I was asked this before I left, always beginning with a “but”. I came up with a different response every time. For some, it was my thought that I might potentially move there, for a period of my life. For the others, I said that I was giving myself a break from Paris to think about the big grand “life”. I have habibi (beloved) friends there and I have always been curious about the country. All of what I said was true, but they weren’t my reason to go there. I never made any reason, I just booked a flight one crazy night.
My interest in the Middle East started with the streets of Ann Arbor, filled every weekend that I was there in 2006-07 with march for peace in Israel-Palestine. The food I happened to discover in Ann Arbor from a place called Jerusalem Gardens became my favorite (but I could have never back then put Jerusalem on the map, nor known that it was a part of the conflict, nor known what the conflict exactly was about). With some slow introduction to politics, I began to think that the conflict was about the golden dome of Haram as-Sharif (something I recalled while walking around Western Wall with my dear friend Sophie, who apparently thought the same). And then finally I was to realise the complexity of the issue, as I met Palestinians and Israelis and people from the region. I would still like to think that the conflict is about Haram as-Sharif, for it is one beautiful place!
I had my deal with the Israel Embassy in Paris, where I stood freezing outside their “checkpoints” so that they could take my papers and passport with multiple Lebanese and Egyptian stamps (besides other ‘strange’ countries) and disappear to be able to call my friend in Israel while he was in the middle of his class, twice, not once, twice, all for the lovely sake of annoyance. My friend and his details were mentioned in my papers.
I did get my visa, and was questioned by the french authority, about my intentions for going to ‘scary lands’. “Are you going to Syria?” “No!” “Are you going to Jordan?” “No” “Where are you going?” “I am staying in Tel Aviv for warmth with my Israeli friends” The “Israeli” here helped a lot! And I was free bird for a while.
I land in Tel Aviv, make a fancy tourist face, and all is good. Stamped and in Israel. My passport was sacrificed for the purpose of peace, I told myself. I would not be able to go back with this passport to most countries in Middle East. But then I come out and there is sun and all is forgotten.
I remember the shouk (market) in Tel Aviv, with 7 shekel falafel (the cheapest and the best I had there) which I sat eating in the sun in the middle of the market and then an old man approaches and sings me Shammi Kapoor songs (real old Bollywood stuff) and tells me that I should produce children before I am 40 because at 40 it is too hard anyway and he kisses my head and leaves. I am left with my falafel pondering yet again the purpose of my life. Produce children? Umm…
I was so excited about the sun, that I walked from TAU to Rothschild and then back one day. I ate more falafel, sat in the greens at TAU, read A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul and discovered 30 shekel wine (very expensive for my french standards) It all looked like Beirut, and everyone I met who I told that I had lived in Beirut said that they all wanted another passport just so that they could go to Beirut! What an irony!
So Beirut and Tel Aviv: they both have tiny corner stores with friendly old men with who you make friends with over time and who would slip little candy into your grocery bags and where little cats eat and sleep. They have women who come and ask you if you are cold, who threaten to feed you and who always win by feeding you. And oh, the food is delicious! They both have strange areas that look like they don’t exactly belong there, like Beirut Souks and the malls of Centre Tel Aviv. I always found myself feeling awkward in these places, as if I was guilty of my presence there.
It is all good and touristy until Shabbat in Tel Aviv. At around 3pm on Fridays, all the transportation stops. Tel Aviv gives you the glamour of the West, but come Shabbat and you are back to third world. Yet, at the same time, Yafo (Jaffa) awakens. Yafo has its souks, its flea market, all running past the Shabbat calls, with a labyrinth of Arab stores and great Palestinian food that fill up till dusk, at which point Yafo changes its glam colours to become a background to the elite hipster population in 20s. Souk grounds become fancy cafes and hidden streets of flea markets host bars and night clubs that begin to resemble the scenes from Byblos in Lebanon. The colours of its ports also reminded me lovingly of my trips to Saida in Lebanon. It looked like the same land, a part of the beach stretched from one end to another, one resembling the other with beautiful people and ,suddenly, oddly separated by guns and wars.
Tel Aviv is a bubble, somewhat like Beirut, that forms a refuge to the odd and the even, yet there remains an odd social hierarchy. The poor are doubted, the migrants are questioned, there is racism in Beirut and the equivalent I found in Tel Aviv was my exclusion for being exotic and not Jewish. The exotic did me quite some good, initiating conversations many times. But if I ever chose to live one day, I will be clearly defined as an outsider, in a not so positive way. And if I were to live in either Tel Aviv or Beirut, it would mean that I would have to pay my way to make up for me being the other.
Tel Aviv is where you eat non-kosher on Shabbat, just for the sake of it. Tel Aviv is where the secular Jewish elite intellectual population flocks to drink and complain about the demographic threat of “ten-children creating families” of the ultra-Orthodox. Tel Aviv is where you can forget the complexities of living in the region, that come right on your face in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it seemed to me, are ten centuries apart. To write about Jerusalem would need me to ponder more about my time there, for it left in me deep impressions. Until then, I keep on holding to my attempts to learn Hebrew while watching a fancy (read scary) video by Victoria Hanna who also has another interesting talk about the word “Ani” (I) in Hebrew.