+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Mon, 30 Nov 2015 22:13:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Station to Station 4: The two towers http://972mag.com/station-to-station-4-two-towers/113339/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-4-two-towers/113339/#comments Thu, 29 Oct 2015 14:52:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=113339 This series will soon arrive at Nitzana. Doors open on the left. The next stop is Nablus. This will be the last stop. Thank you for riding with Elisha Baskin and me.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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The country is magnetic. Several energy fields hide in the terrain, emitting the land’s intensity and mystery like orbs in a Tesla experiment. One such field is famously Jerusalem, another, far vaster one, is the desert.

A journey that began in a dusty ditch on a city’s outskirts, now furthers into the wilderness. Elisha and I take a bus from Be’er Sheva into the Negev. The Turkish wartime rails extended south of here, and the remains of a station await us at Nitzana, directly on the Egyptian border.

Nitzana, a Nabatean town, has not been a place of proper human habitat since the ninth century. A train station was built there in 1915, and was literally nowhere-central. It served a remote police station that guarded the empire’s border with the British controlled Sinai, and a hastily constructed hospital where war wounds were tended. The hospital’s ruins can still be seen atop the mound of the ancient town. It seems like a very bad spot to bring potential amputees. Go figure.

History moved quickly. A flood of Union Jack-waving Aussies and Kiwis appeared from the southern wilds and ousted the Turks from the holy land after centuries of dominance. Nitzana station began crumbling almost as soon as it was built. When we arrive there today only the limestone water tower is left to remind us of long lost wars. It sticks out of the wasteland in majestic mystery, much like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith.  We wander over the expanse, finding a few more walls, recognizing traces left by the rails, taking in the silence.

Following the buzz of music and children’s voices at Be’er Sheva, silence seems to be telling a truth about history. We need to listen well, and not limit ourselves to a tower and a wall. We haven’t yet answered this project’s principle question: why are we even doing it? What’s in a station?

We climb the mound, or “tel.” A dry wind blows through the dead hospital’s windows. We are the only ones here. The Nabataeans are gone, the Turks are gone, the trains are definitely gone. Looking east, we try to spot the Holot internment facility, where Israel keeps thousands of African Asylum seekers imprisoned without trial, hoping to deter others from seeking refuge on these shores. It is hidden by the desert’s ripples.

Not a city to pass by

One more station is left on our list, and it’s role in the country’s history is largely un-train related.

It is Mas’udiyya station, mistakenly known as Sabastiya station. In 1915, the Ottomans decided to lay an arm of rails between Afula and Jerusalem, one that would link Damascus to Al Aqsa via the hill country. This arm reached down to the Nablus area. Mas’udiyyah got a station, and Sabastiya, a nearby historical hill town, became accessible to all. Then war reached the region and construction on the line was abandoned in favor of the ill-fated desert line.

Sixty years later, the area became part of the Israeli-held West Bank. Soon afterwards, Jewish activists attempted to form settlements. At first Israel’s government removed all settlers from the occupied territories and forbade them from establishing permanent footholds. Many of the confrontations took place at Mas’udiyyah’s station. No fewer than seven times did activists return to the station and held sit-ins. They were drawn to the structure due to its proximity to the ruins of Biblical Shomron and the fact it was state property.

On the eighth attempt, one cold day in December of 1975, the settlers received fond news: Shimon Peres, then minister of defense, granted them the right to settle nearby, at what became the settlement of Kedumim. One day after our desert escape, Elisha and I head across the lines, to see the source of so much complexity.

The road to Mas’udiyyah, however, goes through an energy field and we get trapped. It is Nablus, a city you can’t just cruise through. It bewitches the senses and particularly the tongue.

Nablus, we love you.

Nablus, we love you.We love you, Nablus

Like crazy, we do.

Like crazy, we do.

We stop to enjoy heavenly knafe, to buy sesame halva, black-seed halva, pumpkin jam and dates. We chat with the owner of a natural remedy shop about his university days in Rome. We sip good coffee in a shisha shop equipped with a dusty boombox and adorned by images of Jordanian royalty. Elisha, who missed her calling as interior designer, gawks and gapes and clicks her shutter repeatedly.

Lower your expectations

It is here, among the sweet billows, Lebanese music and chatter of card players, that we begin wondering whether Nablus itself once sported a railway station. The Mas’udiyyah arm must have reached down to here. Did it indeed? And has anything remained? We contact Husam Jubran, who guides with me on the National Geographic Holy Land tours. He is not sure, and reaches out to a Nablusi friend, who says yes. A station once was here. She gives us its location and urges us to lower expectations.

We find it, on an eastern edge of downtown. This area is still a transport hub. Yellow “service” minibuses park in a nearby lot and their drivers direct us to the right spot: a one story building, its tiled roof crumbling. Some sort of a factory is operating inside. We ask permission to enter and find ourselves on a platform, beneath wooden beams that held an Ottoman awning in Ottoman days. This once was, without any doubt, the station. Today it is, without any question, a pickle factory.

We receive a gift jar of pickles, and are taken to see an old street sign that still hangs on an outside wall. Faisal Street was once Station Street. Aside for this business, the building houses a store for household utensils and a hotdog stand. We are enchanted. This station isn’t abandoned, it isn’t reused, it isn’t destroyed. It’s a hotdog stand with a limitless supplies of relish. Brilliant.

A passerby notices our joy and stops to chat. He points to a traffic island full of wild growing bushes and trees, and says: “There’s more of the station there.” We circle the patch of greenery and find a limestone water tower. It is crowned with a huge billboard advertising a bank. All about this ad, Nablus honks its many horns, beneath it is a tower identical to that one that stood in silence in the desert yesterday. That still stands there this moment.

Really that far?

Could that desert and this city truly exist simultaneously, in the same land? Two towers remind us that they do. The environments that make up our country differ so much, the mental barriers are taller than the physical ones. Nitzana’s tower is situated across the separation barrier from here and in an entirely different climate, its nearest neighbors speak a different language, write in a different script, would never dream of coming here, but is it all really that far?

How easy was it to get to Nitzana in 1915? You would travel north to Afula, than to Haifa, then to Jaffa, then further south, or just go through Jerusalem and Hebron by a horse-drawn dolmush. Today, approximately 95 percent of Nablus residents do not possess permits to enter Israel. Access denied.

We have split this place up so that only a search for something random can help us piece it together. What we were looking for is home. Our land, which once could be reached by train from Europe and Africa, has been cut off the network, then smashed like a plate. We have been piecing together it station by station. Now we have it in our hands. We have made a new connection. We can move on to other journeys. How about a spin on the Trans-Siberian?

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Station to station 3: We the living http://972mag.com/station-to-station-3-we-the-living/113084/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-3-we-the-living/113084/#comments Thu, 22 Oct 2015 21:11:15 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=113084 In a land of rampant commercialism, abandonment isn’t the worst thing that could happen to an historical railway station. Elisha Baskin photographs — and insists on riding the kiddy train.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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Once upon a time, the good people of this land were able to travel by train from the coastal cities up to Jerusalem. They still can, come to think of it, but nobody does. The trip is twice as long it as it is by bus and the terminal on the Jerusalem end is at Malha, a remote southwestern offshoot of the city. When Elisha and I headed to check out Jerusalem’s historical depot, neither of us even proposed the train, we automatically met at the “sherut” minibus station.

It’s a fairly interesting ride. A man in the front is speaking excitedly in Arabic to the driver for the entire hour-long journey. He’s out of his seat, balancing himself in an awkward crouch, his knees threatening to shift gears. At one point, near Abu Ghosh, he pulls out a stick of hash and singes it with his lighter. We are quite amused.

The station itself promises less excitement. It has recently been converted into a shopping and entertainment complex. No fences or thorns or squeaking stairs await us. Here is home of the ice cream cone and porcelain mezuzahs.

That in itself, however, attests to history. As a child of the 1970s I got to live in two Israels: a largely socialist one, born in 1948; and the radically capitalist one into which it metamorphosed in the 1990s. Elisha was born a decade later and came of age in the second Israel. Being a history buff, she can imagine with clarity what the earlier times were like, but it does demand imagination. The first Israel boasted a single TV channel. Its only shopping mall could be reached by train from the stone structure we are now entering. Now everything is a shopping mall, including this building.

Hopa hopa, here is no Europa

The Ottoman station’s waiting room is occupied by a quirkily designed gift shop. Mainstream Israeli singer Evyatar Banai is playing in the background. “There’s something about places that play Evyatar Banai,” I comment, with a look that adds: “down with the bourgeoisie.” She nods.

It isn’t really all that bad, though. There are a couple of nice cafés here, one of which is housed in the old signaler’s house, a concrete structure barely big enough to fit a shakshuka pan. There is a gallery, as well as a permanent exhibition of photos detailing the railway’s history. There is a nice wooden deck to stroll and an area for children to have fun in, which is where we discover a moving train.

It’s tiny. Very tiny. It’s a toy, and it loops around the interior of an actual vintage railway car. There are a few of them actually, and they travel through tiny tunnels in tiny fake Alps into a tiny European town that comes complete with an “Aral” gas station. The attendent at the model train display, Tom, speaks excitedly about the authenticity of the miniature landscape. Elisha challenges him a question:

“Why Europe? Why did you not recreate the landscape of this county?”

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Tom explains that the two firms that provide pieces for such models are European. She accepts the explanation but the question haunts the rest of the visit. “Hopa hopa, here is no Europa” goes an Israeli satirical tune popular in recent years. We came here in search of here. Is there any here here?

There is. Shimon Futterman, the daddy of the model train display arrives and presents us with a treasure. It is a replica of a German-made locomotive that would pull trains on the Hijazi railroads. Only two such models have ever been produced. The one before us is simply stunning and rolls very nicely on rails fit for its somewhat larger scale.

“I’m a grown-up who’s been playing with trains for 52 years now,” Futerman tells us. “I have everything related to trains at home. Even my collection of books about trains is more than 600 strong.” We ask if he is a locomotive driver by trade. Turns out he’s a teacher, working with at risk youth. The “bourgeois” station complex we sneered at allowed him to drive his hobby into the open, full steam ahead.

Money talks

A few days later we visit the western terminus of the same line: Jaffa station, inaugurated in 1892, discontinued as railway terminal in 1948, converted into a mall in 2010. While Jerusalem’s complex opens into the city by way of three free flowing gates, Jaffa’s station boasts a single, guarded entry. Contrary to cliché, this city appears to be far less peaceful than the hilly one.

The only photos to be found of the station’s past hang in the corridor of the management offices. This place is all about shopping, much of it high end. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is frequently accused of catering to car dependent suburbanites at the expense of the city’s urban vibrancy as well as its sense of history. I have absolutely no debate with the critics. This place prostitutes history.

We escape without hopping on what may be the only gesture to the station’s yesteryear: an old train car that eerily shifts back and forth over a stretch of rails. Its sway apparently recreates the sensation of train travel, that vanished relic of history long replaced by parking lots and shop interiors filled with Evtayar Banai’s soft, melancholic crooning (yes, he’s here too).

In Jerusalem, by contrast, we even took the time to ride the completely un-mysterious kiddy train, driven by a Palestinian, and enjoyed the goofy noises of faux dinging bells and engine roars it emitted. That place was fine, this one isn’t our kind of joint at all. Off we go to Jerusalem Boulevard for some Libyan couscous.

Home of locomotive #70414

On our fourth day of travel we head south to Be’er Sheva. The Ottomans extended the rails south during World War One, largely in order to facilitate transporting men, arms and ammunition to the desert front. I have heard that a limestone water tower from that period still stands in the midst of a modern residential neighborhood. These towers would provide water for the steam engines — we scaled one in Afula and saw another in Samakh. They are pretty enough in and of themselves to warrant a journey south.

We locate the tower. It really is nice, and what’s nicer is getting spontaneously hosted at the sukkah of a lovely Haredi family that lives on the block. They know all about the tower’s history and knowing the present, they send us to their city’s newest attraction: the restored railway station, now known as “Home of locomotive #70414″.

Turns out this land boasts another “station complex.” It awaits us right down the street, Again that limestone, the slanted roof, those Arabic letters in stone. The terminal was adopted in 1979 by Joyce Schmidt, a paper artist, and she established a paper workshop within it.

The top floor now houses an exhibition of creations in paper. The bottom floor is a café, and the platforms outside are filled with the cheer of school children during recess. I walk on the rails among them, and realize that I am actually balancing myself. In Jerusalem and Jaffa, the rails have been framed by wooden decks. Here they are still rails, lain on gravel. Elisha emerges from an historic wagon, camera in hand and an impressed look in her eyes. “You can’t buy anything here,” she says.

This is the best compliment any public attraction in Israel of 2015 could receive: it is not a shopping mall. It isn’t a train station either, to be sure, but need not be. Be’er Sheva’s centrally located functional station is one of the city’s major active gates, and rail travel is a way of life here. I always trash talk Be’er Sheva, calling it the only city on earth uglier than Ankara. It retains that title, but it is also a winner. Even in our days of loud TV commercials, it listens well to whistles of the past.

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Station to Station 2: The phantom line http://972mag.com/station-to-station-2-the-phantom-line/112353/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-2-the-phantom-line/112353/#comments Thu, 15 Oct 2015 16:10:28 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112353 In a strange feat of partial resurrection, half of the railway between Haifa and Damascus is being fixed for reuse. Elisha Baskin’s lens and Yuval Ben-Ami’s pen follow it, focusing on the decaying and embalmed, rather than the freshly welded.  

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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For the next leg of the journey, Elisha and I meet at a train station, a living one. We are hung up on ruins, but Israel also boasts railway infrastructure that is largely modern, functional, and topped with a bonus bit of irony: our red trains are the same used for local service by Deutsche Bahn. Our forefathers fled German trains to establish a sovereign state where we would ride German trains.

The engine of our train dies before we emerge from Tel Aviv, and we remain stuck for 15 minutes or so, but the driver is so apologetic that we forgive. An hour later we are in Haifa, switching to a bus that would take us east, to explore the “Valley Railway.” The rails used to run east of here, linking the coast with Dar’aa in Syria, and with the main artery of the Hijazi railway: Damascus to Mecca.

The Ottomans laid down these rails in anticipation of constructing a major port in Haifa. They run along the Jezreel Valley and past the ancient site of Armageddon. Armageddons around here are a dime a dozen. The empire crumbled soon enough and the port materialized only under British rule. Once the Brits left in 1948, it was the rails’ turn to crumble. The border between Israel and Syria was sealed, the largely rural Eastern Galilee was not deemed worthy of train service, and the locomotives vanished like billows of steam.

Afula’s eggs

Abandoning rails is always a mistake. The fate of towns such as Tiberias and Beit Shean would have been dramatically different had they not been taken off the grid. The Valley Railway is currently being recreated all the way to Tiberias, but for the moment the new rails aren’t functional. We have an entire phantom line to explore and a strangely morbid task: to pick out the dead from the living, to ignore the shining new stations and devote ourselves to those that rot.

We jump off the bus in the town of Afula. Above us, an electronic banner flashes over a food stand: “May this be a year of blessing,” it wishes, “a year of hope, a year of shawarma.” Afula is the butt of many a Hebrew joke. It is seen as a vacant backwater, a puddle of falafel stands and sunflower seeds. In the town’s midst, an abandoned station stands hugged by a tiny public park. This was once the north’s major railway junction.


Old Bisan station overlooks the newly renovated rails

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Samakh station at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, now a museum


The sign at Al-Hamma / Hamat Gader station

It’s stunning. There is a one-story cargo terminal, a two-story passenger terminal, a water tower that was used to supply the steam engines and even a small bathroom stall. All are made of limestone and date back to 1912. The main structure is alive, but in an acoustic ceilings, bland tiles and Formica desks sort of way — like an embalmed corpse badly made up to look too pale. It serves as the municipal facility to support and absorb Jewish immigrants; the Russian-accented employees are happy to show us around.

The sole, ancient relic — besides the window frames — is a turn of the 20th century staircase, sealed off from the other offices and used as a broom closet. We climb it carefully and find a small pigeon’s nest, complete with two tiny eggs. The mother flutters about, distraught.

It’s best to leave her in peace. We head out, scale the water tower, then the bathroom stalls, before noticing two donkeys grazing in a small urban corral and head over to meet their owner. His name is Meir, and he lives in a pretty stone relic of Afula’s Arab past. Meir got married last night and his bride awaits him on a swing in the garden. It is a garden he himself landscaped and fenced with rungs and rails he found strewn about — the ribs and sternums of this land’s past. We wish them both a happy life and wander on.

To the secret spring

The next station, Beit Shean, is being modernized for the renewed line. Elisha snaps a photo from the bus and catches both the living and the dead in a single frame, like a family photo that captures grandma’s apparition. At Tzemach, just south of the Sea of Galilee, we bump unprepared into a gem. The Palestinian town of Samakh was destroyed in 1948, but its station is still here has just been beautifully restored for preservation as part of a college campus. It offers an exhibition on the history of Ottoman railways in the region. We learn that this was formerly a gateway to Tiberias, and that passengers were shuttled to the town by ferry over the lake.

But even this special place is only a whistle stop on the way to the day’s destination. We are headed for Hamat Gader, the last station on the line accessible from within Israel, but which is not technically in Israel. It is located in the Golan demilitarized zone, directly on the Jordanian border. It once served the hot springs of Al-Hamma, which have been an attraction since antiquity. Whatever the state of the terminal is, the location will cast magic on it.

A sweet Golan settler gives us a lift into the valley of the Yarmouk. She tell us her daughter knows a secret spring by the border fence, and calls her up to get the exact location. Following the instructions, she drives us directly to the border fence. It is staggeringly tall, intensely well-maintained and equipped with rows of razor wire and signs that warn of mortal danger. The effect is intimidating. We skip the spring, thank the lady and head for the station.


The tiny enclave of Hamat Gaderis is restricted by a fence from two sides by a steep slope on a third. A recreational facility takes up a quarter of the land, while the rest is taken up by spring-fed fish pools. The station pops out of a lot filled with fish pool equipment and supplies, including hundreds of gallons of hydrogen peroxide. There is also a one-story stone house here, and it seems inhabited, but no one is around and the fence is feeble. We hop over it and approach the building.

It is crumbling but intact, and by the light of dusk it beats any Taj Mahal. Stepping inside, we climb the creaking stairs to the second floor. Elisha sprays water on the dusty tiles to unveil their beauty. We step onto the balcony and behold the stone sign proclaiming “Al-Hamma” in perfectly preserved Arabic calligraphy. The sounds of explosions come from across the border. Is that Syria burning? No, Syria is still a few good miles away, perhaps Jordanian target practice. Somewhere in the lot below, a lone male peacock treads, the third unexpected animal sighting of the day.

It is not the last. They appear as we step back out to the road, crossing it right before our eyes, quiet and deliberate, on the way to the barren hills for nocturnal wanderings, howls and feeds. There are five or six of them, jackals, entirely unfazed by our presence. No one else is about, only us and wilderness.

What have we done today? We took the moment that began it, a static spell in an air conditioned wagon, where we were trapped among skyscrapers, and traveled far enough to turn it on its head. This moment is the perfect contrary, and gives us a bit more clarity about our skeleton chase. Like these jackals, we are drawn to dead things because, like them, we know that nothing around here really dies. There is life in the rabbit’s cadaver. It nourishes. There is life in the abandoned train station, and the nearer we come to it — the more likely we are to come face to face with stunning, alert, real and hungry jackals.

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Station to Station 1: The fenced failure http://972mag.com/station-to-station-1-the-fenced-failure/112288/ http://972mag.com/station-to-station-1-the-fenced-failure/112288/#comments Thu, 08 Oct 2015 16:31:06 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=112288 A journey to the Holy Land’s disused railway stations begins with a sonnet of concrete. Digital and disposable camera photography by Elisha Baskin.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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There is an old railway station in south Tel Aviv. It isn’t really so old by local standards, being 80 years younger than the city’s first train depot. A concrete edifice of the 1970s, it would hardly delight all eyes. “Tel Aviv south” is no Milano Centrale, oh, and it hasn’t served any lines since 1993. It’s useless.

Nevertheless, not only do I take off a hot September day to head there, but I have company. Elisha is a history adventurer: an archive detective who finagles rare film footage, photos and sound bites related to this country’s past. I told her I plan to explore the country’s disused train stations, and she sent me a strange array of ancient photos related to transport in the Holy Land. They were stunningly random. Here was spectacular company for a random historical journey.

“And the first station is just down the street from your hood,” I mentioned.


“Just past the Kibbutz Galuyot highway bridge.”

“There’s a station there?”

Behold how the past evades even its greatest lovers. Then again, South Tel Aviv Station was invisible from its beginnings. That is what sealed its fate.

I would build on the moon

Here is the brief chronicle of a civil engineering folly: the city’s first train station was opened in Jaffa in 1892, when only Jaffa existed. At one time you could board a train there and travel north to Damascus and as far south as the Sudan.

Following the war of 1948, that station became disused. The young State of Israel sought to decentralize Jaffa, allowing the adjacent Hebrew city to inherit it. The final mile of rails was undone, and trains now only ran as far as a station in central Tel Aviv.

The 50s and 60s saw society and leadership both turn automobile-crazed. City politicians expressed concern over traffic jams and blamed the trains that rolled into downtown. Eventually a new station was planned at a peripheral location, and an architect was chosen: Nahum Zolotov.

Zolotov himself felt uncomfortable with the initiative and proposed a more central location. He was defeated but took the job anyway. “I’m an architect,” he later explained in an interview, “I would build on the moon if that was the demand.”

South Tel Aviv station could have just as well been located on the moon. It lacked a link to any other transport terminal, and could not be reached by foot from the city center. Following its inauguration, travel by train fell dramatically out of fashion. It took 23 years for a fourth central station to be built, repairing some of the damage. This one was placed in the city’s affluent north, favoring its burgeoning bourgeois class, reflecting yet another shift of priorities.

Agricultural stuff

“Oh that!” says Elisha, as we hit the bridge and glimpse the long concrete parasol, shading the platforms. “So that’s what this is.”

We are both fairly taken with the structure’s aesthetics. Most Israeli concrete architecture of the period is Brutalist. This happens to be elegant. The terminal is roofed with variations of the same leitmotif that makes up the parasol: a stubby, overturned pyramid balancing on a single column.

On the façade is a sign. This, so it seems, is Israel’s “School for Train Professions.” It appears to be operative yet out of session. We are not alone, however, and soon two security guards engage us. One of them demands we delete what photos we already took and briefly confiscates Elisha’s ID.

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South Tel Aviv station. Sign reads: “School for Train Professions”

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A glimpse of the interior. This land is heaven for enthusiasts of 20th century concrete architecture

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Yesterday’s papers at yesterday’s station


“Photography is prohibited in any of the premises,” he warns, “nor may you approach the station from any direction. Over there,” he points, “is the freeway, and the other way is agricultural stuff. They run patrols there all the time, and trespassing is a criminal offense.”

He’s actually quite courteous, but hardly helpful. When we ask for a contact who could give us permission to shoot, he suggests we talk to “the train itself.” We ask him for a phone number. “I’m employed by an outsourced contractor,” he explains, “I don’t have any phone numbers.” As we thank him and head on, I can’t help but muse over the symbolism. Here is a hermetically fenced failure, guarded by underpaid men who can’t contact anyone in authority. Such an allegory for our homeland.

Descent into thorns

Here is where this journey truly begins: in a descent into thorns. We pick the side of the “agricultural stuff” and find a breach in the fence. As soon as we do, I sense how unlike my other journeys this one was going to be. Where are we headed? Not to an actual historical relic nor to a thing of the present, nor to anything that offers a sense of future. We are climbing over trash into a ditch, a dreadfully dusty and thorny ditch. What possesses us?

We are sure to find that out. For now it was all about the station and getting a better view. The ditch is deep. It separates the station’s parking lot from a plowed field encircled by yet another fence. Having reached its bottom we follow it towards the station. It leads to an underground passage that goes directly beneath it.

We step underneath our holy grail into a dark concrete tunnel, like a doomsday shelter from some 1980s political thriller. We have made it and haven’t, like two Ethiopian migrants who crossed deserts to reach the land of milk and honey, and ended up in a Rehovot housing project. We go all the way down the tunnel, then back, then step back out and look around.

Paints and parrots

There is a lot out there besides the train station. Over the tunnel entrance is a massive mural, the work of some anonymous street artist. In it, black-furred mammals of some sort torment the sleep of a multiple-eyed man. In the actual sky above the painting flies a flock of green parrots, a foreign breed that was somehow introduced to this land and has been known to cause much damage to its ornithological balance.

Following the ditch it feels as though we are in the middle of nowhere, but this is not nowhere. It is a corner of the metropolis’s south neither of us has ever visited, and like every point in this country it’s wild. Across the parking lot is a high school affiliated with Israel’s air force. In its front yard sit two defunct helicopters and a real-life jumbo sized military drone. The highway has a tale to tell, as does the closely watched field, and the adjacent neighborhoods, the city’s poorest and most diverse, buzz with millions of tales. Our random destination offers us a new angle from which to recognize all these.

Down the ditch and up at the top of the slope, we find a gate in the field’s fence. It is open, a gaping loophole. It allows us to come closer to the station and shoot its platforms from a two-yard range. But they matter less now. One thing we already know of this journey: it isn’t about platforms.

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Seven Nights 7: The Pub Crawl http://972mag.com/seven-nights-7-the-pub-crawl/110391/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-7-the-pub-crawl/110391/#comments Sun, 16 Aug 2015 15:14:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=110391 ‘So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people were murdered due to inter-group hatred.’ The seventh and final installment.

For other nights click here.

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One April night in 2003, my cousin Yaron decided he needed a bass player. He was growing as a local blues musician and figured that some accompaniment would do no harm. He told his girlfriend, Shir, that he’s popping over to Mike’s Place, a blues bar on Tel Aviv’s promenade, and left.

He returned shortly afterwards, covered in blood and in a state of shock. While the band played at Mike’s Place, two men walked in wearing explosive belts. The place went up in flames, claiming three lives along with that of one of the attackers. For a reason that remained unclear, the other terrorist failed to pull the trigger. He escaped into the night; his body was washed up by the waves a few days later.

Shir washed Yaron off with the shower hose. The blood came off and no wound appeared — the blood belonged to other people. Nine months to that night, the couple’s first child was born, a Second Intifada boomer and a treasure of a kid.

A dozen or so years later, on the eve of this story’s final night, I invited my friend Michelle for a drink at Mike’s Place. “I’m planning a epic pub crawl that will be remembered in this city’s history. I have been healing nicely from what happened at Jerusalem Pride, but I need a catharsis. So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people have been murdered due to inter-group hatred.”

“May I remind you I live in Jerusalem,” Michelle replied, “That is what I do whenever I go out.”

So she was out, but others agreed to come. At 9 p.m. I left for Mike’s Place with a happy song in my head — one that has been stuck in my head ever since picking the name for this series: “Seven Drunken Nights,” an Irish pub ditty. In each verse, a man returns home from the pub and finds another object that seems to belong to another man. His wife denies, blaming his blood-alcohol level:

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk, you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a horse, it is a cow that my mother sent to me
Well, it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a cow’s back, sure I never seen before.

I walked past the security guard at Mike’s Place, successfully smuggling a bottle of whisky in my bag, sat at the bar and ordered some of its own whiskey. At 10, two girls arrived: Hanna is a Londoner who made aliyah, met my mother on a bus and became half-adopted by my parents. I love her to bits. She brought a friend: Lauren, a student and writer, originally from L.A. We had a round or two, said a word about the bombing, dealt with an early-bird drunk who fell in love with all three of us, and moved on for more historical mayhem.

Inter-species crime

Station two was a bit heavy duty. The Dolphinarium is a largely-abandoned concrete structure that stretches along the sea front, interrupting Tel Aviv’s stretch of beaches with unforgivable ugliness. Here, too, a suicide bombing took place. In 2001, a Palestinian blew himself up inside what used to be a nightclub catering to Russian-speaking clientele, killing 22 people.

But there were other blood stains to speak of here. in the early hours of a 2013 dawn, a Palestinian street sweeper was randomly attacked in front of the building by a drunk Jewish mob and had to be hospitalized. This is also also one of many locations of the Palestinian national trauma. The Dolphinarium was built over the ruins of Manshiyya, a Muslim outcrop of Jaffa that was emptied and wrecked by the Irgun in 1948, shortly before the eruption of the formal war.

Then there were the dolphins. “I got to go here as a kid and see them jump through hoops,” I told the girls, “Later I read that they were kept in horrid conditions. That’s an inter-species crime, right?”

They agreed, and also agreed that we should skip the overly-posh bar currently operating at the site. Instead we sat on the rocks and drank whiskey out of the bottle, before moving on to station three.

Susanna is a pleasant cafe in the quaint Neve Tzedek quarter. A year and one day before our crawl, its owner and founder was murdered by her spouse. A dozen women are murdered by their partners in Israel on average each year. The authorities are notorious for letting abusive men go, even when they make explicit threats. We ordered cocktails and three varieties of delicious stuffed vegetables.

Others joined us here. Aziz, my boss at my tour guiding job, whose name likely provoked the intern’s deportation, came with three friends: an American and two Brits of Iraqi heritage. This was a nice international crowd. This was a nice night — I was getting trashed.

We emptied the bottle on a street near the central bus terminal. May 23rd, 2012, was the night our current Minister of Culture Miri Regev called African asylum seekers “a cancer in our body.” That same night, hundreds of Jewish Israelis heeded her call and rampaged these streets, where many asylum seekers live. They smashed stores and car windows, and beat up random Africans. No one was killed that night, but something did die, something in our spirit as a nation.

Regev and her fellow hate-mongers cleverly incited against the underprivileged. They spoke to the the impoverished Jewish communities of south Tel Aviv, and blamed the asylum seekers for the condition of their neighborhoods. In fact, poverty in these parts result from the government’s own neglect, which is, in turn, a product of the Ashkenazi hegemony’s disdain for Mizrahi Jews. I counted that as another form of hate crime and let the last sip of whiskey fall on my tongue.

I’m sorry to interrupt the movie

Considering its gritty, uber-urban appearence, Tel Aviv is a surprisingly safe city. Mugging, for example, has never been an issue here. We reserve our violence and use it to express our political convictions. These convictions are legion. The walk to station five was extremely brief.

In 2009, a hooded man walked into the basement of an LGBT youth club off Rothschild Boulevard. He slaughtered one teenager, incidentally a 16-year-old girl, and one of the instructors. The killer was never caught. Survivors had to deal both with trauma and with an unplanned outing to their families and friends.

We walked into an unfamiliar bar near the scene of the crime. It was cool, so we stayed a while and got properly drunk. Stepping back out, the song was back in my head. One drunk night followed another.

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a pipe, it is a whistle that my mother sent to me
Well it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more

But tobacco in a whistle, sure I never seen before.

We took two cabs to Rabin Square. Nearly 20 years have passed since November 4th, 1995, 20 years of decay. I was there on the night that gave the square it’s namesake, attended the peace rally, was floored by how huge and hopeful it was, had an ice cream bar and listened to Rabin speak. I didn’t stay for the cheesy singalong, and instead went to see a movie.

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A friend of mine worked as an usher at an art-house nearby and would sneak me into films for free. The movie shown that night was Nanni Moretti’s “Caro Diario.” I had already watched it and knew that it ends with a piece of bad news: Moretti learns that he has cancer.

Just as the film was about to end, a minute before the diagnosis comes, the door to the theater opened, and a different bit of bad news arrived. “I’m very sorry to interrupt the movie,” said the silhouette at the door, “but there was an act of violence committed in the square and Rabin is dead.”

The silhouette was of my usher friend’s shift manager. I was the only one who knew he was not some lunatic off the street, and so was the first to react, asking him what exactly happened. How many people were killed?

“Only Rabin,” he replied.

What kind of etiquette applies in a such a situation? Should we stay and watch the ending? Should we all leave right away? The confusion lasted for a minute or so while the Italians on the screen continued on, unfazed. Finally we left them there, pouring into the street and into the political reality that persists until this day.

“The Brasserie,” Tel Aviv’s most elegant all-night restaurant, is right on the square. It was getting past four and the place was buzzing. We took a table on the terrace, drank some more, ate and had a fine time.

 The pyramid

Across from The Brasserie, a huge, upturned pyramid of black iron soars over the square. It is a public sculpture by artist Yigal Tomarkin. I don’t know whose idea it was that we scale it, but at least three of us did, myself being one.

In retrospect, we nearly added our names to this long list of the city’s victims. Aye, we were drunk, we were drunk, silly old fools.

And when I came home on Sunday night, as drunk as drunk can be
I saw a foreign man standing where my old self should be
So I called my wife and I said to her: would you kindly say to me,
What’s this foreign man doing where my old self should be?

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not a man, it is a baby that my mother sent to me
Well it’s many a days I traveled, a hundred miles or more
But a beard on a baby’s face, sure I never seen before.

Isn’t this what we do here, in this bubble of a town? We try to drink and party enough not to know or at least not to care that we are being lied to. I reached the top, as did Hanna and Lauren, we took each others photos against a dark blue sky. Dawn was breaking and I declared the Death and Destruction pub crawl a partial success; partial because I wanted seven stations to fit my writing project, and could only think of six. Then I looked down into the heart of the pyramid and saw a small, iron bonfire, and it hit me that this as not only a public sculpture. We just drunkenly climbed Tel Aviv’s Holocaust monument.

Here was the most unfathomable hate crime of them all, the one that still scars us, that still drives us crazy, The source of so much anguish and violence in this land. Here was the seventh station of our Tel Avivian Via Dolorosa, marking the source.

Satisfied, we climbed down safely and went to the beach. We swam to one of the wave breakers and watched the sun rise behind the towers. While we did, someone stole all our cellphones from my bag that we left on the sand, but it was nothing. Really nothing.


Thank you all for reading. Michael Scheaffer Omer-Man and Edo Konrad took turns editing the chapters. The illustrations are by yours truly. Please consider sharing the project page so that it finds new readers, and may peace and safety prevail wherever you are.

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Seven Nights 6: Malawi http://972mag.com/seven-nights-6-malawi/110203/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-6-malawi/110203/#comments Fri, 14 Aug 2015 11:40:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=110203 On its next to last night, the journey leads away from the cities and, in a way, to another continent.  

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The papers promised a meteor shower. Here was a great excuse to take a spin out of town. I haven’t been off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis in a while (Bethlehem is essentially a Jerusalem suburb). Nothing sounded more appealing than heading into the dark hills to chase a shooting star or two.

Ruthie was feeling a tad better and encouraged me to head out, but I was unsure. Then a surprise phone call called the shots. My old buddy, Cindy, who lives in Hawaii, urged me to meet a friend of hers on a short visit to the Holy Land. The friend, Nadi, was staying in Haifa, had a car, and was eager to go watch meteors. I stuck with Ruthie for as late as it made sense, then hopped on a northbound train.

It pulled into Haifa just before 11:00. Abby waited in the parking lot. “The climax of the shower should take place just after midnight,” I informed her while buckling up, “How much time and energy have you got?” I asked.

“I need to return the car by 6:30,” she said, “That’s pretty much it.”

This was more than I had bargained for. The Carmel range offers a patch of woodland, the nearest respite from light pollution. but it appeared we didn’t need to stay near. ”So we can go and explore, right?”

“Let’s do.”

All I knew about Nadi on the way up was that she is Malawian. I also knew she is a top class traveler. Rolling out of the city and into the Galilee, I learned that she spent much of her life in the US and was now studying medicine in Boston. She came to Haifa to support a friend, a member of the Baha’i faith, who came to volunteer at the Baha’i headquarters. We spoke of Bahaullah, of Boston and of Cindy for a long while, while seeking a dark spot. There was no such spot, so we spoke of gender issues in Malawian society. We covered the issue nicely, but there still was no dark spot. This country is just that populated.

Bitter coffee

We turned to smaller roads, but even they ended up winding around and through heavily lit communities. One such town, Kafr Manda, appeared particularly lively and inviting, so we stopped in for dinner. A restaurant on the square offered grilled meat and salads as well as live footage from the Qa’aba. Having had our fill of all three, we stopped at a nearby convenience store for the loo. I pulled a small container of what seemed to be ice coffee from the fridge, and brought it to the register. Here was a symbolic purchase to justify our use of the facilities.

“100 shekels,” said the storekeeper.

I reacted with the appropriate outrage, but he was perfectly unfazed. “It’s bitter coffee,” he explained.

“I’ll just make bitter coffee at home. It’s pretty easy.”

“I doubt you can make it quite this bitter. This cooked for two, three hours. This 50 centiliter container started off as three kilos of coffee grinds. Hold on.”

He removed the cap and poured a bit of the dark liquid into a paper cup, offering us a taste.

It was more tangy than bitter, and it was stronger than cocaine. Nadi and I zoomed back out on the road, and began energetically chatting talking about Malawi. The night was going to be long, and this conversation was to last for much of it. It will prove to be among the most eye opening I have ever had. Thank god for bitter coffee, thank god for shooting stars.

We actually did find a dark spot, somewhere atop the spot that separates The Valley of Sakhnin from the Valley of Beit Netofa. Both valleys were brimming with humanity, but up top, the stars were visible and a few of them did fall, leaving exciting trails. We sat in the middle of a gravel road, surrounded by low brush. We spoke of Malawi and occasionally fell silent, listening to crickets and to jackals. Here were actual jackals, not jackass jackals like the guys who howled at me on night two.

I was impressed with my own resilience. In fewer than two weeks, my girlfriend’s precious trust allowed me to spend not one but two nights out with not one but two beautiful women from not one but two countries of the southern hemisphere. Nadi and I found ourselves in a scene more romantic than any on Venice’s Grand Canal. I struggled against the natural urge to play Casanova. She came to my aid by describing her country’s disturbing cuisine: Grilled mice sold by the roadside, tiny birds eaten complete with their feathers, caterpillars and flying ants and the likes.

I am actually a fan of funky food, and it is exactly this menu that made me begin seriously contemplating visiting Malawi. I also realized how healthy this was for me, this interruption of my obsession with my land, to learn of a different land. Then Nadi touched on politics and my interest deepened still. “It’s deteriorating,” she said.

“Oh. That makes me feel at home. I getting to know all about deteriorating countries.”

“But it’s deteriorated far. I find it hard to believe and to stomach, but it is today the poorest country on earth.”


Nadi’s father was a dissident, forced into exile in the early ’80s. She still can’t bring up his name when she visits. The current regime, she told me, is only an mutation of the previous one. Its care for the nation was dubious at best and a spirit of rebellion was largely absent.

“People should be willing to give their lives”, she said.

We were back on the road by now. It was a silent 2:30 AM, and we were driving through the dormant town of Arab’e. What did Nadi mean by “give their lives”? Did she hope to see more of her compatriots dedicate their lives to change? Did she feel that they actually sacrifice them?

She herself spoke of dedicating her future, of taking her medical skills away from the comfortable west to the land of her ancestors, but in a Palestinian townscape, the words “give their lives” carry special weight. “Over the years, so many Palestinians were willing to give their lives for their nation’s cause,” I noted, “and it didn’t come to much. No form of violent resistance resulted in actual positive long term change. In recent years it’s all been about non-violence, and that hasn’t changed much either yet.”

That wasn’t the right attitude. This was a night of shooting stars, a night to be optimistic. “But who knows,” I added. “Maybe that will work in the long run. I’m sensing a turning of the tides in international opinion.”

We were still wired on the bitter coffee and far from ready to head back to Haifa. On the way south was Nazareth. I offered Nadi a walk through its sleepy market and a peak at its basilica. Being an Arab city, Nazareth does not appear on the highway signs. Only the much smaller Jewish town of Afula, or Nazareth Illit, the city’s Jewish suburb, get mentioned. Driving in from the north, the hometown of Jesus appears only on a single sign, planted at the heart of one of its Arab suburbs.

I looked out the window, hoping for a star that would grant me one more wish for the night: that we would be visible to one another, that we would enjoy getting to know each other as I just did meeting this new friend. What was that word Nadi taught me just before? Ubuntu. She explained that it means: “I am because you are”. I jotted it in my notepad, not to forget.

(Continues here)

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Seven Nights 5: Sodom Burning http://972mag.com/seven-nights-5-sodom-burning/109980/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-5-sodom-burning/109980/#comments Wed, 12 Aug 2015 11:48:24 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109980 I don’t always drink beer in bars with racist symbols on the wall. But when I do, it’s for a good cause. Part five of the nighttime journey.

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Saturday night we were back on the streets. Hundreds of left-leaning urbanites marching through central Tel Aviv, condemning the government for turning this land into a hothouse for inter-group violence. Pride flags flew alongside banners promoting unity and equality between Jews and Arabs. By now, the fateful morning of July 31 had claimed the life of Saad Dawabshe, father of baby Ali, who had passed away the morning of August 8. “Incitement is borne around the government table!” cried the megaphone. “Racism is born around the government table! The answer is pride! The answer is struggle!”

We reached the Likud party headquarters. Someone brought a projector and illuminated the building with hateful comments made by our leadership. Culture Minister Miri Regev had said that East African asylum seekers are “cancer in our body.” On election day, Prime Minister Netanyahu had threatened that sinister Arabs would take over the country lest Israelis rush to vote for him. Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich had called Jerusalem Pride “a parade of beasts and perverts.” His party member Motti Yogev had said Israelis should topple the Supreme Court with bulldozers because it had issued a minor decree concerning settler land-grab. There were more.

I bumped into Gil, a dear friend and one of my favorite poets. She looked up at the quotes and referred to the weather, as poets should. “The heat rises from the ground like a reflection of the hell that this place has become,” she said. “This is Sodom burning.”

Other things happened that night, but I don’t want to write about it. The heat got to me. I argued about the occupation with a stranger, then about the Nakba with a friend, and went to bed confused and somewhat despaired.

The following night was all joy. Our friend Nicola, an Italian diplomat, celebrated his birthday at the penthouse of another Italian diplomat. There was a small pool on the roof and the view was stupendous. The open bar was manned by hired hands, the pizza was authentic Neapolitan and the gelato the city’s finest.  I had many great conversations that night, none of them arguments, but I don’t want to write about it. That night was ex-territorial. I want to write about Monday.

The Wall

Ruthie hasn’t been herself since we met on the synagogue steps and the doctor suspected mono. The three of us spent a domestic evening: just her, me and the AC. We ate watermelon and watched the 2015 remake of Poltergeist (two thumbs down–just watch the original). At midnight she retreated to complete some work and I headed out for a drink.

Soon I reached Harakevet street, where, to my surprise, I bumped into a wall. It wasn’t nearly as tall as the one Kate and I crossed on the way to Bethlehem, nor was it very solid, made of plywood rather than concrete. This wall served a good purpose. It kept me from falling into a pit. Construction on the Tel Aviv light rail system began this week and involved some digging – a project executed after a 44-year delay, since Golda Meir placed the cornerstone for Tel Aviv’s subway system back in 1971.

Still, by some prank of the gods of irony, this wall did form an ethno-political divide. Harakevet Street separates Tel Aviv’s affluent north and center from its struggling south. In the south lived the city’s poorest Jewish communities: Yemenite, North African, Central Asian, Ethiopian, all trapped for decades in rotting slums with no real social mobility or support. To the south were Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “cancerous cells,” the African asylum seekers. Their petitions are ignored and they may be arrested at will and held without trial. They are forbidden by law from winning their own bread and end up sleeping in parks that reek of the smell of urine and despair.

To the south are economic migrants living in derelict conditions, unprotected by the law, always at fear of deportation. Women enslaved as prostitutes. The junkies. To the south are Jaffa‘s Palestinians, a community so badly cared for that it is in constant state of social crisis. ”Isn’t discrimination wonderful?” I once heard a Mizrahi activist say, ‘It’s just like the Occupation, but you don’t need guns.”

To the north is some passable sushi and, oh, our flat.

I could call Irit and ask her to repeat her “white male” comment while flagellating me. That wouldn’t be insensible, but it would miss the point. The point was to find a way across the wall, across all the walls, meet people in order to change the setup of things. This isn’t Sodom, I thought. This is Knossos, city of the Labyrinth. The walls are many: physical and imaginary, separating us by religion, ethnicity, gender, social status, worldview. They have grown taller and taller, granting more and more power to divisive leaders who make sure they will grow taller still. These walls are designed on government tables.

The taller the walls are, the more likely we are to stab each other and burn each other alive, internalizing and mimicking the ill system. A string in the maze won’t do the trick. We must chisel our way through.

Jim Crow of Florentin

The plywood wall stretches a mere 200 yards (roughly .1 miles). I crossed to the south and walked for a while. The streets were sad and smelly and I needed a beer. An unfamiliar bar winked at me on Rabbi Frankel Street with a sign that read, “Rebel Rock Bar.” I stepped underground and was met with a huge Confederate flag, took a scandalized selfie with it and stepped right out.

A few blocks down I posted the selfie on Facebook. A friend suggested I came back with a lighter and set the flag aflame. That isn’t exactly my style, but, still, I felt my selfie didn’t crack it. I soon found myself returning to “Rebel,” walking down those same stairs, and stepping over to the bartender, a girl in her early twenties. No other staff member was visible.

“Beer?” she  smiled.

“No, thanks. Actually I just wanted to make a comment, well, sort of a complaint. See, the flag you have hanging there. It’s a racist symbol.”

The bartender seemed surprised. I did my best to explain the flag’s history, explaining that people were hung and burned to death in its name. “They were black people, and this neighborhood has many black residents. It’s extra offensive.” She clearly had no concept of it. I doubted the owner did. The flag hung here not out because of racism but as the result of provincial ignorance. It was an American symbol linked to Harley motorbikes and Lynard Skynard, like the name “Rebel.” What good would I have done burning it?

“I see,” she said once I was done. “I’ll pass this on.”

Since she was so nice about it,  I actually did decide to have a beer. ordered a Guinness and hummed along to AC/DC as she poured.  Was I being too easy on this place? Was it really that hot outside. Maybe there was more to be said. She came back with the beer and the conversation flowed on the the Pride Killing.

“You really were there?”

“Yes. I saw it happen and i’m still recovering, but I also had a good experience that same night. I decided to make peace with Haredi Jerusalem. I walked into their neighborhood in drag and was surprisingly well received.”

Her expression grew surprisingly sour. “I heard them speaking very differently on television.”

“Of course you did. The media is interested in conflict. The media is a major catalyst of mutual disrespect in this country. It was looking for that. I was looking for the opposite and found it.”

“Sorry. I don’t like them, and I never will” she said, and stepped over to hand a customer another drink.

Here was a wall. I thought. Was it not also an opportunity? I fished my phone back out of my pocket and searched for a photo. When she returned, I showed her this:

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The photo was shared that day by Rabbi Tomer’s fan page. The caption read: ”Rabbi Tomer with a transgender person. Making peace with everybody.” I told the bartender who he was and that the girl in the photos was me, told her of how he saved my night, how he stopped the music upon noticing me and expressed remorse before his audience. “Others came over and shared words of kindness, thanks to what he did, religious people.”

“What a sweetheart!” Her eyes were wide open in disbelief.

“Yes,” I said. “And he isn’t alone.”

She handed me back my phone and raised her hand for a high five, the clap was inaudible over Megadeath’s “Super Collider.”

“I hope to see you here again,” she said.

I promised she would. Probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t even place a condition: that I would only return should they remove that flag. Ultimately, I don’t know how to change the world. I have never really chiseled into these walls. At most I know how to uplift my own fragile spirit. Sometimes small amounts of peace and understanding result as a byproduct.

(Continues here)

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Seven Nights 4: Contact point http://972mag.com/seven-nights-4-contact-point/109879/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-4-contact-point/109879/#comments Mon, 10 Aug 2015 11:24:22 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109879 Chapter four in the nighttime journey is a tale of two parties.

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If you think the nights I skip in this chronicle are uneventful, think again fast. On Wednesday I was rushed to the airport with an immigration scandal. A young American who flew in to intern with a company for which I work was interrogated on arrival and then deported. The reason remained withheld but we suspected political bias. This is hardly an unusual occurrence these days.

The intern handed her interrogators the number of the company head: a leader in alternative tourism, a National Geographic Explorer, a Ted Fellow, a Palestinian. The interrogators questioned her at length about him and the tours we give, which happen to be dual-narrative and deal with political issues. They then put her on the first plane home. My boss was never told of her deportation and was denied the right to speak to her. I, being of privileged name and accent, was granted both truth and phone call, yet even I could not overturn the decree.

I returned home, couldn’t sleep and surfed the web. I read that a prominent Israeli community leader called for Jews to burn churches in the holy land,  I saw footage of a Bedouin village being demolished by authorities, who left its residents roofless in the desert and carted away their water tanks. The following morning I learned that a state budget was passed over night. There was no public debate. We were too busy bandaging wounds.

This was not helpful. I needed hope. I needed rest. I needed a good night out.

Kia ora, Palestine

I had just the friend for such a night: a friend from New Zealand. My previous series published on +972 Magazine was the Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries. It revolved around a tribute to my favorite star musician, who happens to be a Kiwi. One of Lorde’s compatriots read it and told another, who told another, who got in touch. On Thursday night I made plans to meet up with not one but two New Zealanders. I figured some cool mist from the south seas could do me good.

In rolled up to Jerusalem and went to see Kate, a young journalist who reports for major news sources Kiwi and otherwise. The night offered much entertainment. The city of Bethlehem was to host a street fair. Later, the Israel Museum offered a popular annual all-night happening known as “Contact Point.” To attend both events, we would have to cross the separation barrier twice. As Kate was to drive, I reminded her that Israeli law bans me from visiting Bethlehem, and asked if that bothered her. It did not. She even knew the secret way to smuggle us through the barrier without running into a “wrong” checkpoint.

By 9:00 p.m. we have arrived. In Manger Square, a few men were trying to make Chinese lanterns take flight. The wind was too strong and the lanterns kept flying dangerously into their small audience. We went by the Church of Nativity but nothing was cooking there. The West Bank portion of the evening did not look promising, but then we turned down the city’s historical Star Street and were swept up by a river of happy souls.

Salom, salam

It was sensational. Stalls lined the street, offering coffee and beer, kebab wraps and labne cheese, decorated ostrich eggs and ceramics bearing the likenesses of Hugo Chavez, Fairouz, Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. All the doors on Star Street were open, revealing at least two pop up galleries and one surprisingly sweet chapel. Hundreds gathered at the various stages. On one stood a Japanese musician and sang in Arabic. On another, an American played a traditional Jewish tune. He sang:

To you my brothers and friends
To you my sisters and friends
Please let me ask
Please let me sing
I wish peace, peace for your heart.
Salom, Salam.

The “salom” was clearly the politically correct variant of a familiar greeting. Here was a surprise that warranted a toast. We got two cups of Shepherds beer on tap. I was unfamiliar with the brand and Kate taught me that it is Palestine’s newest micro-brew, crafted in the town of Bir Zeit. It was excellent. I sipped and marveled at “Bethlehem Live” and especially its crowds. They were diverse in every sense: gender, age, attire. The one common denominator was the lovely mood.

This was the kind of scene where we could stay all night, but another New Zealander awaited us. Over the summer, Wellingtonian John volunteered as an English teacher at Aida refugee camp. He was to head home on Friday from Jordan, and besides being emotional about the farewells, was worried about interrogation at the border. Should he tell of his volunteering, he may be held for hours. Any Westerner who comes in touch with Palestinians, be they internationally recognized peacemakers or six year olds, will be treated with suspicion by Israel. Lying could make things worse. We sat in Manger Square brainstorming a plan of action. There was no perfect one.

Border interrogation… I pictured the poor intern and heard again her voice, exhausted after hours in custody. Behind her were a burned baby cot and a man waving a knife. A week has passed since the night of violence. Dark thoughts were returning. It was time to get back on the move.

Dancing in silence

We drove through quiet Daheishe and Al-Khader, joined Route 60, which is used by settlers, and drove into Jerusalem through the relaxed checkpoint reserved for them. Within 20 minutes we were at party number two.

Each year, as part of Jerusalem’s “Season of Culture”, the Israel Museum invites artists to interact with its collections or temporary shows. These are artists who would typically not perform at a museum: dance troupes, DJs, performance artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets. The museum is spectacular to begin with. “My ex used to say it’s better than the Louvre,” Kate tells me.

At half past midnight, with all of West Jerusalem and half of Tel Aviv buzzing through the galleries and sculpture garden, it was so much better than the Louvre. For one: I never bump into so many people I love at the Louvre. but there were other people I loved and couldn’t get off my mind.  They walked with us down Star Street an hour earlier, only 5 percent hold permits that allow them to pass through the barrier. The two parties were taking place less than 10 miles apart. A wall stood between them, eight meters high, with soldiers armed to the teeth. This was insane. This was insanely idiotic.

We walked out to the promenade that links the museum’s pavilions, and were suddenly surrounded by people dancing in silence. It was a headphones party. Each headphone offered two channels to choose from: one of trashy Western pop, one of Mizrahi and Arabic music. We alternated between them, grooving with other friends who popped up in the crowd. Here was my buddy Daniel. A week earlier the two of us met at Pride, chatting with each other just as people began screaming and running.

At one point the Western pop DJ picked an Arabic tune and for a spell both channels were at harmony with the region. Bethlehem sang a shy “Salom.” West Jerusalem answered with “Ya Habibi.” The people, as always, seemed perfectly ripe for peace, equality and freedom that our leaders tell us are impossible. This was such a good night, but it also made everything seem all the more absurd: the wall, the cot, the knife, the black stamp in the passport, the news that tomorrow will inevitably bring.

(Continues here)

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Seven Nights 3: Sidewalks and playgrounds http://972mag.com/seven-nights-sidewalks-and-playgrounds/109708/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-sidewalks-and-playgrounds/109708/#comments Sat, 08 Aug 2015 10:48:45 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109708 Part three. In which old friends reunite and talk about leaving.

For other nights click here.

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Some time after sunset, the muezzin at Jaffa’s Abu Nabout mosque called for prayer one last time. Meanwhile, protesters at the nearby Clock Square stretched a clothing line across the street. On the line hung baby clothes, reminders of the baby Ali Dwabsheh, who was burned alive.

I crossed the street to take a photo, then returned to the side where the other protesters stood, almost tripping as I did over a bundle of clothes made to look like a dead Palestinian baby. Had I tripped, I would have knocked over a living Palestinian toddler who stood there, sucking his thumb, hugging a huge teddy bear clad in a purple dress.

The demonstration was angry. The chants were all in Arabic and most were directed at Mahmoud Abbas. “They don’t see any point at chanting at Netanyahu,” explained a friend. It was Siwar, the same Haifa Palestinian whose mention caused my second Jerusalem night to fall apart. Three days have passed since. This was Tuesday and I was doing better, but felt that I shouldn’t be pushing it. I kept picturing some irate Israeli driver throwing a hard object at our demonstration, a hard sharp object that would hit one of us. Eventually, when the scene began spilling into the road, turning Jaffa into a massive traffic jam. Ruthie and I bid Siwar farewell and left for Tel Aviv.

She went to have a few drinks with friends, and so did I, but I dare say my gathering was somehow more momentous. A few days earlier I bumped into my high school friend Maya, and we decided to get our old gang back together. We had stopped hanging out together shortly after Rabin’s assassination. We were nearly 20 then, now nearly 40.

How do you do it?

We met at a distinctly unhip, but quiet and friendly cafe on Sheinkin St. Guy is a father of three, living in a leafy suburban development outside a kibbutz. Noga, who dated him in the old days, also bore three kids. Years ago she met a handsome Indonesian filmmaker, and is now possibly the only Israeli living in a land most of the rest of us can’t even visit as tourists. Maya, meanwhile, is only weeks away from leaving for Berlin with her husband. They need to try something different.

We quickly ordered wine and began talking about the old days, but I just couldn’t. I first had to talk about the killing. The killing at pride.

They all knew I was witness to it. Facebook.

“It became much harder Sunday, once we heard the girl actually died.” I told them. Today I spoke to my sister Michal. Did you know she became a mental health officer at the army? Anyway, she asked me a few questions and ended up diagnosing me with PTSD. She said the symptoms should pass within a few days, and if they don’t, to let her know.”

“What are the symptoms?” Maya asked.

“Lack of sleep, repeatedly envisioning the event, not being able to talk to people without first bringing this up, stuff like that. ”

“And what about Ruthie?”

“She seems better. She’s tougher than me. But the more I think of it, the more I envision what would have happened had she been hurt. I mean, she was there because of me. She was there to support me, just like the girl who was killed, who came with a friend.”

Silence took over the table.

“So you are already living away,” I pointed to Noga, “And you are moving away,” I pointed to Maya, “and I once tried to emigrate, then came back, but you,” I pointed to Guy “You seem to be here for the long haul. How do you do it?”

There was particular irony to Guy’s stability. He is the only one among us born on foreign soil, in Italy, to a Dutch mother and Israeli father.

“I can’t say we didn’t think of leaving,” he said. “My parents live again in Italy now. My brother in law left for upstate New York, largely because of the politics here. Mica often suggested we joined them. But we have three kids now. We’re here largely because of the roots we put down. You know how it is. Home, children, language, culture.”

“I remember when you would travel Europe a lot,” Maya said to me. “You came here between trips and we would walk down the street and pass a newsstand. The headlines spoke of some terrible plan of Liberman to exile all the Arabs or something like that, and you would say, ‘If this should ever come to pass, I’m coming back here to lead the revolution.’ and I told you, Yuval, you chose to live abroad, I don’t think you have the right to come here and lead a revolution.”

“Home remains home even when you leave it,” I argued, “De Gaulle supported the resistance from London. Sometimes exile cannot be avoided.”

She nodded.

“Plus, look, I’ve now been stable here for nearly a decade.”

“And now I’m leaving,” she smiled. “Isn’t that something?”

Turning Balinese

“And how are you doing in Bali?” I asked Noga. “Are you feeling Balinese?”

“There’s a very clear distinction there between the Balinese and the Westerners.”

“But do you feel Westerner-Balinese?”

“Oh, that I do. I’m living a life I always wanted to live. That’s what I wanted to do. To live by the sea, talk about spirituality, be a hippy.”

“And the kids enjoy visiting here?”

“Yes. there’s all this stuff here they don’t find at home, like sidewalks, and playgrounds”.

Huh? “They have no sidewalks and playgrounds there?”

“Nope. it’s a third world country. There’s no planning of any kind, except that you can’t have your house be taller than a palm tree, unless you’re in the government.”

“Meanwhile here it’s all about sidewalks and playgrounds,” Maya said, “everything is geared toward children. That’s the Zionist endeavor.” She sounded cynical, even bitter. “You know, a little while ago I bumped into a friend I haven’t met in a long time. I was so stunned to see her that at first I totally ignored how seriously pregnant she is. Once It hit me, I pointed to her belly and told her: ‘The IDF is proud of you’. Then I thought, what the hell. It’s true. The IDF really is proud of her. That’s the Zionist endeavor. We must always have more children.”

“…So there will be more soldiers.” Noga concluded.

The pot of boullion

We talked about a lot of other stuff, mostly about death. The cliche is that when Ashkenazi Jews meet they talk a lot about death and disease. Maya’s husband came up with a brilliant epitaph and requested it in his will. It is too brilliant for me to quote here, lest someone steal his joke.

She also told told an anecdote about her mother’s funeral. I knew her sweet mother well before our paths diverged. Suddenly my phone ring. It was Ruthie. I wanted to invite her over, but she was in distress. “I don’t know what happened to me,” she said, “I can’t walk. I only had two drinks but I can’t move. I’m sitting on the stairs of the Great Synagogue.”

“Stay there,” I said, “I’m coming to get you.”

“Don’t! Your old friends!”

“It’s fine.”

I paid for my noodles and a quarter of the wine and bid the three a quick bye. That suited me better than the heavy farewells one bids people who leave. Who really leave. Stepping out of the air conditioned cafe felt like diving into a pot of bouillon. Ruthie was seated on the Synagogue’s filthy stairs in cold sweat, more sweat that I had seen her produce in four years. “I don’t know what happened to me.” She said again.

Home wasn’t far, so once she managed to get up, we walked, but had to stop for breaks on benches. The air wasn’t just muggy. It was as hot and thick as baking Sculpey. Tel Aviv in August can be vicious even in the after hours. There is no respite. I looked at my sweaty, exhausted, disheartened love, then at people walking about us or sitting on terraces, laughing and healthy, and she was the only one there who really made sense.

(Continues here)

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Seven Nights 2: Privileged white male http://972mag.com/seven-nights-privileged-white-male/109703/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-privileged-white-male/109703/#comments Thu, 06 Aug 2015 12:08:47 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109703 Part two. Following the attack, our night owl returns to Jerusalem in drag for a rally, and walks into an emotional pitfall.  

For other nights click here.

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Someone else was murdered on Thursday, the night of the Jerusalem Pride stabbing. In the northern West Bank village of Duma, a group of hooded men, most likely members of the extremist Jewish “Price Tag” cell, set fire to two family homes and left threatening graffiti in Hebrew on the walls. A baby, Ali Dawabsheh, was burned to death. His parents and bother were rescued but remain in an Israeli hospital in critical condition.

Both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv LGBT communities organized rallies in the wake of the pride stabbing, to be held on the following Saturday night. I decided to go to the one where little Ali was most likely to also be mentioned. That was clearly going to be Jerusalem.


Organizers at Tel Aviv courted mainstream politicians, some of whom participate in hateful discourse. The Jerusalem team booked Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the only high ranking Israeli politician who speaks consistently against all forms of intolerance. Sadly, the Israeli presidency is only a ceremonial position which has little impact on the system.

I got back in drag and took the minibus to Jerusalem with a sign I had made. It read: “Pride-stabbers and baby-killers all heed the same call.”  I raised it high as Rivlin spoke and heard him say just that, in different words. He mentioned the murder at Duma in his first sentence. Other speakers followed him onstage, including three rabbis, two of whom also mentioned Duma. I was in the right place and I was in tears.

She should give me a break

Tears returned to my face later, further demolishing my eyeliner. After the rally, I sat with my friend, Irit, at “Hataklit,” a casual West Jerusalem bar. I told her a story that involved another friend of mine, and mentioned that she is Palestinian.

“Where is she from?” Irit asked.

“From Haifa.”

“Oh, that’s very convenient, to call yourself a Palestinian when you live in Haifa.”

The concept of “Israeli Arabs” tends to be highly contrived in the eyes of the people we label with it. Irit, a journalist, surely knew this. She made a political statement. I decided to skip giving her the lecture and go straight for the heart.

“It’s not so convenient for her. Her brother was killed by the police in October 2000. He was demonstrating peacefully. This only happens to Palestinians, whether they are citizens or not, never to us.”

“I’m very sorry about her brother, but she should give me a break.”

“Look,” I insisted, “If this country taught me anything, it is never to choose people’s identity for them. And if we’re already at it, could I ask something of you? I am in a feminine persona right now. You hear me speaking in the feminine, yet you have been referring to me in the masculine since the evening began. You are picking my gender identity. I understand if it isn’t a simple switch, but I’d appreciate it a lot.”

In English that may make little sense, but in Hebrew every word is gender specific, and so, to me, every word Irit said betrayed a lack of acceptance.

She gave me a look I didn’t like. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you about this whole drag thing,” she said.

Easy to play this game


“Never mind.”

“Go on, say it.” I knew this would hurt. Irit is not famous for being tactful. I held my purse, ready to get up and leave if it hurt too badly.

“Well, I was just thinking how easy for you to play this game. After all, you being a privileged white male.”

Jesus. Game? Privilege? Easy? “Do you have any idea what price I pay with my family to live the way I do? What price I pay with society? I was almost murdered two nights ago.”

I have never been so offended. Though always in an emotionally vulnerable state when en-femme, I can usually control myself. But after this awful weekend I couldn’t. I picked up my glass of gin and tonic and threw it to the ground. It shattered. I left.

Anger took me around the block. How many years have I known Irit? How many times has she seen me cross dress? Did she always judge me? I let myself feel so comfortable with her, despite her natural misanthropy.

Though humiliated, I also felt horrible for losing my temper. I called Irit to apologize. She didn’t pick up. I texted her, then called Ruthie and lost my wits again on the phone. It was just terrible. I went back to the bar, which Irit had left, and tried to pay for the glass. They wouldn’t let me. I left and sat on a stone, wailing and tried to calm down.

Gluing the heart up with Arak

“Hataklit” is situated in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, not three blocks away from the ultra-Orthodox quarters through which I strolled the night of the assault, feeling so accepted. Now I felt very uncomfortable in a blouse and high heels. I ached to switch back into my male persona, but couldn’t. My shorts and sandals were in another city. I wanted to head into the desert and vanish. I wanted to flee far, hundreds of miles away, but my country’s tightly watched, frequently impassable borders would not allow for it.

The country. It was getting to me, hard. Even I acted with violence

My phone buzzed twice. Irit texted. She suggested we take a few days to calm down and then talk again.

Another was from my Jerusalemite friend, Efrat, who was also having a bad night and suggested we meet for a drink.

What ensued is what somehow always happens in this place. First it breaks us to bits, then we pick ourselves up and glue our hearts back together with Arak. Efrat was cool and understanding, the best imaginable company for such a night. I was too self-conscious to go to a straight place, so we went to the “Video,”  Jerusalem’s only gay bar, and danced there to Lena’s “Sattelite,” Germany’s 2010 Eurovision winner, and to Beyonce and Macklemore and some Kanye, and I forgot, a bit.


The way to get back from Jerusalem after dancing till 2:30 in the morning is by “sherut” minivans, which only move once ten passengers have piled in. As I arrived, three were lounging outside the sherut besides the driver. We would have to wait for six more.

When people meet, they first make a gender based classification: is this a man or a woman? In the Holy Land, that is immediately followed by the question of ethnicity: is it a Jew or an Arab? And what kind of Jew, or what kind of Arab? The prospective passengers were all men in their twenties or early thirties. One was Palestinian, one an Ethiopian Jew and the third an Ashkenazy Jew with a yarmulke knit in the fashion of religious Zionists. They looked at me and saw… well, whatever they chose to see.

It was getting later than late and the driver offered a deal: we could each pay a bit more than the usual fare and take off without delay. We agreed. Then, as soon as we left the curb, three other passengers appeared and were charged the usual fare. The Ashkenazy passenger got mad. The driver explained that the newcomers were not in on the deal and couldn’t be charged more. The Ashkenazy wouldn’t have any of it. “I’m a lawyer,” he warned, “So you better not argue with me.” He demanded that the driver return the 20 shekel difference to each of us, though no one cared but him.

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At one point, the Palestinian approached the driver and brokered a compromise, which consisted of a ten shekel refund to the lawyer. He returned to his seat and found that the Ethiopian had taken it. The Palestinian started yelling at the Ethiopian to vacate the aisle seat, but the Ethiopian wouldn’t. Finally I got up up from my own aisle seat and offered it to the displaced Palestinian, just to get some peace.

I moved back a row and sat by a girl. Up front, arguing resumed. The lawyer changed his mind about the ten shekels. The others took sides and were being loud about it. I have by now been woman for long enough that I leaned over to my neighbor and mutter: “guys.”

She nodded, and this is where the evening got interesting.

I don’t need help

She was 22 years old and spoke with a barely noticeable, but nonetheless noticeable, Russian accent. She grew up and lived in of the most neglected cities in the south of the country and she had every reason in the world to bitch about men.

“I used to be engaged,” she told me, “but then I caught my fiancée with my best friend.”

“Holy smokes!”

“Yes, and I was five months pregnant at the time.”


“As you can imagine. I never let him see the kid, not once.”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A boy. He’s one and half years old. I raised him and I’ll go on raising him and I don’t need help. I have my mother. She gave birth just a half a year after I did, so we’re raising the kids together.”

This was a story that came from the most difficult corners of the Israeli experience. Two generation of single mothers living in a southern development town built for Jewish immigrants with “less than desirable” roots, in an industry city where industry never took root. This is the kind of story that I, as a privileged white male, would only hear if I chose to take public transportation.

And I really am privileged. Irit is, of course, right. Despite my queerness, I represent one of the most empowered groups in the steep pyramid of ethno-social hierarchies. This young mother did not blame me for that, for my natural circumstances. She spoke to me openly and in the feminine, and told me things she would tell a woman. She accepted me for what I was, at that moment, and in general. I was deeply in her debt.

The Jackals

Stepping off the sherut in south Tel Aviv, I began making my way home. The street was well lit, yet I felt very uncomfortable. Nearly every car that passed honked at me. The drivers went too fast to notice my actual gender. I had no doubt that they considered me an actual woman and thought honking at a woman at 3:30 AM a much better idea than leaving her in peace and respecting her need for security. A car stopped at the light not far from me. The two men inside made jackal-like howls at me before taking off again.

If there’s any value in my cross gender experience, here it was. This is what a woman goes through when walking through my city at night. It was more severe than I had anticipated. It was sick enough to make you hate humanity.

It’s been such a sick weekend. Hasn’t it? People were stabbed before my eyes, a baby was set on fire in the name, of all things, of my national identity and religion. Night is such a fitting theme for this diary. We are at night. It’s a sense so many of my friends share these days. This is Israel’s political night. At least I can change back into man tomorrow and not face it as a woman on her own. That would have been so much harder still.

(Continues here)


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