Friday, May 12, 2006

The Steamer

It's no big secret that nobody likes the newcomer. In this land one can say it has been a long-standing tradition, perfected with each turn of History. A famous sketch known to practically any Hebrew-speaking Israeli, done by the now-defunct comedy group “Lool” (“Coop”) shows how each wave of immigrants arriving since the beginning of Zionism is received with contempt by the previous immigrants, who now regard themselves as “locals”. The first Zionist pioneers, singing folk-songs in the Russian style are looked down at by the local Palestinian Arabs who express their anger and scorn by spitting the insult “Il'an babour illi jabak”, which means, literally “Curse the ship that brought you”.

The classic sketch then shows how the first Jewish settlers show their contempt at the next wave of Jewish immigrants, coming from Poland, how the Polish Jews are then quick to curse the German Jews coming in the 1930s. The German Jews (nicknamed “Yekes”, maybe for their propensity to cling to their jackets, stiff and stifling in the local heat) then curse the Yemenites who are quick to learn the drill and curse the Moroccans who then curse the Jews from the Georgia and so on. Each group curses the previous one, and the sketch is funny not only in painting the characters, accents, quirks and stereotypes, but in that they all use the same curse in Palestinian Arabic: “Curse the ship that brought you.”

Funnier still, the Palestinian curse cannot be a very ancient one, despite the constant influx and shift in the population of Palestine since time immemorial. “Il'an babour illi jabak” does not come from the Classical Arabic and not even from the medieval variations of the language. “Babour”, the word I translated as meaning “ship” is not just any kind of ship. It's precise meaning is “steamer”, and it's of European descent, more precisely a French loan-word. “Vapeur” just means “vapor” is French. Steamships appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the 19th century, and this must then be the approximate time the curse came to be as we know it.

One could say, of course, that the idea is that foreigner intruders come in “vapeurs”, in steamships. Furthermore, one could add that it all started when the French came to Syria and Lebanon, after having taken Egypt in Napoleon's time. Such a formulation would reflect that the locals, in our case meaning the Palestinians, reject the foreigners meddling in their affairs, taking their land and establishing a permanent presence in the area. This sort of position fits well into the present day discourse about Post-Colonialism, authenticity and so on. Yet nothing is simple in the Middle East, not even the curses.

A few days ago, I had to change two tires in my car. Luckily, there's a very good place not far from home, and I just went over and bought the pair of tires. And then I had to wait for quite some time, since the delicate alignment of the front wheels in my German car is not easy to adjust when you change both tires. I was treated very well by the people in the shop, who know me already and always check my tires free of charge. The business is owned by a Jew, a religious man of Oriental origin who employs a number of young Jews and Arabs. The guy helping me was the one who knows me best from previous visits, a fair-skinned ash-blond Arab who loves to joke and horse around and speaks good Hebrew. The owner was trying to help too, as was another worker, but the job was taking a long time.

In the meantime, a big van came to the shop, the kind used to drive ten or twelve people. The driver's mirror had a little Palestinian flag and a sign with the first verse of the Koran. The driver came in, saying he had a punctured tire (he said he had a “banthir”, in colloquial Palestinian Arabic, derived from colloquial Hebrew “pancher” used since the days of the British Mandate for “puncture”). He was in a hurry, he said. People were waiting for him, pressing work. The blond guy, who had been trying to balance one of my wheels for twenty minutes or so said in his joking manner “Have some coffee, brother, this here is a surgical operation”. The driver was clearly unhappy and decided to leave. Out of ear's reach, as he passed me, he let slip “Il'an babour illi jabbo” - “Curse the ship that brought HIM”.
A Palestinian cursing another Palestinian for being a foreigner, a foreign intruder? Could that be. Well, you have to be a local to know the underlying situation. Yes, the Palestinian driver regarded the Palestinian from the tire shop as a foreigner. More precisely, in private he surely calls him a “salibi”. A Crusader.
Light skinned, green-eyed and blond Palestinians are regarded as descendants of Crusaders who took Arab women. In the human patchwork of Palestine whole families or larger groups carry this mark. They might be Christian or Muslim, but their racial traits mark them in the eyes of other Palestinians. I am sure that in some cases it's true that they in fact have Crusaders' blood running in their veins. Still other cases it might be Mongol blood, or Kurdish, or Turkish or whatever other light-skinned people passed through this land. None came by steamer, of course, but that's besides the matter.

Yet, the steamer never stops. In northern Israel, on the main road connecting the coastal plain and the Galilee, in Wadi Ara, there's a famous restaurant, no doubt one of the best Arab restaurants in the country, owned by Arabs from the city of Umm Al Fahm a few kilometers away. It's call “Al Babour”. I don't know whether it's irony or some sort of aesthetic choice, but the fact is that right by the Green Line separating Israel and the Occupied Areas, the main area of friction and contention, we have a marvelous exponent of local Palestinian cuisine, and it's called “The Steamer”.

The restaurant was immensely successful and got rave reviews in the press. People used to come from all over the country, making it also a sort of “in” place for the Jewish smart-set. And then, in the year 2000, when riots took place right there in Wadi Ara and 13 Arab Israelis were killed by the police. People stopped coming and the place almost went out of business. Recently, the situation is better though many Israelis avoid Arab zones and don't shop, eat or do business there. “Al Babour” is alive and well. Its food is still first-class. Every now and then I drive by. The times I've stopped there for lunch the restaurant was far from bustling. In any case, the name never fails to stir my thoughts (maybe this was precisely the reason they chose it). The Mediterranean is some 20 or 25 kilometers away. I always imagine the steamer-restaurant sailing overland and erase the image.

We're here to stay, all of us. Having come by ship (sail or steam), by donkey, camel or Belgian palfrey, we are all on the same Babour now. Hot, steamy, with an engine that rattles and might explode, but with no other option.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

My eyes

Like all the kids in our second-grade class, I had my eyes tested. It was a series of tests, but I think the decisive one was run on a machine that had you see a sort of highway with signs marking the illusionary distance. The highway turned slightly to the right and I remember that somewhere along the curve I couldn't discern the numbers on the signs. Shortly afterwards, a note arrived from school, advising my parents to take me to an ophthalmologist. Another thing I remember is that my mother had no idea who to consult. It was 1970, we were in Honduras and knew only the pediatrician we went to at the private clinic downtown. Anyway, my mother asked around and we ended up waiting for our turn at the private clinic of the best ophthalmologist in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

As we waited, my mother reminded me of what she had said at home: “Don't tell him we're from Israel. If he asks, I will answer.” The ophthalmologist's name was Dr. Nasrallah. I remember his first name too: Odeh. Dr. Odeh Nasrallah. A “turk” as they're called in Latin America, meaning a descendant of Ottoman subjects who emigrated to the New World. Jews, Christians and Muslims from Ottoman lands emigrated in large numbers to Central and South America, especially in the early 20th century. Dr. Nasrallah's family was surely Palestinian or Lebanese.

So, in we went, Israeli Jews consulting the best doctor in his field of specialty. He turned out to be an olive-skinned man, a bit chubby, with glasses. I know my mother ended up telling him our identity, although not at the beginning of the rather long session. He prescribed me what turned out to be my first pair of glasses and I remember him telling me the details of my new status. He was very clear and considerate with me, a child-patient who was quite surprised when told he'd need glasses from now on. Dr. Nasrallah explained that on the one hand, if I don't get glasses I would end up ruining my vision, but that since we had caught the problem just on time, with some exercises and discipline, I might get rid of the glasses in a few years' time. Everything ended very well, and I had my glasses till we returned to Israel, two years later.

Once back home, my mother was quick to take me to the very well-known ophthalmologist she knew, an Argentinian Jew, a highly regarded authority in the field. I have a clear recollection of the feelings regarding having my eyes checked again, in Israel. I especially remember the relief expressed both tacitly and directly when she told my father that all was well: Dr. Nasrallah had given me the best treatment, and was even praised by “our” doctor, who confirmed I would be able to get rid of the glasses if I followed a strict course of exercises and physical therapy for the muscles of my left eye. So I did, and three years later, I could put the glasses away for many years to come. In short: the Arab had treated me well.

Years passed. Every now and then I'd remember Dr. Nasrallah. At first, for his treatment, when I spent long hours doing exercises with a specialist. Then, after I stopped using glasses, his name would pop during my yearly checkups at “our” Argentinian ophthalmologist. As time passed and I became immersed in Israeli reality, Dr. Odeh Nasrallah's legacy was mainly his name. “Odeh”, his first name, was also the name of the owners of a wonderful Arab restaurant in the old city of St. John of Acre (Akko in Hebrew, Akka in Arabic). We'd go there sometimes, and I couldn't help remembering the good doctor. Later on, of course, we were all exposed to another Nasrallah: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, the extremist Shiite party and terrorist organization, whose name means “The Party of Allah”. Hizballah was one of the launching platforms of Ayatollah Homeini, who before becoming the leader or Iran, spent years in exile in Lebanon. In Amir Tahiri's excellent book about Homeini, the author tells who crowds of ecstatic supporters would chant in Farsi “Hizb faqat, Hizballah! Rahabar faqat, Ruh-Allah” - “Only one party, the Party of God, Only one leader, Ruh-Allah” (Ruhallah was Homeini's first name, “the spirit of Allah”). Moreover, as Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran, after the revolution, and as Lebanon became a mess, I was studying Arabic at school. Nasr, I learned, means “victory”. So... Nasrallah really means “Allah's victory”. This became a daily term in the 1990s, when the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah became the leader of Hizballah in Lebanon.

Watching Hassan Nasrallah on television, three things have always struck me. First, his language, which I really love to listen to. Islamic fundamentalists use a very specific kind of Arabic, rich, clear and forced to comply to the classical forms. Nasrallah enjoys the media and loves being on television. The second thing that strikes me about him is his young age. Hassan Nasrallah, one of the Middle East's more urgent problems is only three years my senior. Third, I am always interested in his calm, semi-amused faced, a bit like a child enjoying his latest mischief. His light skin, his combed beard and his immaculate attire, the robes and turban of a Shiite religious leader are all part of his public persona. But more than anything, I can't keep my eyes off his glasses.

Now, knowing that time flows at different paces in different parts of the world, I googled “Odeh Nasrallah”, in hope of finding “my Nasrallah” more than 35 years after our first meeting. Well, I did, in a way. In Honduras there is a Dr. Odeh Nasrallah, a well-known ophthalmologist. His full name is Juán Odeh Nasrallah and he works at the “Odeh-Nasrallah” clinic in Tegucigalpa. I found in a new item in “El Heraldo”, a leading newspaper in Honduras. It turns out that in 2003, Dr. Nasrallah headed a team of ophthalmologists that were offering free cataract operations for poor people in their country. The newspaper published a photograph of the good doctor. Young and slightly chubby, busy behind one of his machines, checking a patient. He must be a second-generation Nasrallah, most probably a son of the “original” Dr. Odeh. The photo shows him: light-skinned, dark haired, a short beard and no glasses. “You have to give in order to receive”, he told the newspaper, so far from the Middle East.

Monday, April 17, 2006

TV Star buying meat

Two or three days before Passover, I went to buy some meat and poultry for the various dishes at the traditional festive dinner, the “Seder”. I found myself waiting at the counter at “Capital Poultry” in Jerusalem, where I am a regular client. The young guys behind the counter were working very hard, since many people had placed orders over the phone. Out of the four Arabs working, two were busy preparing the orders. They were getting into discussions with the other two, who were trying to serve us, the people who had come to the store. The long knives were working extra-hard and the open refrigerator was constantly being resupplied with chicken, whole and cut, with minced beef, whole parts of beef and so on. The man ahead of me seemed to be buying the whole stock. “Five kilos of chicken wings”, he´d said. And when it had all been piled up, weighed and cleaned, just as his order was being packed, he had to say “You know what? Add two-three kilos on top of that”. A clear case of Passover craze. His diminutive wife was waiting with two carts which were quickly filling up. “Fifteen chickens, whole...”, said the husband. “How much? Add five more, go on, don't be shy” The couple's kid, a ten year-old boy, was helping carry the bags from the counter to the carts, absolutely silent, aware of his father's authority. His father a slim, nervous Oriental Jew, was not to be spoken to. He was buying the meat. The front pockets of his pants revealed the presence of two thick wads of bills, and he was playing with the key-ring of his car. His wife was getting nervous, struggling to keep quiet. Later on I'd meet them again, by the cashier. The huge purchased would be waiting to be packed and the man would be sitting just outside the store, on a stool, catching some fresh Jerusalem air. He would then tell his wife: “Go get the girls to make you the packages”, to which the poor woman, nicely dressed and a bit over thirty, would snap: “Sure, you're sitting over there. You have nothing to do, you don't have to clean the whole house.” He'd light a cigarette and not turn back to look at her.
But in the meantime they were still depleting the shop's stock. The Arab guys were treating the situation as if it were some game. Maybe they'd made a silent bet as to how much merchandise this man would take. I was making eye contact with them, expressing no understanding of the situation, just telling them I was there, next in line. Any other attitude would be seen as butting in. Unnecessary and potentially inadvisable.

Eventually, my turn came. We exchanged looks of relief. Their eyes were saying what they would not say aloud: “Did you see that guy? And what attitude!” As my measly four kilos of chicken breasts were being weighed I heard one of the Arabs say “Do you know him?” “Yeah, he's a customer”, said his friend. Some muttering ensued, and I asked for the next item on my list. Now it was their turn to make eye-contact. Open, direct. First one of them, then both and then again, the first guy looked at me, a smile in his eyes.
“He says he knows you.”
Somehow I knew he didn't mean his friend knows me as a customer, so I smiled, waiting.
“He says he's seen you on TV.”
“That's very possible”, I said, surprised. “On what channel was it?”
He turned to his friend, and said quickly: “You were right!”
And then answered my question:
“On either Channel 1, Channel 2 or Channel 10.” The three national channels which also carry news.
“It must have been on Channel 1”, I said. The three national channels are the only one which are aired the old way, on airwaves and not just on cable or via satellite. I was surprised.
“I had a show for a year and a half, and they keep rerunning it, especially at night.”
“Yes!”, he said. “It was last night you were on!”
This was getting to be too much, so I touched the main reason for my surprise:
“It was a program about books, interviews with writers and so on.”
“Exactly!”, he said, a smile extending in front of me. “He recognized you right away and told me you are on TV. You are on TV all the time!”
In their world, this is precisely the case. Arab villages do not have cable TV. The Israeli cable companies don't offer their services to Israeli Arab villages, claiming it's not profitable. The choice of stations is indeed made to suit the Jewish majority, even though main Arab stations, state-run stations from Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco are included. Still, many Arabs install satellite dishes to be able to get a full array of Arab stations from all over the Middle East. Occupied areas, such as the village these young men come from near Bethlehem don't have even theoretical access to Israeli cable TV. The Arabs at “Capital Poultry” were in fact saying they don't even have satellite dishes installed at their homes in villages around Jerusalem.

“Well”, I said. “those are reruns, so it may happen you'll see me wearing winter clothes in the middle of summer. Some people don't get it and call me saying I am out of my mind, wearing a woolen sweater in mid-July.” When you become well-known because of a TV show, you get into the habit of making remarks like this. Underneath, it was mind boggling to me: Arabs with very limited Hebrew watching a show about Hebrew literature, world literature translated into Hebrew and the new works by Jewish academics, essayists and journalists.

“We don't mind”, said the Arab. “Now we'll all watch you since it's you we know from over here. We don't want to watch the news or the series in English, so late at night you are our man...”

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Romantic Dinner in Camp 80

Many Israelis know Army Camp 80. The Army is deployed all over the country but certain camps are more than just military installations and have become part of the physical and historical landscape. Camp 80 is such a place. It dates from before the creation of the state, when it was a British Army base. Its location, in the center-north part of the coastal plain makes it a place you find yourself passing by quite often. Moreover, since Camp 80 has been a main base for the infantry battalion known as “Pioneer Fighting Youth”, a term inherited from socialist times, Camp 80 carries a weight which is part of Israeli history and nostalgia. Back in the 1950s, the “Nahal” (the Hebrew acronym for the Pioneer Fighting Youth), was a central part of the ideology which called for a new kind of Jew to be forged in the Israeli melting-pot: tenacious, pioneering, constructive. Nahal units would settle the frontier areas, build new collective settlements (the famous kibbutzim), to be nurtured by young soldiers living there and protecting the remote sites until the kibbutz could be “turned civilian” and become a new Israeli settlement. For many years, basic training of those infantry units took place in Camp 80. The soldiers serving in the Nahal divided their time in the army between settling the remote parts of the young country and functioning as an organic infantry fighting force. When I was enlisted, in the early 1980s, only girl Nahal soldiers did their basic training there, but it still was, as it is today, a main base for Nahal infantry. Nahal still exists today, mainly as a fighting battalion, with marginal social aspects added to the soldiers' service (helping new immigrants, teaching in difficult neighborhoods and performing other valued tasks within civic society).

Now since Camp 80 is such an old, well-established part of the Israeli landscape, right by one of the main coastal roads, it's no surprise that just like in the vicinity of other large permanent camps, a little business has sprung up. Families visiting their newly recruited sons and daughters as well as the soldiers themselves are glad for a place to have a quick bite, fill up gas in the family car and so on. Given its location, it's natural that a glorified gas station does excellent business right in front of the camp's main gate.

In the years since I was a young soldier, a generation ago, Israel has changed a great deal. The roads have become much better, and modern road-sides amenities are commonplace. In addition, coffee culture has evolved greatly. While once a military camp could sprout a kiosk with soft drinks, newspapers, cigarettes and simple hot-dogs, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 is now almost an American road-side stop. Israeli gas-stations now offer small sleek little supermarkets and espresso bars. This is how the area in front of the gates of Camp 80 has evolved since I first entered it in 1981. Indeed, the gas-station is now a small complex and its café is well-known as a good place, recommended by some of the best guides to the country's eateries. You can even find it on the Web, unanimously recommended by the critics. Naturally, it's called “Café 80”.

Camp 80 is located near a coveted upper middle-class expanse of red-roofed private houses. But certain things have not changed, indeed they cannot change. The British had good reasons for putting the place right where it is, way before the impressive urban growth the area has enjoyed in the last generation. Camp 80 is not just on the northern coastal plain, but at the entrance of a long, diagonal valley which connects the country´s coast and its northern part. The narrow valley is called “Eeron Valley”. Well, that´s its name in Hebrew, which almost no one uses. We all call it “Wadi Ara”, its Arabic name.

Wadi Ara is still the connection between the North, up to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and the heart of Israel. It is also one of the areas of Israel most densely populated by Arabs. Immediately to the east to Wadi Ara you are in occupied land, some of it controlled by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, I did my basic training in an old Jordanian camp which was under the authority of Camp 80, right across Wadi Ara. Today it´s in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, off-limits to Israelis. So not only is Wadi Ara heavily dotted by Arab-Israeli towns and villages, but it´s a border-zone, touching what will surely be the future Palestinian State, and is now an area of friction and a source of worry and violence. In fact, many attempts to infiltrate Israel and carry out suicide bombings have taken place right there, in Wadi Ara. Now Israelis drive along its modern road, from Camp 80 at its southern entrance to the fertile valley to which it opens in the north, or use it to connect to the super-modern national toll road which is being built all along the country. Yet, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 has more to it than the successful “Café 80”.

While the espresso-bar which is the critics' pet awaits on one end of the gas station, on the other end there's a restaurant. The “Eeron Restaurant”. A traditional Arab restaurant, and it's not called the “Wadi Ara Restaurant”. Owned, managed and run by Israeli Arabs living in the area, in the Arab villages nearby. On the last evening of 2005, I had dinner there, stopping on the way from Haifa to Jerusalem. I didn't expect the place to be festive, even though it was the 31st of December, and I wasn't wrong. Wadi Ara is largely Muslim. Maybe if the restaurant were a popular eating-place for Jews the owner would have catered to the fact that many secular Jews mark the end of what we call the “civilian year”. But this place is strictly Arab. And that evening it was easy to see that we were the only Jews sitting down to have dinner there. The place was quite busy, it was a Saturday night, and platters of skewered meat were being carried across the large hall. Yet it didn't take much effort to see who the customers were that night. Families with children, groups of men, young married couples. And all the women wore the hijab, the traditional head covering of pious Muslim women. In a funny way, I felt relieved. Usually, in a popular Arab restaurant serving a large Jewish public, the attitude tends to be servile, obsequious. There's a little “Jew entering Arab restaurant” routine played by the staff, including overplayed smiles and a host of “manly” gestures. The “Eeron Restaurant”, its paper napkins declaring its Hebrew name, was simply not that: the Arab waiter was proper, to the point, and functional in his approach. As we were served, I reflected on the fact that the place reminded me of “family restaurants” in India. Food to feed you, a place to sit, safe for children and women, who nevertheless do not come by themselves but are always part of a family or newly married, dining with their young husband.

Seen by Western eyes, the hijab and in fact the whole way Muslim women in the Middle East are part of an attempt to conceal femininity, to erase the contours and features of the women. That night in Wadi Ara, I had the opportunity of seeing two young couples without children dining in intimacy in a public space. Heads covered meticulously with hijabs, long straight dresses down to the heels, two Muslim women sat with their husbands, clearly enjoying the evening, being served by the all-male staff. One couple ate in almost total silence. They were both busy tearing bits of chicken with their hands, dipping them in the assortment of small plates spread on the table. But the other couple was eating together, romantically together. I followed their meal furtively. She tore a bit of chicken and handed it to his waiting hands. He ate and while still chewing, handed her a plate of hot-peppers, which she took thankfully. Then, while she was munching on pickles, he took a meat patty, split it in two and fed her with his fingers. She smiled as she took it with her lips. He made sure she'd miss not a bit. The other half he stuffed into a bit of pita-bread, offering to add some veggies and hand it to her too. Her mouth full, she gestured lovingly, signaling “No, no, have some too, it's wonderful”. And so it continued. A man and a woman eating together, being very proper in the middle of a large crowd of fellow-Muslims, not an inch of her hair was exposed, and her long sleeves never revealed her wrists. A couple in love, Muslims sharing dinner at the entrance to Wadi Ara, in front of Camp 80 used by the “Pioneering Fighting Youth” of the Israeli Army, near the trendy espresso-bar, a stone-throw away from the Palestinian Authority, on New Year's Eve 2006.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

And this they call justice?

A few years ago, about a year after the beginning of the second intifada, I was invited to take part in a meeting of Arab and Jewish poets and scholars in Nazareth. For most Israelis the initial shock came with the wave of disturbances and violence that erupted within Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living in the pre-1967 areas of the country. The police reacted violently, using snipers, shooting live ammunition and killing 13 Arab Israeli citizens. So a year after this traumatic episode, I found myself driving through Nazareth, which looked subdued and depressed. Nazareth itself was suffering its share of internal strife, which could develop into a full-scale conflict between Muslims and Christians. The Islamic Movement was trying to build a mosque in the center of the city, right in the middle of the esplanade leading to the Church of the Annunciation, one of Christianity's holiest sites. The project was stopped, but the people on the streets were tense, somber and sad.

Anyway, I drove across town, up to the higher part, to a Christian retreat where the meeting was being held. Christians, Muslims and Jews were meeting. Though I can't say that this kind of cultural exchange is a mainstream activity in Israel, such meetings have been taking place for the last 50 years. Poetry is translated from Arabic into Hebrew and vice-versa, poems are published in the press in both languages and contacts are constant on many levels.

When I was invited to speak, I started by telling about coming to Nazareth that day. It was a Friday, Islam's holy day, and the contested site of the mosque was wrapped in green canvas and green flags, green being Islam's traditional color. I described the expressions I saw on people's faces, the empty café where I stopped for half an hour just to feel the city, Israel's largest Arab town. I told the audience about the graffiti I saw just across the church and the aborted mosque. It said: “Occupation is the real violence”. My listeners became very still. “But that's not the point I wish to make”, I said. “What hit me was the degree of pessimism Nazareth reflects. Things must be extremely bad and people must be in utter despair, for the graffiti is in Arabic, not in Hebrew, the language of the occupier, meaning that whoever painted it feels nobody among the Jews is listening.”

Later on during the meeting, an Arab poet approached me. I will call him Z.
“We need to be heard”, he said. “That's why I write poetry in Hebrew.” Bilingual poets exist among Israeli Arabs. Hebrew is compulsory in Arab schools in Israel and since the country's system functions in Hebrew, from government offices to the mass media. Z lives in Haifa and writes poetry in Arabic, following classical forms, and free-verse poems in Hebrew. Yet, the point he was pushing was not just that Arab poets need to be heard, but that it is precisely the bilingual artists, the poets writing in Hebrew too, have to be recognized and made part of the bridge between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

A few months later, I got a call from one of the older Arab poets, a principal of a high-school in the Galilee. He had been invited to Spain and wanted some of his poems in Spanish. He asked me to translate them for him. “I will pay you well”, he said. “That's fine, but it's not the point. I have to see if I can do the job and if I can convey your work in Spanish”, I explained. Eventually, the poems arrived. Modern in form and very accessible. As I worked my way through the translation, I had a strange feeling. A presence was eerily making itself noted. I read my Spanish and decided to carry out a little experiment. I translated it into Hebrew, roughly, just so I would be able to read it. I knew at once what the presence I sensed was. It was Bialik, our national poet who died in the mid 1930s and wrote about yearning for a country and about the difficulties of a minority living in a hostile land. I had heard Bialik was enjoying new-found relevance among an audience he surely never imagined: the Israeli Arabs. Bialik is taught as part of the Hebrew program for Arab high schools, but it's clear that he is being read as a present-day relevant poet. Indeed a classic.

Yet fate still had in store for me the most surprising meeting. Three years later, on the morning of the Jewish New Year, I was in Haifa. A new nephew had been born that night. As I came out of the hospital – the same one where I was born – a taxi stopped by. I heard a voice calling my name. I looked around. It was the taxi driver. And who should it be but Z, the bilingual poet. “Hi! Remember me?” he called out as I leaned over the open window. I sat in the front seat. After I told him the reason I was there, he congratulated me heartily for the new nephew. “I've written new material in Hebrew. I keep hoping. We are old men”, he said, following the Arab concept that a 40-year old man seeing a younger generation being born is old, “but we must give hope to the young ones. We must be heard!” He unfolded the visor in front of him and handed me a visiting-card. It said: “Z and Poet: All parts of ISRAEL and Airport” along with his cellphone. On the back there was a poem in Hebrew as well as its translation into English. It ended with the words “And this they call justice?”

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All Semitics are Equal

The term “antisemitism” is artificial. It does not encompass hatred of all Semitic peoples. Rather, it's a euphemism for “hatred of the Jews”. No Arabs or Ethiopians are included as objects of antisemitism.

Yet, one morning in Ethiopia, I discovered that there is such a thing as “Arch-Antisemitism”. Or maybe I should call it “fair and balanced” Antisemitism?.
Well, here is what happened. One day during my visit to Addis Abeba, I found myself walking in the center of town, when I stumbled on a sign pointing to a small museum on top of a small hill. I approached the gate and started to climb slowly, since Addis Abeba is located on a high plateau. It looked like I was the only person going up to the museum. As I got to the top of the hill, I saw an old wooden building with a lovely garden and a coffee area. Coffee is an extremely important element in Ethiopian culture and I saw at once the typical straw seats around a bed of fragrant burning coal with the traditional coffee pot in the middle. A tiny gift-shop was open and the place was empty, but for two Ethiopian women, and three Germans.

Yes, I must admit, I am usually quite good at spotting them. Besides the general Germanic look, they're easily identified by their body language, by the design of their glasses and by their gear. The three men were sitting, having coffee which was served by the younger of the two women, who were both in traditional white dresses.
I was dying for a cup of coffee, but decided to wait them out so I went into the museum first. I took my time looking at the exhibit, which mainly shows the history of Addis Abeba from its foundation. There's a lot to learn there, and I did. But the most eye-opening lesson was still waiting for me.

When I returned to the garden, the three Germans were still there. They had long finished the coffee and were talking to the lady. I took a seat. Soon enough, seeing another white visitor, the men asked me where I came from. The one who did most of the talking was the eldest. They were a film-crew and they'd been working in Western Africa, in Cameroon. It turned out that Lufthansa had had some problem and instead of flying to Frankfurt, they were flown to Ethiopia and were to take a flight to Europe the next day. So they had a day and a half to burn in an unexpected place. They had followed the word “museum” somewhere and found themselves on the little hill in middle of the strange thin-aired capital. They said they were looking for Lucy, which is the nickname of the famous humanoid on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia, elsewhere in the city. 3.2 million year-old Lucy is referred to as “the mother of the human race”, and is one of the earliest ancestors of humans.

The oldest German asked me where I was from, and when he learned I was Israeli he asked me whether I was Jewish or Muslim. He told me his wife knows Biblical Hebrew and teaches theology as a Protestant Pastor. Then he went on to the usual issues: “When is all the mess over there going to end?”, the type of questions any Israeli faces when he travels abroad.
I asked the man, who seemed in his mid-fifties, whether he'd been in Israel. He told that he had, many years before.
“Now it's impossible”, he said.
“Why?”, I asked.
“All that violence. I couldn't visit Nazareth now”
“Nazareth? I was there just a few weeks ago, what's the problem?”, I said, quite astonished.
“Ah, with Intifada and occupation... too dangerous.”
“You must mean Bethlehem”, I answered, wondering whether he was on speaking terms with the theologist wife. “Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinians, so you can visit freely. In fact, if anyone here can't go there it's me, as an Israeli.”
He decided to change the angle of his attack:
“Anyway, it's impossible, they stamp you passport at the airport and then you can't go to many places.”
“You mean to Arab countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, or to Iran.”
“We filmed in Syria, so it's a problem if you have an Israeli stamp.”, he said.
I retorted: “You can ask the control at the airport to add a loose form and stamp it so you're passport remains intact, and they even advise you of the option.”
At that point, I was granted a break. After a few minutes, he tried to be matter-of-fact:
“So, they say the Ethiopian emperors go back a long time.”
Now it was the turn of the Ethiopian lady to intervene:
“Yes, all the way to Queen Sheba and King Solomon”, she said in perfect English.
“What? King Solomon from the Bible?” He seemed slightly shocked.

When the lady and I nodded, ironically trying to comfort the man, he decided my respite was over:
“So tell me, you as a Jew”, he aimed his cannon, “as a Jew, here, since you also are Semitic, like them here”, he had loaded the charge - “Do you, being Jewish, feel a connection to Ethiopia, maybe something familiar?”
I smiled: “Yes indeed. The Ethiopians are a very proud people, very knowledgeable of their past and their heritage, and very religious.” I too had my ammo: “And they very Christian and close to the Christian text, since their Church predates anything in Europe, Catholic or Orthodox, not to mention the Protestant variant.”
The man was unhappy. I proceeded:
“So yes, we're close both in our original link to the Bible and in our Semitic identity, mainly in the fact that our languages are both Semitic, though very different.”

Suddenly, a cellphone rang. The older Ethiopian woman got up and moved away to take the call. The Germans accepted more coffee from the young assistant. I overheard some of the telephone conversation and realized it was not in Amharic. I couldn't contain myself, and when it was over I asked the lady. She confirmed my suspicions: it was Tigrinya, a language from Northern Ethiopia. Struck by my mind having responded to the sound, I told the Germans:
“Here you have an example. The lady was speaking in Tigrinya and I understood most of what she said because it's Semitic and close enough to some Southern Arabic dialects.”

It turned out that she was the director of the museum. Since I wanted to buy some souvenirs, I asked her to show me some and quote the prices in Tigrinya. Within a minute we were haggling in “Semitic”, having no problem communicating. A feeling of a bond both strange and close.

In the German, too, was not disappointed in the Semitic union I had tidily defined for him. The Germans were getting ready to leave. They offered to pay for the coffee and the director of the museum graciously dismissed the idea: “It's our pleasure, you are a guest here.”

The three men got up and without having visited the museum asked whether they could find a taxi to take them to the “main” National Museum. The Mother of the Human Race was still waiting for them.
“Of course”, said the Ethiopian lady. “We'll show you the way”.
She then turned to her assistant, and told her, in Tigrinya:
“Take them down the long way and see to it that they go away.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Allah and chocolate

One of the principal points of meeting between Arabs and Jews is Israel is the hospital. When patients come to a ward they come for the same reasons and are to undergo the same procedures. All have families worrying for them and everyone has to go through that rite of initiation so common to huge public systems: the long hours of waiting. Arabs and Jews find themselves waiting for the same scraps of information about a loved one, trying to understand the same explanations, needing to do the same things, run around for the same paperwork. Jews and Arabs alike find themselves worrying about the same things. And it all takes place in that parallel universe created within the confines of the hospital, where for a certain period of time and during the unfolding of a drama, we are protagonists.

It is on that stage that Jews and Arabs meet most unexpectedly and on relatively equal terms. A Jewish nurse is preparing a patient for a procedure. She was sent by her superior who told her the name of the patient and gave her his file. “The second bed”, she said, “and call me if you need help, in translation or anything else.” So the nurse approaches the man lying on the bed dressed in a hospital gown. A sixty-year old Arab. “First time?”, she asks, in primitive and carefully pronounced Arabic, trying to distance herself from her Hebrew accent. “No, it's not the first time.” She checks the IV and asks in Hebrew: “Do you know Hebrew? A little?” The man shakes his head. So on she goes doing her best in hospital Arabic: “First time?”, she repeats. Maybe she's forgotten, maybe it's the cue she gives herself to remember her part in the script. “No, it's not the first time.”, he repeats. He gestures with his hand, the ultimate Semitic speaking device, making himself clear. “Twice already.” Pause. “And an operation too.” His hand does a slitting motion along his chest. “Good”, says the nurse, in Arabic. “I will ask you a few questions now”, she's speaking Hebrew now. “Questions, OK”, she adds in Arabic, stressing the word. He nods. And so it continues? Teeth? Hand gestures saying “I got rid of them!” Tests? “I brought them all.” and his hands point at the file. Family? Wife? Children? “Only me!” answers the man, putting on a brave face. “It'll be fine!”, she reassures him in the Hebrew he doesn't know. But nobody living in Israel is unable to understand yihiye beseder, “it'll be fine”, which covers anything between “it's under control”, “don't worry” and the Spanish mañana.

In comes an Arab woman, the wife of another patient. Long brown Islamic dress, head scarf, thin gold bracelets, in her fifties. She looks at the man who's just finished the interview and asks him “So you're here too?” They know each other. She keeps walking, propriety demands she do not stop. But now the room is full of a greetings and blessings, answers and reciprocations, like an oral string of prayer beads. I imagine what an average Jew might construe of the exchange. Allah being ping-ponged.
Indeed, being at an Israeli hospital is a sure way for an Jew to meet Islam's Maker of the Universe, Allah. This happens in the contacts which do take place between patients. It's impossible for an observant Muslim to speak and not mention Allah almost in every sentence, either specifically or in greetings, blessings, interjections and syntactical fill-ins. And in hospitals this happens when Muslims speak to Jews, even if they don't know any Hebrew. Eyes meet. Two adjacent beds and relatives between them. A nod might mark that interest as to the neighbor's health is expressed, and soon enough a blessing will be heard, with Allah figuring as a necessity.

The same Allah which Jews in war-torn Israel are used to relating to threat and menace. To the voice of the muazzin calling to prayer as well as to slogans shouted in demonstrations or in the loud calls in meetings of the Islamic movements on the Palestinian side, as shown on TV. And all of a sudden, Allah is there and the neighbor in the bed beside you has undergone the same procedure.
As families wait outside the operating room, the place becomes an improvised hall of prayer. Jews reading Psalms or chapters of the Mishna, or simply the prayer for the sick. Arabs reading from small booklets containing the pertinent Koranic verses. The same whisper which still lets the people around hear the words. Watching the scene I was reminded of a couple of gardeners working in a public park in one of Israel's coastal towns. Young Arabs on a hot day. “Look! The boss is coming! Let's look as if we're working!”, said one. “Too late...”, said his friend. “He'll catch us idling...”, to which his friend answered coolly: “Don't worry, let's tell him it's time for us to pray, he has no idea anyway.” Back then I thought how symmetric and asymmetric this scene is: while on both sides you find people using prayer as a pretext to loaf about, in the municipal hierarchy the boss is Jewish and the gardeners are Arabs, so you'll never see a couple of Jewish boys fear an Arab boss and using prayer time to escape his wrath. In the waiting area in the hospital prayer was symmetric.

And it was Purim, a Jewish festival or merriment, carnival-like celebrations and exchange of sweets and other treats. In a hospital this means the nurse might be wearing a platinum-pink wig or an orderly might appear with a Groucho-like half-mask. This is especially true at the hospital I was this week, which is religious in its affiliation and more observant than other public institutions, though all public entities in Israel observe the basic precepts as “Jewish places”. So on Purim you have young religious in costume Jews passing through the wards, being merry, acting like clown, and giving away sweets to everybody. As I was waiting, listening to the prayers in stereo all around me, a couple of those swept the waiting room. “Happy Purim!”, they said. Luckily, they didn't linger or make too noise. “May God grant you complete healing”. “They mean the Jewish God, of course”, I thought. Having given everybody candy and chocolate, they disappeared and the quiet hum was resumed.
About half an hour later, the Muslims left, happy to see their loved one come out looking quiet well, munching on the chocolates they too had received for Purim. On the table in the center only one chocolate was left. A small piece in its shiny aluminum paper wrapping that said: “Icetop”.
A couple of observant Jews was sitting across the table. Theirs was an especially long wait. A life-threatening situation, a drama that had been unfolding for 10 days. They had hours ahead of them still. When one of the other Jews, a woman, had asked them for their patient's age, they had declined to say, which is customary among religious Jews. The shiny wrapped chocolate was still on the table. The husband reached for it. “Don't!”, said his wife. “The Arabs left it!” The husband, tired and complaining he hadn't worked in a week and threatening to leave, said: “But they got it from the kids, for Purim...”He took the chocolate, raised his glasses, trying to read the script on the wrapper, and failing. His wife was adamant: “Don't touch it. You don't know it's one of the chocolates they got here. They might have bought it in the Old City, who knows where, and it's certainly not Kosher.” The exhausted man gave up and got up to leave.

After they left to speak with the professor, I took the piece of “Icetop”. Imported from Turkey, made by the Şimşek company. Written in Turkish and Arabic only. Ingredients. I strained my eyes and found half of a Czech version. Nothing about it being Kosher or not. No place for a sticker in Hebrew, I told myself. Maybe it came from a bag where the importer had stuck a Kosher certificate, maybe it would say “Kosher for consumers of pagan butter.” Or they might have bought it in the Old City.