Sunday, December 25, 2005

Capital Poultry and Bethlehem Knives

“Capital Poultry” is located in a low-income neighbourhood of Jerusalem. It's about 200 metres from an important junction in Southern Jerusalem, were often, after suicide bombings in the city, wild crowds demonstrate shouting “Death to the Arabs!” and waving signs which the Israeli official TV station avoids showing.
Jerusalem is a city of ironies. A great deal of the names of its streets cause the casual onlooker to raise his or her eyebrows. “Valley of Ghosts” and “Wings of Eagles” are two main streets in our eternal capital. Having a butcher's shop on “Zealots of the Galilee” street is not something you would see in any other city in the world.
Regardless of the zeal expressed in the name street it happens to be at, “Capital Poultry” is a hectic, busy place. Its owners are Moroccan Jews, a middle-aged couple who supervise the cashiers all of whom are young Jewish girls, and a team of young Arab men cutting up the meat, storing it and serving the customers.
One specific summer, Israel was shocked by the disappearance of a little baby-girl, Hodaya Kedem. The public feared the worse: that some savage terrorists had kidnapped her from her Jerusalem home. Yet, such kidnappings are very rare in Israel and no ransom request was received. The whole country was following the case. As the days passed, strange details started to emerge, especially regarding her father, with whom she had been just before her disappearance. Where could the baby be? She couldn't have disappeared all by herself, she was too small.
Eventually, the father was arrested. The story he had told the police didn't fit the details uncovered in the investigation. From grieving father he became a suspect.
As the radio announced the arrest, I was waiting in line to buy minced meat and some chicken, cut on demand. As always, I was listening to the young Arabs talk. Their dialect told me they were not from Jerusalem, but from a rural area south of Jerusalem, probably near Bethlehem. My other pass-time at “Capital Poultry” is to watch the young guys at work. A Chinese circus could hire them. Their agility with the large knives is incredible. One of them, his hair combed like a movie star from Hollywood's heyday can hold a whole chicken up in the air and have it land completely cut to eight pieces after a series of quick manoeuvres with
his long knife, while his colleague cuts large blocks of frozen meat on table-saw in gentle strokes as if it were a harp.
The news on the radio was heard on a central loudspeaker system. They were saying that the father was the prime suspect now. By the way the newscaster was talking, it was clear that searches for the body were being carried out on that very moment, probably with information extracted from the father.
The lady who owns the place was standing nearby, among some customers. The Arabs were working. The ceiling was blasting the news. “No way!”, shouted the lady, unable to contain herself. “A Jewish father doesn't kill his daughter!” The public around hummed in agreement. And then she added the inevitable sentence: “Only an Arab can do that! It must be an Arab!”
The guys behind the counter didn't flinch, their expressions were not altered, not even for a second. Deftly cutting meat, sharpening the knives, displaying their amazing dexterity, they continued to work for their living.
The baby-girl's father is currently serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his daughter, whose body was found by the police that same day I was standing in line at “Capital Poultry”.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Radio Was Shot

The radio spurted the latest incident. Somewhere along the border-zone between Israel (pre-1967) and the Palestinian Territories (approximately), the Israeli Army had spotted a suspicious figure walking towards the Israeli area. The visual information was relayed along the intelligence channels and swiftly made its way back to an duly alert control centre. Soon enough, a helicopter gunship spotted the would-be suicide bomber and shot him with its machine-gun. Then, the soldiers posted in the specific sector went over to check the body. Upon arrival, they discovered that the man was still alive, having been injured in his torso. He was still clutching his shoulder-bag. The bag was what alerted the army: it might have contained a bomb.
The radio was less specific and its report was not as detailed as this. It painted the incident as a freak case of mistaken identification. A sort of “it happens, oops we're sorry” thing. The same evening, the state TV channel reported on the incident, probably not so much because of its unusual outcome, since Arabs do get shot by mistake sometimes, but because of the individual story. The Arab, who was now lying in a hospital bed in a small city, not far from where he was shot, turned out to be an Arab-Israeli shepherd who was tending his sheep not far from his native village, within Israeli borders. The suspicious bag contained some pita-bread and cheese. And a radio.
Speaking rudimentary Hebrew, the wounded shepherd said that the radio had taken a hit from the helicopter's machine-gun. He was sorry for losing his radio, which helped him pass the hours he spent with his sheep. The report ended and the anchorman's expression reflected compunction with a bit of existential “what can be said” element added in for good measure. The news moved on to the next item. The following morning, the newspapers would carry the story, completing the cycle, the 15-minutes of sad glory meted out by Reality.
N couldn't take it. Having heard the report on the radio first and then seeing the shepherd on TV, she was unable to calm down. “We have to get him a radio”, she said. We decided that was just what we'd do: buy a radio for the Arab shepherd. The next morning, I went out to find one. A good, simple, reliable model. Nothing fancy. A logical replacement. Something a shepherd would be likely to have in his bag with his meal. Realizing I'd be spending a negligible sum on a radio far removed from the latest Japanese toys on display, the salesman at the mall looked at me with a bored expression. I got the radio, safely encased in its box.
“How do we go about sending it?”, said N, logic having been restored, now that there was a radio to pacify some of her outrage.
I went out and got one of the evening rags. In one of the inner pages, after the main political and security-related events and before the freak news items (“Teacher in Russia eats snake in class”, “Farmer grows record-size pumpkin”, “British footballer signs contract at age 84” and so on) – I found the item about the helicopter shooting an innocent shepherd. It mentioned the name of the shepherd's village, which I had never heard.
“But how will we send him the radio? We don't have a proper address”, said N.
“Don't worry. We have his name and the name of his village. There can't be too many packages being sent there from Jerusalem with the address in Hebrew”, I said. I was confident that since Arab villages are made up of a small number of extended families, the postman or the postal clerk would either be a cousin or would know some relative of the man who by now was surely a local celebrity.
Yet, after writing the name and the name of the village on the large padded envelope, I added an unusual item. I decided I'd write the shepherd a short letter in Arabic explaining the gift and apologizing for the suffering he underwent. I wrote it, using the customary formulae and expressing our wishes for a speedy recovery, after which, I said, I hope he can tend his herd and enjoy listening to the radio peacefully. I signed and added our address, transliterated into Arabic.
No longer than 10 days later, we received an answer. A smallish envelope with our name and address written in print, the Hebrew letters wobbly but clear. I could feel an item inside. Metallic, elongated. It was a pen with the inscription “Peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. And there was a letter too, in very shaky Hebrew. The shepherd had clearly put in a tremendous effort. “Thank you for the radio”, he wrote. He also added his sincere hope for peace in the area.

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.