Thursday, March 30, 2006

And this they call justice?

A few years ago, about a year after the beginning of the second intifada, I was invited to take part in a meeting of Arab and Jewish poets and scholars in Nazareth. For most Israelis the initial shock came with the wave of disturbances and violence that erupted within Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living in the pre-1967 areas of the country. The police reacted violently, using snipers, shooting live ammunition and killing 13 Arab Israeli citizens. So a year after this traumatic episode, I found myself driving through Nazareth, which looked subdued and depressed. Nazareth itself was suffering its share of internal strife, which could develop into a full-scale conflict between Muslims and Christians. The Islamic Movement was trying to build a mosque in the center of the city, right in the middle of the esplanade leading to the Church of the Annunciation, one of Christianity's holiest sites. The project was stopped, but the people on the streets were tense, somber and sad.

Anyway, I drove across town, up to the higher part, to a Christian retreat where the meeting was being held. Christians, Muslims and Jews were meeting. Though I can't say that this kind of cultural exchange is a mainstream activity in Israel, such meetings have been taking place for the last 50 years. Poetry is translated from Arabic into Hebrew and vice-versa, poems are published in the press in both languages and contacts are constant on many levels.

When I was invited to speak, I started by telling about coming to Nazareth that day. It was a Friday, Islam's holy day, and the contested site of the mosque was wrapped in green canvas and green flags, green being Islam's traditional color. I described the expressions I saw on people's faces, the empty café where I stopped for half an hour just to feel the city, Israel's largest Arab town. I told the audience about the graffiti I saw just across the church and the aborted mosque. It said: “Occupation is the real violence”. My listeners became very still. “But that's not the point I wish to make”, I said. “What hit me was the degree of pessimism Nazareth reflects. Things must be extremely bad and people must be in utter despair, for the graffiti is in Arabic, not in Hebrew, the language of the occupier, meaning that whoever painted it feels nobody among the Jews is listening.”

Later on during the meeting, an Arab poet approached me. I will call him Z.
“We need to be heard”, he said. “That's why I write poetry in Hebrew.” Bilingual poets exist among Israeli Arabs. Hebrew is compulsory in Arab schools in Israel and since the country's system functions in Hebrew, from government offices to the mass media. Z lives in Haifa and writes poetry in Arabic, following classical forms, and free-verse poems in Hebrew. Yet, the point he was pushing was not just that Arab poets need to be heard, but that it is precisely the bilingual artists, the poets writing in Hebrew too, have to be recognized and made part of the bridge between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

A few months later, I got a call from one of the older Arab poets, a principal of a high-school in the Galilee. He had been invited to Spain and wanted some of his poems in Spanish. He asked me to translate them for him. “I will pay you well”, he said. “That's fine, but it's not the point. I have to see if I can do the job and if I can convey your work in Spanish”, I explained. Eventually, the poems arrived. Modern in form and very accessible. As I worked my way through the translation, I had a strange feeling. A presence was eerily making itself noted. I read my Spanish and decided to carry out a little experiment. I translated it into Hebrew, roughly, just so I would be able to read it. I knew at once what the presence I sensed was. It was Bialik, our national poet who died in the mid 1930s and wrote about yearning for a country and about the difficulties of a minority living in a hostile land. I had heard Bialik was enjoying new-found relevance among an audience he surely never imagined: the Israeli Arabs. Bialik is taught as part of the Hebrew program for Arab high schools, but it's clear that he is being read as a present-day relevant poet. Indeed a classic.

Yet fate still had in store for me the most surprising meeting. Three years later, on the morning of the Jewish New Year, I was in Haifa. A new nephew had been born that night. As I came out of the hospital – the same one where I was born – a taxi stopped by. I heard a voice calling my name. I looked around. It was the taxi driver. And who should it be but Z, the bilingual poet. “Hi! Remember me?” he called out as I leaned over the open window. I sat in the front seat. After I told him the reason I was there, he congratulated me heartily for the new nephew. “I've written new material in Hebrew. I keep hoping. We are old men”, he said, following the Arab concept that a 40-year old man seeing a younger generation being born is old, “but we must give hope to the young ones. We must be heard!” He unfolded the visor in front of him and handed me a visiting-card. It said: “Z and Poet: All parts of ISRAEL and Airport” along with his cellphone. On the back there was a poem in Hebrew as well as its translation into English. It ended with the words “And this they call justice?”

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All Semitics are Equal

The term “antisemitism” is artificial. It does not encompass hatred of all Semitic peoples. Rather, it's a euphemism for “hatred of the Jews”. No Arabs or Ethiopians are included as objects of antisemitism.

Yet, one morning in Ethiopia, I discovered that there is such a thing as “Arch-Antisemitism”. Or maybe I should call it “fair and balanced” Antisemitism?.
Well, here is what happened. One day during my visit to Addis Abeba, I found myself walking in the center of town, when I stumbled on a sign pointing to a small museum on top of a small hill. I approached the gate and started to climb slowly, since Addis Abeba is located on a high plateau. It looked like I was the only person going up to the museum. As I got to the top of the hill, I saw an old wooden building with a lovely garden and a coffee area. Coffee is an extremely important element in Ethiopian culture and I saw at once the typical straw seats around a bed of fragrant burning coal with the traditional coffee pot in the middle. A tiny gift-shop was open and the place was empty, but for two Ethiopian women, and three Germans.

Yes, I must admit, I am usually quite good at spotting them. Besides the general Germanic look, they're easily identified by their body language, by the design of their glasses and by their gear. The three men were sitting, having coffee which was served by the younger of the two women, who were both in traditional white dresses.
I was dying for a cup of coffee, but decided to wait them out so I went into the museum first. I took my time looking at the exhibit, which mainly shows the history of Addis Abeba from its foundation. There's a lot to learn there, and I did. But the most eye-opening lesson was still waiting for me.

When I returned to the garden, the three Germans were still there. They had long finished the coffee and were talking to the lady. I took a seat. Soon enough, seeing another white visitor, the men asked me where I came from. The one who did most of the talking was the eldest. They were a film-crew and they'd been working in Western Africa, in Cameroon. It turned out that Lufthansa had had some problem and instead of flying to Frankfurt, they were flown to Ethiopia and were to take a flight to Europe the next day. So they had a day and a half to burn in an unexpected place. They had followed the word “museum” somewhere and found themselves on the little hill in middle of the strange thin-aired capital. They said they were looking for Lucy, which is the nickname of the famous humanoid on display at the National Museum of Ethiopia, elsewhere in the city. 3.2 million year-old Lucy is referred to as “the mother of the human race”, and is one of the earliest ancestors of humans.

The oldest German asked me where I was from, and when he learned I was Israeli he asked me whether I was Jewish or Muslim. He told me his wife knows Biblical Hebrew and teaches theology as a Protestant Pastor. Then he went on to the usual issues: “When is all the mess over there going to end?”, the type of questions any Israeli faces when he travels abroad.
I asked the man, who seemed in his mid-fifties, whether he'd been in Israel. He told that he had, many years before.
“Now it's impossible”, he said.
“Why?”, I asked.
“All that violence. I couldn't visit Nazareth now”
“Nazareth? I was there just a few weeks ago, what's the problem?”, I said, quite astonished.
“Ah, with Intifada and occupation... too dangerous.”
“You must mean Bethlehem”, I answered, wondering whether he was on speaking terms with the theologist wife. “Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinians, so you can visit freely. In fact, if anyone here can't go there it's me, as an Israeli.”
He decided to change the angle of his attack:
“Anyway, it's impossible, they stamp you passport at the airport and then you can't go to many places.”
“You mean to Arab countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, or to Iran.”
“We filmed in Syria, so it's a problem if you have an Israeli stamp.”, he said.
I retorted: “You can ask the control at the airport to add a loose form and stamp it so you're passport remains intact, and they even advise you of the option.”
At that point, I was granted a break. After a few minutes, he tried to be matter-of-fact:
“So, they say the Ethiopian emperors go back a long time.”
Now it was the turn of the Ethiopian lady to intervene:
“Yes, all the way to Queen Sheba and King Solomon”, she said in perfect English.
“What? King Solomon from the Bible?” He seemed slightly shocked.

When the lady and I nodded, ironically trying to comfort the man, he decided my respite was over:
“So tell me, you as a Jew”, he aimed his cannon, “as a Jew, here, since you also are Semitic, like them here”, he had loaded the charge - “Do you, being Jewish, feel a connection to Ethiopia, maybe something familiar?”
I smiled: “Yes indeed. The Ethiopians are a very proud people, very knowledgeable of their past and their heritage, and very religious.” I too had my ammo: “And they very Christian and close to the Christian text, since their Church predates anything in Europe, Catholic or Orthodox, not to mention the Protestant variant.”
The man was unhappy. I proceeded:
“So yes, we're close both in our original link to the Bible and in our Semitic identity, mainly in the fact that our languages are both Semitic, though very different.”

Suddenly, a cellphone rang. The older Ethiopian woman got up and moved away to take the call. The Germans accepted more coffee from the young assistant. I overheard some of the telephone conversation and realized it was not in Amharic. I couldn't contain myself, and when it was over I asked the lady. She confirmed my suspicions: it was Tigrinya, a language from Northern Ethiopia. Struck by my mind having responded to the sound, I told the Germans:
“Here you have an example. The lady was speaking in Tigrinya and I understood most of what she said because it's Semitic and close enough to some Southern Arabic dialects.”

It turned out that she was the director of the museum. Since I wanted to buy some souvenirs, I asked her to show me some and quote the prices in Tigrinya. Within a minute we were haggling in “Semitic”, having no problem communicating. A feeling of a bond both strange and close.

In the German, too, was not disappointed in the Semitic union I had tidily defined for him. The Germans were getting ready to leave. They offered to pay for the coffee and the director of the museum graciously dismissed the idea: “It's our pleasure, you are a guest here.”

The three men got up and without having visited the museum asked whether they could find a taxi to take them to the “main” National Museum. The Mother of the Human Race was still waiting for them.
“Of course”, said the Ethiopian lady. “We'll show you the way”.
She then turned to her assistant, and told her, in Tigrinya:
“Take them down the long way and see to it that they go away.”

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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ethiopian Rhapsody (Op. 1)

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.
“Why?”
“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.