Growing up in Israel means that you are formed in a “we” versus “they” vision: “we” the Jews, “they” the Arabs. A great deal of the foundation of an Israeli child's world-view hinges on this polarity. As you grow up you begin to differentiate: Israeli Arabs are closer to us, they are part of our life in some way or another. The Arabs from the neighbouring countries are removed, yet Egyptians and Jordanians are closer since peace accords were signed with their governments. Anyway, I feel closer to Muslim Arabs than to Christians of any denomination. With all the barriers that stand between us, despite all the problems and the estrangement, we live together, sharing one land, one public sphere. I feel Muslim Arabs from Israel (and in a slightly different way Christian Arabs too), to be closer to me than a great deal of Christian Westerners I may encounter anywhere in the world.
A year ago, in Ethiopia, I had a rare opportunity to experience this. It was my first time in Africa and I fell in love with Ethiopia and especially with its people, who struck me at once as proud of their culture, extremely courteous and dignified in the way they deal with you. One thing we are not used to taking into account is that Ethiopians are very devout Christians who never forget or let you forget that their Church pre-dates the present ecclesiastical establishments from the Vatican to the Greek and Russian Churches. Their sense of Christianity is biblical in a direct way, and it's coupled with their royal tradition going back to Queen Sheba and King Solomon and all the way down to the 20th century and the last Emperor, H.I.M. Haile Selassie. Given this background, it's no surprise that I was immediately embraced by any Ethiopian who learned I am Jewish. This happened to me a lot in taxis in Addis Ababa, and in many cases, when the driver learned I was from Israel he'd switch from English directly to Arabic, asking me “Do you speak Arabic, then?”
Various taxi drivers posed the question in Arabic they'd picked up in Sudan. They told me of years passed in exile during the Marxist regime which toppled the Emperor and took hold of the country for years. One of them starting telling me about his tribulations just as we were approaching Addis Ababa's huge square. He stopped and remarked: “This is Meskel Square, but in the days of the Communists, it used to be called Lenin Square”, almost spitting the name of the Father of the Revolution. His Arabic was Egyptian, so I asked him about it. “Ah”, he said, “after some years, Sudan became bad too, and I escaped to Cairo, where I drove a taxi too.” “Was it when Sudan became fundamentalist, when it turned to Islam?”, I asked, though I knew the answer.
The man, outwardly calm as he had been, turned livid. “I love all men, of all religions, but the Muslims! Those Men of the Devil!”, he said.
“I lived with them, I know”, he said, sounding now like the typical right-winged Israeli of oriental origins.
“But why? Did they persecute you as a Christian?”
“The Arabs have a saying:”, his tone was almost conspiratorial now, “If you see an Ethiopian and a snake, kill the Ethiopian first!”
We continued the trip in silence.
A few days later I happened to hail the same taxi with the same driver.
“By Allah! It is from God!”, he said. “Salaam aleykum!”
“Aleykum a-salaam”, I responded. “Good morning, brother.” In Arabic, we're all brothers.
He reflected a feeling of old friends meeting and his smile was broad. We'd driven just a short way when he felt he could ask me a tough question that he said had been bugging him:
“I don't get these Muslims, you know, the suicide bombers.”
“What can I say?”
“Why do they do it? What human can do such things?”, he was clearly appalled.
“Many people kill other people for religion and politics, maybe it's all politics, you know”, I was being non-committal, smiling to myself, reflecting on my outward fatalism, almost like an Arab's.
“No!”, he was adamant. “These are not humans! Why, even in our Ethiopian traditional code, among Amharic people, when somebody kills someone from your family, you can go and kill someone from his family.”
“Yes”, I said, “avenging the blood, I know that from my country.”
“Ah, no, no, sir, it is NOT the same. In our code, you can kill one person from the other family for the person they killed from yours”, his eyes were burning in the taxi's mirror. He raised a hand and pierced the air with his fingers: “To kill a man, that you can”, he began counting: “...but never, NEVER, can you touch a child! or a woman! or a priest!”
We had reached as far as he could take me by car, so I got off and paid him. He bowed his head as he took the bills: “Thank you, sir, it is from God that you give me work.” This last sentence he said in English.
As I walked uphill to my destination, I saw a small herd of goats led by a boy making their way downhill. The herd split and got together again as the small street turned. When I turned into the same unpaved stretch, away from the main street, I saw what had made the animals split. A group of very poor Muslims were kneeling in prayer unseen by the people on the busy street nearby. Their foreheads touched the cardboard platforms, their improvised prayer rugs.