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.


ingerid said...

This is a typical everyday life scene in Jerusalem.
I remember though that 20 years ago, nurses were not half so magnanimous towards Arab patients; I still remember vividly the tiny expression of inner disgust on an Emergency Ward Nurse face as a middle aged Palestinian leaning on cruches approached her deferently and asked her obsequously in his best Hebrew where he could find the department he needed. I was shocked by her mecanical reaction - as if a repulsing monster was talking to her and she had to overcome deep fear and repulsion in order to relate to him "normally", as to a human being. Exactly like the religious children in my central Tel Aviv neighborhood when they see a dog of whatever kind, of whatever size crossing their way on the pavement.

Anonymous said...

How sad people who live side by side still are being unseen by the other. When at the hospital one would expect people who are ill, or those who are worried for their loved ones would try to find a way to communicate with each other and by doing that ease the other’s pain or anxiety.
In your story, I feel, these people are only united by their ability to pray, and yet they are using their prayers for different requests from the same G-d.
As for the chocolate that caused irritation between the couple, I wonder…did you pick it up and ate it? :=

nornin said...

I still don't understand all the hate and antagonism.
If you were to put a jewis girl and an arab girl togeather in room, would they fight?
Are the young ones not hoping for this to change?
Are they too fostering the differences and ignoring the things incommon?

Anonymous said...

(of course I meant:
I wonder…did you pick it up and then ate it? :=)

And nornin:
when people finally sit in the same room, no matter whether it is men or women, they usually do not fight. They either ignore the other one's existance or they talk politly to each other. Just as we do in the Northern countries. Same behaviour, different colours:)

Hattori Hanzo said...

They could also become friends.

I was in a french class once. The first day of school, I learned that one of my classmates is Israeli (I am Syrian). At first, I gave her the cold shoulder and minded my own business. I am not sure if she felt the same towards me. I doubt that though, because later, and to my surprise, I learnt that she used to be married to a lebanese man.

Anyways, we ended up becoming good friends. It has been three years since we finished that french class, and we are constantly in touch.

Anonymous said...

my mum made me read this aricle and i also wonder if you ate the chocolate or not.

Ioram said...

Yes, yes, I did eat the tiny chocolate... :-)