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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ethiopian Rhapsody (Op. 1)

Growing up in Israel means that you are formed in a “we” versus “they” vision: “we” the Jews, “they” the Arabs. A great deal of the foundation of an Israeli child's world-view hinges on this polarity. As you grow up you begin to differentiate: Israeli Arabs are closer to us, they are part of our life in some way or another. The Arabs from the neighbouring countries are removed, yet Egyptians and Jordanians are closer since peace accords were signed with their governments. Anyway, I feel closer to Muslim Arabs than to Christians of any denomination. With all the barriers that stand between us, despite all the problems and the estrangement, we live together, sharing one land, one public sphere. I feel Muslim Arabs from Israel (and in a slightly different way Christian Arabs too), to be closer to me than a great deal of Christian Westerners I may encounter anywhere in the world.
A year ago, in Ethiopia, I had a rare opportunity to experience this. It was my first time in Africa and I fell in love with Ethiopia and especially with its people, who struck me at once as proud of their culture, extremely courteous and dignified in the way they deal with you. One thing we are not used to taking into account is that Ethiopians are very devout Christians who never forget or let you forget that their Church pre-dates the present ecclesiastical establishments from the Vatican to the Greek and Russian Churches. Their sense of Christianity is biblical in a direct way, and it's coupled with their royal tradition going back to Queen Sheba and King Solomon and all the way down to the 20th century and the last Emperor, H.I.M. Haile Selassie. Given this background, it's no surprise that I was immediately embraced by any Ethiopian who learned I am Jewish. This happened to me a lot in taxis in Addis Ababa, and in many cases, when the driver learned I was from Israel he'd switch from English directly to Arabic, asking me “Do you speak Arabic, then?”
Various taxi drivers posed the question in Arabic they'd picked up in Sudan. They told me of years passed in exile during the Marxist regime which toppled the Emperor and took hold of the country for years. One of them starting telling me about his tribulations just as we were approaching Addis Ababa's huge square. He stopped and remarked: “This is Meskel Square, but in the days of the Communists, it used to be called Lenin Square”, almost spitting the name of the Father of the Revolution. His Arabic was Egyptian, so I asked him about it. “Ah”, he said, “after some years, Sudan became bad too, and I escaped to Cairo, where I drove a taxi too.” “Was it when Sudan became fundamentalist, when it turned to Islam?”, I asked, though I knew the answer.
The man, outwardly calm as he had been, turned livid. “I love all men, of all religions, but the Muslims! Those Men of the Devil!”, he said.
“Why?”
“I lived with them, I know”, he said, sounding now like the typical right-winged Israeli of oriental origins.
“But why? Did they persecute you as a Christian?”
“The Arabs have a saying:”, his tone was almost conspiratorial now, “If you see an Ethiopian and a snake, kill the Ethiopian first!”
We continued the trip in silence.
A few days later I happened to hail the same taxi with the same driver.
“By Allah! It is from God!”, he said. “Salaam aleykum!”
“Aleykum a-salaam”, I responded. “Good morning, brother.” In Arabic, we're all brothers.
He reflected a feeling of old friends meeting and his smile was broad. We'd driven just a short way when he felt he could ask me a tough question that he said had been bugging him:
“I don't get these Muslims, you know, the suicide bombers.”
“What can I say?”
“Why do they do it? What human can do such things?”, he was clearly appalled.
“Many people kill other people for religion and politics, maybe it's all politics, you know”, I was being non-committal, smiling to myself, reflecting on my outward fatalism, almost like an Arab's.
“No!”, he was adamant. “These are not humans! Why, even in our Ethiopian traditional code, among Amharic people, when somebody kills someone from your family, you can go and kill someone from his family.”
“Yes”, I said, “avenging the blood, I know that from my country.”
“Ah, no, no, sir, it is NOT the same. In our code, you can kill one person from the other family for the person they killed from yours”, his eyes were burning in the taxi's mirror. He raised a hand and pierced the air with his fingers: “To kill a man, that you can”, he began counting: “...but never, NEVER, can you touch a child! or a woman! or a priest!”
We had reached as far as he could take me by car, so I got off and paid him. He bowed his head as he took the bills: “Thank you, sir, it is from God that you give me work.” This last sentence he said in English.
As I walked uphill to my destination, I saw a small herd of goats led by a boy making their way downhill. The herd split and got together again as the small street turned. When I turned into the same unpaved stretch, away from the main street, I saw what had made the animals split. A group of very poor Muslims were kneeling in prayer unseen by the people on the busy street nearby. Their foreheads touched the cardboard platforms, their improvised prayer rugs.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Sun, Ski and Syria

Mt. Hermon is the highest point in Israel, with an altitude of more than 2200 metres. It lies at the northern tip of the Golan Heights, and is divided between Israel and its arch-enemy, Syria, overlooking another source of strife and worry: Lebanon. The Israeli Army has a fortress carved into the rock. Mt. Hermon, which is mentioned in the Bible, was taken by Israel in 1967, along with the Golan Heights. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the Syrians managed to storm the mountain and it took two huge efforts by Israel in order to recapture the mountain. The first effort was hasty and failed, costing a huge number of losses. A few days later, a well organized force took it fighting on foot, rock by rock. It was then that a simple soldier, interviewed on TV, coined the immortal phrase: “The Hermon is the country's eyes”. Today, Mt. Hermon is quiet. And it's Israel's only ski resort, attracting many thousands of visitors who come to revel in its whiteness, just under the military zone, a stone-throw away from Syria.
In fact, the Mt. Hermon ski resort, developed by Israel since the 1970s, is located between two fortresses: the present-day Israeli one with a jungle of antennae and assorted military equipment, some of it manned by the Israeli Army's Alpinist Unit, which would be an oxymoron but for the fact that we indeed control the snowy place, and the Army does have to train a specialized force to protect it; the other fortress is somewhat lower down the slope on the Israeli side: “Nimrod's Fortress” (Qal'at Namrud in Arabic), a huge, impressive stone fortress built in the 13th century. As to the question regarding who built it, archaeologists differ in their views. Some believe it was the Crusaders, while others feel they have proven it was the Arabs from present-day Syria. In any case, it seems to have been completed in 1230, and naturally meant to control the passage from Syria to Palestine.
On a bright winter day, the white mountain, which can be seen from many miles away, attracts skiers of all levels looking for a day of fun. Given the unique setting a day on Mt. Hermon feels almost as a day abroad. Visitors flock from all over Israel to have fun at the snowy site. Hebrew refers to the mountain as “Grandfather-white Hermon” while Arabic calls it “Jabal a(l)-Sheikh”, meaning “the Sheik's mountain” or even “Old Man Mountain”.
Anyway, Mt. Hermon offers not only a breath-taking, panoramic view of Northern Israel and the border with Syria or a philosophical, ironic time-tunnel from Biblical times to Israel's wars passing through the Crusaders. On a busy day it offers a view of the people who make up Israel today.
A great number of families with children of all ages come to play in the snow, Jews from all parts of Israel. Taking the funicular to the top is an adventure, and the children love and fear it. But as the years pass and Israelis become more ski-savvy, taking winter vacations in ski resorts in Europe, Mt. Hermon is becoming more of a classic ski-resort. People gadgeted to their teeth with ski equipment, from special goggles to high-tech gloves down to carbon-fibre skis and special, brightly coloured suits. Many of them stay in small hotels on the lower part of the mountain, with their wooden structures and the Swiss look. You see them adopting what is surely “ski-resort behaviour”, with that blank look of detachment one sees abroad, so different from the invasive looks typical everywhere else in the country. The more ski culture invades the mountain, the more it seems to be abroad. Hosts of Japanese tourists, with their own excellent equipment, fully prepared to race down the relatively humble slope. The day I was there they truly seemed at home. They meant business, ski-business. And I never saw even one of them take out a camera.
Still, Mt. Hermon is not abroad. It's right here. So, sitting by the huge glass window, enjoying the sweet sun, I saw a group of Filipino women on a day trip. It was a Sunday and it seemed that they'd used their day off not just to go to church and meet, but to experience snow and the mountain. Filipino women come to Israel to tend for the elderly and the gravely ill. Jews, Japanese and Filipinos mingled on top of the mountain. And there were Arabs too. From all over the country. A trio of young Christian Arabs, smoking, drinking beer, discussing women and nightclubs in the North. As they did that, a large extended Arab family made its way to the snow, ignoring the young men almost making a point of not seeing them. Muslims, I gathered. The older couples had wrapped their feet in nylon bags. One of the younger women was visibly pregnant. She watched on while the kids just went out to get soaked. It looked as if for them the snow was like the sand on the beach along with the sea blended into one whiteness, and without the problem of exposing their bodies, which usually makes them feel inferior to secular Jews, who have adopted a fully Western beach culture, from string bikinis to swimming. On a beach, these Muslims would feel awkward. In the snow they seemed to relish their physical freedom. A few days later, I'd hear on the radio that a young Arab woman, nine months pregnant, who had come to Mt. Hermon with her husband from the far South would have her water break up on the top of the mountain. Her husband would run to the soldiers to ask for medical help. The woman would be evacuated by the emergency services and would give birth to her first child in a nearby hospital. Elated, she would retell it all on the radio, in fluent Hebrew. The management of the resort would present her with a free pass for life for the newborn boy. “What will you do?”, the radio presenter would ask her, to which she'd answer gleefully: “I will come every day and have a baby there every nine months!”

But all that was still to happen. In the meantime, I watched the soldiers look on, guns in hand, bodies well protected from the snow, their feet in military snow boots. After all, Syria is 5 minutes away in the snow. A snow bike rattled nearby. The fully equipped soldier had taken the military path, on his way to the fortress. One could easily imagine how these young Israelis will look in two or three years: a group of five guys, no more than 25 years old had come to ski. Surfer types. Long sun-burnt curls, deep tans, loud, talking about the wild night they'd spent and about getting up early to snowboard. On their way up the mountain they got into comparing skiing techniques. One of them mentioned a special trick he was going to try. His friend considered it, scratching his unshaven chin, his smile exposing a row of the sort of white teeth you see only in American commercials. “Yeah, it's a good one. I tried it in Sri Lanka last year. You should have seen those waves!” Maybe next year he'll be riding a water motorbike in Australia.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Chechen Nostalgia in a Jerusalem Market

The main open-air market in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda, is a blend of just about everything the city includes and tries to contain. Religious Jews of all the possible shades, from modern-looking to the most ultra-orthodox in traditional garb, women from Oriental communities who constantly go to the market for the day's cooking awaiting them, modern housewives enjoying the bustle and the shopping. You can find new immigrants from the former Soviet Union looking for anything from affordable vegetables to different types of smoked fish while Ethiopian Jews crowd in front a shop were they can buy teff grain to make their traditional injira, and chat in Amharic with the owner. Lately, the market has even acquired a chic side to it with a number of very good cafés and restaurants, frequented by local yuppies and gourmets, not to mention the tradition of hummus, falafel, shawarma and meat on skewers which have always been part of the market's culinary repertoire.
All this is the Jewish aspect of the market. The Arab presence is much less colourful. Arabs do not shop there. They are not welcome, especially by most of the vendors, who tend to be very right-winged and ardently anti-Arab. During both the first and second Intifadas, the market was hit in several suicide bombings – once even by two bomber simultaneously - making any Arab presence there even less tolerated than it had been. Still, you find young Arabs, teenagers and even children, working in the market, doing the most menial jobs, cleaning under the stands, carrying produce, loading and unloading. And you have a lot of security: police, the Border Patrol, soldiers and also civilian security people hired by the market itself.
One day, just by the market's main artery, I saw one of the hired security guys just standing there, looking bored. His features and general look made it clear: he was a young “Russian”, an immigrant for the former Soviet Union. He was tall and his hair was dull blond, falling over his brow. His pronounced Slavic cheekbones were easy to notice. He had a small machine-gun on a strap over his shoulder, and a walkie-talkie on his belt. A cigarette was hanging from his lips and the smoke made him squint, like a cowboy in an old Western. He seemed to be in his late twenties, and I thought that he looked like someone who'd been smoking since the Second World War. As I got closer, I saw that he was carrying on a conversation. Without changing his pose, he was speaking about his machine-gun.
“Ah! This is nothing, a piece of shit!”, he said in basic Hebrew, his accent unmistakable.
I looked for his partner in the conversation. At first, I saw no one. The young man seemed to be talking into the cloud of smoke in front of his face. But he was tall, so I looked around for someone shorter. And there he was. An Arab youngster, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, one of the teenagers who work in the market. Dressed in badly stained pants and a very old t-shirt, he was looking up, at the security man and his arm.
The security man took the gun with both hands and slapped it in disdain: “See? Plastic! Small! I tell you: shit!” He made a mock effort to insert his pinkie into the barrel: “No calibre! Twenty-two!” His Hebrew hardly enabled him to form a sentence. He couldn't have been in Israel more than a few months.
And then the Arab boy asked the Russian immigrant: “Can it... tack-tack-tack?”
“Sure! Automatic!”, explained his friend.
“How much?”
Magazin...”, answered the guard, not knowing the Hebrew term. He then showed him the magazine, measuring it with the palm of his hand.
The Arab boy then tried to ask how far can the gun shoot, but the security guy didn't seem to understand the question. Between them the pair seemed to have a combined vocabulary of a few dozen words, and it didn't cover ballistics well enough. So the Arab tried a different approach, mimicking with his hands, trying to depict a bunch of people coming down the passage between the stands, about to attack.
“Ah!”, said the Russian in disgust, pointing at his belt: “No good! Radio shit, magazine shit, also police shit, also Border Patrol shit!”
“No tack-tack-tack?”, asked the disappointed teenager, who'd clearly seen any number of American action films.
“No”, said a discouraged Russian. And then his eyes lit up:
“But in Chechnya,! Officer says 'Look there!' and we boom-boom-boom, Kalatchnikov, everything! No stop, no I.D. Card, nothing!” His long light-skinned arm swept the air. The boy's eyes were shining and he was looking up at the hand cutting away. Maybe some day he'll have a gun too.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Your President has a funny hat

I remember the day I became aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it was at a very specific moment. Like any Israeli child born in the early 60s, I grew up knowing that our enemy were the Arabs around us, the Arab nations whose constant wish, so we were told, was to annihilate us, “to throw the Jews into the sea”. I was in kindergarten during the terrible weeks before the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israeli population was preparing for the worst. Around that time, we were asked in kindergarten to make a drawing for Air Force Day, which isn't really celebrated any more. Or it might have been right after the war, when victory was celebrated. Many years have passed and I don't remember the teacher's instructions, but I do remember the painting I made: blue stick-crosses high up in a sunny sky, over green meadows dotted with red-roof houses facing black stick-crosses which were flying in the opposite direction, in flames, their tips facing down, signalling that the burning planes were doomed. The planes were Arab, dark and ominous, and belonged to the Arab nations around us. It was in 1967 that I first saw the insignia on Egyptian and Syrian fighter-planes and learned to tell them apart. We all knew that “the Arabs” had showed blatant inhumanity in 1948. We were trying to create a state, to begin our independence after so many years, and – go figure! - they chose that very moment in order to attack us, instead of empathizing with our human project, so natural and right. It was 1967 and I was four years old.

Still, I knew nothing about a conflict between us and the Palestinians. Even up to the mid-70s we'd fervently argue whether such a people existed, about criteria for a people being a People. Anyway, in the late 60s all this was still in the future. So it was a big surprise to discover it directly for the first time. And in a swimming-pool, of all places.

It happened around 1970, when I was living with my family in Honduras. Many times we'd go to the lovely swimming pool at the capital's best and brand-new hotel, the Honduras Maya. One Sunday, as I was in the water and the air was thick with the smells of the brunch that was being prepared outdoors, I met a girl from my second grade class. I knew she was an Arab. In Spanish we called the local Arabs turcos. By then I already knew why: they were descendants of Arabs who'd left the Middle East during the late days of the Ottoman Empire, usually in order not to serve in the Sultan's army during the First World War. Anyway, I was glad to see the girl, and she approached me. The sun blinded me, but I remember her body in a one-piece swimming suit as she waded and came closer. We must have talked about our families having come to the pool, maybe about lunch as a tempting prospect. By now they were grilling the meat and the smell of frijoles made my mouth water even more. Then someone called her, someone I couldn't see because of the sun. She went and then she returned with two older kids, boys. The trio stopped just under the string that ran across the pool, marking the place were the water became deeper. I was in the shallow part, still a hesitant swimmer.
“Where is this one from?”, asked one of the older boys, half spitting the question, half directing it to my friend. He looked like he could be her brother. I knew how to identify turcos.
“He's from Israel”, she said.
“There's no such place!”, he retorted in a flash. I protested saying there sure is a place called Israel, especially since I happen to come from there. He didn't wait much and went on:
“If you say you come from there, tell me the name of your capital.”
“Jerusalem”, I said, happy at the easy question. This was beginning to look like a quiz and sweet adrenaline ran through my skinny body.
“No way!”, said he. “It's Tel Aviv! Ha!”
We pingponged: Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Tel Aviv. The other boy backed him up: “Your capital is Tel Aviv!”, and added a new piece on the board: “And it's Palestine, not Israel!”
I knew Tel Aviv was not the capital of Palestine, and to the best of my knowledge, neither was Jerusalem. But they were so vehement. I thought for a moment. All I could use as a response was the historical facts I knew:
“It used to be Palestine, but now it's the State of Israel. Palestine is the name of la Tierra Santa, the Holy Land, but the State is Israel”. Feeling encouraged but what I took as ironclad logic correcting the mix-up, I added: “And its capital is Jerusalem! Why, I even have an aunt living there, so I know what I am talking about.”
The boys grunted loudly and motioned my friend to come with them, back to the other side of the pool. And then, as they made their way to were their family was, the older one turned his head back towards me and yelled: “And your president has a funny hat!”

I really had no idea what sort of headgear our president might prefer. In fact, I didn't even know we had a president. I went to where my parents were sitting with some Jewish friends and asked my mother: “Do we have a president? Is it true he has a funny hat?” My mother laughed and told me that in fact we do have a president and told me his name. She made no reference to hats. When I told her about the argument I'd just had she told me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had started – so she explained in her meticulous way – in 1882, when we started to return to the Land of Israel after 2000 years.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Jamaican Option

The prospect of serving in the army did not fill his heart with joy. Like many young men in the country, he felt alienated from the government, from the official State that demanded taxes and obedience and imposed limitations of all kinds. Having discussed the matter with his family, it was decided he would disappear, dodge the draft so to speak. He would have to leave the country, away from where the army could reach him. The obvious choice was South America, those vast, fertile lands of opportunity so many had chosen before him. But for that, a great deal of money would be needed. Travel was expensive and he would need money to bribe his way out of difficult situations. The old grandmother had a stashed treasure, just for this type of situation. It had even earned her the nickname everyone knew. “Old Gold Bagger” would be a fair if slightly creative translation.
After a long and arduous journey, he made it to Buenos Aires. One can only imagine how that bustling metropolis presented itself to the young man from the Galilee, gazing at the harbour from the crowded deck of the steamer. Buenos Aires was the place he'd start his new life, away from compulsory service. He had a cousin who had fled like him, a few years before. The cousin was waiting, probably wearing his finest, hair all sleek with brilliantine. You can add a carnation on his lapel, yes, why not? Be it as it may, the young man came on shore and met this cousin of his, whose letters had never stopped making their way to the Old Country.
They proceeded to the immigration officer, that much we know. The language barrier was obvious, and the cousin acted as interpreter. The conversation must have been short, but it produced the much awaited document. It went something like this:
[The officer writes down the ship's details, the date and the port of entry, checks the cousin's papers and proceeds to address the newcomer:]
“Name?”
“Ibrahim”
“What?”
“Ib-ra-him”
“Ah, we have a lot of those”, said the officer and wrote down the name as he knew it: ABRAHAM”. He thus produced the I.D. Card for Abraham Jerris Siaga, originally from Kfar Yassif, Akka Perfecture, Southern Syria Province.

I first heard about this episode, which took place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, during World War I, when my parents were about to paint their house in Haifa. They contracted a painter, a Christian Arab from Kfar Yassif, now in Northern Israel. The man, Khalil Jerris led a family business of painting houses and buildings. He had two of his brothers working with him, notably one who had the expression of eerie beatitude which is so common among Christian monks. In fact, that's just what he was, and his vows made him take only a minimal wage in exchange for his work. “Everything else”, he said once, “God gives”. The Jerris brothers did several jobs at the house and everything went just fine.
One day, Khalil came with old letters and documents, asking for help. He had to write a letter abroad. To Jamaica, of all places. Since the materials were in Arabic, I was called to help, and that's when Khalil explained the whole family situation. He told me about the cousins who'd left for Argentina. About Ibrahim being issued an Argentinian document for “Abraham”, and also about the death of the first “Argentinian” cousin shortly after the arrival of his young relative. This young man decided to leave Argentina and move to another place in the Americas. He made a stop or two, until he landed in Jamaica were he adopted “Old Gold Bagger”'s nickname as his official last name, spelling it SEAGA.
Years passed, and the son of this immigrant, the Palestinian Christian immigrant who did not want to serve in the Ottoman army and risk his life for the last Sultan, became a successful man, made money, raised a family and had his children educated as well as possible, being British subjects in a flourishing colony, the famous “Island in the Sun”. One of his children was particularly successful and ambitious. He's name was Edward. In fact, he is Edward Seaga, who at the time was Prime Minister of Jamaica. And Khalil wanted to renew family contacts, especially since the Jerris-Seagas of his branch in Kfar Yassif hadn't been blessed with too many children.
So I found myself writing in English, based on Arabic letters and documents in Spanish – writing to the Prime Minister of Jamaica. We sent the letter along with copies of the papers proving the details of the family's history since 1915 or so. Loyal to my task as post-Ottoman Israeli-Palestinian scribe, I introduced Khalil in the beginning of the letter, florid and festive as Arabic demands: “We are your family, the Jerris family also known as Seaga, from Kfar Yassif, Akka Prefecture, Southern Syria Province, in what used to be the Ottoman Sultanate. We are writing to you, cousin...”
Edward Seaga answered, sending a signed official portrait and some carefully worded details about his family's history in Jamaica, subtly confirming the long-lost ties, careful as a poltician can be. The story was confirmed and Khalil was elated. Around us, in Israel, the first Intifada was raging. He was worried about the future. One day, at my parents' house, he told me in his quiet voice: “What will happen to us? What will be our future? If you Jews aren't strong, we're all finished!”

Monday, January 30, 2006

Engineering Lives

Born in Algeria in 1961, he's the first Jew to have played on France's national football team. He was a very able defensive-back, not brilliant but strong and dependable and a very good athlete. He played 20 games for the national team in the mid-1980s and was part of the brilliant squad that played in the 1986 World Cup tournament in Mexico. He played four games in Mexico side by side with Michel Platini, one of the best players in the world back then. He retired at the age of 35 and went on to spend a few years as assistant coach in Bilbao (Spain). Now he's a TV commentator and you can even see him climbing the slopes of the Montblanc on a promotional video on the Web and read interviews he's given about his career as a football player, the ups and downs he went through and the choices he made during his years as a professional player. Nevertheless, since France is an avowed secular society, you will have a very hard time finding that he was indeed the first Jew to play for the national football team. You will have to take my word on that, or ask him if you get the opportunity. He's alive and well, having celebrated his 45th birthday on January 10th, 2006. His name is William Ayache.
Ayache's last name rings a bell to every Israeli. It's inevitable, since Ayash (I am reverting to the English transliteration) is also the last name of Yihia Ayash, a.k.a “The Engineer”. His career spanned a few years and was a bit shorter than William's. He would have been 40 on March 6th 2006, but he was killed on January 5th 1996, just when William Ayache was retiring from football and moving on to the status of football veteran. Yihia Ayash, born in 1966, completed his studies in Electrical Engineering in 1988. The first Intifada was raging and some time later he joined the Hamas (“The Islamic Resistance Movement”), specializing in the creation of improvised bombs and booby-traps. On April 6th 1994 the first successful suicide bombing took place, in the city of Afula in northern Israel. Eight people were killed. Yihia Ayash had masterminded it, starting a new phase in the conflict: human bombs were going to mark Israeli reality for years to come. Yihia Ayash's career was extremely bloody. His murderous activities cost dozens of lives and dotted Israel's map with dozens of sites where Ayash's living bombs exploded and took lives. Less than two years after the first suicide bombing, Israel's secret service, the Shabak, managed to send Ayash a cellular telephone, using a man he trusted. The telephone was a bomb, activated when the phone rang. Ayash was killed on the spot. To this day the Palestinians consider him one of the heroes of their struggle against Israel. His portrait can be seen all over Gaza and the West Bank. A television mini-series about his life was produced in Syria. Today, the very term “engineer”, muhandis, denotes an expert in building sophisticated explosive devices for use against Israelis.
In Arabic, the term “ayash” has to do with life rather than death. To live, to keep alive, to make or let live, to feed, support and provide and even to live together. Additional meanings stemming from the same root denote to make ends meet, to earn one's bread, way of living and coexistence. In Egyptian Arabic, which greatly influences the Gaza dialects, “ayash” means bread-seller.
The meaning of “ayash” from feeding to selling bread, from providing to earning one's bread, can explain the fact that so many Jews from North-Africa are called “Ayash”, just like William Ayache the footballer. Language, like irony knows no boundaries. One of Yihia Ayash's last victims was a young Jewish woman who was killed while waiting for a bus near the city of Ashkelon in Israel, on the coast not 15 kilometres from the Gaza Strip, her last name was Ayash. Since then, the Web too has expanded beyond imaginable boundaries: a search of the word “Ayash” in Hebrew sites yields a plethora of results. Ayash is also the last name of the girl who was buying a glass of fruit-juice in Tel-Aviv's Central Bus Station when a suicide bomber exploded nearby. She survived to tell her story. The owner of a nearby kiosk told reporters that a short time before the explosion three Arabs had bought something. They were speaking Arabic sputtered with Hebrew words, he said. When he bid them “Have a good night”, one of them gave him a pat on his shoulder and said: “We'll have an especially good night tonight”.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pizza, of course!

A falafel shop in the middle of an upper middle-class Jerusalem neighbourhood. A Jewish neighbourhood. The place is popular, frequented by kids from the schools in the area and by students at a teachers' college nearby. The place offers a narrow choice: falafel as the main speciality, and also pizza sold in slices, baked in a large oven in the back. The man running it is soft-mannered and taciturn. He is quick, efficient and calm. As he fills the pita breads, either the pocket-shaped ones or the larger flat ones called laffa, his eyes tend to scan the street just ahead of him. The shop is located at the end of an open yard, a bit below the street, and since falafel is sold from behind a counter, he has to raise his eyes to see what's going on outside. Everybody calls him Moussa, the Arab version of Moses. Since my first time at the shop, I had been wondering: Is he a Jew or an Arab?
Well, he's called Moussa, but he could be Jewish. Many Oriental Jews are called by the names used among their family members, and a Jewish Moshe may well be a Moussa at home. The falafel shop has a Hebrew name, a normal Oriental Hebrew last-name. Yet, it's hard to tell whether Moussa is the owner or whether he might be a concessionary, since in another part of town there's another falafel shop carrying the same name, with the same logo, and the places are clearly linked. Moussa has two assistants, Arabs. This is made clear by the fact that Moussa speaks to them in Arabic. Furthermore, while Moussa's features and manner do not allow me to pin down his ethnicity, his helpers' leave no place for doubt. I listen to their short exchanges. The assistants are more verbose then their boss, who mumbles short sentences. He orders them to make more balls, asks about whether the next bowl of salad is ready and so on. His Arabic is quite local. A number of visits to the place convince me that Moussa is proficient in Arabic, that the language he uses is not the sort of clumsy adaptation of North-African Arabic which is very distant from Palestinian. Yet, he might be a Syrian Jew, maybe Lebanese. Surely not an Egyptian Jew, since Egyptians give away their origins the moment they utter the first word. I am reminded of a couple of Syrian Jews who have a bakery in the market. Could Moussa be like them? I cull his speech, waiting for a slip that would solve the puzzle: the Syrian way of negating a verb, the Lebanese vowels. Nothing. Bit by bit I reach the conclusion that Moussa is an Arab, that he is indeed Moussa and not Moshe.
As I visit the shop, I witness more cases of Moussa speaking. His Hebrew is economic like his Arabic. Both languages flow with ease and the phonetics are inconclusive. He writes down numbers without hesitation, although Arabic numerals are different than the set we use which is the international one. Moussa also keeps a record of money customers owe him. One day I see him jot down a purchase and I notice that the name is written in Hebrew. Still, his Arabic convinces me that he's an Arab. Two or three decades ago, a man like Moussa, in his forties, speaking Palestinian Arabic could be a Jew who grew up in the Old City before 1948, among Arabs. Not any more.
As I become convinced that he's an Arab, I examine myself. Is he really at ease running a falafel shop in a Jewish neighbourhood? Could it be that his eyes, scanning the street, betray some tension? Is his soft speech meant not to stand out too much? Could his shy manner reflect some unease?
I look around. The place has a certificate of Kashrut from the Jerusalem Rabbinate. It's up to date, hanging visibly near the entrance. Yet, no pictures of Oriental Rabbis are to be seen. Such pictures are very common in popular places run by Oriental Jews, who believe that certain Rabbis have special powers, that they can bless and protect a business establishment. The place is Kosher, I tell myself, since the Jerusalem public prefers it that way. It's good for business.
One day, as I come to buy falafel around noontime, I see that a line has formed in front of the counter. The place is in high demand when the school day is over. This time, though, the customers look like students from the teachers' college. Young Arabs. In Israel, a hhigh percentage of students studying to become teachers are Arabs. Teaching is the one academic profession which is in high demand in Arab towns and villages, which usually lack advanced industrial or business workplaces. Teaching is also highly regarded within Palestinian society. The students are waiting for a fresh supply of pitas to arrive, without which nobody can have falafel. Some minutes later, in comes one of the assistants with a large bag of warm pitas. The students greet him warmly, in Arabic. Moussa emerges from the back, smiling at them. He sets out to fill the orders, as silent as ever. The only words I hear him utter are “Tehina?”, when he asks a customer whether to add sesame-seed sauce, and “Harif?” which means “hot sauce”, in Hebrew. Or might he be asking “Hirif?”, which means the same in Arabic. No, he's using the Hebrew from. But I'm already convinced he's an Arab, so I file the use of the Hebrew form for “hot sauce” as one of the many instances of Hebrew invading the Arabic spoken by Palestinians.
When I get my order, the students aren't around anymore. But I am not left alone for long. In come three people. A young man, a young woman, both in their early twenties, and an older Arab woman, in her fifties. Suddenly, Moussa is talkative, exchanging with them customary greetings in Arabic. He asks the woman about the health of her husband, who – so I learn – is hospitalized in a hospital not too far from where we are. The woman and her daughter tell him that the father is to remain in hospital for some time, that more tests are being done, that they had to pay cash in order to have a more sophisticated test done, but that on the whole he's going to be alright. The mother's hair is covered with a traditional hijab and she's wearing a long dress, down to her ankles. Her son is dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, while her daughter is wearing polyester pants and sporting a leather jacket. I tell myself that they must have come on foot all the way from the hospital down the hill, probably to enjoy the exchange with Moussa, who is an acquaintance, and to have some of his excellent falafel, hot and spicy as it should be.
While I am following the conversation, Moussa asks the mother and her children what they'd like to have. The kids order falafel, with “harif”, which they too pronounce as if in Hebrew. They're feeling comfortable. Their body-language shows they are happy. Their mother is silent now, standing a bit to the side. I ask myself whether she'll have anything to eat. Maybe she'll prefer to wait till they get home and she can have some home-made food instead of getting some falafel from a shop on the street. She looks more traditional, so maybe she'll prefer not to eat in public. And then Moussa raises his eyes and asks the kids: “And what will your mother have, with Allah's help?” The daughter is quick to answer, her mouth full of Moussa's wonderful falafel: “Why, as usual, a slice of pizza, of course!”

Monday, January 16, 2006

This one's OK, he's Jewish

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, (“9/11”) and the new awareness to the threat of terrorism, much discussion has taken place regarding the steps to be taken. Much concern has been expressed in the US regarding “racial profiling”, that is the singling-out of individuals as suspects based mainly on their racial features. A problematic concept laden with ethical problems, racial profiling has even been defined (for example by wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn ) as “a form of racism consisting of the (alleged) policy of policemen who stop and search vehicles driven by persons belonging to particular racial groups “. Note that the policy is “alleged” while the racism attributed is not. Wikipedia, the on-line open-source encyclopaedia is less partisan in its treatment of racial profiling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_profiling), and cites police abuse in the US during the 1990s a source of much of the criticism against racial profiling. Be it as it may, I believe that racial profiling is an active factor in any screening performed in the West today. In the best of cases, it might be silent or called differently. It could be that it's implemented in a parametric way, allowing systems to be fed with, say, racial features of Anglo-Saxons from Oklahoma in case they become a threat in some future crazy scenario.
In Israel the problem is practically ignored. For Israeli Jews and the Israeli government, the “other side” (known in academic circles as “the Other”) is well-defined. It's the Arabs. If you're an Arab, you are at risk of being seen as a suspect. This creates a host of ironic, ridiculous and painful situations.

Israel, living under constant threat of suicide bombers and other types of attacks has devised a “security culture” which permeates our daily life. You're checked at the entrance of public places – malls, post-offices, cinemas etc., both if you come on foot or in a car. At the entrance to any public parking lot, your car is checked and a guard looks at you.
In some cases, most notably in Jerusalem's main mall, when you approach with your car, the guard (who in many cases is an immigrant from the ex-Soviet Union or from Ethiopia) asks you “How are you?” No. He (or she) has no real interest in your personal ups-and-downs or in knowing on what side you woke up in the morning. The idea is to make you utter a sentence, short as it may be. Israelis are usually blunt and our Hebrew is short and harsh, but one or two words will give away your accent, especially if you have an Arab accent, known to be almost impossible to conceal. Just like the famous biblical shibboleth. Each time I am asked “How are you?” by one of those guards, an imp appears on my shoulder and whispers in my ear to answer most naturally: “Al-hamdu-li-llah, ana bikheir” (“Praise Allah, I am well”, in Arabic), just to see what happens. Or at least to answer in Spanish and leave the poor guard dumbfounded. This ancient, biblical type of racial profiling is hardly noticed by most Israelis. During Muslim holidays the Jerusalem Mall teems with Palestinians from Israel and even Jordanians from across the borders, doing their shopping. But they always speak softly, walk in groups of whole families, sharply dressed, careful not to call attention after having succeeded in gaining access to the mall.
Racial profile is not always theoretical or semi-hidden. During my university days, I had a friend who'd immigrated to Israel from Azerbaijan. Not only was he a Jew, of course, but his last name was blatantly Ashkenazi. But his mother was a Sepharadic Jew from Azerbaijan, and it is from her he must have inherited the dark frizzled hair and black eyes. In addition, he didn't have a Russian accent since he grew up speaking Azeri as well – which imprinted his speech with a Turkish accent. His fate was sealed: the Israeli racial profiling filter was bound to pick him up. And it did. More than once he'd walk in the centre of town and be stopped by the Border Guard, the military branch of the Israeli Police, known for their tough and sometimes brutal treatment of Arabs. He'd be stopped, his “strange” accent wouldn't fit any pattern the soldiers could catalogue and he'd be pressed unto a wall. They'd ask him for his ID card, in crude Arabic and when he'd produce it they would accuse him of having forged it. Time and again he had to display all his papers: student card, university notes, new-immigrant card and be careful not to make them angry for claiming he knew absolutely no Arabic.
At the time, I was living in Abu Tor, in Jerusalem. An Arab village with a wonderful view of the Old City whose entrance has become a Jewish neighbourhood. So I lived in number 6 and Intifada (it was the first one) started at number 10 – where cars were torched. Farther down the street full-blown disturbances would take place every now and then. Naturally, the same Border Guard was very active in the vicinity of my house. This force incorporates not only Jews but Druze and Bedouin soldiers who sometimes stay on for years, as career men. Their knowledge of Arabic and Arab culture is invaluable in a force whose main task is to deal with Intifada and to secure the areas where friction between Jews and Arabs is a problem. So one fine morning I go out to my car, intending to drive to Mt. Scopus for the day's lectures. Coming out of the parking lot I am stopped by a couple of armed Border Guards. Druze, native speakers of Arabic. They ask me for my ID card, in Arabic, using the Arabic phrase almost no Israeli misunderstands: “Jibb hawiyya” (bluntly: “Let's have your ID”). I answer in Hebrew, producing the blue document. They inspect it, look at me and using a mesh of Arabic and Hebrew they radio the control at the entrance to the neighbourhood “This one's OK, he's Jewish”.

Monday, January 09, 2006

For you, five o'clock

The professor liked walking home. His usual route took him from Mt. Scopus, where he taught Arab Literature, to his home at a typical upper middle-class Jewish residential neighbourhood in the western part of Jerusalem. His academic field of specialization and his Middle-Eastern origins led him to choose an usual path. After walking down from the campus on Mt. Scopus, he would cross the Arab neighbourhoods down in the wadi and on the hill overlooking the Old City, all part of the dense Arab ring surrounding the Holy Mount and Eastern Jerusalem, the heart of the occupied part of Jerusalem. He kept his routine through the First Intifada in the late 1980s, never ceasing to feel at home in the Arab parts of the violent, torn city. Walking like that was for him a respite from the super-charged, fast-paced Western city in which he led the life similar to that of any stressed-out Israeli, with the typical over-exposure to the news and daily struggle to find normality amid the chaos. Since arriving in Israel in the 1950s, he had changed his name, choosing a neutrally Hebrew version of his given Arab name. Going into Eastern Jerusalem nourished his need for contact with Arabs, with their language, culture and everyday way of life. Among them he could be an Arab. Not the opposite pole to a Jew, not an Israeli, not a professor at the Hebrew University on the Jewish enclave of Mt. Scopus. An Arab, spontaneously, instinctively.
One Thursday afternoon, as he was making his way towards the wadi to start his walk home, he suddenly remembered that his wife had told him about a dinner party they were having at home that night. He had promised to be back early and help prepare things, and now he was about to be late. He slightly pulled back the sleeve of his jacket to check the time, and saw that his watch was gone, probably left it at the university after his last lecture for the week. The stress was building up as he imagined the scene he would have to face coming home late with the vegetables he had promised to get from the Arab market where he continued to shop despite what Israelis call “the situation”.
And then he saw him. Sitting on a stone at the side of the footpath leading to the Arab village-neighbourhood was an old Arab. The professor recognized him. The old man sat there always facing the setting sun over the golden city, wearing his worn Western men's jacket and dark pants, his head covered in the traditional hatta wa 'aqal which Westerners mistakenly call “kafiyye”. The hurrying professor turned to the old man and ask him in natural Arabic:
“What time is it, please?”
The old man hardly shifted his look but answered on the spot:
“For you, five o'clock.”

I heard this story from the professor himself years ago. I believe that it reflects a great deal of the gaps and misunderstandings between the two peoples living in Israel-Palestine. Though an original Arab in mind and culture, the professor failed to notice that the old man sitting there day after day was also observing him down to the last detail. The old man noticed the professor's unusual haste, probably his stress as well. Heaps of books have been written about Time and Culture, about the relative perception of reality and so on and so forth. For the Old Arab, courtesy demanded changing the time for the poor professor, and in doing so he also let him know he recognized him and was aware of his daily route. For the professor, who told the story and laughed heartily at its conclusion, this might also be a reminder that though he was not a fully integrated Arab any more but had turned into a normal individual in the West, still the East could offer him some comfort.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A childhood beach on a summer day

The typical summer afternoon on Haifa's beach in Northern Israel seemed to be going just fine. Over the years, the beach had hardly changed. Haifa, the mountain city, is also a beach town and the southern portion of its Mediterranean coast is traditionally open all the way down south, for at least 10 kilometres. Although some development has been permitted, it is still basically an open beach for all to enjoy.
On that particular day, kids were flying kites, young men were engaged in the traditional game of “matkot”, a very Israeli pass-time were two players hit a rubber ball back and forth between them with wooden rackets and no purpose but to keep the ball in motion, in the air. People were bathing in the sea, enjoying the waves, and the lifeguard had little to do but to watch the horizon. Some municipal inspectors were doing their rounds, looking around, ready to admonish anyone throwing a wrapper on the ground and as general security.
Being a mixed city, with a large Israeli-Arab population, it is quite natural to hear Arabic spoken among the crowd on the beach. That was the case on this particular afternoon. A family had found a place under one of the thatched structures designed to protect you from the sun. I was sitting nearby. The family looked interesting. A mother and a father, not young. Some teenagers, some children. Another woman, probably an aunt. Bit by bit, as their conversation trickled, I pieced the picture. And I also saw the book one of the younger women had brought: a novel in Italian. I smiled to myself when I saw the title of the novel: “The Lost Land”.
Everything became clear: Palestinians living in Italy had come to visit their family in Haifa. An Israeli could probably notice their ethnicity, but their attire was generally western. The young men had thigh-long bathing trunks and some of the young women wore one-piece suits with something thrown over their shoulders. It also could have been a traditional Jewish family of Mediterranean origins.
And then I saw her. Not the sort of figure you'd expect on the beach, not even in Haifa. A young woman, no more than 30 years old, holding a digital camera and taking pictures of the beach, walking slowly, pointing her camera at the general view... In traditional Islamic clothes. A long gown, long sleeves, her head completely covered with the appropriate head-dress, the hijab, her socked feet shuffling in pair of closed pumps and she was carrying a leather hand-bag, quite ordinary. You could see only her face and the palms of her hands. She was walking peacefully and kept taking pictures.
I followed her with my eyes, bemused at the sight. Then, another part of my mind became mildly alert, and I played the “security officer” game. She could be a scout for Hamas or the Islamic Jihad. She could be collecting information for a suicide bombing. She could be a suicide bomber herself. And still, who would send a woman dressed like that to scout? So she can only be a suicide bomber herself. But why dress like that and cut her chances of succeeding, calling attention to herself in her Islamic attire? I looked at the Arab family just besides me. Clearly, this very observant woman had nothing to do with them. So are we all to be victims together? I reminded myself that this has happened in Haifa. An Arab restaurant was destroyed by a suicide bomber. No, in fact two restaurants, the second being on the same beach, 2 kilometres to the north, a place I have known all my life. And in both cases, Israeli Arabs were killed along with Jews. And still, I felt strangely relaxed. A forced myself back to the game: “Most people surviving a bombing tell of a strange silence...” I was trying myself, checking to see whether I would stir somehow.
And then it happened. As the woman was walking in the sand, hindered by the hem of her dress, she was approached by the two municipal inspectors, each with his sophisticated walkie-talkie and cellphone. I saw them speaking to her. She reached for her bag, sticking her hand into it, shuffling as women do in overloaded handbags. Out came an ID card. Blue. Israeli. Like mine. “All is well”, said the security officer in my mind.
She continued taking photos and I took a walk, to learn more. The inspectors were sitting on a low wall, looking at the paved walk. They were speaking, in Arabic. Working for the Haifa Municipality as unarmed security men. “She's from here”, said on of them. “Yeah, married and moved”, said the other. “She used to come here as a kid, go figure”.