More years ago than I care to remember, five men sat around a hissing stove in a campsite outside Sofia in Bulgaria. It was 1969, Robert and I were two Jewish lads from North London driving from London to Israel via Turkey, and we were discussing life, the universe and the future of the Middle East with three Arabs: two Jordanians and a Syrian. Three teachers. Three friends on holiday together.
We had arrived at the campsite quite late in the day, set up our tent and cooked ourselves a meal. Then, as usual, we had a wander around the campsite. We noticed that a number of cars had Arabic number plates. Some of the other campers were walking around the site, and no doubt some must have seen – because it was difficult to avoid – the big sign on our windscreen which said ‘London to Tel Aviv’. To be honest, I thought the sign was a bit of a mistake, especially as it was only two years since the ‘6 Day War’ or ‘June War’ when Israel had defeated the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and had occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But it was Robert’s car, and I wasn’t going to argue.
As darkness fell and we boiled up the kettle for a brew, three figures appeared. One said, in perfect English: “Apologies for disturbing you, but my friends and I saw the sign on your car. Are you really going to Israel?”
“Yes, we are”, Robert said.
“Are you Jewish?”
An awkward moment and an awkward pause. But I had one of those ‘well, in for a penny, in for a pound’ moments, and said “Yes, we are. My name is Paul. This is my friend Robert. We’re making some tea. Please join us…but I’m afraid we only have two cups”.
The first man spoke briefly in Arabic to the other two, who nodded assent, and one of them turned and walked away. Then he turned back to us: “Thank you. We will join you. I am Ibrahim, I am a teacher from Amman in Jordan. These are my friends, they are also teachers.” And pointing in the direction of the man who had walked away: “He has gone to bring some cups”.
When the man returned we all shook hands, introduced ourselves properly, sat around the stove and poured the tea.
At first the conversation was the normal campsite conversation: Where do you live? What do you do? Which football team do you support? (they knew the names of most of the Manchester United players – Best, Charlton, etc.). Then, inevitably, we came to the not insignificant matter that we were about to travel to a country that had recently defeated their countries in war and had occupied parts of their countries.
What struck me then, and has stayed with me all these years, was that there was no obvious bitterness. These were individuals who just wanted a decent life for themselves and their families. Who wanted to teach, and to do good in the world. They did not see us, as Jews, as their enemies; neither did we see them, as Arabs, as our enemies. As we sat and talked, about our lives and our hopes for a peaceful future (and football), there was a strong sense of a shared humanity; that by moving beyond the shackles of politics, religion and history, we were just five individuals, enjoying each other’s company, respecting our differences, sipping tea under the stars.