Friday, May 12, 2006

The Steamer

It's no big secret that nobody likes the newcomer. In this land one can say it has been a long-standing tradition, perfected with each turn of History. A famous sketch known to practically any Hebrew-speaking Israeli, done by the now-defunct comedy group “Lool” (“Coop”) shows how each wave of immigrants arriving since the beginning of Zionism is received with contempt by the previous immigrants, who now regard themselves as “locals”. The first Zionist pioneers, singing folk-songs in the Russian style are looked down at by the local Palestinian Arabs who express their anger and scorn by spitting the insult “Il'an babour illi jabak”, which means, literally “Curse the ship that brought you”.

The classic sketch then shows how the first Jewish settlers show their contempt at the next wave of Jewish immigrants, coming from Poland, how the Polish Jews are then quick to curse the German Jews coming in the 1930s. The German Jews (nicknamed “Yekes”, maybe for their propensity to cling to their jackets, stiff and stifling in the local heat) then curse the Yemenites who are quick to learn the drill and curse the Moroccans who then curse the Jews from the Georgia and so on. Each group curses the previous one, and the sketch is funny not only in painting the characters, accents, quirks and stereotypes, but in that they all use the same curse in Palestinian Arabic: “Curse the ship that brought you.”

Funnier still, the Palestinian curse cannot be a very ancient one, despite the constant influx and shift in the population of Palestine since time immemorial. “Il'an babour illi jabak” does not come from the Classical Arabic and not even from the medieval variations of the language. “Babour”, the word I translated as meaning “ship” is not just any kind of ship. It's precise meaning is “steamer”, and it's of European descent, more precisely a French loan-word. “Vapeur” just means “vapor” is French. Steamships appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the 19th century, and this must then be the approximate time the curse came to be as we know it.

One could say, of course, that the idea is that foreigner intruders come in “vapeurs”, in steamships. Furthermore, one could add that it all started when the French came to Syria and Lebanon, after having taken Egypt in Napoleon's time. Such a formulation would reflect that the locals, in our case meaning the Palestinians, reject the foreigners meddling in their affairs, taking their land and establishing a permanent presence in the area. This sort of position fits well into the present day discourse about Post-Colonialism, authenticity and so on. Yet nothing is simple in the Middle East, not even the curses.

A few days ago, I had to change two tires in my car. Luckily, there's a very good place not far from home, and I just went over and bought the pair of tires. And then I had to wait for quite some time, since the delicate alignment of the front wheels in my German car is not easy to adjust when you change both tires. I was treated very well by the people in the shop, who know me already and always check my tires free of charge. The business is owned by a Jew, a religious man of Oriental origin who employs a number of young Jews and Arabs. The guy helping me was the one who knows me best from previous visits, a fair-skinned ash-blond Arab who loves to joke and horse around and speaks good Hebrew. The owner was trying to help too, as was another worker, but the job was taking a long time.

In the meantime, a big van came to the shop, the kind used to drive ten or twelve people. The driver's mirror had a little Palestinian flag and a sign with the first verse of the Koran. The driver came in, saying he had a punctured tire (he said he had a “banthir”, in colloquial Palestinian Arabic, derived from colloquial Hebrew “pancher” used since the days of the British Mandate for “puncture”). He was in a hurry, he said. People were waiting for him, pressing work. The blond guy, who had been trying to balance one of my wheels for twenty minutes or so said in his joking manner “Have some coffee, brother, this here is a surgical operation”. The driver was clearly unhappy and decided to leave. Out of ear's reach, as he passed me, he let slip “Il'an babour illi jabbo” - “Curse the ship that brought HIM”.
A Palestinian cursing another Palestinian for being a foreigner, a foreign intruder? Could that be. Well, you have to be a local to know the underlying situation. Yes, the Palestinian driver regarded the Palestinian from the tire shop as a foreigner. More precisely, in private he surely calls him a “salibi”. A Crusader.
Light skinned, green-eyed and blond Palestinians are regarded as descendants of Crusaders who took Arab women. In the human patchwork of Palestine whole families or larger groups carry this mark. They might be Christian or Muslim, but their racial traits mark them in the eyes of other Palestinians. I am sure that in some cases it's true that they in fact have Crusaders' blood running in their veins. Still other cases it might be Mongol blood, or Kurdish, or Turkish or whatever other light-skinned people passed through this land. None came by steamer, of course, but that's besides the matter.

Yet, the steamer never stops. In northern Israel, on the main road connecting the coastal plain and the Galilee, in Wadi Ara, there's a famous restaurant, no doubt one of the best Arab restaurants in the country, owned by Arabs from the city of Umm Al Fahm a few kilometers away. It's call “Al Babour”. I don't know whether it's irony or some sort of aesthetic choice, but the fact is that right by the Green Line separating Israel and the Occupied Areas, the main area of friction and contention, we have a marvelous exponent of local Palestinian cuisine, and it's called “The Steamer”.

The restaurant was immensely successful and got rave reviews in the press. People used to come from all over the country, making it also a sort of “in” place for the Jewish smart-set. And then, in the year 2000, when riots took place right there in Wadi Ara and 13 Arab Israelis were killed by the police. People stopped coming and the place almost went out of business. Recently, the situation is better though many Israelis avoid Arab zones and don't shop, eat or do business there. “Al Babour” is alive and well. Its food is still first-class. Every now and then I drive by. The times I've stopped there for lunch the restaurant was far from bustling. In any case, the name never fails to stir my thoughts (maybe this was precisely the reason they chose it). The Mediterranean is some 20 or 25 kilometers away. I always imagine the steamer-restaurant sailing overland and erase the image.

We're here to stay, all of us. Having come by ship (sail or steam), by donkey, camel or Belgian palfrey, we are all on the same Babour now. Hot, steamy, with an engine that rattles and might explode, but with no other option.