Two or three days before Passover, I went to buy some meat and poultry for the various dishes at the traditional festive dinner, the “Seder”. I found myself waiting at the counter at “Capital Poultry” in Jerusalem, where I am a regular client. The young guys behind the counter were working very hard, since many people had placed orders over the phone. Out of the four Arabs working, two were busy preparing the orders. They were getting into discussions with the other two, who were trying to serve us, the people who had come to the store. The long knives were working extra-hard and the open refrigerator was constantly being resupplied with chicken, whole and cut, with minced beef, whole parts of beef and so on. The man ahead of me seemed to be buying the whole stock. “Five kilos of chicken wings”, he´d said. And when it had all been piled up, weighed and cleaned, just as his order was being packed, he had to say “You know what? Add two-three kilos on top of that”. A clear case of Passover craze. His diminutive wife was waiting with two carts which were quickly filling up. “Fifteen chickens, whole...”, said the husband. “How much? Add five more, go on, don't be shy” The couple's kid, a ten year-old boy, was helping carry the bags from the counter to the carts, absolutely silent, aware of his father's authority. His father a slim, nervous Oriental Jew, was not to be spoken to. He was buying the meat. The front pockets of his pants revealed the presence of two thick wads of bills, and he was playing with the key-ring of his car. His wife was getting nervous, struggling to keep quiet. Later on I'd meet them again, by the cashier. The huge purchased would be waiting to be packed and the man would be sitting just outside the store, on a stool, catching some fresh Jerusalem air. He would then tell his wife: “Go get the girls to make you the packages”, to which the poor woman, nicely dressed and a bit over thirty, would snap: “Sure, you're sitting over there. You have nothing to do, you don't have to clean the whole house.” He'd light a cigarette and not turn back to look at her.
But in the meantime they were still depleting the shop's stock. The Arab guys were treating the situation as if it were some game. Maybe they'd made a silent bet as to how much merchandise this man would take. I was making eye contact with them, expressing no understanding of the situation, just telling them I was there, next in line. Any other attitude would be seen as butting in. Unnecessary and potentially inadvisable.
Eventually, my turn came. We exchanged looks of relief. Their eyes were saying what they would not say aloud: “Did you see that guy? And what attitude!” As my measly four kilos of chicken breasts were being weighed I heard one of the Arabs say “Do you know him?” “Yeah, he's a customer”, said his friend. Some muttering ensued, and I asked for the next item on my list. Now it was their turn to make eye-contact. Open, direct. First one of them, then both and then again, the first guy looked at me, a smile in his eyes.
“He says he knows you.”
Somehow I knew he didn't mean his friend knows me as a customer, so I smiled, waiting.
“He says he's seen you on TV.”
“That's very possible”, I said, surprised. “On what channel was it?”
He turned to his friend, and said quickly: “You were right!”
And then answered my question:
“On either Channel 1, Channel 2 or Channel 10.” The three national channels which also carry news.
“It must have been on Channel 1”, I said. The three national channels are the only one which are aired the old way, on airwaves and not just on cable or via satellite. I was surprised.
“I had a show for a year and a half, and they keep rerunning it, especially at night.”
“Yes!”, he said. “It was last night you were on!”
This was getting to be too much, so I touched the main reason for my surprise:
“It was a program about books, interviews with writers and so on.”
“Exactly!”, he said, a smile extending in front of me. “He recognized you right away and told me you are on TV. You are on TV all the time!”
In their world, this is precisely the case. Arab villages do not have cable TV. The Israeli cable companies don't offer their services to Israeli Arab villages, claiming it's not profitable. The choice of stations is indeed made to suit the Jewish majority, even though main Arab stations, state-run stations from Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco are included. Still, many Arabs install satellite dishes to be able to get a full array of Arab stations from all over the Middle East. Occupied areas, such as the village these young men come from near Bethlehem don't have even theoretical access to Israeli cable TV. The Arabs at “Capital Poultry” were in fact saying they don't even have satellite dishes installed at their homes in villages around Jerusalem.
“Well”, I said. “those are reruns, so it may happen you'll see me wearing winter clothes in the middle of summer. Some people don't get it and call me saying I am out of my mind, wearing a woolen sweater in mid-July.” When you become well-known because of a TV show, you get into the habit of making remarks like this. Underneath, it was mind boggling to me: Arabs with very limited Hebrew watching a show about Hebrew literature, world literature translated into Hebrew and the new works by Jewish academics, essayists and journalists.
“We don't mind”, said the Arab. “Now we'll all watch you since it's you we know from over here. We don't want to watch the news or the series in English, so late at night you are our man...”