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!”