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 ) 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 (, 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”.