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The Queen Rania Tree


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the Eye Of The Beholder special, today. Just because things look one way to one person doesn't mean that's the way they really are. Case in point - our next story comes to us by way of a fantastic new show called "Israel Story." And in it, producer Shoshi Shmuluvitz finds out what happens when at long last, you cave in to your parents' demands.


SHOSHI SHMULUVITZ, BYLINE: It was about seven years ago that Ghazi Al-Buliwi's father was first diagnosed with kidney cancer. And Ghazi still remembers the day, about three years into the treatment, when he took his dad home from the hospital.

GHAZI AL-BULIWI: And he just stopped me at a stoplight. And I remember exactly where - it was like Court and Warren in Brooklyn. And he turns to me as we're waiting for this light to change, and he turns and he goes, you know, I want to see your children before I die. That statement right there propelled me to do things that I'd never thought I would do.

SHMULUVITZ: You see, Ghazi's parents were originally Palestinian refugees, and they'd been pressuring him for a long time to get married to a traditional Muslim girl. But even though he was born in a refugee camp, Ghazi always felt more American than Palestinian. So this idea of settling down, it really terrified him, particularly because of the way he was expected to settle down.

AL-BULIWI: You can't date without being married. That's, like, the Islamic way. You can't date someone without marrying them, so it's, like, the ultimate let's-play-Russian-roulette-with-your-life (laughter) way of marriage. Like, oh, well, let's get married, and then let's date.

SHMULUVITZ: But Ghazi also knew that he loved his dad and that before he died, he wanted to give him those grandchildren.

AL-BULIWI: So I did something very impulsive. I had a conversation with my mom, which I never thought I would have with her, but I was like, look, I want to compromise with you guys. I want a woman who is more on the modern side of things. We're Jordanian-Palestinian. I think Queen Rania of Jordan is amazingly beautiful. If I can find someone like Queen Rania of Jordan, I would be so happy. And so my mom's exact words - Queen Rania? Yeah, her family's from Tulkarm where our relatives live. I'll tell you what, in Tulkarm, it's like going to a lemon tree. You could pick all the Queen Ranias you want. You could just pluck them out. And she did this thing with her hands where she mimed plucking a Queen Rania off a tree. And I'm, like, visualizing, like, beautiful women hanging, like Queen Rania, on a tree that I would just pluck out when I got there. So I book a ticket.

SHMULUVITZ: And the next thing he knows, Ghazi is flying into Tel Aviv, hailing a taxi and getting dropped off at a checkpoint in the West Bank.

AL-BULIWI: And now I'm walking towards soldiers, with a huge suitcase, who are literally looking at me with their guns up, not pointing at me, but they're like - kind of like, what is this guy doing? And I'm like, oh, [expletive]. This is when it dawns on me that you are - this might be a really big mistake. You should not have left Brooklyn. So I go into Tulkarm, and I go to what my father told me to go to, which is a section of the refugee camp that my family lives in, Hadet al-Balouna (ph) - neighborhood of the Balouna. The Balouna is my family tribal name. And that is where I pull up and, you know, meet my family. And then eventually, they start taking me around to meet women.


AL-BULIWI: You sit down. There's the men of the girl's family on one side of the living room. My family guys sit on one side. And then you're just kind of waiting there. You kind of small talk. People are, like, chain-smoking in these rooms, and like, I'm, like, dying here. And then eventually, the girl - and it's almost every time verbatim - the girl comes out with a tray of drinks. She serves all the men. The last drink is for you. She makes eye contact with you, then sits with her relatives. And then you just sit and you just stare at each other like something's supposed to happen. It's such a weird thing, but a lot of these girls would come out of these rooms, and I'm thinking Queen Rania all the way. I'm thinking this is going to be a hot girl coming through this door.

SHMULUVITZ: And the first woman he met was attractive.

AL-BULIWI: Turned out to be my 17-year-old second cousin. She was actually kind of cute.

SHMULUVITZ: But the cousin thing was a deal-breaker for Ghazi, so he kept looking.

AL-BULIWI: I sat with one girl - Islamic girl - who's a pharmacist, so you could go, oh, she's, like, a scientist. She asked me, do you pray? I said, no, I really - I'm going to be very honest with you. I'm not going to lie. I don't pray. She goes, oh, you're going to go to hell. I guess that's the (unintelligible) version of can I please have the check?

SHMULUVITZ: A week goes by, a week and a half. Ghazi's going from house to house drinking tea, meeting women, but he keeps striking out. On top of that, the conditions of the refugee camp where his family lives are really starting to get to him.

AL-BULIWI: The refugee camp is just, like, such a depressing thing - kids with no shoes on, people are poor, dirt everywhere. I would take three showers a day. Nice Jewish settlements with nice clean houses across the fence, which I watch every day. And I wish, why couldn't my family have been Jewish settlers? Why? Why?

So I'm already, like, checked out. I'm already gone. I'm going back to New York. That's it. I'm done. I kind of did what I had to do here for my father. And then, like, someone goes, look, there's this girl. Let's just go see her. She's at an amusement park with her mom. We know her. We've already talked. We're going - they're going to meet us there. So I go with my cousin and my niece. I'm not expecting anything. I get to the amusement park and meet the mom. She goes, oh, she's with her sister on the Ferris wheel.


AL-BULIWI: And it's - a Ferris wheel is supposed to do a 360. It's supposed to do circles, but this is Tulkarm. The Ferris wheel is not doing 360s. It is doing a 180. So it would go up and it would come down like a crescent moon. It's like everything is breaking down in here. The bumper cars are not bumping. They had, like, a zoo. The snake died, they told me. It's, like, so sad, the conditions there. I mean, people need - and so anyway, so I'm trying to figure out what this girl looks like because the Ferris wheel is coming down, going up, coming down, going up. But this girl gets out and I, like, focus on her. And the girl looked like Audrey Hepburn. She wasn't wearing a hijab, very Western looking, had really cool looking jeans. I say hello to her. She's a little shy. We walk back to her mom. I sit with her mom. We're talking.

SHMULUVITZ: Her family, it turned out, was a lot like Ghazi's - Muslim but modern. And unlike his relatives, they actually lived outside the refugee camp in a nicer part of town. If there was a deal breaker, Ghazi couldn't find one.

AL-BULIWI: The conversation turns to, would you ever let your daughter go to live in America? I live in New York. It's really nice there. Mom was like, yeah, totally. And you know, it was kind of a done-deal there. I was like, oh, if the mom is agreeing to this, it's cool. And, you know, I thought she was innocent. And a part of me thought, you know what, I can give her great life. We can love each other. She can take care of me. I can take care of her. And I'm walking back with my cousin. I'm like dude, done. Let's just - I'm ready. Let's get the guys. Let's just do this.


AL-BULIWI: We got married on Christmas, December 25. I remember that day specifically. I thought it was really romantic that I got married on Christmas. We go to the Islamic Sharia Court, and then I sign this wedding contract. And at that point, she is my wife, right? But really, in their eyes, she's only my fiancee. Even though we're married on paper, she's not really your wife until that wedding night when we give her to your family and she becomes yours.

SHMULUVITZ: But now that Ghazi and - let's call her Farrah (ph) - are technically married, they no longer need supervision, meaning they're allowed to be alone together while the two families prepare for the big wedding.

AL-BULIWI: And what you get to feel as you go along is this person is totally uncomfortable with me, which I can totally understand that.

SHMULUVITZ: But one thing Ghazi's aunts and uncles couldn't understand and which was kind of bothering them was that Farrah's family kept asking Ghazi to buy things for them - ice cream, aspirin, stuff like that.

AL-BULIWI: And it's such not the Arab customary thing. Usually, if you're a guest of an Arab household, Arabs are just, like, so offended that you would even suggest paying for anything because you're like the houseguest.

SHMULUVITZ: Still, Ghazi doesn't want to rock the boat, so he goes along with it. And then one night, Farrah finds him in his room.


AL-BULIWI: She comes in and she goes, oh, I want to show you pictures of my brother who - her brother's a police officer in training. She comes from a cop family. And she opens up this folder, and there's a bunch of photos in there - just photos of her brother doing kind of, like, an obstacle course. He's climbing the rope. He's, like, running. It's hot out. You can see guys with their shirts off. And then at a certain point, it's him posing with his shirt off and then him posing with his shirt off with a gun, like a machine gun, with a cigarette in his mouth, like seductive pose.

And then she turns to me, she goes - isn't he tasty? I'm like, huh? Isn't he tasty? And she goes, can't you see why all the girls want him? But the way she said it, I'm like, what the hell just - it's like the fourth day, and I'm like, this family's nuts. And my younger cousin brought up the fact that she was not the virgin image of a girl who stays home. She's, you know, she's gone out with some guys behind her family's back, you know, stuff that I have no idea about until - you know, of course, until I signed the wedding contract.

SHMULUVITZ: But Ghazi, like, come on, like, you want a modern, like, westernized girl who's not wearing a hijab, but then she also has to be a virgin.

AL-BULIWI: Yeah, but, you know what? It's this whole fantasy that my parents built up for me that said, you know what? All these girls in Tulkarm are under lock and key. You're going to get yourself a girl that has not been polluted by society. And then, you know - and of course they're also throwing in the fact that she's going to look like, you know, Queen Rania of Jordan. And so like all that builds up, and then, you know, you finally get someone that kind of resembles your fantasy. And then the fantasy starts to crack.


SHMULUVITZ: Meanwhile, Ghazi is making more and more purchases. Farrah's mother, he says, turns out to be something of a big-time spender, and she's having him pay not just for incidentals, but for nights out, groceries, even utility bills. And Farrah doesn't seem to be warming up to him at all. In fact, she just gets colder until she finally puts her foot down and says that there won't be any sex on the wedding night.

AL-BULIWI: And so, at a certain point, you know, you stop and you think and you go, OK, this family's using me for my money. And this person didn't see a life with me, but her mom probably pushed her into marrying me, which was not cool, and that this girl signed on the dotted line.

SHMULUVITZ: So Ghazi finally decides to put his own foot down.

AL-BULIWI: We're going to go buy a wedding dress the next day. If she asks for an expensive wedding dress, I'm done with her. I'm going to tell her I can't marry you.

SHMULUVITZ: And sure enough, the dress that Farrah and her mother pick out is super expensive.

AL-BULIWI: I kind of was like, tell her we're going to another wedding gown store. I think that's a little - a little high. Mother comes out, doesn't look happy. My wife comes out, doesn't look happy. Start walking - silence. And I turned to my wife. I'm like, what's wrong? Oh, you know what's wrong. You shouldn't have upset my mother. She said it in such a way that I just stopped without - it's been building up. I was like, you know what? I can't do this. I divorce you.


SHMULUVITZ: Then Ghazi turns around and leaves Farrah and her mother just standing there in the street.

AL-BULIWI: So I had a nervous breakdown, the nervous breakdown being I cry, scream and then walk through a refugee camp just cursing myself. I tell my uncle, I've got to get out of this. He said don't worry, don't worry, stop, stop, like, don't cry. I'm like a 34-year-old guy crying. I've been, like, robbed at gunpoint in Brooklyn, and I never cried then. I peed on myself, but I didn't cry. And here I am, like walking through the road just crying. He's like stop, don't cry. I know this great lawyer. (Imitating crying) Who is this lawyer? He goes, don't worry. He's the best in all of Tulkarm. His name is Arafat Arafat (ph). I'm like, so - like, it was enough to make me stop crying and go Arafat Arafat? And he's like, yes, Arafat Arafat. He's the best lawyer in all of Tulkaram.

SHMULUVITZ: And at this point, Ghazi needs a lawyer. He knows he just Farrah and her family hanging in a big way - and in public, no less. So he walks back into town to meet with Arafat Arafat.

AL-BULIWI: And he's like, tell me what happened? I was like Arafat Arafat, this is what happened. He goes, did you enter her? And he made a hole with his finger, and he put the - I said, no. I tried to. I wish I had entered her. He goes OK, that's good, that's good. And he sits back in his chair and he thinks that's good. I said listen, I've got to get out of here. I've had it. I had a nervous breakdown. I've been crying. Look at my eyes. He goes, why were you crying? Because men don't cry. It's like - she's like - this is too much for me. He goes don't worry about it. You're not really married to her. I said, but dude, I have this wedding. He goes yeah, technically you are as far as Allah is concerned - that you are married to this girl. But you didn't have sex with her, so there's - still, there's this kind of this purity to who she is. He goes sign this. It's a power of attorney. I will be you here in Tulkarm. He goes, don't worry, I'm going to make it all better. Go back to America. I will take care of this for you.


AL-BULIWI: And then I get this call from her uncle, the chief of police, who, as I know now, is a nutjob. He has had people's legs broken for my wife, just whistling or, like, saying something to her in a, like, a come-on way. Like, two guys ended up in wheelchairs for like two months.

SHMULUVITZ: But it was even worse than Ghazi knew at that moment because marrying Farrah wasn't the only mistake he'd made.


AL-BULIWI: In my hysteria, I had told someone in town she's not going to have sex with me. She's having sex with her brother - because I'm having a nervous break down. This, like, coupled with the fact that I just divorced her, got back to the brother. So the brother said, he had dishonored our family by saying I had sex with my sister. I issue a fatwa against this guy. If he is to show his face at any point, I will kill him dead in the street.

Now, her uncle's saying, oh, I'm going to send a police car to come get you and we should really talk about this. I'm like - I started freaking out. This guy's going to kill me. I said listen, I'm really emotional. I can't talk right now. I need to drink some tea, relax. I'll come see you in the morning. He goes you're going to come in the morning? I said yeah. I was like where am I going to go? I'm in Tulkarm. He goes, all right. I'll send a car for you in the morning. I hung up the phone, ran into my room in that refugee camp, packed that suitcase up. Everyone had gone to sleep, and I just lay there with the suitcase, holding the suitcase like it was my mother. And every time a light would come on the door, I'm like, they're coming for me, they're coming. They're going to come and get me. And I wait. I know the buses start running at, like, 5. I pick up that suitcase. I don't even say anything to my relatives. I run through that door, and now I'm running through the refugee camp. It's, like, semi-dark. The sun is coming up. People are - chickens are, like, cackling (imitating chicken).

And I'm running with this suitcase on my head, and I'm, like, running through alleyways. People are in their underwear. I see people through windows, see people having breakfast. I see the news. And I get to the bus. I remember getting on that bus. I'm like, oh, please don't let them stop this bus at the checkpoint - got past the Palestinian checkpoint, get to the Israeli checkpoint. Now we're on our road, end up in Ramallah...

SHMULUVITZ: At which point, Ghazi takes another taxi out of the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Then he boards a flight to take him back to New York. Later, the two families would reach a divorce agreement, but Ghazi says at first, he felt remorse.

AL-BULIWI: Because I misjudged the situation that I was walking into. I go to a place that I've never been to before - to a culture that I have no idea how it operates. I'm trying to play a game that belongs to another person with this idea my parents had written for me, and I shouldn't even be there.

SHMULUVITZ: All of which is on his mind when he's finally back in Brooklyn at his parents' door.

AL-BULIWI: They're like, hey, look who's home. I was like, hey, so did you hear anything from our relatives about Arafat Arafat? They're like, don't worry about it. It was, like, such a nonchalant, you'll get better - it's OK. Right? (Laughter). This is after I'd gone through everything. And then they turned back and they watch Al Jazeera. Here's the punchline. My dad was not dying

SHMULUVITZ: Today, Ghazi is 38, still single, and his father is still alive, holding out for Ghazi to get married in the traditional way to a nice Muslim girl.

AL-BULIWI: He just Jewish guilted me in his own Arab way to get married for him, and, you know, I kind of feel it still. You love your parents so much that you end up hating yourself, and that's where I am today. I love them so much that I hate myself. Look at what I did. I shouldn't have done that, but I did it because I love them.


WASHINGTON: Thank you so much, Ghazi, for sharing your story. We know that with game like that, you're going to find a bride soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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