A few months ago, I received an invitation to attend a film festival in Israel. I contacted the Lebanese consulate in Los Angeles and was advised not to go. I was told that if I went, I would not be able to enter Lebanon again. Lebanon and Israel are still at war, and it is illegal for Lebanese nationals to have any contact with Israelis. "What if I say I want to go to Palestine?" I asked. "There is no Palestine yet, so stay away from it," I was told, and I did.
Growing up in Lebanon meant a strong awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. News of political strife hijacked the headlines. As a teenager, I was familiar with names like Arafat, Dayan, Kissinger and Brzezinski. We also knew that the U.S. would always take the Israeli side, yet we embraced every U.S. import, from Zippo lighters to Bubblicious gum to Charles Bronson.
I don't remember having any contact with either a Palestinian or a Jew until 1976. A street game called ballon chasseur, or hunting ball, was catching fire in Lebanon. The game consisted of two teams of six in which one team player would throw a ball at a member of the other team. If the recipient caught the ball without dropping it, the ball thrower ended up a prisoner of the other team. But if the ball hit a rival team member and was not caught, the unlucky fellow ended up a prisoner of the ball-throwing team.
The game moved at a furious pace, and those who were skillful at it became babe magnets, often securing dates with neighborhood sweethearts. My skinny body and quick reflexes made me a popular choice for serious teams and consequently a hot item on the street, until Daniel Block walked into the picture. "Flash," as they started calling him, was a 16-year-old French Jew whose father taught painting at my high school. Though Daniel concealed being a Jew, he was boisterous about being the best ballon chasseur player and about having persuaded May Qudsi to let him peek at her underpants behind closed doors. May was not only my flame but a Palestinian to boot (in Arabic, Qudsi means "from Jerusalem"). One day I asked her if what Daniel said was true. At first she denied everything, then said she did not know he was a Jew, then finally said she actually liked him. That day, I hated both Palestinians and Jews.
For the past 13 months, in preparation for a film, I have been reading up on matters that relate to the conflict in the Middle East. My obsession has focused on the peace process, and I often find myself wondering, What does a successful peace deal typically require? A third-party intermediary who's firm, fair and impartial? A master negotiator? A dogged communicator with a sense of humor? Or does it need the kind of timing that exists only in fiction? It needs not only all the above but also a measure of foresight, so that a solution, any solution, is permanent. An Arab-Israeli peace today is ripe for the picking, so ripe that waiting will almost guarantee it will rot and fall off the tree.