On a sunny day of June, I took a taxi on a Jerusalem street. The street is in a residential neighbourhood and the taxi just happened to pass by. A very common type of taxi: a Mercedes, white, its motor purring as diesels do, the sound Israelis associate with taxis.
I open the door and sit in the back. As I extend my arm to close the door, I hear the speakers' gentle thump, responding to the driver having pressed the “mute” button on the radio. The residual sounds are unmistakable: the taxi-driver was listening to Arab music.
He asks me for the destination and I tell him I need him to take me to an industrial zone at the entrance to town, so I can pick-up my car which has been serviced. He nods and we drive off. I see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, moving from left to right and back to left. Who will make the first move? I wait. He has to move first: “What's the best way to get there?”, he says.
Clearly he's not a West-Jerusalem taxi driver. A glance at the driver's name-plate, affixed to the left-side main pole of the car, behind the driver seat, gives the details of the owner: a Jewish name from a small town south of Tel Aviv. So he's a hired driver, an Israeli Arab, probably from Yaffa, Ramla or Lod. Diesels are quieter when in gear, and as we drive I can hear the muted music. I tell him how to take me to the garage. Though there's only one way I act as if I am choosing between options. He's tense, embarrassed.
And now, the Big Dilemma. Should I tell him it's OK if he listens to his music just as he was doing when I hailed him? Won't it embarrass him even more? And what's even worse: should I tell him this in Arabic, or should I stick to the local lingua franca, Hebrew?
If I touch the issue and tell him he can turn up the volume, besides embarrassing him, I may be seen as identifying myself as a leftist, of the patronizing sort, eager to show him I respect his culture, of course. But if I do that in Arabic I might get us into a tighter spot still. Am I a freak case of an Ashkenazi-looking intellectual who is not only a patronizing post-colonial bleeding heart, but a student of Arabic to boot? Or he might see me as something slightly worse: a "jasoos", a spy working for the Zionist "mukhabarat", for the Israeli intelligence services.
The music is hardly discernible now, as we negotiate the traffic. The garage is not far now. Any intervention on my part would be awkward now. Immersed in thoughts, I almost forget to tell him to stop. Pretending I am absent-minded in order to preserve the pretence of not having guessed he's from out of town, I say: “Ah, sorry, you can stop here, I didn't see we'd arrived”. And as I get off with the change in my hand, I look back and say: “You can listen to your music”. In Arabic.