Thursday, April 27, 2006

My eyes

Like all the kids in our second-grade class, I had my eyes tested. It was a series of tests, but I think the decisive one was run on a machine that had you see a sort of highway with signs marking the illusionary distance. The highway turned slightly to the right and I remember that somewhere along the curve I couldn't discern the numbers on the signs. Shortly afterwards, a note arrived from school, advising my parents to take me to an ophthalmologist. Another thing I remember is that my mother had no idea who to consult. It was 1970, we were in Honduras and knew only the pediatrician we went to at the private clinic downtown. Anyway, my mother asked around and we ended up waiting for our turn at the private clinic of the best ophthalmologist in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

As we waited, my mother reminded me of what she had said at home: “Don't tell him we're from Israel. If he asks, I will answer.” The ophthalmologist's name was Dr. Nasrallah. I remember his first name too: Odeh. Dr. Odeh Nasrallah. A “turk” as they're called in Latin America, meaning a descendant of Ottoman subjects who emigrated to the New World. Jews, Christians and Muslims from Ottoman lands emigrated in large numbers to Central and South America, especially in the early 20th century. Dr. Nasrallah's family was surely Palestinian or Lebanese.

So, in we went, Israeli Jews consulting the best doctor in his field of specialty. He turned out to be an olive-skinned man, a bit chubby, with glasses. I know my mother ended up telling him our identity, although not at the beginning of the rather long session. He prescribed me what turned out to be my first pair of glasses and I remember him telling me the details of my new status. He was very clear and considerate with me, a child-patient who was quite surprised when told he'd need glasses from now on. Dr. Nasrallah explained that on the one hand, if I don't get glasses I would end up ruining my vision, but that since we had caught the problem just on time, with some exercises and discipline, I might get rid of the glasses in a few years' time. Everything ended very well, and I had my glasses till we returned to Israel, two years later.

Once back home, my mother was quick to take me to the very well-known ophthalmologist she knew, an Argentinian Jew, a highly regarded authority in the field. I have a clear recollection of the feelings regarding having my eyes checked again, in Israel. I especially remember the relief expressed both tacitly and directly when she told my father that all was well: Dr. Nasrallah had given me the best treatment, and was even praised by “our” doctor, who confirmed I would be able to get rid of the glasses if I followed a strict course of exercises and physical therapy for the muscles of my left eye. So I did, and three years later, I could put the glasses away for many years to come. In short: the Arab had treated me well.

Years passed. Every now and then I'd remember Dr. Nasrallah. At first, for his treatment, when I spent long hours doing exercises with a specialist. Then, after I stopped using glasses, his name would pop during my yearly checkups at “our” Argentinian ophthalmologist. As time passed and I became immersed in Israeli reality, Dr. Odeh Nasrallah's legacy was mainly his name. “Odeh”, his first name, was also the name of the owners of a wonderful Arab restaurant in the old city of St. John of Acre (Akko in Hebrew, Akka in Arabic). We'd go there sometimes, and I couldn't help remembering the good doctor. Later on, of course, we were all exposed to another Nasrallah: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, the extremist Shiite party and terrorist organization, whose name means “The Party of Allah”. Hizballah was one of the launching platforms of Ayatollah Homeini, who before becoming the leader or Iran, spent years in exile in Lebanon. In Amir Tahiri's excellent book about Homeini, the author tells who crowds of ecstatic supporters would chant in Farsi “Hizb faqat, Hizballah! Rahabar faqat, Ruh-Allah” - “Only one party, the Party of God, Only one leader, Ruh-Allah” (Ruhallah was Homeini's first name, “the spirit of Allah”). Moreover, as Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran, after the revolution, and as Lebanon became a mess, I was studying Arabic at school. Nasr, I learned, means “victory”. So... Nasrallah really means “Allah's victory”. This became a daily term in the 1990s, when the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah became the leader of Hizballah in Lebanon.

Watching Hassan Nasrallah on television, three things have always struck me. First, his language, which I really love to listen to. Islamic fundamentalists use a very specific kind of Arabic, rich, clear and forced to comply to the classical forms. Nasrallah enjoys the media and loves being on television. The second thing that strikes me about him is his young age. Hassan Nasrallah, one of the Middle East's more urgent problems is only three years my senior. Third, I am always interested in his calm, semi-amused faced, a bit like a child enjoying his latest mischief. His light skin, his combed beard and his immaculate attire, the robes and turban of a Shiite religious leader are all part of his public persona. But more than anything, I can't keep my eyes off his glasses.

Now, knowing that time flows at different paces in different parts of the world, I googled “Odeh Nasrallah”, in hope of finding “my Nasrallah” more than 35 years after our first meeting. Well, I did, in a way. In Honduras there is a Dr. Odeh Nasrallah, a well-known ophthalmologist. His full name is Juán Odeh Nasrallah and he works at the “Odeh-Nasrallah” clinic in Tegucigalpa. I found in a new item in “El Heraldo”, a leading newspaper in Honduras. It turns out that in 2003, Dr. Nasrallah headed a team of ophthalmologists that were offering free cataract operations for poor people in their country. The newspaper published a photograph of the good doctor. Young and slightly chubby, busy behind one of his machines, checking a patient. He must be a second-generation Nasrallah, most probably a son of the “original” Dr. Odeh. The photo shows him: light-skinned, dark haired, a short beard and no glasses. “You have to give in order to receive”, he told the newspaper, so far from the Middle East.

Monday, April 17, 2006

TV Star buying meat

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...”

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Romantic Dinner in Camp 80

Many Israelis know Army Camp 80. The Army is deployed all over the country but certain camps are more than just military installations and have become part of the physical and historical landscape. Camp 80 is such a place. It dates from before the creation of the state, when it was a British Army base. Its location, in the center-north part of the coastal plain makes it a place you find yourself passing by quite often. Moreover, since Camp 80 has been a main base for the infantry battalion known as “Pioneer Fighting Youth”, a term inherited from socialist times, Camp 80 carries a weight which is part of Israeli history and nostalgia. Back in the 1950s, the “Nahal” (the Hebrew acronym for the Pioneer Fighting Youth), was a central part of the ideology which called for a new kind of Jew to be forged in the Israeli melting-pot: tenacious, pioneering, constructive. Nahal units would settle the frontier areas, build new collective settlements (the famous kibbutzim), to be nurtured by young soldiers living there and protecting the remote sites until the kibbutz could be “turned civilian” and become a new Israeli settlement. For many years, basic training of those infantry units took place in Camp 80. The soldiers serving in the Nahal divided their time in the army between settling the remote parts of the young country and functioning as an organic infantry fighting force. When I was enlisted, in the early 1980s, only girl Nahal soldiers did their basic training there, but it still was, as it is today, a main base for Nahal infantry. Nahal still exists today, mainly as a fighting battalion, with marginal social aspects added to the soldiers' service (helping new immigrants, teaching in difficult neighborhoods and performing other valued tasks within civic society).

Now since Camp 80 is such an old, well-established part of the Israeli landscape, right by one of the main coastal roads, it's no surprise that just like in the vicinity of other large permanent camps, a little business has sprung up. Families visiting their newly recruited sons and daughters as well as the soldiers themselves are glad for a place to have a quick bite, fill up gas in the family car and so on. Given its location, it's natural that a glorified gas station does excellent business right in front of the camp's main gate.

In the years since I was a young soldier, a generation ago, Israel has changed a great deal. The roads have become much better, and modern road-sides amenities are commonplace. In addition, coffee culture has evolved greatly. While once a military camp could sprout a kiosk with soft drinks, newspapers, cigarettes and simple hot-dogs, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 is now almost an American road-side stop. Israeli gas-stations now offer small sleek little supermarkets and espresso bars. This is how the area in front of the gates of Camp 80 has evolved since I first entered it in 1981. Indeed, the gas-station is now a small complex and its café is well-known as a good place, recommended by some of the best guides to the country's eateries. You can even find it on the Web, unanimously recommended by the critics. Naturally, it's called “Café 80”.

Camp 80 is located near a coveted upper middle-class expanse of red-roofed private houses. But certain things have not changed, indeed they cannot change. The British had good reasons for putting the place right where it is, way before the impressive urban growth the area has enjoyed in the last generation. Camp 80 is not just on the northern coastal plain, but at the entrance of a long, diagonal valley which connects the country´s coast and its northern part. The narrow valley is called “Eeron Valley”. Well, that´s its name in Hebrew, which almost no one uses. We all call it “Wadi Ara”, its Arabic name.

Wadi Ara is still the connection between the North, up to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and the heart of Israel. It is also one of the areas of Israel most densely populated by Arabs. Immediately to the east to Wadi Ara you are in occupied land, some of it controlled by the Palestinian Authority. In fact, I did my basic training in an old Jordanian camp which was under the authority of Camp 80, right across Wadi Ara. Today it´s in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, off-limits to Israelis. So not only is Wadi Ara heavily dotted by Arab-Israeli towns and villages, but it´s a border-zone, touching what will surely be the future Palestinian State, and is now an area of friction and a source of worry and violence. In fact, many attempts to infiltrate Israel and carry out suicide bombings have taken place right there, in Wadi Ara. Now Israelis drive along its modern road, from Camp 80 at its southern entrance to the fertile valley to which it opens in the north, or use it to connect to the super-modern national toll road which is being built all along the country. Yet, the gas-station in front of Camp 80 has more to it than the successful “Café 80”.

While the espresso-bar which is the critics' pet awaits on one end of the gas station, on the other end there's a restaurant. The “Eeron Restaurant”. A traditional Arab restaurant, and it's not called the “Wadi Ara Restaurant”. Owned, managed and run by Israeli Arabs living in the area, in the Arab villages nearby. On the last evening of 2005, I had dinner there, stopping on the way from Haifa to Jerusalem. I didn't expect the place to be festive, even though it was the 31st of December, and I wasn't wrong. Wadi Ara is largely Muslim. Maybe if the restaurant were a popular eating-place for Jews the owner would have catered to the fact that many secular Jews mark the end of what we call the “civilian year”. But this place is strictly Arab. And that evening it was easy to see that we were the only Jews sitting down to have dinner there. The place was quite busy, it was a Saturday night, and platters of skewered meat were being carried across the large hall. Yet it didn't take much effort to see who the customers were that night. Families with children, groups of men, young married couples. And all the women wore the hijab, the traditional head covering of pious Muslim women. In a funny way, I felt relieved. Usually, in a popular Arab restaurant serving a large Jewish public, the attitude tends to be servile, obsequious. There's a little “Jew entering Arab restaurant” routine played by the staff, including overplayed smiles and a host of “manly” gestures. The “Eeron Restaurant”, its paper napkins declaring its Hebrew name, was simply not that: the Arab waiter was proper, to the point, and functional in his approach. As we were served, I reflected on the fact that the place reminded me of “family restaurants” in India. Food to feed you, a place to sit, safe for children and women, who nevertheless do not come by themselves but are always part of a family or newly married, dining with their young husband.

Seen by Western eyes, the hijab and in fact the whole way Muslim women in the Middle East are part of an attempt to conceal femininity, to erase the contours and features of the women. That night in Wadi Ara, I had the opportunity of seeing two young couples without children dining in intimacy in a public space. Heads covered meticulously with hijabs, long straight dresses down to the heels, two Muslim women sat with their husbands, clearly enjoying the evening, being served by the all-male staff. One couple ate in almost total silence. They were both busy tearing bits of chicken with their hands, dipping them in the assortment of small plates spread on the table. But the other couple was eating together, romantically together. I followed their meal furtively. She tore a bit of chicken and handed it to his waiting hands. He ate and while still chewing, handed her a plate of hot-peppers, which she took thankfully. Then, while she was munching on pickles, he took a meat patty, split it in two and fed her with his fingers. She smiled as she took it with her lips. He made sure she'd miss not a bit. The other half he stuffed into a bit of pita-bread, offering to add some veggies and hand it to her too. Her mouth full, she gestured lovingly, signaling “No, no, have some too, it's wonderful”. And so it continued. A man and a woman eating together, being very proper in the middle of a large crowd of fellow-Muslims, not an inch of her hair was exposed, and her long sleeves never revealed her wrists. A couple in love, Muslims sharing dinner at the entrance to Wadi Ara, in front of Camp 80 used by the “Pioneering Fighting Youth” of the Israeli Army, near the trendy espresso-bar, a stone-throw away from the Palestinian Authority, on New Year's Eve 2006.