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A taxi driver who knows no boundary

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[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Taxi driver Abu Shahin seems to be related to, or at least knows, everyone in the West Bank.

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 8, 2002


JERUSALEM -- In covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it helps for a journalist to have three things: a bulletproof vest, a taste for tea and a driver who is related to everyone in the West Bank.

The value of the vest should be obvious in a region where Palestinian snipers shoot at Jewish settlers, Jewish settlers shoot at Palestinian motorists and Israeli soldiers occasionally shoot at journalists, as recently happened to a Boston Globe reporter (he was hospitalized with a gunshot wound that came uncomfortably close to his spinal cord.)

The taste for tea is acquired from many an hour sipping away with Israelis and Palestinians, as unfailingly gracious to their guests as they are hostile to each other.

As for the driver -- well, let us introduce you to ours, Abu Shahin.

Like virtually all foreign journalists here, Times photographer Jamie Francis and I have a Palestinian taxi driver. The reasons for this are not ideological but practical: Many Palestinian drivers who were born in Jerusalem, as Shahin was 59 years ago, carry Israeli ID cards. That enables them to travel throughout Israel as well as in Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Israeli drivers, on the other hand, don't feel safe going into the West Bank because anti-Israeli feelings, especially in the current climate, run so high. Moreover, Israeli drivers are less likely than Palestinians to speak all three languages of the region -- Arabic, English and Hebrew -- and thus are less able to act as translators in a pinch.

Shahin speaks a form of English that would send an Oxford don running straight for the whiskey, but we manage to understand about 80 percent of what he says. His voice is as gravelly as road grit, and if he ever quit smoking, Marlboro would go out of business.

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Shahin, who operates his white Mercedes out of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, spends much of his day sipping tea or coffee, smoking and driving. Proud of his ability as a mechanic, here he executes a minor repair outside of Jericho.

Like many Palestinians, Shahin is fond of Americans. Three of his six children live in Texas: His daughter is a homemaker, one son runs a travel agency and the other is marketing director for a nurses' organization when he's not working as a chef. Shahin visits them once a year, though how he makes it through a transatlantic flight without a cigarette we're afraid to ask.

What makes Shahin so valuable to us are his deep roots in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The man has more relatives than the region has rocks.

"Abu Shahin, do you know a pharmacist named Hassam?" we asked the other day, trying to track down a man Jamie had photographed at an Israeli checkpoint.

"No problem, he's my cousin," Shahin said, and in less than five minutes he had set up an interview.

Palestinians tend to have huge families. In fact, they have one of the world's highest birth rates, a major concern to Israel, whose Jewish population will be exceeded in the next 100 years by the number of Palestinians living next door. If Shahin isn't directly related to a fellow Palestinian, chances are great that he is at least acquainted with him.

"Yes, he comes from a very big family in the West Bank -- I know them well," he told us while we were trying to find someone else. Within 45 minutes, we were in the city of Hebron and on the man's doorstep.

(More than once we've wondered why, if a taxi driver can find anyone anywhere in the West Bank, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority seems to have such a hard time tracking down terrorists.)

Shahin also has a remarkable ability to talk his way through Israeli checkpoints. On Saturday, while heading to Jericho in the West Bank, we encountered a typically formidable-looking blockade of tanks, concrete barriers and Israeli soldiers demanding to see our passports and Israeli press cards. Shahin and one of the soldiers began a loud exchange in Hebrew that, judging from hand gestures and facial contortions, suggested all three of us would soon be sitting in jail. Much to our surprise, the soldier finally grunted something like "Oi vey" and waved us on through.

Shahin is a master, too, at wending his way through the maze of roads that crosshatch the West Bank. Palestinians generally use old roads, often blocked by Israeli troops, while Jewish settlers travel on sleek new highways built especially for them. For that reason, settlers in their cars are a frequent target of Palestinian snipers.

Our most harrowing journey came when we lingered too long at a Jewish settlement and had to drive 30 miles back to Jerusalem at night. Since it was too dark for anyone to read the "FOREIGN PRESS" sign on the windshield, we thought it would be safer to use Palestinian roads. But Abu Shahin insisted on taking a more direct Jewish road because it would cut the travel time by 30 minutes -- assuming we didn't get killed along the way.

"Don't worry, I will drive slow," he said. "The settlers, they drive very fast because they are afraid. I drive slow and everyone will know I am Palestinian."

(We made it, although I sank lower and lower in the back seat, trying to get my head out of firing range.)

We never talk politics with Shahin, but he appears to be among the many Palestinians and Israelis who would like nothing better than to see peace in the region. Beneath his coarse exterior, we suspect there is quite a spiritual soul -- Shahin has lived his entire life on the Mount of Olives, in a house with a spectacular view of the Old City of Jerusalem. He told us that every morning at dawn he goes out on his balcony and prays, as the first rays of the sun strike the magnificent gold top of the Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa Mosque, as it is known to Muslims.)

Then he heads for work, with the universal goal of all parents, be they Muslim, Christian or Jew. "My father was broke, no money," he said. "I work hard so I can give to my children."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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