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.

1 comment:

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