Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Listening to music on a taxi in Jerusalem

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.


mpatnet said...

Sad, funny, tragic, awkward as is the situation here, it is not hopeless. Reaching out, in the most humble of ways is the only daily, man-to-man answer to a tangled reality politcians are incapable of solving, and too many extremists on both sides are eager to undermine.

Anonymous said...

Great post!! keep it coming.

Suzito said...

I think what happened is something to ponder, you thought with your head and your heart and I believe that is good,very good!

Nornin said...

I think I would have done the same. You have such a great writing style.
Hugs and kisses from Iceland.

Sachbak said...

I personally think you're overloading too much significance on an otherwise mundane situation. You can't really know what he's thinking. Generally, these situations are significant only if we make them. I doubt he put too much thinking into that ride.

I personally would have preferred to leave the music muted. Just because I don't like the music and nothing else.

Congrats on the new blog too, looks promising.

- Sachbak.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to Sachbak, I do not feel you are ‘overloading too much significance on an otherwise mundane situation’, but bringing out to light (read even: enlightening) and emphasizing a situation that occurs on an every days’ sphere in a society where two potential enemies meet face-to-face.
The interaction, the thoughts and the feelings you describe are within you, as you very well put into words. However, this article was generated because and due to the fact that the meeting took place.
It is obvious that one is not capable of knowing someone else’s thoughts, but we can still read them and interpret them.
I liked the article mostly because of the feelings and emotions it generated within me.
I read it and the thoughts that came to my head were: what would I have done? Would I have said anything to the driver about my origin as an attempt to let him know we have a lot in common? Or would I have just sat there frightened by prejudice and thanked G-d I was alive when leaving the taxi?

And, Ioram, if you had asked the taxi driver where he was from and he would have said: Ramla…it could have been my brother and although he likes Arab music, he is not an Arab.

Guinea Turtle said...

what is simpler than asking him, in arabic, what singer/artist it was, because you like it?

Zemach- Bar said...

dear, it was patronizing other way, we can't reach out by letting "them" hear their music, or speaking their laguage.
it is much more deaper than that.
we will leave together when they will learn Bialik at school (which they do), and we will learn their poets (pitty i don't know anyone but Joubran).
would you have the same dilema if you would found out that if IS from YAffa but he is Jewish and actually listening to "Mizrachit"?

Shahar said...

I've been thinking about your post a lot since first reading it a few days ago, and finally decided to respond.
I totally understand your line of thinking and can clearly see myself in a similar situation (although my epic efforts to study Arabic in high school ended as a toal fiasco after three years with a teacher that used to give the few willing students an A just for showing up without teaching us much).
However, I think you ended with might be the worst decision possible. You see, now that you're out of the taxi, the driver does not need your permission to listen to whatever he wants. Throwing that remark at him on your way out sounds more like the punchline of joke than like a decision made after a long thought. And you probably only increased the chance of him thinking you're either patronizing or some kind of a secret service agent without leaving a chance for a short discussion to actually clarify the situation.
It rally hurts me to say these words but, on the other hand I think that once you've gone through this process, next time you'll be in a similar situation (and there are many of them) you'll reach the same decision before it's too late and you're already on your way out.

Gilad said...

Dear Ioram,
Congratulations on your new blog. I hope this will not affect the frequency with which I'm accustomed to reading your columns and blog in our Lingua Franca...
It took me a few seconds to realise that the other responses were not from members of the Saeed/Sa'id family (as in Suzito said, Anonynmous said), but just people who said things...
I have encountered similar dilemmas in my past. Several years ago I flew with KLM from Amsterdam to San Francisco and was seated next to one Virgin Kevorkian, a 75 year old Armenian from Baghdad. We had a wonderful time, discussing (in Arabic, of course) Baghdad in the 30s and 40s, the Ba'athist revolution, the Gulf War. She had very vivid memories of her Jewish friends and classmates pre-1948.
The Dutch air-hostesses were thrilled by the fact that both my Arabic and English were fluent, and asked me to help some Jordanian and Syrian women to fill their entry permits. I must say that I was very ambivalent about the situation, and while my willingness to help won, I felt extremely awkward and very much suspected by these ladies.


Anonymous said...

It has been going on for such a very long time now,so that all of us have developed this thick rhinoceros skin ,tough and insensitive,that maybe only a miracle could change.Sara

Moon said...

Was deeply touched by the delicacy that you lived to describe this "mundane situation" as some one here coiled it, the nuances and fragile balance that you wanted to maintain, the complexity of being of, thinking of your fellow man, was described into the most trivial, yet, not always spoken words, that was lovely, and this little significance on an otherwise "mundane situation" maybe reflect more then any "grand" catastrophe, the vibrant construction, that our life is nourishing from.
i happen to find your blog my hazard, while looking for a small translation of Fernando Pessoa...and i'm so happy i did find your place.
i like your fresh, direct transparent way of your writings and thinking.

Orit Haddar said...

Your hesitation is understandable, Ioram, as I often wonder how to assert myself without offending the Arab driver. Since my Arabic is very, very limited (almost nonexistent) that limits my linguistic options to Hebrew or English.

As a woman, self preservation is always a consideration, even with Jewish drivers.

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