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 caf├ęs 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:]
“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!”