Umar (or Ammu/uncle) has been running a small antiquarian shop in the old city of east Jerusalem since 1965.
I walked past this man with eyes like the sea on my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, lagging behind the tour group I was with because I was so distracted by the antiques cluttered outside the shops in the antiques district like Aladdin’s cave. He was standing outside his own store, swirling water in a rusty metal dish when we made eye-contact. He smiled warmly and said, “Marhabban!” “Welcome!” I came to Jerusalem to purposely amputate myself from the ant-hill dynamics of city life. But even in Jerusalem, I was in a rush, so I apologised and promised him I would come back to visit another time.
The following day I went back. I was browsing through one of his dusty glass cabinets, which had in it rusty (everything was inevitably rusty!) Ottoman coins dangling on a necklace. Looking at those coins made me think about old Palestinian currency, so I casually asked him if he had any Palestinian coins, not expecting him to reply in the positive.
He looked from side to side as if someone might be watching, ushered me to the back of his store with a quick gesture of his hand, reached up to a small inconspicuous plastic box high up on one of the many shelves above his counter, and took out a collection of old coins wrapped in white tissue paper. They were old Palestinian coins, proof of Palestine’s existence, that were no longer in print.
As I looked at them, these rusty coins, metal birth certificates whispering of a country that no longer existed, I told Umar how sorrowful it made me feel looking at them, and that’s when he proceeded to give me the following life lesson:
“I want to give you a lesson.
When we are sad, we use twenty-four facial muscles. When we are happy, how much do you think we use then? We use four!
God has given you a beautiful face. I want it to stay like that. I want it to stay young, so don’t be sad. One day, Palestine will have its own coins again.
Yes you will become old. Yes you won’t always be young. But even when you are 100 years old, you can still be young! Maybe not on the outside, but here where your heart is, inside.
You have hands, arms, use them! Write things, make things, DO things. And please, love yourself. It does not mean you are arrogant.
Sometimes God plans things which we think are against us. Of course, we have a hand in our destiny but ultimately, God knows best. Trust in him.
In life, there will always be two answers to everything: A positive, and a negative. Always expect both answers, and when you hear something you don’t agree with, don’t be put off. Don’t let it beat you down. Always be you, and never be afraid to say what you feel.”
He opened the palm of my right hand, placed one of the coins in it, closed my hand and pushed it back towards me.
“This is for you.”
I tried to tell him that I couldn’t possibly take the coin. It wasn’t about the monetary value of it. Worthless or not, how could a bumbling tourist like me, parachuting in and out of Jerusalem, deserve or own a piece of his homeland? But his will, like his face, were set in stone.
“I saw it in your face. You needed to hear this. This coin is a gift from me to you.”
He was right. I did need it, and a year on from my visit to Jerusalem, if you ever see me clutching at something hanging on a leather strap around my neck, it’s the very same coin he gave to me.