents are very liberal and progressive (they took me and an ex to Amsterdam for their 50th birthday), but still, having an Israeli, Iranian and Palestinian stay with us all at once was definitely going to be a new experience. Once again, however, while the political issue was present, it didn’t define any of the conversations. Discussions about cultural differences and practices were fascinating, but it was just like getting to know any other person. My parents and I closely observed how the three interacted. These three do represent three nations locked in fierce fighting and remain loyal to their origins. They are extraordinary in their ability to look at the issues from all angles and even admit where the other nations had made an impressive accomplishment, but they were all proud of where they were from. How could they be friends? When the world seems about to be torn apart by hate and peace becomes more elusive by the day, how did these three people overcome their differences? How could these three friends find peace when it has alluded all major governments and the UN? Strangely enough, I think the answer lies in humor.

The majority of the way they interact is through humor and gossip, or in other words, how all college kids interact with each other. There were some differences, especially in the type of humor. The jokes were rather violent and involved a lot of sleeping with knives under the pillow, but they were humorous none the less. Their humor demonstrated their ability to relate to each other as people and ability to leave politics and origin aside. Possibly the most revealing sign of the harmony behind their friendship lies in a shared joke both Iranians and Israelis tell. The Iranian says there is a famous joke, “how do you drive an Israeli crazy? You put him in a circular room and tell him there is a penny in the corner.” The Israeli responds that he knows an even more famous joke, “how do you drive a Persian crazy? You put him in a circular room and tell him there is a penny in the corner.” Surely jokes are not the way to create world peace, but that might not be a bad start. Humor and conversation brings people together. The act of laughing together is one of the most communal experiences one can have. Sharing in the joy of laughter and realizing that no matter how different people may be that they all delight in laughter, that brings us together in a way that economic sanctions and formal diplomacy never will.

These three didn’t just become friends by telling jokes, but I do believe their ability to share humor only demonstrates their deeper openness and willingness to share their feelings and opinions with each other. They talk about everything, serious and not, and through talking and laughing have developed an unbreakable bond. A conversation on the car ride back was especially telling. The Israeli was complaining how he dislikes summers in Israel. He moaned that it was too hot, he got sunburned at the beach, it was too much of a bother to get in and out of the water, there was sand everywhere, etc. After a few more rants the Palestinian chimes in “if you don’t like Israel so much why don’t you give it back?” The whole car erupted into laughter.