From the Humber River to the Java Sea by Abe Margel

In Ontario, two students are in love, but politics can't help getting in the way; by Abe Margel.

A young couple held hands as they leaned on the span's railing. The Humber Bay Arch Bridge gave Jessica and Ahmed a panoramic view of Lake Ontario. Canada Geese below them swam back and forth, while above seagulls sliced the air. The steel track was situated over the Humber River where it spilled into the giant lake. Pedestrians and cyclists passed behind the two lovers. In the background the drone of cars, buses and trucks was unceasing as traffic made its way across the Gardner Expressway; an ugly asphalt and concrete thoroughfare that came between Toronto's sprawl and the stunning body of water at its foot.

Three middle-aged men traversed the bridge and glanced at the two lovers.

"They'll soon learn," said one of the men nodding his bald head toward the couple as the young man and woman shared a kiss.

"It's beautiful isn't it," Jessica said motioning to the wide expanse of Lake Ontario.

"No," Ahmed said. "You're beautiful."

They had been going out for several months and spent many a torrid night in bed together. They knew that not everyone approved of their relationship but this knowledge only added spice to their love affair.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon on April 21, 2018. In the distance sailboats bobbed on gentle waves. Above them the sky was blue and cloudless. The whole world appeared fresh and vibrant to Jessica.

The cell phone in Ahmed's pocket began to chime and vibrate. He took it out, glanced at its screen and turned off the sound.

"It's Faiz. I'll call him back later."

Jessica sighed and gripped her boyfriend's hand tightly for a second. Faiz made her uneasy. He refused to look her in the eye, refused to shake her hand. She was certain he did not approve of her. Push the thought aside, she told herself, he's just some random guy Ahmed hangs out with sometimes.

Her boyfriend reached into his windbreaker and pulled out a narrow box covered in red velvet. He handed it to Jessica.

"What is it?"

"It's for you. Happy birthday!"

The young woman's eyes opened wide. The box held a gold necklace with an exquisite emerald pendant.

Her joy quickly evaporated although the smile remained on her beautiful lips. For a fleeting moment she had the urge to reject the jewelry. Do I really want this, she thought, do I even want you? She immediately pushed the doubts out of her mind.

"Oh, you're so sweet," she said.

She hugged Ahmed and he helped her put on the gold chain. The twenty-year-old woman was both pleased and upset. What kind of relationship is this, she wondered, is it genuine or just play-acting? Ahmed had met her parents but she was still waiting to be invited to meet his family. She hoped for an overture that never appeared. Something was awry, that was clear. She increasingly had her doubts about her connection to Ahmed even as the couple spent more and more time together.

That evening after supper at a Chinese restaurant the pair left for a nightclub on College Street. The place was filled with students like themselves, gyrating to the music, drinking, flirting, talking nonsense. Afterwards Jessica and Ahmed then went their separate ways, he to his parents' place and she to her dorm room. On most weekends Jessica left her college and headed home to Kingston. Ahmed continued to occupy his bedroom, the same one he had been sleeping in since the age of nine. He lived with his parents in an unremarkable Toronto suburb.

The couple spent much of their time in and around the university grounds. The following Monday night, they were in a campus auditorium. The air-conditioning was anemic, and when the last speaker stepped off the stage the remaining audience left quickly, heading out into an uncommonly warm spring night. Jessica Blum and her boyfriend Ahmed Halabi were among the last to leave.

On the street in front of the auditorium a man dressed in a long white tunic was offering free Qurans, and another in a Lenin goatee and mustache was handing out pamphlets adorned with a red hammer and sickle. Mr. Lenin Junior began shouting at a panhandler who refused to stop pestering him for a handout. After a minute of this both men gave up and left.

Jessica turned to Ahmed. "That last guy on the stage could sure talk, but I didn't understand much. What an accent, and the heat... no wonder so many people left early. I felt sorry for him, seeing his audience evaporate." A frown crossed her face. "Who booked him? Why bother bringing him all this way and God knows at what expense and nobody understands a word he says?"

"Calm down," Ahmed said. "He's the Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Labour, and they decide who to send for these events."

"Well, it's always the same crowd that comes to hear the same boring rant," Jessica said. "The same lefties, Salafis, and do-gooders."

"That must include us, right? So we're out here making our presence known; maybe get some real media coverage. That's all we can do."

"There was one TV camera crew. I guess that's something."

A short man with wavy black hair approached the couple. "Ah that was a good turnout," Faiz said. "Far better than I'd expected."

"For you the glass is always half full," Ahmed said.

"Engineering students always look for solutions, and yes, we usually find them." Faiz slapped his friend on the back then turned to speak with someone else.

The lines around Jessica's mouth deepened then grew soft again. She was a year younger than her boyfriend. She stood five foot five, was thin as a rail and had an angular face with a narrow nose. Her brown eyes were almost black and she kept her brunette hair cut in a French bob.

"Oh God," Jessica said. "I thought I'd faint. It was so hot; just awful in there."

"How about we stop for an ice cream?" Ahmed said.

"What about that place near Bay Street on Cumberland? You know, in Yorkville."

"Okay," Ahmed said as he took Jessica's hand into his. He was a twenty-one-year-old man, with an athletic build and wavy brown hair.

The couple walked in silence for a time, slowing down to look in the windows of the upmarket shops that lined Bloor Street between St. George and Bay Street.

A young man with a trim beard nodded at Ahmed and he nodded back.

"Who's that?"

"He's the guy who gave me the prayer rug, the one I left in your dorm room."

"You never use it. Give it back or give it to someone who wants it."

"Yeah, maybe I will. I'll see if Faiz might know somebody."

They strolled north a block into Yorkville with its swanky shops and restaurants.

Jessica ordered chocolate ice cream while Ahmed asked for a double pistachio. The two lovers found a bench with a view of a small patch of grass claiming to be a park.

A couple of women passed by on the sidewalk and Jessica noticed Ahmed's gaze follow the one strolling closest to them, a pretty blond with large breasts. This annoyed Jessica, but she said nothing. Men, she thought, that's just how they are.

Jessica and Ahmed were members of the local university branch of the Assembly for the Protection of Palestinian Rights (APPR). Being a Jew, it was important to Jessica to show not all Jews were aligned with Israel. She had learned about social justice at home, at school and at the Jewish Reform temple her family belonged to. It made sense to her to support the Palestinian cause. Meeting like-minded young people was also a draw, people like Ahmed.

Ahmed's grandfather had been a shoemaker in Amman, Jordan, and Ahmed's father was an electrical engineer working for a phone company. The young man's mother and oldest sister ran a flower shop in Etobicoke. The family lived a fifteen-minute walk from a mosque where the other congregants came from the same part of the Middle East. It was more than a place to pray; it was an echo of home. Ahmed's parents were never deeply religious and the longer the family lived in Canada the less they attended mosque.

On one of those rare Fridays during his second year at university when Ahmed did attend mosque, he returned home upset.

"I don't like," he told his parents, "this new imam's insisting we must pray five times a day no matter what. And I resent his warnings against having Jewish and Christian friends. The guy also had plenty to say about Arab politics. He's a Jordanian and doesn't seem to know anything about this country and how we live here."

"If it upsets you why go?" said his father. "And why today? You fast during Ramadan, go to prayer on Laylat-Al-Qadar, and feast on Eid Al-Fitr, just like the rest of us, and that's all; so why now this interest in religion?"

"I think he's confused," said his brother. "He's searching for some underlying purpose to life or something stupid like that. Am I right?"

Ahmed's expression went from bewilderment to anger.

"I'm looking for a spiritual outlet," he said. "I thought attending mosque would be a good place to start. Is that okay with you?"

His parents and brother stared at him as if they were seeing an exotic bird, one they had never encountered before.

His father stood up, a pained look on his face, and began to pace. "And only a few weeks ago you were telling us how much you've learned from your course on the history of socialism. You seem to be all over the place."

Ahmed had taken courses in Marxism and had read some of the writings by Muslim theologians. There were times he firmly believed Lenin and Che Guevera and their Communist ideology made the most sense. At other times however he believed the best path forward for him was to look back to the writings of the Middle Ages and the Wahhabism of Ibn Taymiyya.

"I don't understand you," said his mother. "Going to mosque should mean prayer and lessons in good behavior. We didn't move here to worry about Middle Eastern politics. We moved to Canada to get away from all that chaos."

"Yes, listen to mom," his older brother said. "You're driving me, our parents and yourself crazy with these ideas. Drop all those courses that don't lead to your original goal of becoming a neurologist. Get your science degree and go on to become a doctor. Earn a good living; bring honour to the family and yourself."

"Here," his mother got up from her easy chair and handed Ahmed a piece of paper.

"What's this?"

"It's the phone number and name of a nice girl. Phone her. She comes from a fine Palestinian family, al-Ajami. They're your aunt Fadela's relatives."

"But I have a girlfriend. Jessica." "Nonsense. You're not going to bring shame on your parents by marrying a Jew. When you phone, ask for Banu. She is expecting your call."

He silently shoved the piece of paper into his pocket, and quickly exited the house.

Arguments with his family made Ahmed anxious. He told this to Jessica, who heard him out, smiled, kissed his cheeks, stroked his hair and revelled in his love. He did not tell her directly that his parents objected to him going out with a Jew.

He was a good-looking man, above average height, muscular, a man who played hockey and soccer. Jessica was pleased that Ahmed confided in her. No man had ever used her as a sounding board for his innermost anxieties. Lying next to her in bed, he pulled her close to him. She closed her eyes and felt his heart against hers. How sweet he was; his baritone voice, his gentle green eyes, the way he treated her with respect.

Jessica saw the incongruity of her and Ahmed's love, a Jew and an Arab, but was willing to give the relationship a chance.

It had been a short hundred years for the Blum family to go from living an impoverished pious life in anti-Semitic Russia to living a near-secular existence in Canada. Jessica's great-grandfather had been a rabbi in a bleak shtetl, Mostyska. Her grandfather had been a yeshiva student that turned Jewish Bundist-socialist who spent his working life in a Toronto furniture factory, and her father, Raffi Blum, was a left-leaning high school teacher in Kingston.

Jessica's mother sold real-estate and worried about her own aging parents in Winnipeg. Jessica's older sister was a dentist engaged to a labour lawyer. For the Blums, religion was an afterthought. They were members of a Reform synagogue but attended only twice a year, during High Holidays.

There were times Jessica wished she had remained in her hometown of Kingston and attended the local university or community college. But that would have meant continuing to live with her parents. So off she moved, two hundred and fifty kilometers away to the largest city in the country. When she first came to Toronto she felt forlorn, and joined a couple of university clubs hoping to make friends. It was at the rock climbing club she met Ahmed. The handsome man invited her to join the APPR where she was warmly welcomed. She was one of only three Jews, but was immediately made to feel at home.

Being affiliates of the Assembly for the Protection of Palestinian Rights became central to Jessica and Ahmed's relationship. Standing with other like-minded young people, protesting, holding placards, screaming abuse in front of the Israeli and American consulates, attending meetings, listening to guest speakers, being speakers, feeling part of an exclusive club.

Jessica was aware that her membership as a Jew lent legitimacy to APPR and its cause. This made her feel special. When asked to speak at APPR meetings she often began by stating, "I have come to realize that Israel's oppression of the Palestinians goes against the Jewish principles of justice and peace; that as a Jew I must work towards repairing the world, Tikkun Olam. That is central to Jewish belief and consistent with the goals of this organization."

No one applauded louder at this declaration than her boyfriend Ahmed.

The couple was aware that neither Jessica's nor Ahmed's parents approved of their romantic involvement. Knowing this seemed to bring the couple even closer together. And then there was the sex. Both Jessica and Ahmed were thrilled at the idea of indulging in the forbidden fruit of intercourse between a young Jew and a young Arab.

At the end of April, before the last university examinations, Ahmed met Jessica at a cafe on College Street.

"So," Jessica said, "what's up?"

"I've got great news. I was chosen by the APPR executive to go to Jakarta and give a speech at the International Palestinian Anti-Colonial Society. It's their bi-annual conference. They told me it's all expenses paid and you can come with. What do you say?"

"But you hate giving speeches."

"That's true, the idea of standing in front of an audience makes me nervous, but you'll help me write it and I'll practise. It'll be okay."

"When is it?"

"It runs August 8th to August 12th. Lots of interesting people will be there and I've never been to a Muslim country. I'm really excited. Say you'll come with."

Her dark eyes shone with excitement. "Yeah, sure I'll come with."

The news of Jessica's trip did not go over well with her family.

"What are you doing," Jessica's mother said. Her face was red. "I've told you before they're just using you. You're the token Jew being used for their anti-Semitic political games. They're equal opportunity haters. Don't go."

"Look she's not a child," her father said. "How different is the stuff the APPR is advocating from what we hear from our rabbi? Not much!"

"Our rabbi is naive." said his wife. "She's a strong minded, liberal, gay woman; everything Jessica's Muslim friends hate."

"That's not true," Jessica said. "Most of the APPR members are progressives, not conservative Muslims; they're the same kind of people we see at our synagogue. Not that we go much."

Jessica left the argument with her mother feeling she had somehow triumphed; gotten back at the woman for a lifetime of being pressured to wear those clothes not these, to have those friends not these, to take those courses not these. Nothing Jessica did seemed to please her mother, and now paradoxically this was exactly how Jessica wanted it.

Her father had been an absentee parent for years, hiding at work, and she did not need his damn support now. He can go to hell, she thought.

In mid-August 2018 Jessica and Ahmed flew from Toronto to Seoul where they transferred planes, then flew on to Jakarta. Jessica took pills and slept for a good part of the long flight but Ahmed could not relax. He spent his time reading, walking the aisle, talking to anyone that would listen. He seemed unusually nervous.

On the last leg of their flight from Korea to Indonesia he struck up a conversation with the Australian woman in the seat next to his.

"Oh, you'll love Jakarta," said the woman. "It's so lively, lots to do. And the food is cheap and delicious, especially the fish. Make sure your wife," she said indicating Jessica, "dresses modestly; long sleeves and hems below the knee."

"Yes, we were told. By the way, we're not married."

"Don't broadcast that," said the woman her voice dropping to a whisper. "Jakarta is very cosmopolitan and most people don't care but you never know. It is a Muslim country, no point in taking chances."

At Soekarno-Hatta Intenational Airport a tall, gaunt man was waiting for them. Next to him stood Faiz.

"I'm so glad to see you two," he said. "You'll love this place. The accommodations are first class."

They headed straight to their upscale hotel. It was late afternoon and as soon as Jessica and Ahmed unpacked they went to bed and slept until early the next morning. After breakfast they looked around the hotel and strolled outside. It was hot and humid. A thick haze hung over the skyscrapers, the kiosks and squalid shacks. The Hotel Pasha Jakarta was located in the centre of town overlooking the roundabout where the Welcome Statue stood guard over a sparkling fountain. On Sudirman Road tuk-tuks, scooters, motorcycles, trucks and cars were locked in constant battle: horns blaring, brakes squealing, drivers bellowing.

The conference began at 9:00am. Some two hundred guests sat in an ornate dining hall temporarily converted into an auditorium complete with podium and head table. A large banner hung in the background proclaiming From the River to the Sea. On the east wall was taped a map of the Middle East. Israel was nowhere to be seen. Instead the drawing had the name Palestine covering a shaded green area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Three speakers spoke at the morning session, two men and a woman. Jessica found it hard to keep her eyes open. She was still recovering from her long trip and found the lectures boring; rehashing the same slogans and practiced outrages she had come to expect from such events.

At the lunch break she ended up at a table with five other women, all Americans. Jessica was tempted to walk out of the hall. The forced segregation of women from men infuriated Jessica, but she stayed put.

At first the chatter was about Ivanka Trump.

Jessica turned to an American sitting next to her and whispered. "That speaker, the woman in the brown dress, did I understand correctly she's a Palestinian who teaches Islamic studies at Tel Aviv University? How's that possible? I didn't know that went on in Israel. And I would guess some or all of her students are also Arabs. Is that right?"

A confused look came over the American's face. "It's not something I'd know anything about. You'd have to ask her." She turned away from Jessica and began to talk to her other neighbour, leaving Jessica to keep her own company.

Jessica was delighted when Ahmed, leaving his table of seven men, came over to her and asked her to join him outside.

"Thank you for rescuing me. Between the inane chatter at my table and the last speaker's repetitious call to Jihad, I thought I might explode. Pun intended."

Ahmed grimaced but recovered. "Tomorrow morning we're skipping out for the day. There's a tour of Jakarta and I've signed us both up. It'll take up most of the day but we'll be able to catch the last speaker if we want. I hope that's okay with you?"

"Oh, that sounds like fun, yes."

"Right now, I'm going off to mosque with Faiz. He's been here for only a week and already knows lots of people."

"Have a good time," Jessica said. She frowned as she tried to make sense of Ahmed's sudden willingness to attend mosque.

The following morning, the couple boarded a tour bus along with some other people from the conference. Outside, the air was on fire, but the vehicle was air-conditioned and delightfully cool. The guide insisted that the women sit at the back separate from the men. Jessica immediately thought of Rosa Parks, but said nothing. She noticed that Ahmed and Faiz sat with the other men in the front and did not protest the misogyny taking place. The two men didn't even look back to where the women were forced to sit.

Ahmed, that son of a bitch, thought Jessica. He sees how all the women are being humiliated and says nothing.

The bus drove them to the National Monument and the museum beneath it. This took up most of the morning. For lunch the vehicle stopped at a fish restaurant with a wonderful view of the Java Sea. Large and small boats cut through the water. The group ate outside in the heat and humidity under palm trees. The smell of the salty ocean was everywhere. The men and women were permitted to sit together, though some chose not to.

The afternoon involved a visit to Tanah Abang Market. Part of this bazaar was open to the sky and part was housed in a large concrete building. The Moorish architectural touches on the facade did nothing to improve this bunker-like structure. Being a weekday, the market did not have many customers. The place was cleaner than Jessica had expected, though not overly so. Dates, coconuts, bolts of fabric, souvenirs, hats and shoes were on sale. All the vendors spoke some English.

Jessica bought a blue and yellow silk scarf for her mother. For a moment she considered getting one for Ahmed's mother but then decided it was inappropriate. She had never met the woman and at this point was not sure she would ever get to meet her. Jessica felt bitter about this state of affairs. I shouldn't let this go on, she thought. I haven't met his parents and he doesn't seem at all troubled by it. Maybe I should walk away from Ahmed and his family; after all I'm only twenty and there are other guys with less baggage out there.

When they got back on the bus to return to the hotel, an older woman in a long black dress and hijab sat down across the aisle from Jessica.

"Hi, I'm Orla," she had an Irish accent, freckles and graying red hair.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Jessica."

Orla told Jessica a little about her life. She grew up in a Catholic family. She first met her husband, who was originally from Iraq, when he visited her office in Dublin. He asked her out, she accepted and four months later they were married in a Muslim ceremony. Now she's a mother of five and a grandmother of eleven.

"My husband is standing there," she said pointing to an overweight man in a crumpled blue suit and baseball cap. She looked down at her cell phone. "It's my youngest daughter, Amira. She's a nurse and pregnant with her second child; such a lovely daughter, always checking to see how I'm doing."

Jessica was annoyed by the cheery tone of this woman wrapped in Muslim garb. "Does your husband have other wives?"

Orla did not reply, turned her face away and remained silent for the rest of the trip.

Three days later Jessica was packing to fly home while Ahmed was staying for a few more days. Her mother's birthday was coming up and she didn't want to miss it. The woman was turning fifty and the family was making it a special event. Perhaps she did not get along with her mother but neither did she hate her.

"My mom will love this Batik scarf. It's so pretty."

"Here," Ahmed said as he handed her a small box wrapped tightly in tissue paper. "It's a little heavy but it's an exquisite wooden mask, something you can only get in Indonesia. It's for your mother."

"When did you find the time to look for a gift?"

"There are a couple of nice stores near the hotel. Faiz helped me pick it out. He has a good eye."

Ahmed accompanied Jessica in a cab to the airport. During the ride through the city he was unusually talkative, rambling on about Toronto's basketball team, the Raptors.

At the airport the couple embraced then he climbed back into the taxi. Jessica hurried to the KLM counter. There was a lineup but she wasn't concerned. She had arrived quite early. Getting past customs to enter Indonesia had been slow and frustrating. She anticipated it would be just as chaotic trying to get on her flight out of the country. The same indifferent police patrolled the terminal. She had never seen so many cops in one place before. They were grim faced and heavily armed. One strolled around accompanied by a small dog. The cop and dog walked past Jessica when the animal stopped in front of her carry-on suitcase.

The policeman stiffened and his slack jaw tightened. "Is that your suitcase?"

"Yes, why?"

"Come with me."

"Me?" Confusion was written all over Jessica's face. Her heart began to beat unevenly and sweat appeared on her brow.

"Yes, yes. Come this way." A female police officer came over and the two accompanied Jessica to a small windowless room.

"Where are you going with my suitcase?"

"It will be returned to you after we examine it," said the policeman.

A long, miserable hour passed as Jessica waited alone.

She was then taken to another room. "Is this your suitcase?"

On a large table sat her luggage its contents spread out beside it. Jessica noticed one item appeared to be missing.

"Yeah, it's mine. I don't understand."

A policeman walked her over to table in the corner.

"And this package, is it yours?" said the cop pointing to the now empty cardboard box and torn tissue paper that had held Ahmed's present.

She explained, its contents was a gift for her mother from her boyfriend. No, she had not seen what was in the package but she knew it was a wooden mask.

"No, it's not," said the cop with a bleak expression on his face.

A gray-haired middle-aged policeman came into the dank room and said something in Indonesian to the other police standing there. Then he turned to Jessica.

"Where did you get the TATP bomb?"

"The what?" Jessica said, her voice trembling.

"Triacetone triperoxide explosives."

Jessica's face turned ashen. She felt her stomach knot so that she had trouble standing up straight. Ahmed, you bastard, she mumbled, you son of a bitch. She fought to hold back the tears.

Now safely back in his hotel, Ahmed pulled out a piece of paper from his wallet. It had his mother's delicate handwriting on it. He smiled. There in front of his eyes was the name and phone number of a lovely Palestinian girl living in Toronto. He reached for his cell phone and dialed.


  1. Quite an interesting and well written story. The characters are well drawn though I didn't buy that the deceptive Ahmed would try and blow up a plane, esp. out of Indonesia during an international conference. The naiive character of the girl is well created, and the descriptions of Islamic fundamentalism ring true.

  2. This story explores "how things could be" vs. "how things are." The ending saddened me, I was hoping the story would continue down the "how things could be" path...but alas, Ahmed had other plans.